Early in September I was travelling again. This trip was to Kazakhstan, which had not originally been intended, since the place in Central Asia I was determined to visit was Uzbekistan, with the splendours of Samarkand and Bukhara. But that visa proved difficult to get, and I decided to try Kazakhstan initially instead, having read up on it in the guidebook to the region that I had borrowed from a friend. I then managed to buy an updated version, and found that the area had developed considerably, with much better access to places of tourist interest.
Kazakhstan certainly lived up to expectations, and more. We went through Delhi, where I realized how wise Mahinda Rajapaksa had been to appoint as our High Commissioner the archaeologist Sudharshan Seneviratne. He was a product of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and had excellent contacts, which he knew how to use. But the damage that had been done during the previous years when, not our High Commissioner, but the Ministry in Colombo had ignored Indian concerns, ran deep and I fear that the Indians were by now as keen as the West that Mahinda Rajapaksa should go.
After a night in Delhi we flew to Almaty, and found a hotel opposite a thriving market through which we could walk to the city centre. That first evening we were lucky to see, and hear, a service in Zenkov Cathedral, an imposing building dating from, albeit early 20th century, Tsarist times. Next morning, after a quick look at the much more recent Central Mosque, we went to the grand Independence Monument where a host of army cadets obviously found us more exotic than the sights they had been brought to see, and wanted lots of photographs. The same happened in the Ethnography section of the National Museum, where a party of small children, and their teachers, focused on us rather than the exhibits.The highlight of the Museum was the Gold Collection, items from Scythian burial mounds dating back 2500 years. I found these fascinating, having been intrigued from ages back by the description of Scythians in Herodotus. Unfortunately the Golden Man, a warrior’s costume, supposedly made in the 5th century BC of more than 4000 separate gold pieces, is locked up safely somewhere. But the replica in the Museum was exotic enough in itself.
We went then to Almaty’s other tourist attraction, Kok Tobe or Green Hill, which had nice views but not much else, except for life-sized bronze statues of the Beatles. They had been placed there only in this century, but were heartwarming for those of my vintage who had grown up to their music (and also obviously for a stream of Kazakh youngsters who were photographing themselves next to these idols of yesteryear).
After a late lunch we went to the bus station and took an overnight bus to the country’s most attractive site, Turkistan, where Timur, Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, had rebuilt in the 1390s a mausoleum of a 12th century saint. The journey itself was an education for Kithsiri, who had previously thought of white nations as much more sophisticated than others. The squalor of the toilets overwhelmed him, and also the fact that modesty was totally lacking and all functions were performed communally, with doors evidently seen as totally unnecessary.
But the turquoise domes of the Yasaui Mausoleum more than made up for the ungainly sights on our journey. The main mausoleum has as its centerpiece a massive metal cauldron gifted by Timur and supposed to weigh 2000 kilogrammes. Around the main shrine are other also superbly restored buildings, the mausoleum of one of Timur’s great-grand-daughters, and a mosque that is half underground. And here too we were celebrities, with the many groups who were visiting the sights insisting on being photographed with us. They were all Kazakhs, I should note, and we saw hardly any other tourists in the country during our eight days there.
We had arrived at Turkistan before dawn – though the grand hotel in decline that we found open obligingly let us in straight away – so there was time after the Mausoleum complex to take a taxi to Sauran, the ruins of what was the capital of the Mongol White Horde state in the 14th century. It was still supposedly a cheerful city two centuries later, but nothing remained now but a circuit of limestone walls and some bastions and gates. It was not easy to find, and the taxi driver, who had not heard of the place, overshot the turnoff. But he then cheerfully drove several kilometres back the wrong way on the motorway, and we eventually found the deserted ruins.
There was even time after that to see the city’s very informative museums, before beer at a delightful open air café. Kazakhstan, though a Muslim country, has no restrictions on liquor, exemplifying the manner in which Islam adapted to different cultures and took on a distinctive Asian identity for several centuries. The splendid civilizations that synthesis spawned have only recently come under threat, after the oil boom of the 20th century led to economic imbalance and efforts to impose a particular vision of the religion in areas which it does not suit.
