LIONEL_SHRIVER

Lionel Shriver

1. The American South, 1977

 

When I was 19 I did my first big bike trip, from New York to the South and back, with my younger brother. We’d grown up in Raleigh and Atlanta and had just moved to New York, so this was a return to our roots. Every now and then the stars aligned and the weather was decent and the scenery was beautiful, but there was a lot of suffering. I no longer have any appetite for doing 100 miles a day on a bike, in terrible heat, in driving rain or against a debilitating headwind. Or camping on the roadside – that was uniquely miserable. The end of the day is wonderful though – and whenever we got to a hotel or our destination, civilization felt sumptuous.

 

2. Western Europe, 1985

 

I was a young woman by the time I cycled around Europe, and part of the appeal was sometimes teaming up with other cyclists, of the male persuasion. That was fun. But the trip was demanding: Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, France and Spain. The best part was through France and Spain, with a guy from New Hampshire. We were in the zone – in good shape, used to clocking up the miles, then sharing a liter of wine. I’d arranged to speak to my agent with a pay phone and lots of coins. She told me I’d sold my first novel. I ended up in tears that night and I still don’t know if it was because I’d sold my first book or because she’d said I had to come home.

 

3. Israel, 1986

 

I took my bicycle along – I wouldn’t go anywhere without my bike in those days, and it never occurred to me that you could just get one on the other side. But I stayed in an old kibbutz, working in the factory making boots – an invaluable experience, knowing just how killing factory work is. I’m not cut out for communal living, I realized.

 

4. Belfast, 1987

 

I went to Belfast to write a novel, intending to go for a few months, but I ended up staying for 12 years. So what started out as a journey became a whole big part of my life. It was a very creative time – and also the first time I really fell in love. So I recall those years fondly, and I still have a profound affection for the city and the people who live there.

 

5. Kenya, 1991

 

I still had this fantasy about going around the world and writing books about wherever I was based – before I realized I was too much of a home body. I had a great time in Nairobi, living in a house with three foreign correspondents. I’d get jealous though. They’d get to go off to Somalia and get shot at while I had to stay home and write. I’m not cut out for that life, but I do admire it from afar. As long as they keep up their appetite and their nerve, foreign correspondents can have really fascinating lives.

 

6. Jerusalem, 2003

 

A friend had moved to Jerusalem and I thought would be interesting to visit. But I’d also been through a very confusing romantic situation, and I think had to go through a period of private mourning, getting over someone whose feelings I had hurt and who didn’t deserve it. I spent a lot of the trip in tears – and the novella I was writing was the only piece of fiction I started and never finished. So the trip ended up being about emotions, not work. Nothing wrong with that.

 

7. China, 2013

 

Most of my journeys now are to literary festivals. There’s no real risk, except maybe that you’ll be bored. I went to one in Beijing, with events in Shanghai and Chengdu, and came away with a feeling for China that was more personal than I’d expected. A lasting image is looking out of the plane at infinite apartment developments, each clump about 60 blocks, each building about 70 stories high. This is what a large population looks like. It’s miraculous that China sustains all these people and explains why the Chinese are obsessed with order and harmony. It was a short visit, but it changed my conception of the country – in exactly the way travel is supposed to.

 

Lionel Shriver’s short story, How They Turned Out, is published in A Short Affair, an anthology of original short fiction from Pin Drop Studio, out now

 

 

LIONEL_SHRIVER

Beyond-Italia

Family Affair

The Learning Vacation

In the late 16th century, young aristocrats (well, the males ones at least – young women did not have this option) were sent off to France and Italy to complete their educations by immersing themselves in classical art and architecture on trips that became known as the Grand Tour. Today, Petits Tours can begin at any age, as long as parents are willing to give, give, give, sacrificing themselves by, for example, limiting their travels to only Francophone countries so that their children might be able to practice their French. Pity the poor parent who simply must suffer through a stay in Paris, followed by a lengthy beach holiday on Mauritius. But in this day and age, any self-possessed young person should know how to order a local drink in the local tongue. Taking an art history-themed vacation in Italy with a child has literally no downside: everyone gets to see magnificent cathedrals and sublime works of art and usually right around the time that your store of knowledge on a given subject is running out, your child will become bored or hungry, which helps to ensure that days assume an appropriately leisurely pace and one has time to digest Great Works as they were meant to be digested: slowly, and with relish.

 

The Wedding Vacation

You love them, so you go to their destination wedding, and you don’t even grumble about the fact that it’s halfway across the globe. That’s the deal. And if you’re a member of the inner circle – close family, best man/maid of honor, bridesmaids and the like – you can now expect to show up a few days early. For the wedding vacation is becoming a globally recognized trend – with large parties gathering at the resort of the happy couple’s choice for prolonged socializing and celebrations. Perhaps this isn’t going to please everyone, and coming on top of the bachelorette party in a prime spa, or the bachelor party in some far-flung city, this constitutes an investment of time and money we’re only inclined to make on someone we really care for. Still, if you have come all this way to meet up with people who live all over the world, who you seldom see, perhaps the wedding vacation is the perfect solution. And since you’re already in a beautiful spot – really, it would be foolish not to tack on a few extra days to enjoy yourself, entirely on your own schedule, with your own dress code. After all, just because you’re not the one getting married it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a fabulous honeymoon – or reunion, or a few days of golf, all in the name of love.

 

The Skip-Gen Vacation

There might be no better “job” than that of grandparent (unless it’s grandchild). This magical role offers the opportunity to enjoy the delightful bits of family ties while largely avoiding the button-pushing too often perpetrated by one’s children or siblings, who also rarely appreciate one’s wisdom and charms in the same way that grandchildren do. Bringing your beloved wee one on tour offers so many opportunities for the two (or three, perhaps, if your partner joins) of you to bond in a new way, experiencing adventures that will provide memories for years to come. Naturally, the youngster will benefit from the education travel brings. while you will reap the rewards of having someone on hand willing and able to help you with your smartphone, reach beneath your table for runaway coins and, oh yes, enable you to see each day through fresh eyes. No, they cannot help to book flights, but you will score many Best Grandparent points by involving the youngsters in the planning. Choose activities you’ll both enjoy, and luxuriate in the knowledge that your young charge – at least for a few golden years – will adore being the center of your world, while seeing the world, without those pesky parents around to tell either of you what’s what.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Florence; The St. Regis Rome; The St. Regis Mauritius Resort

Beyond-Italia

LON162640 (2)

Dream City

On 12 September 1965, shortly after Singapore had been cast out of the recently formed Malaysian federation, and had declared its independence, the fledgling nation’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew stood before a crowd of supporters and declared, “We made this country. From nothing! From mudflats! Ten years from now, [Singapore] will be a metropolis. Never fear!”

 

By any yardstick, it was a bold prediction to make. Granted, 150 years of British colonial rule had created a thriving entrepôt based around the port, a first-rate civil service, and a picturesque skyline of neoclassical and art deco piles clustered around a central business district on the southern tip of the island. But outside this area were mudflats and swamps, and dirt-poor kampong villages. Most of the population lived in squalid, crowded tenements. There was no reliable water supply. In real terms, the average Singaporean in 1959 was as poor as the average American in 1860. Against this sobering background – a metropolis in a decade?

