Archive

Things From Here

A roadside watermelon vendor on my street. The way fruit is meant to be sold

I have now left Kazakhstan and returned to the USA. This means that I will soon be closing down this blog. However, before I do so, I wanted to share some valedictory thoughts.

One the flight back I had a good think about my favorite and least favorite aspects of my life in Kazakhstan, what I expect in the immediate term to miss, and what I will be just as happy to leave behind.

I will miss:

Grocery shopping in proper markets. I am no stranger to bargaining, but this year was the first during which haggling over the price of lemons, dill, melons, eggs and sausage was a weekly occurrence. It meant working for my food, in a sense, and I came to really appreciate this chore as a feast for the senses. At least in the spring and summer, the bazaar offered a riot of flavors, smells, and tastes. I don’t believe I really knew how cucumber tasted before coming to Kazakhstan. Perhaps the vegetables’ exceptional quality was the consequence of being handled by the weathered, dusty hands of the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Tartar, Uighur, and Uzbek grandfathers and grandmothers working the market stalls.

The Zailisky Alatau Mountains bordering Almaty to the south. Anyone who has lived in the city and has two functioning eyes in his head (or has, as in my case, heavily corrective visual aids) will tell you that the snowcapped, craggy range is Almaty’s outstanding geographic feature. The mountains featured in one of my earliest blog posts, and they continued to be a source of inspiration and enjoyment throughout the year. They are both majestic and accessible.

The weather. The weather features heavily in discussions about and usually as a negative factor: winters are too cold; summers are too hot. My blog is also guilty of indulging in this habit. But the reality is that Kazakhstan’s climate need not detract from one’s enjoyment of the country. The English talk ceaselessly about weather, and in so doing they are stretching the limits of what there is to say about drizzle. In contrast, Almaty has exciting weather. Kazakhstan has climate with character. I will miss the crisp winter mornings and languid summer evenings as much as the perfect spring and autumn afternoons, when individual leaves on the trees stand out against the pellucid sky.

Shashlik. Shashlik is meat roasted on a metal skewer, but is distinguished from barbeque is the USA, kebab in Turkey, and chuar in Northern China by its dense, smoky flavor. My favorite shashlikhana was little more than a converted garage with a fancy tarpaulin for a roof. As far as I ascertained, its menu consisted only of lamb, beef, chicken, duck, heart and liver (I don’t know of what animal) shashlik; fresh Kazakh draft beer; simple salads of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and dill; chopped onions; bread; tea. The restaurant was never fully stocked despite being consistently crowded; many nights they ran out of either tea or beer (never both). I failed to discover the secret ingredient in the shashlik, although the best shashlik is supposedly grilled over an endangered species of steppe juniper.

My brother with a trained hunting eagle. Childhood nightmare?

I will not miss:

Horsemeat. I tried it, tried it again, and tried it again after that, so no one can say I didn’t give it a fair trial, but it just is not for me.

Being forbidden to help with any of the cleaning of cups or dishes because I am a man.

Earthquakes.

I fully intend to import to the USA:

Drinking vodka as it was meant to be drunk. Westerners learned to drink vodka in martinis, and American university students to drink it lukewarm out of plastic cups with orange juice, but no one living in a vodka-dependent country drinks it this way. My Korean-Kazakh friend taught me a better method: in shots poured out of a frosty bottle, chased by herring or black bread, and consumed alongside warm green tea. This is a recipe for a relaxing evening and an almost hangover-free following morning. Look out friends.

Hunting with eagles. Who needs guns for either hunting or protection when this is your pet? I think the NRA has missed the boat on this.

The Russian language’s colorful array of interjections and swearwords, which have an impressive and impressively gradated range of offensiveness and impact. The most useful is “blin’,” which is used like “shoot” or “darn” but is less hokey. Blin’ literally means pancake (as in blini, which is the plural) and came to have this meaning because the first blin’ of the batch always burns in the pan. I won’t share the more colorful words I learned.

Squatting.

I plan to return to Central Asia in the near future, so my premature nostalgia and respite are both equally temporary. Until then, however, I will do my best to practice those habits I appreciate, purge myself of those I don’t, and keep alive the memories of my amazing adventure.

I originally hoped to publish the below piece with another online Central Asia news and opinions site. That didn’t work out. It is therefore slightly out of date, but I wanted to share it here nonetheless.

* * *

An incidental development in the anti-Putin protests in Moscow may have lasting implications for cultural connections between Russia and Kazakhstan.

