Saturday, August 10, 2019

From ‘Eastern Horizons. Hitchhiking the silk road’ by Levison Wood

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move ….to come down off this featherbed of civilization and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints …. [It] is no great industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?
-          Robert Louis Stevenson

Moscow has none of the European splendor of St Petersburg, but it has a baser charm. The smell and feel of raw humanity was everywhere.

The Georgian Military Highway crosses the Caucasus mountains, linking Vladikavkaz with Tbilisi, some one hundred and fifty miles to the south. It was built by the Imperial Russian Army in 1799 to assist the conquest of the Caucasus. It follows the traditional invaders’ route some two hundred kilometres through the Terek valley and the Darial Gorge, passing the jagged Mount Kazbek and creeping over the high Jvari Pass. It has been the scene of battles both ancient and modern and is littered with the debris of medieval forts and Soviet tanks.

The atmosphere was totally different on the boat than amongst any group of Russians I had met. For a start, these Georgians were smiling. More than that, they were laughing and joking amongst themselves.

…….I had always assumed that the Caucasus Mountains had formed the border with Europe and Asia, just as the Ural Mountains do in Russia.
‘Asia? Please, no,’ Lasha [Georgian] implored. ‘We are a European country. We are Christians, our heritage is Greek. We are certainly a lot more European than Turkey.’

I felt grateful that I wasn’t born in Georgia. The standard of living in Poti was low. Few people had electricity or gas, almost none had running water. Whole families lived in single rooms that served many purposes. Even televisions were scarce, so the people had to make their own entertainment. It was curiously Victorian; …..families gathered round a piano and sang happy folk songs that reminded them of better times.
Still, I didn’t hear anyone complain. The smiles were genuine and hospitality unequalled. I had been plied with coffee, wine and vodka. Sweets and cake were brought out, even though they were a luxury and had probably been saved for a special occasion. Like simple poor folk around the world, they stuck together as families and looked after not only each other, but anyone passing through who happened to be in need.

Caucasian girls have long been admired for their exquisite good looks. The famed Circassians of the North Caucasus gave rise to the nineteenth-century legend of the ‘Circassian beauty’. ……… Voltaire observes: ‘The Circassians are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade.’
Circassian beauty brought its own problems. Females from the region had for centuries been objects of desire for lustful Turkish Sultans, and the acquisition of a Caucasian slave girl became a status symbol of some significance. During the days of the Ottoman Empire, Circassian girls formed the upper echelons of the imperial harem.

…….the snow-capped twin peaks of Mount Ararat………At over five thousand metres high, the mountain stands alone, rising inexplicably from the Armenian plain as if it were being sucked into the atmosphere……. ‘You know it is the final resting place of the ark of Noah?’ said a young Kurdish man proudly …….Ararat is the highest peak in the area and since it isn’t part of a mountain range, in the event of a huge flood it would have been the only area of dry land for over a hundred kilometres, so it could have made an obvious stopping point.

It [Iran] wasn’t all that different from Eastern Turkey or Northern Iraq, except one thing stood out. The cleanliness of the place……..I noticed how spotless and orderly things were. The villages were impeccably tidy, the roads were excellent and there seemed to be an almost manicured perfection to the infrastructure. It was unlike anywhere I had seen in the Middle East.

‘Just arrived?’ asked David, in an arrogant drawl that only the French can achieve with such perfection.

In its heyday, virtually all of the goods coming from China and India passed through the bazaars of Tabriz on their overland journey to the markets of Constantinople and Venice. It was where the northern and southern routes converged after avoiding the great Karakum desert, before splitting again to wind westward through Anatolia or south to Baghdad and the Levant…….
The bazaar still stands. It is one of the oldest covered markets in the region and allegedly the largest in the world.

I was beginning to see a commonality in many of the Iranians, who were keen to show how liberal their country was supposed to be, but only in private. ……..The chador reigned supreme in the over-forties and the women kept a deferential few paces behind their husbands. The younger women were cautious and the men frustrated…….how the hypocrisy governed with absolute clarity here. There was a way that you should behave, which was binding and universal, but then there was another way – the reality – in which individuals actually carried on their daily lives, and in it contained the beliefs, the desires and the taboos of this subdued people. Iranians did smoke, they did drink alcohol, even during Ramadan, and they did have sex (a lot) outside of marriage.

I had expected Tehran to be a smog-ridden, third-world mess like Cairo, but it was a relief to discover a rather pleasant city. Yes, the traffic was chaotic and crossing the road was a perilous undertaking, but amidst the normal bustle that you come to expect in the Middle East, the people were smart and the streets were clean. More so than in Tabriz, the women seemed at ease; I noticed far fewer full-body chadors and most of the young women wore only a loose scarf barely covering their head. Many of the girls wore fancy gold earrings and glossy lipstick…..

Farengi is one of those odd misnomers that have taken hold as a result of some ancient slang. It comes from a mispronunciation of the medieval name Frank and dates back to the time of the crusades, when the Germanic Frankish kings were dominant figures in European politics – they gave their name to both France and Frankfurt. When the crusaders invaded the Near East, the local Muslims decided they all looked and sounded the same and forevermore, Europeans became known collectively as the Franks. The name spread throughout the Islamic world, and to this day it is the common term used for white Europeans everywhere from Bosnia to Malaysia in all its regional variations, franj, afraji, ferenghi, barang, farang.

There is an old Persian proverb, Esfahan nesf-e jahan ast; it means ‘Esfahan is half of the world’.

