Cursing the future

 A man waits in line outside a food shop in Moscow. Finally, he’s had enough and tells     his friend: “That’s it. I’m going over to the Kremlin to kill that Gorbachev.” Two hours later he comes back.  “Well,” says the friend, “did you do it?”  “No,” he replies, “there was an even longer line over there.” 

          Through the 1990s, in cities, towns and villages throughout the former Soviet Union, industrial workers gathered in bars, restaurants, chaikhanas (tea houses) and bazaars to “curse the future.”  I credit the phrase to my friend Asqat Yerkimbay, describing growing up in the central Kazakhstan mining town of Zhezdy.  But I had heard a similar story from many other people.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

          For 75 years, industrial workers were folk heroes, lauded in speeches, newspapers, books, movies and wall posters for their efforts to make the Soviet Union a world power.  Although agricultural production was vital, Soviet industry seemed more glamorous, and definitely more photogenic.  Newsreels and propaganda films recorded the whirring machines of the factory assembly line, the intense heat of the steel furnace, the jagged face of the coal seam, the electricity pylons stretching into the distance.  Each product coming off the line, each steel ingot, ton of coal or megawatt of electricity represented the growing strength of the USSR, the fulfillment of the great socialist dream.  And the dream makers were Lenin’s proletariat—the engineers, coal miners, steelworkers, engine drivers.  Industrial jobs paid better than most professions, and often came with perks such as apartments and vacations to summer resorts in the Kyrgyz SSR. They also helped reinforce the status of women in society.  The Soviet Union never needed a Roza the Riveter because women were always in the industrial workforce.

           And then it all ended.  Despite Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (literally restructuring or rebuilding), most citizens had no idea of what was coming, or how it would change their lives forever.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the central planning system that had supported the economy collapsed too.  In every sector, production was determined by targets and quotas, which usually had little or no relationship to demand.  Factories, mines and collective farms had to meet targets, even if what they produced was not needed and piled up in rail cars or rotted in warehouses.  Managers were rewarded for exceeding targets, fired or demoted for falling short—a system that provided ample incentive for cooking the books on cotton or steel production. 

          In the factories of Central Asia, workers continued to show up, but the targets and subsidies from Moscow had ended and there were few new customers.  Some factories tried to adapt to the market economy, but most lacked the money to invest in new equipment and compete for quality and price with industries in other countries.  Compared with other Soviet republics, the industrial base of the Kyrgyz SSR was comparatively small because Moscow considered the region too remote to become a major industrial producer.  However, factories for agricultural processing, textiles and household goods employed thousands in the Chuy and Fergana Valleys.  By the mid-1990s, most had closed.  Almost all the canned goods, clothes, shoes, pots and pans on the bazaar were imported from China and other Asian countries.

           Kyrgyzstan struggled to adopt the reforms that donor countries and the International Monetary Fund said were needed to qualify for loans and aid and to build a market economy.  The government abandoned subsidies and price controls, and replaced the Russian ruble with a new currency, the som. The pace of reform caused massive economic dislocation; in one year, inflation ran close to 1,000 per cent, devastating people on pensions and fixed incomes. With international support, the government eventually stabilized the currency and brought inflation down to manageable levels, but economic recovery remained slow and poverty rates increased.

           Official reports tell the story of Kyrgyzstan’s economic collapse in sanitized, bureaucratic terms—the language of economists, policy-makers and development experts.  The calculations were at the macro level--cold measurements of Gross Domestic Product, consumer price indexes, output by economic sector, government debt, foreign direct investment, reforms of the financial services sector. In the mid-1990s, it’s questionable whether Kyrgyzstan even had a financial services sector to reform.  The som had been devalued, inflation remained high, and almost no one trusted the banks to keep their money safe.  With few deposits, banks had little money to lend and when they made loans, it was at ruinous 30 per cent interest rates.  If you wanted to start a new business, you asked your family to lend or give you the money.  Even the loan sharks at the bazaar charged less interest than the banks.  

           The economic statistics were sometimes based on questionable data.  One year the government, in an attempt to convince foreign donors and investors that the economy was picking up, declared that the unemployment rate had dropped below 10 per cent for the first time since independence.  Even government supporters were incredulous.  It turned out that in its sample the statistical agency had included every tout hawking cigarettes, pirated cassettes and homebrew on the streets as a “self-employed market vendor.”  The real rate was probably at least 40 per cent. 

            None of the reports and statistics told the human stories of dislocation, especially for industrial workers.  Their skills were not needed in the new economy, and there were few opportunities for retraining.  Some left for Russia, hoping to find jobs, but the situation in many Russians regions was as bad as in Central Asia.  A few started private businesses or worked as drivers.  Some just gave up.  It was not only the loss of income, devastating though that was.  It was the loss of purpose, dignity and respect.  They had been the breadwinners for their families; now they had no jobs and no prospects.  In some families, women became the main wage earners, but while they kept the family fed, their husbands sometimes felt the loss of status even more intensely. Back in the good old days, industrial workers could afford a bottle of vodka or cognac for a party or holiday celebration.  Now some turned to the bottle to try to forget their plight.  Official reports on the economy do not figure in the social costs of alcoholism, depression, broken marriages, domestic violence, and suicides.  It is not surprising that the engineers, miners and steelworkers were nostalgic for the Soviet Union.  They denounced Gorbachev the traitor, and cursed a future that seemed to offer them nothing.  




Soviet gerrymandering

When the Soviet cartographers sliced and diced Central Asia in the 1920s, someone must have said, “The Kyrgyz.  Aren’t they all nomads?  Let’s give them the mountains.”

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube


             Before the Soviet era, there were no national borders between the peoples of the region, and identity was defined by religion, family, clan and place. The Soviets feared that such muddled loyalties could help Islamic, social or political movements gain popular support, as Pasha’s rebellion had shown.  Educated Central Asians and religious leaders still talked privately of a Greater Turkestan or a Central Asian caliphate.  The Soviets attempted to counter pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic tendencies by constructing nationalities, giving each a defined territory with national borders, along with a ready-made history, language, culture and ethnic profile.  Your loyalty was no longer to your tribe, village or faith, but to your nationality as a Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen or Uzbek and to its Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). 