 

In 1975, I was still a child; but now, looking back through my family’s photograph albums, I see the clear outline of a city in mid-transformation. By that time, most of the kampongs had disappeared, and my family lived in a two-story colonial-era terrace house on Emerald Hill Road, just off Orchard Road. Day and night, there was always the pounding noise of construction – the buzz of a city tearing itself apart and recreating itself.

 

I come across a photo of a relative standing proudly at his balcony in one of the fancy new condominiums that were sprouting up all over the island. And here’s one of me and my mother standing on Orchard Road, against a backdrop of Christmas lights, smiling brightly at the future. As a treat, we would visit my uncle in his office in Raffles Place – then, as now, the city’s Central Business District – with its mix of gleaming new skyscrapers, art deco piles and 19th-century shop-houses along Boat Quay. In all the photos, everything looks bright and shiny. If there were any mudflats or swamps, I don’t remember them.

 

For almost without anyone noticing, Lee had actually achieved a metropolis in a decade. He was bang on schedule. Admittedly, no one pretended that Singapore was anything like New York or London, but it certainly wasn’t a hardship posting either. What not many of us realized at the time was just how fast the wheels were turning behind the scenes, and how hard Lee was pressing his foot on the accelerator.

 

Almost immediately after that landmark 1965 speech, he had set about rehousing the population. The surest way to create a sense of identity, and for ordinary Singaporeans to accumulate wealth, he felt, was to give them a home of their own. Ownership grounded people. So he put in place sweeping new zoning laws. Entire neighborhoods of grim tenements were razed. In their place rose rows of utilitarian public housing blocks that have become a familiar part of Singapore’s modern skyline. By 1970, the housing problem was, in the government’s own memorable parlance, “licked”.

 

Meanwhile, the island was transforming itself into a commercial and logistics hub, luring both business and human capital with attractive incentives and tax breaks. New buildings were springing up everywhere, though Lee was careful to intersperse all this dizzying renovation with large-scale botanical projects. So much so that today nearly half of Singapore is green space. By the time the new millennium swung around, Singapore had achieved First World status in less than two generations.

 

Today, the skyline continues to morph at an astonishing speed, but beneath the 21st-century gloss, old Singapore still pulses. In 1995, Lee offered a canny stock-take of the symbiosis between commerce, Singapore’s modern built landscape and its past: “We made our share of mistakes… [In] our rush to rebuild Singapore, we knocked down many old and quaint Singapore buildings. Then we realized we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage… we were demolishing what tourists found attractive and unique in Singapore. We halted the demolition… The value of these areas in architectural, cultural and tourism terms cannot be quantified only in dollars and cents. We were a little late, but fortunately we have retained enough of our history to remind ourselves and tourists of our past.”

 

That past is why I like to walk in Singapore. I love wandering through Little India, Kampong Glam and Chinatown for their cacophony of sounds, music and chatter; their temples and markets; and their narrow alleys lined with period architecture – all remarkably intact nearly 200 years after Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, first demarcated these quarters for the diasporas of Indians, Malays and Chinese.

 

But it’s the area around Raffles Place that I love the most. Whenever overseas guests ask me where they should start their tour of Singapore, I bring them to the middle of Boat Quay’s Cavenagh Bridge. From this graceful cast-iron suspension bridge, opened in 1870, the island’s past and future segue into an extraordinary skyline. Though the sleek, gleaming skyscrapers with their soaring steel-and-glass frames dominate the horizon, the greater pleasures, for me, are to be found in the older, lower-slung silhouettes that hug the east and west banks of the Singapore River.

 

Here, in the shadow of towers built by IM Pei and Kenzo Tange, is the same stretch of multi-hued shop-houses I remember from my childhood. Hugging the curve of the Singapore River, these narrow 19th-century buildings – once shops, warehouses, offices and homes for the coolies and businessmen who made their fortunes from the trading barges that docked here – have been converted into lively pubs, cafés and restaurants.

 

And just across the river, the imposing civic offices of the old colonial British administration have been meticulously restored and repurposed into the Asian Civilizations Museum, soigné eateries and drama centers, alongside the mid-19th-century Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

 

I walk another block north to take in the neoclassical glory of the early 20th-century Supreme Court and City Hall buildings, which were made over in 2015 by the Paris-based Studio Milou into the National Gallery Singapore. The bones of the original interior spaces – the old courtrooms, public corridors, and timber-paneled judges’ chambers – have been preserved as a sequence of generously proportioned gallery spaces that house the world’s largest collection of southeast Asian contemporary art.

 

And just beyond the Padang – the city’s central playing field – is Marina Bay. When I was growing up, the waterfront was a hive of sampans (traditional Chinese wooden boats). Today, its eastern flank has been enclosed by a new Central Business District, the futuristic biodomes of Gardens by the Bay, and the Marina Bay Sands casino and resort. From the Padang, I like to walk on towards St Andrew’s Road. Two hundred years ago, this was a bucolic stretch of pastoral land framed by dirt tracks and orchards. In 1835, GD Coleman, the Englishman responsible for so many of Singapore’s early colonial buildings, built St Andrew’s Cathedral in an early English Gothic style with a softly glowing white façade made of shell lime, egg white, sugar and water from soaked coconut husks.

 

Though St Andrew’s Road is now a busy thoroughfare, Coleman’s masterpiece – with its elegant interior of fine filigree plasterwork – remains one of my favorite quiet spots in Singapore. Stand in front the National Gallery, I tell out-of-town guests, and look out over the green expanse of the Padang. On weekends, the field – book-ended by two of Singapore’s oldest private clubs, the Singapore Cricket Club, which was founded in 1852, and the Singapore Recreation Club, founded in 1883 – echoes to the whistles and cries of a rugby match, and the baritone whack of cricket balls.

 

But, as with so many places in Singapore today, there is a less bucolic palimpsest. In 1942, during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, Singaporean and British civilians were rounded up here before being taken to the notorious POW camp in Changi in the eastern corner of the island. Three years later, Lord Louis Mountbatten stood on the grand steps of City Hall and accepted the official Japanese surrender from General Itagaki. And in 1959, the newly elected prime minister Lee Kuan Yew chose those same steps – this time, facing a Padang filled with celebrating locals – to declare Singapore’s independence from Great Britain.

 

When Lee died in 2015 at 91, long lines of Singaporeans crisscrossed the Padang and along the Esplanade all the way to Parliament House where he lay in state. Almost half a million people stood in the searing heat and into the night – some for as long as ten hours – to pay their respects to the man who had dominated every aspect of modern Singapore. On the day of the state funeral, 100,000 mourners jammed the route of the cortege, soaked to their skins in the heavy tropical rain. The sense of loss was palpable.