Iran aroused in me a mixture of emotions. In some ways, I found its culture fascinating and its mystique alluring. Its people were friendly, but they were also very suspicious, often hypocritical and scared. The cities varied between sterile and dull and tranquil, but if I was brutally honest, I was getting tired of it all. I found myself longing for the wilderness of the mountains and in them, the unabashed self-confidence of the hill people.

Mashhad is a place of graves. Twelve hundred years ago, the greatest of the Abbasid caliphs ………Harun al-Rashid…….fell ill of dysentery ……and his men buried him there. …….Shah Abbas the Great………wanted to promote Mashhad as a site of pilgrimage to equal the great Sunni shrines of Saudi Arabia……..the popular rumour spread by Abbas that one pilgrimage to Mashhad was worth seventy thousand pilgrimages to Mecca.

On his head was a pakul, a pancake-shaped brown woolen cap that was almost identical to the headdress worn by Alexander’s Macedonians over two thousand years ago.

There are three main tribes in Afghanistan. The Pashtun are the most numerous and are dispersed across the south and east of the country. The Tajiks are the second largest and make up the population of Herat, the western desert regions, and some parts of the central highlands and the Transoxiana. They are of old Persian stock and speak Dari. The rest of the centre of the country is made up of Hazara, flat-faced descendants of the Mongol horsemen. The majority of them are Shia Muslims in a predominantly Sunni country.
Then of course in the north, things get even more complicated. There are the warrior Turkmen, the beardless Uzbek herders and silversmiths, nomadic Kirghiz, Ismaili Wakhis, Nuristani mountainmen, not to mention the diaspora Arabs, Baluch, Qizilbashi, Brahui, and the Jat.
But now we were in the land of the Aimaq, a semi-nomadic, historically loose entity related to both the Tajik and the Hazara. Both groups inhabited the wild central mountains and because of their ancient enmity with the Pashtuns, were generally against the Taliban…….

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
An’ the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll on your rifle an’ blow out your brains,
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier

Kabul is an odd place. At almost two thousand metres it is a high city, and was the only place of any real development in the whole country. The Kabul river runs through its heart, winding its way between the town’s high-rise tower blocks, low mud shacks, Chinese-style villas and bustling bazaar. Above it all is the ancient Bala Hissar fortress and a ring of mountain peaks…..
Historically, Kabul dates back almost four thousand years, when it was the main centre of both Zoroastrianism and later Buddhism. The Persians settled in the region around 400 BC, before Alexander arrived during his conquests some seventy years later. The Greco-Bactrians and Indo-Greeks ruled the city for two hundred years until the Kushan empire wrested it from them, taking charge until the third century AD. Then followed the Sassanids, the Kidarites, the Hephthalites, and the Turkic Shahi. In 674, Islamic invaders from the west arrived in Afghanistan, but met fierce resistance from the Hindu-Shahi occupants. The kingdom of Kabul was not fully converted to Islam for another two hundred years…..

In his famous novel Kim, Kipling’s character – the paternal Mahbub Ali – warns his boy protégé to ‘trust a Brahmin before a snake, and a snake before a harlot, and a harlot before a Pathan.’

…the infamous Khyber Pass – the main corridor connecting Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent; it has hosted invading armies and trade caravans alike……..Kipling called it ‘a sword cut through the mountains’ because of its bloody history, and it was a famous soldiers’ saying that ‘every stone has been soaked in blood’.
In reality, it is not one but a series of winding passes served by a narrow road that stretches almost fifty miles through the Safed Koh mountains of the Hindu Kush and its summit is just over three miles inside Pakistani territory at the hill fort of Landi Kotal. The Afridi and Shinwari tribes that inhabit the pass have been its traditional guardians throughout the centuries………

Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims – and potters – all the world going and coming………….And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles – such a river of life as nowhere else exists

What made the bus journey more exhausting was the Pakistani passengers’ almost perfect command of English and their natural curiosity. I should have been glad of the familiar language and the friendly interest, but the questions were relentless.

At the Jaulian temple (named after the Roman governor Julian, who converted to Buddhism), ornate Ionic columns rose from the Punjabi plain. They were exact replicas of a style that would not be out of place in the Forum or the Parthenon: the ruins had porticoed and pedimented fronts……all were built in a style immediately recognizable as Classical Greek; yet these were Buddhist monuments, twenty miles from the Pakistani capital, and they dated from the early centuries of the Christian era, long after the demise of the Classical civilization in Europe.

………the autumn of 327 BC, when Alexander the Great swept into the Punjab………..On the return journey Alexanded died………his empire fractured into pieces.
In the anarchy that followed, the Greek garrisons of India and Afghanistan were cut off from their homeland. They had no choice but to stay on in Asia, intermingling with the local peoples, and joining Indian learning with Greek philosophy and classical ideas. Over the following thousand years, further cross-fertilisation occurred, as Central Asian influences were brought in by the conquering Kushans, an astounding civilization that grew up in the fastness of the Chinese Karakorums and built the third and last of Taxila’s cities, calling it Sirsukh.
These Scythian-Greek-Chinese were Buddhist in religion, though they worshipped an extensive myriad of Zoroastrian, Greek, Roman, Hindu and Buddhist deities – Gandhara’s principal icon being a meditating skinny Buddha draped in a Greek toga.

……[Golden Temple] ‘……….Ours is a very open religion, you can stay if you like?’
I wasn’t expecting to be offered a bed, but it seemed that Sikh hospitality was a rival to the Afghan’s code of generosity.

Despite the renowned crowdedness and bustle and aversion to personal space that is associated with India, I had never felt more at peace in my life.

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