It’s only a day since we left the Aral sea behind – a small, blue, shrinking dot on the Earth’s surface that has loomed disproportionately huge in our minds and the dream of which filled up the vacuum of time and guided us through trackless tracks under a scary sun. And now, another cycle of our travel feels completed, bringing as much satisfaction as confusion. We need quickly to find another aim and to subtly deceive our brains that the next few thousand kilometers have a purpose. Life lacking meaning feels heavier on our shoulders than the accumulated weight of all the backpacks of all travellers roaming back and forth the Silk Route paths. The mere count of plain and empty days ahead of us seems disturbing. In a sense, we understand the believers that stalk us from the curves of the road, trying to convert us to all sorts of different religions. The gods they speak of are up there and always protecting us from the burden of a vast and indifferent universe. They are certainly blissful companions. Such thoughts haunt us as we lie comfortably in the softly cusioned cabin of a Turkish TIR, driven by an atheist Kurd, transporting white paint all the way from Gazientep to Almaty via Ukraine and Russia. Mysterious are the paths of businesses. Slightly dazed and desperately looking for a connection between the Divine and the Aral Sea, our minds suddenly pose another existential question – why does the road look that way for now over 1800 km of Kazakh steppe? Like a zebra pattern, streches of asphalt make way to strecthes of dusty, stony tracks and that repeats seemingly endlessly. Probably, driving hundreds of kilometers on a straight, flat line, seasoned by a lonely curve here and there (which existence is a mere whim of the road designer) might understandaly result in falling asleep without a notice. So, in that sense, traversing slowly the steppe turns out to be surprisingly rewarding (especially if you do it only once) and, tranquilized, we merge with the magnificent vastness of a place that even the air finds difficult to embrace. Already fifth hour in the cabin of the truck and we have covered aproximately 70 km, which means we are considerably faster than a camel, but worryingly slower than a petrol-eating 21st Century beast. Outside, the sun explodes in thousands shades of pink and orange and throws waves of magic light over little square lakes hiding in the grass. Blue windows in green frames changing colour accroding the sky’s mood.
In the dead of night we crawl out of the lorry’s red velvet cabin and jump into Kyzylorda’s creepiest TIR park. Marta wakes up from a dream in which trucks are clumsy butterflies, flying through the dusty clouds of Central Asia, truckdrivers are hitchhiker’s best friends and the road swings in between cargo stories and cups of tea. Her romantic delusion of drivers as reencarnations of the ultimate travellers, roaming the earth in their many-wheeled bulky vehicles and loving their tiny mobile shelters is suddenly shattered by a slap of aggresive, mocking mumble. A gang of choffeurs from various parts Eurasia surround us questioning our ‘iddle existence’ and the joy of movement that we so enthusiastically embody. We stumble accross a disillusioned crowd that never discovered their dreamt occupation. ‘I family, I children’- consequently “I work and I money and you? You nothing!’ We stand petrified with fossilised smiles. On this travel we have, more often than not, met truckers that, regardless of the deprivations their jobs cause them to suffer, love what they are doing and proudly identify themsleves with their work and exercise an enviable drivers’ solidarity that is extended to other roving species. We usually feel good in the cabin of a truck. At this moment we are overtaken by a tsunami of double-fold negativity – on one hand dissatisfaction with one own’s life and on the other grudge towards those who are not or at least not all the time tired of pushing the heavy stone of Sizif up the hill. ‘We family, but no children and we University degree, but ride trucks for free’ . Somehow the rules of conversing are set in scuh a way that this feels as the only credible answer we have in store, since no other possible explanation could reach a recipient. However, it does not sound particularly appropriate and we prefer to stay silent. Have we just faced the crude, saw-teethed reality we have been trying desperately to hide from sheltered by shanty quasy-philosophical explanations reserved for middle-class postcolnialists? Why don’t we have children by now, why are we not earning a living by exploiting somebody, or being exploited ourselves and what are searching for far away from home? Deliriously, we try to remember the answers, when a thunder voice strikes the heavy silence.’Do these guys think that since they are paying no transport, the tea and eggs they just had would also cost them a smile?’
