Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series on Central Asia.
TTKKU stands for Central Asia’s Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. To locate the five “Stans” think of a rectangle bounded by China on the east, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran on the south, the Caspian Sea on the west, and Russia on the north. Once part of tsarist Russia and then of the Soviet Union, these five countries have been independent for less than 20 years. Before the Soviets created five separate republics in Central Asia, much of the population was nomadic and people generally thought of themselves as either Turkish or Persian. Lacking a proletariat to install in power, Soviet theorists first empowered what they called a surrogate proletariat — women. That experiment didn’t last long, but today Central Asian women are educated and have a public life. They are also mostly Muslim.
The predominant form of Islam in Central Asia is neither Shia nor Sunni but Sufi. When one thinks of Sufis one may think of whirling dervishes; that is because dance is one way the Sufi seek a personal religious experience. There are Sufi saints, but there is no requirement for a mediator or religious authority. Religion was suppressed under the Soviets and the new governments are secular. Nevertheless, new mosques are appearing throughout the region. Still, one does not hear a muezzin’s call to prayer, rarely sees a turbaned mullah, and Islamic activism seems to be concentrated in the Fergana Valley which is principally in southern Uzbekistan.
Each of the new nations is proudly nationalistic, differentiates itself from, and is not necessarily friendly with its neighbors. In May, I visited each of the five and will give a brief account of my experience. Molly, a young woman who works for a consulting firm in Saudi Arabia, traveled with me. We knew each other for 10 minutes before deciding to make the trip together, but we were perfectly matched for energy, curiosity, risk-taking and harboring our money.
Lufthansa deposited us in Kazakhstan, which is the size of Western Europe. Much of it, though, is desert, steppe and empty. The Soviets put labor camps and atomic and nuclear test sites there. During World War II whole populations — Germans, Poles, Chechens, and more — were deported to Kazakhstan and many of its professionals were willing or unwilling Russian immigrants. Many Russians became emigrants after independence, but Kazakhstan remains multi-ethnic. Just over half its population of about 16 million is Kazak. It has a substantial middle class, and has made a relatively smooth transition to nationhood and a market economy.
A former Communist leader, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, quickly became the first, and thus far, only, elected president. In 2005 he won more than 90 percent of the vote. Natural resources, especially oil and natural gas, underpin the country’s current and future prosperity. Indeed, its economy is the size of the other four Stans combined. The government is active in a variety of international organizations; it belongs to the United Nations, and in 2010 will chair the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The capital, Astana, located in the far north, is in the process of rapid expansion, and is becoming an architectural wonder. New buildings include a Pyramid of Peace, an Islamic Center which accommodates 5,000 worshippers paid for by the Emir of Qatar and the Museum of the First (and only) President of the Republic.
The major city, Almaty, formerly Alma-Ata, is located at the foot of snow capped mountains, and has the air of a provincial European capital. Its principal sights include a restored Russian orthodox cathedral, yellow with onion shaped domes, a handsome new mosque, a World War II heroes monument, the Central State and Kazakhstan Art museums, an Olympic sized skating rink where my friend’s son, Eric Heiden, set a world record, and a hilltop park reached by cable car. The city values its 125 fountains and its numerous parks although the parks are not particularly groomed. Trees line the streets. Coming from the airport the trees actually abut the road — a swerve would be fatal.
Tourists are uncommon but welcomed. If one is speaking English on a bus someone is certain to begin a conversation. One woman was sure I must be a missionary — what other English speaker would come to Almaty? The women guarding a museum’s paintings wanted to know my age and to see my teeth — sadly, no gold there. Accommodations can easily be arranged through the Internet; also, Internet cafes can keep one in contact with those at home. Russian is widely spoken by those over 35. English is less understood, but memorizing the Cyrillic alphabet pays surprising dividends.
Judith Stiehm is a resident of Santa Monica who toured through Central Asia earlier this year.