Following Putin’s inauguration as president for a third term, and in a continuation of earlier protests, thousands in Moscow have taken to the streets. Several incidents last week ended in violence between police and protesters, and on 9 May two of the opposition’s leaders, Aleksei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were arrested. Prior to his arrest, however, Navalny used Twitter to rally supporters to Moscow’s Chistye Prudy Park for an Occupy-style sit-in.

The crowd that gathered at Chistye Prudy took the name “OccupyAbai” after the nearby statue of the 19th century Kazakh poet-philosopher Abai Qunanbaiuli. To the Occupiers, the statue did not have any significance except as a geographic marker. Announcing the protest location, Navalny Tweeted that he was “going to #chistiyeprudy to the monument of an obscure Kazakh poet” (iPort.kz). An AP reporter later described the “OccupyAbai” name as “a random choice” (abcnews.com).

Abai is anything but obscure in Kazakhstan. His statue stands at the end of a main thoroughfare bearing his name. His poetry is still widely read, and Mukhtar Auezov’s novels Abai and The Path of Abai are modern classics of Kazakh literature. Moreover, were one so inclined, one could draw out resonances in the Moscow opposition’s choice of name. Like those in Chistye Prudy, Abai too wanted modernization and reform in his country.

That Navalny was ignorant of Abai illustrates the gulf that divides the formerly fraternal Soviet peoples, and especially the remove Muscovites feel from those in Russia’s former Central Asian colonies. Ironically, the statue was unveiled in 2006 by Putin and Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev as a symbol of the close cultural ties between their two countries. Those ties were evidently weak. But by and large, this is true in only one direction. It is hard to imagine a Kazakh as educated as Navalny not knowing Pushkin. Nonetheless, the lack of a cultural dialog leads to unpredictable interpretations of the signals being sent. Even as Kazakhs watch events in Moscow, they are reaching different conclusions about their significance.

On 11 May, #OccupyAbai was trending as the third most popular topic on Twitter globally and the first among the Russian-language Tweets. People were interested in the “unknown Kazakh.” Indicative of the different attitudes now prevailing in the two countries, this was not viewed as a bridge between the protest spirit in Moscow and any analogous feelings in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh Internet space seems more interested in the good PR for the country: one commentator of TengriNews.kz speculates on the increase in book sales; Murat Izhanov, proprietor of Kazakh.ru, wrote that this was an opportunity to popularize Kazakh culture.

In light of the Arab Spring, many in Kazakhstan have been wondering if the protest spirit in Moscow will spread. If the revolution will be Tweeted and Internet ephemera are a barometer of societal moods, then anyone hoping for a Central Asian Spring should not hold his breath. The cultural divide between Russia and Kazakhstan appears to be acting as a firebreak.

However, the OccupyAbai incident is spurring a cultural rapprochement with potential consequences for the future. Now that Navalny and Udaltsov are in prison, some reports suggest Abai has become the figurehead of the protest movement; others have begun referring to the protesters as the “independent government of Abai-stan” (yvision.ru). Protesters are also beginning to find inspiration in Abai’s poetry. One line in particular is being frequently quoted: “The worst man from any number of men is the man without convictions” (my translation). The longer Muscovites and Kazakhs consider this sentiment together, the more likely it is that future popular movements in Russia will find deeper resonance in Kazakhstan. Such concerns aside, though, the joint appreciation of Abai may be the first step in a greater sharing of cultural touchstones between these two neighboring countries.

Karlag HQ at Dolinka. They have preserved the building as it was.

“Karlag” is the abbreviation of Karagandinskii ispravitel’no-trudovoi lager (Карагандинский исправительно-трудовой лагер), the Russian for Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp, the largest of the camps that comprised the Gulag. On my recent trip to Karaganda, I spent my first day at Dolinka, a small town 45km to the southwest. Dolinka was home to Karlag headquarters. The old administrative building from which Karlag was run is now a museum to Stalin’s victims.

The Gulag was most notably introduced to the West by Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). Under Stalin, Soviet “criminals” were sent to labor camps in some of the least hospitable regions of the USSR to perform hard labor: coal mining in Kolyma, agriculture on the Kazakh steppe, the construction of the Belomor canal north of Moscow. According to an authoritative study by Steven A. Barnes, Death and Redemption, 18 million souls passed through the Gulag system–approximately 6% of the USSR’s population as it was in 1991–and many died or otherwise never returned to their families and homes.

