Thursday, June 30, 2011

Historical Turning Points, And Crayfish

The road from Almaty was initially a railway. The town of Kopa is a forgotten stop on the edge of the steppe on the line heading west out of Almaty. Only one train a day stops there and on that particular day I was the only person to get off. It is, however, the nearest town with any sort of public transport to Tambaly, where there are the greatest collection of petroglyphs in Central Asia. OK, perhaps not one to get the hearts racing, but interesting nevertheless. I sat myself down on the road out of town hoping to get a ride the 30km out to the site. At least the tumbleweeds kept me company. My wait wasn't as long as expected and the very first car that passed took me all the way there (hitching is not only reasonably common in Kazakhstan, but I also don't feel uncomfortable asking for a free ride here where the standard of living is significantly higher than the rest of Central Asia). And in a textbook example of things generally working out in the end, as I was wrapping up my visit of the site, and beginning to wonder how the hell I would get out of there, I spied a group of visitors (the only ones to visit that day apart from me) who had obviously come by car. So I went over to see if I could bum a lift, at least to the main highway. They turned out to be a group of 3 Mexicans living in China, a Kazakh girl (girlfriend of one of the Mexicans) and her father. Certainly not people you would expect to meet in the middle of Kazakhstan. Nevertheless they said, sure, they could take me to the highway as they were going back to Almaty that evening anyway. And so once they had finished visiting the site themselves we set off. I was happy as I got to practice my Spanish which was encased in a sizeable coating of rust, but at least I was still able to conjugate the verb chingar in several different levels of impoliteness, which impressed the Mexicans considerably. As we approached the highway Aina (the girl) suggested I come crayfishing with them. It was getting late, it was in my general direction and I had never been crayfishing before (hell, I hadn't even ever seen a live crayfish before) so I heartily agreed.

Monster from the deep comes face to face with a crayfish.

As we came to the lake it was clear that Aina's father was a bit of a hunter-fisher and had done this before. Not only did he have a rifle in the back of his car as well as all the various nets, cages and waiders to go after crayfish, but he was also kitted out with a table, stools, cooker and other paraphernalia to make passing the time more agreeable (certainly less hungry). The whole process of crayfishing was surprisingly straightforward and required little effort. Set up special crayfish nets, place bait in middle, lower to the bottom of lake (ensuring that you've tied a float to it), wait 10 mins, pull out with a couple of kilos of crayfish, and finally throw into a big bag, being careful not to get nipped in the process. By the end of the evening we had about 20kg of the clawing little blighters stuffed in a bag, whilst not having to do much ourselves (although it's true that Aina's dad did most of the work). Unfortunately I didn't get to taste any of our catch as it was too late and they were to be taken back to Almaty whilst I stayed on and camped at the lake. Nevertheless Aina and the others left me a parting gift of bread and samsas for breakfast the next day.

The next day, strangely, started by getting woken up by a policeman knocking on my tent at 5am. God knows what he was doing at the lake but he wanted to see my papers and then suggested I go down to the station with him to explain why I was there or pay him a bribe to leave. As paying bribes is against my religion I told him to wait a couple of hours, as that is how long it would take me to pack up all my stuff, which was handily strewn around the tent. Seeing that there would be nothing in this for him he just left me alone. The rest of my travels in southern Kazakhstan, via a combination of hitching and bus, were comparatively uneventful (although did include several instances of aggressive hospitality, always from an inebriated male, that generally required me to eat - a lot). Anyway, enough of that and onto the historical-educational part of the blog.

The march of history is inexorable and incremental. There are few people who, by their deeds alone, make a decisive impact, and even fewer single moments that can be decisively said to have altered the course of history. Despite Kazakhstan not being a country overly-endowed with much in the way of historical sights, southern Kazakhstan is home to two separate locations where world history could have tipped one way or another and whose impacts are incalculable.

The Talas valley, which is split between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, was the site of a battle between the expanding Chinese Tang and Arab Muslim empires in 751 AD. The Arabs won the battle, thereby assuring the supremacy of their religion in the region and halting the advance of the powerful Chinese - the battle marked the furthest west the Chinese empire ever reached. But perhaps even more importantly it is thought that from the prisoners captured by the Arabs the secret of paper-making was gleaned and spread to the West. Unfortunately the modern town of Taras is a rather forgettable place, with only a few old mausolea to hark back to its substantial history (I was disappointed to find that there isn't a museum dedicated to the battle).

More tangible remains can be spotted further up the Syr Darya valley at the ruins of Otrar. In the early 13th century it was a prosperous town on the Silk Road and a northern outpost of the Persian Khwarzmshah empire. In 1218, flushed with his success of having conquered China, Genghis Khan sent a trade caravan to Otrar. Its mission was to see whether trade or conquest was the best course of action for the lands to the west of Genghis' new empire. The governor of the town, fearing that the mission was comprised of spies, had them executed. It was this action that swayed Genghis into decision and the next year, at the head of an army of 200,000 he swept through Central Asia, putting Otrar, and anyone who would stand in his way, to the sword. The sweeping continued until the Mongol Hordes reached all the way to Europe, getting as far as Poland, Hungary and even Croatia and didn't stop until Genghis kicked the bucket. For Eurasia in the 13th century Otrar was Ground Zero. (For me, personally, it was a bit of a pilgrimage as I have been to countless sites throughout the region where the general story is: there was an amazing city/castle/garden/church/whatever here until the Mongols came through, and this is where it began.) Of course not much is left of Otrar, except for a large, raised mound overlooking the surrounding plain and its fields, although archaeologists have unearthed a multitude of treasures from the site. And as you drive through the surrounding countryside you notice more and more of these mounds, some larger, some smaller, almost all victims of the Mongol onslaught almost 800 years ago. A once-thriving civilisation, if not wiped out, then at least fundamentally altered in an instant. If you're inclined to ponder then it would make you think long about the transience of human endeavour and the vicissitudes of fate. Luckily I don't ponder ... much.

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