When I found this map in a Lonely Planet travel guide two years ago, I learned one thing from it: I know zero about Central Asia. Where exactly is Afghanistan? Is Sogdiana is anything like Indiana? Is it pronounced Pishpek or Bishkek? Ask me whether I’d throw in my lot with the Middle Horde or the Little Horde, and I really couldn’t tell you (although who couldn’t love a little horde). All I knew was that Transoxiana sounds a bit like Transylvania, and so it’s probably super badass.
Okay, so the map is a little old. But in all of Asia, the history, politics, and cultures of these countries are probably the least understood by the rest of the world. China is touted as a rising superpower. Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are constantly the focus of national security news. You’ve heard the guy at the office drone on about the impossibly cheap beach bungalows he rented on his recent trip to Southeast Asia. And your friend went to a wedding in India (and got the shits). By contrast, the former-Soviet countries of Central Asia—often summarily dismissed as “The Stans”—those countries rarely come up. When was the last time you heard about Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or Turkmenistan in the news?
This caught my interest, so I decided to educate myself a bit. And I found a couple books really helpful, namely Dilip Hiro’s Inside Central Asia, Svat Soucek’s A History of Inner Asia, and Christopher Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road. The folks behind the awesome travel resource Caravanistan have their own list, and I also threw in something I’d read years ago: Jack Weatherford’s Ganghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World. Boom. Educated.
Not quite. In some ways I was even more confused then before. (It’s like Russia? But like China? But sorta like Iran?) But I did learn that it has a huge mix of food and culture, history and art that connect Europe with Asia, and mountains dwarfing most others in the world. So I crunched some numbers and decided I could give about three months to traveling Central Asia and getting to know the place better. And that’s how this trip began.
My tentative plan is to leave Beijing and quickly cross the length of northern China to Kashgar and enter Kyrgystan by land. A smart route should take me from Bishkek around Issykul lake, briefly across the Kazakh border, back south along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway and then north from Dushanbe to the Uzbek cities of Tashkent, Samarkhand and Khira, and finally into Turkmenistan.
Three months is hardly enough time to get familiar with such a huge and diverse region, but it’s a steppe (get it) in the right direction. And hopefully I’ll be able to a share a few interesting insights along the way.