There are many myths that surround the Gulag. One is that it was a wholly capricious system in which the majority of inmates were innocent of crimes as we, in the West, perceive crime. Another is that the Gulag was a system of death camps.

The Belorussian monument at Spassk

Karlag’s history demonstrates that it is wrong to think of the Soviet corrective labor system as similar in a substantive way either to German concentration camps on the one hand or the American internment camps for Japanese[-Americans] in WWII on the other. For one thing, Karlag was much larger than any camps in either of those systems: 200km wide at its widest and 300km long at its tallest, our tour guide at Dolinka compared it to the size of France (670,000sq. km). This is not quite accurate because Karlag was not a rectangle, but the point stands. This camp was on the scale of small or mid-sized European countries. There is no way that such a massive territory could be efficiently patrolled and guarded as to be impenetrable either in or out.

Moreover, as Barnes argues convincingly, unlike a Nazi camp, Karlag was a penal colony with the reeducation through labor and reintegration of its prisoner population into Soviet society as its ultimate goal. At Karlag, inmates  were put to work by and large in agriculture and animal herding.

Lastly, the inmates ranged from prisoners of political conscience and innocents ratted out for allegedly having spoken even a few words against the State to hardened criminals, POWs and others who might “conventionally” be considered threats to the the general population. Again drawing from Barnes, the

The monument to repressed artists at Dolinka

Gulag system developed a remarkably complex bureaucracy and system of institution with which to sort and categorize prisoners: those considered more dangerous were sent to the most distant and difficult camps.

None of this is to say, however, that the system was not deeply perverse. The “most dangerous” criminals were those who were the “counterrevolutionary agitators,” i.e. “politicals” from the intelligentsia. Thieves and professional criminals were treated with greater leniency because, in the eyes of the state, these people were closer to the working classes and more redeemable.

Furthermore, Stalin frequently classed whole populations of people as suspect and had them deported into the Soviet hinterland. Thus in the 1930s Poles were the first to be relocated from the European Soviet Union to Kazakhstan; later quite literally all of the Chechens and the Ingush were deported to Karaganda. But as in Dante’s Inferno, there were gradations of Hell. The deportees did not technically live within the borders of Karlag. They lived much as the free citizens of Kazakhstan at the time. However, Karlag’s administration was bureaucratically responsible for the deportee populations, and the deportees could not freely relocate elsewhere. They were, in effect, put under house arrest in new homes in a different republic of the Soviet Union. Interestingly – and something never mentioned in the museum at Dolinka – Barnes writes that ethnic Kazakhs were rarely incarcerated at Karlag. It would have been too easy for them to slip into the steppe and hide among the free population. Kazakh Gulag prisoners were sent to camps within Russia.

Israeli monument at Spassk

The museum was otherwise decent, but the fate to befall Karlag inmates and deportees was better communicated by walking across the land these people were forced to work and from which they had to eek not only subsistence, but also production quotas of wheat. Labor above and beyond the Plan was the way to demonstrate ones reform and commitment to Soviet society. But even on the spring day on which I visited, it was cold and wet, and the soil looked neither rich nor fertile. It is hard to imagine inmates’ suffering in the depths of winter and peaks of summer.

An associated monument to Stalin’s victims is at Spassk, the site of a former POW camp under the umbrella of Karlag. Spassk now houses a series of monuments. Countries from which citizens were interned either as military combatants or as suspect peoples have erected stone markers reminiscent of large gravestones. The countries include Belorussia, Russia, Ukraine and also France, Korea and Israel, among others. Each has a simple inscription in several languages. There is little fanfare around the stones; behind them stand several unmarked black crosses of different sizes and unknown provenance. Together, the markers are a quiet, dignified and fitting memorial out on the steppe.

The steppe near Dolinka and Karlag on the day we visited

The numbers on my door.

James C. Scott, who teaches at Yale and whose works I read extensively in my Masters program, writes about the “legibility” of societies, by which he means the government’s ability to locate and measure all of the territory and population over which it is sovereign. In his conception, as I remember it several months on, the process of rendering a society legible involves dividing and defining space, time and population subcategories (through tools like censuses and maps, about which Benedict Anderson has written most influentially, and also through cadastral surveys and orderly urban and agricultural planning) and the purpose is to give the state “panoptic” control over its sovereign possessions. It also helps with the levying of taxes.

