Reflections on Central Asia (the 5 'Stans')


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Asia
October 30th 2016
Published: November 1st 2016
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Firstly, let me say that a visit to Central Asia is not for everybody - it does not necessarily compare with the South of France or Acapulco! Most visitors who travel to these parts are either interested in the history of this region, want to understand more about the culture of these ex-Soviet countries, want to view and photograph some outstanding attractions, or just want to travel to somewhere a bit different. I guess I fell to some degree into each of these categories.

These 5 Central Asian countries have to my mind two very interesting elements in their history. It is not my plan here to give you all a history lesson, but most people will be aware that for many centuries, this area housed a couple of different routes that bridged China in the East to Europe in the West, and these routes were commonly known as the 'Silk Road'. While this route was primarily used for trading (not just silk but many other commodities), it was also a route used by many of the early invaders, from Alexander the Great, to Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and others, all of which can be expanded upon in any good Ancient History text. But Modern History threw up a totally different set of challenges for this region. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Central Asia became part of the USSR. Without wanting to get too political, it is fairly clear that between then and when these countries gained independence in 1991, the Soviets stripped much of the value from these countries and left them to fend for themselves with very limited support. In the 25 years since independence, each of these countries has been endeavouring to rebuild their infrastructure, regain their culture, and move forward in their own individual ways. How well each of them has achieved that was a major drawcard for my desire to visit.

The sudden dissolution of the Soviet Union left most of the Stans poorly prepared for nationhood. All initially gravitated to some form of 'strong man' government (ie a Dictator), and most have stayed with that model, despite much visible evidence of self-indulgence and corruption. Economic development amongst the countries has been variable, with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan both showing the benefits of significant oil and gas reserves to give them relatively stable economies, while the other three are less economically developed and less stable. One of the things that was very noticeable was that gasoline charges in most of these countries was only around USD0.40-0.50 per litre, and that domestic flights were very cheap, no doubt a combination of older planes and cheap jet fuel. Uzbekistan was the only country that appeared to have a black market on currency, with the black market rate available almost double the official rate of around 3,300 sum to the US dollar. I'm not sure how the local banks made money on currency exchange, because in all countries the spread between 'buy' and 'sell' was less than 1 per cent with no commission either.

One thing that was very noticeable was the incredibly varied ethnic mix in each country. At the extremes, there were Caucasian, Chinese, Indian, Persian, Turk races visible, but most people seemed to fall in gradations somewhere between these extremes. However, they all tend to mix and mingle and in general seem oblivious to the racial differences between themselves. As stated in a number of my blogs, tourist traffic is still very light here, and in all countries the locals (and especially the younger ones who are learning English at school) took every opportunity to engage with us.

While the dominant religion in this region is Islam, and this was obvious from the numbers of mosques and madrassahs visited, this religion was certainly not 'in your face'. While most would probably consider themselves 'devout', it is doubtful whether a high percentage in fact pray five times a day, and I certainly did not here a single 'call to prayer' in my whole time there, as I have heard in many other Muslim countries.

Sports do not appear to generate the same level of interest in this region as in most of the western world. In my travels, I saw very few sports stadiums, football fields, tennis courts etc, which I guess is not totally surprising because if you look at the moderate success these countries have had in events like the Olympic Games, it is generally in sports that either reward physical strength or horsemanship skills. I do notice however that each of these countries is currently participating in the preliminary knock-out section of the World Cup football, so there is obviously a reasonably healthy football competition in each country.

As mentioned earlier in my blogs, I did this trip as part of an organised '5 Stans' tour, even though organised tours are generally not my preferred mode of travel. The fact that I had limited time, and knew that it would require 6 border crossings and 5 internal flights meant either a huge amount of organisation or potentially a lot of unproductive time, so I figured it was better to let someone else look after these hassles for me. To say we had a disparate group of 10 people on our tour would be an understatement, but people work out their preferred company and there were no major bust-ups. We had a separate guide for each country, which probably led to a better knowledge than one guide trying to cover all, but it did lead to some hassles at border crossings and flights because they did not travel through those with us. As mentioned earlier, our border crossing from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan took 5 hours, and this and the border crossing out of Turkmenistan both required us to haul our suitcases over a kilometre through 'no-man's lands' on poor surfaces, which is not everyone's idea of fun, and would have been hell in either extremes of weather. Security was also pretty excessive, with each airport having three different sets of X-ray security, and some of the land borders being pretty pedantic when searching through your luggage and querying you on the most trivial of items.

The hotels we stayed in were almost without exception of a pretty high standard, and the meals were also okay, so long as you were reasonably flexible with your diet. One of the elder ladies on the tour announced at our first meal that she rarely ate meat, to which our response was "so you're a vegetarian then?" to which she replied that she also hated vegetables! On further examination, she disclosed that she ate mainly pasta, cheese pizzas and McDonalds. She didn't thrive on the food on this trip! The meals usually comprised a soup, a salad (although lettuce was not seen the entire trip) and a main course, which was sometimes chosen for us and sometimes of our own choice.

In each country, we were transported by minibus, with a dedicated driver. The quality of roads was extremely variable. I understand the Chinese are working with local governments in a number of the countries to upgrade the main highways, but I would have to say there is still a long way to go yet. I would estimate that on our longer haul trips, we would have averaged 70 kph at best. Fortunately, as mentioned, the low cost of the internal flights allowed us to save a number of potentially long drives, and there was no drive over about 5 hours in any one day.

So, on balance I would rate it a most interesting and informative trip, but not without its challenges at times. So if you want to see somewhere a bit off the beaten track, and you want to get here before the hordes hear about it, now is a good time. But if your idea of a holiday is just chilling out and sitting on the beach, I can suggest many more inviting options! That's it for this trip - all going well, I will next be reporting from Oman and Jordan next March.

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13th November 2016

Enjoyed your blog
We will be visiting Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan next August. We are still trying to decide if we want to see any of the other stans. If we did which was your favorite? I need to go back and reread your previous blogs now that we are going on this trip. Did you experience any safety issues?
13th November 2016

Central Asia
Great to hear from you, guys. Unfortunately, while our visit was classified as a '5 Stans' visit, it was to some degree just '2 Stans' as we spent most of our time in Uzbek and Turkmen. In saying that, our small amount of time in both Kyrgyz and Tajik was interesting - I don't think I have a favourite as each has its enjoyability factors, along with the occasional frustration in view of its ex-Soviet background. But one thing I can say is I never had a single concern about safety, and nor did any of the ladies on our trip. I'm more than happy to assist with your planning, but yeah reread my blogs first. Cheers, Neil
7th March 2017

Thanks
I thoroughly enjoyed reading all your blogs. I particularly liked your coverage of central Asia.
19th March 2017

Thanks Bharat. That's not what I write them for, but appreciation is always nice. I returned last night from a visit to the Middle East so over the next 2 weeks will be forwarding posts on Oman, Israel, Jordan and Qatar if you are interested. Cheers.

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