Monday, 31 October 2011

Letter to a Dead Husband.



I thought of you as I photographed this, and I said to our elder son, 'Dad would have loved this'. He said, 'Yes, he'd probably have fallen out of the cable-car trying to see it better'.

It's the beginning of a new shed, half way up a mountainside in Kazakhstan.
You never went there. You never knew that your son lives there now, although you visited him in Moscow where you were entranced by the drainpipes, great gleaming drainpipes that disgorge snow and slush over the pavements.
You liked drainpipes and sheds and the practicalities of building useful structures.
Especially sheds.
You would have really enjoyed this one. You'd have been determined to get up the ski-slopes for a proper look, and you would have have wanted to join anyone who was building it, to see how they make the logs interlock securely.
These things mattered to you.

I think you knew that our younger son would become more like you, become something of a Shed Man, an enthusiast of alternative energy sources. We had to dissuade you from attempting to colonise the nearby railway embankment with wind turbines based on old bicycle wheels.
You never knew that this son is married, has been for over a year, and that you have a beautiful daughter-in-law.

You were the ultimate recycler. Your garden structures are still safely here, built of old railway sleepers, recycled carved stone, and a vast range of materials pulled from roadside skips.
Oh, how you embarrassed me with your inability to pass a skip without removing something from it. But your buildings are still here, uniquely so, and, dare I say it, improved by my ministrations? I keep the stained glass windows free of cobwebs, I have stained the insides in subtle National Trust colours, I have put in rattan furniture and cushions and I hold tea- parties in there. You would be rather disapproving I'm afraid. The sheds have lost their masculine edge. Some things have changed because they have to.

Exactly five years ago, almost to the minute as I write this, you died.

It was a morning like this, with hazy sunshine and glorious glowing autumnal colours.
For me I think it felt like the peaceful end of a life richly and unconventionally lived; an appropriate end to a period of confusion and distress. But I am looking back over five years of a different life, and my perspectives have changed. It really may not have felt like that at the time.

For you, as one of the most devout Roman Catholics ever, it was miraculous timing. You would be up there for the greatest annual heavenly celebrations, All Saints on the first of November - the great get-together of those purified and safely arrived.
If, by any chance, you had been delayed there was another celebration on November the second, All Souls, for those on their way, but not yet fully purified.
I have the strongest possible feeling that your time with us would have provided valuable if somewhat unexpected elements of purification. That's what marriage and parenthood do for us all.

As well as our thoughts of you on the mountains, your son and I lit candles for you here:



(Cathedral of the Ascension, Almaty, Kazakhstan)

You would have been totally captivated by this wonderful building. It is made entirely of wood.
You are with us in our thoughts, in places where you have never been as well as in all those you knew and loved so well.

Monday, 24 October 2011

On the Silk Road


(Traditional Kazakh restaurant. The small 'confessionals' behind fretted doors are private dining rooms.)


Almaty feels fresh and clean. Lorries with powerful water canons cruise around, blasting leaves and any other debris into the deep channels at the road sides. Then I notice that there is hardly any other debris.
There are no polystyrene food cartons, blobs of compacted chewing gum or piles of dog mess (in very sharp contrast with most towns in England), but there are dogs, a few, very few, taking their owners out on leads. There are many more, living independently in packs, being fed but not turned into pets, being tolerated everywhere, viewing humans with mild interest and vague expectation.
My son's freezer accidentally defrosted, and we put a pile of burgers out by the wheelie bins. Within minutes they vanish.
In one of the many beautiful parks a girl lies flat on the grass, photographing her Chihuahua. The tiny dog wears a lace frill round its neck, and has a minute, mouse-sized diamante harness. Behind her, in the shade, sits a pack of free-range dogs. Their leader appears to be a great grey chap, unnervingly like a wolf. His companions include a look-alike Papillon, and a look-alike Jack Russell. The pack relaxes in the shade and observes with interest.

Here, on the ancient trading route of the Silk Road, cultures and traditions mix as they have done throughout time. The new financial centre looks like Canary Wharf. There are shops full of bling, and every bit of technology a modern heart could desire. On every road just out of town there are stalls selling fruits, vegetables and the fermented mare's milk that promotes health and beauty.



(The business and financial centre, Almaty.)

Then there is the Green Market, said to be the largest covered market in Central Asia. My son takes me there to browse, but photography is not allowed.
On the stalls outside there are beautiful displays of dried fruits and nuts. Further in are fresh fruits and vegetables, polished and arranged to perfection. We buy bowls of raspberries and of the most delicious mountain strawberries.
Everything here gives evidence of the prosperity of this country, its land and its people. We are invited to sample. We are something of a target audience.

Deeper inside the market the stalls are laid out in long specialised rows. One whole row is devoted to honey and honey products, beautiful glistening chunks of honeycomb, and translucent jars of honey in every shade of amber.
The meat stalls are grouped together with helpful picures of animals - sheep, cow, chicken and rather a lot of horse. There are many bits of animals that are unrecognisable, entrails in see-through plastic bags, and slabs of fat.
There are stalls full of cheeses and other dairy products, and a whole aromatic section of herbs, spices and seeds, many of the herbs freshly picked. The stall holders offer medicinal advice along with their herbs.
The covered market meanders into different sections, clothing, electrical goods, tools - a glorious mixture of Barcelona Food Market and Birmingham's Bull Ring. People-centred trading at its essential best, catering for real needs and wants as it has done throughout the centuries.