Kazakhstan is arguably the least legible society I’ve ever lived in. This isn’t saying too much, since I have lived in Hong Kong, Beijing, New York and Cambridge, England. These are hardly the “wilds.” However, it was nonetheless surprising to me because part of the Soviet high-modernist project (Scott’s phrase here) was precisely to render society into a unified, productive machine, which of course required that all of society be legible. By way of example, unemployment in the Soviet Union was referred to as “parasitism.” (The term also extended, mind you, to artists who were not officially employed as such full-time.) As a corollary to the USSR’s super-legibility, the Soviets were also fanatical note-takers and filers. Soviet archives are treasure-troves.

Kazakh appears to me to be “illegible” in little, perhaps insignificant ways. Take, for example, that I live in apartment 85 not on the 8th floor of a building of 39 independent apartments. Friends of mine in another building live in apartment 46, which is on the 3rd floor: across the hall and up one floor from apartment 45. The street number system is also inconsistent: although most streets use the “American” numbering system (odd numbered lots are on one side of the street, evens on the other, and both sets increase as you move in one direction), at least one street uses the London system (numbers increase going up one side of the street, cross to the other side at the end and then continue to rise as one returns to the start). Needless to say, finding anything in the winter can be excruciating.

These foibles of management, as I’ve taken to thinking of them, seemingly penetrate into all spheres: excess employees with no work to do; the impossibility of printing anything unless you have access to a relatively upscale office; restaurants advertising food they don’t have or running out of tea when too many customers appear; whole computer networks at institutions so riddled with viruses that it is inadvisable to transfer any files off the system. In May 2011, when I first came to Kazakhstan, there were new street signs designed for pedestrians at intersections. Those were removed in the summer such that by the fall of 2011, the only street signs are again those for cars, which are positioned such as to often be hard for pedestrians to read. Why would the city take down perfectly useful signs?!

Of course, some of these problems result from deficits of resources and funding, but many are simply inefficiencies that no one cares to resolve. I suspect (and here regular readers can hear the sound of familiar hooves approaching) that many of my perceived inefficiencies date from the Soviet era, when efficiency was never paramount, and that the system has perpetuated these for its own reasons. It is, I imagine, easier to be corrupt or to hide in Almaty than in Chicago. These quirks are, however, unmistakably a source of Almaty’s charm – as long as you don’t have anywhere to be in a hurry.

A late-Soviet era residential building in downtown Almaty with a statue to a Kazakh folk hero out front

Central Asia, and especially Kazakhstan, was effectively a testing ground for Soviet experiments of all sorts. This is most tragically the case with regards to weaponry and military capability. Until the souring of relations with China, Soviet Central Asia was an inland fortress, protected by natural and political defenses on all sides. Eastern Kazakhstan was therefore selected to host the Soviet nuclear testing site: the “Polygon” zone saw some 450 nuclear explosions, only 350 below ground, several in the atmosphere. In the country’s west, the ironically-named Vozrozhdeniye (Renaissance) island in the Aral Sea was used to test biohazardous material, including weaponized anthrax.

As a testing site, the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic had the advantage of being huge, mostly unpopulated and undeveloped in a traditional sense. But besides being protected, isolated and “empty,” it was also politically a safer place in which to conduct experiments. As one friend of mine here argued, despite rhetoric about the brotherhood of nationalities, Russians did not care about the well-being of the nomadic, uncivilized and subjugated Soviet Kazakhs. If a bomb goes off on the steppe and no one important hears it, does it make a sound?

And Moscow’s exploitation of the Kazakh SSR extended far beyond weapons testing. In no particular order, this was also the site of Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign in the 1950s – an attempt to transform huge areas of unproductive land into wheat and cotton fields through massive irrigation efforts and agricultural pseudo-science; experiments in the economics of penal labor – Karaganda, in northern-central Kazakhstan, was the site of the largest single camp in the system of correctional labor facilities popularly called the “gulag”; and aerospace technology – the Baikonur space center, in south-central Kazakhstan, was the heart of the Soviet space program.

1980s apartment buildings along a main shopping street. These are unique in the city.

I recently read a 1995 article by one Prof. Paul Josephson of Sarah Lawrence College about the Soviet penchant for giant infrastructural projects (“Projects of the Century in Soviet History: Large-Scale Technologies from Lenin to Gorbachev,” Technology and Culture Vol. 36, No. 3, June 1995). As Josephson points out, there were economic, political and popular incentives to undertake large-scale, unsound projects built into the Soviet system. In a system where “costs” are notionally non-existent but unemployment is a pressing problem, firms choose projects that engage the maximum number of resources. These were also prestige projects. The culture of reckless experimentation is explicable by similar logic.

