Thursday, July 07, 2011

Saying Goodbye To Stan

My last stop in Kazakhstan and Central Asia was Semey, also known by its original, Russian name of Semipalatinsk. The town is one of the oldest in the north of the country and the centre is dotted with Tsarist-era log cabins, with their reassuringly organic lines, still clinging on to existence amongst the concrete apartment block. Semey is (in)famous throughout the world for its Soviet past where it, or at least a nearby patch of "uninhabited" steppe was home to the Semipalatinsk Polygon where the Soviet Union tested its atomic bombs. In all there were over 100 above ground nuclear explosions. Although the Soviet authorities were not so stupid as to kill their own citizens in the explosions, they kept quiet about the effects of nuclear radiation and fallout so the area is still haunted by abnormally high levels of birth defects and cancers.

The memorial to the victims of the Semipalatinsk memorial. Very moving, but strangely located in a patch of foresty wasteland on the other side of the river from the town.

As I mentioned before my next destination is Mongolia. However Kazakhstan and Mongolia do not share a common border and are separated by roughly 50km of either Russia or China which I will have to transit. My route was decided for me by simple practicality: the only land border open to foreigners to enter Mongolia from the west is with Russia. I have spent a lot of time in the ex-USSR (over 7 months in total visiting 13 countries) but have purposefully avoided Mother Russia. Among travelers Russia is notorious for the bureaucratic hoops prospective visitors have to jump through to get visas, as well as a stifling system of registration and police corruption once you are in situ. Quite frankly this has made me feel that the government doesn't want me to come and so I have obliged by spending my money elsewhere. Now there was no other option but to bite the bullet. Luckily transit visas are a different beast to their tourist brethren and, apart from the interminable waiting outside the embassy in Astana, proved relatively straightforward to acquire.

So there I was at Semey train station climbing aboard the train that would take me to Barnaul, the capital of Altai Territory and the beginning of my first tentative foray into Russia. I expected there to be little difference with Kazakhstan, but that idea was dispelled very quickly. Although the language remained the same (most ethnic Kazakhs in the north prefer to speak Russian and often have only a basic grasp of Kazakh - which is one of the reasons for a north-south divide in the country) the ethnic makeup had tipped very much to the white. But that's just people; the less blatant differences marked me more. The relative "quality" of cars (an easily visible proxy for affluence) on show from the train window was a little lower in Russia, but conversely the towns and houses were markedly neater, tidier and better looked after and the general infrastructure was of a noticeably higher quality; and something that came as quite a shock, people were reading in the train. In Asia you don't see people reading on public transport for fun, but that's exactly what at least half a dozen people were doing in my carriage alone (the guy opposite me was reading Хоббит which made me smile as it had been a childhood favorite of mine). Perhaps the Russians aren't all evil Commies? I'm looking forward to having my preconceptions shattered.

I suppose this is a good place to summarize my thoughts on Central Asia, having spent the past three months criss-crossing the five 'Stans. I had high hopes for the region as the Silk Road "missing link" between Persia and China, but unfortunately much of the magic of that bygone era has been erased by the heavy Russian and Soviet influences. It is only in Bukhara that you can get a taste of what has been lost elsewhere, and if Karimov and his daughter keep running things in Uzbekistan then even that will be sanitised out of existence as it has been in Samarkand and Khiva. Nevertheless it has been a positive experience but for reasons I was not fully expecting when I first arrived. The most obvious perhaps is the mountains, especially of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have thoroughly enchanted me despite my coming too early in the season to fully take advantage of them. And although the dominant Turco-Persian culture of yesteryear is mostly gone the importance of hospitality certainly hasn't, and neither have some of the smaller cultures on the fringes of the region like the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz and Ismaili Pamiris. Even some of the more harmless autocratic oddities are amusing in their own little way. In Dushanbe (or Doosh to its friends) dirty cars are forbidden within the city limits. Given that most roads in Tajikistan are dirt roads this amounts to a $1 tax to enter the city payable to anyone living on the outskirts of the city who has a garden hose. Police in the 'Stans also seem to have a single function and that is to extract small bribes for petty traffic offences. In each country the uniforms may vary, but the fluorescent batons dangling from each officer's wrist used to motion over unsuspecting victims, are the same. In one small town in Tajikistan I saw six policemen huddled round the town's only traffic light ambushing every other car that passed. And then there are the posters: sometimes of the leader or at least a pithy quote exhorting fellow citizens on to greater nationalism and extolling the 20 glorious years of independence so far.

A nice photoshopped poster of Tajikistan's president, Emomali Rahmon, amongst some poppies (obviously a big opium fan) saying (more or less): "It's important for the youth to remember the glorious past of Tajikistan as they are the holders of our future independence." bla bla bla. (For those of you who speak Persian and can read Cyrillic then you can try and decipher what is written for yourselves.)

But for the same reason that the Silk Road grew obsolete, landlocked Central Asia is still a largely forgotten and neglected corner of the world. It only enters the consciousness of the outside world as a source of raw materials and energy security, or as a handy place from which to bomb Afghanistan. In both cases stability is the desired state of affairs so the countries are run as petty fiefdoms according to the whims of their presidents. Some may be more enlightened than others, but there's no mistaking the smell of autocracy. I was very surprised, however, to find that many locals also adhere to the "stability over individual liberties" point of view, or are just totally politically apathetic, even ones that have been educated abroad and travelled extensively. To my Western paradigm that is anathema, especially given the levels of corruption on display. Nevertheless some of the leaders, especially Nazarbayev, have genuine support for, what seems like, having not plunged the country into a bloody civil war, not thrown everyone in prison (only genuine political dissidents, and we all know they're scum), and not stolen every last penny from the country's coffers. (I happened to meet a man in southern Kazakhstan who had twin sons who he had named Nursultan and Nazarbay, and I tried to imagine someone in the UK calling their twins Tony and Blair - it sent shivers down my spine.)

I personally cannot see the Central Asian countries progressing as things currently stand: they are far too weak and fractured, with impractical borders and little industry, and completely at the whims of outside interests. Only by joining forces and helping each other do I see a possibility for improvement. The main problem is Uzbekistan. As the most populous country in the region and the only one to border all the others it should be the regional lynchpin and transit hub. But Karimov has managed to antagonise every one of his neighbors by closing borders, hiking tariffs and opposing development projects. In democracies they say you get the government you deserve, but I certainly do not think that is the case for the kind and friendly people of Central Asia.

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