WE ARE ROCKETING through the steppes into the eye of the setting sun. To the east of us, the great thrusting shoulders of the Tian Shan, or “Celestial Mountains,” are burnished with the deep rose gold you see on icons from the Sinai or tanka paintings from Nepal. According to local lore, deep within the range, at the far eastern border of Kyrgyzstan, towers “Ice Mountain,” a confluence of mighty glaciers. It is said that there are seventy-eight hundred of these glaciers in the Tian Shan, and on the high ridges that run above them lives the ghostly snow leopard. The fifteen-hundred-mile-long range flows south between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan where it spirals into the Himalaya and the Hindu Kush at the Pamir Knot, the meeting place of the loftiest mountains in the world.
Far to the north of us lie the Altai Mountains of Siberia—according to Indian legend, home of the mystical kingdom of Shambala. East of the Altai is Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake on the planet and, since ancient days, mother to the reindeer-herding, earth-worshipping Evenk. Their heirs, the Mongolian Buryat, still practice a peculiar sort of Lamaist Buddhism—which is to say, Tibetan Buddhism tempered with a strain of much older, indigenous shamanism. North of the Altai and Baikal sits the vast Siberian taiga, a thick-growing coniferous forest of stone pine and larch that runs six thousand miles across Russia from sea to sea. The taiga is the traditional home of the Goldi, an aboriginal tribe of shamans and far-ranging hunters. It was also the wandering space of the stranniks, the nineteenth-century Orthodox Christian pilgrims who trudged through its deep green silence seeking the hidden hermitages of starets, or holy men.
We ourselves are in the vast grassland known as the steppes, heading southwest from Almaty to Taraz, down the eastern border of Kazakhstan.
Our driver Ivan, clearly a descendent of Turkic-Mongol warriors, is maneuvering his “machina” one-handed at what must be top speed—the dial reads 160 kilometers per hour. He hangs his free arm across the top of the seat and turns to see how I am doing in my nest of pirated videotapes. Next to him, spectacular Alina, born to be the mistress of a billionaire but condemned instead to the life of an English teacher in the heart of crime-ridden Central Asia, rolls her eyes. She is disgusted at this blatant display of bravado, and I can’t blame her. Ivan is putting all three of us at risk. Yet in spite of my anxiety about crashing out here in the middle of nowhere, I can’t help but like Ivan and his gold-studded teeth. When he is not showing off, he is bashfully kind to me, and I am very far from home.
Every few minutes we hit a pothole and the machina lurches, springs from the asphalt, and crashes back to the road, usually in the other lane. Aside from the wrenching to our necks, this is no problem, for there are few vehicles in this part of the world. And aside from the occasional twist and turn, we can see forever; we are racing over potholes across a fifteen-hundred-mile expanse of ancient nomadic herding land. We fly past grazing sheep and dark yurts, people on horseback, carts. We fly through small villages with candlelight glimmering in the windows. The sun flares behind the massed rainclouds in the west, then disappears below the horizon. Suddenly, we are skimming through violet twilight into flocks of blackbirds exploding skyward. Ivan reaches down and pops in a cassette, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” For an eerie moment it’s the late sixties, and I’m a high school junior in Southern California who has never heard of Central Asia, much less Kazakhstan.
Then we come to a big curve. Ivan lifts his black shoe from the accelerator and puts his free hand on the wheel. Around the bend we enter upon disaster. A pickup has hit a horse and rider, then flipped. People have gathered from nowhere. The crowd gazes down at the motionless herder. Off to the side lies the still-saddled horse, with its head flung back like the anguished beast in Picasso’s Guernica and most of its neck missing. I feel hot, then icy, then sick. My eyes fill with tears of nauseated shock. Ivan glances at Alina, who is studiously avoiding the grisly mess in the road, then gives me an apologetic shrug and speeds up again to get us out of there. No one says a word.
Kazakhstan is a stopping place for me, a week out of the months I will spend on this round-the-world journey. In some ways, though I will also visit India and Nepal, this Central Asian interlude is my most exotic. Not many Americans have been here, far fewer of them than, say, go trekking in the Himalayas or study with gurus in Varanasi. What is there to see, after all? Kazakhstan is a third the size of the United States and is bounded by, among other remote places, Mongolia, Siberia, and the Chinese far western frontier. There are few highways. Fewer than three people per square mile. A lot of grass.
