A guide to the New East
Down by the river
Journey to the source
In search of the origins of Central Asia’s greatest rivers

The two main rivers of Central Asia, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, cross Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Until they were diverted into a web of irrigation canals in the 1960s by the Soviet government, the waterways ran as far as the Aral Sea. For over five years American photographer Carolyn Drake travelled along their length, recording the vast post-Soviet territory the rivers ran through.

In this extract from Two Rivers, the photobook of her explorations, Drake journeys to the source of the rivers, the Tian Shan mountains on the border between China and Kyrgyzstan and the Pamir mountains in neighbouring Tajikistan. 

Her journey is told by author Elif Batuman, working from Drake’s original notes.

In the beginning, there was only water. The son of Heaven commanded a golden-eyed duck to bring up mud from the depth to create dry land. That’s how the earth was created. There really is a duck called the golden-eye. Its Russian name is gogol — like Nikolai Gogol. In the Pamir Mountains, a spa is built on a mineral spring. The spring is called Garam Chashma, which means “hot spring”. A lot of springs have that name.

Is the travertine pool cold or hot? It looks like ice, but must in fact be warm. The baked Alaska was actually invented by the French, who called it “Norwegian omelet”.

At midnight, the shaman in Talas changes into white robes, turns off the electric pump, and lights the candles. The room has recently been renovated and needs a cleansing ceremony, which must be performed at night. The shaman jumps around, chanting and cracking a whip, to drive away evil spirits. She mentions Allah in the chant. The shaman also drives the evil spirit from her friend Kalera. Kalera doesn’t have to jump around; she just sits there. 

In the Bartang Valley, Carolyn pulls over the car and picks apricots. A local invites her in for tea. Even all the way up here in the mountains, you can find a shelf of books, and a portrait of a beautiful woman. 

The shaman reads cards for men and women who want to understand their lives. She’s a wealthy woman. Explaining people’s lives to them is a good business model. 

Babusade the healer lights a sprig of juniper, pressing her strong hands into the girl’s abdomen.

Near the Torugart Pass, where trucks pass between Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang, an abandoned train wagon has been converted into a hostel. Boys stay there for days on end, waiting for trucks to come by from China, so they can drive them on to Bishkek. At dawn they’re still asleep, all in a row. The elevation, more than two miles above sea level, affects the breathing. There must be a body behind that pink cloth. 

The young wife, unable to conceive a child, repeats the fertility ceremony. She kneels at the edge of the woods, facing the undergrowth. A candle is burnt, the Koran recited. The bread and wild blue berries are for the women, not the spirits.

The Panj River gushes and folds like a rich fabric.

A Pamiri house laid out like a model of the universe: a skylight, five pillars representing the members of Ali’s family, and two main beams representing the material and spiritual worlds. The word Zoroastrian might be related to tzohar, the skylight of Noah’s ark. 

There’s a man in that car in the rain in Naryn. It’s April.

The black figure among the green summer wheat is a woman in mourning. She lost her son last year. 

The bereaved mother collects apricots, removes the pits, and stews them — for the goats. Her son, who had children of his own, was stabbed by a drunk neighbour. The roads were snowed in. There are no telephones here. Don’t call us — we’ll call you. He was dead by morning. 

The man in blue, a journalist, was visiting the sulfur springs. 

Nearby, a girl is walking with a baby goat, then picks up the goat and carries it. At her house, under the Zoroastrian skylight, hangs a picture of the Aga Khan, a Shiite. A kitten creeps along the windowsill, hops to the floor, and takes an interest in a teacup. 

This is a backyard, though you can’t see the house. The boy is picking something. His friend is slaughtering sheep — also elsewhere. In the frame of the camera, there’s just this one figure, alone as Adam, the very first man, working in the garden. 

The new road is closed in the winter and flooded in the summer. Until 1991, the only roads in these parts were in the military zone near the Afghan border. 

A lot of water has passed under the bridge in Garam Chashma. 

That’s the journalist, with his eternal briefcase, a kind of ubiquitous bucket. He’s climbing to the source. I could tell you a thing or two about journalists and their sources. 

The wing of the airplane seems about to grade the side of the mountain. One passenger gets sick. Soon, others follow. It’s the human way. Far below, water and ancient dust flow into the Panj River.  

In the beginning, there was only water. A lama came down from the sky, and stirred the water with an iron rod. The stirring created wind and fire, and thickened the centre of the waters into earth. These origin myths seem to imply a lot of bootstrapping, because where did the lama and iron rod come from? Later the people learned the lama’s tricks, and started moving the water themselves, displacing whole seas. This is the Nurek reservoir.

On the road to Bishkek, the tinted car window lends the sky a hint of Technicolor. 

Following the slush-filled hoof prints of the Kyrgyz horses, Carolyn sees two figures. The grandfather motions to the little boy, who holds up a spring flower. 

The picture was once captioned, “A dead man’s grave.” “Well, I should hope so!”

Tian Shan is Chinese for “celestial mountains.” It’s springtime here, it’s paradise, it’s whiter than a white horse. 

White as snow.


Text: Elif Batuman
Image: Carolyn Drake

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