The exotic Silk Road is now a highway to hell

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

This engaging book describes the Norwegian author’s travels round the five Central Asian Stans — a region where toponyms still make the heart beat faster: Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent.

Fittingly, given the means by which foreign powers have harmed the Stans, Erika Fatland begins her story with the disastrous methane spill which Soviet geologists caused in Turkmenistan in 1971. But it seems that however malign exterior forces have been, these countries are perfectly capable of — if not experts in — producing ghastly politicians themselves. Saparmurat Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, emerges top of a hotly contested field of nutters. He declared himself a prophet, and banned dogs from Ashgabat because he didn’t like their smell. When he died in 2006, his dentist took the helm.

These Stans became independent for the first time in their history when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Fatland’s five sections summarise their past, national myths, development and setbacks, while quoting widely from people she meets on her travels (she uses mostly cars, and a few trains and buses). She speaks Russian, as many do in the Stans. Born in 1983, she made her journeys in her late twenties.

Teasing out the differences between the five countries, Fatland acknowledges that while they are ‘usually lumped together’ in the western press and imagination, they are in fact remarkably dissimilar. What they do share, of course, is 70 years of Sovietisation. These days, China looms large in the jostle for power and influence — another Great Game. The role that cash sent from abroad by migrant workers plays is significant. Mountainous Kyrgyzstan depends on that for half its GNP.

Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world, has the strongest economy, but also a unique set of problems. The pages on the disappearance of the Aral Sea (partly in Uzbekistan) after the Soviet Union diverted water for its cotton plantations are harrowing (Fatland refers to visiting foreigners as ‘disaster tourists’), as are details of the nuclear testing site the author visits — it’s where the Soviet Union set off its first atomic bomb, followed by 455 more.

She conjures the laden caravans of the old Silk Road, pyramids of saffron at the Siyab market in Samarkand and dust on the fabled Pamir highway. Her biographical sketches of the giants of history are strong — for example, Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine, the latter properly known as Timur Lenk — and of course there are pages on the original Great Game as well as other examples of empires fighting for hegemony in this strategically critical region.

The regimes in Turkmenistan and landlocked Uzbekistan are ‘so authoritarian and corrupt that they are comparable with the dictatorship in North Korea’. The former achieves the status of lowest ranking in Transparency International’s respected corruption index. With the world’s fourth largest gas reserves, there is plenty of scope for siphoning Turkmen cash, which is perhaps why the economy is now  ‘in freefall’. Uzbekistan is fearfully repressive: in 2002, the SNB, Uzbekistan’s KGB, boiled alive two men suspected of religious fundamentalism.

In Tajikistan, the poorest of all post-Soviet states and the only one with a national religion (Sunni Muslim), Fatland meets the Yaghnobis, descendants of Zoroastrians who fled invading Arabs in the 18th century. They are now so isolated that they still speak Sogdian, a language that scholars until recently thought had died out.

Kari Dickson has fluently translated the book. Fatland produces some excellent phrases — that still-burning methane crater ‘looks like a glowing mouth’. There are clichés, however. Dostoevsky, exiled to Kazakhstan, was ‘a nervous wreck!’, the Soviet Union started to ‘come apart at the seams’, and departures take place ‘at the crack of dawn’. And sometimes her analogies don’t work: ‘History is like a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll. One doll opens to reveal another hidden inside.’ Not really.

Kyrgyzstan is the ‘only relatively free and democratic country in Central Asia’, and its populace has deposed two presidents (Fatland makes a lot of this). She says it is the single Stan of the five where western tourists don’t need a visa. But it isn’t: I walked into Uzbekistan this summer without one.

The reader learns a lot about all kinds of subjects, including silk farming in the Fergana Valley and the extraordinary collection of Russian avant-garde art at Nukus in the desert, 2,000 kilometres south of Moscow, the creation of the Ukraine-born Russian genius Igor Savitsky (that is one of the most gripping sections of the book).

But when Fatland branches out into more general areas it can become banal. ‘Why do we travel?’ she asks at a low moment. The material could have been slimmed: like most books, Sovietistan is too long. An afterword, written in May this year, brings the economic and political landscape up to date. Comments on border controls ushered in at independence strike a familiar note in contemporary Britain.


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