In her travels through Kyrgyzstan, photographer Margaret Morton became captivated by the haunting grandeur of the region’s remote cemeteries. Architecturally unique, Kyrgyzstan’s dramatically sited cemeteries reveal the syncretic nature of Kyrgyz religious and cultural identities. “Morton’s photographs provide evidence of how culture is a living, evolving concept,” explains Kyrgyz anthropologist Elmira Köchümkulova, who leads University of Central Asia’s Cultural Heritage and Humanities Unit and contributed the introduction to the book. “These photographs are an invaluable record of the coexistence of multiple cultures, including nomadic, Muslim and Soviet, and the construction of complex identities over time.”
This cover has been all over the world with me. It’s shared some of my best and worst days, and even though its showing its age, I can’t seem to allow myself to “retire” it. The army is getting new uniforms, so this cover has its days numbered… This may be our last adventure
I’m trying to raise the last portion of money needed for my outreach fee’s due tomorrow. Of $2500 I now have $1100. So I’m wondering how on earth is God going to provide the money overnight. I’m confident it’s his will. Am I wrong? I know God can provide anything, I’ve seen it done. The outreach will cost $5000 total only half is due tomorrow. Will the money come in overnight or is something else in store for me. Jesus, I love you.
After watching Vianney and Grandpa Alveterzane use German to melt Kyrgyz into English and narrowly avoiding being murdered on a fruitless midnight search for cellphone credit, I wonder if the walnut forest is actually the least interesting thing Arslanbob has to offer.
But because we happen to be in town the one time of year when the knotted nuts rain down from leafy branches and the locals rush to the groves to harvest what’s inside the rocky shells, we figure we should at least check them out.
“How can we get to the walnut forest?” Vianney asks Grandpa Alveterzane’s daughter. (Or maybe his wife? Central Asians age quickly and then become ageless, which means 30-year-olds can pass for 60 and thus be difficult to distinguish from actual 60-year-olds.)
She smiles the smile of feigned comprehension and points vaguely towards some hills. We’re too polite to ask for clarification.
We set off with Ben, a lanky British guy around my age with a thick Manchester accent and piercing blue eyes. Words pour out of his mouth like soupy pudding, and I smile the smile of feigned comprehension. I’m 40 percent in love with him.
In the village, we pass a veritable parade of campaign posters. Kyrgyzstan is about to have Parliamentary elections, and it’s all anyone is talking about. Every other house has a banner in support of its occupants’ preferred candidate.
Each candidate, in turn, appears to have posed for his campaign photo wearing every medal anyone ever handed him. I imagine the accolades I can’t read. “Third grade spelling bee runner-up.” “Youth soccer participation award.” “Best young communist turned nominal democrat.”
If the candidate practices martial arts, he indicates this by posing in his uniform, back to the camera, turning to flash a half-grimace and those ubiquitous medals.
Kyrgyzstan is probably the region’s most free and open democracy. This is not saying much, although in 2010, the country did manage to overthrow its gangsterish president in a semi-violent revolution. Of the five former Soviet ‘Stans, Kyrgyzstan is the only one not currently ruled by the guy who took over after the fall of the Soviet Union, or his named successor.
Western travelers love to dramatize elections in nascent democracies.
“We’re trying to get out of here sooner than we planned,“ an Aussie whispers conspiratorially at breakfast. “Because we’re not sure what the border situation will be like with the—” She nods her head and then mouths the word “election.”
I want to tell her that I think she’ll be OK, as long as she doesn’t try to steal any of those medals.
Besides, if we’re using Vianney’s how-do-people-respond-when-you-tell-them-where-you’re-from test, the citizens of Kyrgyzstan are scoring “very worldly.”
“America!” one kind elderly man shouts in a shared taxi. “Obama!”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Alaska!” he continues.
I expect him to follow this with a dig at Sarah Palin, the only subject that rendered Alaska relevant in my recent memory, but then I remember that Alaska, like Kyrgyzstan, used to be part of Russia.
Our attempts to reach the walnut forest once again dump us out in a forlorn amusement park.
“Is it abandoned?“ I ask. "Or just closed for the season?”
The day is warm and bright, but we all shudder. There’s something inherently eerie about an amusement park devoid of amusement, and also of people. It reminds me of the time my artist friend dragged me out to Coney Island in the dead of winter with his friends from Berlin and made us all each lunch in a sad, empty Nathan’s hotdog stand while we pondered the meaning of some of the creepier names for shuttered establishments. (Why, we wondered, did someone name his boardwalk stall “Paul’s Daughter”? Was it a not-so-subtle fuck-you to Paul?)
We escape the amusement park via a rickety bridge over a precipitous gorge and pick our way along a narrow, winding mountain path that descends into brambles after an admittedly spectacular lookout. We backtrack and find ourselves in a forest of leafy oak trees and spindly white trunks I dub "anorexic pine trees” before learning they’re actually birches. We spot nary a walnut tree.
Ben eases the boredom by telling us about his past as an anarchist. I’m now 60 percent in love with him.
It begins to seem unlikely that we’ll find the walnut forest. We start throwing out excuses to bail. “Maybe we need to go back and look at a map?” someone offers. “I think the Alveterzanes are expecting us for lunch?”
Back at the guesthouse, I set aside some time for my favorite hobby: wallowing in crippling self-doubt.
