The land of Gold and Saffron - a journey through the Sharfland

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Srf
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The land of Gold and Saffron - a journey through the Sharfland

Postby Srf » Mon Jan 07, 2019 10:42 pm

Sharfland - a destination that until very recently had managed to evade the tourist radar - has recently found itself under the microscope. Since Open Borders Magazine granted the nation a "Must Visit" rating in its 2016 Review, an ever-greater number of intrepid travelers have made their way to this deeply exotic country.

Littered with ancient sites of both human and natural beauty, Sharfland defies one uniform description: the dramatic, towering Amayalis loom over expansive, featureless steppe; fast and fertile rivers cut deep valleys through the densely populated lowland as they reach the subtropical coast; the national constructed language "Sharfic" is the mother tongue of no-one, and finds itself playing second fiddle to a dizzying array of regional languages and scripts on signposts across the country.

Our correspondent has travelled the length and breadth of this fascinating nation, brushing away the outdated image of war and disease to expose a young, dynamic country that seeks, after one hundred years of isolation, to share its rich cultural heritage with the world at large.


Vorga (1)

"The rich fool outlives the poor scholar"
- Vorga proverb


Sharfland's chaotic, sprawling capital of Vorga is the perfect place for one to begin their adventure. It has no culture of its own, expatriate Sharfics will insist, acting instead as a cauldron in which all manner of customs and traditions from across this federation are tossed and reduced into an overpowering broth.

Certainly Vorga feels like a cauldron in the late summer. Fierce thirty-degree heat beats down on me as I walk through the central business district at Amayala Junction, admiring the fifty- and sixty- storey glass and steel towers that have sprouted in Vorga like mushrooms since the end of Sharfland's civil war. Between these cutting edge towers sit a number of three- to ten- floor buildings, basic concrete structures that sweat in the humid subtropical rain and leave distinct stains running down the outer walls. Dozens of food carts clog the streets, where old migrant women from the provinces serve steaming yak noodle broth into cheap bowls for all manner of customers to wolf down at a folding plastic table.

It begins raining again, as is common at this time of year, and the sea of people on the pavement instantly dissolves as office workers pop open umbrellas or slide under shopfronts, hoping to wait out the torrential downpour. With a population approaching nine million as of 2018, these smartly dressed young professionals are forced to compete fiercely for space under the flickering neon signs.

A short ride away on the Blue Line metro (recently rehabilitated, and unexpectedly clean and clinical) is the old city of Vorga. A world away from the modern bustle of Amayala Junction, the old city is an unplanned warren of squat, mud-brick buildings that remain unchanged after three hundred years of settlement. The winding nature of the old city led me to arrange a tour with guide Buur. I meet him in the courtyard of his home - most blocks in the old city feature common access inner courtyards lined with apricot and cherry trees. He pours some sweet, green tea - an inescapable custom - into a small metal cup for me as we discuss our plans for the day. His wife appears beside us, placing a large platter on the table which was stacked with thick, hearty naan and a small number of dips. The apricot curry, Buur smiles, was made with food grown in this garden. I take a bite - it is a little too spicy for my tastes, but I nonetheless tell Buur it is delicious. He instantly detects my untruth, and grins in recognition. I will take you to the liar's den, he tells me.

The Chezir is a large, circular mud-walled bazaar that for many centuries served as the nexus of trade in south-central Crataea. Today, as with all days, it is overflowing with thousands of customers shopping for every conceivable thing on earth. Despite the infinitely varied nature of the goods on offer, the Chezir has been helpfully segregated into numbered "blocks" each dedicated to a certain product. Buur first shows me the animal block, where shepherds bid on stocky yaks and goats, then guides me through to the clothing blocks. I spend a good hour here haggling (with Buur at my side ensuring I avoid any of the hundreds of obscure faux pas) and walk away with some leather boots and an impossibly warm yak-skin fur coat - perfect for the coming Wallasean winter.

Buur and I spend several more hours wandering through the old town, where a new museum, gallery, fountain or antique store lies around every corner. Finally we surrender to our hunger in the early evening, and Buur takes me to the incredible Naor (feast) restaurant (Vorga Old City, ask for directions to the Ulannic Mosaic) for some dinner. I recommend the smoked horse sausage, served with fluffy jasmine rice flavoured with cumin and saffron - and of course a local beer with which to wash it down.

As we put down our cutlery I ask Buur to sum up Vorga for my readers. He looks at me and smiles.

"My friend, I think it can be summed up as a thousand cities in one".