                The Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs were created in 1924, the Tajik SSR in 1929.   It took the Russians longer to sort out the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, who share similar physical features, traditions and language.  Indeed, in the 19th century, they were all referred to as Kyrgyz.  As ethnographic research began to reveal differences, the mountain tribes became known as Kara-Kyrgyz (black Kyrgyz) to distinguish them from the steppe-dwelling Kazakhs, who were called simply Kyrgyz because “Kazakh” sounded too much like the name of another group, the Cossacks.  Although the Russians seemed confused, the Kazakhs knew perfectly well who they were, and that they were not Kyrgyz.  They were members of a tribe that was part of either the Great, Middle or Little Horde, each of which had its own khan.  In 1926, most of present-day Kyrgyzstan became the Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) and a full Kyrgyz SSR in 1936.  In the same year, the Kazakh SSR was formed.  And so, through the miracle of Soviet ethnic engineering, the Kara-Kyrgyz were no longer black but true Kyrgyz, while the people who had been called Kyrgyz for over a century turned out to be Kazakhs after all. 

                While promoting new national loyalties, the Soviets realized that too much nationalism could be dangerous.  In a parallel effort to solidify control, they shifted around ethnic groups to ensure that none was dominant in a specific area.  Thousands of Central Asians were moved to other parts of the Soviet Union.  Russian and Ukrainian farm and factory workers were settled in Central Asia, while Volga Germans, Chechens, Koreans and other ethnicities were deported to the region.   The policy of divide and rule, intended to suppress ethnic unrest and militant Islam, created artificial borders between ethically-mixed SSRs.  The medieval cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, historically major centers of Tajik culture and with large ethnic Tajik populations, ended up in the Uzbek SSR.  Osh was a classic case of ethnic gerrymandering.  As Central Asia scholar Madeleine Reeves points out, if the Soviets had drawn boundaries exclusively along national lines, the nomadic Kyrgyz would “end up with a Kyrgyz republic that had no cities of its own: a worrying prospect for a state preoccupied with thrusting ‘backward’ populations into Soviet modernity.”  Their solution was to make Osh, with its predominantly Uzbek population of traders and arable farmers, the republic’s southern city.

               Independence came suddenly to all Soviet republics. Unlike liberation struggles in Asia or Africa, there was no army emerging from the mountains or jungles to be cheered by flag-waving crowds, no government in exile, no heroes or martyrs to freedom.  Citizens of each SSR suddenly found themselves citizens of an independent country.

                Achieving independence is one thing; creating national identity is another.  At independence, ethnic Kazakhs were a minority (albeit the largest one) in Kazakhstan, making up about 41 per cent of the population.  At the same time, almost one quarter of Tajikistan’s population was ethnically Uzbek.  With the possible exception of Turkmenistan, all republics have a rich, but potentially volatile ethnic mix. The region, noted the New York Times, looked like "a medieval map" where power is defined by ethnicities and clans, not by borders. Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously referred to Central Asia as “the Eurasian Balkans.”



Lost in Stanland

On the eve of his first foreign trip as US Secretary of State in February 2013, John Kerry, in a speech at the University of Virginia, praised the staff of the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) for their work in the “most dangerous places on Earth.”

They fight corruption in Nigeria. They support the rule of law in Burma. They support democratic institutions in Kyrzakhstan and Georgia.

            Come again, Mr. Secretary? Kyrzakhstan? Aren’t you confusing volatile Kyrgyzstan, where popular protests overthrew two authoritarian leaders in less than five years, with its stable neighbor Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled almost unchallenged since independence in 1991?

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

The republics of Central Asia

The republics of Central Asia

The State Department transcript of the speech helpfully clarified matters, replacing “Kyrzakhstan” with “Kyrgyzstan.” But not before reporters picked up on the gaffe. Kerry was teased for “creating a new country.” The flub was “all the more awkward,” said the British newspaper The Telegraph, “because Kyrgyzstan is a key ally in the US-led war in Afghanistan and a major recipient of US aid.”

            Russians poked fun in online forums. Among the comments: “I think we need to restore the USSR, so that the American Secretary does not confuse the names.” “Well, if the USA decided so . . . Let there be Kyrzakhstan.” “So what? Kyrzakhstan is a regular country. It’s to the east of Ukrarussia and south-east of Litonia. Not far from Uzkmenia. You should learn geography.” A cartoon depicted Kerry, cell phone to his ear, looking intently at a globe. “Where is that Kyrzakhstan? I’ve been trying to call there for three days.”           

            Of course, Kerry was not the first US official to be, as the Telegraph put it, “tongue-tied by post-Soviet geography.” “Stan-who?” President George W. Bush is reputed to have asked when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed him about Uzbekistan. In August 2008, he mixed up Russia and Georgia, which at that time were at war, when he warned against possible efforts to depose “Russia’s duly elected government.”

            The confusion is symptomatic of a more general geographical malaise, caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of countries whose names end in -stan. Kerry is not the first and will not be the last public official to become lost in Stanland.

            So where is “Stanland?”

            The imprecise reference is to a vast swath of Asia, stretching from Turkey to the western border of China, populated by a bewildering assortment of ethnic groups that give their names to an equally bewildering collection of provinces, autonomous republics, and countries. Remembering them all—not to mention finding them on a map—is a challenge, even for people who are supposed to know these things, such as diplomats and international relations experts.

            It’s similar to the geographical confusion brought on by the end of European colonialism in Africa a half century ago. It wasn’t enough for the imperial powers to surrender their political and economic dominance. They also had to learn postcolonial geographical vocabulary. It’s not Upper Volta any more. It’s Burkina Faso, and its capital is—get ready to roll those vowels—Ouagadougou.

            We all construct mental maps of essential information, and our maps are shaped as much by culture and pragmatism as by physical features and political boundaries. Of course, we all know about other places, but they don’t appear in our mental maps, not even on the fringes, unless they seem relevant. Even though Afghanistan has been embroiled in conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979—or, to take a longer historical perspective, since the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1839–42—it was not on most Americans’ mental maps before September 11, 2001.

            As long as Afghanistan and Pakistan were the only “stans” we had to remember, the map was reasonably manageable. Then Mikhail Gorbachev came along. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave us fourteen new countries (plus Russia) including the five “stans” of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. We can be grateful the Soviet Union did not break up any further, or we would have to deal with Bashkortostan, Dagestan, and Tatarstan (now Russian republics). Or that Armenia did not adopt its native name, Hayastan. Or that the Central Asian republics themselves did not splinter, with Karakalpakstan breaking away from Uzbekistan.