 

Later, someone said on Facebook: “It was really something to be a part of. It was the Singapore zeitgeist, both on that historic field and online, for a long crowded night at the end of a stirring week. But I think we’ll be OK.” I couldn’t help thinking not many people would bet against that prediction.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Singapore

 

NGS Picture Id:1511612

 

Detail from Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple

(© National Geographic Creative)

Qazaq-Restaurant-Final

A Little Place I Know

 

An enchanting mosque in Cairo by Philip Hewat-Jaboor

 

Aqsunqur Mosque, Bab el-Wazir Street, Tabbana Quarter, Cairo

There’s something profoundly enchanting about Egypt. The light and the landscape are so extraordinary, with the Nile snaking through the country, and this belt of lush green landscape, which then stops abruptly. You can literally stand with one foot in the green and the other in the desert. The Egyptians are hugely welcoming – an absolute pleasure to spend time with. I’ve been going there for 35 years and I spend two to three months there every year. I especially love Cairo. It has wonderful architecture: Pharaonic, Islamic, 19th-century, and now, with new Egyptian museum, 21st century. In the old Islamic quarter there’s a little mosque, the Aqsunqur, or Blue Mosque, which isn’t particularly well known or visited, and is a little hard to find. Parts of it were built in the 1340s, others in the mid-17th century, and there are walls completely covered in marble, precious stones and blue tiles brought from Damascus – a wonderful combination of materials, with a courtyard grown over with palm trees. It’s all incredibly beautiful, with the most magical atmosphere. I really find it very moving.


Philip Hewat-Jaboor is an art advisor and the chairman of Masterpiece art fairs (June 26 – July 3, 2019; masterpiecefair.com)

Your address: The St. Regis Cairo

 

An historic jazz club in New York by Reggie Nadelson

 

206 West 118th Street, New York
In the early 1940s, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie got together and invented bebop. They did it at Minton’s Playhouse, a shabby club on 118th Street in Harlem. Bebop was brand new; it was modern jazz: difficult to play, impossible to dance to. The music eventually moved to 52nd Street and Greenwich Village, to clubs where the audience sat in reverent silence trying to work it all out. Miles Davis, Ray Brown and Max Roach joined in, and bebop blew everyone away. As jazz moved away, the great Harlem clubs and ballrooms shut down. Then, in the 21st century, the neighborhood made a comeback. Great restaurants opened all over Harlem, and so did Minton’s Playhouse. A spiffy room with photos of Dizzy and Charlie on the walls, Minton’s showcases some of the best jazz around, and shares its premises with The Cecil Steakhouse, which serves great steaks and terrific drinks.


Reggie Nadelson is the author of At Balthazar: The New York Brasserie at the Center of the World

Your address: The St. Regis New York

 

An off-the-beaten-track Florentine restaurant by Filippo Ricci

 

Osteria delle Tre Panche, Via A. Pacinotti 32/R, Florence
When people ask me for a restaurant recommendation, I always suggest Osteria delle Tre Panche. We’ve been going there since it opened, and we probably still go at least twice a week, because whenever friends visit, they want to go too. It’s tiny – and not in typical restaurant territory. Just one room, for 20 people max, all sitting on benches (or panche) and a really small kitchen. But it’s a tremendous dining experience. The Osteria specializes in truffles – they have one of the best white truffle sauces in Italy. But in my opinion it’s all about the cheesecake, arguably the best in the world. It’s so good that people FedEx it to the US. Nowadays two young guys, Andrea and Vieri Bista, run the restaurant. They’re both chefs, but they alternate daily – one guy cooks, the other waits the tables. They’re so good, we’ve taken them around the world with us – Shanghai, Moscow, Miami, Las Vegas, Dallas, all over. We like to host dinner parties wherever we go, and we love to bring this Italian flavor. We have countless Michelin-starred restaurants in Florence, but for me, this is still the best.


Filippo Ricci is creative director of Florence-based luxury tailoring house Stefano Ricci (stefanoricci.com)

Your address: The St. Regis Florence

 

A poster museum in Shanghai by Timothy Parent

 

Propaganda Poster Art Centre, Room B-OC, 868 Huashan Rd, Shanghai
I came across Shanghai’s Propaganda Poster Art Center through a friend who suggested it as somewhere to take visitors looking for a bit of culture. Shanghai is more of a city for living than sightseeing – that’s more Beijing’s thing. So, very few people know about this museum, which is pretty tucked away, in the basement of an old residential complex. But that’s kind of the cool thing about it. You feel you’ve really discovered something. It’s a visual representation of China’s ideology from the 1950s to the 1980s – mostly posters, but with some comics – and it’s fascinating to see how the country changed during those decades. It’s like a unique window into China’s recent history. There are a lot of posters about economic growth, sport, film and the other big theme, crushing the West. There are also interesting themes about the Chinese working with “suppressed groups” and how they aligned themselves with certain African and Asian countries. And some are very futuristic. It’s pretty enlightening, for sure. You could easily spend half a day there if it’s the kind of thing you’re interested in.


Timothy Parent is the founder of the chinafashionbloggers.com and a contributor to The Business of Fashion

Your address: The St. Regis Shanghai Jingan

CLAUDIA_SCHIFFER-1

Claudia Schiffer

1. Paris, 1987
 
One evening in 1987 I was at a nightclub in Düsseldorf when out of the blue I was asked by a complete stranger if I wanted to be a model. Of course I thought it was a joke and asked him if he meant my best friend, who to my mind was a far better candidate for the job. The stranger insisted he meant me, so I just assumed they were making a big mistake and they’d soon come to realize it. But before long I found myself in Paris. I didn’t speak a word of French at the time, so I opted for the tactic of pretending to understand, saying “Oui” a lot, and making the most of what I thought would be a very short-run thing, in a world I could never believe I’d ever be a part of. I have never been so happy to be so wrong. My career took off and I had suddenly found a place where I felt safe and was becoming the model I’d dreamed of being – although it only worked when I had a camera pointing at me. When I first heard the term “supermodel” I couldn’t help laughing because it felt so apt; there I was playing at being Superman while I was working, when in real life I was actually Clark Kent.

 

2. Rome, 1994
 
In the early 1990s, Valentino and photographer Arthur Elgort had the idea of doing a La Dolce Vita shoot for an advertising campaign, inspired by Anita Ekberg’s character in the Fellini film. It was one of those chaotic, crazy moments where life imitates art. There were crowds of people and paparazzi and TV crews following us non-stop as we shot in some of the city’s most iconic spots. Valentino has his atelier in the city center, and for one picture I had to stand on the balcony and wave. I looked down and there were thousands of people waving back at me.

 

3. Los Angeles, 2008
 
Shooting the Yves Saint Laurent campaign with photographers Inez and Vinoodh in the Hollywood Hills was another pinch-yourself moment. It’s rare to be able to get close to the iconic “Hollywood” sign, let alone pose against it. The shoot centered on the letter “Y” of the sign (Y for Yves). It was a beautiful day and the view over Los Angeles was remarkable. It changed the way I would see the city forever.

 

4. Garmisch-Partenkirchen 2015

 
This magical Bavarian resort is one of my favorite places for skiing. I discovered it when my husband [director Matthew Vaughn] went there to film Eddie the Eagle.

 

5. Amalfi Coast, 2017
 
I love the Amalfi Coast in Italy; we went there on our last family holiday. There are so many beautiful little towns as well as the larger ones like Positano and Sorrento. We went to Capri while we were there – it’s so beautiful and the atmosphere is so relaxed and fun, like an old movie.

 

6. Milan, 2017
 
When the call came through from Donatella Versace, I didn’t hesitate. It was a tribute for Gianni, and the perfect reason to do a final runway show. To keep the show secret, Donatella booked us all into separate hotels around Milan. Backstage, she arranged for each of us to have our own little make-up room, our own team, a Versace bathrobe with our name on it, and a handbag with our initials on. It was the sweetest welcome. Everyone backstage was half in tears before the show even started, remembering Gianni.

