of places featured in The Leveling
Reading room in the National Library
Mark’s apartment building was a gleaming modern construction...but he’d always loved the literal window into history his balcony had afforded him—the end of the Cold War, the ruins of an empire he’d helped, in a very small way, to bring down…Past the sliding glass doors leading onto his balcony, he could see the top of the old Dom Soviet, a government building that had built during the Stalin era.
Next to the Dom Soviet sat the Absheron, an enormous, bulky Soviet-era hotel that had recently been turned into a high-priced Marriott...
Dom Soviet on the left, Marriott on the right. Older photo of Dom Soviet above.
C-130 at Manas Airbase, Kyrgystan
Located on the outskirts of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque was, he knew, the largest mosque in Central Asia. But it was also a bit of a joke—few Muslims actually worshipped there because the Soviet bureaucrat-turned-dictator who’d ordered it built had inscribed his personal words of wisdom all over it, right next to verses from the Qur’an.
Standing in the center of downtown Ashgabat, the 230-foot Arch of Neutrality had been built in the shape of a gigantic three-pronged Turkmen cooking trivet, from which a pot might be hung. At the peak of the arch was a gigantic gold-plated statue of the dead dictator Turkmenbashi, which rotated throughout the day so that it always faced the sun.
Beyond the arch, a vast empty parade ground sprawled before a blindingly white, gold-domed government palace. Scores of other buildings surrounded the palace, all of them white-marble confections that had sprung up in the years after the Soviet Union had collapsed, built with money from natural gas sales. Most were empty...The whole place had an apocalyptic, neutron-bomb feeling to it...
Soldiers marching in Ashgabat
Old Soviet apartment complex where people actually live
Women lugging grass sod. The women likely live in an old Soviet housing complex on the outskirts rather than the white apartment buildings in center city.
The Tolkuchka Bazaar was only a few miles from the sterile white buildings of downtown Ashgabat, but it might as well have been a different country; it was as if all the messiness of human life had been swept up from the streets of the capital and deposited in a stinking heap on the edge of the Kara-Kum Desert...
The Tolkuchka Bazaar
There were carpets, giant crates of fruit, boxes of hard candy, clothes, spices, stacks of Barf laundry detergent, electronics from China, dromedary camels…
The Walk of Health.
The story behind this 37-kilometer concrete path is that Turkmenbashi ordered it built through the barren hills outside of Ashgabat and once a year, all government workers had to walk the thing start to finish. Turkmenbashi had a bit of a heart problem though, so he'd just follow along in a helicopter to give people encouragement. This is one of the entrances.
The air grew cooler as they drove up toward the mountain pass that led into Iran. Soon they cleared a gated army checkpoint that marked the beginning of the restricted border zone. The Kopet Dag Mountains here were gently sloping, covered with occasional patches of green spring grass, and broken up by shallow canyons.
The author in the Kopet Dag
In March of 2009 I visited Iran. Shortly after I left, massive post-election protests broke out.
On the shoulder of the road, truckers stood next to their parked rigs, smoking as they waited for what could be days to cross into Turkmenistan. Even in normal times, the Turkmen were paranoid about how many trucks they let in...
The Kopet Dag Mountains from the Iranian side.
The mountains on this side of the border loomed up as dark brown shadows, drier even than the Turkmen side, without a hint of green. The landscape reminded Mark of the spaghetti western movies he used to watch as a kid, in which someone always wound up dying of thirst...
Mashad is a holy city in the northeast corner of Iran, near the border with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
In the city center, towering high above the maze of clogged streets and surrounding buildings, loomed an enormous dome tiled in solid gold and topped by a green flag. It was the shrine of Imam Reza...
Outside the shrine of Imam Reza
Tehran, the view from my hotel room
Laleh Park, a short distance from the University of Tehran and the old US Embassy. Most days the sky is a sickly gray and the mountains barely visible. You feel like you're getting cancer just by breathing the air. But every so often a strong wind will blow away the pollution leaving a view.
Many of the streets in north Tehran are lined with plane trees that form a deep green canopy in late spring and summer.
The Grand Bazaar, Tehran
The Grand Bazaar, Tehran
Tea merchant, the Grand Bazaar, Tehran
Light shafts, the Grand Bazaar, Tehran
The Alborz Mountains, at high altitude
High up in the mountains is the ski resort of Dizin. It was built in 1969 when the Shah, an avid skier, still ruled Iran. Now it’s run by a giant Islamic charitable foundation that has ties to the Revolutionary Guard. The lifts were ancient and unreliable, but the terrain rugged and starkly beautiful, largely unspoiled by the kind of massive development you find at a lot of western resorts.
If you climb for a while after getting off the highest ski lift, eventually you come to an abandoned summit lodge. (It's barely visible at the top of the ridge photo.) Before the revolution it was serviced by a lift, but no longer. It was fantastic skiing down that ridge...blue sky, sunny day, fresh tracks.
Below is a photo of Qom taken from the road. In the background, you can see the mountain range where the underground nuclear site of Fordo is located.
“I talked to the Israeli defense minister an hour ago. At minimum they’re talking about targeting the reactor at Bushehr, the uranium enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordo...