A tale of many “Stans” – a journey through Central Asia

Having said all that by way of an introduction, my purpose here is to describe my recent journey through the five Stans or, to be more accurate, four Stans: namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

by Razi Azmi

Published in Dawn blog on  23 & 30 September 2017

(for accompanying photos, go to the Dawn blog)

How many Stans are there? Many more than you think. Quite a few international travel agencies advertise tours to The Stans. Usually it is to “The Five Stans”, namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all located in what is called Central Asia.

This region, which comprised of a number of derelict, feuding khanates and emirates at the time, was conquered by tsarist Russia and annexed to the Russian empire in the second half of the 19th century. As a consequence, all five became a part of the Soviet Union (USSR) and remained so until it went bust in 1991.

Depending on time and cost factors, some tours go for fewer than the five Stans, or combine them with Iran (to the south) and/or Xinjiang (to the east). Xinjiang, the western-most province of China, was historically known as Eastern Turkestan.

Some travelers extend their tour to include Azerbaijan, to the west of the Stans, across the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan has nearly everything in common with the five Stans, except the suffix “stan”.

If there is any logic to the suffix “stan”, then Azerbaijan should have been named Azeristan. Turkey should be Turkestan, being on the western extremity of the Turkic-speaking lands. One may even argue that Iran ought to be Iranistan, for “stan” is a part of the Persian vocabulary more than of any other.

Four of the five Stans, as well as Azerbaijan and the Uighur people of Xinjiang speak a dialect of the Turkish language. Tajkistan is the sole exception, where the language (Tajik) is a variant of Persian, like Dari in Afghanistan.

Now, what is a Stan? “Stan” (or sthan) is an Indo-European word meaning a place of living, a habitation or a location. It is a very common suffix with place names in the languages of Central and South Asia.

Besides the famous Five Stans mentioned above, there are, sorry to say, the infamous two, namely, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both of which, unfortunately, are in the news presently not as excellent travel destinations, as they should be, but rather as places to avoid.

And, of course, there is Hindustan, officially and generally known as India or Bharat. Nevertheless, the current Hindutva-driven BJP government there is making every effort to vindicate the name Hindustan. And, within Hindustan, on the border with Pakistan, there is the state (province) of Rajasthan.

The Russian Federation, or what remains of the former Soviet Union, includes the territorial units of Daghestan, Tatarstan and Bashkorostan. Balochistan is a province of Pakistan. Just to the west of it, in Iran, there is a province by the name of Baluchestan and Sistan.

Waziristan, Baltistan, Kohistan and Kafiristan are geographical or administrative units in northern Pakistan, while the Cholistan Desert occupies a large area in the central region of the country.

Across the border from Kafiristan, on their side, the Afghans long ago shone the light (noor) of Islam on the native Kafirs, following which they renamed the district as Nooristan. Pakistanis have been comparatively lethargic in the matter, but the process of showing the light is underway in Kafiristan as well. And before we know, there will be no more god-damned Kafirs left in Kafiristan.

Then we have Kurdistan, putative land of the Kurds. With an estimated population of over 30 million, they are a people without a state, owing to the arbitrary and self-serving division of the spoils of war between the United Kingdom and France after the First World War (“Sykes-Picot Agreement”).

Straddling eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran and northeastern Syria, only in Iraq do Kurds enjoy a degree of autonomy under the Kurdistan Regional Government with its capital at Erbil. One of the greatest heroes of Muslim history, Salah ad-din Ayyub (died 1193), was a Kurd.

We aren’t quite finished with Stans until I mention “Bantustan”. These were a set of about a dozen supposedly autonomous so-called “homelands” for the native blacks created by the White racist South African regime under its policy of apartheid. They had no international recognition whatsoever.

All Stans, except of course the so-called Bantustans, which were still-born non-entities anyway, are either Muslim-majority areas or have large Muslim populations.

