Inspired by Binyavanga Wainana – How to Write about Africa.
Always use the word ‘Stan’ or ‘Silk Road’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Crossroads’, ‘Journey’, ‘Soviet’, ‘Ancient’, ‘Adventures’, ‘Misadventures’, ‘Nomad’, ‘Steppe’ and ‘Marco Polo’.
If you are writing a book, you may want to use an older place name to impress. Stay away from unpronounceables like Jaxartes, Sogdiana, Transoxiana and Khorezm. Use Oxus; only Oxus.
As a foreign journalist, these are your only topics:
- The death (and resurgence!) of the Aral Sea
- The dark atomic history of the Semey Polygon
- Bride kidnapping
- Cotton-picking slavery
- The inexorable rise of China
On that last point: finding Chinese workers in Central Asia might be more difficult than imagined. Find them. Seek them out at all costs.
Wherever you are: start off by saying you are in the heart of Central Asia. Next, point out that Russia and China are close. Make sure you get the tone right: not accusing, but suggestive, only slightly alarming. Make it clear Central Asians have no agency. They are forever doomed to be pawns in the games of others.
Mention Islam to add a touch of menace to your report, but don’t elaborate. There is no need to sow confusion. Make it clear that something terrible will soon happen in the Stans. Something that will make headlines. Something that will terrify the West. Do not elaborate.
When filming in an urban location: do not settle for the city center. Do that in China. Instead, make the effort and head for the outskirts. You will find shacks and rubbish, plastic bags blowing in the wind. It will be worth it.
Always lament women. They are powerless and to be pitied, cowering under a dark fate, dominated by nasty men. Enlist a drunk to illustrate your point. Ignore the happy ones.
In your reportage, there should always be room for a touch of humour. Central Asia is an absurd, idiotic place, and it needs you to transmit that silly madness to the ears and eyes back home. You may laugh at Central Asia. Especially its men. Their silly hats. Their silly new buildings. They’re silly bureaucrats. Mad personality cult.
And don’t forget the toilets! Always the toilets.
When talking about Kazakhstan, you may still mention Borat, but only if you say ‘oil-rich dictatorship’ in the same breath. In describing the steppe, empty is the best, and only word you need. If word count is an issue, use windy.
If you need to say something about Turkmenistan, talk only of its political system. Call it a mad dictatorship. Do not discuss its culture, food, history, daily life or religion. To illustrate how mad it is, visit the Darwaza gas crater. Show only New Ashgabat. Do not go elsewhere.
Travel bloggers! Your task is to discover Central Asia. Forget about the people all around you: you are discovering this wild and unknown land, where few have gone before. It is secret, yet amazing. Speak of nomads, horses, and ancient overland routes, but fly in and out. Visit only the places you get paid for. Implore your readers to go now.
Try to make it easy for your audience: compare each place you visit to a country they have already heard of. Declare it the Switzerland, Patagonia or Dubai of Central Asia. Make sure to choose a country far from home: the images will be simpler, and more evocative.
When portraying Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara, focus on old buildings. Jewels is a good word here. When taking pictures of locals, restrict yourself to old men: it’s the beards that make them look authentic.
In general, though, it is best to leave the locals out of the picture. It looks better that way, unless you find poorly dressed kids. Broad brushstrokes are good here. Describe the people simply as ‘friendly’. Especially in Pamir. In Pamir they are very friendly. Do not dig much deeper.
If you participate in the Mongol Rally, speak of the madness of it all. Whatever it is: declare it bonkers. You are an adventurer (a mad adventurer). You eat their mad food, wear their mad hats, swig their disgusting vodka and laugh at their corrupt ways.