We wander through Almaty down to the wooden cathedral. A clutch of babushkas sit on the pavement, huddled in beige anoraks, old fur boots and headscarves, their begging bowls on the ground in from of them. It is over twenty degrees, but all the Kazakhs are dressed in winter clothing.
I notice one of the babushkas is chatting on her iphone.
A place of paradox.

Friday, 21 October 2011

High as a Kite.




I pull back the curtains in my son's apartment, and this is what I see.

These mountains curve into the great Tien Shan range, which in turn climbs into the Himalayas. Afghanistan is nearer to me here than Scotland is when I'm at home. Kabul is but a few mountain peaks away.

A few days later we go so much higher that I cannot talk and walk at the same time (something of a temporary respite for my son, I think). We go up here:



(Chimbulak, site of the Asian Winter Games last year.)

and from here you can look across into Kyrgyzstan, and then on and on and on into China.

I am so aware of the immensity of this landlocked place. It is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded, enclosed by huge mountain ranges and seemingly limitless plains. I have experienced vast landscapes before, and mountainous ones as well, but when the two collide, as they do here in Kazakhstan, their power is awe-inspiring.

There was a heavy snowfall on the mountains a few days before I arrived, but now the snow is melting from the lower slopes, the water rushing down into the town of Almaty, where there are fountains and cascades and the greenest grass I have ever seen.




I am enchanted afresh by Almaty. I visited at the same time last year, when it seemed exotic and remote. This year it feels friendly and almost familiar. I begin to feel at home here.
It is the cleanest place I have ever seen, immaculate, cared for, burnished. At a very personal level I am enchanted by the fact that within hours my arthritis has apparently disappeared, and I can (almost) bound up the marble staircases without touching the handrails. (Alas, this state of affairs is not to continue, but I make the most of it while it does.) The mountain air is so clean it tingles in the lungs, and I am as high as a kite. Almaty itself is high - a thousand metres above sea-level before you start on the mountains which are only minutes away from the town centre.

I fantasise about buying one of the little wooden houses, just off each of the main streets. I could have an orchard and a cow and some chickens, and perhaps do English teas in the garden. Then my son reminds me that the glorious colours will fall from the tree-lined streets and the fountains will be turned off before they freeze. The arthritis kicks in again, and I'm not quite so confident about skating and skiing.
But I still find this place delightful, in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A Long Day's Journey into Night.

During my time away I have not had access to Blogger. I have missed reading and writing, and hope to catch up soon.





I am travelling from darkness into darkness, turning away from the light, turning eastwards all the time. I begin, as I so often begin, at this little ginger-bread station, its paintwork as thick and heavy as syrup. The place vibrates with the noise of this very early morning train, the birds are silenced. Pools of light fall on old stone, bars of light bounce off the black windows.
Opposite me, in the dark glass I see a white haired woman, writing briskly in a Moleskine notebook. It is me, seen from without, being processed.

There is something paradoxically liberating about being processed. Today I put my life into the hands of people totally unknown to me, and I trust them implicitly to carry me vast distances - across bits of England, over the North Sea, Belgium, Germany, and Poland. Over Russia and into the vast emptiness of the Central Asian Plain.
This sort of trust is illogical, but the process has started.
"Have a nice day", says the train driver.
I seem to be his only passenger.
I will, I trust.

An hour later and light grows over the Oxfordshire countryside, black trees against a pale sky. Colour has not yet returned to the world. I trust it will.

Another hour and I transfer to the RailAir Link bus to Heathrow. I wait in a small queue of people with very serious luggage.
The man next to me is in a puffy padded jacket (it's now a mild morning in England) and has a huge bag bristling with words like 'Extreme' and 'Intrepid'. A pigeon, one of the manky, crippled variety who hang out at stations' Costa outlets, veers in badly controlled flight and barely misses colliding with the intrepid traveller's face. He throws up a padded arm in horror. We laugh about it, and I ask him where he's going.
"Everest Base Camp", he says.

Eventually, a grey take-off, and then through murk into glorious sunshine. I forget that it's always up there, somewhere. The ground is hidden so I pass over a world that changes fron battle-ship grey, through blue white and silver, through shades of peach and apricot as we fly on and on into the dusk. There are occasional billows and boilings of cumulus; fatly innocent powder puffs seen from above, but bringing winds and storms to the earth below.
By late afternoon in England it is evening over Russia, and suddenly the dense carpet of cloud rolls back to reveal the spangled web of Moscow, twinkling wide and far. Far, far below; Moscow, threads of light stitched on to black velvet. A magical glimpse, and then the carpet rolls back and there is only moonshine on the great dark wing beside me.
Almost everyone else in the droning, gently rocking vehicle is lulled to sleep, wrapped in airline blankets and stretched over three or four seats of the sparsely populated cabin. Only I sit looking into the darkness of the Ural Mountains and the vast emptiness of the steppe beyond it.