May 31, 2013

The Lost Heart of Asia

The author toured the 'stans (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan...) a year after they were released from the Soviet Union. He asked many times about Islamic fundamentalism--would it come in the wake of communism?--but other than that, there was no strong focus. He wandered around, talked to people, and visited ruins. I ended up skimming the book for notable passages.

The Turcomans were wild and depraved, they said: a proud, ignorant and inhospitable people, robed outlandishly in scarlet gowns and topped off by monstrous sheepswool hats. They could ride for eighty miles a day and survive on nothing but bruised wheat and sour milk. They were at once gluttonous, austere, affable, thieving, immodest, anarchic and frank. For a pittance they would slip a knife into you.

He added in faint reproof: 'People should learn the holy languages. You can learn one in a few months if your will is strong enough, and if your heart is right.'

'Our whole world is committing suicide.' He sliced his hand across his throat in ghostly sacrifice. 'All these trains, aeroplanes and cars, when what we need is food! Our soil can give us three crops a year, but what do we usually get? One! All we plant is cotton, but you can't eat cotton. You just sell it for roubles. That's what our country's done. And you can't eat money either.'

On 3 July 1881, a colony of German Mennonites, who had settled on the lower Volga to escape conscription in Prussia, heaped their belongings on to wagons and lumbered eastwards on the orders of God. Descendents of Anabaptist dissenters in the sixteenth century, they were pacifist farmers of fanatic simplicity, and rufsed allegiance to any government.

Turabek, a Mongol princess

The desert was potentially fertile, he said, it only needed water. After the spring rain it came alive with mushrooms, snakes and orchids.

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