 

7. Berlin, 2017
 
I left Germany when I was 17, so every time I go back it feels like a homecoming. Last year I was honored to be awarded the Fashion Icon Award at the BAMBI Awards in Berlin. It was such a full-circle moment, especially because I had received the BAMBI Shooting Star Award when I was 21. When I was just a teenage girl, in Rheinberg, I would daydream about being a fashion model, a fashion designer, seeing my name on products, winning a BAMBI. And today, all of this has come true. I say this not to boast, but to say to all the young dreamers that I’m living proof that if you dare to dream, if you work hard, if you behave with integrity and never give up – amazing things can happen.

 

Claudia Schiffer, written by Claudia Schiffer is published by Rizzoli

CLAUDIA_SCHIFFER

Sweet-Dreams

Sweet Dreams

Sleep, wrote Vladimir Nabokov in his 1967 autobiography, Speak, Memory, is a “nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius”. Only dullards do it, apparently. “Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world,” he declares. “It is a mental torture I find debasing.”

 

Nabokov’s romanticization of the writer as a hyper-alert insomniac forging his creative path while the world is sleeping couldn’t be more off-message today. It is, we now know, smart to sleep. Scientific research points to regular sleep as the gateway to brain function, wellbeing and an optimized immune system. In our 24/7, interconnected, performance-driven, global society, sociologists have identified a sleep and society agenda in which health, aging and life expectancy are key public health issues. We are living longer, and we want to live well. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), as many as 150 million of us worldwide suffer from some kind of sleep disorder; two thirds of us living in the developed world fail to get the eight hours per night WHO recommends. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, has said that we are in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic”. There are over 100 diagnosed sleep conditions, the most common of which is insomnia. Look no further than Shakespeare’s Macbeth to see the detrimental effects of sleep-deprivation. It’s a punishing condition.

 

Once upon a time, insomnia sufferers counted sheep to nod off. These days we might just as well recite the latest sleep trends that have sprung up. In our social media age, we use sleep monitors to tell us what is obvious: that we are no longer connected to our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells us when to rest and when to wake. Sleep, the most natural thing in the world, has been commodified, with a competitive sleep industry constantly inventing new ways to enhance, prolong and promote our sleep. It’s big business: the global sleep market is set to be worth $80bn by 2020.

 

Sleep science is a by-product of this industry, and its researchers point out that electronic media is now as much part of our going-to-bed routine as brushing our teeth. Sleep latency – the amount of time between getting into bed and falling asleep – must now be thought of as the gap between turning off an electronic device and falling asleep. As a recent study published in the Journal of Sleep Research earlier this year suggests, it might now be time to replace “lights out” with “media out”.

 

We would be wise to throw an ancient de-stressor into the mix, whether it’s acupuncture, meditation or a full body or head massage. The St. Regis Deer Valley Resort asks for 110 minutes of your time; that’s what it takes to send you on what it calls a Deep Sleep Journey. A full body treatment, it offers a level of relaxation that toxic time spent on Netflix or Facebook never can. A simple head massage, such as the St. Regis champi head massage, which uses Ayurvedic herbal oils, triggers points on the back of the skull that relieve tension and lessen insomnia. And yet many of us eschew such energy-releasers because we’re time-poor. Why? Because we aspire to do more and to achieve more. Hence the rise of the power nap, the sleep pod in the office and the very modern quest for quantified, quality sleep. Hence the rise of apps that track our sleep patterns and tot up our sleep debt.

 

One of the very latest offerings is a sleeping device called Somnuva – a sound management solution that looks like a standard Bluetooth speaker and digital clock. It uses sound therapies to break bad sleeping habits and restore natural sleeping patterns. Its USP is a sleep algorithm designed not only to get you sleeping better, but for the recommended full eight hours; it produces tones and pulses which are tuned to match the different stages and brain wavelengths of REM and non-REM sleep cycles. Once these sound combinations lull you to sleep, they supposedly keep you asleep. The brain subconsciously follows the sounds until your eight hours are up.

 

Even the common mattress has wised up to what media mogul Arianna Huffington dubbed “the sleep revolution”. One particular smart bed raises itself by seven per cent when the sleeper snores and, using air compressors in its frame, adapts to the sleeper’s body movements. Bed-in-a-box, vacuum-packed mattresses feature built-in sensors that sync with your smartphone sleep tracker app. Micro-climate mattresses are another trend; they adapt to your body’s change in temperature as you sleep, so that you are never too hot or too cold. Bamboo, gel or memory foam pillows do the same. Hot sleepers have kissed nights in white satin goodnight, choosing instead temperature-regulating, moisture-wicking sheets laid on top of water-based, app-controlled mattress-toppers. The so-called “performance” sheets use breathable fibers and harness the latest fabric technology. These, in turn, require performance sleepwear. Again, breathable fabric is key here, and nature once again looms large, with silken bamboo, already popular as a sportswear fabric, adapting to your body temperature.

 

Natural sleeping aids used as part of a winding-down ritual seduce us into a sleep-ready, stress-free frame of mind. Brief meditation or mindfulness sessions, a herbal tea, writing a mind-clearing To Do list or Gratitude list are as de rigueur as wearables and sleeping apps. Time-honored magnesium or – a favorite of The St. Regis Langkawi’s therapeutic bath ritual – lavender and coconut milk in a warm bath, provide the sweetest pillow talk.

 

Your Address: The St. Regis Langkawi; The St. Regis Deer Valley Resort

 

 

final revised

 
 
Qazaq-Restaurant-Final

A Little Place I Know

 

A traditional restaurant in Astana by Ryan Koopmans

 

Qazaq Gourmet, 29 Mangilik El St, Astana

This restaurant is in the main business area, near the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation (designed by Norman Foster) and lots of political buildings, so it’s right at the heart of Astana life. Although it’s on the ground floor of a modern luxury complex, inside they try to showcase the best of traditional Kazak food and culture. The staff wear local costumes as well as little hats inspired by those worn by nomadic Mongol swordsmen. There are musicians playing beautiful old instruments and dancers who swirl about in a central space. Although it sounds touristy, it’s not at all. It’s really well done, and feels upscale and interesting rather than cheesy. Visitors get so into it, they sometimes dress up in costumes too. The best thing about this place, though, is the food. It serves mainly meat, because that’s what Kazak people enjoy: lamb, then beef shashlik, and lots of horse meat, which is a staple here. The food is often accompanied by camel’s milk, which is an acquired taste. I prefer the vodka, which comes in little ceramic flasks. People have a really good time here. It’s somewhere you forget all preconceptions, and listen to people playing their traditional instruments and look at beautiful local souvenirs and iconographic paintings of mountains and horses, and just... have fun. It’s a real celebration of Kazak life.


