I first landed in Vorga in 1972, to cover the fortieth anniversary of the Ulannic revolution in Sharfland. My editor had told me it would be a difficult assignment - I was one of only a handful of Wallaseans allowed in the country, especially long-term - but I remember feeling confident, unperturbed. I had been a foreign correspondent in Prekovy, Questers, Puerto Blanco, and Taihei Tengoku. How different, really, could life in the Aimagate be?
My bizarre quest to acquire a visa was to be the first clue. The Aimagate had very few embassies worldwide, so I had to travel to the Sharfic embassy in Mbeyanchi. The visa officer barely spoke any non-Sharfic languages, but everything he did manage to convey to me was loaded with hostility and suspicion. No, he told me, no Wallaseans were allowed in the Aimagate. I brought his attention to the signed letter from the Directorate of Internal Revolutionary Affairs that he had just finished reading and told him, but your own government has invited me as a foreign correspondent. The officer told me that the government had banned all Wallaseans. The letter apparently meant little to him. This is not in accordance with the laws of the government, he said. The rules, he said, were clear. I finally managed to convince him to ask the Directorate himself, which he did after three days of me coming back to press him. He eventually gave me a seven day temporary landing permit and told me I would have to extend it in Vorga myself. He had delayed me by almost a week, so when I arrived at Vorga International Airport there were only a few days left before the anniversary celebrations really got underway.
The visa experience had given me a taste of what to come, and the airport held up another scoop. Depsite Vorga being a nominally large city of over one million, the place was almost deserted. The arrivals board (with hand-written chalk slides) was so depopulated that flights scheduled for a week's time were listed. I was interviewed for over an hour by two secret policemen who, again, cared very little about my official invitation and told me I didn't have a correct visa to enter the Aimagate. They did eventually let me into the country, seemingly out of an aversion to detaining me until the next outbound flight rather than really being convinced by my protestations.
The paper had somehow arranged a driver and accommodation in advance, and he was waiting for me outside. He was short, stocky, and smelled of cheap cigarettes and stale hay and told me his name was Urg. His car was more rust than metal, with the interior coated in Ulannic charms and pendants that dangled from every possible location. They are for good luck, he told me. He said he had never met a foreigner before.
Driving into Vorga it felt more like a colossal sprawling village than a true city. Unlike the airport there were people everywhere - sitting in clusters, washing clothes, stirring vats of millet, or just chatting on the pavements. The road was six lanes on each side but only three were for vehicles, of which we saw very few that were not painted in a distinctive dull brown military shade. The rest of the lanes were reserved for the driving of cows, horses and goats to homes, markets or slaughterhouses in and around the city. Urg told me that all Ulannics in the Aimagate were entitled to grazing land for their animals, and this ruling extended to those living in cities - the vast majority of Vorga was a maximum of three storeys, made up of small cubular homes stacked on top of each other like lego bricks. Small grazing paddocks occupied the roofs of lower-floor homes, and networks of ramps allowed for livestock to ascend and descend the different levels. In Wallasea a city of this physical footprint would have housed at least five to six million people - here, it was an endless suburb. Despite being subtropical in latitude, the endless trampling of millions of hoofs had coated most of the city in a fine layer of choking dust. The musty, unpleasant smell of farm animals was inescapable, and hung over the streets like a haze even more impenetrable than the dust itself.
My home was in the inner core of the city, where small clusters of six- to twenty-storey buildings suddenly erupted out of the earth like mushrooms. This, Urg said, was where the Baga-Ulans lived. He told me that Baga-Ulans were non-Ulannic minorities from the north, west, and east of Sharfland who were here to work "indoor jobs" in industry and trade. From the way Urg talked, I don't think he much cared for Baga-Ulans. He regretted that I was being made to live in a sky tower, away from the land, with Baga-Ulans and told me that he wished he could take me to his own neighbourhood to live in the Sergeltist blocks with him. I smiled and agreed and silently hoped that would not be a part of my itinerary.
My apartment was on the eighth floor of a sky tower, and surprisingly spacious (though without an elevator). Urg told me he would be back in the morning to take me to the Directorate of Internal Revolutionary Affairs. Cautioning me not to leave until then he bid me good day, leaving me to unpack my things. The first thing I did was check for police bugs, which were in abundance. Then I opened my window and stepped onto my balcony, which overlooked a neglected green courtyard between three tower blocks. Immediately across the road were the infinite rows of Sergelt homes, stretching away into the horizon, interrupted here and there by a park or market square or some kind of vehicle depot.I stood looking for a while but didn't see any shops, or entertainments, or bars or restaurants. Just thousands upon thousands of horses and goats and cows and yaks.
Play up, play up, and play the game!
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