Central Asia

The New Great Game

If you want to leave Kazakhstan, learn English. If you want to stay, learn Chinese.          

          What started as a joke in business and government circles in Astana and Almaty has taken on a serious tone as China’s economic, military, and political clout in Central Asia has increased. In the nineteenth century, China watched from the sidelines as Russian and British explorers, envoys, and spies wandered around its western provinces and Tibet, mapping trade routes, building alliances with local leaders, and hatching plots. The Chinese empire, weakened by internal discord and rebellion, could not play in the so-called Great Game. By the end of the twentieth century, the roles were, if not reversed, at least re-balanced, with China vying with Russia and the United States in a new Great Game. Hungry for oil, gas, and natural resources, China has invested heavily in Kazakhstan’s energy sector. It built the pipeline to carry oil from the Caspian Sea east to Xinjiang, and is financing construction of a gas pipeline and a 1,700-mile stretch of highway to connect China with Europe. Russia, Europe, and the United States support pipelines running west to the Black Sea and Turkey. For now, there’s plenty of oil to flow both ways, but the supply will not last forever. Analysts worry about population pressures: if its cities cannot accommodate more people, will China look west to the sparsely populated steppe?

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 end of the Soviet Union briefly revived the dream of the Uighurs of Xinjiang of uniting with their fellow Muslims in a Greater Turkestan or caliphate. China leaned heavily on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to restrict Uighur political activity and settled the border disputes that had plagued Chinese-Soviet relations. China has reduced the demographic power of the Uighurs by resettling Han Chinese in Xinjiang. With oil from Kazakhstan and gas from Turkmenistan, China no longer has to rely on sea routes that can be disrupted by the United States. China brought the Central Asian republics into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and exploited new export markets.

            Russia has long-standing economic ties with Kazakhstan. It’s also the economic magnet for thousands of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two poorest countries in the region. Remittances from migrant workers in Russia account for about 29 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and 47 percent of Tajikistan’s. Russia provides aid and loans and maintains military bases in both countries. With the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan and the handover of the Manas air base in Bishkek, the United States no longer has a significant military presence in Central Asia, but its economic interests, particularly in Kazakhstan’s oil, gas, and mining sectors and in banking, make it the other major player. Iran and Turkey are also in the game, although only Turkey has so far invested heavily in the Central Asian economies and sought influence through education and social programs.

            What happens in Central Asia as China, Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Iran—and possibly India, making a late entry to the game—compete will affect the world balance of economic and political power. As the journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of two books on Central Asia, remarks: “One of the great dangers for the U.S. and other Western powers will be continuing ignorance and neglect of what is happening there.”


Recycling, Central Asia style

What Westerners today call recycling is to many people in the developing world simply a part of everyday life—what you must do to survive.  In Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s, people recycled because it saved money, and because there was often no alternative.

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

Decanting cooking oil into soda bottles, Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Decanting cooking oil into soda bottles, Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

You couldn’t buy some items such as milk and cream at the bazaar or on the street unless you brought your own container. Beer, soda, and milk bottles were returned for a refund. Empty glass and plastic bottles, some retrieved from dumpsters, were resold on the bazaars. Tin cans were used as planters. Fast food such as samsa, piroshki, and roasted sunflower seeds came wrapped in scrap paper torn from a ledger or an old textbook. Once Stephanie and I were rewarded for our volunteer editing for the Kyrgyzstan Chronicle, the weekly English-language newspaper, with 30 kilos of onions. One of the newspaper’s advertisers was going through a liquidity crisis and had settled the bill with half a truckload of onions. We wondered how to store them. Our Russian teacher, Galina, said that Russian women keep old stockings around for such contingencies. Stephanie pulled out some old runny pantyhose; we filled them full of onions and hung them from a line on the balcony. Galina was impressed. “You’re a good Russian woman,” she told Stephanie.

The best fast food in Central Asia

Shashlyk—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. 

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The secret to the flavor is the marinade--usually lemon juice, diced onions and garlic, cilantro, ground coriander and salt—and the lump of mutton fat on the skewer.  Shashlyk is served with raw onions, sprinkled with paprika or cayenne pepper.  This is not your fancy kabob (although it’s in the same culinary family) with slices of pepper, eggplant or tomato.  It’s just meat, meat and more meat, giving you the protein you need to round up the herd.  The best shashlyk I’ve eaten has been at roadside stands like this one in the Fergana Valley of southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.  In Kazakhstan, you can also find beef shashlyk, but the mutton is best.  

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



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!





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.  

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. 