In a previous blog on these pages, I described my recent trip to Afghanistan. Pakistan I call home. Hindustan is my ancestral home, where I still have close kin. I have travelled extensively in both countries and described some of my journeys in the past.

Having said all that by way of an introduction, my purpose here is to describe my recent journey through the five Stans or, to be more accurate, four Stans: namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The fifth Stan, Turkmenistan, was on my itinerary but I was denied a visa. To add injury to insult, I had to spend twice as much money circumventing Turkmenistan than I would have if I had been allowed in.

Those who travel on Pakistani or some such passport are familiar with this phenomenon, namely, visa refusal. But for me, who now travels on an Australian passport, to be denied a Turkmenistan visa was quite a surprise. Particularly because I have travelled often on my Pakistani passport in the past and was never refused a visa by any country.

So, why would Turkmenistan deny me a visa? The “Central Asia” edition of the world’s most popular tourist guide book, the Lonely Planet, gives a brief introduction (with a photo) of the western authors of the chapters on the individual countries covered in the book.

Except for Turkmenistan, that is. In lieu of an introduction (leave alone a photo) of the author of the chapter on Turkmenistan, it says: “we have chosen not to name the author of our Turkmenistan chapter as revealing their identity would put certain people inside Turkmenistan at risk.”

The Turkmenistan government is known to refuse visas without any apparent rhyme or reason. If there is any method to its madness, it is probably this: keep out journalists and scribes, probing minds and skeptical tourists, and anyone who does not appear to be anything other than a typical western traveler, coming to have a good time, a few drinks and be gone to their next destination.

My Uzbekistan guide, Anwar, used to travel frequently to, and through, Turkmenistan to the Iran border trading various commodities between the three countries. He did not need a visa to do so, until about 15 years ago. Now, he told me, it is easier for an Uzbek to get a European visa than it is to get a Turkmenistan visa, though no two countries in the world share the same history, geography, language and culture like they do.

So, leaving Turkmenistan for another time, when a regime change in that country permits me to enter, I will cover here the other four Stans. I travelled through most of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to a lesser extent, a total of about four thousand kilometres by road.

If Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan stand out for superb mountain scenery, Uzbekistan is an extremely rich repository of Islamic historical and cultural monuments. Not to mention its cities, namely, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, even the names of Uzbekistan’s provinces, such as Ferghana and Khorezm, radiate Islamic history.

Kazakhstan is where Europe encounters Central Asia, where steppe meets mountain. It is the frontier, so to speak, between Christiandom and the Islamic world, between Russia and Central Asia. Whatever the origin of the word itself, Kazakh is understood to mean a free-spirited wanderer who loathes authority.

Kazakhs now straddle south-central Russia, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia (China), Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, besides being the majority in their homeland of modern-day Kazakhstan. With a population of over 15 million, Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country by size.

It is the richest of the five by far and is also the world’s largest land-locked country. Kazakhstan has the biggest Russian minority (about 25% of the population) and is the closest to Russia politically and economically.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev, in power since independence in 1991, moved the capital from Almaty, located in the southeast corner of the vast country, to a more central location, hitherto an obscure little township called Akmola, renaming it Astana (meaning capital).

The reason, some say, is the central location, while others think it is to keep an eye on the large ethnic Russian population concentrated in the north as well as to make them feel physically less distant from their capital city.

Whatever the reason, and thanks to Kazakhstan’s mineral wealth, what we have now is a shining new city on the steppe, and my trip began here. Not too far south of Siberia, Astana is cold and wind-swept most of the year.

Most buildings here are huge, perhaps for economy of heating. One structure, housing government offices, is a pair of buildings about a kilometer long, flanking the presidential palace like the two wings of a soaring eagle.