I look across the Ulannic Mosaic (a large square formed of enormous historical mosaics). Ahead of me the short, mud-and-clay bricked houses of the old town give way to rows upon rows of identical concrete tower blocks - some intact, some gutted by fire and war. Behind them, the cutting edge glass and steel of Amayala Junction is lit up by a thousand bulbs that pour light into the evening sky. I tell Buur I think I agree.
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Re: The land of Gold and Saffron - a journey through the Sharfland

Postby Srf » Sat Jan 26, 2019 4:07 pm

Beryngol

Sharfland's largest port city is roughly two hundred and fifty kilometres west of Vorga, situated on an unfathomably deep harbour that should by all rights make the city a giant of Crataean trade. The journey from Vorga's west rail station takes around ninety minutes on a new Dumani-built high speed rail line, and passes endless mud flats and regularly sized square pools of murky brown water for farming prawns. Skinny workers stalk the pools, shielded from the sun with old baseball caps and slouch hats. Small villages and towns line the railway line, several still bearing scars from the fighting that cut through this region only ten years ago. Paint peels from façades, vehicles rust alongside poorly maintained roads, and children play in the street rather than go to overcrowded and underfunded schools.

Beryngol itself has fared far better from its decade of peace. After the bloody battle that wrested it from the continuity republic's control in 2006, Dumanum has spent a vast amount of money on reconstructing and rehabilitating this strategic city to serve as its main south Crataean seaport. Along the seafront surrounding the vast port complex, large residential and office towers rise into the sky with fourty, fifty, sixty storeys. Along the main expressways through the city, formerly neglected Sergeltist-style temporary housing blocks have been extensively rehabilitated with new cladding and frontage. Many have been snapped up by Dumani investors and an expanding Qorboq nouveau-riche, who spend their days patronising the trendy cafés that dot the seafront.

Beryngol is, however, not the home of the Dumani or the Qorboqs. It is the home of the Aktoi, an Ulannic people who settled here hundreds of years ago as the Great Horde splintered across Crataea. Interested in their place in the post world order, I set up a meeting with local activist Altan. He meets me in Federation Plaza, an expanse of flat stone tiles surrounded by large retailers that serves as the central meeting point for the city.

"Beryngol is thriving", he tells me, while we stand in line to buy bowls of crab fried rice from a street vendor in the plaza, "but the Aktoi are dying".

We sit down with the rice, which is delicious and fragrant, while Altan talks.

"The war did not end well for us. We are Ulannic people. We fought with Kamal against enemy Pantheonists and northerners who came to invade our homes and occupy us. So when they won the war, they punished us. I don't blame them. We would have done the same to them. But still, it hurts our souls to see what they do to us".

I ask him what he means.

"Our city is being flooded by foreigners. They clear our homes to build their towers and villas. They clear our beaches and fishing areas to make more room for wharfs. We are being pushed into the margins of our own home. Would you like to see?"

Altan and I ride the city tram system to his home in the western outskirts. The first leg of the journey, from the centre to the bus station, is spent on a wonderfully clean and modern tram. A policeman wanders up and down the cars, and stops the homeless and mentally impaired from getting through the pneumatic doors at each stop. The second leg is a lot less comfortable - an ancient 1960s-vintage streetcar rattles and screeches with each pull of the brakes, while gangs of tense-looking youths climb aboard without tickets and smoke marijuana in the car. I sense that only Altan's presence saves me from being relieved of my valuables.

We get off the tram in a notably shabbier area of the city, where some bullet holes and scorch marks are still visible on the buildings lining the main road. Altan ushers me across the street, and down an alleyway between two large prefab blocks. On the other side, my eyes widen. It is like another world inside the large block - a vast courtyard, surrounded on all sides by identical residential block buildings, is packed from end to end with informal single storey houses that seem to lean against each other to prevent their collapse. The walls are brightly painted in yellow, blue and orange pastel, while the roofs are an eclectic mix of clay-fired tiles and rusty corrugated iron. Children run around in various states of undress, ignoring their parent's calls and stopping only when they catch sight of the pale-skinned easterner walking through their town-within-a-city. Small single-man fishing boats are stacked everywhere, emblazoned with the names of their owners in white stencil. Thick white fishing nets litter the ground. The entire area has an overpowering smell of the sea, mixed in a cocktail with the sharp scents of poverty - unwashed bodies, unprocessed sewage and rotting food.

"We have electricity, and sometimes running water, but it is not certain" Altan tells me as we stroll through the settlement. "Most of our people now live like this. We fled the city when the war came, and when we came back northerners were living in our apartments and houses. So we have been pushed into these courtyards".

We stop at Altan's house. A dozen scruffy children run from the structure to embrace him, and his wife calls from within that she is making a fish curry.