Camping indoors in Central Asia

Hotel Almaty, Almaty

Hotel Almaty, Almaty

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

I don't deliberately stay in rundown Soviet-era hotels so I can write about them later. Sometimes, there's just no alternative.
    From the mid-1990s onward, my teaching, training and consulting work in Central Asia has taken me to places where the accommodation choices are, well, pretty limited.  If possible, I rent an apartment, if only for a couple of days.  But often, I have to take my chances at whatever establishment in town displays a gostinitsa (hotel) sign.  
    The municipally owned Hotel Molmol in Djalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan had probably been a decent enough place in Soviet times, when party bosses came to town to roll out the latest five-year plan, cook up inflated statistics on the cotton harvest, relax in the hot springs at the local spa, and dine in the hotel ballroom. There also used to be tourists—factory workers and their families who came to the spa and walked in the walnut groves. But few officials (and probably no tourists) had been there for almost a decade, and the place was in sorry shape.
    In July 1997, I paid the foreigner's price of $10 for a "luxury room" that consisted of a dormitory-style bed, a chest with broken drawers, and a few cockroaches. There was no running water. The staff-- cheekily described by Lonely Planet as "breathtakingly rude"—told me the electricity would go off at 10:00 p.m. By 8:30, I was sitting in the dark, feeling hungry. The hotel restaurant was closed—for renovations, or so they said. At breakfast the next morning, Buffet No. 37—the sign was a throwback to communist times, when all eating establishments were state-owned and numbered—offered cold piroshki and tea. 
    Most Soviet-era hotels reflect the ostentatious public architecture of the Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras with their high-rise apartment blocks, massive squares, and government buildings with colonnades and cavernous lobbies. The impressive facades often conceal dark and drab interiors, with poor heating and ventilation, dangerous wiring, and leaky pipes.
    The Soviets built their hotels large, and even small cities boasted establishments with several hundred rooms. Of course, the number of rooms bore no relation to the expected number of guests. In an economy based on artificial production quotas, not on demand for products and services, there was no place for market research.
    So there they stand today—large, and largely empty. Hotel occupancy rates may still be a state secret in some former Soviet republics, but my guess is that most government hotels in provincial centers don't fill more than 20 percent of rooms most of the time. And without guests, they don't have the money to modernize.
    In capital cities, Western-style hotels (with Western prices to match) have been built for business travelers and tourists. But in the provinces, the only hotel is usually the old government one.  This gives them a monopoly on accommodation, and the chance to charge exorbitant prices to desperate travelers. On a trip in 1999, I checked into the Hotel Ordabasy in Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan. There were two room rates--$25 and $100. What's the difference, I asked? Is the $100 room larger and more comfortable? No, said the clerk. The $100 rooms have hot water, at least in the evenings. I went for the budget option. Seventy-five dollars seemed just too much to pay for a shower.  My interpreter and I were the only customers for breakfast in the 200-seater restaurant, with its dark velvet drapes and chandeliers. All that was on offer was cold grichka (buckwheat). I found myself feeling almost nostalgic for Buffet No. 37.
    These hotels have one saving grace—the dezhurnayas, the floor ladies.  The dezhurnaya sits at a table opposite the stairs or elevator (if it’s working) and discreetly monitors the comings and goings of guests.  You hand in your room key to the dezhurnaya, not at the front desk.  Even in Soviet times, the dezhurnayas were not very busy, except when the hotel was full.  Today, they while away the hours reading magazines and watching TV.  But in hotels where room service is not an option, they keep things running, rustling up late-night cups of tea and retrieving linens, blankets and toilet supplies from secret stashes.  
    On a later trip to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, I learned that conditions in other former Soviet satellite states were similar. I asked my friend Susan Roe who had traveled to the provinces to rate the hotels. "Pretty grim," she said. "Rather like camping indoors."
    I've learned three valuable lessons about camping indoors. If you're six feet (as I am) or taller, sleep at an angle because the beds are short. (They must all have been manufactured at the same Soviet factory from standard lengths.) Carry a few tools so you can fix the furniture and, if you're handy, the plumbing, too. And tip the dezhurnaya on the first day of your stay.

    My favorite place to stay in Central Asia did not have a gostinitsa sign outside.  It was a house in Osh owned by a Russian couple, Yuri and Nina.  In the Soviet era, Yuri had worked as an engineer.  When independence came—and with it unemployment—the couple saw a business opportunity.  Foreign consultants were frequently coming to Osh for anything from a few days to a few weeks and no one wanted to stay at the gloomy Hotel Intourist.  Why not open a bed-and-breakfast?
    The house was in a mostly Uzbek neighborhood about a 10-minute marshrutka ride from the center.  The street was the usual mix of single-story homes and small shops, with babushkas selling fruit from blankets on the sidewalk; a few hundred yards away was a small bazaar where used auto parts were sold.   Sheep and goats grazed on patches of grass, and chickens ran in and out of the back yards.  People sat out on the street in the evening, and children played.  It was a long way from the grim formality of the Hotel Intourist.