It took me just about one and a half hours by plane from Astana to reach Almaty, the largest city and former capital. It is located in the southeast corner of the country, in the tri-junction of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

It is about here that the world’s greatest unbroken chain of mountain ranges begin: Alai, Kunlun, Tian Shan, Pamir, Hindukush, Karakorum and the Himalayas. Between them, they encompass not just the five Stans, but three more, namely, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Hindustan, as well as China, Nepal and Bhutan.

Almaty is a pretty city at the foothills of the Alai range. From the airport runway, as well as most points in the city, one gets a spectacular view of the snow-capped mountains. Fine ski resorts are only a short distance away. Almaty is connected to the capital city by a superfast train, which makes the thousand kilometer journey in about 12 hours.

Unfortunately, it is an overnight train. So, although I prefer surface travel in order to enjoy the views, I chose to fly. In the event, it was a good choice, for looking down from the plane on a clear, sunny day, I could see a vast, flat expanse all the way from Astana until the approach to Almaty. Somewhere in the middle, there was a huge lake, Lake Balkhash, which covers over 16,000 square kilometres.

At Almaty I joined two other tourists on a guided package tour for our overland trip to Kyrgyzstan and beyond. As we headed east from Almaty, the view was spectacular, with snow-capped mountains to our right just a short distance away. We stopped for a picnic lunch at Charyn Canyon, turning south from here towards Kyrgyzstan.

As we got closer to the seasonal border crossing, the drive through the Karkara Valley became thrilling, as much for the remoteness as for its beauty. We passed through the little townships of Kegen and Karkara. Rolling hills, gushing streams, with more sheep than people, it was windswept and cold. So cold, even in May, that we had difficulty getting out of our vehicle for the border controls.

The flagpole on the Kyrgyz side was a mere pole without a flag, while a very large Kazakhstan flag fluttered proudly atop a pole on the other side. When I teased my Kyrgyzstan guide about this, she conveyed my comment to the Kyrgyz border official. Looking embarrassed, he explained that it was the second time this season that their flag had been blown away by the wind.

In terms of border crossings in the region, the Kyrgyz and the Tajik are probably the most relaxed, although both countries, from independence in 1991 until recently, had been convulsed by civil wars and ethnic riots.

Kazakhstan ranks in the middle, while Uzbekistan is quite onerous in its border control regime. As for Turkmenistan, well, the less said the better. The country ranks third, after North Korea and Eritrea, in terms of repressive control.

On the three-hour drive from Charyn Canyon in Kazakhstan to the Kyrgyz town of Karakol, close to the south-eastern shore of the Issyk-Kul Lake, we frequently passed herders on horseback driving their flocks of sheep and horses and could see nomadic tents along the way.

It is absolutely superb mountain scenery, as good as I have seen anywhere. Kyrgyzstan is over 90% mountainous, with an average elevation of about 3,000 metres. Here, one is more likely to be held up by a traffic jam caused by a herd of sheep rather than vehicles!

Our next overnight stop after Karakol was along the northern shore of Issyk Kul Lake. The name means “warm lake” in the local language. Although surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it never freezes. At 182 km long and 60 km wide, it is the tenth largest lake in the world by volume, and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea.  At 1,607 metres above sea level, it is the second highest lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca in South America.

Issyk Kul Lake is a stunningly pretty sight, especially from the north side, with clear, calm waters and snow-capped mountains in the background on the south side. After a short drive, we stopped for the night in Chong Kemin, a beautiful, wide alpine valley with fantastic walking trails.

Our very short stay here was blissful. I was reminded of two nights at Terelj National Park in Mongolia a few years ago, which I had described in these words: “Our two nights here transported us to a different world, remarkable for its beauty and serenity.”

On the road again and, after a brief sight-seeing tour of Bishkek, where we saw the main landmarks of the Kyrgyz capital, we continued to the Chychkan Gorge, encamping there for the night. It is a very narrow gorge, with space only for the road and the river flowing next to it, and barely wide enough to accommodate a hotel or two.

