Someone I haven’t seen for a while stopped me in the street the other day and asked ‘how was Kazakhstan?’ I didn’t correct him, even though it was actually ten days in Uzbekistan. Before I left someone wished me luck in Azerbaijan with a worried look, as though I was actually heading to Afghan(…). I also had someone who knew I was going to Uzbekistan but thought it was in the Balkans.
Most people have only heard of Kazakhstan because of bloody Sacha Baron Cohen, and that’s as a made-up country that just happens to share the name of a real place. It is a lot more Balkan in its portrayal than Central Asian. There are two famous ‘stans – Afghanistan and Pakistan – and the others are met with blank looks or misconceptions of smallish Balkan ex-Soviet states. Even though, of the ‘stans, Uzbekistan is especially blessed with famous sites to see, it’s still relatively unknown to the man (who stops you) in the street.
Afghanistan is thought of as Middle Eastern; Kabul is nothing more than a warzone on the news. Pakistan is intimately linked to India in the mind, so these famous ‘stans are separate from the others. The great treasures of the Silk Roads are forgotten – the names Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva are more likely to produce blank looks than wishful sighs, whilst in South East Asia people trample all over Ankhor Wat and the like. But then, I like empty sites- in fact I’ve become rather spoiled since visiting Syria and Jordan, where you have a whole Roman city to yourself. By contrast, Bukhara was almost bustling with tourists, mainly French, it seemed.
But out in the backstreets of Samarkand one evening I had a real sense of being somewhere completely else, a sense you don’t get in countries similar to your own, or even in very different countries that become familiar to you from t.v. or other people’s visits.
I’d like to do a long trip around the ‘stans, including Afghanistan, although I might have to wait a bit for that. And when I go I don’t want it to be a well-trodden journey stuffed with backpackers. In those Great Game books you get a sense of people marching completely off the maps, and you can just about still get that feeling wandering through the bazaars in Bukhara. It would be a shame if that went, although it would be good for the countries – both economically and politically, as the bastards like Karimov wouldn’t be able to get away with as much as they do if there was a steady stream of foreigners poking around.
I know it would be better for the countries, but selfishly I don’t want it to change until I’ve had a lot longer than ten days of having these places to myself. So when people say Kazakhstan, for the moment I won’t correct them.