We watched The Long Way Round this weekend, a documentary film recording Ewan McGregor’s trip across Eurasia. Someone suggested that I watch when I was talking about a road trip from Almaty to Turkestan that I went on with my Father-in-law. Two years before that road trip Aida and I were visting Almaty when we heard that Ewan McGregor was on some kind of trip through rural Kazakhstan. I had imagined something involving camels. I had no idea that he was actually crossing the country on a BMW motorcycle, on the roads not the steppe, and with an unappreciated police escort.
We haven’t seen the last episode or two yet; we haven’t seen Magadan or Alaska or any of the rest of the US. It’s funny to watch a travel documentary that focuses on places that are exotic to most of the audience but familiar to us. Aida told me it was crazy to see what Kazakhstan looks like through someone else’s eyes. That is the culture she grew up with, and even though we are living in Alaska there are many aspects of that culture that are part of our lives.
The whole family was rolling with laughter during the scene of Ewan and his traveling companion having a massage at the banya in Almaty. That’s all we saw of Almaty in the film, which was fine with us. For myself I was more interested in seeing rural Kazakhstan with which I am much less familiar. Because nothing else in Almaty survived editing, viewers not familiar with Kazakhstan probably got the impression of a very rural country without a lot of modern infrastructure.
Ewan was disappointed that he had missed out on the real Kazakhstan because of the police escort and being dragged to formal events. I can assure you that he got a very good taste of the real Kazakhstan. At one point Ewan has been driving all day and is eager to stop for the night when he is found by the police and escorted to a show that has clearly been prepared for him. There was some operatic Soviet style singing, in Kazakh I think, followed by some dombra music.
The motorcyclists are clearly exhausted during the show, but even when it is over they aren’t off the hook. They are brought to a feast featuring a mountain of meat with a blackened, boiled sheep head on the top. I wasn’t able to catch the Russian, but Aida told me that the lady of the house had begun a lengthy introduction all of their relatives while the hungry travelers smiled in a polite daze. The man of the house cut her off, “Stop it woman. Can’t you see they’re hungry. Let them eat first.”
As exhausted as Ewan and Charley were, there was nothing unusual going on at this meal. All Kazakh social occasions are endurance events. The woman who had been introducing her family members had probably gotten up and the break of dawn and worked her ass off all day to prepare the meal. She was probably just as tired as the travelers. The husband had probably been running all over town on errands. There are solemn obligations in Kazakh hospitality that are far more important than the comfort of the host or even of the guest.
Monday night we watched the last two episodes. They must have said "the road of bones," a thousand times during this series, and this was the part were we actually got to watch them. Watching them got stuck in the muck all through Eastern Siberia reminded me of my Kotzebue days when we used to entertain ourselves by bringing a four wheeler out onto the tundra. The entertainment was all in getting it stuck and getting it out again.
There is a scene where Ewan is shocked and disgusted that a truck driver giving them a lift past a river jumped out of the truck to shoot, skin and take the gall bladder of a bear. That scene would be revolting to most Alaskans. But, what are you going to do; hollywood types are detached from reality, even Ewan McGregor who on the whole came off as pretty cool on this show. Charley was a lot more cool about it. He got the part about the truck driver not making a lot of money for example.
The parts in Alaska looked like the videos that they leave playing in the seasonal section of Fred Meyer during the tourist season. Ewan and Charley took a couple of days to see the sites in South Central. It looked like they had a good time, but a wildlife show would show the same thing with better cinematography. Coming up the parks, they met an officious State Trooper and saw some still burning, smoldering black spruce trees, probably somewhere near Nenana. There was a shot of them sitting outside at a table in Fairbanks talking to a friendly guy who knew something about the forest fires. The next thing I recognized was the Canadian border crossing.
I highly suggest The Long Way Round. Everything from the Ukraine to Magadan was highly entertaining. Especially don't miss the episode in the Ukraine where they stay at the mafia leader's house.