A Road Trip Across Central Asia

Traveling Across Eurasia: Jeffrey Tayler’s Murderers in Mausoleums

By Jennifer Bellenoit

Across the largest land mass in the world, powerful and deadly empires once ruled. Genghis Khan shook up most of the continent by paving a ruthless path of destruction that stretched from China to eastern parts of Europe. Since then, the land and its people have been exploited by relentless wars, power-hungry tyrants and the Communist regime.

Murderers in Mausoleums by Jeffrey TaylerBut what maps and the media fail to highlight in modern, post-Soviet times, Jeffrey Tayler brings into the limelight with his new book Murderers in Mausoleums. Tayler begins his travels in Moscow and moves through the forgotten lands of Central Asia, ending in Beijing, on a long, long road trip.

Jeffrey Tayler is the author of Siberian Dawn and River of No Reprieve. A former Peace Corps worker, he is now a regular commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and has published numerous articles in Atlantic Monthly, Spin and Conde Nast Traveler. You can find an excerpt of Tayler’s book River of No Reprieve here on GoNOMAD. He is married to a Russian woman and is lives in Moscow.

Excerpt from the Book

To see for myself how people are getting by in the villages and rust best towns and ignored metropolises between Moscow and Beijing, and therefore to arrive at some conclusions about the future of Eurasia, I decided to quit the Russian capital and head south to the Caucasus, and then wander east across the steppes and deserts of Kazakhstan, over the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and into the deserts and grasslands and northern China until I reached Beijing.

During the Yeltsin Years, while the Moscow-based Western press corps reported on Russia’s “democratic reforms” and “free-market transformation,” those of us who ventured into the hinterland saw scenes of poverty and anger and mounting nationalism that presaged Putin’s rise—indeed, made it inevitable—and preordained Russia’s present rejection of the West. Is the West, across the strategically vital expanses of Russia and Central Asia, set to lose the Great Game?

Mood Among the Masses

The mood among Eurasia’s “masses” should provide clues: how they feel now about the West, and in particular the United States, could presage the actions of their governments, which, through authoritarian, depend more than in the past on their peoples’ approbation, given the spread of information technology and its potential use in mobilizing resistance. We should listen to what they have to say.”

Map of Tayler's Route across the former Soviet Republic.
Map of Tayler’s Route across the former Soviet Republic.

I bore in mind a well-known yet portentous fact. In Red Square and Tiananmen Square, in stately mausoleums, lie embalmed corpses of the two most transformative and controversial leaders of Eurasia, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, men who steered their countries out of chaos and collapse, and yet in doing so murdered tens of millions of their own citizens. (Stalin also lay beside Lenin, until his successor denounced his crimes and had him removed.)

Why are Lenin and Mao still there, with the Soviet Union having fallen and China now de facto capitalist? What does their formaldehyded presence say about their peoples? In the grasslands of northern China, on my route, also stands the mausoleum of Genghis Khan. Was it true, as I had read, that one of the most ruthless killers of all time enjoyed a cult following in a country he had destroyed?

I didn’t know, but I hoped to find out.

“Nothing Has Gone Right”

As we drank our champagne, she lowered her head and grew morose. “Nothing has gone right in my life. I recently lost twenty thousand rubles, and then fifty thousand, all my savings, in the slot machines. All doors ahead in this town are closed. I can’t see a future for myself here or anywhere. Just the other day, I was partying with people I thought I could trust, and they stole my cell phone! Now I have no more money for a phone.”

I told Yana about my mother’s recent death. We toasted, without clinking, honoring the passing away of loved ones in our families. Her own mother had left her family for another man, and now Yana had nothing more to do with her. All at once, in that smoky, hot rathskeller, life seemed hopeless and drink the only escape.

You know,’ Yana said, ‘I’ve been to Germany. I’ve seen that it is possible to live differently. But I’ve decided there’s no way to get ahead in my country; all doors are closed for me. So this year I won’t waste time: I’m going to kill myself.’

Author Jeffrey Tayler.
Author Jeffrey Tayler.

I pulled Yana to her feet, hugged her, and led her out to join the dancers.

The Cossacks

I asked him how the Cossacks had done since independence. “We just don’t understand. The Communists executed us, and now, after independence, we’re still repressed. The worst time was the mid-1990s. The authorities still keep the pressure on us.”

“They search my house for twelve hours, looking for something, anything, incriminating. They subject us to beatings, fake criminal trials, and even murder. Recently, they forbade us from holding a meeting in Astana, and made us move it a hundred kilometers out of town.” He sighed and sat back in his chair.

“Putin has proposed to take us back into Russia—it would be in Russia’s interest if we agreed, since so many of us are able-bodied, and you know how unhealthy Russian men are. Many of us are considering his offer. The federal government here says it doesn’t want us to leave, but on the local level they do all they can to push us out.”

“If you’re as strong and organized as you say, you can imagine their concern. “Actually, they need us. The Kazakhs should remember that just across the boarder, they’re all Chinese who say, “You kicked us out of our land! Almaty is Chinese!”

“One Chinese division has one hundred and twenty thousand men, but the entire Kazakh army only has eighty thousand soldiers! Just look at all the empty land in this country. How could the Chinese resist taking over if we left? But as long as we’re here—and we’re half a million all together—they’re afraid to attack.’”

“The name ‘Alamedin Bazaar’ and its entranceway sign, inscribed in Arabesque Cyrillic, reeked of Ali Baba allure and Sinbad exotica, but the market turned out to be no more around a giant humdrum hangar of steel and concrete, impressive only for its sheer Soviet junkiness.

Whatever the Soviets had done for literacy in Central Asia, however infamous had been their assorted political purges and campaign of terror, their most visible and lasting legacy here consists of the standardized ugliness of almost everything they built—a curse on all the former Soviet lands that no one has the money, time, or energy to lift.

From Grodno, in Belarus, to Magadan on the sea of Okhotsk, I had seen hundreds of such markets (without the Arabesque), yet I could remember nothing save that I chose to forget them.

Still, elements in the chaos environing the bazaar were distinctly, if not romantically, Central Asian. Beneath the exhaust-caked boughs of stunted willows, patched up pickups and carburetor-less minivans wheeled about, coughing through their tailpipes and disgorging threesomes and foursomes of traders clutching their wizardlike ak kalpaks (traditional white felt Kyrgyz hats).

These were hurried men in dark hand-me-down jackets and trousers who shouted in agglutinated Turkic, peppering their speech with Allah-Allah! and Salam-alaykum! Toting plastic suitcases, most had the sunburned brows and callused knuckles of rustics; they would haul their purchases back to their mountain villages and resell them there, for such were the supply networks.

Food on sale was all local: men in white skullcaps stood over steaming vats and ladled meat-filled samosas and manty dumplings into little plastic serving bags; youths in ornate Uzbek tyubeteykas lined up to sip tepid kvas dispensed from rusty tanker-trailers into communal cups on chains.

“Villagers!” said Erlan. “Look at them! This city has been ruined by all these villagers!”

“But you’re not from here either. You come from Osh, right?”

“Yes, but I grew up here. All the Bishkekis complain about these villagers coming more and more and spoiling everything. There’s no work in the countryside so they move to the cities. But we can’t live a civilized life with people like them around.”

Buy Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing from Amazon

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