            If we struggle to remember the “stans,” is it more helpful to think about “Central Asia”? It depends. In terms of geopolitics, it’s a more elastic region, partly because it is (apart from the Caspian Sea) landlocked, so has no coastline for demarcation. Since September 11, Afghanistan has often been classified as Central Asia. The north of the country, bordering Uzbekistan, has a large ethnic Uzbek population; in the east, Tajiks are a significant minority. By religion, culture, and language, the Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region have more in common with the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz than with the rest of China, and Uighur nationalists dream of reuniting with their neighbors in a Greater Turkestan region. The Caspian Sea clearly divides the Caucasus republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and the Russian republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, although some policy experts lump them together as “Central Asia and the Caucasus.” What about Mongolia? Ethnically, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are Mongols. Unlike other regions that can be neatly subdivided, Central Asia is amorphous, expanding and contracting as it is viewed through different political, social, economic, and cultural lenses.

            In Postcards from Stanland, I use the narrow political definition of Central Asia to refer to these five former Soviet republics--: Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Since 1995, I have faced the challenge of trying to explain the region to colleagues, students, and friends. After one trip to Kyrgyzstan, a colleague insisted I had been in Kurdistan (which does not yet exist, except in Northern Iraq and in the maps of Kurdish separatist movements).

            “No, K-oe-rg-oe-zstan,” I replied, trying to wrap my tongue around the challenging Russian vowel “ы” in the first and second syllables. I gave the ten-second profile. “Poor country, former Soviet Union, borders China, beautiful mountains and lakes, nomadic herders with sheep and horses, lots of meat in the diet, bad hotels, slow Internet, very hospitable people.”

            You would have thought the conflict in Afghanistan would have focused the attention of Westerners on the countries next door, but unfortunately it hasn’t. Just as medieval European maps tagged vast regions of Africa, Asia, and America as terra incognita, the five Central Asian republics are a geographical blank between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the west and China to the east. To many Westerners, my travels might as well have been on another planet. I had simply been in “Stanland.”


Winter Games

If you can’t change the weather, make it an asset. That’s what Kazakhstan did in its successful bid for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, although its offer to spend millions of dollars may have been more persuasive than the average daytime temperatures. It’s estimated that the government spent over $1.4 billion building new stadiums or renovating existing ones in Astana and Almaty, upgrading Astana’s airport and improving roads and transportation.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

         When I arrived in Astana in mid-January, preparations for the games were in full swing. A total of twenty-seven countries sent teams, and the organizing committee had scoured foreign-language departments across the country for student interpreters. The committee’s headquarters, full of red track-suited volunteers, and the hotel where most of the athletes and officials were staying were just around the corner from my apartment. On my rare ventures along the snow-covered streets, I’d often see a busload of athletes heading out for the newly built stadiums on the left bank.

            Fortunately for the organizers, Kazakhstan topped the medal table, with thirty-two gold, twenty-one silver, and seventeen bronze; Japan, South Korea, and China were the other major medal winners. Ticket prices starting at $100 deterred me (and other Astana residents) from attending events, but they were on TV every night and in seemingly endless reruns through the summer. The only live event I saw was a sideshow in a cavernous exhibition hall where organizers were showing off traditional Kazakh culture to foreign visitors.  I missed the horsemanship exhibition, in which cowboys raced around a small circus ring, performing daring acrobatics. What I did see were three traditional yurts, probably better appointed and furnished than your average out-on-the-steppe variety, and nice handicrafts (leather goods, ornaments, and carpets).

A very well-appointed yurt.  My interpreter, Diana Akizhanova, is third from the right

A very well-appointed yurt.  My interpreter, Diana Akizhanova, is third from the right

Shirdaks and traditional Kazakh handicrafts

Shirdaks and traditional Kazakh handicrafts

The attempt to re-create the landscape was not as authentic, as I discovered when I leaned on a styrofoam rock and almost pushed over a small mountain. I drank shubat (camel’s milk) and ate traditional snacks (salty or sweet, designed to give that extra burst of energy when you’re rounding up the herd). And I listened to powerful singing from traditional musicians on a stage with a psychedelic light show going on behind. “What’s she singing about?” I asked my interpreter Diana Akizhanova, who had gamely accompanied me. “I’ve no idea. It’s in Yakut [a Siberian language],” she said. Fortunately, the next performer sang in Kazakh. “What’s she singing about?” I asked again. “Oh, about how to deal with life,” said Diana, not very helpfully. “How much do you know about traditional Kazakh culture?” I asked her later. “Not much,” she admitted. “I’m a city girl.”

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Snow days in Astana

          Kazakhstan’s capital Astana is renowned for its futuristic and eclectic (or ostentatious and jumbled, depending on one’s aesthetic) architecture.  It also has a more dubious distinction: it’s the second coldest capital city in the world.


Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

           If you’re looking for steady, seasonal work, try snow removal in Astana.  In January and February, the city clears snow almost every day.  It’s an impressive operation.  In some North American cities, snow piles up alongside roads and sidewalks.  In Astana they literally remove it.  Workers break up the snow and ice with pickaxes, and shovel it into front loaders that dump it into trucks that haul it out of town.  I don’t know where they dump it, but if some farmer’s field is still under snow in May, we’ll have a clue. 

                Astana is, according to climate data, the second coldest capital city in the world, with Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia (another city where I’ve shivered in April) in first place. It attained this dubious status when it became the capital in 1997, knocking Ottawa out of second spot. Understandably, the government and the tourist agencies don’t talk much about temperatures in their promotional brochures.  They’d prefer foreigners to think that other Northern Hemisphere capitals, such as Moscow, Helsinki, Reykjavik and Pyongyang, are colder. 

                Of course, defining “coldest” raises methodological issues.  Are we looking at average temperatures across the year, average winter temperatures or just extreme conditions, when the temperature plunges to, say, minus 40 Celsius?  I vote (with my cold feet) for average winter temperatures.  Astana has an extreme continental climate with warm summers and long, cold, dry winters.  Temperatures of minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit) to minus 35 Celsius (minus 31 Fahrenheit) are common between mid-December and early March.  The city also holds the record for the lowest air temperature ever recorded in Kazakhstan (minus 51 Celsius). Typically, the River Ishim freezes over between the second week of November and the beginning of April.   It can feel even colder because of the wind chill.

