Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chapter 6. Our conversation continues

I looked through the slim library-bound book he had pulled out of his briefcase and handed me, which was full of all this new but somewhat dry information about Kalmuks. I'm pretty sure it had been printed out from the Internet.

"Well, that's probably more than I needed to know, and I still know nothing."

He smiled. "I'm filming the great Silk Road of the traders and also the road of the horse bowmen of the steppes as they moved westward and conquered most of the known world. It's a familiar road for my ancestors. They traveled it over 1500 years before the christian era."

In my imagination I could see people in heavy-laden ox-drawn carts moving, with herds of sheep, across the grassy miles of Mongolia. I had seen photos and heard someone speak of those green meadows, seen from a train on the trans-Siberian railway in the '80's.

"Mmm. That’s more interesting," I said.

He smiled again. "Would you like to see such places? Like Mongolia?"

"Someday, perhaps," I said, oddly sad. I shook my head slightly, to clear my mind. "You're planning to make feature films?"

"Yes, they shall be historically based but shall have romantic and heroic plots, and the most remarkable of settings. All of this is story telling will be to show the remarkable settings so as to invite tourism. They are made to be shown in movie houses all over Central Asia, and who knows, maybe even in the west."

"It should work. I went to see 'Ryan's Daughter,' you know, that movie shot in Ireland...?"

He nodded.
"and at the end of the movie the whole audience left and ran to the Irish travel Bureau."

"The people who pay me will be very pleased if this happens with my films,” he said.

"So,” I said, unwilling to end the conversation, “Will you do Marco Polo? Alexander the Great?"

"Maybe not, except as minor characters. They are not our heroes. I know they are most important to the Europeans." He smiled faintly. "But we have already established that I am not a European. More significantly, I am not being paid by Europeans to make these films."

"Who, then?" Obviously he had been hired by some government agency, the way they do it in Russia. Or did. Or whatever. But he didn’t answer that question. He talked about the heroes, which was, of course, much more interesting.

"I am searching for plots and locations for Genghis Khan and Tamurlaine, also Attila long before, also many others who have gone on the road from China to Europe, real stories, forgotten enough so that we can make up adventures and romances that didn't happen."

"Sounds like fun" I said.

“Yes. It is unfortunate that you’re not a writer.”

“I disagree,” I smiled. "It is fortunate."

"I have much territory to cover to find backgrounds for my films. The Mongols conquered almost the entire world in the 13th century."

"The entire world?" I smiled skeptically.

"The known world. Almost all of it. Oh yes. The empire of Genghis Khan was bigger than any empire the world has ever known, even until today. The Soviet Union tried hard to match it, but didn't quite succeed. Genqhis and his generals conquered practically every medieval army in Europe. All but two of them. The only armies that remained standing were the ones that woke up one morning expecting to be destroyed, marched out to fight and found the Mongols had gone."

"All the Mongols? Why did they do that?"

"They had an odd tendency to go home every time a ruler died, to be part of the re-election."

"Go home!? A thousand mile trek home? Just like that?"

"Much more than than a thousand miles, I think. This spared Europe more than once because of that peculiar behavior. All the same, they held on to a huge empire, including all of China. They pulled Russia out of the renascence, which explains why we still have such primitive temperaments.” He looked at me for a moment and I just barely held down an outrageous blush. “They even ruled India," he continued with a faint smile, " the Moguls are really the Mongols -- and they effectively owned most of the land mass of what is now Europe until very recently. Most Central Asians are very proud of the empire of Genghis Khan. There is much to recommend unity. It is said that there was a time when a young girl could have walked alone with a pot of gold on her head from China to the far borders of Poland and Hungary, and no one would have bothered her."

"Such is the power of a strong empire?" I asked. “They destroy the world so they can protect the vulnerable?”
"I suppose you could say that," he nodded.

I stared at him. “They certainly conquered the lands of my ancestors. They’re from Russia. Why don’t I look more oriental?”

He smiled like a boy, aware that I was flirting. "It is most interesting. Now, archaeologists are finding people with your blue eyes and light hair -- even red hair -- in the deserts of Sinkiang where the Chinese definitely do not want them."

Fascinated, I forgot the game and leaned over the aisle, only backing up for passing food carts. "What do you mean? Why not?"

"It's a new discovery, it means perhaps that Europeans went east, perhaps thousands of years before anyone imagined. Perhaps they will have a claim to land the Chinese very much wish to establish rights to."

"You mean the Chinese really worry about people that long ago?"

"The Chinese simply worry. Now they are pushing the native Uyghurs out of Sinkiang and replacing them with Han Chinese. Very bad for film-makers. Uighurs dress with many beautiful colors and have fine, how do you say happy-go-lucky personalities. Han Chinese have no colors and try to have very grim personalities."

I paused again, my head full of fascinating mysteries. I'd have to look this all up on the computer. I got nosy. "Who is paying you? If you don't mind me asking, that is," I probed.

"I am paid by CIS tourism departments. Tourism will save the world, you know. All the world prays for the continued financial success of all capitalist countries."

I rewarded his wit with a grin. "But, CIS? Am I supposed to know what that is?"

"If you deal with oil or emerging markets, perhaps. But you don't, of course. We have established that you do nothing, which, of course, is a fine state, full of potential."

"Don't get me started on potential," I mumbled.
"You are American?"


"You don't like human potential? I am surprised."

"Well, I don't," I answered.

"May we discuss?"

"Some other day," I said, astonished at my own rudeness.

Still, I was like a bloodhound now, on a scent of something lovely that had caught me by surprise -- maybe it was surprise itself, of things I didn't know already, new worlds, fresh views and ideas and histories, anything not stale, not connected with the life I had left behind me. I got a flash of myself at 17 at the downtown Los Angeles train station, leaving home on the night train for the unknown world of a distant university I'd somehow managed to get myself into.

