No Bukhara, no Samarkand, no meaning, just bare life in the rarefied air. That had been what I was after. A clarity of existence. To see sand sifting through the post-imperial rust. That would be enough for me, if anyone were to ask; for that it was worth traveling three or four thousand miles.
I’ll go to Murghab, I thought, see the Chinese trucks on the road from Xinjiang. Each day a few of them came by, maybe a dozen or so. Along with extra wheels they each carried a few spare tires strapped to their trailers. The faces of the drivers could barely be made out behind the tinted windows. But you always need some kind of reason to travel. Before, in Kyrgyzstan, on the Osh highway, there were a lot of them too. They were transporting reinforcing steel and cement, and also concrete and steel components for viaducts, bridges, overpasses for Kyrgyz road construction. Here they only carried containers, you had to guess what was inside. Probably everything that people needed in this part of the world. I sat on a hill in front of the house and watched them drive past. I imagined what the contents could be. All those objects manufactured in the east, in quantities and varieties that resembled infinity. I watched them moving through Murghab, where there was almost nothing. Warm Jala-Abad mineral water and warm Baltika beer, because there were constant power outages and I’ve no idea if they even had refrigerators. But warm beer didn’t bother me. It was still cooler than the air at eight in the morning. I would get up at dawn, drink coffee, count the trucks and wait for Sherali, his mother, and the whole family to be up.
Murghab, population six thousand, lay in the back of beyond at the intersection of the pitted gravel road known as the Pamir Highway and a turnoff to China. It was a hundred and sixty miles to the town of Khorugh, about the same to the Kyrgyz city of Osh, sixty or so to the Chinese border, but in that direction there was nothing but stark mountains and the Taklamakan Desert. On the way were mountain passes over thirteen thousand feet high, and a few villages even more out of the way than Murghab. But I’d resolved to come here the moment I saw the name and read it out loud. Murghab. Like Maghreb. More or less. That was enough. Though I’ve never been to the Maghreb, or ever wanted to go there. That’s how things work. It’s all about sound and imagination. You see something in print, pronounce it aloud and you’re off. On the way there’s something or other, beautiful places, landscapes, the green pastures of Kyrgyzstan with herds of horses and white yurts, lakes, emerald-green rivers, silvery streams, the Fergana Valley like a Garden of Eden filled with apricot orchards, vineyards, and rice fields; but you drive past all that, it’s just on the way. On the way to Murghab. So you can sit with a mug of coffee on the steps of a white house with a flat roof and a light blue door, watching the town wake up. Hear the labored whine of an old motorbike. Then, when it falls silent, there’s an irregular metallic clanking that you don’t recognize till your memory dredges up a recollection of the sound made by an empty wheelbarrow on bumpy ground. A wheelbarrow? At dawn? A mile away, unseen in the labyrinth of dirt alleyways? So it was. In the end it appears down below, far off, in a gap. An Asian wheelbarrow that sounds exactly the way I remember it from childhood or a little later, from a building site. That was what I came to Murghab for. To find a similarity of sound. If someone were to ask.
But actually I didn’t drink coffee starting at dawn. There wasn’t any hot water, because everyone was still asleep. It wasn’t till later that the lady of the house would light the stove with saxaul kindling. So I didn’t have coffee, I just nosed around the yard to see what their life was like: a pleasant, wide latrine with two holes side by side, on the other side of the wall a bathhouse with a boiler heated with firewood, beyond that a room with a bread oven, and that was it. Behind the house, which was built of clay and only painted in the front, there was an iron cistern containing water that was delivered by a water truck for a fee. In the winter they had only a small barrel inside the house. And that was all. Oh, and a clothesline with laundry pegged up, and a few sickly-looking bushes fenced off carefully to keep out the wandering cattle and sheep. They watered the bushes, waiting for them to grow a few feet taller and provide a little shade. In the whole of Murghab I saw only a couple of houses where anything grew that was even a bit taller than a person. They—the whole family, five or six of them—lived next door, in a house that was a third the size of ours. There was nothing in it but a stove and rugs on the floor. But we were paying seven dollars a night per person, so the bigger place was ours by right, they must have reasoned. Only Sherali himself, skinny and dark, would come in the evening and lie down by the front door on the hard sofa that we sat on when we ate. He coughed in the night. I think he came to protect us. One day we crossed to the other side of the river. It was called the Aksu. It ran between gravel heaps. On the other side there was nothing, just the gravel, which was flat as a tabletop by the water, then rose in grayish-yellow mounds. We stayed on the flat part, because we got short of breath when we started to climb. My heart raced. As far as the eye could see there was no shade. The sun moved across the sky, sluggish and merciless. The air trembled. We were only at eleven thousand feet or so, but the air was already thinner and offered no protection. There were no trees and no clouds in sight. I spotted a stone tower in the distance. We walked toward it, so as to have some destination in the emptiness, and to find shelter. The tower was the same color as everything else, so it could have been half a mile away or three miles. But we reached it. It was an angular brick building with missing shutters and a concrete floor, which hadn’t even been shat on. But there were shell casings all over the place. Dozens, hundreds, thousands probably: 7.62s from AK-47s, 5.45s from AK-74s and 7.62 x 54s, probably from a Goryunov. They were consumed by rust; they bent and snapped between your fingers. It looked like people had been standing in the windows and shooting in every direction. As if they’d been training for the defense of a fortress under siege. Maybe they were preparing for Afghanistan, which after all was right there. Not as close as China, but still. They’d occupied a stone tower in the desert and tried to fight off an imaginary enemy. What remained were thousands of shells filled with sand. Armies always leave a mess behind. Old concrete, rusty red iron, oil stains. The nothingness of this strange empire that conquered the desert so as to leave nothingness behind. In sandy hollows there were empty tin cans. They were as abundant as the shells. There were thousands of them. They looked like the wind had blown them there. Perhaps it had, because corrosion had eaten away all their weight. They were no heavier than cardboard. There was nothing else all around. A mile or so away, mountains rose from the plain like heaps of hot ash. There wasn’t much point in walking around in that wasteland, but while I was still back home I’d promised myself that I’d find out what it’s like when there’s no shade and nowhere to take shelter. That’s what I had told myself: Never mind where I go, so long as it’s high up, dry, and hot. And so long as there’s nothing there. No historical sights, no ancient ruins, so I wouldn’t have to visit them and think about them. No Bukhara, no Samarkand, no meaning, just stark life in the rarefied air. That was what I’d been after. A clarity of existence. To see sand sifting through the post-imperial rust. That would be enough for me, if anyone were to ask; for that it was worth traveling three or four thousand miles.
© Andrzej Stasiuk. First published in Continents. English translation © 2014 by Bill Johnston. By arrangement with Agora SA, Warsaw. All rights reserved. This text is an extract from a longer article (with accompanying photographs by the author) in a special English-language issue of Continents, available as an app for iPhone and iPad.