At least one travel writer has written that leaving a country is like dying: we leave one world for the indefinite future of another. When you realize your own mortality, you want to leave some mark in this world so those you leave behind may remember you. Likewise when you travel from a place where's you've lived, you want to leave your mark on it so you will not be forgotten.
It can be hard to leave a mark in Turkmenistan, however, a country with a cult of personality rivaled only by that in North Korea. Statues of the great Turkmenbashi are almost everywhere in the capital and the autocratic leader's image adorns buildings and all the currency. A book written by the "President for Life" serves as the country's main textbook and employment handbook.
For nearly two years, I had been working for USAID in Central Asia's most remote country—Turkmenistan. The closer I came to leaving, the more I wanted to make my mark on the world of Turkmenistan.
The month before I left, I made ambitious plans to travel the country as much as I could, looking for opportunities to leave something lasting. I assigned myself the job of traveling to the far eastern corner of the Turkmenistan to the remote mountain village of Khodja Pil Ata where USAID had made a small grant to buy a personal computer for the community. The village was in an area called Kugatang that contained the world's longest set of dinosaur tracks. This far corner of the country was bordered by Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
This was USAID's smallest grant in the country's most remote area. The villagers of Khodja Pil Ata seldom had visitors from the outside. I decided to see the computer and the tracks for myself. The remote location suggested it might be a place for me to make a mark.
A Modern Trek to Kugatang
The first leg of the trip was by a Soviet-made Yak 40 airplane from Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat to the provincial city of Turkmenibad. From Turkmenibad, I drove with two of the Turkmen members of our office, Pavel and Jamala, three hours to the small town of Atamurat the last town before Afghanistan. Atamurat had formerly been Kerki but had also been renamed after the President's father who had been born here.
East of Atamurat, the scenery was dull, brown and flat. Occasionally there was a solitary figure squatting along the roadside with nothing and no one in sight for miles. I tried to guess whether these individuals waiting for something or just alone with their thoughts because there was nothing else. It looked as though they were on the set of a French existentialist play.
Late in the afternoon, we crossed the Amudarya River, the fabled Oxus River of ancient times. Alexander the Great and his armies had crossed it over two millennia ago when it represented the outer limits of the known western world. Now, after another checkpoint at the riverbank, we crossed the Amudarya's meandering brown waters on a makeshift pontoon bridge. The river meandered around sandbanks in the middle of the channel without much authority. I was disappointed, expecting something greater from this body of water considering the impressive historical association.
From Holiday Village to Conflicted Border Zone
Several hours after crossing the Amudarya, we arrived in Khodja Pil Ata in a misting rain. We were hours late and the people in the village had been awaiting the arrival of "the American" all day. One of the local farmers had donated a sheep to be slaughtered in honor of my visit.
The "Archena," a deputy mayor of sorts, greeted us. She had long gray hair worn up with a headscarf wrapped in piratical fashion. She led our small group to her house in steady formal movements as if she were a society hostess escorting us into an elegant dinner party.
Everyone removed their shoes in the traditional Turkmen style and stepped into the rear doorway of her home. Our pile of shoes looked like pairs of tired reptiles at rest. I was seated on the floor covered with room-sized Ersari tribal rugs and served green tea and fish soup. The Archena said the sheep could still be slaughtered. "I appreciate the honor but I feel I can't do your hospitality justice at this hour," I said with Jamala translating my words into Turkmen. "I couldn't give the occasion its due."
I was offered a plate of giant Mushrooms called Kozskura meaning "sheep's buttocks" because they resembled the white flanks of the local breed of sheep. More courses of food were presented and we began to talk about life in Kugatang.
"I am in charge of women's health, culture and children's issues," the Archena began with Jamala translating.
"In the Soviet days," she said, "the town had received a lot of attention and was a popular location for summer holidays. They called us 'Little Switzerland' because of our green mountains in the spring." There was a slight wistfulness to her voice.
"You are here at the right time," she said. Even though we had approached the town at twilight, we had been able make out lush green trees and flowering shrubs. Soon the green would whither away and the mountains would take on their dust brown color which marked them for most of the year, much like the ephemeral nature of the cherry trees at the Washington Tidal Basin, trees that are remembered year round for their brief display of wispy pink blossoms. Kugatang was considered a micro-environmental zone. It had its own climate and growing seasons distinct from the rest of Turkmenistan. Apricots, apples, cherries grew in its valleys and hillsides.
That night we slept in a drafty and dilapidated dormitory that was part of a sanitarium. Ten years ago the dormitory might have been filled with tourists from around the Soviet Union. Now Kugatang was forgotten and off limits because of it was part of a sensitive border region. It received few tourists now. I fell asleep inhaling drafts of cold, aromatic mountain air.
Morning in Kugatang brought a steady rain. This would turn the mountain roads slurry of mud.
