Thursday, September 25, 2008

Central Asia: Executive Summary

Sunlight again, after a decent few hours' sleep, after 60-hour day, with an opportunity to begin to assess my two weeks (plus) in Central Asia.

“Did you see--?”--before you ask, probably no; the stuff I did not see, vastly exceeds what I did see. I touched base in only three of the five 'stans—Kazakh-, Uzbeki- and Turki- (an angry gut foreclosed an optional sidetrip to Tadzhiki-). I didn't see the flaming gas wells, the dying Aral Sea, the military bases (American and Russian), nor the prison where (it is said) they drown captives in boiling water for persisting in the recitation of the Koran. I was there to look at ancient ruins—so, the crimes of former bullies like Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, as distinct from the current lot. Aside from that, it is fun (and, I think, instructive) just to get the feel of a place--how far apart things are (not that far); how big the sky is (pretty big--if California has 12 suns, then this place has at least 14).

On its own narrow terms, I'd have to count the venture a success. Measured in terms of sheer plentitude, Central Asia is perhaps not as rich in ruins as some other places—the first generation of Muslims pretty much reduced the old stuff to rubble in the Seventh Century, and what the Muslims didn't get in the Seventh Century, the Mongols more or less did in during the 13th. But there is still a lot of good stuff. You can see an ancient Parthian settlement at Nisa outside Ashgabat (just like the Romans, the Parthians had arches, who knew?). And there is a marvellous, moony landscape out in the middle of the Karakum desert at Merv. But most of what you see is later Islamic—not least, ironically, the stuff left behind by Tamerlane; ironic in that Tamerlane surely stands high on the list of all-time destructive bad guys (the clue is that Tamerlane saved most of his destructive instincts for export; for the homefolks, he favored monuments and costly palaces).

The Tamerlane stuff is interesting in its own right, but also because most of it has been aggressively (savagely?) restored, mostly by the Soviets. This isn't a complaint, precisely: everything is an artifact, and I would love to know more about just how and (even more) why they did it. I didn't have a lot of luck getting people to talk about this issue: “well, they weren't stupid people, you know” huffed one tour guide (trained by Intourist)--which is entirely correct, but beside the point. My take is on the whole they did a pretty good job, although there is a certain aridity to, e.g.,the Samarkand Registan. And Khiva, a smaller town with a bigger complex of monuments, comes perilously close as appearing to be some weird kind of Islamo-Soviet Colonial Williamsburg.

I should add that one real plus to the trip was the people, the Central Asians. Granted that I was in a tourist bubble, still I spent a fair amount of time doing what I like to do anywhere, I.e., walking the streets. I also spent a morning at the bazaar in Ashgebat which is absolutely not designed with tourists in mind, I can assure you. I have to say, they were almost without exception easygoing and affable—not overly impressed or irritated by my presence, mostly busy just doing life. At the other end of the line, Almaty could pass for prosperous, with new car dealerships in serried ranks on the road in from the airport. You could almost forget (but then, maybe I was looking in the wrong places) that they all live under some of the worlds most unpleasant governments, where former Soviet bureaucrats more or less deploy the populace as an extractive resource to line the pockets of themselves and their sons and their daughters.

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