Hello, I write this from Iran and it feels absolutely fantastic to be here after a Hyde and Jekyll last few weeks. When traveling in Central Asia visas become the absolute bane of your life, swapping stories about them is the standard conversation starter amongst fellow travelers and aside from the cost and effort involved roughly half my time in Central Asia has been consumed by days mucking about at embassies or waiting around for things to happen in the comfortable but fairly boring capital cities of the region. The Iranian visa was probably the hardest I’ll ever apply for; it took 7 weeks, cost $210 and I could easily write 3000 words (don’t worry I won’t) on the process which involved giving up on going before an unexpected confirmation by email then bribing my way onto a train to a semi ruined embassy with skeletons literally in the closet and a broken Telex machine. Ultimately though the consulate in Tashkent’s inexplicable refusal to make one phone call for 3 days meant it came so late that my traveling plans were all but ruined. After initially refusing me after a few minutes of begging the Turkmen embassy they agreed to let me apply for a transit visa, the guy there said it probably wouldn’t arrive (before my Uzbek visa expired) but to check last Monday and “Inshallah it will arrive”. And I’m now thinking I might have to start believing in God as both literally and metaphorically my number came up.
Beforehand I was absolutely bricking it as not only would it mean no Turkmenistan but I was looking at a minimum of $420 to sort the situation out (visa extension/flight to Iran) so it would have to rank as one of the best moments of the entire trip. Culturally the Stans are not the most diverse part of the world and I realize I distinguish the countries in terms of the landscapes and therefore the type of agriculture they do rather than any cultural differences between them. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it but after quite a lot of stress from various things (as I’ll write about later) it felt fantastic to end Central Asia with some final beers in the bonkers land of the Turkmen, on an admin level at least it’s one of the most difficult parts of the world to get around so now I’ve ‘seen it’ I can’t see myself returning too quickly.
There’s a memorable line towards the end of the fantastic German film The Lives of Others when the Berlin Wall has come down and one of the characters contemptuously mouths to the corrupt and all round loathsome ex-Communist boss: “And just to think people like you used to run the country”. Well in Central Asian ‘they’ still do run things. The region is home to some of the worst functioning ‘democracies’ in the world as the70 something year old Communist bosses from the ‘80s fix elections and generally terrorize people to make sure they’re repeatedly returned with 90%+ of the vote. On the back of the country’s resource wealth the Kazakh President Nazarbayev has allegedly become one of the richest men in the world but as ordinary peoples lives have also improved (and they supply a lot of oil) he’s largely escaped international criticism. More interesting are Presidents Karimov and (the now unfortunately dead) Niyazov who ruled over the two more memorable Central Asian ‘Stans’ of Uzbek and Turkmen.
Uzbekistan represents one of the worst examples of Western foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In the same way that the British and American leaders hypocritically congratulated the Tunisian/Egyptian (and to a lesser extent Libyan) peoples recently after overthrowing oppressive leaders the West supported, their policies in Uzbekistan have been similarly ethically bankrupt. The Uzbek leader Islam Karimov really is a nasty piece of work, aside from banning all independent media (no BBC. Reuters, AP etc.) and even foreign NGOs who report on what he’s doing he’s brutally cracked down on any opposition to his rule; allowing no other political parties, regularly using torture on opponents and famously boiling people alive. His partner in crime is his oldest daughter who goes by the stage name Googoosha and is probably going to be his successor. Aside from being a pop star, in very shady circumstances (through probable mafia and definite official help) she’s gained control of vast areas of the country’s economy, running near monopolies in healthcare, telecoms, entertainment etc. She’s become one of the richest women in Switzerland (where thanks to her ‘diplomatic status’ she’s based of course) but has got there entirely thanks to her Father’s position so is absolutely detested in Uzbekistan.
But unforgivably the West has largely let all this go; about 10 years ago Uzbekistan had a brief flare up of Islamic extremism that was quickly crushed by Karimovs troops but his support for the ‘War on Terror’ and allowing NATO to use air bases for raids in Afghanistan meant he was effectively given ‘a pass’ (and $500m in aid) by the West. You may remember the case of the British Ambassador Craig Murray who admirably spoke out about the human rights abuses going on and encouraged Western governments to take action... so in a moment that had the grass roots of the Labour Party up in arms he was promptly sacked and his reputation publicly slandered by the Blair government. Eventually even Bush gave up on Karimov after the infamous Andijon massacre where he ordered the army to kill 1000 people protesting against his rule but by sanctioning him in the first place the West can’t really criticize the likes of China over their foreign policy and begs the question of what exactly are we fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan. Certainly seeing smiling photos of Karimov with some of the worst politicians America has offered up (Rumsfeld, Kissinger etc.) in recent years is a pretty galling sight and once again traveling in this region has underlined quite how much the ‘War on Terror’ has cost in so many ways for such limited results.
One of the things most people find enjoyable about traveling is seeing how different societies work , sometimes you see things which you think are ‘better’ or more likable than what you grow up with but other times you see things and just feel very lucky to be from a country like England. And in Central Asia one of those things are the police. Along with the visa situation I’d highlight them as the main reason not to visit the region. In some countries e.g. Bolivia or China the cops are under strict instructions not to interact with foreigners under virtually any circumstance; in other countries like India cops will often stop you but it never feels unsafe and is mainly to satisfy the unattractive degree of curiosity that Indians seem to possess. But in Central Asia the police are the most dangerous people to be around, over the last 2months at a guess I’ve been stopped once a day on average and as their main motivation is to try and get money out of you I very quickly learned to turn around and walk away if I saw one. Being confronted by aggressive cops is a pretty hard situation to deal with, they’re the law and you’re not meant to mess with the law but at times it’s been damn scary and I’ll leave Central Asia very, very pleased I haven’t got into serious trouble as I’ve come pretty close a couple of times.
In Tajik/Kyrgyz/Kazakh ‘stan their usual tactic is to fabricate a reason to stop you e.g. ‘we’re searching for drugs’, then you get into an argument over the same two things. The security advice for the region is a) DO NOT let them search your bags (they’ll often plant drugs) and b) if you can possibly avoid it DO NOT give them your passport because (as several travellers have confirmed to me) they’ll just say “Right, unless you give me some money you’re not seeing that again”. So roughly once a day I’ve had to deal with them saying ‘Gimme your Passport/let me check you bags’ and me trying to say ‘No I don’t think so’.
In many ways Central Asia is run under an unpleasant system of might is right and if you’re richer/bigger/stronger you’ll always get your way. And that’s how it’s been in dealing with the police, if it’s just one cop or they’re younger/smaller than me I would just say no or act a bit bolshie and they’ve tended to back off and let me go. But generally the police recruitment posters go something like: “Are you 3”/30lbs bigger than the average bloke and have an IQ below 80? If so, then congratulations- you’ve passed the police entry requirement!” So they’ll try to intimidate you which when there’s several of them is not nice. The single scariest incident was in Bishkek when I got stopped by 6 cops on a quiet road as it was getting dark. After several minutes of them getting increasingly aggressive as I refused to hand over my bags but had my passport wrenched off me I was starting to get really worried. They then brought up a commander who gave me an icy glare and jabbered something nasty sounding in Russian but involved the word ‘money’ when amazingly and out of nowhere one of the other ones said something pertaining to “Oh let’s just let him go’ and unexpectedly gave me back my passport.
Obviously a very lucky escape, a virtually identical thing happened to the French guy I’m now traveling with and they simply stole $300 off him.
But then came Uzbekistan; I’ve been to a few places but I’ve never been anywhere that comes anywhere close to the police presence of Uzbek cities. If in London you’re never more than 10m away from a rat then in Tashkent you’re never more than 50m away from a pig. In order to maintain his iron grip on power Karimov has created one of the worst ‘police states’ in the world; one tour guide told me he opens his tours with the line: “Welcome to Uzbekistan, where you take the time machine back to the Brezhnev era”.
It’s difficult to convey in words just how thick the ‘green (not blue here) line’ is but there are cops literally everywhere standing around looking very bored, which along with the low wage is much of the reason why they hassle people so much. Their presence peaks in the gorgeous Tashkent Metro (modeled on the Moscow Metro so lots of marble, chandeliers and mosaics in the stations), at each entrance, set of ticket gates, escalator or platform there’s at least one copper hanging around and they all want to check your stuff. On top of being hassled on the streets I basically couldn’t deal with this every day and one time I absolutely lost it with one on a platform when after a particularly bad morning at the Iranian embassy (so my mood was a darker shade of black), I’d already been checked 3 times in the station when another copper demanded my passport… at which point at virtually the top of my voice I just started screaming and screaming at him. He was absolutely shell shocked as I guess he’s used to people obeying him and it must have been a fairly unforgettable sight for the 2 or 300 other passengers on the platform. After a while another cop came over and sheepishly apologized to me but then some sort of commander arrived and in surprisingly good English said “Don’t ever speak to a policeman like that again in Uzbekistan”. Good advice but I don’t think I’d pass off as a terrorist or even something like a mugger so why the hell was I being checked for the 4th time in 5 minutes? I’d advise anyone who wants compulsory ID cards and increased stop and search powers for the police in England to spend a couple of weeks in Uzbekistan and then see how they feel about that. That said, by all accounts corruption and general harassment have improved immeasurably since the ‘90s and as one Kazakh guy said “We’re a young country, maybe in 20 years this kind of thing will have stopped”. I think he was probably right but to sum the whole situation up, as I was waiting for my final Uzbek train, in 20 minutes I saw the same cop get into 2 fist fights with Uzbek blokes. Both times the guys didn’t have tickets so were either trying to carry a 2yr old daughter (his wife was disabled) or the bags of his 70yr old Mother onto the platform. As the baton waving cop gave a lovely display of ‘respect my authority’ contempt with violent consequences I just thought what a horrible, horrible group of people run things and whilst I found 3wks near intolerable I left the country feeling real pity for ordinary people having to live every day under such a repressive system.
Whilst I personally can’t ever imagine wanting to travel on an organized tour, as the legions of French and Italian buses there show the amount of hassle they save in Uzbekistan means it’s probably one of the best places in the world to visit non-independently. Aside from not getting hassle from the police, if you’re traveling independently you need to register your presence every night (i.e. show proof of where you’re staying or you can get fined when you leave the country)and have to repeatedly run the gauntlet of changing money up on the black market (the official exchange rate is 33% lower which is particularly ridiculous as in Uzbekistan the highest value note is worth just $0.40 so $100 = 250 notes. Bus conductors or traders carrying around duffel bags full of money is not an uncommon sight but I guess they’ll get no bank jobs!
Another benefit of going on a tour is getting access to better food; aside from using porcelain toilets again (as opposed to holes in the ground) I’ve also had to relearn how to use cutlery (rather than chopsticks or my right hand for the last 2 years) in Central Asia, although with very limited enjoyment. Central Asia is often considered to have the worst cuisine in the world and whilst I think Mongolia would be my pick I can remember few periods of my life where I’ve taken less interest in food than the last couple of months. Since leaving China I’ve not had a good meal and have essentially got into a routine of eating breakfast then just snacking on fruit for the rest of the day and rarely going to restaurants. I’ve found this incredibly frustrating as whilst in places like Tibet or Mongolia nothing grows so it’s easy to see why the food’s limited to meat and dairy products but here it’s largely the same food yet they have a Mediterranean climate so a quick walk round any bazaar will show a wonderful selection of fruit (especially the melons and figs) and vegetables… but they just don’t do anything with them. Restaurants will often serve nothing but shashlyk (kebabs) and bread or if you’re lucky the onomatopoeic regional ‘delicacy’ plov (fried rice with bits of mutton fat) and the nearest you’ll get to a healthy dish is a ‘tourist salat’ (slices of cucumber and tomato) so I’m leaving the region feeling in terrible condition and desperate for some decent food.