Noses down and invisible drops of freezing water dripping off our heads, we walk down the dimly lighten outskirts of Kyzylorda. Being considered cheeky parasites that out of lazyness or madness rejects to obey the universal social norms guiding the life of people and surfs their kindness is a hardly bearable stigma. Drunken men approach us and send Marta kisses, while owners of dodgy hotels invite us to safety for a considerable fee per room. Have we really lost our minds? We walk in the dark, searching for a place to hide till sunrise, wondering if our tent will disturb the neighbours of a tiny park. Another car breaks down and a man shouts out of the window: ‘Are you astronauts?’. Two little kids peep out curiously. The sight of astronauts is unusual even for a city neighbouring Baikonur. ‘Why don’t you come to our place for a night? We are happy meeting strangers.’- says the man as he opens the trunk of his car and invites us in. We blink mutely, wondering if accepting the offer would terminally render us leeches for life, while Olzhis most certainly starts fearing that we are either dumb or mad. Few minutes later we are falling asleep in a beautiful, clean house treated as members of a royal family pondering over the forces behind travel miracles. We have unexpetedly arrived to a parallel universe, where people want to talk and share, although the question what do we offer them in return remains painfully open. The world is big and salvation lurks around the corner…
The next day, emotionally thinner, we vegetate in our host’s newly open cafe, playing with his little kids and enjoying the palatable wonders of Kazakh cuisine. ‘Take a day off – he insists- and spend it without worrying about anything. You must be overly tired after months on the road’. During a long travel, don’t we sometimes misuse the sacred status of the guest, that is kept in such a special place in many Eastern cultures? How do we contribute to the balance of kindness? Does the road perform some magic to take care of us, as some hitchhikers claim, or do we simply need to trust that somebody will save us from the dark? As we keep on struggling to reach any conclusion two young adepts of Allah sit next to us and swiftly engage in a lost battle – changing the mind of atheists. It seems we should abandon all wonders and disperse the doubts that disturb us, because the answer to all questions in anyway One. It is God that personally designs every miracle in the world, and He claims authorship with His name written all over our body (apparently, the lines on the inner side of ones hand, the outer ear and some arteries in the heart are shapped in ways that read ‘Allah’). But we shall not worry about faith anylonger – if we repeat three times ‘God is great!’ in Arabic, He will claim us back and we will return on the path to Heaven planted unconditionally with wonders. Since, we are anyway all born Muslims, but afterwards our parents convert us to myriad of heresies, it is the most logical move we could make, they maintain. God doen’t let us breathe freely even for a day. Weren’t these theological debates confined to the Middle East? The overwhelming evidence we are presented with, eventually prooves insufficient and we still prefer to thank Olzhis and his family for their generosity rather than an intangible and incomprehensible force.
After another night of comfortable indoor rest we find ourselves on the way to Turkestan. Passing by the ruins of Sauran, one of the very few archeological sites preserved in Kazakhstan, a driver adds to our current list of worries. Most certainly we do not have children yet because I am a vegetarian, which undoubtedly rises a good deal of questions to my potency. Like a considerate and well-mannered host he does not miss the opportunity to offer his services. Luckily, he obeys the wishes of the guests and we reach Turkestan turbulentlessly. The city is famous for its big and cheap fruits and vegetables market and the impressive shrine of Khoja Akhmet Yasawi, an 11th century Sufi poet and mystic, resembling the famous religious buildings of Samarkand and Bukhara in neighbouring Uzbekistan. This is the nearest we get to what others would imagine the Silk Route looks like. The mausuleum, ordered by Tamerlane, attracts a great number of local tourists and a legend says that three visits to the holy place equal one pilgrimige to Mecca. A belief that was probably consolidated during Soviet times when travelling outside the borders of the Union was difficult and expensive. Other Sufi shrines in Central Asia also claim that a certain number of visits to them should be regarded as hajj.