Yet Taraz, where I’ll be staying in a small apartment owned by Alina’s family, was in ancient times known as Talas, a Silk Road trading post in the middle of the vast stretch of plains that lie between Europe and Asia. For more than fifteen hundred years before the Renaissance, whatever cultural exchange took place between the East and West happened here on the steppes. In the first century, the road started in Antioch, crossed the Euphrates River, passed near modern Teheran, and headed east to the Pamir Mountains, where a stone tower marked the exchange zone. Further on, the road split into a northern and southern route, both running toward China. Taraz, or Talas, was on the northern leg. Wooly, double-humped Bactrian camels, roped together and loaded with Chinese silk or Persian rugs or Indian spices, crossed and recrossed the sea of grass in undulating lines. Missionaries and pilgrims from opposite ends of the civilized world followed in their tracks.
In 630 AD, Hsüan-tsang, a Buddhist pilgrim from China, passed through Talas on his way west. His return journey followed the southern leg of the Silk Road, and he recorded what he’d seen as he traveled through the Tarim Basin oases on the edge of the Gobi: a meld of Greek, Roman, Iranian, Indian, and Chinese religion, philosophy, and art. Sanskrit texts were being translated into Indo-European languages. Nestorians and Byzantines mingled with Hellenes, Levantines, Tibetans, and Chinese, here at the far western edge of the Orient.
But the true masters of this land were neither merchants nor pilgrims but mighty warrior nomads. From the notorious Bronze-Age Scythians of the western steppes to the infamous Turkic-Mongol Huns of the East, Central Asia was dominated until the late eighteenth century by the mounted archers of the plains. When they weren’t at war, they were following the grass with their vast herds of horses, goats, sheep, and camels, migrating with the seasons in great wagon trains. They scorned city life and destroyed it systematically. They scorned agriculture, too, and decimated cropland wherever they found it in order that the grass might grow unimpeded. And they periodically struck like wolves at the great civilizations that lay on their borders: Rome, Byzantium, Persia, India, China.
The ferocity of these warrior nomads is legendary. Herodotus, for example, records that a favorite Scythian practice was to saw horizontally through the skull of the enemy, cover the half-skull with leather and gold, and use it for a drinking cup. Huns sealed a contract by imbibing human blood. They also honored their dead chiefs by cutting the throats of their wives and servants—sometimes as many as a thousand of these at a time—on the tomb of their departed leader. In mourning, they slashed their faces with knives so that blood would mingle with their tears.
At midnight we are still driving. From Almaty, where my Lufthansa flight out of Frankfurt landed at the nearly lightless airport, to Taraz, where Alina and Ivan have lived in neighboring houses since they were children, is an eight-hour trip. I am not asleep but not fully awake either when we hit a monster pothole. Ivan fights the gyrating wheel as we reconnect with the road. Safely down, we hear it: a wheeze like someone dying of TB. The car begins to slow of its own accord. We enter a dark village under a full moon, and stop. From out of nowhere a car filled with Kazakh men materializes beside us, calling in Russian out of their open window: “Your fuel pump fell out! Your fuel is running out on the road!” Then they are gone, their red blaze of tail lights winking, fading, then snuffing out. We are alone in this sleeping village on the steppes.
Ivan sighs, opens the car door, climbs out. Alina, curiously unconcerned, is inspecting her nails by moonlight. “What’s going on?” I croak. “Have we broken down? Are we stranded?”
She gives me an airy wave. “Do not worry,” she says. “He will think a little. Then he will fix it.”
Ivan, who has been crouching silently at the rear of the car, now crunches around to Alina’s open window, murmuring something in Russian. “He wants to know if you have a torch,” she tells me.
“I do!” I begin digging through the pile of videotapes in search of my buried backpack. I unzip the side pocket and pull out the small flashlight Mike slipped inside at the last minute, a husband’s last-ditch effort to protect his crazy wife on her solo trip around the world. It flickers, then goes out. I jiggle it, but nothing. Ivan takes it apart, finds a loose light bulb, twists it, then puts everything back together. I show him how to turn it into a lantern. His eyes widen appreciatively in the face of this small miracle. Then he crunches back around the car to set up shop.
Alina begins a long story I have heard before, the story of Ivan and what a good, noble, true-hearted friend he has always been to her, and why, tragically, she can never marry him. At this point, however, I am far more interested in the fate of our machina. I hold up one hand, telling Alina I want to see if I can help. She shakes her head—these American women, so strangely masculine—and goes back to inspecting her nails. I trudge to the back of the car where Ivan is lying on his side on the cold asphalt.
The fuel pump dangles in two pieces. Ivan dries them with a rag, then tests them for leaks. No leaks. A fortuitous sign. He puts them back together but has no way to secure them. I remember Mike’s emergency kit, a pencil with duct tape wrapped around it. Also a fairy ring of thin wire. I go back to my pack and dig them out, then present them to our mechanic. Ivan tests the duct tape and declares that it is “harasho”—good. He does some magic with the wire to reattach the pipe, and soon we are on our way, though at a more sedate speed. He murmurs something to Alina, and she translates, though in a bored way—these mechanical problems are of no interest to her—“He says that you are unusually prepared.”
