There are actually 5 “Stans”. The ones listed in the title above, plus Tajikistan. They are located in Central Asia, south of Russia and west of China. All were originally peopled by nomadic tribes, which is how each got their names (e.g. the Kazakhs). All were part of the ancient Silk Route from China to Europe; all were part of the Mongol Empire; and all were created as “Soviet Socialist Republics” by the USSR in the 20th Century. They became independent nations in 1991 due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fran and I were fortunate to journey to the four nations in 2013. The 4 “Stans” are remote, interesting, and very different, as you will see.
Kyrgyzstan: 40 girls, an animal fair, and more
Do you know anything about Kyrgyzstan? Most people don’t. Our visit to the 4 “Stans” started in that remote Central Asian nation. Its a poor, mountainous country. Officially, its The Kyrgyz Republic, but everyone calls it Kyrgyzstan.
The history goes way back: “Kyr” means 40 in the ancient Turkic language, and “ghyz” means girls. According to legend, the 40 girls were the mothers of the 40 tribes that made up the original Kyrgyz nomadic people. The country’s flag reflects the history, with 40 rays of the sun depicting the 40 original tribes. The center graphic representing a yurt, the movable house used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.
The national hero, Manas, united the 40 tribes around 840 AD., defeated the Uighur, and the Kyrgyz became a major force in the area for several centuries. Eventually they became part of the Mongol Empire, then part of the Russian Empire in 1876, then a Soviet Socialist Republic from 1936, and finally an independent country in 1991 when the USSR dissolved. But since it became independent, the national government has been toppled a couple of times. The Soviet industrial plants were idled and mostly sold for scrap to China. So there’s some gold mining and some animal raising and some corn and cereals grown, but that’s not much to sustain an economy.
Living right on the ancient Silk Route, which was used from the first century until almost 1500, the Kyrgyz people are a mix of cultures. Most look Asian and most are Muslim, as Islam was introduced by Arab traders centuries ago. However, the Islamic practices here are much less strict, as they were modified by the original shamans of the nomadic forefathers. An embarrassment to the locals is that the notorious terrorist brothers who carried out the killings at the Boston Marathon were born here (although the family moved to Chechnya when the boys were young).
The first day we drove to an old caravan town from the Silk Route days. We saw the 1000 year old red brick Burana Tower, which is an ancient minaret. Next we were amazed by the “balbals”, ancient stone stelae with human faces etched in them. They were probably left as gravestones by the prehistoric Turkic tribes.
Sunday morning we headed from our hotel in the capital city of Bishkek to the city of Tolmak near the northern border with Kazakhstan. Like most neighboring countries, there are boundary disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. But when you drive to Tolmak, the highway meanders back and forth between the two nations. Why? Because the road was built when both countries were Soviet Socialist Republics. The Russian civil engineers chose the easiest route for construction, ignoring the boundaries between the “sister” republics. So although the main highway from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan has strictly enforced border crossings, the road to Tolmak just wanders across the national borders with no officials to worry about.
We noticed that there are a lot more cars than you would expect in a very poor nation. The reason is that many of the vehicles are smuggled into Kyrgyzstan, then driven into neighboring countries, and then sold. The buyers in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan avoid paying high import taxes, and the Kyrgyz smugglers make a tidy profit.
Getting through the vehicle and animal traffic in the narrow streets of the city of Tolmak was a real problem. We finally got to the Chuy Animal Market. Its only held on Sundays. There was no designated parking. Luckily, our driver found a small spot between lots of old pickup trucks that had been there since 4 AM. Walking into the outdoor market was tricky. We had to look up to be aware of trucks maneuvering into position. Their drivers were much more concerned with the safety of their animals than with Western tourists. We had to look down to step over the mud and gook that overtook the grassy patches. We had to avoid large animal turds. Fran and I would say “watch out for the land mine”, usually meaning large animal droppings rather than unexploded ordnance. Most important, we had to look around to avoid being bitten, gored or kicked by horses, goats, donkeys, yaks, or other assorted critters.
There were areas loosely set up for different kinds of vendors: cows, goats, sheep, rabbits, even ducks. A lot of trucks were piled high with hay bales, with the owners sitting on top. The most surprising sight was when we walked behind an old car with the trunk open. Inside were 5 little piglets for sale. We didn’t make an offer, as we weren’t sure what we would do with the piggies if our proposal was accepted.
We left the animal fair and went to lunch at a Hawaiian Restaurant (!), complete with palm trees, a pond with koi (Chinese carp), and, of course, a camel. The excellent traditional dish served was beef shashlik, obviously local rather than Hawaiian.
Kazakhstan: A Huge, Wealthy Nation
We drove north on the highway to the modern, more affluent city of Almaty, Kazakhstan. Previously called Alma-Ata, Almaty used to be the capital city of Kazakhstan. In 1997, the government changed the capital to Astana, which used to be called Akmola. Confused? So were we.
