The assumption made by many people in the countries we visit is that Anna and I are people of great wealth. It is because we are white, and because we are western. Of course their reasoning is correct. In comparison, we are incredibly rich, but not as much as they think. Today, this supposition has caught up with us again. A Chrysler sits outside our hotel. The manager must have sought out the best car to drive us to Arstan Bab. We would have been happy with a Lada.
We climb into the air conditioning and take our seats on the soft leather. The engine roars and Dilshot, our driver, races through traffic towards the outskirts of town and the empty steppe. He is taking us to Arstan Bab, where an ancient mausoleum sits.
The Kazakh steppe covers almost the whole country. Thousands of square kilometres of green nothingness, punctuated by the occasional rocky outcrop, stretch as far as the eye can see. There appears to be little farming taking place on the plains. The ground is dusty in the forty-five degree heat. Perhaps it is only good for the grass eaten by the herds of cows, goats and camels found near stranded yurts.
Dilshot speaks no English but he can speak Russian. This means he can only speak directly to Anna, although she struggles with his accent and dialect. “Ben,” he shouts as he parks the car beside a golden domed mosque, before continuing in Russian. I turn to Anna who tells me that we have arrived at Arstan Bab’s mausoleum. This is how most of our exchanges take place – he must speak to me first.
We walk up a long path to a museum, school and place of prayer joined by a three-storey high arch. It is much smaller than that of Yasawi’s mausoleum, which we saw yesterday. We receive a rushed guided tour of the small museum. I understand next to nothing. Anna is struggling to translate everything before we are pushed on. We are shown photographs of dignitaries, the original ornate wooden pillars the mausoleum was built with and an ancient gold leafed Qur’an, written by hand.
Birds sing loudly in the prayer room. Their conical nests hang onto the wall as if they were built to hold torches. We sit with Dilshot as he prays to Allah. The palms of his hands point upwards in supplication. As he comes to a close, they cover his face and cup around his ears to better hear a response.
Dilshot takes us to the room where Arstan Bab, the spiritual teacher of Yasawi, lived. It has been reconstructed in its original style – the pillars have been copied and varnished – and a soft Persian rug lies under our feet. Dilshot lowers the bucket int a well outside and encourages us to drink. The water is cool but not refreshing. It is full of salty minerals, but not sulphur because the water is without a smell. Dilshot laughs and tells us it is healthy as he passes us some flatbread that is made here for pilgrims and guests.
Back in the cool of the car we ask Dilshot to take us to Otrar, an ancient Silk Road city. He does not know it but thankfully we have marked it on a map. After weaving through a hamlet and questioning the locals, Dilshot pulls the Chrysler up at a gate blocking a dusty track. Two men sit drinking tea in the shade of an old hut. They look vaguely surprised as we walk over.
We have a brief discussion with them. We would like to see Otrar but they think it is too hot. There is no shade, do we have any water? Dilshot looks ecstatic when we ask if he can go to the shop and buy us some water while we trek the few hundred metres to the ruins. He was worried he would have to walk with us in the heat. We will drink when he returns. One of the men looks at us as if we’re crazy as he takes our money.
The ground is cracked under our feet. Only spiky weeds grow by the side of the path. The midday sun beats down upon us. Otrar sits on top of a batholith of rock that we must follow the path around before climbing to the top. Thankfully, we bump into a pile of covered ruins once we are three quarters of the way to the gate to the city. We rest for a few minutes – out of the sun but not the heat.
We enter Otrar across a bridge, through an arched gate and up a flight of steps to the top of the rock. About twenty metres high and with sheer sides, the batholith would have been almost impossible to attack. The bridge appears to be the only entrance. The foundations of the buildings are all that can be seen, some of which were clearly huge and supported by large square pillars.
Otrar can be no larger than what we would now call a village, but it was the region’s capital before Turkestan and a main trading stop on the Silk Road. But the city’s elders made an arrogant mistake – they thought they were more powerful than they were.
During the rule of Genghis Khan they decided to stop paying their taxes and kept the money for themselves. In response, Khan sent his army and razed Otrar to the ground, despite its natural defences. The city was never rebuilt, and now Otrar only offers a magnificent view of the steppe, foregrounded by the remains of what must have been a beautiful folly.