                My Fulbright Fellowship began in mid-January and I was prepared.  My wife Stephanie had bought me a warm down coat, an alpaca wool hat, gloves with liners and two pairs of silk long johns.  Unfortunately, United Airlines stored my checked luggage at Dulles Airport for three days before handing it over to Lufthansa for delivery.  The long johns, of course, were in the luggage.  I ventured out the first morning wearing almost all the outer clothing I had, my legs yearning for those long johns.  As I stood shivering at the bus stop, my U.S. embassy liaison nonchalantly remarked that it was “not too cold today—only minus 30 Celsius.” 

                Some parts of Astana are definitely colder than others.  On the left bank among the high-rise apartments, government ministries, malls, parks and public squares, the wind blows hard off the steppe, funneling along the boulevards and buffeting the few pedestrians brave enough to be outside.  On the right bank in the older city, the buildings are closer together, providing shelter from the wind.  Maybe it is partly psychological, but it feels warmer—or, in Astana terms, not as bone-chillingly cold—there.   


           On the streets, walking can be hazardous to your health.  The snow may be only a few inches deep but it is hard-packed.  However, it’s safer walking on the snow than on the sidewalk, which is often a sheet of pure ice.  I moved slowly, looking for patches of snow that would give me a firmer footing.  The locals seemed to be equipped with all-weather feet, walking briskly, some of the women in fashionable high heels.  My complaints about the winter fall on deaf ears.   Alexander, a taxi driver, told me the winter had so far been mild.  He recalled that when he was growing up in a village in northern Kazakhstan, the snow reached almost to the roof (almost 10 feet high) of the family’s one-story home and they had to dig a passage through to the street.  He said they never got too cold, because they had an ample wood supply and because the deep snow around the house had an igloo effect. 

                Even after my long johns arrived and my legs were reasonably warm, I didn’t walk any further than I had to for risk of falling.  In almost three months, I left my apartment in the evening only three or four times to meet friends for dinner, and always took a taxi.  At weekends, I would walk 15-20 minutes along Valikhanova Street to the covered market, four blocks away.  Sometimes I stopped at a coffee shop that doubled as an English-language library with books and DVDs.  It also offered old newspapers and magazines donated by customers.  You could learn that “Republicans Win 2010 Midterm U.S. Elections” six months after the fact in case you missed the story.  I asked a British couple, Paul and Sarah, what they did for fun in Astana in winter.  There was a brief silence.  “Well, we often come here, have coffee, check out a DVD and go home and watch it,” said Sarah.  This was not encouraging news. 

                The government of Kazakhstan has spent lavishly to make its capital a city where people will want to live and work.  It has worked hard to brand Astana as a business destination, and as a host city for international conferences and sporting events.  The city has a modern airport, five-star hotels, new conference and exhibition halls, upscale shopping malls and the usual range of “international” cuisine—from sushi and tapas bars to the somewhat incongruous Irish pubs.  It’s now the sort of city that merits a glossy spread in an airline magazine, the writer gushing about his “24 Hours in Astana, Jewel of the Steppe,” the architecture, museums and nightlife.  But neither government policy nor business investment can change the climate.



From southern Kyrgyzstan to suburban Maryland

            On Christmas Eve 1995, my wife, Stephanie, picked me up at Washington’s Dulles airport. I had been traveling for almost two days and was exhausted.  After almost a month in Central Asia, I looked forward to returning to the United States. Instead I experienced, for the first time in my life, reverse culture shock.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

              We drove past brightly lit suburban malls, crowded with shoppers buying last-minute presents and stocking up on holiday food and alcohol. Billboards and neon signs were already advertising the post-holiday sales.

                One of the blessings—but also one of the curses—of international air travel is that in the space of a few hours (or, in my case, about forty hours) you are transported from one world to another. The place you leave and the place where you arrive differ not only in the predictable ways—the skin color and features of the people, the landscape, architecture, language, food, and money. More fundamentally, the everyday concerns of people are usually completely different.

                In the malls, people were making standard American consumer choices. “What should I buy for your mother? She’s so difficult!” “Which video game do the children want?” “How large a turkey? “Will anyone notice if we serve boxed Chardonnay?”

                It was a stark contrast to the world I had just left. In suburban Maryland, the shops were open, and open late. In Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, where I’d spent most of the past month, almost all the shops were closed, and had been closed for several years; what was left of the retail economy had moved to the bazaar and street corners.

                In suburban Maryland, lights blazed from malls, streetlamps, and Christmas house and lawn displays. In Osh, the lights were off for at least several hours each day. No one was sure why there were power outages in a country with enough hydroelectric capacity to be a net exporter, but the usual culprits were named—corrupt government ministers, incompetent local officials, the mafia, the International Monetary Fund, or some cabal of all of the above.

                In suburban Maryland, the restaurants were crowded; in Osh, the few restaurants that were still open had only the occasional customer and most of the items on the menu were not available.

                In suburban Maryland, people were spending their Christmas bonuses and maxing out their credit cards. In Osh, teachers, civil service workers, and others who had not been paid for months were wondering when (or if) they would ever get a paycheck again.

                In suburban Maryland, people were buying gifts for the holidays. In Osh, some people were selling all they had to buy food; in subzero temperatures, they squatted on the broken concrete sidewalks, their possessions—kitchen utensils, auto parts, school textbooks, old clothes, Soviet memorabilia—spread out on blankets. I don’t know who was buying because most passersby were just as poor as the sellers.

                In suburban Maryland and throughout the United States, people were looking forward to the new year with hope. In Osh and throughout Central Asia, people were simply hoping that 1996 would not be as bad as 1995.

                I had written e-mails about what I had seen to family and friends from Osh University on the only computer I found with a dial-up connection. Each took almost 30 minutes and a lot of electronic whirring to send. I described the city and the struggles its people faced, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

                After years of media coverage of famine and conflict, the problems of the developing world can seem relentlessly wearying. Poverty, suffering, and conflict are comfortably encapsulated in five-paragraph or ninety-second narrative chunks, with the requisite quotes or sound bites. You could not understand southern Kyrgyzstan in 1995 from the occasional media coverage or even from my photos and stories. You simply had to be there.

                I was there, and then I left. That was perhaps what disturbed me most. I had the freedom to travel, to move between the worlds of southern Kyrgyzstan and suburban Maryland. Most people in Central Asia were simply stuck, trying to survive. That Christmas Eve made me see my own world, career, and life in a new way.

                 My first experience working in a developing country made a deep impression.  Over the next 20 years, I returned frequently to Central Asia—to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—for teaching and research.  As I traveled and met people, I knew that what I was seeing, and learning would change, so I kept a journal and sent more e-mail letters home.  There’s big picture stuff—about politics and media—but mostly I wrote about the everyday challenges of living, shopping, travel, working, and trying to keep warm, about speaking bad Russian or figuring out how to pay a utility bill.

