The Road to Otrar

Written by Ciaran Lavelle

It was 7.30am on the morning of the 4th May, and I was just rolling out of the bed in my friend’s spare room in Kingston, London, with only 25 minutes until I had to get my bus. I was immediately regretting sitting up to after 2 am to catch up with old friends, but I shrugged that feeling off quickly as I was off on another HWB adventure. I reached the bus stop with minutes to spare and was soon arriving at the Heathrow bus station. Coincidentally, as I started my descent down the escalator towards terminal 2, I was greeted by my friend and fellow HWB’er Miriam Orsini, who was navigating her way off the escalators and through the security barriers at the base with luggage in tow. As we walked towards the terminal we caught up on our lives and then started talking about the project and all the expectations and trepidations we had been storing up in the preceding weeks and months leading to the initial flight. We met a group of our travelling companions, who were fuelling their early start with copious amounts of coffee. We were greeted by Dominica and Melina as well as a number of old friends from previous HWB related archaeological projects in Merv. Although we were all heading to Almaty in Kazakhstan together, only 4 of this party of approximately 20 people were Otrar bound. We had joined a larger party on their journey to Almaty for a Central Asian heritage research workshop where the brightest stars of the UK heritage scene were travelling to join their Kazakh counterparts to begin the task of sharing their skills and experience and building research projects for the future. Within this prestigious group of academics there were the well travelled and experienced leaders of our expedition, Giles and Odille.

We boarded the first of our two flights to Almaty with a short stopover in Istanbul, our first destination. I have always wanted to visit Istanbul and Turkey in general, so being so close to the city and not being able to visit it was one sad point in an otherwise exciting day.  After a few hours of trying to remember each other’s names we were soon boarding the second flight to Almaty in Kazakhstan. Try as I might I could not get much sleep on the fights, so it was at least a good opportunity to catch up on some reading, chatting to our new colleagues and watching a few movies. We arrived in Almaty at 5 in the morning, and thankfully all our luggage arrived with us. Once we reached the hotel all we could think about was hitting the hay for a few hours of vibration and travel-free sleep followed by a shower to wash away the traveller dust and grime. And it was glorious. 

We all met up again at lunch and were treated to a buffet containing an assortment of Kazakh delicacy’s, of which I indulged hungrily tasting all there was on offer. Some may have even said greedily looking at the mall hill of colours and textures on my plate. We were then ushered back on the bus to visit some of the sights Almaty had to offer. We visited  the National Museum first, and later we walked across the central park, which contained a number of soviet era monuments and a ornate Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was described to us as the largest wooden building in the world. 

Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Russian Orthodox Cathedral

The park was heaving as we arrived during a public holiday, celebrating the Allied victory in World War II. It was a surprising celebration to find in central Asia as we ourselves don’t celebrate it as Europeans, and with all the fervour and pomp they do here. Although admittedly there was a very theatrical Soviet flavour to the whole thing that was a joy to witness. We were lucky to come across a public re-enactment of Kazakh involvement in the war where school children were lined up in their classes to lay flowers on the memorial and honour the veterans, who could be seen proudly sporting their hard-earned medals of service while being pampered by proud family members. 

Victory in Europe celebrations in Almaty

Victory in Europe celebrations in Almaty

After this cultural offering we were soon ushered back on the bus to return to the hotel where we gathered for the opening ceremony of the cultural heritage exchange workshop. We were greeted to talks by those academics behind the organisation of the event, Tim Williams of UCL and local archaeologist of national renown, Dr Dmitriy Voyakin, as well as by the general director of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Dr Baitanayev Abishevch. Dr Voyakin treated us to an overview of the archaeological heritage of the country, of which there is plenty.  As the ceremony came to a close we were soon ushered back on the bus again, this time to visit a German-themed restaurant to continue the cultural exchange over a feast of salad, potatoes and steak. Some drinks were exchanged too, as in true central Asian custom and Kazakh hospitality there was vodka and beer a plenty. It was during the dinner that Miriam and I had the pleasure to meet our fellow project workers, 5 students from UCL Qatar who were on a study placement. The students included Nurul from Malaysia; Jonathan from Canada; John from the United States; Emilio from Mexico; and Mikel from Spain. This gives our group a distinctly international flavour, with no two people from the same country as Miriam hails from Italy, Giles from England, Odile from France and myself from Ireland. 

Back (L-R): Ciarán, Melina, Jonathan, John, Emilio, Nurul, Odile, Giles; Front (L-R): Miriam, Dominica and Mikel

Back (L-R): Ciarán, Melina, Jonathan, John, Emilio, Nurul, Odile, Giles; Front (L-R): Miriam, Dominica and Mikel

The following morning we were met by, Madjer, who was to be our local archaeologist liaison, guide, translator and over all go to guy for the first two weeks of the Otrar adventure. And who soon became our first true Kazakh friend. He was joined by his girlfriend Dina who was a welcome addition to the team. We finally made it to the national museum and got our first taste of Kazakh natural, cultural archaeological and social heritage, which whet our appetite for the remainder of our stay. It was decided the night before that we were going to take a night train to travel the 1000 or so kilometres to the Otrar region. A night train was a good way to get sense of the vastness of the beautiful steppe region of Kazakhstan. As we sat looking out the window at the ocean of grasslands our conversations yo-yoed from topic to topic while our imaginations drank in all that the eye could see. Although there were two negative aspects to taking the night train, once the sun sank beyond the grass and sand our vantage point was lost to us. The second negative was that we had to be up and alert for 4 in the morning as we had only had a 10-minute window to exit the train with all our gear at our destination at Shymkent. Once we disembarked with all equipment in tow we were met by a mini bus and car that were to be our transport while in the country.

It was a further 1.5 hour journey to get to our new home. On the journey we were entertained by a mix of cheesy international pop music from the 90s. It may or may not have been the only CD available to the driver at the time, we all took the onslaught with good humour and sang along to those tunes we actually knew and sometimes attempted to with those we didn’t. Finally, after two days or more of travelling, we reached our new home for the month. It is a beautiful compound at the end of the main street of the town, located beside the local museum.

The buildings themselves are used for heritage professionals working in the region, and it is home to the local Archaeological Expertise team, a country-wide archaeological company founded by Dr Voyskin and our partner for this project, along with UCL. The buildings are of a simple mud-brick and wood construction with a straw roof. The rooms are beautifully cool in the summer desert heat and provide a comfortable home for the team. The place is run by a local woman, Yamila, who looks after its upkeep and feeds us the tasty local dishes three times a day and generally keeps us alive and happy. The compound is situated by a river which is supposedly the very one that Alexander the Great made the agonising decision to stop and turn back after his decade long march eastwards. So I can say with some sense of accomplishment (and a big history geek grin as I have been reading avidly about the diminutive Macedonian since I was a child) that we made it further than Alexander.

One of the mud-brick buildings at the dig house

One of the mud-brick buildings at the dig house