Kiva was our next stop on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan. As we rode into town–after a 7-hour bumpy ride across a mostly desert landscape– I could see that the old city has a very different look than the other places we have been so far (and equally beautiful).
Note that the Silk Road” is not really a road. The term was coined by a historian in the 19th century to represent the trade routes across the desert and mountains to get from Italy through Central Asia and into China. I’m sure these routes existed for centuries for shorter distances, but in Tang Dynasty China they took off as a way to get goods in and out of China to the West. This is the way Marco Polo went on his long journey, that he documented in his memoirs. So that’s why we see beautiful rugs and oriental China in renaissance paintings. Riding through the vast desert yesterday, I asked how they kept from getting lost on those long journeys. It was apparently the same techniques as the great sea voyagers used to cross the oceans, such as using stars and instruments like the sextant. There were trains of camels and horses, led by a specialist in finding the way. Along the way were “caravanserai,” which were places to sleep and rest/water the animals. The water was brought from the rivers in tunnels (such as from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers) and stored in specialized cisterns.
Cotton was–and is– also a critical factor in the region. Cotton in Central Asia played a similar role as in the deep South, both before and after the Civil War. In the U.S., the cheap labor needed to grow and pick the cotton by hand was provided by slaves or poor blacks tied to the same fields they worked in during slavery. In Central Asia, it was provided by poor farmers who–after Communism–were organized into collective farms. These farms had production quotas passed down from Moscow to the farm and then to the individual laborer. Because these were often unreasonable quotas, corruption occurred whereby from the bottom up to the top, through many bureaucratic layers, bribes encouraged people to lie about actual production.
Corruption is prevalent both in the public and private sectors. Perhaps this is because it was so prevalent in the Communist era just to get by, and then it became somewhat engraved in daily life. A story told by our guide was of the daughter of the former president. Nepotism, another form of corruption is also prevalent. Apparently, she held a high office (perhaps a Minister of Commerce), where she had to approve all the contracts for things like roads and bridges. She imposed a 10% cut off the top for any construction project, which went into her personal bank account. This was exposed by a brave internal auditor, who was ultimately fired by her dad. Of all things, this lady was also the Uzbekistani Ambassador to the UN! Apparently, the European Bank of Reconstruction has now put restrictions on the money they provide. However, a lot of the money they provide for roads is still wasted, and the work is shoddy. The Chinese (who perhaps have more tolerance for corruption) have a different approach, which to send in their own workers.
Another similarity with the American South is that the unemployment caused by the dissolution of the collective farms after the breakup of the former Soviet Union, caused young men to migrate to Russia for work to fill low paying jobs, a movement like our Great Migration. Just as Russia needs the cotton, they now–with their population decline—also need these workers. Yet my impression is that Uzbeks prefer to move to the U.S. Around the towns you see big signs that say “GREEN CARD,” advertising places where they help you fill out an application for the US green card lottery. The Central Asian nations are pushing back, however, saying local workers must be hired. Our guide said, “Why should we send our boys to work in Russia when we could have them working here?”
A terrible consequence of cotton production is that cotton is a “thirsty crop,” which requires intensive irrigation at key points in the growing cycle. Consequently, due to diversion of water from the rivers, there was a slow evaporation of the huge inland Aral Sea, which now seems beyond saving. (Windstorms carry dust that is salty and polluted with chemicals around the region.) This ecological disaster, along with corruption encouraged by the production quotas, are key factors in the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
However, lot of cotton is still grown here, and now is the time for picking. The fields are white, and we see many people (mostly women) bent over picking the cotton.
Central Asia is a fascinating part of the world, with a rich history, stunning landscape, ancient cities, and lingering challenges that will profoundly affect the future of the region.