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The lost heart of Asia

9 August 2019

The Lost Heart of AsiaThe Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A travel book with a slice of history.

Colin Thubron travelled through these newly-independent countries almost immediately after they had left the USSR, and so he captures them at a unique time transition in their history. He records that moment when they were neither one thing nor the other. Some people hankered for the stable past of full employment and economic security. Others looked forward to a future which, though it might be uncertain, with unemployment and rampant inflation, at least promised them freedom.

The dilemma was neatly summed up when Thubron visited the spacious headquarters of the Writers’ Union in Bishkek, the capital of Kirghiztan, “once a bureaucratic hub of mediocrity and obstruction”. There he met a writer named Kadyr, and asked what people did there now. They don’t do anything, said Kadyr. They had hundreds of writers, but no money and no paper. At last they had freedom to write, but the publishers could no longer afford the paper to print what they wrote. “Our spiritual situation is richer, far richer, but our material one is hopeless.”

Last month I read The Road to Miran, also about Central Asia, but a little further east, in the Xinjiang Region of China. It’s a part of the world that has always been rather vague in my mind — lots of countries with names ending in -stan, but I was never quite sure of where they were in relation to each other. And what I learned about their history from this and some of the other books I have been reading was mostly new to me and quite revealing.

The four countries that are the subject of this books were the creations of Stalin in the 1920s, which I had not known. Their convoluted borders were drawn in Moscow, regardless of geography, so that now major roads sometimes cross international borders several times within a short distance. In that, and in several other ways, they resembled Dr Verwoerd’s “Bantu Homelands”, and as I read I got a new insight into why the English-language newspapers in South Africa referred the “homelands” as “Bantustans”. Perhaps the analogy came from Dr Verwoerd himself, as he tried to explain his vision in the South African parliament, but at any rate the name, and the similarity, stuck.

One of Colin Thubron’s concerns, and one that was quite widespread in the West, was that these four countries, where the majority of the population was nominally Muslim, might embrace Islamic fuindamentalism. A lot of his conversations, especially in the earlier part of the book, reflect this concern. In many of the towns he visited he would visit a madrassa and talk to the students who were studying Islam, and try to get their views on this. Most of the mosques and madrassas had been closed under the Bolsheviks, but were rapidly reopening, though for many, particularly in the northern parts, their Islam was more cultural than religious.

The landscapes he describes are also interesting. It seems that much of the arable land was turned to cotton monoculture, the the diversion of rivers to irrigate it dried up the Aral Sea, so that in one case one of the main ports was 60 miles from water. Many other places were turned into industrial wastelands, with polluted air and water.

The book was published 25 years ago, and was written a couple of years before that, so it provides a snapshot of a unique moment in the history of those countries.

Perhaps the moment is summed up in the description of Lenin statues in Ashkhabaz, Turkmenistan:

Lenin stood on a ziggurat brilliant with Turcoman tilework, and lifted a declamatory arm towards Iran. Beneath, an inscription promised liberation to the peoples of the East.

‘There are fifty-six Lenin monuments in the city,’ Oraz said. ‘This one will stay and the rest will go.’ He was striding around the dried fountains which circled the monument, suave in his suit and tie, while above him the baggy-trousered Lenin crumpled his cloth cap in his hand. ‘Maybe in time this one will go too. But not now.’

I felt perversely glad that it would remain, a gesture of moderation, and a fragile acknowledgement of the past (Thubron 1994:11).

A group of farmers pose for a photo, but the photo shows only the plinth, not the statue. “We don’t include him any more,” says the photographer. “He’s out of fashion.”

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