Heading south from here, over a hundred kilometres south of Bishkek, we climbed the Too Ashuu Pass, over 3,000 metres high. Emerging on the south side, after travelling through a 2.7 km long tunnel, the view which greeted us was nothing short of mesmerizing.

The beautiful Suusamyr valley, 2,000 to 2,500 metres above sea level, lay before our eyes. Looking down, we could see the serpentine road descend and disappear into the bosom of this wide open valley, very green at this time of the year.

Here, I recalled crossing another pass in distant Peru, the La Raya Pass, 4,338 meters above sea level, about halfway between Cuzco to Puno on the road to Bolivia,

There was something surreal about the view on the south side of the Too Ashuu Pass in Kyrgyzstan, as it was on the La Raya Pass in Peru. I can probably attempt to describe the scenery, but the feeling at both locations would be impossible to convey in words. I wished that both time and space would stand still.

Our next and last stop in Kyrgyzstan was Osh, the second largest city, very close to the Uzbekistan border. The Uzbek border crossing at Dostuk is just a 20 minute drive from here. Ethnic Uzbeks constitute close to half of the population of Osh. The city witnessed serious ethnic riots in the year 2010.

This region of Kyrgyzstan constitutes the eastern end of the Ferghana valley. This fabled valley takes in many cities in three countries to the north, west and southwest of Osh: Jalalabad in Kyrgyzstan, Fergana, Andijan and Margilan in Uzbekistan, and Khojand and Istaravshan in Tajikistan.

It is in this region that one can best see the ethno-political havoc wrought on its people by the sudden transformation, in 1991, of provinces into independent, sovereign states.

What were hitherto mere lines on the domestic map of the then USSR, transformed overnight into international frontiers, splitting communities and families, rupturing communication lines and trade routes, and fragmenting resources, markets, consumers, sources of raw material and production.

The border here between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan resembles the ancient Chinese symbol of yin and yang. You might think of it also as a sort of handshake or, taking a less benign view, it appears as if the two Stans have pushed their fists into each other’s stomachs. And then there are the enclaves and exclaves, Uzbek territorial pockets inside Kyrgyzstan and vice versa.  Add Tajikistan to this territorial and ethnic imbroglio.

When we entered Uzbekistan, we were met by our tour guide and driver, Anwar, a charming, genial Uzbek. Our guide in Tajikistan was a Tajik with the same name, while both driver and guide in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were ethnic Russians who call Kyrgyzstan home.

Russia has an open door policy towards any ethnic Russian from the former Soviet Union who was born before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and who now wishes to emigrate there. In practice, even those born after 1991 are easily accepted if they can demonstrate their Russian ethnicity. Kazakh and Kyrgyz citizens can travel to Russia merely by showing their national ID cards.

As a result, there has been an exodus of Russians to Mother Russia, which continues to this day. And large numbers of Central Asians, young and old, also now live and work in Russia, where opportunities are better than in these countries.

Thanks to having been a part of the Soviet Union until 1991, all our guides and drivers were literate and knowledgeable persons. All spoke decent or good English, not to mention Russian, which remains the lingua franca and the most commonly spoken language in all five Stans.

Russian is still so dominant that most ethnic Russians living in Central Asia get by without speaking the local language at all, although it is now the state language. So, although tourists can manage with just English in these parts, my fluency in Russian was an advantage. I should mention here that China is the only country I have been to where it is very difficult get by with English only.

We had been warned of very stringent border controls while entering Uzbekistan. Among the requirements was a letter from a doctor specifying the medicines we were carrying which, otherwise, might be confiscated.

Even so, I was surprised when asked at customs if I was carrying any sleeping pills or religious books. (Didn’t Karl Marx say that both have the same effect on people?) One of my fellow-travelers, a 70 year-old Australian woman who retired as a primary school principal, must have been shocked when asked by the same female customs officer if she was carrying any pornographic matter!