But not all testing in Central Asia was so dramatic or devastating. Largely undeveloped until after the Second World War, Almaty was also a natural location in which to conduct urban planning experiments. Leftist architectural theory was strong throughout Soviet history, as even space itself would shape the evolution of homo Sovieticus, but it was hard to test theories in developed cities. According to Catherine Alexander, Dinmukhammed Kunayev’s tenure (1960-1986) coincides with Almaty’s “golden age” of urban development and expansion, necessitated in part by the flood of migrants from Khrushchev’s marginally viable Virgin Lands campaign further north (“Soviet and Post-Soviet Planning in Almaty, Kazakhstan,” Critique of Anthropology, Vol. 27, No. 165, 2007).

In ecological terms the effects were disastrous, but in urban planning and architectural terms alone, the results are mixed. A handful of massive vaguely neoclassical show-piece buildings (the opera, the Academy of Sciences) are framed by popular thoroughfares to theatrical effect. Although locals call these buildings “beautiful,” I think they do so by rote. More to my taste (although “interest” is a better word) are the late 1970s-80s apartment buildings sprinkled around the city.

People have told me that my appreciation of these buildings is “ironic,” that I “cannot be serious.” But I am. I like these buildings in the same why I appreciate most art: they’re ghastly, sure, but they reflect a real, if distorted, utopian social project. They are genuine historical artifacts. The modularity, the concrete-slab construction, the function-over-form, the (failed) space-age aesthetic mark these buildings as the very real manifestations of the theoretical principles of 1960s-80s Continental social theorists. They are Frankenstein’s monsters, and they have infinitely more character than the shiny New York skyscraper in which I used to work.

All of this raises another question: What does it do to a nation to exists among the detritus of failed experiments? How does living amongst the wreckage of so many high modernist projects-run-aground impact the social and individual psyche?

It does not appear to dissuade the inheritors from undertaking their own massive pipe-dream “projects of the century,” as a recent National Geographic article about Astana makes clear. I can recommend this article for the pictures, but I will warn that almost nothing written by the journalist meshes with what I’ve heard about Astana.

My apologies for having become less consistent about posting. I’ve been quite busy since returning from India. Soon my life should settle back into a routine, after which time I will once again be a consistent and thrilling blogger.

Today I heard a couple of jokes (neither about Brezhnev, and I’m not clear on the origins of either) that were more tragic than humorous. An artist friend of mine told me the first over beer, cognac and black tea (all at once, though not mixed. Having this many diverse drinks in front of one is not uncommon here. The tea is supposed to soften the effects of the cognac, and the beer must be to nullify the effect of the tea. It is like an alcoholic game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”):

History is the most exact science. As we write it, it becomes fact.

As I’ve suggested before – and as almost any history of the USSR or Communist China will note – “Stalinist regimes” are guiltier than most at exploiting the logic of this quip.

But they are not alone. Kazakhstan is a country very much in the process of re-writing its own history. Those in charge are not erasing and inventing episodes to nearly the same extent as past dictatorial administrations, but they are selectively downplaying and exaggerating in bold, if not unique, ways. For instance, the large room devoted to the Soviet era in Kazakhstan’s Central Historical Museum begins with a festive selection of the minority populations represented in the country (Belorussians, Ingush, Koreans, Kurds, etc.). Scant mention is made of the fact that most of these populations are represented here because their grandfathers and grandmothers were induced to move here by the Soviet state. The entire Chechen population of the USSR was relocated to Kazakhstan in one week in 1944. If the NKVD couldn’t deport you, they shot you. Breezing over this complicated history, the path around the room culminates in a celebration of Kazakhs’ contributions to the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Then the exhibit ends – in 1945. The next room picks up the story in 1991.

Can I blame them? Over the past 500 years, Kazakhs have enjoyed few opportunities to write their own story; for much of the time that historians believe Kazakhs constituted a self-conscious nation, they’ve been subject to external rule and pressure. This has created a terribly complex history and an even more fraught relationship to that history. The layers implicit in the second “joke,” told to me by my Russian teacher, illustrated that point.