My goal had just been to get away from a family who thought I should stay home until I was married, and then should stay in that home. That was not for me. So I left to explore, but had no idea what I was about to find. I had climbed into the thin, intoxicating air and unknown peaks of college. I sat in classes and peered into books that were actually about something, and for the first time actually experienced the amazement of learning, the pull and peculiarity of new ways of thinking, new languages, like songs from distant countries. The mountain tops from which I could see everywhere. A completely new kind of happiness.

And, ultimately, the fall, because there’s more to surviving in paradise than just loving it, as I learned the hard way. It was a tumble from a very lofty place, so high that it took decades to reach the bottom. And there I had stayed, in the shadow that fell over my soul, where I could see almost nothing. I couldn’t even read, not a really challenging book, without getting up every few minutes to do some kind of task. I had once forced myself to read something that really told me something, I think it was a book of literary criticism, very difficult, very wonderful, and every time I pulled my eyes away from the book, I had noted the time and wrote a few words about what I was feeling.

The odd thing this exercise revealed was that this kind of happiness was forbidden. And I had no idea why. I continued on my own, carried books with me everywhere, wonderful books but tough reading, challenging, as though I were a talented but unformed tennis player allowed to play with a top professional. And I wrote in journals unendingly. But I never could stay with anything, and I put the projects down for so long, I hardly remember that I had done them. There were children, difficult husbands, lots of work and balancing, a kind of hunger for affection that I couldn’t seem to fill, or maybe didn’t really want. I don’t know anymore.

"Come back," he said kindly, but almost firmly, startling me with a tone much too intimate for a stranger. I stared at him. Immediately he started talking.

"Let me tell you about the CIS," he smiled, making me uncertain about what he had just done. "Very few westerners know about it. The Soviet Union hid CIS behind the Iron Curtain and only now do they emerge once again on the world scene. CIS means Central Asian states, once were in the Soviet Union, now newly independent. The 'Stans' Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkemenistan..." he took a bite of food and nodded to me to do the same."

"Yes," I said, glancing at my tray and then back at him, without picking up any food. "I'm remembering an article I'd read in a news magazine, "Pakistan? Wasn't there a Baltistan somewhere? Will you go to Afghanistan?"

He choked and coughed at the same time, put up his hand as if to stop me while he picked up his bottle of water and drank until it was almost empty, and then, after a moment, said quietly, "Perhaps you shall wait for further descriptions before saying such things out loud in a plane heading for the Near East. No, I don't mean Afghanistan for certain, which is a country no one has ever conquered, most recently driving Russia out quite beaten. No, most recently harboring terrorists who attack America with some success.

“I will not be making movies of Afghanistan, as I have a Russian passport and am not beloved there. And I cannot begin to understand how Afghanistan feels about tourism right now. Or movie stars. After having been freed once again, the professional women have been returned to deep Purdah, buried in the Islamic religion and sent backwards to the middle ages. Many of them now starve on the streets."

"I know," I said, and the same familiar sadness came over me again.

"Are you a religious person?" he interrupted.

It worked. "God, no," I said and we both laughed at my choice of words. "You?"

"I am raised in Russia. I am atheist, of course."

"Nothing supernatural for me," I murmered. "Reality is weird enough."

"And knowledge is deep enough. I think for many, the supernatural gives them a dimension past the surface and the obvious. Something deeper. They too are bored. Too bad they can not cultivate an interest in history or geology or science, don't you agree?"

But I hadn't said anything to him about being bored. I looked at him more carefully.

Again he interrupted. "I choked before because you surprised me when you mentioned Baltistan. That's in the northwest territories of Pakistan, which also has never been conquered. In its northern parts, Pakistan is as wild and ferocious as Afghanistan, with the very same proud people in its mountains. They, too, have never really allowed any foreign country to really conquer. The British enjoyed pretending they had done so, but they knew the truth. You can’t conquer people in their own mountains.”

"The British? Oh, when they had India?"

"The Great Game. Oh the British are -- well, were -- very brave and very foolish. Brittle people with very little sense, the ones who fought the Great Game. I will send you a book if you like. Very good. I am sure you would like it. The writer's name is Keay. If you read his pages, you see a great drama, even a film. Huge forces crashing into each other, like continents."

I wrote down the author's name and the titles of two of his books, Where Men and Mountains Meet and The Gilgit Game. I liked the titles. But something made me think I was dreaming or that I had created the entire conversation in my mind. I wasn't sure why I felt that way but this man was talking as if he had notes about what had mattered to me many years ago. I felt a little off balance. He didn't seem to notice, and continued.

“And Baltistan, well, that is a very special place in a country of very special places. You suprised me to mention it. It is a country where I am determined to make the first film. And Dardistan. And Hunza, which sits in the arms of an ancient mountain of enormous height, and gazes directly to the south, at the slowly advancing sheer wall, almost 4 miles high which has traveled inexorably on a floating continent from south of the equator and pushes back into Asia and up into the sky an ancient volcano, one of a now-gone range of guardian volcanoes that once protected the beaches that no longer exist -- or rather, that were pushed up and up until at the top of the highest mountains you find fossils of marine animals and seashells. And at the head of that battering wall is one of the newest, hardest and highest mountains of them all."

The stewardess rolled the sheer wall of her food cart directly between us.

"Were you ever a teacher? I called over the aluminum wall that blocked my view.
"A geologist."
"What's the name of those mountains?" I called, pulling out my computer.
"Rakaposhi," he said. "Nanga Parbat."

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