It is too hot to stay in the open for long. We haven’t had anything to drink and Anička is beginning to struggle. We begin the long walk back along the dusty track. Halfway along the outcrop, we climb up the verge to get out of the way of a battered Lada bouncing up the road. It slides to a stop and covers us in a plume of dust.
Frozen water and iced tea are pushed out of the window at us. We grab them and gulp them down as fast as possible. Dilshot hops out of the passenger seat and we climb into the shade of the back. The driver revs the engine and we bounce back to our car. Anička’s sunstroke is so bad she is looking as if she may faint.
Once we are in the cool of the Chrysler Dilshot roars back to Turkestan. We spend the drive guzzling our drinks and looking out at the sparse beauty of the steppe rushing past. By the time we arrive, Anička is back to normal – a rest and a drink has done her good. Dilshot parks the car and leads us past two topless boys playing in a fountain into a traditional Uzbek restaurant for lunch.
A pot of tea and some bread is brought to us. Woven curtains surround us on three sides. We sit cross-legged around a large table on a raised plinth and decide not to eat in private by drawing the fourth. Anička has only ordered the flavoured rice – the only meat-free dish served – and Dilshot is confused. She tells him that she doesn’t eat meat. “You can eat meat if you like,” he replies. “You aren’t overweight.”
Anička tells Dilshot this is not the reason she doesn’t eat meat – she just doesn’t like it. He sits quietly for a few minutes with the strange idea of someone not eating meat on his mind. Then he pipes up: “Are you that poor in the Czech Republic that you can’t afford to eat meat?”
Our plov arrives and we wolf it down. The boys are still playing in the fountain as we leave and begin to drive north. We don’t know where we are going – Dilshot has not been the best at explaining our itinerary. He turns west and crosses a shallow but fast river that is full of men cooling off. The car climbs a hill and winds through shallow valleys covered in scrub. A man dressed in white appears as we round a corner. Dilshot stops, winds down the window and speaks to him in Kazakh. The man climbs into the car. Hopefully he is just a hitchhiker.
The man stays in the car the whole way to our destination, which seems to be a car park in the shadow of a small wood. We follow the man and Dilshot up a path through the wood and arrive at a series of white buildings and allotments. A small stream irrigates the plants and large mats dry in the sun beside it. The man washes his hands and disappears, and we take a seat on a bench. We still have no idea where we are or why we are here. Anička asks Dilshot and he tells her that it is a religious retreat.
A few minutes later, he leads us through a doorway into a long, dark room. It is divided down the centre by fabric hung over a frame, leaving just enough space to sit against the wall on either side. We take a seat beside Dilshot and notice that the man from the car is sitting at the far end from us. He raises his hands level with his chest, and begins to speak with his head lowered. We realise that we are at the Asr prayer and our hitchiker is the imam. We follow his lead and raise our hands.
Once the prayers are over, we thank the imam and go straight back to the car. Within minutes Dilshot is forcing the Chrysler up a steep, rocky hill. Judging by the sound of rocks grinding against the sills it has definitely not been designed for this. When we reach the top, Dilshot jumps out to check the damage. Satisfied, he leads us down one hill and up another to a circular stone hut and a corrugated iron lean-to. Here, we are to be tested on our goodness.
Inside the circular building is a well. Local superstitions say that the well will only give you water if you are a good person. Anička is up first. She lowers the bucket through the rock for a few metres and then drops it. It clatters down and hits the end of the rope, but not the bottom, with a clang. She pulls it up to find that it is half full of water for her to drink. Of course she is a good person.
My turn. The bucket drops and I pull and pull, only to find that my bucket is completely empty. I have no goodness in me. I am slightly disappointed as we begin the walk down the hill. After a minute, there are calls from the hut. We glance around to see some men motioning us back up – I am to be given a second chance.
The rope quivers as the clang echoes up the well. I begin to pull the bucket up again and it feels no heavier than on my first attempt. Suddenly it catches on something, but I am able to keep pulling as it gains weight. A stream that makes no noise is hidden somewhere in the natural bore. I have pulled my pail through it by chance and when it reaches the top it is full to the brim. I empty the water into two bottles and drink the rest from a pan. It is the sweetest, coolest water I have ever tasted.