The habitations are always the same. Run sometimes by Kazakh peasants, by Tartars, by Uyghur. The peoples of central Asia spread in such ways that the borders of the nation states make little sense. It’s an important distinction, a lesson worth remembering. The borders of the nation states make little sense.
Every arrival, at every roadside café, restaurant, or simple tray of smouldering coals, is always the same. Water. Towel. Each proprietor, even if with only a plastic drinks bottle, hanging from the underside of his caravan, has always provided a means by which to wash. You unscrew the lid, just a half turn, so that the water trickles slowly out, and one cupped handful all that the bottle will anyway spare. Other establishments have a bucket, kept inside a cupboard above a sink: a tap to turn, and then a second bucket in a cupboard kept below the sink. That is as elaborate as the plumbing will get. A well in these places is the highest form of luxury, and the echo of the bucket’s first splash feels like the opening swallow of water. A damp towel hangs limp from a line, wet from the faces of the truck drivers who passed this way before me. Every man and woman, passing through all the steppe beyond, goes drying their face on this one towel.
A man leans on a doorframe, tattoos on knuckles, wafting cool air to his gut with a T-shirt rolled up. He hocks mucous up from his chest, spits at my feet, a ball of phlegm rolling over itself to lie at a standstill in the dust. I look up, affronted, and yet it is with broad smile that he sticks out his hand for me to shake. Whatever the Western etiquette, just as the camels that stalk the roadside, soon you start to spit, trying ever in vain to remove the hot air and taste of desert that goes crawling down your throat. It doesn’t mean what you think it means. His phlegm sinks slowly dry into the earth.