When Timur (Tamerlane – probably an Uzbek, but claimed by the Kazakhs as a native son) conquered new lands, he was in the habit of collecting punishing taxes from the people. He’d send out his troops to requisition grain, animals, etc. Then, when the commanders had returned, Timur would summon them to him.

“Did you take their grain?” he’d ask.
“Yes sir, we did.”
“And how did the people react?” he’d continue.
“They cried.”
“That means they have more to give,” he’d conclude, and send his troops back out.

His troops would return, and each time, Timur would go through the same questions:

“Did you take their grain?”
“Yes sir, we did.”
“And how did the people react?”
“They cried.”
“That means they have more to give.”

Eventually, however, the troops would return with a different answer.

“Did you take their grain?”
“Yes sir, we did.”
“And how did the people react?”
“They laughed.”
“Then they have nothing left.”

Hilarious, right? This short story caused me to reflect on the human psychology, but not with regard to the ostensible lesson. Instead, it dawned on me that this was a Soviet joke on the surface about the cruelty of the pre-Soviet cultures and heroes in Central Asia. But discussion of Genghis Khan, Timur, and other towering figures of regional history was, I am lead to believe, largely forbidden throughout much of the Soviet period. Therefore, this is probably a Soviet joke about the Soviet system disguised as an “illegal” joke about Central Asia.

And the layers of the onion multiply as I consider that I’m being told this joke in contemporary Kazakhstan – in which it is all but a rule that one must celebrate the age of Genghis Khan and Timur, even though neither were Kazakh – by a Kazakh woman who does not speak Kazakh and identifies more closely with “her people’s” past colonizers. And there are many like her.

In short, Kazakhstan’s history is immensely difficult to untangle, but it is also incredibly intricate and fascinating. Instead of celebrating its richness, however, those who are writing the new national historical narrative are approaching this fragile structure with a hammer. In so doing, they are repeating old mistakes; they really should know better.

Humanyun's Tomb. Construction began in 1562.

I am writing you this evening from New Delhi, capital of India! (I can tell you that I’m traveling this time, unlike in the past, because I now have a roommate in Almaty – my friend Leroy – and am therefore not worried about advertising my absence from the city.)

Before I explain why, however, I want to bring your attention to my short article published on The Fletcher School’s foreign affairs blog: “China: The View from Next Door.” Those of you who read my posts regularly will be familiar with the ideas and themes covered, but I hope it raises some important questions for readers. I hope to do much more of this kind of publishing in the near future.

This is my first time in India, and I am blown away. I’ve long heard from friends and fountains of “common knowledge” like Eat Prey, Love that India is an incredible place, but it is only now that I am fully convinced: the sights, sounds, smells, people, flavors are a bit overwhelming, but also invigorating and fascinating. I know very little about Indian history or the country’s contemporary situation, but I am struck by the desire to learn more.

I’m here because the Fulbright Conference for all the grantees in Central and South Asia is going to be in southern India in early March. I decided to tack on a few days to the front of the trip in order to see a bit more of the subcontinent.

Having only just arrived today, I haven’t done too much yet; however, my big tourist site for the day was Humayun’s Tomb (pictured top). If I’m not mistaken, this 16th century mausoleum is considered one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture, and I was most fascinated by the similarities I could see to Central Asian architecture from about the same period. This isn’t entirely surprising, though.

Carved stone screen at the Tomb

Humayun (1508-1556) was the son of Babur, founder of Mughal dynasty and himself a Central Asian Muslim. He likely hailed from what is today Uzbekistan. The establishment of the Mughals therefore also opened the door to Central Asian influences and innovations – including, perhaps, naan and samosas (although that assertion could well be apocryphal). That the Mughals had a heavy influence upon vernacular architecture, however, is beyond doubt.

Specifically, the forms, rhythms, weight, drama, &c. were all very familiar, but what I found exciting about the Tomb was the ways in which I could see how certain patterns had been either elaborated or simplified, embellished or refined, as they moved from Central Asia. This was clearest in the stone screens covering window openings. I also think the use of contrasting red and white stone was done with particular sophistication in this instance, giving the huge monument an energy that saves it from becoming exaggeratedly bulky.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of India. This introduction is made even more surreal due to the fact that just yesterday I was skiing in the mountains thirty minutes outside Almaty. From snowy mountaintop to Mughal tombs, curry and the warm Delhi sun – I have to say, I’m a lucky guy!

The slopes at Shimbulak, the ski resort 30 minutes from the heart of downtown Almaty.