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              These experiences and my research on media, politics and society were the inspiration for Postcards from Stanland.  Over the next six months, I’ll be sending out weekly essays, some adapted from the book and some that did not make it into the book, on a wide range of topics. We’ll climb high into the Tian Shan Mountains, follow the Silk Road to ancient cities, and cross the vast steppe to the forests of Siberia, rust-belt industrial cities, the Polygon nuclear testing zone, and the oilfields of the Caspian Sea.  The region has a rich ethnic mix—descendants of the great Mongol clans, Russian farmers and factory workers, the victims of Stalin’s deportations.  We’ll meet teachers, students, politicians, entrepreneurs, philosophers, environmentalists, journalists, bloggers, cab-drivers, market sellers, hotel floor ladies, and others, to learn about their history, culture and struggles to survive in the post-Soviet era.  Thanks for joining me on the journey through Stanland.

A New Year’s Postcard from Charleston, West Virginia

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A happy new year to all my readers! 

I’ve waited a long time to write that line, but with 700-plus names on my e-mail essay list and others reading my blogs on Facebook, I can now claim to have a modest readership, maybe even the odd fan. Thanks to all of you who have read my stuff, bought a copy of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia and had me sign it, sent me comments and corrections, or all of the above. It’s a good feeling to know that something I love doing helps people understand a little more about the wonderful, crazy world in which we live, and even makes them laugh about it.

As a writer, 2017 was a productive year.  I say productive, rather than profitable, because I still haven’t figured out how to make a living from writing.  I earn a few hundred dollars here and there—for a published feature, or a university or library lecture—and, twice a year, a few hundred more in royalties from the Ohio University Press.  I’m fortunate that international development and government agencies pay for me to travel to fascinating places such as Antananarivo, Blantyre, Dhaka, Hyderabad and Tezpur to work for them.  Of course, writing travel blogs is not on their lists of “deliverables,” but I relish the opportunity the trips provide for writing. Without the support of UNICEF, I would never have taken a two-day road trip on Route Nationale 7 to southern Madagascar, or hung out at Sujoy Vai’s Route 6 restaurant cum coffee house cum smoothie bar in Rajshahi in western Bangladesh.

A couple of non-travel pieces got some play this year.  A feature for History News Network that linked current controversies over statues of Confederate generals to historical schizophrenia over Lenin statues in the former Soviet Union, “Down with Stonewall Jackson! He’s just like Lenin,” stirred up a small hornet’s nest over the Civil War and historical memory.  It was republished in Transitions Online, which covers politics, economy and culture in the former Soviet Union, as “Lessons from Lenin.” My British boarding school memoir was published in a literary magazine, Broad Street, as “School of Hope and Glory: Britain’s Imperial Mission and How One Public School Lad Failed It,”  People connected with it in different ways.  Some of them wanted to hug me.

Most of my writing energy this year was devoted to my second book on travel, history and culture—Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys, the sequel to Postcards from Stanland.  As I write in the introduction: “This book has a broader geographical sweep … describing a circuitous arc around the Indian Ocean with insights into the history, geography, politics, economy, climate and belief systems of five countries where I’ve traveled and worked over the last decade. From Madagascar, I head across the Mozambique Channel and up the Zambezi River to Malawi, a country linked to the Indian Ocean by exploration, slavery and trade. Then I leap across the Arabian Sea to the Indian sub-continent. India defies generalizations because of its social, ethnic and religious diversity. My narrative begins in the capital Delhi, then broadens out in space and time, exploring the colonial legacy, the partition of British India, and the country’s demographic, economic and environmental challenges. From the north, I move to the ancient kingdom of Hyderabad, and finally to the under-developed “chicken-neck,” India’s Appalachia, the northeastern states of Assam and Meghalaya. Then I follow the Brahmaputra River south to Bangladesh, a country defined by its bitter struggle for independence. From the chaotic traffic and garment factories of Dhaka, I travel to the rice bowl and commercial centers of western Bangladesh, to the tea gardens of the northeast and to the delta region—the front line for climate change. My journey ends in Indonesia—at Banda Aceh, ground zero for the 2004 tsunami, the noise and traffic of the capital, Jakarta, ancient Yogyakarta, and the beaches and back country of Bali.”

Phew!  Quite a journey.  I’ve previewed a few stories in essays and blogs, but there’s much more for you to read.  We expect the book to be published in early to mid-2019.

I want to thank several people who have helped me on my writing journey.  The staff of the Ohio University Press, particularly Gill Berchowitz, Nancy Basmaijan, Jeff Kallet and Samara Rafert. My social media guru, Marilyn Wrenn.  The writer Cat Pleska—I started writing the boarding school piece in her memoir writing class and she encouraged me to keep going.  The wonderful members of my writing group, Fran Simone and Kathy Manley.  And, of course, my wife Stephanie Hysmith, who has always supported me in my writing.

In 2018 I’ll be back to Bangladesh on a new contract for UNICEF.  More postcards to come!

Happy new year!




Long-lost Postcards from Stanland jottings discovered

All right, all right. I’ll confess to taking literary license in that subject line (but I had fun doing so).  No, this “discovery” is not exactly in the same league as unearthing an ancient religious text or an unpublished Shakespeare sonnet.  And to say that the jottings were “lost” implies that I had been looking for them, which I hadn’t.  Perhaps “long-forgotten” would be more appropriate. Nevertheless, I felt a frisson of excitement when, on unloading the contents of a file drawer in my office (a chore I’ve successfully avoided for many years), I found a manila folder that had fallen under the stack. It was labelled “Kyrgyzstan 1995,” so it evidently had something to do with my first trip to Central Asia. I expected to find hotel receipts, or perhaps a copy of my project report. Instead, I found handwritten notes I’d taken during the adventure. 

Some of my impressions were familiar, and are recounted in my book, Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016).  If you haven’t read it, there’s still time to order from Amazon or another online bookseller before the holidays!  Great reading for those long winter nights.  Other notes recorded places and episodes I had forgotten, so I decided to write about them in a new two-part travelogue.

If you read Postcards from Stanland, you will know the December 1995 trip was the event that changed the way that I look at the world and my place in it.  I had been hired by the United States Information Service and UNESCO to establish a training and resource center for journalists in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. It’s the second largest city in the country and was the scene of inter-ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks before independence in 1990.

