Letters from the ’Stans

The Stans are Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The filmmakers John McGreevy and Jennifer Puncher have just returned from the ’Stans in Central Asia. They went there as tourists. Here are a few excerpts from their letters. One of their many encounters was with, of all people, Genghis Khan.

In his time, Genghis Khan created the largest land empire ever. From the Mongol mountains down to the Danube, his reach was greater than Alexander the Great’s had been around 330BC.

The domestication of the horse, the subsequent invention of the saddle and stirrups gave Genghis Khan’s warriors the ability to shoot their bows by twisting in the saddle, a major innovation, and thus became the most successful of the early conquerors to make serious inroads into Central Asia.

By this time, trading from China across Central Asia had begun in earnest. Originally, the caravans would stop at oases along the way before caravanserai were established. From the caravans and their wealthy merchant owners, the local poorer tribes learned to participate in this bounty. To prevent raids along the Silk Road, they offered “safe passage” through their lands for a fee, an early toll road you could say. Marco Polo was one of the most renown travellers to journey along the Silk Road. However, there wasn’t just one Silk Road, there were a number of routes that converged and then separated, depending on the final destination or what the merchants were selling. In addition to silk, paper and jade, etc., the merchants were involved in the slave trade. Around 1338, the Black plague began its destructive path along the Silk Road. The plague eventually landed in Genoa and then descended upon Europe with disastrous results.


The next major tyrant/conqueror was Tamerlane/Timur. The brutality of his reign is still remembered in folk tales. His plundering of treasures and capturing of artisans, bringing everything back to his capital, Samarkand (above), created the richest and most splendid of cities. Westerners who ventured that far were overwhelmed at the wondrous city and reported back on Timur’s power and brutality, the two were inextricably linked.

Kazakhstan has major oil deposits. Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have oil but does have an abundance of water and has created hydro electric power. 94% of the country is mountainous. The ’Stans are now becoming economically viable. However, corruption is rampant.

People say Kazakhstan has the usual hidden corruption but Kyrgyzstan has open corruption. An example of the latter: if you want the surgeon to do his best when removing your appendix, you’ll give him say $30 prior to the operation and $50 on a successful outcome. If you want a good result with your legal problem, you’ll bribe the best lawyer you can find before the case is heard with significant promise of more after a successful conclusion. It’s all very straight forward and a level playing field – if you have sufficient money that is. This is “open” corruption.

The recent history of Central Asia has created few permanent monuments. The odd mosque has been restored, many since the end of the Soviet era. But people in these two ’Stans call themselves modern Muslims – they like vodka and pork, and aren’t afraid to enjoy both. However, they’ll usually go to the mosque for Friday prayers, but aren’t zealous about their religion. Few headscarves in evidence thus far and the young would fit in anywhere in the West.

A beautiful coda to all this magnificence was being invited to listen to music played on traditional instruments. It seemed a fitting end to dream away on those notes after the spectacular vision of so many blue glistening tiles – almost a surfeit of spectacle.

Uzbekistan is now using the Latin alphabet along with Russian script, which means that some names we can understand. En route to Bukhara, two village names that caused a smile – Boston, Baghdad.

While Samarkand is truly stunning and almost overwhelming, Bukhara is quieter, more contemplative and definitely created for a different purpose: it’s Uzbekistan’s holiest city. It was the capital city of the khans and one of the few places one can still experience a pre-colonial lifestyle. While you can think of Samarkand as the city of ceremonies, pomp and circumstance, and sumptuous robes, Bukhara has a more contemplative feel. You can imagine scholars wandering around in their grey and brown robes, discussing theology and the meaning of life. The city is less sparkling and definitely more sober. One of only three operating madrassas in Uzbekistan is in Bukhara.

Could one even be looking up at an artist’s vision of heaven? Maybe – yet another awe-inspiring moment, not just for it’s beauty, but wonder too at what man can create.

The Avenue of Mausoleums is another architectural marvel. One walks up steps, tombs on either side, now, interestingly enough, mostly filled with small shops. Just because it’s holy and a place of pilgrimage doesn’t mean commerce can’t take place. There’s a symmetry between then and now. Craftspeople were paid to construct these tombs/mausoleums. Today, people still need to make a living and the Silk Road was, and is, all about commerce.

In the Gur-E-Amir mausoleum, a fairly simple one in comparison with the splendour of other tombs, lies Timur. His stone is dark green, surrounded by two sons, two grandsons, a favoured teacher and others. It’s a circular grouping. The actual tombs are beneath in the crypt. A Soviet anthropologist opened Timur’s crypt in 1941 and found Timur was a large chap, 1.7 metres, and that he’d been wounded, hence his nickname “the Lame One.” The exterior of the dome of Timur’s mausoleum is fluted, the only one in the city. It has 64 flutes as Timor died in his 64th year, another symbolic way of commemorating Timur.


2 responses to “Letters from the ’Stans

  1. Michael Gundy

    Wonderful! Thank you for finding and sharing this.

  2. henrylotin@rogers.com

    It was the fear of Tamerlane that prompted the reinforcement of the Chinese Great Wall at its western end near Dun Huang. He died enroute. If he had lived, and broke through to China to the East, China and the World, would have potentially been very different.