Before we write too much more about what turned into a gruelling desert crossing of Uzbekistan, I wanted to share a few geography lessons I’ve got to grips with along the way. Central Asia is slowly becoming an adventure tourist destination, but because of its relative inaccessibility (a combination of lengthy Soviet visa processes, poor infrastructure, endless deserts and mountains) it has a long way to go before rivalling tourist numbers in the Alps. Not much is known about the region back home – ‘the Stans’ is the name that sticks, a deliberately mysterious name for the group of Central Asian countries which few people can list let alone spell. That blurry underdeveloped ‘middle bit’ east of Europe, west of China and just north of the war zones which often appear on TV. Before I started this expedition I would have had serious trouble placing Uzbekistan on a map, let alone planning a cycling route through it. So if, like me, you struggle to distinguish your Tajikistan from your Kyrgyzstan, this blog may be for you. All this is still very basic knowledge as we’ve only been here a number of weeks – I’m sure there are volumes of worthy books to get through about Central Asia for the keen reader. But I hope it demystifies things very simplistically!
A quick overview first. ‘The Stans’ are a motley collection of ex-Soviet republics which became independent when the USSR collapsed after 1991. Their more ancient history is extremely complicated, marked by near-constant conflict. The harsh climate meant that few cities were established, the population instead remaining more nomadic. They bred horses and developed into some of the most hardcore and fearsome fighters in the world. Central geographical placement along trade routes meant a huge amount of infighting. Big and small khanates emerged, expanded, reformed and were taken over many times in gruesome style. Once in a while big empire-hunters, the likes of the Huns, the Persians, the Ottomans and the Mongols swept through and ‘conquered’ the region on their way to Europe or the Middle East, though what was ‘conquered’ was largely desert and empty space. But controlling this region made rulers extremely powerful, as they then controlled access to Europe, India and China. These access routes were key for trade and formed part of the Silk Road, which was actually many little roads connecting the East with the West. With plenty of different nationalities and caravans passing through the region it is easy to see how Central Asia is described (in quite a corny way) as a ‘cultural crossroads’. Some people reckon this constant flow of people through the Stans has reinforced divisions within them, and ensured that clan links are kept very strong.
The Stans are a group of 5 countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Sometimes included as a sixth is Afghanistan, which shares many similarities with Tajikistan – though not as popular with tourists yet. Pakistan is not included because it is presumably geographically associated with India (‘Hindustan’) in the Indian subcontinent. Four of the five countries are Turkic-speaking nations, which means they speak a language very similar to Turkish. The only one that is not is Tajikistan, whose people are historically much closer to Afghanistan and Persia. All are Muslim countries, though compared with Turkey’s extreme conservatism they so far seem pretty liberal: women don’t all wear headscarves, mosques are quite discreet and we’ve had plenty of invites to drink vodka by the side of the road!!
Food in Central Asia – as far as we’ve seen – is not very exciting. ‘Plov’, a rice-based dish with a scattering of grated carrots and dry meat, is the national dish in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan is pretty fond of it too. Apparently the difference lies in the colouring of the carrots: Uzbek carrots are orange but Tajik carrots are green. I’m not joking. For two countries which grow none of their own rice, this seems perhaps a silly idea for a national dish. The other staple is ‘lagman’, essentially soup noodles, which do the job as far as cycling calories are concerned but could be vastly improved for taste. A lagman is produced in minutes as there are communal vats of the stuff with mystery meat floaters ready to be reheated and served up. Similar meats get stuffed into the ‘somsas’, samosas which just need a burst in the microwave to complement any meal. By no means a culinary dream, but enough to keep you going. The fun is in the location: cayhanas (teahouses) are everywhere, serving up the necessary, which people eat cross-legged from low tables on the floor.
