This guest blog was written by Bassam Tarazi.
Traveling through the ‘stans was a dream come true. Well, not exactly. If you’re like me, you don’t know what to think about places like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
For most of my life it was a part of the world “over there.”
Truth is, I should have been dreaming about them because it is harboring hidden gems behind every oystered corner.
In 2014, two friends and I took part in Mongol Rally (an automotive adventure from London to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia) and I have now written a book about it: Borders, Bandits, And Baby Wipes. The ‘stans feature heavily in it.
Here were my favorite memories of traveling through central Asia.
The Monotony Of Kazakhstan
If you’re wondering where we could fit people on this planet to ease overcrowding, it’s Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s Big Sky Country. It’s almost unbelievably vacant. The sun’s brushstroke is unimpeded across the largest blue canvas it ever had. The result of the daily onslaught of solar repetition was a monochromatic, treeless, golden grass carpet in all directions.
No matter how far we drove passed nameless hills and random, fenceless cemeteries, the road vanished into a point on the horizon. Kazakhstan was at once everywhere and nowhere, relentless and repetitive, but somehow enchanting. It is beautiful because of its monotony, not in spite of it.
The Clash Of Kyrgyzstan
I honestly didn’t know how to spell “Kyrgyzstan” until we were trying to cross the border. Once there, I don’t know what I expected to see but what we did have were quite pristine roads and remarkable views.
Up and around we swooped and turned amid rocky terrain on a road by the glowing, translucent turquoise of the Naryn River. It looked like the Caribbean was coursing through the Grand Canyon, or a slice of St. Tropez was weaving through New Zealand. It was an absolutely stunning convergence of mountains and water.
We snaked through canyon after canyon with snow capped peaks popping up around us. The grass went a little farther, the animals roamed a little longer, and people bundled up a little tighter. This was the wilderness.
Societies near the Fertile Crescent and Silk Road possess an intrinsic sense of Bedouin hospitality. These cultures were built on a foundation where we trumped I on every deal, where it was impossible to do things on your own because you’d be dead or ostracized if you tried.
There was a hotel receptionist, Alexi, in Samarkand who literally sprinted out of the door to get our money exchanged from someone down the street. He then drove us around town to get to a bank that spat out U.S. dollars.
Finally, he negotiated our place at the front of a line at a gas station where the line of cars was almost a quarter-mile long. He did this without receiving any honking horns or threatening stares.
Again, Alexi was a hotel receptionist.
He wouldn’t accept a tip of any kind. He said we were his guests and it was his job to take care of us no matter what.
One morning after waking up in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, a local elderly man and his wife pulled up next to our tent in their pickup truck.
The man got out holding a thermos of some sort and walked over to us. The skin on his face was a collection of ridges and valleys, proof of a life lived in the fields. We stood up out of respect and anticipation of an altercation for which I was unprepared. He gestured to us and then to his thermos and we realized that he was offering us a swig of whatever was in there.
Greg handed him our two mugs and the man filled them. He then poured himself a cup. We saluted and drank it.
When we didn’t die upon ingestion, Greg pointed to our now boiling water and then to the package of instant coffee in his hand. The man nodded. Greg poured the boiling water in the man’s mug and mixed the coffee in. He gulped the scalding coffee down in three giant swigs without so much as a grimace. He nodded in thanks. We took a photo with him and his wife and then they went on their way. Not a word was ever spoken by the four of us during this whole encounter.
It was the best, “Welcome to our country” that I’ve ever experienced.
You’d do well to read about the history of the Silk Road but here’s a little story. One day, just before sunset we reached the old city of Khiva, Uzbekistan. The glow of the sun on the embankments protecting the old city put our insignificance in the grand scheme of human history into perspective. Rumor has it that Noah’s son built a well here. Noah’s son…
The city originated in the 4th or 5th century BCE. So the time between when Khiva originally existed and when Mayan civilization started to decline is the same amount of time between when the Mayan civilization started to decline and today. Khiva was the first location in Uzbekistan to be deemed a World Heritage Site, a fair designation indeed.
Khiva’s interior was something out of the Old Testament. Apparently, it was the inspiration for the city in the animated film Aladdin. There was a giant cistern-like building that could have been mistaken for an ancient nuclear cooling tower if it weren’t for the multicolored mosaic sheath in which it sat.
This city was made for photographs: the sun cast just the right shadows, illuminating crevices in a yin-and-yang dance in the honeycomb of hidden alleyways, doors, and stories.
The Grip Of Turkmenistan
At times the struggle against the heat was an act of physical combat.
The sheer enormity and unforgiving nature of the 135,000- square mile Karakum Desert is something to behold. Saying that the terrain is barren would be like calling the Himalayas “hilly.” Justice is only meagerly done with a description.
If you open an atlas and turn the pages to Turkmenistan, the thing that you immediately notice is the absence of roads. You’d think that the cartographers miscommunicated about who was going to nish the map. There is one road that goes north-south through the entire country.
Darvaza is one of those places on that “road” smack in the middle of Turkmenistan. Darvaza only existed as a destination because of a Soviet engineering failure. Back in the early 1970s the motherland was tapping the area for natural gas, but when the ground underneath the drilling rig collapsed, it left a 230-foot-wide crater. The risk of fumes billowing and poisoning the locals was not ideal so they decided to set the gas alight, hoping it would burn off in a few days. It was now sixteen thousand days later. To-may-to…to-mah-to. This locally dubbed “Door to Hell” is a burning pit in the middle of the desert. There are no signs for it and one has to off-road into the desert just to find it.
Find it, we did. Just as described. A burning hole in the ground about 50 yards deep and 100 yards across, spewed hell, fire, and brimstone in all directions. It might as well have been an open volcano. There were no railings, no signs, no nothing. If we had wanted to, we could have walked right over the edge without breaking stride.
When the wind shifted toward us, we had to hide our faces, turn, and run because it was too hot to endure. When the breeze was in our favor, we stared in complete bewilderment at what the earth hid in its bowels and what humans could do when they uncovered such power. It was one of the most shocking things I’d ever seen.
We camped that night on the dunes of the desert. The stars that littered the non-polluted sky were something to behold. The twenty-five hundred or so stars that enveloped my vision were enough to get me to hyperventilate at the incomprehensibility that what I was looking at was only 0.0000025 percent of all the roughly one hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
Fragile little me, spinning around on a rock in space, peering into a tiny spot of our galaxy, and yet that spot is the most limitless thing I could ever see with my own eyes. It was a mental M.C. Escher moment complete with Mobius strips, infinite planes, and stairs to nowhere. I felt like I was trying to hold gravity in my hands. I knew it was there, but I couldn’t grasp it.
This is only part of the wonder of what it’s like to travel through the ‘stans.
You can see much more in my book, Borders, Bandits, And Baby Wipes: A Big Adventure In A Tiny Car, available for pre-order now.
More about me: www.bassam.com