I’ve spent most of my life dreaming of the Russian diaspora, of its onion-domed churches and wind-swept steppes and language that makes everything sound like you’re about to get murdered.
But I always imagined the Russian landscape and language as a reward for some external indication of success. It would be a dream I could pursue after writing a best-selling poem or retiring from a long, illustrious career as a public figure. But I’m taking this trip at a time when my biggest achievement is running a comedy show in the basement of a bookstore, which ends at 8:30 on the dot so that I have enough time to mop the floors. It feels a little like I’m indulging a fantasy I didn’t earn.
Perhaps adding to the sense of unworthiness is the house I’m staying in, built, presumably, on the work of a man who mastered three languages, weathered communism, and spent his life toiling in a village school. In contrast, the hardest day’s work I’ve ever put in involved retrieving a bike key from a subway grate. These comparisons, I know, are meaningless and futile. I didn’t choose American privilege any more than Grandpa Alveterzane chose Kyrgyzstan.
People who superimpose inspirational quotes about going after your dreams on pictures of the ocean don’t tell you this part. There is no magical feeling of, “Hey! Wow! I’m doing this amazing thing and everything is OK!” It’s more like, “Why do I get to do this thing, and not other people? Is doing this thing financially irresponsible? If I do this thing, will I get Hepatitis C? Is it too late to back out of doing this thing when I’m already one month into doing it?”
Each traveler I meet in Central Asia leaves an imprint on my memory. There’s Vianney, who refills everyone else’s tea cups before he serves himself and never fails to open the car door for Norgul and me. He makes me want to call my friend Martha, who married a French man, and ask her the secret of locking down a guy a man who knows how to pair wine with cheese, although I know what her answer would be (join the Hartford Young Professional Association for purely professional motives).
There’s Joanne, who matches would-be volunteer with suitable projects. Or Ben, a social worker who helps the disabled live independently, and who, when I mention that I’m dying for an Uzbekistan travel guide that’s impossible to find outside of the UK, disappears into his room, returns with the exact book I’m lusting over, and insists that I take it. (I’m now fully in love with him.)
They all have real jobs and seem driven to travel by genuine curiosity.
This is less true in other places I’ve visited. In Southeast Asia, I met a lot of people who quit their jobs to travel the world for as long as their money lasted just to like, see it, dude! But they seem to define the word world as “hostel bars in exotic locations filled with people who speak English.”
Which, fine. To each his own. But I hate that when I mention Central Asia to these people, they’ll say, “Sounds cool, but I can’t be bothered with the visas.”
Vianney first came to Central Asia 11 years ago. He took the tourist route through Uzbekistan and hiked to the same cold lake in Kyrgyzstan that I begrudgingly rode a horse to see. When he talks about this trip, his face lights up. He remembers details from a decade’s distance that I’ve put out of my mind in less than a month. “Don’t you remember sunrise on Song-Köl?” he asks me. “When the sun comes up over the mountains—it’s so peaceful!”
I don’t want to tell him that my most salient memories of Song-Köl are of fearing that I’d be eaten alive by moths, so I smile and nod. Which is to say, maybe I feel like an interloper in this world too. I stand on the sidelines and furiously type notes into my phone in a way that probably makes me look like I have the social skills of a teenaged iMessage addict.
It’s tempting to picture travel as a magical key that unlocks the door to understanding the entire world, but I often feel like the one thing I’ve learned is the art of keeping my mouth shut so as not to reveal how little I know.
At the end of our road trip through Tajikistan, Vianney came up with an ingenious business proposition for Januzak. The dried-up riverbeds and surrounding fields were covered in a thin white crust that Vianney suspected was salt. He licked his finger, bent down, and collected a sample, which he then tasted to confirm that, yep, it was salt.
“You should sell this in Europe and the US,” he tells Januzak, emphatically. “It’s a question of marketing. People pay something like $100 a kilo for pink salt from the Himalayas, just because it’s pink.”
I know he’s not wrong.
“Salt from the Pamirs mountains in Tajikistan—can you harvest it all year round?”
No, Januzak says. Only in fall, when the rivers dry up.
“Even better!” Vianney slaps his knee. “You can market it as, ‘rare, only harvested once a year.’”
I can picture the salt aisle at Whole Foods (which is actually not something I’m totally positive exists right now, but probably will in five years). On $20 bottle of salt, I see a cartoon version Januzak, saying something like, “The best salt this side of the Himalayas—I Pamir-ise!” On the back, an MFA graduate will have written a succinct, but moving, account of the harsh but culturally vibrant Tajik salt harvest (which, and she’ll leave this part out, didn’t exist until some savvy Tajik businessman discovered Trader Joe’s) and quoted a local female entrepreneur.
It’s not that I think Januzak will ever go into the salt-export business, or that he and Vianney will become independently wealthy as a result. It’s more that Vianney could make connections that I couldn’t. And why couldn’t I? I know about Himalayan pink salt and Tajikistan, and I have some vague idea of how capitalism works. And why do the things that I miss or overlook bother me so much?
I want to be one of the self-assured explorers who can asks questions without fear of looking stupid and, at the end of all this, go home to a stable job without fearing that I’ve wasted my time, or done something that I didn’t deserve.
Or, if all else fails, I at least wish I had something to fall back on. Something like Januzak’s Yak Pamiri Salt Sack.