The biggest and most obvious Stan to start with is Kazakhstan, much more well-known in the West for all the wrong reasons because of Borat’s ‘Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’. Perhaps ironically given Kazakhstan’s portrayal in the film, it is by far the richest Stan, owing its wealth to vast oil reserves. In fact there was a movement domestically to change the name Kazakhstan to Kazakhia, to break away from the image of underdevelopment associated with being a ‘Stan’. The country is vast – ninth largest in the world and bigger than Western Europe – but largely uninhabited as much of the land is arid steppe. Historically a large proportion of the population has been nomadic, breeding horses and fearsome riders in the steppe next to Russia. Think very similar to the Mongolian horsemen of Genghis Khan. Northern sections of Kazakhstan are perhaps also looming as future targets for Russian annexation, as there are many ethnic Russians there. Seems silly to write now, but check this space again in five years time…
Again to break Baron-Cohen’s image, Kazakhs are very Asian-looking (and not eastern European). The climate is not friendly in most of the country, which gives Kazakhs a hardened don’t-mess-with-me look. I found myself wondering who would win in a fight between a Kazakh and a Tibetan – both extremely tough people. We were surprised to find smoking banned indoors and jaywalking a finable offence in Aktau, having just come from Azerbaijan where laissez faire is a polite way of putting it. Drivers stopped and waited at zebra crossings, something we were both sure the French can learn from. And as for development, President Nazarbayev recently launched ‘Kazakhstan 2050’, a campaign to bring the country into the world’s top 30 economies by 2050. We were told that as part of the plan there were huge incentives to have children, as Kazakhstan’s population is only 18 million. So a bit more forward-thinking than Borat would have us believe anyway!
During our short stay in Aktau I managed to commit two grave cultural errors, actually both at the same time. Many people in Kazakhstan believe that whistling indoors brings very bad luck, especially financially. It is also extremely impolite to step over a person’s legs when getting up from the table because it implies they are a corpse, therefore condemning them to an early demise. So in one action I financially ruined and insulted our host in Aktau. Luckily she took it well. Some don’t.
Apparently Kazakhstan has nothing against its neighbour Uzbekistan on an official level, though many people raised their eyebrows at us when we described our onward journey. One girl at Halloween actually choked on her drink when we told her. She warned us very seriously that we were probably not going to make it out alive as Uzbeks were ‘dirty, bad people’. Good neighbourly love then.
Uzbekistan is right in the thick of it, bordered by all the other four Stans plus Afghanistan to the south. It is actually doubly-landlocked, which means all the countries around it are also landlocked. What’s more, none of the rivers in Uzbekistan lead to the sea – the main water source runs down from the mountains through Tajikistan first, and that’s a major reason these two don’t get along at all (both Presidents actually came to blows once). It is perhaps unsurprising given all this that most of Uzbekistan is desert, namely the vast Kyzyl Kum desert which we crossed in a period of about two weeks.
The Uzbek population is half the size of the UK’s, which makes Uzbekistan the most populous Stan. Historically people have been sedentary farmers trying to grow cotton out of the little arable land that exists around the desert, something which became increasingly hard after the Aral Sea (fourth biggest sea in the world, in northwest Uzbekistan) was essentially left to drain away by the Russians. This has been called one of the biggest ecological disasters of the modern world – and until now we hadn’t even heard of it! Natural gas is becoming a thing, and cars run on pretty much anything they can find: methane, propane, LPG you name it. The gas piping throughout Uzbekistan is mostly overground and reminds you of a children’s Lego or Duplex experiment, all the joiny bits connected slightly haphazardly and propped up on breezeblocks. Small accidents are presumably disastrous. It’s pretty common to be greeted by the smell of leaking gas as we approach a rare Uzbek town in the desert.
Uzbekistan’s geographical position and its harsh desert climate means that it has mainly been a through-country for travellers, a large and very important connecting block along the Silk Road. This is where big caranvanserai, mosques and madrassahs were built in the oases of the desert, a halfway stop on the journey to or from China. Independent khanates were established in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, each controlling large parts of Uzbekistan and building very beautiful cities out of nothing thanks to trade money. The infighting between these khanates is staggering and far too complicated to try and explain here. Before the Soviet Union takeover both Bukhara and Samarkand were Tajik, so the fact they were granted to Uzbekistan after the USSR’s dissolution is another stumbling block for Uzbek-Tajik relations. The concept of Uzbekistan as a country is relatively new, and there are autonomous regions within the country (namely Karakalpakstan in the northwest) which would rather be independent. Though most other Uzbeks reckon these regions would have little chance of economic survival on their own, so are nothing to worry about. A good conversation starter with our Scottish dilemma.