"Of course, we still have each other. And our pride. These investors, invaders, they come here alone and leave their families in Shiran and Qorbochqa and Urbs Dumanus. Nothing could be worse than that".
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Re: The land of Gold and Saffron - a journey through the Sharfland

Postby Srf » Sat Mar 09, 2019 1:38 pm

Kodonseng

Kodonseng is a city that rejects the state of things. It is the Federation's second largest, housing two and a half million souls in the city proper with another two million in the sprawling, endless semi-formal settlements surrounding the city. It is these settlements, known as "Khorools" that my coach is busy driving through, while a Sharfic man next to me has taken it upon himself to share some information. These Khorools, he tells me, are leftovers from the war when refugees fled the countryside to be protected in the cities. The new government likes having them here now, because they can move more northerners into the countryside. At the last comment a man behind us takes umbrage, and tells me that the Khorools are full of mass murderers and war criminals who are hiding from the federal authorities. A shouting match develops and I shrink against the window, staring out at the endless blocks of cheaply built prefabricated concrete homes interspersed with wood-and-metal shacks.

Kodonseng's true city arrives dramatically and unexpectedly - the Khorool blocks suddenly end and are replaced by more formal Sergeltist-style buildings, with smatterings of glass and steel emerging from the ground like trees here and there. The bus station is here in the "new city", and as I climb out I notice the overwhelming presence of police - far more than in Vorga or Beryngol. My friend from the bus sees me staring and leans into my ear. The Sharfic people here are against the Federation, he tells me. There is much violence in the suburbs.

I make a note to avoid them, instead taking a tram into the old city.

The Kodon river, wide and slow and murky brown, suddenly comes into view and cuts a slash through the infinite urbanisation. Across the river Kodonseng's old city is surrounded by a ten-meter-high mud fortress, with gatehouses at regular intervals allowing modern traffic in and out of the area. It is a truly massive structure, with up to 300,000 people living inside the ancient walls. Outside of Gzhelkastan, it is the single largest Ulannic construction in the world.

The streets inside the old city are quite unlike anything I found in, for instance, Vorga's old city. Despite sharing similar architecture, I feel a difference in the air that it takes some time to put my finger on, before I realise. Vorga's old city was real, lived-in. Each street was dotted with one or two faded, collapsing façades indicating a home long since abandoned, but every other building in the entire district housed a family, most of whom had been there for generations.

Kodonseng's old city is very different. Each building has been converted into some kind of micro-enterprise, or bar or restaurant. They gleam with cleanliness, with barely a rat or enormous cockroach to be seen scuttling along the mid-street drains. These buildings are not lived in - the residents of the old city live in the same prefab buildings as outside the walls, only tucked into courtyards and down side-streets to maintain the historical avenues. I cannot deny that it is a beautiful area - the jewellery is lovingly crafted, and the scent of noodles and shredded horse and goat meat makes my mouth water - but it is at the same time sanitised, inauthentic.

I find a small bar down a set of stairs in an alleyway that is clearly not meant for tourists like me - no low-effort translations on the menus, no internet print-outs of their dishes. In here, at least, I feel some reality of Kodonseng, even if that reality is mainly fake leather jackets and overpowering cologne. Old men sit in booths playing backgammon and drinking thick yak millet, while younger men and women - probably students - sit in groups laughing and joking and clinking beer bottles together. A foot-thick cloud of acrid smoke rests against the ceiling.

This city puzzles me, so I grab a beer (Kodonshar, delicious and cheap) and ask the students if I can join them. Eager to practice their foreign language skills, they agree and squeeze up to give me a seat. After some small talk about me, my travels and the city, I ask them how they feel about the new Kodonseng. One firey-looking young woman answers immediately.

"It's horrible" she tells me. "I am too young, really, to remember much of the war, but I remember the old city. My grandparents used to say Kodonseng was their favourite place in Sharfland because it never changed. Their grandparents said the same thing. But now everything is different. the war destroyed everything. Nothing of the old city is real any more. It was destroyed by northerners with rockets, and they decided to rebuild it to look nice for tourists to come and spend money on rubbish".

"Compare it to Vorga" a young man in glasses interjects. "Or Shiran, or Qorbochqa, or Mingruucha. All those cities are still real - of course they have changed, but they are still themselves. And that is because they submitted. They are either aggressors, or fell easily to the aggressors. We didn't do that. Did you know Kodonseng was under attack for over two years? It was a very hard fight, and the NRF and their foreign friends punished us by destroying everything. But that is how it is in Crataea. That is the only history that is left in our city".

I stayed a little longer with my new friends, and bought them a round of drinks before I left. I felt sorry and ashamed that I had come here to be nothing more than a voyeur of their cultural erasure. I tried visiting some museums (the Kodonseng city museum, Sharfic ethnographic museum and Culinary museum are all very interesting and cheap) but my heart simply wasn't in it. I spent the evening at my hotel, thinking over what those intelligent young people had said. At least I had found the real, authentic Kodonseng. It is a city of anger, and it will see violence again.
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