Out of Steppe The Lost Peoples of Central Asia
by Daniel Metcalfe
The peoples that the British writer and explorer Daniel Metcalfe visits and records are lost in more ways than one. Not only do they inhabit remote and impenetrable mountain valleys and desolate plains far from the trodden path, they belong to once vibrant cultures that to varying degrees have come close to annihilation. The youthful author is on a serious mission to give these persecuted people a voice before they disappear forever, which he reckons may be the true purpose of a travel account. To demonstrate his seriousness he learned Persian, first in London in his spare time and then for a year in Tehran before embarking on his journey.
His explication of the tangled histories of some of these lost peoples is based on prodigious research, if the ten pages of bibliography are anything to go by. Yet the background he provides is admirably concise. One of the six ethnic minorities he sets out to discover is the Yaghnobi people, a vanishing community in western Tajikistan where they still speak Soghdian, the lingua franca of the Silk Road for seven centuries. He gives a clear account of their once heroic past and how it has been brought low, catastrophically in 1969 when the Tajik Supreme Soviet plucked the 3,000 remaining Yaghnobis from their mountain fastness and compulsorily relocated them to the arid north of the country to work in the cotton fields, where many were poisoned by chemical fertilizers. Despairing, some escaped back to their valley, to find their villages destroyed and themselves still the target of state-sponsored round-ups.
History is seamlessly interwoven with the author’s travels by taxis driven by reluctant drivers, by hired jeep and donkey. He captures beautifully the shifting ground on which all travelers in remote places find themselves when the cultural signals are unfamiliar and it is difficult to know who to trust. When the headman of a Tajik village produces his son as a guide for the week’s trek on to the Yaghnobis, Metcalfe doesn’t think he looks trustworthy, but knows he has no choice. Yet Sadriddin turns out to be a reliable guide whose insouciance about time, distance and weather gives the author an insight into the unflappable acceptance which has helped many of the people he meets to endure.
As one tragedy follows another, it is impossible not to feel increasingly depressed. We learn that the huge German population of Russia was subject to near genocide at the beginning of World War II when they were deported from the Volga Region to Kazakhstan and up to 300,000 died of starvation, exposure or in Stalin’s labor camps. One 90-year-old survivor recounts the unbearable story of her life. Hundreds of miles away in Afghanistan, we learn that even as recently as the 1970s, hard-line clerics encouraged their flock to consider the killing of a Hazara a virtue. The Hazara people are one of the six ethnic communities whom Metcalfe wants to meet. This reviled Shiite minority of Mongol descent have been brought to the West’s attention by the book and film The Kite Runner.
Metcalfe tells these stories poignantly but without sentimentality. At a few points on his travels the author admits to ‘a total loss of morale,’ as when the road-cum-mule-track in Tajikistan ‘flinched with every arbitrary loop of the border’. Given the nature of his projects, it is surprising he manages to keep his morale as long as he does, because this reader certainly couldn’t. The bleak and ‘life-sucking’ landscapes through which he passes mirror the stories he has to tell.
After so many pages spent in Central Asian places that practice what he calls the “Visitors Keep Out school of tourism” it is with relief that we arrive at his final destination, the beautiful valleys of Chitral in the Hindu Kush of Northwest Pakistan. He is in search of the Kalasha people whose culture is entirely different from the prevailing Muslim culture. But he quickly gets beyond the “striking garb, carved wooden effigies and home-made mulberry wine” that appeal to adventure tour operators, to probe the threat posed by an inundation of Western influences and the more dangerous pressures to convert to Islam. He could not have foreseen that the Kalasha would suffer a more literal and more devastating inundation during the Pakistan floods of 2010.
My main quibble is with the inadequate map. Few people can spell Kyrgyzstan let alone plot it on a map, and the reader is soon drowning in place names from Ashgabat to Zafarabad, from Osh to Kosh(an) without having an easy way of locating them. It would have been helpful to have a detailed map for each chapter. On the plus side, 15 of the author’s photographs are included in an insert.