The next morning we set off for Otrar, another ghost city that was great in the times of Genghis Khan and Timur. This journey was even more adventurous than the last, for the bonnet of the taxi suddenly flew up and smashed the windscreen, though fortunately without drawing blood from either the driver or myself. The former wanted to drive on, having tied up the windscreen, but Kithsiri, who understands how cars can behave, was having none of this. So we waited in a farmyard full of enormous sheep, while camels strolled by on the main road, until a substitute car duly rolled up and took us to the ruined walls of Otrar, and the remains of the palace where Timur was said to have died in 1405, while en route to conquer China.
After a brief visit to a more recent mausoleum, also a place of pilgrimage, we took a long bus journey back to the small town of Shymkent, unremarkable in itself but the hub for a range of delightful sights. That very afternoon we got to Sayram, with a host of beautiful mausoleums and a very special supposedly 10th century minaret, to the top of which I climbed. Shymkent was also large enough, unlike Turkistan, to have a police station at which we could register, a requirement within a few days of arrival for tourists to Kazakhstan.
We did that the next morning, and then went on Taraz, which had another couple of charming mausoleums as well as a delightful little museum. But the highlight there was a village a few miles away, which had two exquisite mausoleums, springing from what the guidebook described as a ‘local Romeo and Juliet tale’. But it was not surprising that, in this land where tombs trumped other religious buildings, the buildings housed two women, the heroines of the melancholy tale in which the Romeo figure, Kharakan the lord of Taraz, played only a minor part.
One of the women was Aysha Bibi, whose father had forbade her to marry Kharakan. Despite this she set off for Taraz, only to collapse on the way from exhaustion and snake bite. Her companion Babazha-Khatun managed to get to Taraz and inform Khararan, who got to his beloved just in time to marry her before she expired. He built her mausoleum where she died, and then added an even more unusual one for the other lady.
We managed to get back to Almaty that evening, for three days of exploring the scenery around the town, which was supposed to be marvelous. We found it certainly was, going south the next day, but we could not get very far for we were now near the Kyrgyztan border and a police post blocked our way. I consoled myself with a visit to the Arasan Baths, not a traditional hammam, but a massive complex offering Russian and Finnish and Oriental saunas, birch twigs and all, plus massive pools of varying temperatures.
The trip north the next day to Kapshagay Lake was less interesting, but on our last day we went to Charyn Canyon, which was astonishingly beautiful. There were lots of locals on the bus, and it was clearly a popular excursion site. The bus dropped us at a cliff down which we had to walk, into a valley with the most extraordinary rock formations. One set is called the Valley of Castles, understandably so for the crags resemble serried fortifications. And then, after a long walk through these fantastic multi-coloured rocks, we came to a beautiful river, rushing through a many peaked canyon. We had taken bread and cheese and tomatoes, and had a splendid picnic as all the other groups did at the edge of the sparkling water.
It was a long but lovely day, ending with a ride on the metro to get back to our hotel, and then a hunt for something to eat since the restaurant nearby which we had got used to was long closed. We had to leave very early next morning for the flight back to Delhi, and another long day with Sudharshan entertaining a JNU academic at lunch, the distinguished journalist Venkatnarayan for tea, and then then having a dinner for several guests including Milinda Moragoda and Gopal Gandhi, the great man’s grandson who had been Indian High Commissioner in Colombo.
He had also arranged a talk for me at JNU the next day, where I had to cope with the hostility of the LTTE inclined academic who had taken over from our old friend Prof Muni. He produced a completely false figure regarding the bombs our air force had used, but failed to send me the source as he promised to do. I found later that the claim had been attributed to General Ashok Mehta, of IPKF fame, who denied all knowledge of it, another reminder of how ruthlesslessly falsehoods were propagated regarding the sterling performance of our forces during the war.
That was a wearying day, and I realized how tired I was getting of defending our record, not because I did not believe in the integrity of our forces, but because the failure to build a sustainable peace put so much else in a bad light. And, having escaped all that for a wonderful visit to Kazakhstan, I felt ill equipped for the return to a country that should have been enjoying the fruits of its triumph over terrorism, but which was still suffering from unresolved tensions.
Ceylon Today 6 Dec 2016 https://ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=10611