We sit down in front of the mausoleum, enjoying the touch of green grass, a sensation we have almost forgotten over the past few weeks, and admiring the undisputable architectural magnificance of the shrine. A huge, unpainted clay-bricked wall, a home to hundreds of birds, rises high towards the sky and vibrates with the songs of its inhabitants. At the front door a man strolls carrying a peackock and waving down tourists for a photo with the tail of another peacock. He friendly offers us to take a free picture with the beautiful bird but to his great dismay we refuse. How to explain him that it is not that we do not like the bird but that we doubt how much the bird likes taking photos with people? In a planet where animals are widely seen as food, fur, free labour force or circus attraction, it is often fruitless to consider the feelings of a ‘dumb beast’. Few meters away another man earns his living by taking photos of tourists posing with a broken-winged eagle that would never fly again. Across the nearby rose garden, a pretilly decorated camel is ridden by people ready to pay a few tenge. Suddenly, I am brought back to my childhood in Bulgaria where middle-aged mustached men play a violin tune next to a dancing bear for the entertaiment of the passing by folk. Back then, it would never cross my mind that the bears do not ‘dance’ for fun. Usually, dancing is associated with happiness. What is the chance that one guesses the bears are forcibly caught in the forests, their teeth and nails pulled out, their noses pierced with a chain and that they spend their first weeks in captivity locked in room carpeted with hot embers listening to the songs of a violin The disturbing vision is dispersed by a tiny, black crow limping on the ground and sadly looking up at the flying and singing party above. People pass by indifferent to the little feather ball, struggling to fly or walk next to their feet. Its clearly not suitable for pictures. We put it in a card box with some food and water and leave it overnight in the mosque affraid that a cat might eat it if it sleeps next to our tent. The day after, the man who promised to look after the bird is not around. Nobody knows where the bird is either until, closed inside a locker and left without air the little crow appears dead from the staff-room in the shrine.
-What does the life of a [non-verbal] animal matter when representatives of our own species live and die in gross conditions? – we are directly asked.
-Suffering feels the same both for those who have a voice to express it and for those who do not – we drily try to put a point accross.
– Who cares about your little bird with so many others flying around? And anyway, God has given all animals at man’s disposal. We righteously stay on top of them. They are here to serve us and we can’t care for all of them. – the short conversation is finished off with a dogmatic statement.
If they were indeed at our disposal the least we could do is to treat them with respect. But going beyond that, we only need to take a look at the night sky and try to count the numberless stars separted by unimaginable distances to realize our universal insignificance and abandon our ridiculous egocentrism. Life has the same value for all who live it. Morals might change over the years but pain feels the same for elephants hunted for their tusks, the African slaves whipped and shipped to South America or the infidels and heretics of Medieval christendoms and caliphates burnt and stoned.
On the way to Shymkent the desert sun feels heavy and we only quickly pass thorugh, briefly enjoying the relaxing company of our Canadian host Eugenette. Tired of dry shrubs we rush east towards Tian-Shan and the great mountain ranges of Asia. Suddenly, a blue wall capped by a white line materializes on the horizon. The steppe crushes into sublime mountains. Splendid and compelling their chant reaches for our ears and we know we have waved goodbye to the flat void while sliding into Almaty – a green, neat city vibrating with social life. Shopping malls, restaurants, shorts skirts, casual catwalks on the street, posh clubs, glass scyscrapers and a display of capitalist luxury. We stare with eyes wide open. And somehow relieved. If exposed to, and immersed in a sea of difference for a long time, could we unconsciously miss things that we believed we disliked? Aren’t we comforted by the familiarity of well paved streets? The loonscapes of Kazakhstan have taken their toll. Maybe a part of our brains is much more attached to glitter and pop than we suppose, maybe we are still looking for a new mission and the city’s temptations keep our senses entertained, or it is perhaps its postcard mountains that hypnotize us. Almaty feels a bit like home, with all its positives and drawbacks, and feeds our absitence for what we consider “normality”. After some days with Roman (our host there), his family and a whole crowd of couchsurfers, of walks in parks, of treats, beers and caffees we could hardly afford, we find ourselves walking our way out of town and contemplating a herd of goats grazing in between plastic bags and marijuana plants in the back streets of the city.What a happy life. But did we say normality?