The government rules with something of an iron fist and has been criticised by the West for many human rights abuses. Perhaps the region has always been used to having authoritarian rulers, thinking back to the time of the khanates. There is a big police presence everywhere, most obvious to cyclists in the routine (and utterly pointless) checkpoints where police stop you, flick slowly through your passport and sometimes sniff more of your medicines. But this level of state control is not nearly as bad as Turkmenistan…
Turkmenistan is the most closed of all the Stans, which is a shame for tourists as it also contains some important cities along the old Silk Road. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, President Niyazov emerged as leader and replaced socialism with his brand of nationalism, and a very strong cult of personality. We are talking huge statues and buildings in his honour, frequent political purges and arbitrary policy reshuffles. His cult of personality has been compared to Kim Il Sung’s in North Korea. In 1999 he declared himself ‘President for Life’ (pretty handy), but then died in 2006, so the then-vice president is now in charge.
The regime has been heavily criticised by the West for serious human rights abuses so in return doesn’t look kindly towards Western tourists, instead maintaining a close relationship with China (no surprises there!). Turkmenistan only issues transit visas of a maximum length of five days, so for cyclists this means to cross the country from Iran into Uzbekistan involves near-constant pedalling for five days across awful roads. We were incredibly frustrated by Turkmen officialdom in both Istanbul and Baku (as you can read from Lobby’s earlier blog!) which denied us the chance of taking on this five-day challenge due to miscommunication between consulates. One consulate accused the other of lying – you get the picture.
More positively, Turkmenistan is a relatively rich country for Central Asia as it exports one single commodity: natural gas. It has the fourth largest natural gas reserves in the world. There is actually a huge burning gas crater pretty much in the centre of the country called ‘The Door to Hell’. Soviet engineers lit it in 1971 in an attempt to burn it off, and it has been burning ever since. Nice one. The government has granted its people free electricity, water and gas provision until 2030 – just don’t protest about extending this provision or try to leave the country, or you’ll spend the rest of your days in prison.
Tajikistan is the poorest of the Stans and has certainly not benefitted from the break-up of the USSR. An extremely mountainous country whose people are still very clan-based, it was plunged into bloody civil war for five years pretty much as soon as the Soviet glue became unstuck. During its days as part of the Russian empire it relied almost entirely on imports for energy and food, and is only now getting back on its feet thanks to foreign aid and huge Chinese investment in construction and road-building. 70% of Tajikistan’s 8 million people live on less than $2 per day, and the government recently doubled the legal minimum wage to $4 – per month! Nowadays the annual national budget is less than the size of a Hollywood film production. About half the GNP is reckoned to be linked to the drugs trade thanks to a very long (1300km) and porous border with Afghanistan. It has a while to go yet before it can run itself without significant foreign assistance.
Tajikistan is home to the Pamir mountain range, sitting just above the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan. In fact over half of Tajikistan is at over 3000m altitude! This area shares a long border with Afghanistan, which although it is landmined and militarily garrisoned still lets many drugs through. In October the Taliban took control of a border post in this area on the Afghan side, killing or taking hostage all the policemen there. The Taliban have never ventured beyond the Tajik border, but things are precarious to put it nicely.
This is the area we will be cycling through, mostly along the Pamir Highway which links Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to China. The route is usually attempted in summer (where overnight temperatures can still dip to -15C) and has been called the holy grail of adventure cycling. Crossing it in winter will certainly be a unique challenge.
The last Stan on our route is Kyrgyzstan, though we will only cross through it very briefly on our way out of Tajikistan and into Western China. The country is also home to some impressive mountain ranges along the Silk Road and some stunning lakes. Unfortunately relatively recently it has been rocked with protests about corruption, the president imposing a state of emergency in 2010, locking up all opposition leaders before resigning and fleeing to Kazakhstan. Many people believed that Russia was behind the protests though classically they deny any involvement. Clan-clashes which followed suggested the country could be heading for civil war, but so far the government has managed to keep an uneasy peace.
So there it is, a whirlwind tour of the Stans to shed some light on this blurry central region of the world! I’m sure it’s completely unsatisfactory for anyone with more than an inkling about the region, but for those who don’t have any (like us!) perhaps it helps a bit. The themes which emerge along the way are definitely underdevelopment (the stereotype), particularly since the breakup of the USSR; harsh climates and hard people; and unfortunately corruption and conflict. The ideal region to explore by bicycle. Stay tuned.
Well done on reaching the bottom! Love from the Stans X