12 October 2022
No Call to Prayer this morning, just my iPhone telling me to get up. My flight boards at 5:30 am. This is pure wonderful. I leave the YOTEL at 5:10. My walk from room to gate is 6 minutes, less than 800 steps.
I begin my day’s long journey home.
This has been a long-planned trip, since the end of 2018. I wasn’t sure I would ever travel The Stans. I suffered, as did many, of Covid interruptus for two years. In fact, the infamous five Stans became four with the semipermanent closure of Turkmenistan. I still went – and I’m glad I did.
My travels this trip have been through the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This final missive is based upon the opinions and conclusions of one traveler: me.
I am glad to have finally met the acquaintance of the people of The Stans. Each country is unique in as many ways as they are similar. For rugged beauty, perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s mountains and lakes, rugged rural regions and pastoral life was the best. For ancient historical sites, Uzbekistan reigns: their cities of Samarqand, Bukhara and Khiva were stunning. Tajikistan was friendly and welcoming but has little to offer in the way of tourism; they are working to fill that gap. Kazakhstan amounted to a couple days in Almaty which was okay. If I hadn’t visited little would have been lost – even their government left Almaty and moved to another location.
Though politically each country was under the armpit of Russia, all are now independent and appear determined to keep it that way. Some are more autocratic than others. Uzbekistan’s president may be trying to modernize but he still is a strongman autocrat and streets close and guns come out when he passes; Tajikistan’s president has more photos around town showing his smiling, fatherly face than the latest movie star; and the dictator in Turkmenistan won’t let visitors into his country as he tightens the rules on women (no driving, no makeup). Freedom of the press is lacking in all of these countries, though our guides were mostly very open and honest answering our questions.
All the countries of The Stans are doing a delicate ballet with their neighbors. There is a close but guarded relationship with Russia. I do not get the impression Vlad Putin would be any more welcome here than Vlad Tepes (Dracula) would be. While I visited, Putin announced his military conscription and Russian men by the thousands flooded into The Stans paying outrageously inflated airfares and clogging the borders. There are thousands of Central Asian men working in Russia and many were desperate to get out and home. China also has a presence in the Stans, mostly welcome; China knows how to invest to expand its economy. No one welcomes the presence or meddling of Afghanistan, especially their drug trade.
The Stans remain mostly agrarian. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are fortunate to have oil and you can see the benefits around the country. While rural areas in The Stans are poor, I did not feel there was poverty. While villagers’ life is on a subsistence level, they tend to subsist rather well through hard work and bartering. Most labor is done by hand and little mechanization was seen in the fields. There are never-ending cotton fields and it is picked by hand, by women. Men do go out and dig the potato fields.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk once said “Everything we see in the world is the creative work of women.” The Stans could take a lesson from Atatürk.
All the Stans seem to suffer in varying degrees from extreme temperatures be it winter or summer. Air quality, in general, is atrocious. Though the streams and lakes are colorful and clear, tourist best not drink the water. It is a dry, dry climate and dusty, dusty, dusty.
Islam is the major religion, representing more than 90% in the Stans. Our guide in Tajikistan gave us a complete lesson in the prayer ritual and helped us understand Muslims better. I did find it amusing when he explained what he called “credits.” Evidently, Alla is keeping score. A Muslim gets points for praying at home but bonus points for praying in a mosque. One guide described Shia law as “making an elephant from a mosquito. Sunna keeps it practical” and releases them from rigid rules. They still get their points. I never tired of entering their beautiful mosques and madrasas.
I know the uses of Paynet and Beeline but what are GO’SHT shops?
Uzbeks are a mix of ethnicities with many influences in facial features – they credit blue eyes to Alexander the Great, but then Alex really got around. Each Stan has a mix of ethnicity and reflects centuries of conquerors passing through. I suspect there is only slight improvements in roads since then.
In general, roads and infrastructure need work. Tashkent, Uzbekistan can tone down its LED screens all over town. And don’t get me started on squat toilets. The worst is the excuse for toilet paper ranging from course paper to crepe paper and having to put it in a basket because their waste systems can’t handle it.
Food was good. Lots of salads and good soups. Some lamb died in vain but when cooked properly, delicious. Chicken is most common. Deserts were generally good. Wine, generally, was pretty bad, ranging from cow barn musty to sour to drinkable, but drinkable was from Georgia. The Stans have a long way to go in Oenology. One never drinks the water. One always eats the wonderful breads. And because they do not generally use butter, we had to ask and it was usually served frozen and sometime between the main course and dessert.
The quality of accommodations were comfortable and well located. The Asia Hotel chain was good. Tashkent’s City Palace was outstanding and it actually had a functioning bar (most hotels and restaurants did not). As for the stay at Sunrise Osh, I’m convinced there has to be something better in town. There was air-conditioning and some hotels still required toilet paper to go into baskets. I’m not a germaphobe but that practice is disgusting. Also, what is it with hotels putting marble in bathrooms? And high tubs with no grab bars? I don’t propose OSHA meddling, but someone needs to do an accident study.
Border crossings are a horror, some awful and the others worse. There are trucks and cars in line for hours if not days. If we had not walked across, I would still be in Tajikistan starring at the circling vultures and contemplating the cemetery.
In Central Asia, we were quite the novelty. I am sure we are in a lot of travel photos and often locals would just ask to have their photo taken with us. Young people would approach and ask if they could practice their English with us. It was embarrassing as their English was very good; my Russian or Uzbek, etc. consisted of rahmat (thank you) and masla (butter).
Money became “funny money” when traveling in countries where our dollar is very strong and the country hasn’t adjusted their currency in years. I needed to wrap my head around exchanging 30,000 soum or 55 Turkish liras for a glass of wine and calculating it as still less than $3.
It is hard to grasp the immensity of The Stans and Central Asia. It is a part of the world of which most people know little. Stans means land thus Uzbekistan is the land of the Uzbeks, Tajikistan is the land of the Tajik, etc. This area of Central Asia is made up of 5 countries, over 76 million people in over 1.5 million square miles. Some of the biggest names swept down the Silk Road here: Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Stalin. One needs to know these lands, peoples and history better.
I’m glad I went and learned more about them. I encourage others to visit these unique countries before they fall under the spell of westernization.