“Slowly, as we laboured east, the land heaved itself out of its sleep, tossing shallow ridges at the horizon. Sun and wind had stripped all life from it. We went through old Silk Road towns, leveled by Mongol invasion. They had revived into a polluted industrial life: the bungaloid cotton centre of Chimkent, the grimy chemical plants of Dzhamboul. Then evening came down with its gentleness over enormous wheat-fields, more like feats of nature than of men, and the westernmost ranges of the Tienshan reared from the skyline in cloudy snows and downland green with woods.” (p. 320)
“Yet from my balcony in Almaty there was no sign that I was in a city at all. I looked across parklands where the spires of a cathedral hoisted gold crosses against the mountains. Its people numbered over a million – more than half of them Russian – but its grid of streets, mounting southward to the Tienshan foothills, ran half-empty through hosts of oaks and poplars. Sometimes, so dense were these trees, I imagined I was walking along tarmac tracks through a forest. Behind them the chunky Russian offices and flat-blocks spread anonymous for mile after mile. The air blew up sharp and pure from the mountains. It was like a suburb to a heart that was missing.
It was the Russians, of course, who had raised and nourished it. All its institutes and monuments were theirs, from the fountained boulevard of Gorky Street (now renamed Silk Road Street) to the soulless hotels and war memorials. But now the city belonged to nobody. Communism, Marx and Lenin streets might be renamed after spectral khans who had ruled the steppes a century or two ago, and ministry facades be veneered with pseudo-Turkic motifs; but the Kazakh culture had no true urban expression. Less than three generations ago virtually the whole nation was split into a haze of migratory villages. Its early rulers were lost, most of them, even to saga; and its modern heroes had been selected by Soviet propaganda – secular poets and thinkers, whose statues adorned the boulevards unloved. For decades the Kazakhs had been a minority in their own country. And now this alien city had floated into their hands. They were curiously unencumbered, even by Islam: a tabula rasa for the future to write upon. (p. 232)
“The Kazakhs seemed doomed to mimic their conquerors. For days you might hunt here in vain for native artifacts. Even the city’s origins were Russian, founded in 1853 as the wood-built garrison-town of Verny. Squashed among stucco and concrete, a few timber survivors, carved with gables and filigreed eaves, evoked a homely, unceremonious place, like a frontier village. Even the gingerbread cathedral, tossing up spires and domes scaled like fantastical fish, inhabited its parkland with a florid innocence, as if a child were celebrating God…” (p. 327)
“Bards were the keepers of Kazakh culture. They sang heroic sagas yet gave voice to common feelings. Their music pervaded all events – the leaving and return to war or pasture – and conveyed an ancient morality. But their mantle had fallen on nobody. Music and literature paled under Soviet censorship, and I wondered – now that independence had dawned – what had become of the Kazakh drama, once the purveyor of Socialist Realism?” (p. 328)