This is the fourth installment in a five-part series from TIME International’s annual Summer Journey issue, Travels Through Islam: Discovering a world of change and challenge in the footsteps of the 14th century explorer Ibn Battuta.
It was a whirlwind. TIME’s Hannah Beech and I covered a lot of subject matter in a very short amount of time during our journey to Kazakhstan. We looked for evidence of Chinese influence at the bazaar, at the bus terminal, at gas stations and on a rooftop; we spoke with Uighur leaders and scholars and a lawyer whose family fled to the Soviet Union from China in the 60’s, and with Kazakh traders from China who had crossed back into Kazakhstan for business.
Three hours by plane to the east, we snuck around an oil refinery and asked about its effects on the environment, then visited a museum honoring the explorer Ibn Battuta, who passed through a riverside town on horseback in the 14th century. All this in five days. It’s hard to see any connection between the place that Ibn Battuta encountered and what we as western journalists experienced 700 years later. I’m not sure how long Ibn Battuta stayed there, but maybe his visit was nearly as brief as ours, a short glimpse.
There are some things you can see more clearly as an outsider passing through, and many more that you completely overlook or just experience as confusion. Why was the guarded housing complex for Chevron employees—each home outfitted with identical grills and trashcans—completely empty? How did the man I photographed asleep near the train tracks end up there? On a tight deadline and with lots of territory to cover, there are always questions left unanswered.
I suppose this is what a journey is—something that leaves you with fragments of experience that hopefully add up to something meaningful.
Carolyn Drake is a photographer based in Istanbul. Her work has focused on Central Asia since 2007 and has been supported through grants from the Guggenheim and Fulbright foundations and the Lange Taylor Prize.
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