Not me, I think. I prefer clinging to the happy illusion that nothing bad will ever happen to me. It is Mike, with his uncanny ability to forecast trouble, who takes such precautions on my behalf.
Taraz is actually a new name for a city long known as Dzhambul. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has been consciously returning to its roots, and Taraz is simply another pronunciation of the ancient name of Talas, which for several hundred years sat at the heart of the khanate of the Western Tu-Chüeh. In the sixth century, the head of the Western Tu-Chüeh, a Turkic khan called Istämi, regularly wintered near the springs of Talas. His people were like Attila’s people, and also like those for generations to follow. Cropless and cityless, they were always on the move, sheltering in transportable felt yurts, trailing their vast herds through seasons of grass, seasons of drought. Istämi wore his hair long and flowing, held back from his forehead by a ten-foot length of silk. His flagstaff was crowned with a golden she-wolf’s head; his men-at-arms were known as fu-li, “the wolves.”
Istämi belonged to the cult of Tängri, or “The Eternal Heaven,” a demanding god who required regular sacrifice of sheep, oxen, and horses. The Tängrian cosmos consisted of seventeen realms of light and nine realms of darkness—Turkic heaven and hell. Dealing with Tängri required powerful, prophetic shamans whose legacy still shapes Central Asian culture. Even today the arts of leaving and returning to one’s body, casting the evil eye and healing with one’s hands are said to exist in the remote regions north of Irkutsk.
Seven hundred years after Istämi, when Genghis Khan’s massed archers burst forth across the steppes toward medieval Europe, their worldview was much the same. As in the ancient days of Attila, Tängri ruled the heavens, sacrifice was mandatory, fire and running water were to be venerated, and hundreds of yer-sub (genies) lurked among the hills and springs. Genghis, too, relied heavily on shamanistic prophets. One of these, Kökchü, announced to a gathering of the clans that the Eternal Blue Heaven himself had appointed Genghis as universal khagan, or emperor over all Turkic-Mongolian people. The shaman, who was famous for traveling to the realms of light on a dapple-gray horse in order to consult with the spirits, inspired such awe with his prowess as a magician that no one dared object.
Genghis himself made pilgrimages to the holy mountain of Burqan Qaldun to pay homage to Tängri before major campaigns. There, the grand emperor of all Central Asia submissively removed his cap and lay his belt over his shoulder, genuflecting nine times and sprinkling kumiss—fermented mare’s milk—in offering to his holy lord. Like all warriors of the steppes, he hid when it thundered—a sign of Tängri’s wrath. More, he was always prudently respectful of other arbiters of supernatural power: Muslim mullahs, Tibetan lamas, Nestorian priests, Franciscan missionaries, Buddhist monks, Taoist magicians.
Alina and I are sitting across a lace-covered table piled with dumplings, blingees, hard white cheese, borsht, home-canned wild mushrooms, spicy tomatoes and herbs. Given the ongoing energy crisis in Taraz, she and her sister are masterful cooks. For years there has been no gas in their part of the city, so they can their fruits and vegetables on a wood-burning stove and heat water for chai with a dangerous-looking electric wand. Hot water is centrally located in most former Soviet cities; with no gas, the huge tanks meant to supply the populace no longer provide. I have been in Kazakhstan long enough to catch up on some sleep, and to recover my appetite after my long flight and harrowing drive.
Alina, who was once nominated for the Kazakh national teacher of the year award, speaks English more gracefully than anyone I’ve met in America. Long ago, she traveled to England for a brief period of study, and this perhaps helps explain her passionate love of nineteenth-century British novels and her curiously Victorian air. She is both driven and judged by her own lofty standards, and as committed to personal honor as any warrior of the steppes. Her battlefield is the teacher’s lounge where (as might be expected, given her startling beauty and her moral fastidiousness) she magnetically attracts the most vicious envy, spite, and conspiratorial nastiness. “Sometimes,” she tells me, “they even cast the evil eye. I can feel it in the back of my head and neck, a lot of pain and heaviness.”
“What does a person do about that?” I ask.
She gives me a somber look, then unbuttons the top two buttons of her blouse and draws it open so I can see her bra. Pinned over her right breast is a large safety pin. I take a sip of chai and try not to raise an eyebrow.
“Protection,” she explains. “You should wear one also.”