Ryan Koopmans is an award-winning Amsterdam-based photographer (ryankoopmans.com)
Your address: The St. Regis Astana

 

A museum in Mexico City by Roland Herlory

 

Museo Experimental El Eco, Sullivan 43 Col. San Rafael, Mexico City
I love Mexico City for so many things. Not just for its energy, its chaos, its people’s sweetness, the colors, flavors, incredible food and the mountains. I love it for its architecture, from colonial buildings to art deco beauties and innovative midcentury structures. There’s one building I particularly cherish: the Museo Experimental El Eco. Located in the heart of Colonia San Rafael, El Eco feels more like a living sculpture than a museum. The building was designed in the 1950s by Mathias Goeritz, who was a sculptor before he became an architect – and it’s typical of its time: simple, pure, geometric, ambitious and humanist; a jewel in the middle of the urban jungle. In the past, it’s been used as a restaurant, a club, all sorts of things. Today, it’s a space for spatial experimentation, showcasing a range of different exhibitions. I’m always surprised by the emotion I feel when I walk in. It’s like a sculpture you can step into. Once you’ve experienced it, you can then wander to the city’s canals and take a boat to the city, or to Frida Kahlo’s house. I think it’s the best secret in town.


Roland Herlory is CEO of designer swimwear company Vilebrequin (vilebrequin.com)
Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City

 

A luxury concept store in New York by Suzanne Syz

 

The Webster, 29 Greene Street, SoHo, New York
This concept store just opened in SoHo in New York, and it’s already one of my favorite places. The owner, Laure Hériard Dubreuil, who was a merchandiser for Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga and Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent, opened her first store in Miami, then others in Bal Harbour and Houston. This one, though, is pretty unique because it’s in a six-story cast-iron house, in an area that was known for its artistic life. It feels cozy and homely, with light walls, pretty wallpaper and beautifully designed furniture, which you can buy. I like the boutique because you can get things here that you won’t find anywhere else: special-edition shoes by Gianvito Rossi and Louboutin, and pieces from labels like Prada and Miu Miu. Last time I went, I bought some of Dubreuil’s own-brand LHD pants and dresses – she does the best range of easy-to-wear clothes. It’s a place where you can wander from floor to floor and find new things: menswear on the third floor; jewelry; bags by Simon Miller or Loewe – pretty much everything a girl needs to be happy.


Suzanne Syz is the founder of her eponymous jewelry brand (suzannesyz.ch)
Your address: The St. Regis New York

 

A contemporary art space in Miami by Thaddaeus Ropac

 

Institute of Contemporary Art, 61 NE 41st Street, Miami
I’ve been going to Miami regularly for about ten years now for the Miami Beach Art Basel art fair – which is, after the original Art Basel in Switzerland, probably the most important art fair in the world, especially for the American market. And while fun is maybe the wrong word to describe something so intense, it’s a great event. What’s crucial about Miami Beach Art Basel is that everyone from the art world is there – the artists, the collectors, the other gallerists and curators. So if you’re working on a big upcoming exhibition, for example, Miami is a great opportunity to network. It’s a party town, of course – and there was a moment when we were afraid the parties would take over – but the quality is still there. This year I had a wonderful surprise, which was discovering the new Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. It’s a great space for contemporary art right in the heart of the Design District, where there’s lots of activity, lots of shops, nightlife and restaurants and so on. These wonderful collectors, Irma and Norman Braman, decided to put their money and energy into the project. It’s not huge. It couldn’t rival the big museums in New York or London or Paris. But it doesn’t matter. It demonstrates the great role that contemporary art can play in a city like Miami – and it’s a wonderful place to visit.


Thaddaeus Ropac is one of the world’s leading gallerists, with galleries in Salzburg, Paris and London (ropac.net)
Your address: The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort

A009_C011_0101ZY

Rancho Deluxe

When Argentinian polo player and St. Regis Connoisseur Nacho Figueras set about creating a 30-acre ranch outside Buenos Aires two years ago, his thoughts turned to Cuadra San Cristóbal, the iconic equestrian estate created in 1968 by the late, great Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragán. “I have a thing for architecture,” says Figueras. “And I love San Cristóbal – in particular Barragán’s reflective pools.”

 

For architecture lovers, no visit to Mexico City is complete without a pilgrimage to Cuadra San Cristóbal. The famously pink-hued 7.5-acre property in the north of the capital has inspired artists, designers and architects for 50 years. In 2016, Louis Vuitton traveled there to a shoot an advertising campaign, mustering horses as extras; American fashion designer Michael Kors and shoe brand Nine West followed; and this spring, to coincide with the annual Zona Maco Art Fair, New York-based artist Sean Scully held an exhibition there.

 

That was the first time the compound had been used to host art, yet many see San Cristóbal as an artwork in itself, its brilliant pink, red and purple walls reflected in two sculptural pools. The creator of this masterpiece, architect Luis Barragán, was a strict catholic with a an equally strict aesthetic. He was also a horse lover, and San Cristóbal, with its delicate fountains, shaded courtyards and elegant stable blocks, has an almost spiritual aura. It was this feeling of calm and tranquility that Figueras wanted to recreate in his own stables.

 

Figueras, who had visited the Mexican estate many times, hired Argentinean architect Juan Ignacio Ramos to conjure up a striking modernist home for his 44 world-class polo ponies. “I wanted a place that was practical, yet as inspiring as an art museum,” he explains. And while it resembles a living sculpture, connected by concrete, pools and nature, the Figueras Polo Stables is, it should be stressed, also a fully functioning breeding center.

 

“Seeing our vision come true, and our beloved horses in a place that few could dream about, was a great moment,” says Figueras, who spent three years completing the ambitious project. Oblivious to the architectural pedigree of their elegant surroundings, his pampered beasts graze on a lush grass-topped roof and drink from sculptural pools before bedding down at night. “One of my favorite things to do is to sit on the stable roof at sunset with my friends and a bottle of wine,” Figueras adds. “When you’re up there, you forget about anywhere else.”

 

Ramos used a palette of exposed concrete and local hardwoods, which are weathering gracefully, while the tack room resembles a gallery space. Near the artfully displayed trophies, saddles and bridles, a monograph of Japanese architect Tadao Ando sits on a coffee table.

 

Ando is another of Figueras’ favorites and Cerro Pelon, the ranch he created for fashion designer Tom Ford in Santa Fe, was another source of inspiration. Less than a decade old, Cerro Pelon is now on the market for $75 million. In owning what is New Mexico’s most luxurious private property, its new buyer will possess 20,000 acres of untamed countryside, an Ando-designed ranch house and modernist stables for eight horses, plus indoor and outdoor riding tracks. There’s also a landing strip and hangar for a private plane, a reflecting pool, a tennis court, two guest houses and a home and office building for a ranch manager. A film set, Silverado Movie Town, built in 1985 as the set for Silverado and many a Western thereafter, is also part of the plot.

 

Stable blocks can make good homes for humans too. The no-frills template of these agricultural outbuildings – the lack of decorative detailing and an uncomplicated layout – lends itself to stylish, pared-back living. And such is the need for nature among our equine companions, there’s also the potential to go off-grid. Madrid architects Studio Ábaton converted a crumbling stone stable in the middle of nowhere in western Spain into a family home. Heating is provided by solar panels and the property relies on two nearby streams for its water. Limestone floors, concrete walls and iron beams coexist with well-worn stone and weather-beaten wood.