Every cent of every currency must be counted and all goods one carries into and out of Uzbekistan must to be specified and entered into two duplicate forms, one of which stays at the post and the other is to be kept by the tourist, to be produced later at the time of leaving the country.

At entry and exit points the customs official may cross-check the amount taken in (as entered in the form) against what is being taken out. And any discrepancy might necessitate a satisfactory explanation.

At the Uzbek-Tajik border I witnessed utter harassment of Tajiks leaving and entering Uzbekistan, with the pockets of their coats and jackets being turned inside out, and each article and every cent being laid out on the table.

II

The 450-kilometre drive to Tashkent from Osh is through the Ferghana valley, the birthplace of the Moghul emperor Babur and many other great historical personalities, as well as the springboard of many invasions in all directions, particularly the south, into Afghanistan and India (through what is now Pakistan).

It is a very fertile valley hemmed in by mountains, providing both good sustenance to its inhabitants and a barrier to external invaders. It is also the passage for the famous Silk Road. And quite literally so, for there are mulberry trees on either side of the road and beyond.

Crossing from one into another of Uzbekistan’s eight provinces by road one passes through police check-points where identity documents are liable to be checked. At one such post in the Ferghana valley, we had to get out of our vehicle and produce our passports for checking, as did our driver and guide.

Not so long ago the Ferghana Valley was rife with an Islamist movement, posing a serious challenge to Uzbekistan’s authoritarian but secular government. An incipient rebellion in the town of Andijon was crushed with the massacre of several hundred people in 2005. To this day, the name Andijon is only mentioned in hushed tones in Uzbekistan.

The road passes through the historic city of Kokand, with its many museums, madrasahs, mausoleums and mosques, including Khudayr Khan’s Palace, which originally spread over four acres, with seven courtyards and 119 rooms. A much diminished but well maintained structure survives as a museum.

The Khanate of Kokand lasted from 1709 (having seceded from the Khanate of Bukhara), until its defeat and conquest by Russian General Kauffman in 1868. The last Khan, Nasir Uddin Abdul Karim Khan fled to Peshawar, where he died in 1893. His descendants are still said to live in that Pakistani city.

One crosses the scenic Kamchil Pass (2,267 metres) to enter the plains that lead to Tashkent, just a couple of hours’ drive away. Tajkistan is not too far from here, a mere 10 km or so to the left. The Kazakh border in the opposite direction is only about 20 kms from Tashkent itself. This region is a cluster of enclaves, ethnic, geographical as well as territorial.  This narrow corridor of Uzbekistan is surrounded by Kyrghyz territory to the north and east and by Tajikistan on the south.

Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the USSR, promoted by Moscow as the capital of Soviet Central Asia and its gateway to south and southwest Asia. Pakistanis know Tashkent as the city where, after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, President Ayub Khan and Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri signed the Tashkent Declaration in January 1966, under the auspices of the Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin.

The city itself was nearly destroyed in an earthquake only a few months later. What exists today was mostly built after that. This includes wide boulevards, a fine underground metro, and a great open air museum of railway locomotives, mostly Soviet with a few American ones thrown in. The latter would have been American contribution to the Soviet war effort against the Germans during the Second World War.

The source of immense pride for Uzbeks, however, is not Tashkent, but three famous medieval cities to the west, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.  The latter two cities are just to the north of Turkmenistan. Here, again, the border is rather arbitrary, for both countries have a shared history, a common language and ethnicity.

Historic Khorezm straddled the border encompassing the towns of Khiva and Urgench on the Uzbek side and Konye-Urgench (meaning “Old Urgench”) as well as Nukus in Turkmenistan. A sizeable Uzbek minority lives here, in the northern part of Turkmenistan.

This is not the place to describe the splendor of the three cities of Uzbekistan. Timurlane is buried in Samarkand, which was his capital. The Gur-e-Amir, where he is buried, the Registan, which is a complex of madrasahs, and Shah-i-Zinda are just some of the world’s most splendid medieval historical monuments.