Kazakhstan is a huge country, the 9th largest in the world. Despite its large size, there’s only 18 million people, most of whom were nomads in the not too distant past. Because of the long history (1919-1989) as a Soviet Republic, most of the people speak Russian, but Kazakh is the official language. Now many young people do learn English.
Fun fact: the apple originated in Kazakhstan (the fruit, not the phone) millions of years ago. There have been memoirs (a good one is Apples Are from Kazakhstan) and scientific articles written about it.
The country has a stable, if autocratic, government, and is rich in oil, gas, and other resources. The Russian cosmonaut training and space center is located in Kazakhstan. So the economy is prosperous while the Kazakh government does a balancing act between its two big neighbors (China and Russia) and also towards the USA.
In Almaty, we went to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral that was built in 1904 entirely of wood but without the use of nails. We also visited a ski resort (no snow now) and the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments.
Kazakh Girls in Front of National Monument
Kazakhstan Ancient Musical Instrumet
Kazakhstan Classic Mosque
Uzbekistan: UNESCO, the Stroker, Muslims, and Jews
The next day, we flew to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Due to a big earthquake in 1966 which destroyed most of the old city, Tashkent consists of fairly new buildings. Fran and I had been in Uzbekistan in 1980 during a tour of the Soviet Union. It was in Tashkent in 1980 that Fran got ill with a recurring kidney infection. She went to the hospital with Joann, our young woman tour escort, who was fluent in Russian. They met with a tall doctor who smiled and said, “I speak a little English”, but that was his only English. The good news is that he prescribed some German-made pills (never OK’d by our FDA, because of the possible nasty side effects) that worked and cleared up Fran’s problem. The bad news: the good doctor while examining Fran made a habit of stroking her breasts. Fran didn’t care as long as the pills worked, but the physician is ever referred to by us as “The Stroker”.
This was a better and healthier tour of Uzbekistan for us. We visited Samarkand and Bukhara, ancient cities that were centers of civilization in their time. Samarkand was founded around the same time as Babylon, over 2700 years ago. Eventually, the Mongol emperor, Tamerlane (Timor the Lane) conquered the area in the 14th Century. He was buried there and you can still see his wooden coffin. We had heard that his epitaph was: “Were I alive today, mankind would tremble”. His grandson, Uleg Bek, built one of the most advanced observatories, which is available to marvel at today.
Onto Bukhara, another UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its long history as a major stop on the Silk Road and its beautiful Islamic architecture. The Katan Mosque was built in 1514 and can hold 12,000 worshipers. There are splendid complexes of buildings built around ponds. The mausoleums and madrassas are huge and architecturally stunning. For example, the mausoleum of Ismail Samanid is over 1000 years old and has both Islamic and Zoroastrian motifs in the design. The Kalyan Minaret is 150 feet tall. The main use was not to call Muslims to prayer; instead, criminals were thrown off the top, giving it the ominous alternate name, the Tower of Death.
Being Jewish, Fran and I were interested in why there are 10,000 Jewish graves in Bukhara but only 100 – 150 Jews now. One legend has it that Jewish traders starting coming to this area at the time of King Solomon 3000 years ago. Another says that the Bukhara Jews are descendants of two of the ten lost tribes of Israel. A third story states that the local Jews came here after the Persian Empire expanded in the 5th Century BC. Its even told that when Timur was rebuilding Samarkand and Bukhara in the 14th century AD, he brought in Jews from Persia as weavers and dyers.
Whatever happened, and all the legends may be somewhat true, the fact is there developed in this area a significant Jewish population, but they were isolated from the Jews in Europe. So the Bukhara Jews (in this case, Bukhara refers to all of Central Asia, not just the city of Bukhara) survived and developed unique traditions. For example, its said that Jews prayed in mosques, maybe at the same time as the Muslims. The Jews here had their own culture, language, and ethnicity.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s most of the Jews in this area emigrated to Israel and the US. In the borough of Queens in New York City, there are estimated to be 50,000 immigrants or descendants of Bukharan Jews! Now there are only a few thousand left in all of Uzbekistan.
Fun fact: Uzbekistan is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world. Explanation: a landlocked country is one that doesn’t touch any oceans or their extensions (gulf, sea, etc.); a double-landlocked nation is one where every country it borders is itself landlocked. The only other one? Liechtenstein in Europe.
Next we flew out to the cities of Nukus and Khiva in western Uzbekistan. We made a stop at a unique museum, which goes by 6, count ‘em, 6 different names:
1) Nukus Art Museum, because its in Nukus, the capital city of the area.
2) Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, because the western part of Uzbekistan is an autonomous region of the country, with its own culture, history, and ethnicity. Karakalpakstan used to have a thriving economy from fishing in the Aral Sea and farming in the irrigated soil. But then so much of the Aral Sea was drained that the area became one the poorest areas of the USSR. Indeed, we viewed the “ship cemetery” and the desolate town on the former shore.