 

Similarly remote is Crackenback Stables in the Snowy Mountains of southeastern Australia. Sydney-based Casey Brown Architects redefined the classic corrugated shed to create a two-bedroom property with staff accommodation and stables for five horses. Wrapped in a shiny metal shell, its futuristic form has garnered countless design awards since it was completed in 2015. Meanwhile, on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, London-based Seth Stein Architects and local practice Watson Architecture + Design have teamed up to create an equally striking stable block using local rammed earth and Tasmanian oak. It seems that providing architecturally sophisticated shelters for our four-legged equine friends is a trend that’s here to stay.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City

 

 A009_C011_0101ZY

 

Nacho Figueras' modernist polo ranch uses reflective pools to create a sense of elegance and tranquility

 

Cria-Yatay_4

Bedouin man in Petra, Jordan.

Sands of Time

Travel and the Middle East were made for one another. Over the centuries – and no region on earth this side of Africa has been around for so many of them – the land has been criss-crossed by Nabateans, Romans, Crusaders and pilgrims. Its dunes and deserts have enticed writers and wanderers, from Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton to TE Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), while its Byzantine mosaics are still points of pilgrimage for modern travelers.

 

Having only ever studied Jordan – as Edom – during the course of a theology degree back in the mists of the 1980s, I thought it was high time I joined the caravan of explorers, mystics, dreamers and divines. They went on foot and by camel. I used these too, and a horse, and a nice, comfortable, air-conditioned 4WD. My mission: to see the ancient – and to arrive at the modern, and make contemporary sense of these biblical lands.

 

I crossed the Allenby Bridge from the West Bank behind buses heading to Mecca. Behind me, Jericho; beneath me, the River Jordan; a little way along on my right, Mount Nebo, from which Moses was allowed a view of the Promised Land. Not bad for a start. From here, the Jordanian river Kazem followed the magnificently dubbed though meandering King’s Highway south, following the contours of the Dead Sea Rift. At Madaba, I saw a large fragment of a map of the Holy Land made for an unknown Christian community in the 6th century. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea and Nile Delta were all clearly depicted. What could be more stirring to a travel writer than an exquisite map, laid out on the floor of the Byzantine Church of Saint George, linking faith with landmarks and long journeys?

 

We traveled slowly for 220 miles all the way down to Wadi Rum, passing through arid plains and desert canyons. I saw few major towns and no cities, but plenty of shepherds and goatherds, donkeys and camels, as well as numerous Bedouin encampments. The land was parched and bleak. But wherever a trickle of water persisted, crimson poppies and black lilies – Jordan’s national flower – had burst through the dun crust.

 

I saw an old steam train left sleeping on the Hejaz railway at Wadi Rum – a southern, narrow-gauge spur of the old Orient Express. Here my path diverged from the great thoroughfares of Arabia as I made for a tented camp at the foot of a sandstone massif. A hot towel and fresh pomegranate juice awaited, as well as a basic if spacious Bedouin tent. Set amid a maze of monolithic rocks, this was to be my home for three nights; the first one began with a beautiful moon and a delicious barbecued lamb and meze supper around an open fire.

 

Deserts are utterly formless at first, and it takes time to get your bearings. A dawn drive in a sturdy 4WD took me first to a row of towering peaks nicknamed the Seven Pillars of Wisdom after the book of that name by TE Lawrence. There were no roads, but the driver-cum-guide followed ruts in the sand, which took us to high viewpoints, down through broad Martian valleys and into narrow natural cuttings dotted with tiny oases.

 

In the morning the heat was mild enough to set on short solitary walks. My drivers had the good sense to give me space and time to enjoy the silence, the surreal rockscapes and the play of the light on the mountains. I hiked to see the low-slung redbrick ruins of a Nabatean temple dating from the first or second century AD. The Nabateans were an Arab people who spoke a language related to Aramaic – Jesus’ native tongue – and ran a large trading network across the Levant. As well as inscriptions in their own language, Latin writing has been identified on an altar while marble columns were overlaid with graffiti in a poorly understood proto-Arabic tongue known as Thamudic.

 

From such sites sprung many European languages, as well as the fundamentals of Western culture. The temple is believed to contain remnants from the 14th century BC, when it was dedicated to two Mesopotamian deities: Hadad, the god of thunder and rain, and Atargatis, goddess of fertility, fruit and foliage. Standing behind one of the low walls and looking out over a plain littered with rocks and tufts of dry grass, I could imagine generations of locals looking up to the cloudless sky, yearning for rain and a few green shoots to feed a goat or camel.

 

But, lo and behold, just a little way along from the temple were springs bursting from the ground, framed by mint bushes. Close by was another waterhole shaded by green-leaved trees and ferns. In his Seven Pillars, Lawrence recalls pausing here to “taste at last a freshness of moving air and water against my tired skin. It was deliciously cool.

 

It was indeed, but there was so much else to see. I walked up to an outcrop, and then through another narrow wadi – or ravine – dotted with more pools, before joining the driver and continuing on to the Canyons of Umm Ishrin – the “Mother of Twenty”, supposedly named for 20 Bedouins killed on the mountain, or a mad, bad woman who killed 19 suitors before settling on the twentieth. On several rocks I saw depictions of Lawrence of Arabia, looking suspiciously like Peter O’Toole. Fittingly, the passage of the archaeologist-cum-military man-cum diplomat through these parts is largely shrouded in mystery.

 

Camels and hot tea welcomed me back to the tented camp, where I was able to shower and sit back and take in the deep peace and the huge dome of the darkening sky. There was electricity, hot water and beer, and my tent had a ceiling, but it still felt right to be in the desert. Little wonder that the most famous book in Arabian history is dedicated to the night – or that dreams figure so prominently in the region’s legends.

 

The canyons and ravines of Wadi Rum shaped only by weather and age, are a sort of divine overture for my next stop, Petra, where human craft has taken the raw material of sandstone and created one of the world’s true wonders. Desert travelers like to invoke Shelley’s Ozymandias. Well, Petra is an antidote to the expectation of decay. Where there might have been ruins and the scattered sands of time is truly spectacular architecture, carved out of the rocks – or perhaps “into” is more accurate. For this famous city, built as early as the 4th century BCE as Raqmu, the capital of the Nabeatean world, is like the imprint of a powerful imagination that saw shapes where others saw only cliff walls and untidy lumps of dead rock.

 

The path into the site, known as the Siq or “shaft”, follows a narrow, winding gorge through towering rocks. At times it’s barely ten feet wide, and is narrower at the top than the bottom; as you step from shadow into light, and then back into the murk again, it feels as if it was built for theatrical, rather than defensive, purposes.

 

On exiting the cleft – a geological fault smoothed by water – you meet with Petra’s stunning centerpiece: the Treasury, or Al-Khazneh in Arabic. You might know the colonnaded Greek-influenced facade from its appearance in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The name refers to a local legend that bandits hid their loot in a stone urn placed high on the upper level. But the building was originally built as a mausoleum and crypt. The wind and seasonal rains have eroded many details but archaeologists have located mythological figures representing the afterlife, as well as dancing Amazons with double axes, and Castor and Pollux (twin brothers from Greek and Roman mythology).

 

Pliny wrote of Petra’s importance as a trading crossroads. As I walked on to visit dozens of rock-cut tombs, temples and a Roman-style theatre – the Romans occupied the site from 64-3 BCE – I began to get some sense of just how big and permanent, not to mention affluent, it must have seemed to its original residents and travel-weary visitors. Under the noonday sun, the 800 steps up to the Ad-Deir Monastery were slow going but at the top was another beautiful classical facade. Once it would have been a major crossroads linking China with Rome. On the main colonnaded street there was space to think and wonder: for centuries, caravans laden with silk, spices, incense and other exotic wares could be stored and animals rested safely here. Once a tax was paid, the merchants were free to continue their journey west or east.