Bukhara’s historic bazar and the walled inhabited town of Khiva enchant the visitor and transport him many centuries back in time. Khiva is perhaps the best preserved medieval town in the world, with 2,000 people still living within its centuries-old walls. For good effect, there is a watchtower, providing a fascinating view at sunset, as well as the remnants of a slave market.

Both cities are connected with Tashkent by a superfast train as well as a road. I should mention here that if you drive on a really good road in Central Asia, the chances are that it was recently built by China, mainly to facilitate trade but also to create goodwill.

Uzbekistan has the distinction of being the world’s only double-landlocked country, which means that its access to any seaport in any direction is blocked not by one, but by two countries!

While strolling in the walled city in Khiva on my first afternoon there, I spotted an Indian couple. They being the only ones from my part of the world I had seen in many days, I introduced myself to them. It turned out that he was a high government official in India with a passion for travelling.

The couple have been to all parts where their money and passport will allow them. Incidentally, like me, they too had been denied a Turkmenistan visa.

By their own account, they travel heavy, carrying with them a substantial supply of strictly vegetarian Indian food. The lady borrows the kitchen of whichever motel or hotel they are staying in to cook her own food. This burden does not, however, deter them from frequently travelling for pleasure.

Vegetarians beware that of all the many Stans I have listed above, and I mean all, the only one where vegetarian food is readily available in hotels and restaurants is Hindustan. Here, on the contrary, you might struggle to find good non-vegetarian food. And be warned that if you go looking for beefsteak, kebab or some such in today’s Hindustan, cow-worshipping, animal-loving vigilantes might make mincemeat of you!

Our hotel in Tashkent was a Soviet era behemoth, a massive structure that has recently been refurbished. And this being Uzbekistan, most of the staff at the reception is pre-occupied with the taking, registering, storing and (at checkout) returning the passports of patrons. For the duration of their stay, visitors are given small registration cards to keep in lieu of their passports.

When I returned to my hotel one evening, I was informed by a friendly staff at the entrance that 120 Pakistanis had checked into the hotel earlier that day. Imagine the hassle of registering the passports of such a large contingent, and issuing each of them registration slips. Factor in the fact that Pakistanis tend to be a rather noisy, indisciplined lot.

When I ran into a group of them in the lobby later that evening, I learned that all 120 of them were salesmen (yes, no women, of course) of Chinese Huawei mobile phones from all parts of Pakistan This included some very small regional towns, as far apart in cultural and educational levels as Karachi and Lahore, on the one hand, and Dera Ismail Khan and Sukkur on the other hand.

I met a few more of them in the lobby the next morning. Clearly, many of them had never set foot in a modern hotel before, let alone traveled overseas. It must have been an overwhelming experience for the hotel to entertain so many of them at the same time.

One morning I called up the hotel laundry service and was told that one of their staff will come to take my dirty laundry personally from me. Soon, a Russian lady arrived, took my dirty clothes, counted them, made a mental calculation and told me that it will cost US $110.

It seemed excessive by any count and, when I told her so, she re-calculated and came back with the same figure. I made my calculation, which came to US $45. She promptly agreed, but without even a faint hint of an apology. And off she went with my dirty laundry.

Within a few minutes, there was a knock on my door. Now there was another Russian woman, who spoke English as well, and who wanted to discuss my laundry. Was my dirty laundry too dirty to be washed or, given the times we live in, was it my one pair of shalwar kameez that was causing concern, I wondered.

But, no, something else was on her mind. Yes, she said, it would cost US $45, as had already been agreed upon. But if I were to pay directly to her in cash, rather than to the hotel reception desk at the time of checkout (which is the practice), she would give me a discount. How much I needed to pay, I asked. “Thirty dollars, pozhaluista (if you please)”.

