A friend recently forward me a London Review of Book’s write-up of Owen Hatherley’s architectural travelogue of post-Communist spaces. It got us talking about the motivations of the western mind towards these kinds of exotic expeditions. What draws some people, like myself, to not just visit these sites but write about them? The discussion me understand why I’ve had problems writing about my last trip to Astana. Before, a visit to the city would inspire reams of prose. However, my trip in February produced nothing. What does this say about travel writing in the post-Communist world?
The primary inspiration for any travel writer is the imagination. Exploring a new and distant land conjures up preconcieved notions from our own past and our common body of knowledge. These ideas are often ‘romantic’, ‘exoticizing’, or ‘nostalgic’, and so can be dangerous. Nevertheless, they shape how we view our target destination even before we arrive. We pull from these sources to set an expected baseline from which the entire experience, and the place itself, will be judged. It affects what we choose to focus in on. For example, it explains why we write about the monumental scale of some monstrosity on Astana’s Left Bank rather than the clean, dependable and oh-so-useful #10 Bus that services it.
To dig a little deeper, this imagination of the western traveler rests on the idea of authenticity. A place has an ‘authentic’, ‘real’, or ‘hidden’ identity, or ‘soul’, which itself comes from the imagined, romantic ideas above. This circular reasoning results in limited notions of possibility when writing about post-Communist spaces. It prevents us from seeing things as they really are and instead to rely on cliche notions of what is happening. This produces limitations to the genre of travel writing, which I now realize I hit.
To illustrate, let me explain why I have never been able to write about Almaty, the original purpose of this blog. Very quickly, the city became too familiar, too personal, to fit into the genre. A westerner sitting on the steps of the central mosque in downtown Almaty might see ‘oriental bustle’, but I am deluged with memories: the place where I shared a meal with a friend after visiting the housing market; the site of a long goodbye when a friend was waiting for a taxi to fill up to depart for the Nauruz holiday; the starting point of the best day of my life, an adventure up in the Asy Plato; the bench where I had a particularly steamy make-out session one long forgotten spring night. My Almaty is too rich in personal history to be re-converted into fuel for the imagination. Compare this to the mega-project that is Walking Almaty. In this truly insane project (I mean that with respect – I never had the guts to try something so epic) – one writer is traversing the city and cataloguing what he sees. The reason for its success is its smallness: his tiny fragments are perfect tinder for the imagination. I, however, can’t get past my own memories.
To conclude, this explains why I can no longer write about Astana: I no longer see it through the lense of imagination. I can see it through my own personal history, or as a politicized space, but the cliche of authenticity no longer holds any appeal for me. Is there a way out? I suppose truly great travel writing is able to wrap all this together. Or it could be molded to fit some fictional narrative, but those are projects for another day.