This is not a new theme for her. During the few hours we were in Almaty, while Ivan was busy buying and selling his illegal videotapes, she took me shopping for amulets to bring home to my four kids. These turned out to be small, woven, multicolored diamonds of yarn, much like I’d seen in the marketplaces of Guatemala. She was especially adamant that I buy one for my tall son, Johnny. “Why?” I asked her. “Why him in particular?”
“Because,” she said, as though it were obvious. “He is so very handsome and accomplished. He will attract a lot of evil.”
Now she tells me, “You cannot simply wear the pin. You have to do a lot of prays. My mother learned them all when she was growing up in Azerbaijan, and she taught us how to do them correctly.”
“Why can’t you just ask God to protect you from harm?”
She reaches across the table and lays a firm hand on my forearm. “Listen,” she says, “you must do them right, and there are a lot of them. Otherwise you are vulnerable.”
“Is there a way besides feeling it in the back of your neck to know if someone is wishing bad luck on you?”
“Yes,” she tells me. “You take a handful of flour and drop it in a pan of water. If the flour separates into small clumps, then someone has cast a spell on you. If it stays together, then all is well. But there are special prays for this also, and if you do them incorrectly, the ritual does not work.”
I sit digesting this new information for a moment. After many years of cynicism about the so-called power of prayer, I’ve become an ardent believer. And this belief, curiously enough, has grown in me the way a physicist’s or biologist’s faith in a theory might—through the amassing of empirical evidence. Prayer has directly impacted my life through a myriad of unlikely events. I know, for example, that I was prayed by my sister back into Christianity after twenty years of angry agnosticism. I know that I was prayed by a friend through the doors of the Catholic Church. I am delighted by the landscape prayer has opened up for me: a novelistic space of conflict, epiphany, reversal, synthesis. A life of prayer, I’ve found, is a life of endless surprises.
But Alina is talking about something I’ve never thought of before: a prayer of evil, so to speak, that is meant to wreak havoc in another person’s life. And as I mull this over, I realize how likely it is that the evil eye does indeed have the power to harm: focused malice, bolstered by the invoking of cruel spirits. This flusters me; I prefer to think of the spiritual as purely good, purely loving. But where, I now wonder, did I ever come up with this notion? Surely not from the Gospels, where one of Jesus’s main occupations is the casting out of demons.
“So, Alina,” I say cautiously, “what if someone casts the evil eye at you and something happens? Like, say, you get sick?”
She turns to gaze out into the twilight, and an unreadable look crosses her face. “There are healers,” she says finally. “You must get to a healer right away.”
“Have you been to one?”
“Oh, yes,” she says, “many times. There is a Muslim woman at the school, for example, who is very well known.”
“Yes. When she was young, a large bird appeared on her back and shoulders, and she knew it was the sign that she was meant to heal.” She pauses and tears off a piece of bread.
“Like a tattoo, you mean?”
Alina nods. “But not in color—all dark markings. She showed it to the community of healers here in Taraz and they sent her up to Russia for evaluation.”
I give her a puzzled look.
“By the great healers there,” she explains. “They confirmed the sign was real and told her to go home and use her gift.”
“And has she cured you of anything?”
Alina’s face goes still at the memory, and I can see that she is still traumatized by what happened to her. She says, “The one who hates me most—that very Katya I told you about in America?—cast a very bad spell and I began to suffer with a large swelling on the side of my neck. I grew weak and it was hard to come to school or teach my classes because of the pain. Then I went to the healer, and she prayed over me and used her hands. I had to go back several times, but the lump disappeared. Without her, who knows what would have happened?” I am staring at her, unable to get inside this alien worldview but also unable to call it nonsense. She adds with a clear and childlike simplicity, “I might have died.”
I ponder this for a moment. Then I cough.
Alina narrows her eyes at me. “Are you ill?”
I have been secretly fighting a sore throat for several days now, no doubt a relic of the long plane trip from Frankfurt to Almaty, but hoping to avoid a trip to the healer with the bird tattoo, I staunchly shake my head. Alina is nobody’s fool, however, and she is studying me closely. I cough again and shrug. “Just a tickle,” I say.
Shamans can be found throughout the world: among North American tribes, for example, and in Southeast Asia and Oceania. However, the term itself—saman—is Tungus, from the Altaic family of languages characteristic to Central Asia. And it is in Central Asia, especially Siberia, that shamanist ideology has traditionally characterized religious belief.
Shamans ferry souls. They are a living bridge between the land of spirit and the land of flesh. They heal by seeking out and returning souls who have wandered from their desperately ill owners. Sometimes, however, souls are stolen and imprisoned by demons, and in these cases shamans must descend to the land of the dead in order to free them. Shamans also escort the souls of sacrificial animals—horses or reindeer—to heaven, where they offer them to the gods. And they regularly accompany the souls of the dead to the Kingdom of Shadows.