The Archena had assigned us a local guide, Atamurat, to find the dinosaur tracks. He was a quiet, impassive man who had seen the tracks before. He rode in the front seat next to Pavel.
The road was deeply rutted and made worse by the rain. Pavel had turned back on a prior trip with my predecessor because of difficult road conditions and he was now determined to show that he could make the drive. If the Suburban had gotten stuck or plunged over the side there would have been no help.
The mud road lead into green valleys surrounded by deep rust colored hills tinted by their heavy iron content. The craggy green hills and mist looked more like the rocky glens of a "Little Scotland" than the alpine mountain valleys of Switzerland. We were the lone vehicle in the valley.
The further we drove, the more prehistoric the landscape appeared. The valley floor was dotted with yellow plants. They looked like giant stalks of yellow broccoli. "They are good for stomach or digestive problems," said Atamurat.
A few more kilometers down the road, we climbed a ridge looking into the last valley. Jamala could see I was trying to take notes on a steno pad while being wildly bounced around the back seat. "John is our Marco Polo for Kugatang," she said to the rest of the car. (When I got back, ninety percent of the notes I took on this part of the drive were illegible.)
Opposite to our position on the ridge we could see a stream of water gushing from a mountain wall. The mountaintop above was marked with a white ragged banner on a stick and other bits of cloth flying around it like small kites that had had their lines caught in the rocks. The marking meant the stream was sacred.
Big Feet on the Silk Road
We parked in a muddy field at the base of a mountainside where there was crude farm and followed a rough trail up into rocks and boulders. A steady rain saturated us. After about an hour of hiking on slippery rock and mud we arrived a smooth shale hillside. What stretched before us looked like a giant cement sidewalk that someone had walked on before it was dry. We were looking out at the world's longest set of dinosaur tracks. Each footprint was about the size of a waiter's serving platter.
"The shoe size was about 94, quintuple E width," I said to Jamala.
The prints showed three distinct claws that dug into the earth. Pavel and I walked over and posed with our shoes on other side of the first print. Even in our clunky hiking boots, our feet looked puny in comparison. The track lead in a steady direction up the mountainside. Paleontologist Martin Lockley, who had been part of a National Geographic expedition to study the tracks in 1995, estimated that the beast was traveling about 4 miles per hour.
We occupied the same space as this monster. Millions of years ago, it might have been a similar rainy day on earth. The soil must have been muddy enough from rainstorms for the behemoth to sink in. Footprints were normally ephemeral things in sand or snow that show life had recently passed by linking you and the tracker in time and place. Now with this steady track leading up the mountain and out of sight, I couldn't help but imagine that the giant carnivore might be just over the ridge and coming back this way with some of its friends.
There was something deliberate about the tracks. The dinosaur was intent on a certain direction. Did it see something? Was it after food?
The local story was that there had been an earthquake in the 1960s that had triggered a landslide. The rock and earth must have slid off the smooth shale surface like someone upending a fully set Thanksgiving table. On a rainy day like ours, it was clear the elements would eventually work to erase the great tracks.
I had wanted to leave a mark on the land I had explored for nearly two years. Now here we were before marks that had been left over 150 million years ago. This changed things. These creatures were giants and what had they left? Footprints. In the right place at the right time and through a rare combination of the elements, their tracks had been preserved for than 2 million of my lifetimes. The footprints illustrated the answer to my question—what was the point of trying to leave a mark? Was it just so someone could look at it 100 or 200 years later?
Monuments were being built all over the country to honor its leader. How long would they last? They were only physical symbols of a man.
I altered my goal and decided not to leave a physical mark but something distinctly human. It would be to leave some positive influence, however slight, on at least one person in Turkmenistan. This did not come from a feeling of superiority; it is from being an outsider. Travelers have always had the power to stimulate a culture with outside knowledge. The travelers of the Silk Road influenced each other by exchanging ideas. Marco Polo stimulated Ghengis Khan's curiosity about Europe, enough to want to conquer it. Sailors in the port of Liverpool influenced modern music when the Elvis and blues records they carried in their sea bags were bought and played by local high school students like John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
When I left the next month, I was not sure if I had any influence on even one Turkmen. Turkmenistan, however, influenced me.
Now, four years later, in our home to northern Virginia our family practices the Turkmen custom of removing my shoes before entering our home. Each time I slipped mine off, I remember the pile of shoes in Archena's home and the tracks of the giants of Khodja Pil Ata.
John Kropf served at the American Embassy in Turkmenistan as the Country Director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). His writing credits include creative non-fiction and humor articles that have appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The South Florida Sun-Sentinal, Marco Polo Magazine, and the online humor magazine Flak. He currently works with U.S. Department of Homeland Security and lives outside Washington, D.C.
Books from the Author: