Hello from Central Asia, I hope the Londoners amongst you are reading this on something you nicked during the riots. After a fairly action packed few weeks in Afganistan and its aftermath I followed it up with a fairly nondescript period; don’t expect much from this one. I had to hang about in Kyrgyzstan for too long trying unsuccessfully to get visas and despite being there nearly a month I don’t have too much to say on it. In fact I found this email harder to write than just about any other on this trip, at the very least I don’t think anyone will die as a result of it. That’s not to say I actually disliked the place, any country where kymys (fermented mares milk) is available on every street corner I’ll get on in but it felt like probably the quietest country I’ve been to in Asia. I then spent about 10 days in Kazakhstan, which is slightly livelier but its reputation as ‘the biggest blank spot on the map’ isn’t far off- put it this way it's the biggest country in the world without it's own Lonely Planet (it's bunched in the Central Asian one).
After staying a couple of days in a yurt I realized the cross which appears on the Kyrgyz flag is from the pattern the thin wooden beams make on a yurt skylight, and that fact quite nicely sums up the Kyrgyz identity. Very much a nomadic people, even in the capital Bishkek the pace of life is extremely slow and the entire country exudes a quietly likable pastoral atmosphere.
Judged by average altitude it’s one of the highest in the world at 2750m although whilst it’s consistently pretty it doesn’t have the awesome majesty of the Himalayan countries to the South. It is fairly well set up for trekking and certainly my best memories of the country were either out on the steppe or in the unspoilt mountains. You can rent horses pretty easily from the locals and ambling along by day followed by gazing up at the stars by night felt like the perfect way to enjoy the country. Probably the strangest experience I had there was mixing with Russian/Kazakh holidaymakers by the massive Issyk Kol lake, there’s enough salt in it so it doesn’t freeze but it does feel really strange sunbathing as giant white topped peaks stare down at you from the mountains above.
Before they got their independence they were part of the USSR and unfortunately those pesky Ruskies left a few negative legacies which Kyrgyzstan and the other former Soviet ‘Stans still suffer from.
A glance at a map will show this part of the world having some of the ugliest and illogical borders in the world- it’s meant to be that way. Once the Soviet Union was established Uncle Joe set the Central Asian republics up under a ‘divide and rule’ system. Boundaries were drawn so that no one ethnic group would be more than 60% in any of the republics and people were often forcibly moved on to ensure this remained the case. Therefore there are lots of Tajiks in Uzbekistan and Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan etc. and on top of that there are plenty of ‘white Soviet’ migrants (Russians, Ukrainians etc.) kicking round. The idea was that this would head off any independence movements as the populations were too divided and it essentially worked but when the USSR collapsed it had stored up problems for the future. Whilst Kazakhstan has largely avoided ethnic violence because it’s so rich, in the other countries there have been quite a few periods of violence where the usual suspects- youth unemployment and accusations of the governments giving preferential treatment to the ‘home race’ etc. lead to rioting and sometimes deaths. The worst case was in the divided Kyrgyz city of Osh last Summer where Uzbeks and Kyrgyz groups clashed for 4 days and left nearly 500 dead although you’d never know it now from walking round the peaceful town.
Whilst on one level it would make sense for the governments to get together and redraw the boundaries, the complicated interconnected systems the Soviets established in everything from transport to trade means that understandably national governments are unwilling to give up fertile agricultural land in particular- even if the people living there don’t want to actually be part of the country.Whilst the Soviet regime was more recent, like the other European powers pre-war division of peoples elsewhere in Asia, the long lasting nature of this particular sin of empires cannot be underestimated and displaced, underrepresented peoples continues to be one of the defining features of the continent.
None of that really seems to matter in Kazakhstan though, but that’s because they’re absolutely loaded. Reminiscent of Slovakia in Hostel before it, thanks to the inadequacy of British and nonexistence of American Geography lessons, Kazakhstan’s international reputation is now based almost entirely around Borat Sagdiyev. Which really annoys me as notwithstanding the fact that Sacha Baron Cohen is the celebrity I would most enjoy slowly torturing to death over a long weekend, rather than being a backward society of peasants, Kazakhstan is rich and growing fast. In fact at the beginning of the 21st Century few countries could look to the future with more optimism. With the split in Sudan it’s now the 9th largest country in the world (but just 15m people) and whilst it certainly isn’t pretty (endless vistas of flattish,yellow, empty steppe) or packed with sights (human or natural) it has supplies of virtually everything that can be mined or drilled for a profit.