This is not a job for the faint of heart, and not many seek out the profession on their own. Instead, they inherit the role or are chosen by a supernatural being. Following election, they enter a period of trial, which often means serious illness or the irresistible urge to wander alone in the wilderness. And during this dreamscape time, they undergo complete destruction and reconstruction: they are tortured by demons, dismembered, and finally brought back to life as entirely new creatures, far more like spirits than human beings. Only then does their shamanistic instruction begin.
The ecstasy or trance of shamans allows them to both transmigrate—leave their own bodies and travel to other realms—and be in turn possessed by powerful spirits, especially the ayamis who originally chose them. Helper spirits such as the bear or tiger can also penetrate them, entering their bodies like a mysterious vapor. Shamans have mystical vision; they can see into the supernatural realms and report back to those who have only human eyesight. But their greatest gift is the gift of healing.
Alina’s healer, the woman with the great bird etched in black across her back, was no doubt sent to the Altai region of Siberia for confirmation of her divine election.
Genghis Khan’s respect for the holy men of other religions did not prevent him from systematically decimating Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian populations if they failed to surrender in time. More often than not, a defeated city underwent total massacre. In one large Iranian city, the killing took a whole week, and when it was over, the army feigned departure in order to capture and destroy those few survivors who emerged from hiding. When Genghis himself died in 1227, forty of the most beautiful girls from the families of his ranking officers were given the honor of being slaughtered on his grave, along with the finest horses in the empire.
By 1230, Talas had become part of the Khanate of Jagatai, who was the second son of Genghis Khan. Northwest of Talas, stretching all the way to Kiev and Moscow, was that portion of the empire known as the land of the Golden Horde. To the east, taking in much of Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, and China, lay the empire of the Great Khan. Mongolian reign over the steppes seemed near absolute. But in 1241, still in the early years after Genghis’s death, Europe lay unconquered and alluring. During that Advent season, a Mongolian army surged from Kiev toward Vienna by way of Kraków and Hungary. If Genghis’s successor had not died in Mongolia at this moment—December 11—necessitating an election back home, Europe might easily have been burnt back to grassland and forest.
Genghis and his fierce successors were followed in time by two more military geniuses: Kublai Khan and Tamerlane. Kublai was a masterful politician, who managed to reunite the fragmented Mongolian Empire, and was also a late-in-life convert to Chinese Buddhism. Tamerlane, for his part, was a highly skilled butcher who left pure devastation in his wake. He reinstituted the ancient terror tactics used by Attila: pyramids of human skulls; living bodies piled on living bodies then cemented into pillars; corpses whose hands, feet and heads were systematically removed; total massacre, including infants. Ninety thousand here, seventy thousand there, seven hundred cities and towns razed to the ground in Russia alone. Some have compared him—quite aptly—to Hitler because of his savage love of killing. And because of the sheer numbers of his victims.
Alina is thrilled. After some heavy machinations at school, she has wangled us an invitation to a Kazakh feast at a dacha in the region of the Talas springs. I am excited too, though with some trepidation: Mike has given me a briefing on such events, which often involve a slow-roasted sheep and dozens of cups of vodka. To complicate matters, I am sick; the sore throat has become bronchitis, and I am pretty sure I’m running a fever.
Yet when we arrive at the reedy lake shore, I find I am charmed. Tucked under the great leafy trees are simple green dachas, the traditional rural cottages used by people all over the former Soviet Union, both for vacationing and for supplementing their food supplies. Beyond the dachas lie gardens, fields of grain, grazing flocks. Herders in traditional Kazakh dress stand talking in a nearby pasture. And running toward us with welcoming cries are sun-flushed women with bowls and baskets in their arms.
The tables are already heaped with food: lepyoshki (wheels of bread), halva (crushed sesame seeds and honey), plof (rice cooked with mutton), shurpa and lagman (spicy soups with noodles), manti and samsa (meat-stuffed dough), kishmish (raisins), tomato and onion salad, fresh fruit. Men stand beside a fire tending roasting spits; another group of them watch smoke seeping from a pit, wherein lies a whole sheep or calf.
Eventually, we are seated at the head table on rug-covered benches beside the family patriarch, Molian. He turns his yellow cat’s eyes on me in a long, unsmiling gaze. Then he begins to speak, and the other tables fall silent. Alina translates. I am most welcome. He hopes I am enjoying my visit to Kazakhstan. They have few visitors from America, so this is a special day for his family. But he cannot understand why I don’t eat meat.
“Tell him,” I say, “that many Americans choose not to eat meat for health reasons.”
He looks both amazed and dubious. He asks how this can be when it is meat that gives a man strength.
