Sunday, February 1, 2015

Introducing Central Asia.

Sher-Dor Madrasah, Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Photo from advantour.com)

When I told my family and friends that I was planning a trip to Central Asia, most had no clue where in the world I was talking about.  When most people think of Asia, they think of China, Japan, Thailand, India, etc.  So central Asia must be some combination of countries in that region.  Right?  Wrong!  I then told them I was going to the places we often simply refer to as the *stans*.  Next challenge for them was to name the countries.  Most got at least one - Uzbekistan.  None got all six.  Technically speaking, six nations make up Central Asia - Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  To confuse matters a bit, Central Asia is sometimes referred to as *Turkestan*.  I, myself, thought that was a separate country.


For safety reasons, we are excluding Afghanistan from our trip to focus solely on the five republics that were once part of the Soviet Union.

The lands of the *stans*  reflects the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures that evolved over the time when  Central Asia was coveted for its geographic position between Europe and Asia - it was an integral part of the famed Silk Road.  Back in the day, Central Asia has acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe and the Far East.

Map of the Silk Road (Image from The Silk Road Project)

During pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, Central Asia was a predominantly Iranian region that included the sedentary Eastern Iranian – speaking Bactrians, Sogdians and Chorasmians, and the semi-nomadic Scythians and Alans. The ancient sedentary population played an important role in the history of Central Asia.

After expansion by Turkic peoples, Central Asia also became the homeland for many Turkic peoples, including the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Uyghurs and other extinct Turkic nations.  

Although the five nations share common threads across their cultures, they have always chosen to remain divided - to remain independent rather than to succumb to any sort of European idea of nationalism.  So, when Russia came knocking at the door, in a not so nice way, the lack of a united front on the part of the *stans* paved the way for the Soviet re-conquest of Central Asia in the early 1920s.

From the mid 19th century, up to just about the end of the 20th century, most of Central Asia was part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union.  Today, the 5 *stans* are still home to several million Russians.

The Countries
Ascension Cathedral in Almaty, Kazakhstan (Photo by irene2005)
Kazakhstan
The world's largest landlocked nation is sparsely populated, dominated by archetypal Central Asian steppe, with deep reserves of fossil fuels, and pockets of beautiful wilderness for outdoors enthusiasts.  Of all the five countries, it is also the most economically developed. Our trip will take us to Almaty,  Kazakhstan's beautiful and interesting former capital.  We won't be going to Astana; I think it will be much too a modern and western style city for us. Our trip will end in Almaty.

Kyrgyzstan
By many accounts, the most picturesque of the Central Asian countries as over 75% of Kyrgyzstan is occupied by the majestic landscape of the Tian Shan and Pamir mountains.  We will have a couple of days in Bishkek, the capital city.  We'll also have a day to explore Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan's largest lake,  the world's second largest mountain lake, and the fifth deepest lake in the world. 

Osh Bazaar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (photo by neiljs)

Gurminj Musical Instruments Museum, Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Photo by TC0241)
Tajikistan
Central Asia's poorest country, Tajikistan is truly is off the beaten path.  Most Central Asian tours I checked out didn't offer a visit to this remote country.  Tajikstan's culture emerged under the influence of ancient customs of the Iranians, Persians, Islam, neighboring Uzbekistan and Soviet Russia.  It is the only Iranian speaking country of the five.

The major part of the Tajik  population occupies the northern part of the country where the two largest and most developed cities - Dushanbe and Khujand are located.  We will be visiting both cities.



Turkmenistan
Another off the beaten path country, Turkmenistan is an amalgam of desert moonscapes and arid mountains, dotted with the ruins of great ancient civilizations.  It's images of the arid landscape of Turkmenistan, that evoke what I've always imagined Central Asia to be like.  I now know I cannot make that generalization across all the countries.  Our trip will take us to Ashgabat, the capital city as well as the ancient cities of Merv, Mary, and Kunya Urgench.

Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, Merv, Turkmenistan (Photo by Peretz Partensky)

Po-i-Kalyan mosque with Kalyan minaret, Bukhara, Uzbekistan (Photo by HylgeriaK)
Uzbekistan
With cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva and other old Silk Road citadels, this country has way more than its fair share of culture and history.  We'll also be spending some time in the Fergana Valley to take in some mountain scenery.   Our trip will begin in Tashkent where Pat and I will have a day on our own to explore the city and perhaps take in a dance performance at one of the city's many theatres. 

It's a grand understatement to say and Pat and I are over the moon about going to Central Asia. I can't wait to land in Tashkent but until then, there's a whole lot more planning and reading to do!