Thursday 6 September 2012

Turkestan and Back - Without Getting Caught

This time last week I was embarking on South to Samarkand.  I was worried it might be dull - but Miss Mannin wasn't a successful novelist (+ lover of famous men + celebrated gal about town etc) for nothing.  The book rattles along: highly subjective, impressionistic, biased, slightly smug (in parts) but NEVER dull.

Some choice sections:

Last year at this time I never so little wanted to leave a city as Moscow; now I was so burnt up with the desire to get away that I hated it.
'You forget we're going out to lunch in the country tomorrow,' Donia reminded me tranquilly.
'Oh God,' I groaned, 'isn't that just like life?  You reach breaking-point and decide to clear out, but you can't do it, because you've got to wait in for the laundry, or there's no one to feed the cat, or you're lunching out tomorrow....'

The esteemed authoress and her companion eventually leave Moscow without the necessary permits for Turkestan, deciding they will get there by hook or by crook - and a little subterfuge if necessary.  Under the aegis of Intourist (the state-controlled tourist organisation) and VOKS (the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) they take trains to Kiev, to Rostov-on-the-Don, to Sotchi - 'the  Black Sea Riviera' [?!] where Manning is extremely disparaging of the bodies encountered at the nearest (nudist) beach.

The further the ladies travel, the more uncomfortable the trains, and the worse the toilet facilities...

In our innocence we believed that we were looking at the most unspeakable sanitary arrangements human beings could devise.  We were mistaken.  This was merely a beginning.

Somewhere before Georgia, the travellers manage to give their escorts the slip (not as dramatic as it sounds, really) but from there on out they have to travel 'hard' as they have no guides / agents to secure them tickets for 'soft' travel (reserved for foreign tourists who brought in money or for high-up officials and Red Army soldiers.)  They also have no papers, so can't stay in any of the official hotels.

Nonetheless, they eventually find their way to Tiflis:

'Have you heard,' [an acquaintance asked some months before this trip], 'about the streets of Tiflis?'
When we said that we hadn't, he produced a box of matches from his pocket, laid three on the table in a row, then three about an inch away, then held one upright at a corner, and announced, solemnly, 'The streets of Tiflis by day.'  He then struck the match he had been holding up at the corner of the little lane of matches, and holding it again in the same position, remarked: 'The streets of Tiflis by night.'
Some people, of course, see nothing funny in the utterly absurd.
When one or two of us had recovered from out laughter, and the rest from their stupor, I asked him: 'But why Tiflis?'
'Oh, I don't know,' he replied.  'It has to be Tiflis.'  
'Where is Tiflis?' I demanded.
'I don't know.  Persia.  Down that way, anyhow.  Does it matter?

[Tiflis, incidentally, is now better known as Tbilisi, is the capital of Georgia.]

Mannin loved Tiflis, but was less keen on Baku and especially less keen on the boat they took across the Caspian Sea in fourth class 'places' (i.e. a tiny space between hundred of other bodies on an open deck.)  But eventually they reached Turkestan and at Krasnovodsk pushed their way on to an over-crowded train ...

...and how far yet to Samarkand .... The next stop but one.  Then the next stop.  It seems queer to be thinking of Samarkand in such familiar terms - 'Next stop Samarkand' ....
Nothing can stop us now.  Yet I shiver with apprehension.  We shall not be truly in Smarkand till we stand upon the Registan.

And did she?

She did.

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