Central Asia: Towns Without Pity
By Ray Nayler
The train glides along its tracks, moving through Southern Kazakhstan, rocking gently. The first class compartment is dim; just my reading light on. There is a small speaker near the ceiling from which comes the tiniest tinny sound of music, barely audible over the wheels of the train. Outside, the landscape is differing shades of black sweeping by endlessly; the black of steppe and sky, night buildings, the occasional warmth of an orange window, then nothing for miles. This is no-place, an in-between; but as the train rolls along, I am thinking of real places with names, towns I have seen and the imprints on my memory that they have left:
In Karakol they are cutting down the old soviet plane trees. The streets are lined with their massive stumps, the inside of the stump like an infant's exposed and sensitive flesh, sawdust pooled around the bases of the trees where there is now no shade. The bright September sun hits the whitewashed houses, hits the blue-painted shutters of the little Ukrainian style houses, and the September light is not a warm one. The shade felt warmer.
A woman hitting a drunk man with a broom made from a bundle of twigs. A perfect witch—the witches' broom, the hunched back, a scarf over the head, a flash of gold teeth. The man staggers into the darkness of a side street. The darkness of the side streets are absolute. Fat tailed sheep graze between the buildings of crumbling soviet apartment blocks, and disco music bleeds from the pastel walls of restaurants as you pass by, in this lonely southern town, weddings, weddings, weddings.
The river is shivering mineral turquoise, the town is mud and grey. At the guest house we chase shots of vodka with slices of apple and toast to international friendship. The flies crawl lazily across the table. The flies die slowly in the October light on the windowsill.
The air is crisp as we ride our horses through the shade of the walnut forests to the high waterfalls. The villagers climb the walnut trees and beat the branches, and the walnuts in their skins, green and round, fall to the ground. The villagers' hands are stained brown by walnut oil; all of them stained the same, darker nearer the fingertips, an autumn tattoo. The children wave as our horses pass by.
In Batken a lonely statue of Lenin looks out over a dusty square, the statue spray-painted an unconvincing gold. In the alleyways cows eat garbage, rooting their soft muzzles through cardboard and plastic bags.
A theater. The borders of the walls are carefully painted in intricate floral designs dating from the soviet days. The plaster seal of the Kyrgyz SSR adorns one wall. There are portraits of Lenin, Marx, and Engels above the stage. There was a portrait of Stalin in the opposite corner. It has been painted over and is now a blank white rectangle. But the silhouette of him can still be made out—the line of jacket, neck, and profile emanating waves of malice from behind his veil of white. Everywhere we stand in the room, I feel those occluded eyes glaring at me.
I walk home through the autumnal sculpture garden, the neglected sculptures leaning in the trees, the yellow leaves clotting to brown along the edges of the path, the whole city wet and bright after a fall rain, so clean that the old soviet buildings look new, look reborn.
In the north it is winter, but in the south fall still has a foothold, the yellowing trees, the leaves in the street and the cold light on pastel buildings as I walk the streets passing monuments to people I do not know, stoic Asiatic faces melted from metal, students with the same faces gathered smoking outside the teachers' university.
In the restaurants there is always a drunk to paw at you from the next table looking for a fight, looking to rub your face in the broken pavement. "Friend . . .," a hand on the shoulder, "You Americans think you own the world. You think you can buy everything. Go find a bank machine, friend."
It begins, once again, to rain.
"Are you married?" Gulzat and I are walking through the central park, the dreariest park on earth, scrub-weed and pampas grass choking the broken carnival rides, empty bottles of vodka glittering like crystals in the underbrush. Her lips are painted red in her moonlike face, her black hair framing widespread cheekbones. "How old are you? I am twenty-four." In America, this means "I am twenty-four." Here, it means "I am ready to be married. In fact, I am growing old. Take me away from here." The idea is an interesting one to entertain. Where would one take her, this beautiful girl, a teacher at the local high school. "I like your American culture, your Backstreet Boys and all of your films from the Hollywood. How is my English?"
She shows me pictures of her family from an album in her purse, her grandfather grim-faced behind medals from WWII.
The Ferris Wheel is a tattered spider web against the sky, the Gravitron lies in shambles, cogs of its transmission exposed, colored panels shattered in the grass. The entire town has the look of something abandoned: streets beyond repair, the taste of dust in your mouth, a place beyond where people have stopped caring.
The sound of the accordion is a lonely one, the old man playing it on the cracked streets lonely, the look of breath in the bright cold air lonely as Zhenya and I pass the bazaar, the bazaar dripping meltwater and cheap Chinese goods. We two are not lonely, breathing clouds, talking about things worth talking about, her hand on my bicep just above the elbow, the pressure of her fingers through the wool of my navy pea coat, the way a Russian girl will always take your arm when you walk together, charming and dangerous, this yellow-eyed Tatar who talks only about art and herself.
The American pea coat with its anchor buttons, the muddy streets and monuments to a fallen empire, the pretty arch-eyebrowed girl whose eyes flash in the sun. She presses my hand in the taxi, I wipe away a wind-caused tear from her eye.
A morning run in Gorky Park, around the manmade, dried-up lake, through the cigarette underbrush, past the abandoned carnival rides, the dusty barbecue pits and empty tents. The stray dogs wagging their tails or barking, the bumper cars sitting silent in the early morning stillness, the weed-choked amphitheater, the gypsies who will tell your fortune for a few Tenge leaning on their canes, whispering to you as you pass. All the detritus of the soviet megastate's entropic dissolution, all the decaying pieces of the past in this nearly forgotten corner of the city. A city that is moving, quickly, toward the future. A future where the inhabitants of this city will become more recognizable. A future where they will become, inevitably, more like us.
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