I turn to Alina. “Tell him that in Kazakhstan, it is still necessary for men to be men. In America, most people drive cars and sit behind desks—they don’t need big Kazakh muscles. If they eat such rich food, they get sick.” I am in earnest, here; this is not a joke.
But her translation earns me a roar of laughter. Molian is grinning and thrusting a full glass of vodka at me, shouting out a toast. For this clan of modern-day Turkic-Mongol descendents, I am a major aberration—a California vegetarian who has inexplicably wandered into the heart of carnivorous Central Asia—but somehow I am in. The thought fills me with a foolish, bashful joy. I ask about this startling hospitality of theirs, and Molian tells me it is a very ancient tradition going back to nomadic times, long before Islam. The stranger, he says, was considered a great gift, for he brought news of the world. And he could also, of course, be God in disguise.
Then a woman steps forward and begins to sing with the voice of a Vienna choir boy in a language that sounds like how cats would speak if they could form words. Iman, Alina tells me, is a Kazakh musician who lives far out on the steppes and rarely even speaks Russian. She sings, swaying, with her eyes closed, snapping her fingers to keep time, and the sun flashes against her earrings and necklace of malachite and silver.
Later, we walk arm and arm by the side of the lake, Iman and Alina and me. Iman confesses she has never seen a real foreigner before, that she was terrified to perform for me, but that our open faces put her at ease. When I tell her how much I admire her songs, she says that she often receives her music fully formed, as if from space. As if, she says, from Bog himself. Just then a thousand blackbirds take rushing flight from the branches above us. Our faces snap skyward: no birds. Iman whispers, “Druga,” wind, but not a leaf is stirring. We turn in thoughtful silence and head back toward the tables.
A shout goes up at the fire pit—the sheep is finally done! Molian, softened by much vodka and long hours in the sun, gives me instructions. A platter containing the baked head of the sheep will be placed before me. I will carve off the left ear, hand it to the daughter of my hosts, and give her my blessing.
Dusk is now giving way to darkness, but the full moon has not yet risen above the tree line. A woman goes down the row of tables, lighting candles. Faces appear, vanish, reappear in the flickering glow. I am suffering from a great, happy feeling of love. Everything seems good, even the mutton grease snapping in the embers.
Then the platter is placed before me and I am staring into the astonished eyes of the sheep, who has been sacrificed for this feast and then roasted to a pliable leathery orange. The right ear has already been severed; this will be taken to the dacha afterward as an offering. The other ear is mine.
I close my eyes, thanking God for this generous animal and also for making me a vegetarian, then pick up the knife. The ear falls gracefully into my hand. I look up at bright-eyed Dinara, daughter of my hosts, and launch into my blessing. “May you be successful in school,” I say, “and someday go on for higher education. May you work at a career you love. May you find a man who adores and respects you as much as you deserve, and may you have a wonderful, long marriage. May God keep you healthy and strong, and may you bear many fine children to make your parents proud.”
Then I hand her the ear and shove the platter over to Molian, who pulls open the jaws of the sheep and carves out the tongue, a slab of wrinkled white cheese. This, he hands to Alina in honor of her translating abilities.
Serious meat-eating begins. Candlelight plays over faces happy and shiny with grease. The stack of bones grows higher. Finally, people are pushing back from the tables, laughing, moaning, patting their bellies. Bowls of fermented mare’s milk—a great aid to digestion, I am told—make the rounds. Crossing my fingers and closing my eyes, I drink down two bowlfuls.
Then it is time to say farewell. The women form a line, hugging me and kissing me on the lips, some of them weeping. Suddenly, Iman stands in front of me, her eyes wet. She pulls me to her in a long, solemn hug, then stands back and removes her beautiful silver and malachite necklace and drapes it around my neck. Alina gasps. “She tells you that she has had this necklace for many years and it is very precious to her. She wants you to have it and take it with you in your travels.”
There is no way to protest. Instead, I pull my turquoise rosary from my pocket and thrust it into her hand while tears pour from her dark and tilted eyes.
Contemporary DNA studies suggest that modern human beings evolved in Africa a hundred thousand years ago and arrived in Central Asia about fifty thousand years later. A gene called microcephalin, which emerged in Homo sapiens some thirty-seven thousand years ago, is a possible evolutionary explanation for the symbolic thinking that began to emerge in our species about this time. Another, younger, gene called aspm—fifty-eight hundred years old, by now—is a primary evolutionary suspect in the mysterious and relatively sudden city-building that began to take place in the Near East shortly thereafter. Though the roots of the great world religions no doubt go back to somewhere near the emergence of microcephalin in the human brain, imperial warriorhood is of necessity far younger. There had to be cities before men thought of conquering them. And it did not take long for conquerors to seek religious justification for what they did.