 

Though UNESCO-listed Petra receives some 500,000 visitors a year, making it Jordan’s number-one visitor attraction, it’s expansive enough not to feel cramped. Once you’ve seen the major architectural landmarks, your gaze falls on shadows, caves, crevasses and windows offered by rocks that afford surprising vistas over the complex. Too many people rush through; I’d recommend a morning and then a late afternoon, to see how the sun works its own wonders on the sandy rock. You can easily escape the hubbub and the donkey-ride sellers, and there are several cafés and a restaurant serving delicious falafels. You can even pop back after dark for Petra At Night, when thousands of candles are lit in front of the Treasury for a session of music and storytelling.

 

Over the course of their long stewardship, the Romans diverted most of their lucrative trade routes away from Petra. That’s one of the main reasons it was overlooked even during the age of the Grand Tour. The site celebrated the 200th anniversary of its rediscovery – by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt – in 2012. Those two centuries saw seismic political shifts across the Middle East and the establishment of many new nation states from former tribal territories. Jordan, which became a British protectorate and then gained its full independence in 1948 as the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan (shortened to Jordan the following year) is one of these.

 

The drive from the ancient capital of the Nabatean empire to its modern capital, Amman, takes only three hours on Highway 15 – the main trunk road. The city sits in a deep bowl, its residential neighborhoods of cream-colored blocks spread over the slopes, with the main commercial centers along the lower reaches. More than four million people live in the fast-growing city (there were only about 5,000 in the 1920s), and the expanding sprawl now stretching over 19 hills, with many suburbs hidden behind the high ridges.

 

Amman lies close to ’Ain Ghazal, one of the oldest settlements in the near east, and stands on the site of the Greek city of Philadelphia (meaning “brotherly love”. As a Beta city on the global index, a cosmopolitan and liberal cultural center, an important banking hub, and a tourist destination popular with Arab and European travelers, it has risen to prominence with remarkable speed.

 

The best overview by some way is from the Citadel, a collection of Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad ruins that sits at the top of the city’s highest hill, Jebel Al Qala’a. The most significant extant structures are the 2nd century Temple of Hercules and partially reconstructed Umayyad Palace, but the poetry resides in the juxtaposition of ancient columns, podiums and arches – which act as a series of frames – and the modern apartment blocks beyond. A wonderful breeze made a walk around here late in the afternoon especially pleasant, and as there were only two dozen visitors spread around the extensive site, I could easily find tranquil spots to sit and stare. As at the Tels of Palestine, you have a strong sense of being on top of layered history, of belief systems and world-views that come and go. The feeling was compounded when I had one of those rare epiphany-like travel experiences – when the call to prayer commenced around the city, and live voices and recorded ones overlapped and echoed all around the valley.

 

There are regular evening festivals and concerts at the Citadel. As they’re the only way to see the site, and those views, after dusk, keep an eye out in the local listings via your concierge.

 

Down below is a hillside amphitheater from the same period as the temple. But I was ready for some 21st century city life. In Amman, there’s plenty of this, from the American-style eateries, power lunch and realpoliticking rendezvous of the western hotel districts, to the slick coffee shops and trendy bookstores of Rainbow Street, to the throbbing heart of downtown, where you can take your pick between old markets, traditional food stalls – Jordanian beef and pasta, bean dishes and fresh khubz breads are classics of Levantine cuisine – and street traders pulling carts loaded with olives, tomatoes, peppers and fresh juices. At times, its energy reminded me of Cairo, but it’s far less hectic and less dusty. It’s also untouched by mass tourism, a rare thing in a major capital.

 

The local Carakale microbrewery claims the Sumerians invented beer some 5,000 years ago and it is merely bringing it home. Around Darat al Funun, I found a fabulous contemporary art space. These are not the delights one expects to discover in an Arabian city. In the new Abdali district, two million square meters of office space are being developed to transform Amman, a safe and strategically important city, into a business hub. The blurb declares the project’s aims of “catapulting Amman into the 21st century and placing it on a par with most of the world’s renowned city centers”. Well, from Petra we know what happens to those in the end – but right now, Amman, and Jordan are happening and hopeful.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Amman

 

4709900206

 

 

At the end of a narrow gorge, hewn into sandstone cliffs, stands Petra's most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh, known as The Treasury

(© Aurora Photos)

 

 

Bedouin man in Petra, Jordan.

 

Looking out over Petra 

(© Aurora Photos)

 

 
 
TRMT_Hero

The Road More Traveled

In the Tian Shan Mountains – the Mountains of Heaven, to the Chinese – my guide and I came upon an old man on a white horse. He wore tall leather boots and a splendid white felt hat like an upturned jelly mold. With a jerk of his head, he invited us to come and eat. Beyond San Tash, where Tamerlane left a chilling monument to his slaughtered dead, we found his yurt perched on a bluff above a dark river. Full of the aromas of cooking and wood smoke, it was as snug as a womb. We took our place sprawled on rugs on a raised platform at the rear. Bowls of milky tea laced with butter were handed round and a great plate of petrified cheese was set before us.

 

The old man’s flat Kyrgyz face was the color of walnuts. He gazed at me for a moment without speaking, as if assessing my fate. Then he set about eating, chomping his way through the bread and cheese with a series of deep, throaty growls, before throwing himself back onto the pillows with a grunt and looking at me. “ENGLISH!” he bellowed at me. (I’m not English, but this didn’t seem the moment to quibble about passport details.) “ENGLISH, WHERE IS YOUR WIFE?”

 

I thought for a dreadful moment he knew something about my wife that I didn’t, that he had heard she had run away to the South of France with a member of the Chippendales. Then I remembered I didn’t have a wife.

 

“No wife,” I said, relieved.

 

He made a pantomime expression of surprise. His eyes, the color of tea, widened to the size of saucers.

 

“NO WIFE?” he bawled. Then his voice dropped to pianissimo. “Listen carefully, English. Let me tell you how to get a wife.” And leaning back, he embarked upon an explanation of the intricacies of Kyrgyz romance.

 

I was on the Silk Road, that great trans-Asian route that the English traveler Freya Stark described as “the oldest, the longest, the most romantic, the most persistent of all the checkered streams of trade”. For more than 4,000 miles, it follows various routes from the gates of Xi’an in China to the shores of the Mediterranean. But whichever way you pass, Central Asia is its hub, and the people of Central Asia its middlemen. They share nomadic roots, mercantile instincts and a surprising enthusiasm for splendid hats, from the dainty pillbox job of the Uzbek merchant to the tall felt affair of the Kyrgyz horseman.

 

I had come to Central Asia to understand nomads, and to see the remnants of the nomadic culture that still existed in the remoter regions of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. I was following the route of the old Silk Road, from the Crimea across southern Russia, watching the rolling steppes from the windows of the Kazakhstan Express. I left the train in the town of Turkestan, where dust from the Kyzylkum Desert coated the leaves of the shade trees along the main road.

