Crossing the Steppe

A beauty which can be drawn and described, but not understood.  A beauty which must be experienced.  Because if drawn, it simply looks like this:

A line.  Straight.  Flat.  Above, a flat white backdrop of sky.  Below, the scruffy tan mange of the Kazakh Steppe.  In a few months it will be an endless fire of green grasses, wild flowers and floating flybutters.  But not now.  Now it is just brown, dead and frozen.

The line in the middle is the horizon.  Only, the horizon isn’t actually a line: it’s the absence of a line.  And it isn’t actually straight: it’s curved in on the edges.  I learned a trick in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean:  try to line up something straight, like the rail of a ship, with the horizon, and you’ll see the curve of the earth bowing out away from you.  If you had weird freaky insect eyes that could see all the way around it would look like a circle.  That’s because the world is round.  Or at least, that’s what I’m banking on…



The middle of the ocean is actually a good thing to compare to the middle of the steppe.  The vastness.  The featurelessness.  But even the ocean doesn’t dare make the sun look as pitifully small as when it falls off the edge of the steppe.                    I could compare it to North Dakota, but it would be like comparing an anteater to an elephant…


Kazakhstan’s is not a postcard beauty.  Nobody wants to buy this postcard.


But actually, the Kazakh Steppe is one of the visual wonders of the world.  Because of two factors which can’t be drawn:  distance and speed, as stitched together by time.  If asked to illustrate, I would draw a railroad track.


Somewhere in the night something changed.  The sporadic patches of snow and ice took over, and when I awoke I looked out of the train at the most bizarre sight I’d ever seen:  Endless flat white set against an endless white sky.  The horizon was hard to find.  The only thing different from staring at a white piece of paper was rushing speed.  We were hurtling through The Void.   It was like running with your eyes closed.  It was like being tumbled and lost in an avalanche, and I dropped a coin to figure out which way was up or down.  And the train thundered along.


The train is silent.  All eyes are glued to the spectacular sight.  For days and days.


I saw a fox trudge by in the cold.  I don’t know if it was walking on snow or sky.  I don’t know if it was real.   It was the only thing I saw for days.


On these plains nomads first captured and domesticated the wild stallions, and permanently re-wrote the history of the world.  This is the land of Genghis Khan.  Attilah the Hun.  The great warriors of the steppe who conquered and ruled empires larger than the Roman world in a fraction the time.  In the age when empires were built an the backs of horses, this steppe was the greatest oil reserve in the world.  The great Khanates were so powerful and so organized that they became to only empire in history to conquer both East and West:  all the military might of Imperial China, the vast Persian empire and the European West all falling or paying tribute before them.


For me, as with travelers of the past, my route through Central Asia has been chosen more by politics, visas and beaurocracy than by myself.  Yet I spent the winter studying and devouring any information I could about the Silk Road, past and present.  I read and re-read about the deep mysterious wonders of Samarkand, Tamerlane, Bactria, Sogdiana:  the words themselves sending tingles of excitement down my spine.  But it wasn’t just the old which interested me:  I poured and poured over corporate shipping documents any scraps of information which could shed light on the new commerse on the Iron Silk Road:  trying to find the mainline artery of rail traffic from China to Europe.  I was dying to ride a freight train across the steppe.  I was dying to visit the wonders of the ancient and critically important trade link.


But like travelers of old, unforseen circumstances have arisen.  First I lost my job in Turkey earlier than anticipated, and I arrived in Central Asia waaayy colder and broker than anticipated.   It was simply too cold to do anything outside, let alone ride outdoors on cold metal for days and days  (about an hour wandering around outside in northern Kazakhstan resulted in my eyelashes freezing shut).  Next, after paying through my NOSE for visas, an unforseen holiday made in-country registration impossible and suddenly I had 5 days to cross the entire steppe and escape Kazakhstan rather than the 2 months I had anticipated (and paid for).  Finally, due to an idiotic series of events, I ended up on the wrong passenger train heading to the wrong part of the country.  Suddenly all my Silk Road dreams were crumbling in my hands, and I was left with 5 straight days of train travel across one of the biggest, flattest countries in the world.


So I walked away from the steppe.  An I walked away as confused and mesmerized as before I arrived.  Was I even there?  Was it a dream?  After months of anticipation, I didn’t learn, explore, adventure or triumph.  But I did interact with it the way people have for eons, the only way to truly understand the beauty of Kazakhstan:  I did cross the steppe.  And with it, a huge step forward in getting around the planet.


I am far from the first traveler in Central Asia to be pushed around by the whims of empire and government.  But the Silk Road is far from over, and like the traders of old, my path turns south away from the cruel warriors of the steppe:  south to Kyrgyzstan, and the mountains.  Mountains which push up and up and up until they pierce the very sky, mountains which eventually form the highest peaks in the entire world.  The Silk Road carries on.



3 thoughts on “Crossing the Steppe

  1. Keep the adventures coming. I am in the comparative mundane world of Savannah, Ga. sitting in my comfy bed learning about the Steppe. Sending thanks an hugs… What a world!

  2. What a disappointment to only have the five days. Thankfully you had the shelter of the train. Frozen eyelashes were the portent of the human body’s frailty against the wrath of winter.
    Wondering if this lovely green train had any of the luxuries of the Orient Express?
    Thankful that you have made a huge step across the steepe. Wishing you were back home in Olympia.

  3. What a surreal landscape! The simplicity, the featurelessness, as you put it, mile-after-mile makes it other-worldly. Thank you for describing it so eloquently!

    Hey! Your green train photo made me think of an article in the NYT, which features a train that looks exactly like yours! Here’s the multi-media part of the article:

    May you meet wise and kind people and find good food and water on the road ahead. Keep us posted ! ;o)

    Lilly sends a wag.
    PS: I love your map!

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