I could probably have negotiated a greater discount, but settled for the offer. Payment in American dollar bills was demanded and made promptly, the notes were carefully checked for counterfeit, and the matter was to remain confidential. My clothes, well-washed and very neatly arranged, were hand-delivered by the same woman to my room next day as promised.

Uzbekistan is a quasi-police state with strict controls everywhere, but US dollar bills (and presumably Euros) can be exchanged at a much higher rate than the official rate virtually anywhere, by driver, guide, bellboy, janitor, you name it.

Our driver in Kyrgyzstan was twice stopped by the police in Bishkek for some alleged infringement. On both occasions, he was told that his violation of the traffic laws warranted hefty fines. But both times small amounts of cash changed hands and the matter was amicably settled on the spot to the mutual satisfaction of both errant driver and the enforcer of the law.

There is something to the name Stan! And something quite Russian and Soviet about it too.

Our trip to Tajikistan was very short, just one night in Khojand, about three hours’ drive south of Tashkent. Khojand is a very historic city, in the Sughd province, encircled by Uzbekistan to the north and west and by Kyrgyzstan to the east, and connected to the rest of the country by a narrow corridor.

Part of the Ferghana Valley, historical Sogdia or Sogdiana also included Samarkand and Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan. Little wonder that the people of Khojand have a sense of pride and identity that separates them from the rest of mountainous Tajikistan to the south.

We made a day trip to Istaravshan, the second largest city of the country, at the southern end of this narrow corridor. Dushanbe is a further four hours’ drive south, the road passing through two tunnels, one built by China and the other a gift from Iran, with which Tajikistan shares the same language.

All five Stans, which previously used the Arabic script, had to adopt the Russian Cyrillic script under Soviet rule. Since gaining independence, however, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have adopted the Roman script, while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have retained the Cyrillic script.

While it may be sensible for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to retain Cyrillic, given their proximity to Russia, it would be very logical for Tajikistan to adopt the Persian script instead. Physically and culturally distant from Russia, Tajikistan shares a common language with Iran as well as with Afghanistan, while also sharing a common border with the latter.

Besides, most of the literary heritage of Tajikistan is in the Persian script. My Tajik guide, as also my guide in Iran, were both admirers of Iqbal Lahori, as Allama Iqbal is known in both countries.

I got the impression that the secular government of Tajikistan, where the people are Sunni Muslims, fears that the Persian script might become a vehicle for the influx of fundamentalist Shia influence from Iran. In other words, the Cyrillic script is seen as a barrier to Iranian religious fundamentalist and political influence in Tajikistan.

Be that as it may, one long-term, perhaps permanent linguistic distortion inflicted on all Central Asian people by the Cyrillic script is the rendering of “h” to “kh” or “x” because Cyrillic lacks “h”. Thus, for example, even those who have now adopted the Roman script, unfortunately write (and pronounce) the name Shahrikhan (Shahr-i-Khan) as Shakhrikhan (Shaxrikhan) and Hassan as Khassan (Xassan).

The more common Mohammad is written and pronounced as either Mukhamed (Muxamed) or Magomed. The “h” sound, so common in Persian, Arabic and, therefore, in the Turkic dialects of Central Asia, has simply vanished from the five Stans.

I should mention here that, across the border in the Xinjiang province of China (“Eastern Turkestan”), the Uighurs have reverted back to the Arabic script after using the Roman script for many decades. We thus have a situation that the Turkic languages are written in three different scripts, namely, Roman, Cyrillic and Arabic!

Southeast of Dushanbe lies the great Pamir range. The Pamir Highway, built by Soviet military engineers in the 1930s to shore up the USSR’s defence against British India, is one of the great mountain roads of the world.

The main and the most sensational part of this highway lies in Tajikistan, from Khorog (about 500 km southeast of Dushanbe) to Murghab (400 km south of Osh in Kyrgyzstan) – over 300 kilometres of tough mountain road that can only be done on four-wheel drives.