 

Turkestan is home to one of the holiest of Kazakh shrines, the mausoleum of the first great Turkic saint, Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, the founder of a Sufi order in the 12th century. Its blue dome rises on the edge of the desert, the sole survivor of the town’s more glamorous past. It was built by one of the great names of Central Asia: Tamerlane, the 14th-century conqueror who traced his ancestry back to Genghis Khan.

 

The mosque encapsulates the true essence of the Silk Road. Ideas were packed among the goods in the baggage trains on this legendary route. Culture, art and religion passed from one region to another with breathtaking fluidity. Islam spread here from the Middle East – and the ribbed dome of this shrine is part of the great canon of Iranian architecture, an influence that had traveled eastward along the Silk Road for well over 600 miles. The dome hovers above walls of turquoise and azure tiles and delicate traceries of arabesque. I followed passageways from the central chamber into a labyrinth of tall white rooms, the grilled windows of which filtered the outside world to a pale wash of light and a filigree of muted sound. No other religion has captured the longing for a tranquil soul in the form of architecture as exquisitely as Islam.

 

To the south of Turkestan lie the ruins of Otrar, another ghost on the Silk Road, and the place where Genghis Khan, the great nomadic conqueror, got his start in the business of empire-building. Just beyond a museum cataloging the life of this once-great city, a long featureless mound topped by waves of corn, littered with pot shards and bleached bones. In an excavation pit, where swallows rose in a fluttering cloud, I found the floor of Otrar’s great mosque. All that remained were the shattered bases of brick columns. The layers of sediment exposed in the pit walls showed the strata of the city’s different eras of settlement. Among them, a thick line of ash marked the Mongol era, when Genghis Khan had sent armies to burn this city to the ground, at the very beginning of the Mongol Empire.

 

This conflict between the settled people of cities and the nomadic horsemen of the steppes is one of the central issues of the Silk Road. Time and again, nomads would sweep east and west along the road to conquer settled populations – in China, in Persia, in northern India. Here, in this archaeological pit, in this layer of burnt material, was a moment in history that you could touch. I raked my fingers over it, and the old ash, the ancient antipathies, crumbled onto my boots.

 

 

 Above: Registan Square, Samarkand

(©Ian Berry/Magnum)

 

In the congested avenues of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, I found myself sympathizing with the nomads. The city was full of city hassles – queues, crowds, traffic. In the midday heat, people seemed to move in sluggish slow motion. But when I lifted my eyes beyond the buildings and the rooftops, I could see the mighty Mountains of Heaven, the mighty Tian Shan. They promised escape.

 

So I set off with a guide, the bumbling Marat, to Kyrgyzstan, and that section of the old road that ran along the northern shores of Issyk-kul lake towards the mountain passes to China. In Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, the main avenue was still called Silk Road Street. Eastwards, the road ran through velvet foothills. Gangs of hay-makers were out in the fields with pitchforks and scythes. On the far side of a pass of poplars and rose-colored rocks, huge flocks of sheep appeared, with young shepherds on horses cracking long whips in the rolling clouds of dust.

 

We passed the 11th-century Burana Tower, like a lighthouse of the Silk Road, marooned in fields of edelweiss. It marked the ruins of Balasagun, a millennium ago a great Silk Road city. In the small museum were the remnants of the ancient trade: Chinese coins, bracelets of Indian cowrie shells, iron swords, bronze lamps, amulets. In the late afternoon, we came down to Issyk-kul. Its glassy surface held the reflections of snow peaks and high wind-torn clouds. A family went by in a wagon, the patriarch in a tall felt hat, reclining on bolsters of new hay among a tribe of daughters. At the end of the lake we drove through apple orchards to Karakol. Tucked away in one of the remotest corners of Central Asia, the town of Karakol still had the cosmopolitan air of a Silk Road town, a place where disparate peoples met and mingled. Blond Russian schoolchildren were trailing home past cottages with blue shutters and white picket fences. Uighurs in their pretty embroidered caps had laid out cheap Chinese imports at makeshift stalls in the main square. In the market, Uzbek butchers were dismembering cows with huge axes. Kazakh men went by on tall horses while old Kyrgyz men with wispy beards gossiped on shady street corners.

 

The next morning, Marat and I took up the trail of Tamerlane, heading east into the Tian Shan mountains. Born in Central Asia, Tamerlane, or Timur, was the last of the great nomadic conquerors, forging an empire in the 14th century that stretched westward along the Silk Road into Iran and much of the Middle East as well as southward into northern India and north into much of Russia. In Samarkand, his capital, he left one of the world’s most beautiful ensembles of Islamic buildings – a model of architectural delicacy and sophistication. Everywhere else, from Baghdad to Delhi, he left vast piles of bones.

 

We rose into high valleys of grass and pine trees, of horsemen and nomads. On the far side of a narrow pass, we came to the valley of Karkara. It was empty and pristine and full of birdsong. A herd of untended horses were galloping through blue twilight. China lay just beyond the passes.

 

Halfway along the valley floor, we came to the great mound of San Tash, a pile of boulders the height of a house. It was made when Tamerlane embarked on an ill-fated invasion of China. He ordered each soldier to place a stone on the pile as they passed. On their way back from the wars, each took one away again. In this way, Tamerlane could calculate his losses. They numbered in the thousands, a tall cenotaph of stones raised by the fallen to their own memory. I climbed to the top, and the rocks slipped and rumbled beneath my feet like skulls.

 

It was here that we met our Kyrgyz nomad, on his white horse. After supper, he embarked on his matrimonial advice. He was a traditionalist in matters of the heart. In his day, Kyrgyz chaps would cut to the chase when it came to courtship. A young man in possession of a Kyrgyz fortune – numerous sheep – and in need of a wife simply kidnapped the woman of his dreams, and then, through intermediaries, made her family an offer they couldn’t refuse. As soon as the bargaining was completed – quantities of sheep generally needed to change hands – they set a date and the young man and his fiancée emerged from hiding to a welcome from both families. The old man sat back, spreading his hands wide. “That’s the way to get a decent wife,” he said, slapping my thigh. His own wife, and former hostage, beamed her approval.

 

His was the voice of the old Silk Road, of the nomadic cultures that had been central to these regions. But a new Silk Road is emerging in Central Asia. After decades of Soviet hegemony, trade is again becoming the life blood of these regions. A sense of optimism among the new republics of Central Asia, coupled with China’s expansive trade policies, is transforming the region. Rail lines now carry freight from the heart of China across its mountainous western borders to the Central Asian republics and beyond to Iran, to Turkey and to Europe. A new Silk Road is being forged in Central Asia – part of a modern, globalized world.

 

The great trading caravans of the past nurtured the cities of Central Asia: Merv, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. With the new trading realities, the old cities are prospering again, and new cities are emerging. Among them is Astana, Kazakhstan’s burgeoning capital – a city that now stands at the center of the modern Silk Road. Its gleaming skyscrapers rise confidently from the Kazakh steppe, while luxury hotels like the new St. Regis Astana stand as heirs to the old Silk Road caravanserais.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Astana

Above: simple lakeside huts in the Tien Shan Mountain range, which straddles the border between China and Kyrgyzstan, present an idyll of peace
(©Getty Images)

 

Below: trade is booming once again on the Silk Road, where an ancient culture is being connected with the modern world for the benefit of both
(©Getty Images)