Despite the definite downsides there is a bit to do in Uzbekistan, it’s home to the 3 biggest tourist attractions in the region: the ancient Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkhand. They’re steeped in history and thanks to the fluted turquoise domes and mosaic tiling on the giant mosques and madrassas they’re marvelously photogenic. However, like most visitors I was somewhat disappointed when I saw just how overzealous they’ve been in the restoration/reconstruction efforts they’ve made. They’re meant to be living cities but they’ve demolished the old towns and kicked all the residents out to leave the strange impression of a giant museum modeled with souvenir stall lined streets straight out of Disneyworld or MGM Studios. Nonetheless, the region offers very little in terms of man-made attractions so it was quite nice being fairly touristy again.
The other place I visited in Uzbekistan was Moynaq, also a man-made ‘sight’ but of a very different kind; the USSRs rap sheet for environmental damage in Central Asia is both long and damning. During the arms race with the US they used the big remote, empty spaces of Kazakhstan as a nuclear and chemical weapons testing ground and whilst the human cost has been nothing like Chernobyl even now large areas are littered with gigantic radioactive craters and are completely off limits to the public. Even worse though has been their harebrained attempts to reform the agricultural practices of the formerly nomadic peoples of the region. Stalin launched a disastrous campaign to create giant wheat farms on the unused steppe by forcibly resettling the animal herding populations onto collectivised farms. But thanks to the harsh winters and strong winds destroying the fragile soils (and the fact the Russians had already slaughtered most of their animals) the area was left with no food and around 2million starved to death.
In Turkmenistan we had an incredible night camping out by the truly bizarre gas crater of Darvaza; walking for 1.5hrs in the dark in the desert would normally be a very stupid/dangerous thing to do but thankfully we had a giant orange reference point… cos the crater is on fire. And has been for no less than 40years! During the 1970’s a Soviet gas exploration experiment went a bit wrong, and a gas filled cavern caught fire and just doesn’t stop burning so looks like the Gates of Hell.
It’s got a radius of some 70m and is fairly hot but not so gassy that you can’t get pretty close to it so we just spent an hour watching the mesmeric flames. Under a perfect starry sky it was a truly wonderful experience, camping by a burning gas crater in the middle of the Turkmen desert- quite literally what you go travlling for.
Much more famously though is the plight of the Aral Sea which is generally regarded as the biggest man made environmental disaster in history. Once the 4th largest lake in the world, in the 1960’s the Russians came up with the incredible idea of turning the Turkmen and Uzbek ‘Stans economies into ones dominated by cotton production. I’m not gonna pretend to know much about cotton but I know that it needs lots of water, hence why it grows so well in the Mississippi and Nile deltas. The thing was that those two countries are largely composed of desert and water is at a premium so the Russian plan was to divert virtually all the regions rivers into irrigation canals to feed the cotton fields. Seeing as these rivers were the source of the Aral Sea, unsurprisingly over the next 40years the body of water shrank at a dramatic rate decimating the ecosystem and the livelihoods of the Karakal people who lived by it. Moynaq was formerly the 2nd biggest port on the Sea but now stand no less than 180km from the current shoreline. It has an almost apocalyptic feel to it and was just a very sad place to be as the population has near entirely moved out (I couldn’t even find anywhere to eat) and it’s home to the famous ship graveyard in front of an endless desert vista that you’ve probably seen photos of. A while ago the sea split into Northern and Southern parts and thanks to huge investment rechanneling water supplies the Northern sea in Kazakhstan is making a recovery and getting bigger again but the Southern part has been abandoned with nothing living there as it’s now almost as salty as the Dead Sea. A pretty sad spot all in but it’s a testament to just how bad/nasty a leader Karimov is that not only are farmers still forced to grow cotton in a destructive monoculture but during harvest time in Autumn large numbers of the Uzbek people (including children) are forcibly moved out to the fields to go and collect the crop. It’s not quite the Gulag but it’s remarkable that slavery is effectively still practiced in the 21st century.
