Note to reader: While I am continuing to recover from my Covid ordeal, I am posting several email posts from Embry, who spent almost three weeks this September touring “the Stans,” the Central Asian countries along the “Silk Road.” Sponsored by the Smithsonian, the tour had been postponed for the past two years due to Covid. When Embry had originally signed up two years ago, I had not elected to participate since the trip was described along the lines of “not for the weak hearted.” Though most of the original participants had cancelled out by the fall of 2022, some six adventurous souls showed up along with a Smithsonian guide and a local guide. Two of the tourists were classmates at Smith College, graduating in 1957.
Central Asia (2019) has a population of about 72 million people, in five countries: Kazakhstan (pop. 19 million), Kyrgyzstan (7 million), Tajikistan (10 million), Turkmenistan (6 million), and Uzbekistan (35 million). The trip started and ended in Uzbekistan covering almost three weeks. They visited all but one of the “Stans” spending a day or two in each country. Her first post which follows was on Day two from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
This is Day 2 on my trip to the “Stans,” and I am in Tashkent. I’m also pretty worn out, both from jet lag, a touch of “tourista”, and what Joe calls the “forced march” aspect of these kind of tours. Every local guide wants to show you everything about their city. Afterall, it’s their job. We have been to two cities so far, and both are still in their Post-Soviet phase, with old Soviet statues and buildings around. Since there is not that much else to see, we ride the bus to this monument and that one. Here are the highlights:
Tashkent: We spent an afternoon here yesterday, but there really isn’t lots to see. (We will be back at the end of the tour and will go to the market.)They are proud that they have taken down all the Lenin paraphernalia, and also are slowly changing the signs from Cyrillic to Latin script (which they call “Uzbeki script”). Many children no longer take Russian in school, another part of slow de-Russification.
The most interesting part of the afternoon was a visit to the craft museum. The crafts are truly beautiful. However, we did not need to see the Soviet era statue honoring the earthquake of 1966 victims, which was devastating (The government refused to publish the number of deaths.) They are anxious to have more private enterprise, which their new leader encourages. I was told they have three parties, but one dominates. Still, they are drifting towards the West, which I imagine does not please Mr. Putin. They were essentially a colony of Russia dating back to Czarist times. The crop was cotton (same in Tajikistan), and the irrigation drained the Aral Sea, which is now an empty, polluted wasteland.
Now there is evidence of prosperity, including lots of cars bearing a Chevrolet insignia due to a collaboration between Chevy and a local business. There are also small shops and nice restaurants. We had dinner at a very charming one last evening and stayed a second night at our excellent Korean-owned hotel.
Our guide told us about his time in the Communist Youth where he was very good at picking cotton in the summers, which enabled him to get into a good university.
24-hour day trip to Tajikistan: We drove to the border (only 70 km away) on one bus, walked across and picked up the local bus and guide. Just getting across the border (on foot) was quite tedious. I had to wonder who on earth they are looking for: terrorists or smugglers? (About 10 people checked my passport.) But is this a way to encourage tourism? Maybe it’s a jobs program.
Along the way, from the bus I enjoyed seeing food crops, animals, and cotton in the fields with very high, dry mountains as a beautiful backdrop. You still see a lot of manual labor in the fields (few tractors and even a donkey cart or two), so the level of development seems like Sub-Saharan Africa. We arrived mid-morning to Tajikistan’s second largest city, Khosand, which is located on the Syr Darya River, a (formerly) big river which seems to be slowly drying up and changing to marsh. (I’m sure this is partially due to climate change, although the local guide never mentioned this.)
This local guide speaks English very well and has entertaining stories. He told about the arranged marriage system, which is still prevalent and apparently similar to what exists in Uzbekistan. The parents of a boy (who has finished his education and mandatory military service, usually) begin to shop for a bride while the young man often goes to Russia to work and make money for the wedding, which is very expensive. They must buy all the costumes (I got pictures) and pay a dowry. Pity the family that has more than two boys (the younger boy is responsible for the parents in their old age). They have very large families, an average of 5 kids with more in rural areas. Apparently, the young people have very little to say about their mate. 90% of marriages are arranged, although the guide said this is going down and may now be 80%. Another example of traditional values is that women never go to the mosque. However, they like to have female teachers and doctors (for girls and women), so if a girl finishes secondary school, she can go to university. She is allowed to get married and have children while she does this (since girls are generally much younger than the boys), and they get some government support.
We had a heavy lunch (3 courses), but I only had soup and RC Cola (made in Columbus, Georgia according to the label), which they apparently love here. Then we started our “forced march” which consisted of visiting various Soviet-era parks. They had the largest Lenin statue in Central Asia, which I guess some people wanted to I keep. The compromise was to take him down and put him in a very neglected park out of town, where he keeps company with some pictures of other Soviet heroes. Maybe this will happen to Robert E Lee in the U.S. South.
He was replaced by a statue of another ancient hero. They have many to choose from, because of the many invasions. While not comprehensive these include: the Sassnids, who were Persian and practiced Zoroastrianism; Alexander the Great, who built a huge castle/fort which they are trying to restore with help from UNESCO; Arabs (who brought the arts and sciences along with Islam, which seems to be practiced rather casually here by most people); Genghis Khan, who apparently passed through the area during the Mongol invasion; Timur (his descendant, known in the West as Tamerlane) , who brought more literature and arts/architecture; and the Russians at the time of the Czars and continued under Communism. (This is the history of all Central Asia, which is bloody and sad.)
A final sad phase was at the time of the breakup of the former Soviet Union. There were three factions: one wanted to continue Communism, one wanted to establish an Islamic state, and one (with many youth) wanted democracy. To figure this out, they fought a bloody Civil War in which 150,000 were killed. I do not remember reading much about this at the time. I still do not understand why these gentle, and apparently peaceful, people put up with all this, but I’m guessing it must be leadership.
At end of this really exhausting day, we went to the market which is a true market, used by all the farmers of the surrounding area, and where everyone shops for food. A long exhausting day and the start of a great adventure.