The North Eastern Frontier: Your Cut Out and Keep Guide to Central Asia

Let’s face it – very few of us know anything about the five nations that make up the North Eastern front of Veggiestan. We know Ghengis Khan and Borat: hard to say which did the most damage to the region, but please let’s forget about the latter. We’re talking about the countries of the Western steppes: vast and wild, a beguiling blend of Middle Eastern culture with the perceived (and totally fictitious) romance of the horsemen invaders from the North.
It is tempting to lump them all together: they are all former states of the Soviet Union, and all acquired their independence at the same time (around 1991). In fact they have been tugged at and bickered over for millennia: the Mongols, the Moghuls, the Achaemenids, Alexander – they’ve all had a go at running the place. The Russians and Brits even had a word for the struggle to govern it: the Great Game. The area has also been known as Greater Khorassan and Transoxiana (my favourite): Central Asia is perhaps more apt. The five countries are in the process of forming a Central Asian Union, which may promote economic stability in the region. They are collectively an averred nuclear free zone. More relevant to the context of our book is the fact that their cuisine is all very similar, with rice and wheat at its core. They are all also inordinately fond of meat. Ho hum.
And yet there are huge variations: the landscape varies from mountains to deserts to steppe, and the people are partly Turkic, partly Persian. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are kind of thriving, whilst the other three are impoverished and not entirely stable. Anyway, because I am totally fascinated by the area, here’s a hopelessly abbreviated country-by-country summary of what I think you should know:
KAZAKHSTAN: is the ninth largest country in the world, and, astonishingly for such a vast area, it is completely landlocked. It has a varied climate and terrain and is well endowed on the natural resources front. Which might explain why it is so prosperous. The capital is Astana, and the people are mostly Turkic, descended from Turkic and Mongol nomads. It grows lots and lots of wheat, and is thought to be the country whence the apple originated. On to…
KYRGYZSTAN: this is a very poor land, with a largely rural economy and huge civil unrest: as I type there is a state of virtual anarchy in the capital Bishkek. The country is rich in minerals, but has little natural fuel of its own. And it is something like 80% pretty mountains, which makes it very photogenic but hard to farm and govern. The people were originally Indo-European, but there is strong Turkic influence too, whilst the official language is still Russian. The Epic of Manas tells the story of the eponymous national hero and his forty tribes of descendants: a popular pastime is to listen to the Manaschis, storytellers who recount his great deeds. Kyrgyzstan’s other fave hobby is Ulak Tartysh (known elsewhere as buzkashi), where young bloods wrestle on horseback for the headless carcass of a goat. Right on. The habit in my own home town of climbing a slippery pole to acquire a stuck pig is clearly so much more sensible. Next stop…
TAJIKISTAN: another very mountainous country – it has the Pamir range running right through its middle. And another poor nation; sadly its chief export is cheap labour, as large numbers of its young men are becoming economic migrants, sending money home for their families. Drugs are an issue, both the production and usage of. It does produce decent quantities of cotton and rare metals, but is still in a state of depression after a civil war in the 1990s. It is hoped that the completion of the Anzab Tunnel through the mountains will bring new prosperity to the country and the capital, Dushanbe: this is part of a new transport corridor which pundits have tagged the New Silk Route. Tajikistanis are of similar descent to the Persians, and remain close to Iran. If it’s Tuesday it must be…
TURKMENISTAN: a thriving land, albeit notoriously corrupt. Most of the land mass is as flat as barberi bread: it is 80% desert in fact. But Turkmenistan is rich rich rich in natural resources, boasting both gas and oil. And it has a coast, which is always a helpful accessory for a country. Its other main product is cotton, although it is also famed for its melons. The nation was ravaged by the actions of invaders through the centuries; especially that arch-vandal Ghengis Khan. But the ancient capital Nisa can still be seen today, near the modern capital Ashgabat. The national drink, apart from the ubiquitous green tea, is chal, which is made from fermented camel-milk. Which is probably better than it sounds. Last stop is…
UZBEKISTAN: this is where you will find Samarkand and Bukhara and Chashkand (now Tashkent, the modern capital), just the names of which resonate with faraway fantasy. The Uzbeks are largely Turkic, as is their language, although the ancient residents were actually Scythians. The country is not now very well off, although it benefited like no other from the Silk Route trade. It has been particularly badly hit by the all-but-disappearance of the Aral Sea (which was triggered when the Russians decided to nick the water therein). Useless piece of info about Uzbekistan: it is one of just two countries in the world which are doubly landlocked i.e. surround by countries which are themselves landlocked.
That’s it – hope you’ve enjoyed your tour. Please fly with us again.

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