When I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, almost exactly four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was in deep trouble.  Factories and collective farms had closed, inflation was rampant, pensions were almost worthless, and many teachers, doctors and government workers had not been paid for months.  There were power cuts every day.  Most shops were closed, with all commerce moving to the bazaars.  Out on the sidewalks, people spread out household goods on blankets, selling what they could to buy food.  It made a deep impression on me, and over the next 20 years I returned to Central Asia frequently for teaching, training and research.  Here are a few scenes from that first trip.

Arriving in Almaty

In 1995, there were no direct flights from European airports to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, so I flew on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Kazakhstan’s capital Almaty, 150 miles by road from Bishkek.  As we walked down the steps from the plane, another passenger surveyed the dimly-lit terminal building. “Just like Sofia,” he said. “All these Soviet-era airports were built the same.”  We tramped across the tarmac. Snow was in the air, and I was regretting having packed my wooly hat and gloves in my checked bag. At the entrance we passed a line of uniformed cops, their peaked caps seeming to sit unnaturally high on their heads.  They eyed us suspiciously without speaking. The interior décor of the terminal was, if anything, more depressing than the outside—hard, wooden benches and walls lined with faded plastic panels broken by occasional examples of Soviet realism, an oil painting or bas relief of heroic peasants or factory workers gazing towards some misty socialist nirvana, with a uniformed commissar looking on approvingly. My driver from the US embassy in Bishkek was waiting, holding a “Professor David” sign. His name was German (in Russian, some “h” sounds become a “g,” so we would translate his name as Herman). It was too late to make the drive to Bishkek that night.  We would stay overnight at the Hotel Almaty, at that time the only “business hotel” in the city where foreigners were allowed to stay.

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?


At 11:00 p.m., the lobby of the Hotel Almaty—a massive structure, with all the trappings of ostentatious Soviet public architecture—was deserted.  There was no one at the reception desk. German banged on the counter and shouted.  After a few minutes, a clerk dressed in his robe emerged from a back room, yawning. German helped me complete the registration form. In Soviet hotels, the reception desk does not hand out room keys.  These are the jealously-guarded property of the dezhurnaya, the “floor lady” who serves as the queen of her one-floor domain, handing out and receiving keys, fetching blankets and pillows and, if you’re lucky, rustling up tea.  Olga was snoring in front of her TV when German and I emerged from the tiny elevator on the 8th floor. I handed her the ticket from reception and she found the key in her desk drawer.  “It’s the only key,” she warned. “Don’t lock yourself out of the room.”

Because it was the only “business hotel” in town, the Hotel Almaty could charge ridiculously high prices and get away with it—$90 a night for a small room with a hard bed, rickety furniture, noisy plumbing and AC outlets loosely attached to the wall by electrical tape.  (Over the next few years, more hotels opened in the city, and when I next stayed at the Hotel Almaty in 2001, I paid $40 for the same type of room).  I flicked through the 50-plus channels on the TV remote, but only two had signals.  The image and sound on the old Russian movie were breaking up, and the other channel offered color bars, so I gave up on TV watching.  A switch on the wall activated the wired radio system, which offered muzak versions of American country classics, including some Hank Williams favorites.  There were two phones. One was a rotary dial, presumably for local calls. The second, the white “international satellite line” came with a “buyer beware” warning on a card. “After the 35 seconds, irrespective of the fact that whether you have succeeded in getting through or not, the computer starts counting the elapsed time, which you will have to pay for. Which means that after the 35 seconds it will not matter whether you have talked to your opponent or not, you will have to pay as it for conversation.” You were instructed to pay in cash within one hour of the call. I didn’t relish the thought of rousing the clerk or dezhurnaya again that night, so resolved to call Stephanie in the morning.

I woke up early as the sun streamed through the windows.  I walked out onto the balcony and was rewarded with a panorama of the snow-covered Tien Shan Mountains, shimmering in the morning light. Not worth $90, but still a spectacular view.  I called Stephanie, paid at the front desk, and joined German for breakfast. Hank Williams was still on the radio.  Surreal.

The Soviet Union—another passing dynasty

The rickety furniture and electrical system in my room at the Hotel Dostuk in Bishkek was apparently inspired by the vision of the Almaty Hotel’s interior designer.  The bed was too short for my six-foot frame.  There was a closet, but no drawers for clothes.  The light switches hung from the walls at odd angles.  At least the TV worked.  It offered CNN International and BBC World Service, along with entertainment channels in Russian and Turkish, TNT, and MTV.  The Indian music video channel featured high-energy, choreographed Bollywood dance scenes, the men dressed in white suits and the women in brightly-colored attire sweeping their long dark locks in front of the camera.  At 9:00 p.m., Kyrgyz public television was offering what appeared to be a lecture on macro-economics, complete with equations and graphs for short-run marginal cost curves. Riveting television.

I spent Saturday at briefings at the United States Information Service. On Sunday, the day before I flew to Osh to begin my project, the embassy public affairs officer, Bruce McGowan, took me for a day out to the foothills of the Tien Shan to see some archeological sites, with Bakhit, a Kyrgyz historian, as our guide.  Soviet archaeologists began excavations in the 1930s, removing their prize discoveries to museums in Moscow and Leningrad; since independence, Kyrgyzstan has been trying to get its history back, with little success.  The archaeological digs have stopped because the government has no money for excavations or restoration, and most sites are unfenced, with sheep grazing on them.  The most-visited site, 50 miles from Bishkek, is the Burana Tower, the 11th century monument on the site of Balasagun, one of the capitals of the Turkic Qarakhanid dynasty that ruled a large region of Central Asia for almost 200 years from the early 10th century until they were overthrown by another Turkic dynasty, the Seljuks.  Archaeologists excavated the citadel of Balasagun and restored the Burana Tower in the 1970s.  At another site, sculpted stones mark the burial places of those who fought in the dynastic wars; by nomadic tradition, a warrior was buried with his horse.