Attila the Hun piously invoked the will of Tängri before his scorched-earth campaigns. So did his military heirs, including Genghis. Other khans converted to Islam, then wreaked destruction on their Sunni or Shi’ite brothers. Still others became Tibetan Buddhists and got caught up in the battle between the old Red Church, with its still-strong link to ancient Bon shamanism, and the Yellow Church of the khan-instituted line of Dalai Lamas. The Christians of the Byzantine Empire cut deals with the warriors of the steppes to protect their Silk Road trade. Nestorian Christians in the East, declared heretical by the Roman Church, became themselves military khans. Taoist magicians and Confucian wise men grew adept at Central Asian political intrigue.
Our history as a species—really, astonishingly brief—can from one perspective be summed up as a battle for power, the chief strategy employed being mass murder justified on religious grounds.
Alina is furious with me for gulping down a cup of cold orange juice when I am sick. “How can you drink something cold when you have a fever? Don’t you know that this will make all your vessels tremble?”
She tells me about Pavlov’s chicken experiment, one I’ve not heard about before. Apparently, he put one hen’s feet in ice water and the other’s in lukewarm water, then injected them both with the same germ. “And who do you think got sick?” She casts me a darkly triumphant look when she asks me this, as though she knows I know the answer whether I will admit it or not. “You must never allow yourself to be chilled when you are sick,” she adds seriously, “either by what you eat and drink or by how you dress.”
Then I am told to remove my shoes and put my bare feet into a pan of boiling water. I obey. While my feet are being destroyed, Alina helps me into my coat, wraps a heavy red Kazakh scarf around my neck, settles a wool hat on my head, and thrusts a tall glass of hot milk, honey, and cognac into my hand. “Drink!” she commands. I drink, and—feeling faint—break into a powerful sweat. “Harasho!” she declares. Very good. “Now take this.” This turns out to be half of what looks like an antibiotic.
“Oh, no,” I begin, holding up one sweaty hand. “No, Alina, I can’t take that.”
“Why not?” she demands.
“You can’t just take half an antibiotic—it can work the opposite way and make the bug stronger. Do you know what I mean?”
Alina draws herself up and stares down at me and my wrinkled feet. I can hear the breath whistling, outraged, through her aristocratic nose. “You forget—my mother was a Soviet physician,” she reminds me. “It is she who has made this prescription for you. The other half comes in the morning.”
“One pill?” I say feebly. “That’s it?”
“And after that we go to the healer.”
I spend the night in a land of confusing, fevered dreams and wake feeling like a sodden log beneath the heaped woolen blankets. Alina is already up and dressed and waiting. “I think I’m good now,” I say, as soon as I’m able. “Don’t worry about the healer, okay?”
An hour later I’m standing with my legs apart and my hands away from my sides in front of a shy Kazakh woman who is briskly rubbing her palms together. Then she thrusts her right hand into the air, like a receiver, and places the other, flat-palmed, an inch above my abdomen, and begins tracing circles. Her eyes close. Her smiling face now looks remote. She says, in a strange, flat voice, “Normalna,” and moves on to my kidneys, then my throat.
Alina keeps asking me if I feel heat—I don’t. “Normalna,” drones the healer, still circling with her palm. “Normalna, normalna.” Everything, fortunately, seems to be normalna. My examination is complete. I will live.
Once again, we are hurtling across the steppes, with—who else?—Ivan once again at the wheel. We have been driving since two am. Alina and her mother and sister chose this time carefully, for the trip is hours-long with a border to cross illegally before I can board my flight to Delhi out of Tashkent. I had planned to fly Kaz Air, but Kaz Air no longer travels, though I saw the planes sitting quietly and patiently on the tarmac at the airport in Almaty. My only option was Uzbekistan Airlines, but of course there was no time to get an Uzbek visa.
I have my instructions. Whenever we are stopped—either by the police, who stand by the road with batons, waiting for unsuspecting vehicles to dare pass them, or by border guards—I am to feign sleep. Under no circumstances, Alina tells me, am I to speak out loud. “The moment they realize you are a foreigner, especially an American, they will demand so many bribes you will not be able to pay.” We have already been stopped three times. Ivan is good at this, this joking around and then slipping the bribe.
But now dawn is breaking and we are nearly to the border of Uzbekistan. My two friends are nervous, I can tell, though they stoically refuse to admit this. Suddenly, at the worst possible moment, for we are within sight of the guard house, a hubcap goes ringing off into the brush at the side of the road. Ivan cannot afford to lose a hubcap. He pulls over and we all get out and silently search in the half-light of early morning. I have no idea what will happen if we attract attention and are questioned. Will I wind up in a Uzbek jail? Will Alina and Ivan go with me?