3) The Savitsky Museum, because it was founded by a I.V.Savitsky, a Ukrainian – Russian who came to the area in the 1950’s to take part in an archaeological and ethnographic search in the area. Afterwards he stayed, and started assembling local art, costumes, carpets, jewelry, etc. Savitsky also collected thousands of avant-garde artworks, even though they were being banished and destroyed by the Soviet leadership in Moscow. The local officials were so impressed by Savitsky’s dedication to the local culture that they built a small museum for those and for the taboo art too. Now a magnificent building has been built to house the 80,000 items.
4) The Anti-Soviet Museum, for the reasons just described.
5) The Museum of Forbidden Art.
6) “Le Louvre des Steppes”, called that by European admirers.
Then we toured Khiva, another UNESCO World Heritage site that supposedly was founded by Noah’s son, Shem. whose descendants are the Semites (hence the derivation of the term anti-Semitism).
Mickey’s Popular in Uzbekistan
Silk Road from China to Europe
Sign for Bukhara Synagogue
Uzbeks Taking Off Shoes at Mosque
Uzbek Street Market
Uzbek Asian Bathroom
Fran&Rich Inside Bukhara Synagogue
Turkmenistan: The Border Official and a Crazy Country
At the frontier between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, we had to drag our suitcases over the gravel path for 100 feet between the two countries’ border posts. Fran was first and was struggling. Seeing this, the Turkmen border guard hopped down and helped Fran move her luggage. We had learned that all over Central Asia the officials spoke Russian due to the long time that the USSR ruled. To show her appreciation, Fran said “spaseeba” (Russian for “Thank You”; in the Cyrillic alphabet it’s Спасибо!). In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, that would have elicited a warm smile from the guard. Instead, he glowered and said, “Nyet Russki,” (No Russian!). Then he spent the next 10 minutes trying to teach Fran how to say “thank you” in Turkmen, but I don’t think she mastered it.
Turkmenistan is a very strange country. When it became independent in 1991, the man who was already leader of the local Communist Party declared himself the President for Life. His name was Saparmurat Nizayev, and he ruled until his death in 2006 with a “cult of personality”. Among his decrees:
he gave himself the name “Turkmenbashi”, which means “Father of the Turkmen” (and also re-named the month of January after himself);
renamed months and days of the week after Turkmen heroes and his relatives;
changed the Turkmen word for bread to his mother’s name, whose name was also declared the new name for the month of April;
banished dogs from the capital city, Ashgabat;
built an indoor skating rink so the desert-dwellers could learn to ice skate;
no beards or long hair for men;
wrote an autobiography, and closed most libraries saying the only books necessary were his own and the Koran;
told imams to display his book along with the Koran (those who refused had their mosques closed or even burnt down);
knowledge of his book was required in employment applications and the test for drivers’ licenses;
banned opera and circuses (they were not Turkmen enough);
closed hospitals outside the capital of Ashgabat;
physicians took an oath to him instead of the Hippocratic Oath;
renamed towns, airports, schools, and even a meteorite after himself.
As you would expect, Nizayev was very tough on civil liberties and other freedoms. Ethnic and religious (non-Muslim) minorities were discriminated against. It was a totalitarian state. Turkmenistan maintained a neutral political stance between Russia and the US.
Nizayev could afford do anything he wanted because of the natural resources of Turkmenistan. It has among the largest natural gas reserves in the world, and plenty of petroleum too. He used the money to erect statues, buildings, and other infrastructure. While he amassed $3 Billion in foreign reserves, most of the people had to survive on $1 a day. But he did supply free electricity, natural gas, gasoline, and water.
Nizayev succumbed to a heart attack in 2006. His successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuha (you’ll be tested on these names), won re-elections with 98% of the vote (surprise, surprise!). While the new President did repeal some of the more outlandish decrees of Nizayev, he is building a cult of personality of his own. The totalitarianism continues. Turkmenistan recently ranked 178th out of 180 countries in freedom of the press.
The capital, Ashgabat, is also strange. Its almost a combination of Las Vegas, Dubai, and Moscow: big wide streets with very few vehicles, huge buildings (many with pictures of the leader), statues, lots of lights and neon.
We went to the Carpet Bazaar. This open market is known as “talkuchka”, which, for good reason, literally translates to “a lot of elbowing”. We also visited the archaeological site of Merve, another important spot on the ancient Silk Road. Tragically, it was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century, who mercilessly killed one million of the local people.
One final impression in Ashgabat was the golden statue of himself that Nizayev erected. Its 246 feet high, cost $12 million, and rotates slowly so that the sun always shines on the gilded face and body of the President of Turkmenistan. What a guy!