Tea cups have replaced pialas in many Kazkah households. A consequence of Sovietification. But the tradition of drinking tea is steeped well and deep. After breakfast. Before dinner. Some times an extensive affair with zhent (a millet flour sweet made in Karaganda region), halva and Tashkent melon. On occasion a passing interaction with a stranger – like the early morning in Otrar we shared a tea with our taxi driver. It was a tea shop equivalent of a drive through – a small kiosk serving only lepyoshki and tea from greasy pots. The brew was weak. S., my friend, said it was not something that would be served in her mother’s house. But it’s hardly about the tea. It’s always about the story. The driver was a bulky man with a thick neck and a buzz cut. He spoke to S in Kazakh as most people in the south do, and told me in Russian that he had a cousin who had married a Latvian woman. Mostly he just gulped the scolding hot tea and tore at the lepyoshka with his fat fingers. A pleasant morning was dawning as the aroma of freshly frying dough hung in the air and our driver rattled on in sweet curls periodically pierced by sharp consonants.
We had been traveling for over seventeen hours by train from Almaty to Turkistan. It was hot and the intertwining smells of pancakes, dumplings and sweat were pulsating through out the train car. With the windows cracked, blue curtains waving, warm gusts of steppe air come rushing in for a brief moment of reprieve. To the South, separated only by a low range of mountains, is Kyrgyzstan. To the north – the infinite flatness of the steppe. It waves and sprawls in many shades of beige, at times interrupted by a thin line of water or an odd patch of grass or tuft of dull green brush. The landscape is constant. And then when you least expect it, as if a mirage in the desert, emerges an early dusk light show in the form of a power plant. Seemingly isolated, with no city or village to power, it hums in the dusty ether of the steppe as if under a shroud of secrecy.
When we did pass by a town or a village, the platform was thick with middle aged women selling manti and plov out of baby carriages and young men with wheelbarrows carting around watermelons. The train economy is vibrant. It is not constrained to the stops. Wide girthed women in colorful floral prints parade up and down the narrow train corridors with heavy heaps of robes and dresses in their arms peeking into compartments in search of women in need of retail therapy. They are not the sweet and smiling Samarkand dry fruit shop keepers. Although not offensive, their manner is abrasive and straightforward. You are either buying or you are in their way.
It was still dark when we arrived in Turkistan. A gaggle of young girls in unusually high spirits for such an early morning trotted off the train along with us. We asked if they would be interested in splitting a taxi to Otrar. They kindly refused, but it wasn’t long before we found our driver and were on our way.
As we left the town behind us, the bright red ball of the sun erupted over the steppe, infusing the cracked earth with a rose hue. The road was impressively good for such a far off place. S. made the comment to the driver. He noted that the president had come to Turkistan a few years ago. The road was fixed for his reception. For miles there were no signs of human life -just this well maintained road and heards of horses and flocks of sheep stood as symbols of human civilizations.
Before going to Otrar the driver took us to the mausoleum of Arystan Bab a religious mystic and according to legend, the recipient of Mohammed’s persimmons. S. and I covered our heads and took off our shoes. Inside we were greeted by a holy man of sorts who led us in prayer and looked dismayed when we failed to produced even a pittance of a donation, as we had left our money in the car. It was the mausoleum that followed that brought a mystical feeling of calm. Dedicated to a relative unknown and with a façade of a hastily built soviet era shed it was nothing to look at from the outside. Inside, the floors were covered in green carpets and like in the last place, a holy man kneeled by the side of the tomb. Again we stooped and raised our palms upwards. Tilting my gaze to the ceiling I found the mausoleum’s primary residents – a pair of tiny birds one quietly perched in a recess of the domed ceiling and the second restlessly spinning in circles. While the two creatures danced, the early morning light streamed in and the holy man’s heavily accented Arabic prayer flooded the room, a beautiful peace saturated the air. For an ephemeral moment we were frozen in the desolate steppe, on the edge of an extinct city, in a structure of a bygone era, forgotten by the world.
Archeological excavations in Otrar had begun in Soviet times. And although some signs of a former metropolis have begun to emerge, to this day it is not fully uncovered. Otrar, once a prosperous city on the Silk Road and home to the famed Eastern philosopher Abu-Nasr Al Farabi, was the beginning of the Genghis Khan invasion of Central Asia. With its defensive walls destroyed (along with the rest of the city) in the 13th century, unprotected and unprepared for visitors, the city lays elevated on a slight mound. There is little that boast of the town’s former glories, or current significance, but an old sign back from 1962.
We return to Turkistan for the primary reason of the pilgrimage – the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a Turkic poet and Sufi mystic. Sitting behind a lush rose garden, a deceivingly simple front entrance leads the way to uncover a proto-Gaudian honey comb ceiling. The inside is full of small rooms of various functions – prayer chambers, libraries, writing rooms. The real mesmerizing prints are left for the back of the exterior. Here a coral green fluted dome peeks over the varied shades of blue mosaics while a larger pale blue dome sits imposingly at the very center, its grandeur only slightly rained in by wooden scaffolding. The structure’s beauty is modest, subdued, imperfect. To look at in in whole, from far away, one is left lukewarm, but to get acquainted with its parts, the pieces hiding in the shadows, one is warmed and satiated.
It is now past midday and the heat is overwhelming. Walking down the street we are coughing in the dust and wishing for a speedy return to the train station.
The train ride back seems shorter. Our roommates this time are two middle aged women from Shymkent, who openly scold us for speaking in Russian rather than in Kazakh. The air seems cooler.
Back in Almaty we sit for the last tea. S. and her sisters have left – running after their children, dipping out of the house to run errands. I’m alone with their mother. Until now we had said only the most necessary formalities to each other. Welcome. Thank you for dinner. Feel at home. But now with three or four cups behind us she tells me about the letters her late husband while they were still dating. He had always begun with another man’s words – those of the Kazakh poet Abay or that other wordsmith – Marx. She had saved them all. She laughed at the thought of her own frivolous responses. The sprightly words of a young girl. She tells me that her mother had made a promise to his dying mum that she would take care of her son-in-law to be. She said she didn’t know this until he had passed away. For years she didn’t understand why her mother at times of marital discord, would defend her husband rather than her own flesh and blood. She is a happy woman to have those letters. She is a happy woman to have her mother’s promise. I am lucky to have shared in her tea.