May 2004

Kris Rothstein

nonfiction

Grand Centaur Station by Larry Frolick

You need doses of drama, humour and adventure to keep a travelogue entertaining. Canadian writer Larry Frolick delivers these by cracking jokes while venturing into places I wouldnít dream of going, such as a the den of a top Ukrainian mafioso and a Mongolian camp full of hard-drinking Australian schoolteachers. But besides being au audacious and funny yarn, Grand Centaur Station is also a book with deep theoretical questions at its heart. What is the influence of Asiaís nomads on Western culture? Can Genghis Khan and his hordes be responsible for the invention of history itself? Frolickís thesis is that a perfect, peaceful society does not need history (a concept that only becomes visible in the "interesting times" of nomadic invasion), and intellectual enlightenment lies in the wilds of Central Asia.

Frolick begins in the Ukraine, a gloomy territory that stretches him to the limits of ill health while providing him with an endless supply of beautiful women to ogle. Here he explores the relationship between East and West and the position of nomad culture in defining that division. Professors, curators and cab drivers along the road agree -- the universality of concepts like personality and individual is not taken for granted in the East. Nomads ruled through values like authoritarianism and the collective will, needing community and good public opinion to maintain their Empire. Zubar, an archaeologist in Kiev, looks at history with more practical eyes, noting that its gold and marble monuments always come at the expense of ordinary people. And while the Ukraine is a country of colourful characters, ordinary people there have indeed paid the terrible price of toxic radiation from Chernobyl and post-Sovet economic collapse.

Frolick is one the first modern travellers to describe the depths of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, long hidden in the Soviet Empire. And they appear to live up to the exotic appeal of the Silk Road and ancient oases as Frolick ecstatically consumes massive watermelons, unknown berries and a flood of sugar-roasted peanuts, plump grapes and good conversation. Kyrgyzstan is the highlight of the journey -- a remote mountainous country now returning to pastoralism after the fall of the Soviet regime. Here Frolick spends a night in a nomad pasture camp, dotted with yurts and miles from civilization. As strange and beautiful as it is, Central Asia eludes him precisely because of what he is looking for, the loose fluid tendrils of nomadism. With so many people passing through, itís difficult to know who they are, where theyíre been and where theyíre going.

As Frolick finally closes in on his Mongolian destination the pace speeds up and the stories thin out. Itís a bit of a let down to learn so little about the wilds of Mongolia and Siberia, but perhaps itís fitting that the origin of these nomadic warriors is now vacant and empty of meaning. After all, they moved on for a reason and their ancient landscape is all about absence. There are no tourists, no archaeologists, no sites to visit. The tomb of great Genghis himself is forgotten and ignored.

Despite its share of the compulsory dented planes, exorbitant bribes, and harrowing roads of adventure travel, Grand Centaur Station is an intellectual feast among travel narratives. Itís full of unusual questions and people who donít say all the expect things. As for conclusions, Frolick has few. If anyone emerges as the new Golden Horde, though, it is the ubiquitous Russians. Where are they all going, he wonders, noticing yet another well-dressed, ambitious Russian women at the edge of the Central Asian frontier.

Grand Centaur Station: Unruly Living with the New Nomads of Central Asia by Larry Frolick
McClelland & Stewart
ISBN 0771047827
346 pages