In particular it’s oil reserves are estimated to be one of the biggest in the world and whilst pre-independence it was largely untapped, since they started pumping in the mid ‘90s it’s already moving towards becoming one of the worlds top 10 suppliers so the economy is growing at nearly 10% a year with little sign of that stopping. The BMWs, Audis and designer clothes shops everywhere are evidence of the growth but without doubt the most striking indicator of it is the new(ish) capital Astana, or ‘Dubai on the Steppe’ as it’s been nicknamed. It’s like a much, much colder (average temp of -11 in January) version of Brasilia- a city randomly picked out of the wilderness to be the new showcase capital due to its central location, then loaded up with amazing architecture. They’ve spent some $12b and counting on commissions by Norman Foster and Kisho Kurokawa amongst others to create an absolutely stunning city to walk around. I found myself constantly looking up appreciably as they’ve used all kinds of styles (Western, Asian, Soviet and even futuristic) to build the ministries and shopping centres etc. that a 21st century capital needs. Whilst it’s been criticized as a waste of money I couldn’t help but admire the ambition behind it and certainly as a means of nation building by creating a showpiece capital they’re making a pretty good stab at things.Yet no-one knows about it, which is a shame cos it’s really cool, but then no-one would ever go on holiday to Kazakhstan.
Culturally the differences between the Stans are smaller than I thought they’d be and I think that’s because Russia is still the dominant influence on the region. This has some great sides- stunning Orthodox churches, chess on the sport channels, (at least) bilingual populations and in the capital cities you can see art performances (Opera, Classical music etc.) for just a few dollars. They also ensured schools, hospitals, roads etc. are reasonably set up and I do very much feel like I’m in the ‘Second World’, not quite Europe but a long way from the poverty of the subcontinent. But whilst to their credit the Russians got the basics right for the region they also brought some bad sides- near unbelievable levels of bureaucracy, a reticence to help people even when paid to e.g. hotel clerks or tourist info and perhaps most memorably vodka. As in Mongolia and 'The Great Bear itself', alcoholism is a huge, very visible problem in Central Asia and the consequences of it are around in a number of ways. The tax system obviously works very, very differently to Europe as in Kyrgyzstan for example you can pick up a packet of tabs for 30cents and a bottle of drinkable bottle of vodka for the same price as a beer- $1. If you want you can go for the paint stripper stuff which at 50cents for a 1l bottle has to be the cheapest alcohol I’ve ever seen. Unsurprisingly gangs of drunks litter Central Asian cities and from literally 9am onwards you see people passed out on pavements and especially in the parks. They’re constantly getting into fights and harassing people asking for money etc. so they’d have to be the first places in Asia I’ve been to that feel quite unsafe regardless of the time of day. Beyond that though it’s simply quite depressing seeing so many people literally pissing their lives away and whilst the life expectancy gaps between men and women aren’t quite as bad as Russias 14years they’re still pretty shocking as the men drink themselves to an early death leaving a disproportionate number of older women around. It’s not a great setup.
The boozing could feel out of place, as in theory they’re Muslim countries but after having been in the Afghan and Paki versions of the Stans I always get a shock when I hear the muezzins blaring out here, these feel like the worst Muslims in the world. On my 1st night in police custody in Tajikistan the officers took me out to dinner and over a few bottles of vodka they got fairly drunk, a couple of them got into an argument and the host shrewdly used the traditional Central Asian means of abruptly ending the evening by toasting the Prophet Mohammed, then everyone prayed and immediately left. Eh?
In Almaty the gym next door to my hotel offered classes in ‘Strip and pole dancing’ and ‘Sex Fitness’ (anyone?) and womens dress codes seem to veer wildly between traditional conservative national dress with a hijab to a more ‘Russian style’ i.e. not wearing very much. I don’t think that’s what the Mullahs in Arabia and Egypt would advise and I think it’s part of the slightly schizophrenic national identities they have here. After being dominated by Russia for so long they’ve taken on many of their cultural traits but since independence, Islam (which was banned under the Russians) has become an ever more popular means of asserting their own national identities once again. After only 20 years as free countries for the moment it certainly makes for an at times baffling and incongruous but still quite likable mix of cultures.
I’m now in Uzbekistan and will be for the next couple of weeks but have got no idea what will happen after that, tomorrow’s Monday so I’ll have more embassy ‘fun’ to decide where I can go next. Wish me luck.