We ended our trip with tea at the Issyk Ata (Warm Father) resort, where hot springs from the mountains are piped to baths. In the Soviet era, factory workers and their families came to these resorts, called sanatoria, for their annual break, to enjoy the clean air, walk the mountain trails, play sports, and relax their tired joints in the steam baths.  Since independence, the only tourists have been local. Many buildings have fallen into disrepair, with stucco peeling and sagging wooden porches.  The lobby of the main lodge features a brass replica of the Kremlin and a sign boasting that “The Collective of the Resort will struggle to uphold the highest quality standards.” It will be an uphill struggle without new investment and an improved economy. Apart from the staff and a few village boys who were sledding in the snow, we were the only people at Issyk Ata on a Sunday afternoon. Near the lodge, an image of Buddha etched on a large rock had been almost obscured by graffiti of the “Sasha loves Irina” variety.  In the driveway, a small statue of Lenin in one of his standard poses, his right arm outstretched, looked out over the resort, a scene of post-Soviet decay.  Like other dynasties that had ruled this region, the Soviets had come, and they had gone.  In the large scheme of historical time, they were really passing through.  The Qarakhanids ruled more than twice as long.

Winter Games

Winter Games

 If you can’t change the weather, make it an asset. That’s what Kazakhstan did in its successful bid for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, although its offer to spend millions of dollars may have been more persuasive than the average daytime temperatures. It’s estimated that the government spent over $1.4 billion building new stadiums or renovating existing ones in Astana and Almaty, upgrading Astana’s airport and improving roads and transportation.


Shashlik—the best fast food in Central Asia (as long as you’re not vegetarian).  Lumps of lamb or mutton on metal skewers or sharp sticks are marinated and barbecued on charcoal grills until they are crisp on the outside but still juicy inside.   The best shashlik I’ve eaten has been at roadside stands like this one in the Fergana Valley of southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.  

On the Osh bazaar

On the Osh bazaar


In Osh, the capital of southern Kyrgyzstan, the massive Jayma bazaar which sprawls along the western bank of the Ak-Burra river, winding up dozens of side streets and alleys, had been one of the great markets on the Silk Road since medieval times. 


Mountain barriers

The Kyrgyz Ala Too range rises south of Bishkek

The Kyrgyz Ala Too range rises south of Bishkek

               From the so-called Pamir Knot in Tajikistan, the great mountain ranges of Asia extend in all directions—the Himalayas and the Karakoram to the southeast, the Hindu Kush to the southwest, the Kunlun to the east, and the Tian Shan to the northeast.  In Kyrgyzstan, the Central Tian Shan range forms a natural border with China’s Xinjiang Province, rising to Pik Pobedy (Victory), at 24,111 feet the second-highest point in the former Soviet Union.  South of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz Ala Too range runs east-west to the deep mountain lake of Issyk-Kul; the Kungey Ala Too range north of the lake forms the border with Kazakhhstan; the Fergana range straddles the middle of the country; the Pamir Alay range dominates the south. More than 90 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s land area—the size of Austria and Hungary combined, or the U.S. state of Montana—consists of mountains, with 40 per cent over 3,000 feet.        

                The mountains are both a blessing and a curse.  Their natural beauty offers potential for tourism, but “Switzerland of Asia” campaigns have so far failed to contribute significantly to the economy, mainly because of the remoteness of the country and poor roads and tourist facilities.  It’s great trekking terrain, but the so-called resorts—most of them former summer camps for Soviet industrial workers—are short on both modern facilities and après-ski ambience. There are mineral deposits, many of them unexploited because of the cost and difficulty of mining in remote regions.  Hydro-electric plants have the potential provide all the country’s electricity supply, and some for export.  However, as the glaciers continue to recede, scientists worry about the sustainability of the country’s water resources.  For centuries, the mountains have provided summer pastures for herds of sheep, goats and horses, but most of the land cannot be cultivated. 

On the road from Bishkek to Osh

On the road from Bishkek to Osh

                Few roads cross the mountains, and they are often blocked by avalanches and mudslides; cash-strapped local authorities struggle to maintain or improve them.  Building new roads to improve commerce and boost the economy in rural areas means moving massive quantities of earth and rock and constructing bridges and tunnels—a major investment that usually requires help from foreign donors.  It is difficult and expensive to transport goods, deliver the mail, or provide medical services; in winter, a trip to the town market or the hospital may be impossible. At higher elevations, the first snows come in October; some settlements are cut off from November to May. 

                The mountains are as much a cultural and political as a physical barrier.  The major concentrations of population are in two large valleys—the Chuy in the north, with the capital Bishkek, and the Fergana in the south, with Osh and Djalalabad, the second and third largest cities.  About half the country’s population of 5.3 million live in the south.   The Ala-Too and Fergana ranges separate the valleys, splitting the country and its major urban centers into two distinct regions.  In Kyrgyz society, where identity and loyalty are still defined by family, clan, and village, the government in Bishkek can seem very distant.  The north is more industrialized and secular, oriented to Kyrgyzstan’s larger and more prosperous Central Asian neighbor, Kazakhhstan, and to Russia and the West.  The south is more agricultural, conservative and Islamic, looking to Uzbekistan and further west to Iran. Some northerners fear separatism, Islamic fundamentalism and the influence of Uzbekistan in the south; some southerners believe the government in Bishkek exploits their region, while short-changing it on tax revenue and social services.  Polls show that most people in Kyrgyzstan consider the differences between the north and south to be the major challenge to national unity. 

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,


Getting around Osh

 In the mid-1990s, it wasn’t easy communicating or getting around the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan.  The telephone switching system was antiquated and overloaded. There was also no city map--or at least no one I asked could remember ever having seen one.  Even if it had existed, it would have likely featured Soviet-era street names which were fast disappearing as the city authorities dug into history and changed them to the politically correct names of Kyrgyz leaders and literary figures. 

The Dubai of the Steppe

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

Excerpt from Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University (Swallow) Press in March 2016

            For many visitors, the capital of Kazakhstan is an astonishing sight—unlike any other city they’ve seen. My first impressions—from the air and then from the airport highway—evoked otherworldly metaphors. Strange shapes rose out of the steppe—spires, domes, globes, ovals, and pyramids in gold, silver, blue, and turquoise. The taxi passed the gleaming facade of Nazarbayev University, then sports stadiums and arenas built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, with their massive, curved metal and concrete spans. Then triumphal arches, monumental public buildings, upscale apartment blocks, the huge Nur Astana mosque, shopping malls, and manicured parks, most of which on a chilly Saturday afternoon in September were almost deserted.

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

            Whatever you think about futuristic architecture (or what it cost to build it, and whether the money could have been better invested in Kazakhstan’s social needs), Astana is unlike any other capital city in Central Asia. Almaty (the former capital) and Tashkent look like other Soviet-era cities with their colonnaded public buildings and monotonous apartment blocks. Bishkek and Dushanbe have similar architecture, but are rougher around the edges. Astana looks more like Dubai. It is growing fast, but even by the latest (2012) population estimate of 775,000, it is still less than half the size of Almaty or Tashkent (each of which has about two million inhabitants). However, the futuristic architecture makes Astana look and feel bigger. Which is exactly what its chief conceptual architect, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, intended.