      Word soon got around the expat community and you had to book ahead to make sure you could get a room.  Word also spread about Nina’s skills in the kitchen.  Russian domashnaya kukhniya(home-cooking) at its very best—sumptuous pilomini, golopsi and borsch, pies and cakes, home-made jams and juices with fresh cherries picked from the tree in the yard and apricots and plums from the bazaar.  Yuri rigged up an emergency lighting system, powered by a car battery, so that when the power went out (as it did on several nights) we had light.  There were never more than three or four guests, and we often got together in the living room in the evening to talk and watch TV. Nina did everyone’s laundry.  Once she fixed the hem on my jacket (I didn't ask--she just grabbed it and started sewing.)  

    When Stephanie and I lived in Bishkek in 1996-97, most foreign visitors stayed at the Dostuk near Victory Square.  It was in a convenient central location, the phones and TVs worked (although the choice was limited to Kyrgyz and Russian-language stations and one Turkish satellite channel) and the two restaurants actually served what was on the menu.  The single elevator was standard Soviet issue—just large enough for two people and a couple of bags—but at least it worked.  I had little sympathy for visiting USAID contractors who complained about the short beds and the mutton stew served at breakfast.  This was luxury compared to most hotels in Central Asia.
    The Dostuk’s monopoly on foreign guests was soon challenged.  On the south side of the city on Prospekt Mira, Bishkek’s first international hotel was rising from the concrete rubble of the old city airport.  The 14-storey Ak-Keme Hotel, built by Turkish investors, soon eclipsed the Dostuk as the upscale option in town, offering conference facilities and, it was rumored, a French chef.
    Stephanie and I visited the hotel only once (for a fashion show) but I stayed there twice on later visits to Bishkek for conferences   By 2009, Bishkek also had a Hyatt downtown and an even more expensive boutique hotel, so the Ak-Keme had competition at the top end of the market.  It was comfortable, if not exactly well suited to business travelers.  All the flat surfaces in the room were about two feet from the floor, so there was nowhere to sit and work.  The business center charged $7 an hour for Internet service.   I could get a faster connection down the street at an Internet café for $1 an hour.  
    I’m not sure when the Turkish investors backed out, but the Ak-Keme was now officially a “Joint Kyrgyz-Malaysian Venture.” Because English is widely spoken in Malaysia, you’d expect the new foreign partner to have tidied up the English grammar and spelling on the room service menu.  The Ak-Keme’s varied from the mildly pretentious—“On green meadow” veal and “Romance” soup—to the simply careless—stewen rice and humburger.  And the laughable—domestics pie.  “Domestics” is a translation from the Russian domashniye which means home or home-made.  I guess the menu writer felt that taking the second meaning from the dictionary would be a classier option.           Downstairs, the restaurant served “beef language” (in Russian, as in English, the word yazik, translated as “tongue,” can refer to either the body part or the language, but you need to think about what you’re describing).  Instructions for the hotel phone included a wordy, if mathematically precise, warning: “After telephone conversation it is necessary to press the button of interruption.  While the button of interruption is not pressed the telephone station doesn’t fix the end of the conversation.  After 53 seconds it will start to charge price.” 53 seconds.  The Soviets were always better at math than at English. 
    By 2009, Kyrgyzstan was at last seeing a steady stream of foreign tourists, and many stayed at the Ak Keme for a night on their way to and from the standard visit-Issyk Kul- mountain-lake-eat-in-a-traditional-Kyrgyz-yurt-see-traditional-dance-and-drink-kumys package tour.  I helped an Australian couple load their bags into the elevator—a hazardous task because the elevator doors stayed open for approximately 2.3 seconds before attempting to sever human limbs.  They had enjoyed the mountain scenery, but didn’t like the city.  “Bitofer rathole, mite,” said the man.  I told them I loved the city, despite the traffic and inconveniences. “It ain’t Sydney,” he replied, stating the obvious.  

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,


University Dreamland

University Dreamland

 Why is Kazakhstan spending millions on Nazarbayev University when facilities and conditions at other universities are lacking, when teachers have to take two or three jobs to make ends meet, when there’s no paper for the printer in the dean’s office and sometimes no chalk for the chalkboard? It’s about creating world-class education, of course, to provide the workforce for business and government. But it’s also about Kazakhstan’s image on the world stage.


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.”