After making a just in time dash across Uzbekistan I escaped into Turkmenistan, one of the world’s least known countries. Aside from granting no electoral or press freedoms Turkmen politicians don’t tend to be very open in explaining their policies so the rest of the world very little is known about Turkmenistan, it probably ranks 2nd only behind North Korea as the most secretive country in the world. In part due to xenophobia but mainly to stop locals from meeting foreigners and learning about the outside world if you want to visit as a tourist you have to pay $200 a day with guides who are (allegedly) members of the intelligence service as your hotel room is bugged and you’re generally kept a very close eye on. However, for reasons I couldn’t understand they grant a 5 day transit visa where you have total freedom and, provided you’re prepared to use your time fully, effectively acts as a 3 day tourist visa. Despite being so cut off from the rest of the world (e.g. the media doesn’t present any international news) the people were surprisingly indifferent to us wandering around. Apparently they’re taught in school not to speak to foreigners (if they can ever see any) but I was pretty shocked at how incurious they were to foreigners wearing strange clothes (the national dress is a virtual uniform) and wandering round markets and the like- they just didn’t seem interested. It was like being in Japan again. Here too the security presence is pretty strong but the people are comfortably off as housing is heavily subsidized and gas is totally free (so people don’t ever bother turning it off in their homes), even petrol is just $0.20 per litre (cheapest in the world?) so only 1-2 generations removed from nomadic herdsmen they seem reasonably content (but no-one really knows) in their Turkmen bubble.
The country’s main claim to fame since independence was the leadership of President Niyazov or as he insisted everyone call him, Turkmenbashy (Leader of the Turkmen). Before he kicked the bucket in 2006 he cultivated probably the strongest personality cult the world has seen in recent years, beyond the likes of Stalin, either Kim or even Tony Blair. He had portraits and golden statues of him put up everywhere including a giant 12m one on top of a massive obelisk which rotated so that he’d always face the sun and renamed days of the week and months of the year after his family. He wrote a (truly hilarious) book called the Ruhnama (basically 800pages about how great he is) which all schoolchildren had to learn and he even built the largest mosque in the region which never gets any worshippers (we went on Eid and it was totally empty!) because he blasphemously inscribed the entrance gate with the phrase “The Quran is Allahs’ book but the Ruhnama is a holy book”.
His successor is so much of a doppelganger with Niyazov it’s widely believed he’s his illegitimate son but he’s unfortunately removed the rotating statue and the more extreme policies e.g. the days of the week have been changed back. However, he’s learned from the best so he’s followed Turkmenbashys lead by altruistically covering the country in his portraits and they’re cleverly themed so in front of hospitals it’s him smilingly performing an operation or him flying a plane in front of the airport or commanding troops in a Generals uniform in front of army bases. Absolutely magic.
Turkmenbashy also embarked on an incredible project of rebuilding the capital Ashgabat; thanks to a desert landscape chock full of natural gas and a couple of pipelines to Russia/China the country is absolutely swimming in money. But rather than investing in education and healthcare blah blah blah Turkmenbashy made the pleasingly bold decision to knock down most of the capital and rebuild it in white marble with hundreds of fountains to set off the look. It’s a quite incredible place to wander round, something like Las Vegas but lacking the irony as aside from the giant monuments to Turkmenbashy, flashy ministries and empty hotels and shopping centres even apartment blocks have been rebuilt as giant condominiums stretching for several KMs into the desert… all in the same white marble style. After a while you actually become a bit desensitized to it all as in the centre of town there’s no life around. During the day you’ll barely see anyone but gardeners, street sweepers and the odd policeman looking after the palaces but for a couple of days it’s an incredible place to visit and at night when they’re all lit up it makes for a cracking skyline. It’s a strange place but as I so frequently do when traveling I just left feeling very, very lucky to have had the chance to visit.