Monday, 9 July 2007

Reflections from a Tapchan

We gain wisdom in three ways:

By reflection which is the noblest
By imitation which is the easiest
By experience which is the bitterest

After our journey to to Otrar and Turkestan we spent a pleasant night in Shymkent (Chimkent) and the next day looked around this strategic silk route town. Not much of the of the pre-Soviet period here.

I wanted to slow down on our return journey, and reflect a little. My mind was packed with information, my camera loaded with images and my note book with lots of words. I wanted to make some sense out of it all. I had now completed virtually every strand of the Silk Route through the Himalaya,.Pir Panjul, Daula Dar, Pamir, Tienshan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush, Kopet Dag mountains separating Turkmenistan from Iran.

Buddha found enlightenment under a tree, poets had moments of clarity sitting by streams, and many oriental writers got flashes of brilliance in Chai Khanas (tea houses) sitting on Tap Chans, the traditional four legged platform on which you sit on cushions and eat from a table placed on a Tapchan. My old friend from Kabul Steve Masty wrote a classic song “ Chai Khana on the Kandahar Road which has a wonderful line about ‘ how you kept your country ree' over thousands of year mainly by, accidentally or otherwise, disabling conquerors and invaders by food poisoning.

The Persian word Ab, water, has always fascinated me. When living in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and other parts of Central Asia, it is a suffix to so many words.

Panjab ( Five Rivers) Fariab, Doab, Surjab Murgab etc. they generally are towns situated on rivers or lakeshores. Also the Kazakh word ‘su’ for water also helps ones vocabularly as rivers and towns such as Ak Su.

Back to the journey home. As we were coming down a hill side 45 minutes east of Shymkent, and just after Ak Su, I saw an idyllic spot that surely must have been a stop for travellers by horse, camel or whatever means they travelled in ancient times. There was a stream, trees and from the spot, you could see from where you had come and where you were going.
And hey presto ! There was a Chai Khana behind the trees.
We parked at the road side and walked down the stream to the Chai Khana. The name of the tea shop was written in Russian, and I could recognise the last two letters – ab.
Translated into English it was called Masab. Suin spoke to the waitress who said it meant water or stream by the undulations. It sounded OK to me as we had been travelling over an undulating road and had just dropped into a depression with a stream.

And there in front of me was something I have never seen on the silk route in over 30 years, a large tapchan straddling a stream.

This is the nirvana poets dream about.

The words from various writers came to mind:

We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds are fiery hearts are fanned
For the lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the golden journey to Samarkand

Man (woman) is a wanderer from birth.

We are pilgrims master and we will always go
Across the last blue mountains barred with snow,
Across the angry and glimmering s

And Robert Service’s poems are stacked with the race that don’t fit in.

There’s a race of men who don’t fit in
A race that can’t stay still
As the break the hearts of kith and kin
As they roam the world at will

In Victor Frankl’s book about concentration camps, he talks about the excitement when they moved by train from one camp to anothor and how inmates looked through cracks to search of recodnisable features that would give a clue for life or death tomorrow.

The Maori of New Zealand were incurable ‘Vikings of the Sunrise’
As they pushed from remote islands of Tahiti to almost Antarctica, and settling in New Zealand where they adapted to snow and ice as they crossed high mountain passes..

Over the last blue mountains barred with snow
Across the angry and glimmering sea

I am now back in Almaty with Naila and our two boys. Yesterday I dined with my extended Kazakh family. The faces were silk route faces. From the round Mongolian to the almost bluish eyes that are common amongst the Naiman tribe of Kazakhstan, who are Mongolian by descent. After all, they gave refuge to the wandering and persecuted Nestorian Christians who were drummed out of Eastern Europe for daring to be the first real offshoot of Christianity.

Sitting on the tapchan I found that this journey had helped me understand more fully who the Kazakh people were. The poetry of Abai had helped me greatly as did Tom Stacey in his introduction to the book, Silent Steppe by Mukhamed Shayakhmetov from which I have borrowed a little.

The Kazakhs are all Moslem faith, converted at various times since the 7th century but they are still have trappings of their shamanistic past and strands of Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and Nestorian, comprising today what we call ‘tengrism’ a faith in the unity of creation with Man at its centre and in communion with it, and of Man as the inheritor of a potential gift of ecstatic enlightenment. All this is exercise was mystically exercised among the Kazakhs in the rituals of their immensely ancient nomadic and transhuman existence, based upon their horse and camel-borne economy of herding sheep and goats across the vast breadth of steppe, and subject to a climate of extreme conditions, especially in winter. With it came an oral tradition of song and saga and poetry, and a flowering in the written corpus of work of the Kazakh poet Abai.

I am now back in Almaty relaxing, reading and travelling by trolley buses and trams with my nephew Dimash and son Ablai. This is a great city.


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