To Hull and Back: On Holiday in Unsung Britain
Turning to a very different approach to celebrating the unsung, we come to a book in which the author can lay claim neither to risk-taking derring-do nor to documentary exposé. Like any traveler worth his or her salt, the travel journalist Tom Chesshyre wants to bypass the mass market resort and clichéd attraction, to discover interest and beauty in unexpected corners of the British Isles. However his idea of systematically visiting a list of hell-holes seems like nothing more than a stunt dreamed up by his agent. This might be a worthy endeavor for a journalist tracking the state of Britain today or taking the temperature of the class system. But to pretend that visits to various armpits of the universe are ordinary touristic breaks is merely a gimmicky version of slumming.
The dubious project might have been rescued if it could boast depth of insight, originality of style or humorous anecdote. But alas none of these is present. The author admits to getting his background from Google and the tourist office, and to staying in most of his 11 destinations for no longer than a weekend. The lazy writing that includes every inconsequential detail – the color of the jumper of a hotel receptionist, how tasty his ham sandwich is, how long he has to queue for a train ticket, the expletives used by the man behind him at a soccer game – all of this padding drains the book of any punch. Each chapter follows a similar template: first it takes an unflinching look at rampant deprivation in his destination, then he cheerily finds some redeeming aspect (mountain biking hills nearby, an irrepressible spirit among the locals) and ends with a plodding recap of what has been learned. If this pedestrian style is his attempt to sing the unsung, alas his singing voice is flat and croaky.
A Single Swallow: Following an Epic Journey from South Africa to South Wales
Here is a book that soars. This consummate travel book is routinely mis-cataloged in the ornithology section of bookshops and libraries, leading to bitter disappointment among avid birdwatchers. From the opening incantation of African names for the swallow and myths surrounding these astonishing birds, it is clear that here we are meeting a writer more interested in words than birds, in people and stories than in avian biology. The story at the heart of his book is personal: the swallow’s migration is a metaphor for the 33 year old author’s own quest for manhood, as he journeys north from South Africa to his home in South Wales.
Vivid word pictures evoke the execrable roads of Namibia, a strip club in Yaoundé, the rape of the Cameroonian forests, and are intermingled with lucid historical and cultural background. Clare has a dramatist’s ear for dialogue and a genuine empathy with people that together bring to life his encounters with a fascinating cast of characters. Patrice, a talented rugby player, has been denied an exit visa from Cameroon to attend trials in France because he is from ‘the wrong tribe.’ He wants the author to sponsor him to get a coaching certificate in Wales, which Clare tries, but without success. A woman he dubs the Drama Queen tries to bluff her way across a border claiming her papers have been stolen. Two drug dealers in Casablanca charmingly con the author out of hundreds of dirhams.
The autobiographical aspect of one man’s psychological as well as physical journey gives the book a narrative thrust that makes it a page-turner. The author’s father tells him of the Zulu belief, that those who follow the swallow never come back. And so it turns out, that he is fundamentally changed by his journey. Over the months of travel through Africa, he gradually divests himself of his fears and of his belongings, often impetuously and generously giving away prized possessions like his binoculars and his shoes. His journey does not end in Africa. He records his unease on returning to ‘Fortress Europe’ where he feels disgust at a business hotel in Spain described as ‘hysterically clean’. In a fit of what was either madness or ‘travel-induced eccentricity’ he even sheds his identity when he purposely leaves behind his passport and birth certificate in an airport scanner, perhaps as an act of solidarity with all the dispossessed Africans whom he has met along the way.
His journey and his writing are full of surprises. He is astonished to meet a South African who would once have been labeled “colored” expressing nostalgia for the apartheid era. He discovers that Algiers is a beautiful city. But the biggest surprise of all is that in Marrakech he suddenly falls madly in love with a woman from northern England, to whom this book is dedicated. The author’s experience mirrors that of the swallow who flies 6000 miles in order to find a mate with whom to make a nest.
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Taking a Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.