In the south, the Pamir Highway passes very close to the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan. Just south of this narrow corridor is Mastuj in the Chitral district of Pakistan. And to the east lies Tashkorgan in southern Xinjiang (China).

The highest peak of the former Soviet Union, Ismoil Samani Peak (7,495 metres) is in Tajikistan. The Soviets called it Pik Kommunism. For many years, until Stalin was denounced, even Dushanbe (meaning Monday in Persian, after the town’s traditional Monday bazar) was called Stalinabad. And Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the Soviets called Frunze, after the Russian general who secured the city for them.

But it is in Kyrgyzstan that the memory of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, survives more than anywhere else. Here, his statues still adorn many city squares and quite a few streets are still named after him. Strange, considering that Lenin statues have been removed even from Russian cities. The best-known Russian town named after the Soviet leader, Leningrad, has been renamed St Petersburg!

Strange, too, that the Central Asian country that honours the Soviet dictator is also the least dictatorial of the five, or six, if you include Azerbaijan. Here, governments have come and gone, multi-party elections have been held, and election results honoured, more or less, that is.

There is one more thing to be mentioned about Kyrgyzstan: the custom known locally as “ala kachuu”, which translates as “grab and run”. It basically involves abducting a girl in order to marry her. Though it is illegal, unfortunately this practice is growing and at least a third of Kyrgyzstan’s brides are reportedly taken against their will.

Though this ancient practice is not restricted to this mountainous country, nor just to Central Asia, it is more common in Kyrgyzstan than anywhere else – and growing.

That aside, in the quarter century since the Stans gained independence, they have made substantial progress in establishing political and economic independence from Moscow and from one another. Given how intertwined their economies and transport infrastructure had been until 1991, their achievements are noteworthy.

Particularly impressive are the efforts of the Stans at the preservation, restoration and promotion of their rich cultural heritage. Splendid monuments, fine museums, good hotels and competent tourist guides in many languages are everywhere. These countries are, by and large, quite secular and cosmopolitan. Unfortunately, they are also strongly authoritarian, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstan continues to be ruled by the same man, President Nursultan Nazarbayev for over a quarter century. Islam Karimov was the president of Uzbekistan from independence until his death in 2016. His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, continues the authoritarian rule. Emomali Rahmon has been president of Tajikistan for all but the first three years after independence.

But to give credit where it is due, these leaders have succeeded in creating a sense of nationhood where none existed, maintained stability and also kept Islamic radicalism at bay.

In contrast, Kyrgyzstan has had too many unscheduled leadership changes, some quite violent. Two former presidents are now living in exile in distant Minsk and Moscow. Kyrgyzstan also suffers from a very high level of corruption, even by regional standards.

Turkmenistan stands apart. Rich in history, being located at the crossroads of civilization in medieval times, and blessed with vast amounts of natural gas, it has been ruled by a very idiosyncratic, repressive regime since independence. Until 2006, it was led by “President for Life” Saparmurat Niyazov, who not only built huge monuments to himself, but also renamed the months of the year to suit his vanity.

January became “Turkbenbashi” (“Leader of Turkmen”, the honorific Niyazov adopted for himself), April was “Gurbansoltan Eje” (the name of his mother) and September was named “Ruhnama” (the title of his book). Although the death of the dictator put an end to some of the most extreme eccentricities associated with the “Turkbenbashi”, the regime continues to be one of the most repressive in the world under his successor.

A US Embassy cable leaked by WikiLeaks described President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow as “vain and vindictive”.  He is now busy building a new personality cult. The president has begun to use, for himself, the honorific title of “Gurbadag”, meaning Protector.

Whereas substantial positive changes are evident in the other four Stans, in Turkmenistan, as they say in French, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same)!

by Razi Azmi

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One Response to A tale of many “Stans” – a journey through Central Asia

  1. khalid Pathan says:

    Very interesting to read and to visualize the scenic beauty and serenity of the stans. Wish that I had joined you in this tour.

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