River deep, Mountain high: An epic crossing from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan

27 October 2016

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, and publishing the results in Two Rivers, a photobook of her explorations.

Here, Drake traces a path from the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan to the neighbouring Tian Shan mountains on the border between China and Kyrgyzstan. Her journey is told by the 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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