                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. They attempted to counter pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic tendencies by constructing nationalities. 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). 

Cursing the future

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.

Lost in Stanland

Lost in Stanland

 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.”

Ode to the Antonov-24

The Antonov-24, a Soviet 44-seater turboprop which made its debut in 1959, was designed to take off and land on rough air strips in remote locations; over 800 of the aircraft manufactured are still in service, mostly in the former Soviet Union and Africa.  Most look as if they have had a tough life and are ready to go into assisted living in a nice warm hangar.  Despite cosmetic surgery on the wings and fuselage, the dents are visible.  When you board, you just hope that the ground crew tighten up the bolts and kick the tires before take-off.  


History is more than the past

          I’m one of those academic misfits, a committed generalist.  I’m interested in many disciplines, as long as they don’t involve equations and statistics.  I graze happily through the fields of the humanities and not-so-quantitative social sciences, snacking on everything from anthropology to comparative religion.  Please don’t box me into a discipline, certainly not a sub-discipline.
In today’s competitive academic world, this might be professional suicide.  But I earned tenure in an earlier era when grazing (I’m sorry, I meant to say “interdisciplinary exploration”) was still acceptable, even valued.

       My first experience of having to make a disciplinary choice came at the age of 15.  At my not-so-distinguished boarding school on the Surrey fringe I had to choose between my two favorite subjects—history and geography—for A level because the school scheduled the classes at the same time.   I chose history, a field which, depending on the sources you use, can be as inter-disciplinary as you want to make it.  I studied geography furtively on my own, learning all the capitals of Francophone African countries. I dozed off in pure mathematics (the substitute for geography) and received a well-deserved D grade.

       I’ve always enjoyed reading the work of scholars who did not have to make disciplinary choices.  My most profound influence was David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country.  Lowenthal brings together history and geography (he has post-graduate degrees in both) with philosophy, political theory, literature, landscape architecture, communication and so much else.  He gave me two key insights about the nature of history:
1.    “History is less than the past.”  History can never recover “more than a tiny fraction of what has taken place” in the past.  What we know is limited by “the immensity of the past itself, the distinction between past events and accounts of those events, and the inevitability of bias.”
2.    “History is more than the past.” It is a selection, a curating of the past, always shifting in meaning, shaped by contemporary values and perspective.   It is always a story, the French histoire, the “imposition of plot upon time.”

        Howard Zinn made history much more than the past in A People’s History of the United States. In trying to counter versions written by the victors, he created his own story and plot, a narrative filled with the testimonies of those people—Native Americans, immigrants, socialists, activists--whose experiences and perspectives were not reflected in mainstream accounts.  Of course, it’s impossible to include all who have been neglected by history.  But Zinn challenged us to expand our view of who to include in the historical cast of characters.

        As Paul Thompson puts it in The Voice of the Past: Oral History, “All history depends ultimately on its social purpose.” That’s why it’s been handed down by oral tradition-bearers and official scribes, taught in schools, recreated in historic sites, documented in film and television.  More blatantly, writes Thompson, the social purpose can be “justification for war and conquest, revolution and counter-revolution, the rule of one race over another.”  And when there’s no history available, you just go ahead and cook one up.

        History cuisine is thriving in the republics of Central Asia as they try to forge new national identities separate from their Soviet past.  As I traveled through the region (usually on the pretext of teaching or doing research), I began to understand how this history is linked to geography—the crazy-quilt pattern of national borders imposed by the Soviets to divide and rule—and to religion, ethnicity, economy, literature, culture and contemporary politics.  If I had been a specialist—researching kinship ties in the Kazakh Middle Horde or rhyme and meter in the Kyrgyz epic poem, the Manas—I don’t think I would have grasped the big picture.  

          Since independence in 1991, the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, each of which inherited the artificial borders of a Soviet Socialist Republic, have been trying to create a usable past—a collective narrative with a timeline and gallery of heroes—to build national unity. Everywhere, this has involved renaming cities, towns, and streets, erecting statues and monuments, creating museum displays, and rewriting school textbooks. In Uzbekistan, historians did a land grab, claiming that anything that ever happened within the borders of present-day Uzbekistan was the country’s historical property.  This makes it possible to depict thousands of years of “Uzbek” history. In Kyrgyzstan, which has almost no written history, there are more gaps to fill. That did not prevent the government from celebrating “2,200 years of Kyrgyz statehood” in 2003.   

          Most of these are official, often government-sponsored narratives—precisely the kind of history that Zinn, Thompson and others despise because it reinforces existing power relations.  But they would understand the history-making process.  In Central Asia, history is as much about the future as about the past.

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,