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

        Like other capital cities throughout human history, Astana is designed to impress visitors. Just as medieval travelers returned home with tales of the fabulous cities of the East, modern travelers to Astana are treated to a visual spectacle. Astana is a twenty-first-century version of Karakorum, the thirteenth-century capital city of the Mongol Empire.  Contemporary visitors to Karakorum were suitably awed, perhaps because they thought the Mongols were too busy rampaging and pillaging their way across Asia and Eastern Europe to actually build anything more than siege fortifications and campfires.

            In 1253, the Flemish Franciscan William of Rubruck, who had accompanied the French king Louis IX on the Seventh Crusade, set out from Constantinople for Karakorum. Louis had given the monk the medieval version of mission impossible—convert the Mongols to Christianity. Whether or not William knew the futility of his assignment, he set out to record his party’s journey in detail, producing one of the great travel narratives of the age, comparable to that of Marco Polo.

            After traveling for almost seven thousand miles William and his companions entered a wealthy, bustling city at the heart of a major trading network, with markets, temples, and a cosmopolitan population, including Christians. The Great Khan even staged a debate at court among adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. William’s detailed account of the journey and the six-month stay at Karakorum, and the reports of other missionaries and merchants, helped to counter popular views of the Mongols as a murderous horde.

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

           Like Karakorum, Astana is the concrete symbol of a modern and business-friendly Kazakhstan, an emerging economic and cultural power at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. In his writings and public speeches, Nazarbayev positions Kazakhstan within Eurasia, arguing that the nation embodies the best of the West and the East in its economy, education, religion, civil society, and values. The Eurasian motif is visible in the signature architecture of Astana, where elements of Western and Eastern design are combined. Astana hosts Eurasian conferences and events; businesses claim to reach the Eurasian market; Eurasian National University is the largest institution of higher education in the capital.

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

            For Nazarbayev, Astana was never the otherworldly, utopian fantasy that its critics have claimed.  Astana is a combination of Karakorum and Dubai, the center of a new Mongol empire built, not on military conquest, but on oil and gas revenues, authoritarian government, investments in technology and education, and soft diplomacy with the West, Russia, and China. In a commentary to mark Astana Day, the city’s fifteenth anniversary, on July 6, 2013, Nazarbayev wrote: “The fate of Astana is the fate of all Kazakhstanis who have boldly crossed the threshold between two centuries. This is the fate of independent Kazakhstan, which has walked the great path from the obscure fringe of a fallen superpower known to few in the world to a dynamic modern state which the international community knows and respects.” Astana Day was also (not coincidentally) Nazarbayev’s seventy-third birthday. For the crowds who attended the birthday celebrations and the millions who watched the spectacle on TV, the association between city, country, and president was more than metaphorical. Astana was Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev had created Astana. Ergo, Nazarbayev was Kazakhstan.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,


Tagged: KazakhstanAstanacapitalarchitectureimageKarakorum

Wrestlemania on Horseback

Wrestlemania on Horseback

What do you get when you put together two teams of Kyrgyz cowboys, a 250-pound headless calf, and a wildly cheering crowd?  It’s the traditional horseback game of Ulak Tartyshy, popular throughout Central Asia.  I’ll describe it as a cross between rugby and a no-holes-barred polo game, although I’m sure this description does not do it justice. 

My khrushchevka is better than your brezhnevka

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University (Swallow) Press in March 2016


For rent: Two-bedroom, second-floor khrushchevka in city center, close to Silkway City mall, market and bus routes. European-style kitchen and bathroom.  Large balcony for storage.

            This is not a real ad, of course, but it accurately describes an apartment I rented for a month in Almaty in 1999, on a leafy street called Vinogradov. The key words (apart from the location) are “European,” which denotes that the Soviet-era appliances and counter tops have been replaced and that the water pipes do not leak, and khrushchevka, which indicates where the apartment ranks in Soviet real-estate hierarchy.  

Khrushchevka block on Vinogradov, Almaty city center

Khrushchevka block on Vinogradov, Almaty city center

            The most solid (and now expensive) apartments are from the Stalin era, earning them the name stalinkas.  They were built on site from bricks or blocks, and sometimes even boasted neoclassical details.  After World War II, faced with a severe housing shortage, the Soviet government encouraged technologies to provide low-cost, easy-to-assemble housing.  The prefabricated concrete panels of the khrushchevkas, named for the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, were mass produced and shipped by truck. Elevators were considered too costly and time consuming to build so almost all khrushchevkas had five stories—the maximum height of a building without an elevator under Soviet health and safety standards.

            The blocks of khrushchevkas that line the streets of many cities throughout the former Soviet Union may look drab on the outside, but I’ve rented or stayed in enough to know that they are usually warm and comfortable (if basic) inside.  I’ll take a khrushchevka over the more shabbily constructed brezhnevka any day.  But they do all look the same. 

Irony of Fate, popular Soviet romantic comedy released in 1975 and in constant re-runs

Irony of Fate, popular Soviet romantic comedy released in 1975 and in constant re-runs

          The one-size-fits-all architecture was satirized in the 1975 Soviet romantic comedy Irony of Fate.  After a New Year’s Eve celebration in Moscow, Zhenya is supposed to go home to celebrate with his fiancée while his friend Pavlik flies home to Leningrad.  But everyone is drunk, and Zhenya’s friends put him on the plane instead.  He wakes up in Leningrad airport, believing he is still in Moscow. Still drunk, he stumbles into a taxi and gives the driver his street and apartment block address.  He arrives at a block of khrushchevkas that looks exactly like his block in Moscow and staggers upstairs to the apartment with the same number.  Not surprisingly, his key fits the lock.   Inside, even the furniture is nearly identical to that in his apartment. Later, the real tenant, Nadya, arrives home to find a strange man sleeping in her bed.  To make matters worse, Nadya’s fiancé arrives before Nadya can convince Zhenya to leave.  Zhenya tries to return to Moscow, but because there are no flights he keeps on returning to Nadya’s apartment. They end up spending New Year’s Day together, their hostility softening into mutual affection.  When Zhenya eventually leaves, Nadya decides to follow her heart and fly to Moscow.  She has no trouble finding Zhenya because they have exactly the same address.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,