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“Your travels through Russia look amazing!” a less than erudite friend had messaged me as I was taking off from Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Having only ever been to Russia briefly two years prior, I thought this message quite nicely exemplified the reason I had boarded this—by EU Standards—dangerous flight and had been making my way through Central Asia for the past few months.
Not just for the endless conversations that I could one day punctuate with a contrived look of smug amazement followed by “Dushanbe, you haven’t been?” but also because I felt I was exploring an unexplored part of the world.
Of course, not in the literal sense. If anything, it was extremely well-explored. Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Stalin and numerous other historic figures had all cut their teeth here.
But it was unexplored in the sense that it was absent from any Sunday newspaper travel section, was still spared from marching bands of retirees and hadn’t yet been graced by those lovely stag parties you see quietly contemplating the museums and galleries throughout Europe.
It is, granted, only just getting easier to access this region. Obviously impossible (to the West) during its 80-year period as a not always willing participant of the Soviet Union.
And then it wasn’t especially attractive as a destination during the 90’s as each Central Asian Republic broke free and celebrated independence with authoritarian smack downs and violent civil wars. But now! Well… now…
There are quite a few people boarding flights into Central Asia. Not a lot by any means, on a per capita basis Turkmenistan receives 1.5 tourists per 1000 people per annum, which is double the number received by Libya, but also ranks it 6th last in the world. But more so than, say, ten years ago, when there was one tourist, Colin Thubron, passing through while writing his book about the Silk Road.
But then I suppose that is the appeal of the place. 72 million people huddled in pockets across a varied landscape of 7km high jagged mountains scratching the sky, ocean sized plains of grassland, and shifting featureless deserts, the bed of ancient seas, all organic matter long ago carried away by aeons of scorching sun.
All of which is visited by only a handful – now perhaps, two – of outsiders a year. Certainly, if it is the landscape you come for, its not the chocolate or money of Kyrgyzstan (of which it has neither) that warrants its name as the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’. Soaring mountains with sound of music like landscapes lapping at their base, dotted with villages that have yet to hear the noise of an engine.
Much like it’s neighbouring Tajikistan, with craggy peaks, small tufts at their crowns, looking down upon turquoise alpine lakes. Which walking past gives you the distinct feeling, that after Alexander the Great passed through a couple of thousand (and a bit…) years earlier, that you may be one of the only others since.
That is until you hear a chime from your pocket, as your phone is flooded by messages from your concerned parents. And you look across the lake to see the summer residence of the three-decade old dictator, a mobile mast sitting near his heli pad.
But if not landscape, perhaps it’s the architecture of Uzbekistan. Those madrasahs and tombs, the caravansaries and the Registan, all conjuring images of the Silk Road, that vast tentacled network of routes that for almost two thousand years connected East with West.
Plied by turbaned men leading caravans of camels, their wares piled high or sometimes chained behind them. Gathering in the marketplaces of Samarkand and Bukhara watched over by Mullahs and soldiers alike.
Or maybe the purpose is not specifically about Central Asia itself, but rather simply being somewhere that no one else goes. Some years ago, I was on a small tour through North Korea and on this tour was a 17-year-old boy from Essex.
This was his first trip outside of London and he was awe struck by how vastly (I can’t emphasis this enough) different the place was. When I asked why he was there, he responded “It’s just a bit different innit”.
Well Central Asia is definitely “a bit different” and is definitely somewhere that very few people go. And you’ll be treated as such when you arrive. In fact, if you arrive into Almaty you’ll be – as I felt when I was there – treated like royalty, often the object of attention and sometimes of desire.
This may not extend to Uzbekistan, however, where you’ll be treated like a free money dispensary.
Travel in Central Asia
Either way, no matter where you are in Central Asia, you’ll be treated with curiosity which can sometimes heighten the anxiety, but also the excitement. And you’ll return this curiosity with that of your own, as you peer into the cauldrons filled with horse meat and rice, stirred by Uzbeki babushkas.
Or while you look down across the Truman Show like city of Ashgbat with golden statues rotating in the sun and fountains numbering more so than in Las Vegas, spraying precious water into the desert air, all putting their show on for a vast white marble but empty city. Or stare up at one of the many statues to Lenin as he points out towards a future that never came.
This is a curious region full of curiosities, all there to satisfy your own. And while instead of a fruit cocktail and lei placed around your neck on arrival, you’ll more likely be hustled into a 40-year-old Lada, narrowly avoid a couple of head-on collision on route to your hotel before paying your grinning gold-toothed driver ten times the local rate.
You’ll eventually feel satisfied that you didn’t arrive at a fruit cocktail and have a lei placed around your neck, those smile-for-your-tip moments of inauthenticity, which you realize that Central Asia is devoid of. This is a region of authenticity, a region of curiosity, and a region now more open to foreigners than quite literally, ever before.
Author Bio: Christopher Jones was born and raised in the antipodes, and from a young age yearned to escape his accent. Migrating his way north, he entered and sometimes swiftly exited unusual places and after a handful of stints living around the world he ended up in Lisbon. But on route to the literal opposite side of the globe, he spent a handful of months living in the crumbling south-western corner of the ex-Soviet Union. Meet the ‘Stans is his debut novel, and account of that time.
About the Book: Making a dent on the region’s tourism industry simply by entering it, Meet the ‘Stans is the author’s account of uncovering a region forgotten yet so intertwined with the West. Meet the ‘Stans, Published by Hertfordshire Press. R.R.P £17.50