Alina gives a soft whoop, then scuttles back to the car with the battered hubcap under her arm. Ivan kicks it back into place, then pulls back into the road and drives slowly to the guard house. I curl up and close my eyes, as though asleep, though I’m pretty sure the guard has seen me poking through the bushes.
Ivan takes my air ticket inside. We can hear the two of them, Ivan and the guard, joking and laughing. Then a long silence, then more laughing. Then he is back. I hold my breath, thinking that the guard has asked to see me, the woman whose name is on this ticket to India. But it is okay, Ivan tells us in a low voice: the guard couldn’t even read. He held the ticket upside down.
“Then what were you laughing about?” asks Alina sternly. Ivan, looking only slightly abashed, tells us that the guard noticed two blondes in the car and wondered why a simple Kazakh should have both women and he, a good Uzbek, have none. She looks disgusted and I give a half-hysterical, relieved snort. I’m going to miss pragmatic Ivan and his gold-studded smile. We glide through the border crossing. We are early; my plane takes off in four hours. But we have no idea where the airport might be.
We drive through the early-morning streets of Tashkent, ancient home of the dreaded Scythians of Asia, looking for a control tower, anything that will lead us where we need to go. I wish we had more time to explore this Silk Road city. I wish I was legal.
Then we see it—a chain-link fence, a parking lot, and planes. Ivan pulls into a small parking lot with hardly any cars in it, and we lock my pack inside and head for the terminal to see if they’ll let me check in. At the cash exchange window, I try to trade my eight hundred remaining Kazakh tengay for dollars but not only won’t the clerk consider such an impertinent request, he won’t exchange my tengay for any sort of money, even Uzbek. On this subject, he is entirely firm. In Uzbekistan, he informs me, tengay are worthless. Sighing, I hand the wad of bills to Alina; she, at least, can make good use of it back home.
We return to the parking lot for my pack. A short cop, churning with histrionic rage, is clearing out all the cars for some reason we cannot determine. He demands Ivan’s Kazakh license and says he must wait for his ticket to be written up. Ivan quietly offers him the usual bribe, but he shouts that he does not take money, and besides, doesn’t he know that tengay are worthless in Uzbekistan? Other people, looking resigned and defeated, are quietly waiting on the margins. Half an hour later, we are still standing around, hoping that the cop will stop shrieking at new cars entering the lot long enough to finish the tickets. Ivan, looking large, friendly, but cautious, goes up to him, hoping to plead my cause. “Do not approach me!” the cop screams, brandishing a gun. “For this, I am holding your license for two months!” Ivan steps back, then humbly asks if we can at least remove my luggage.
I can feel my vessels trembling under an onslaught of hopeless anxiety. This cop is not even the immigration officer. What will happen to me in the terminal? Will I ever get out of Central Asia?
But Ivan, in his kindly and inoffensive way, the way of people everywhere who are used to living under corrupt overlords, has managed to extract my luggage from the machina. We walk away from the parking lot, hoping not to be shot in the back, and enter the terminal, which by now is filled with people traveling who knows where. China, perhaps, or Afghanistan. Nepal or India. Russia or even Europe. We are in Tashkent, after all, the ancient crossroads between East and West.
We come to a barricade. Beyond it is a line. Hidden around the corner must be the immigration checkpoint. My hands begin to sweat again. I turn toward my two dear friends, these people who have driven me halfway across the steppes, who have risked their own security for mine. What to say? I pull Alina, who is by now fiercely resisting the tears that are splashing down the front of her coat, into my arms and hold her there. May God bless and keep you, I am thinking, from all danger and harm. From the evil eye. From corrupt police. From the KGB, who still haunt Taraz, and from the robbers who prey on those who still have jobs. From economic disaster and war and nuclear winter. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.
I kiss her wet cheek and turn to Ivan, whose fists are jammed in his pockets, whose feet are shuffling in uncertainty. I pull out one of his hands—he jerks in surprise—and turn it over, then lay Mike’s magic flashlight, the one that turns into a tiny lantern, the one that saved us on the road from Almaty—across his palm. He stares down at it, then at me, then grins, and the light from the big gray bureaucratic fluorescents above us catches the gold in his teeth. “Thank you,” he says, his first English words to me.
I pat them both blindly on the fronts of their coats, cross the barrier, and find my place in line. When I finally reach the corner—there is the immigration officer, waiting for me—I turn and look back. And there they are, still keeping their faithful watch, though they cannot possibly know, far less control, what will happen to me next.
This essay was selected for The Best Spiritual Writing 2010.