Post-Soviet Marshrutkas and Cassette Players: Wandering Around the Turkic and Persian Worlds of Central Asia

When President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan changed the names of the months and replaced cinemas with puppet theatres in 2000, almost ten years had passed since the demise of the USSR and the search for a new ethos by the Central Asian leaders reluctant to break away from the Soviet past. Resorting less to geography than to historical sociology, I would argue that the ontology of Central Asia is the by-product of the Tsarist/Soviet political project of integrating a ring of nomadic peoples and their lands into modernity, and subject both to its imperial drive. In spite of the Turkic, Persian and Islamic influence that shaped the region for centuries, the Russian/Soviet legacy has proved paramount by bringing in the modern state and the concomitant means of social control and administration, forging eventually new political identities, loyalties and nations.

Today, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are caught in complex games of conflict and cooperation, where natural resources, ethnic fragmentation, sultanism, fear of radical Islam and the interests of great powers (Russia, US, China, Turkey, Iran) combine to feed renewed security dilemmas and undo the forced integration and complementarity of Soviet times. These photos were taken in October 2012, on the occasion of a field trip to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that started in Istanbul at the end of September. I was traveling with a PhD student and the photos were taken as we moved tentatively from North to South, from Almaty to Dushanbe, following the schedule of meetings arranged before. And yet, these are not the photos of a professional. Rather, they are the mirror of the journey and reflect both the wonder and the strain endured by the newcomer in the process of learning how to cope with the unexpected. They capture the unassuming gaze of a foreigner, more interested in talking to people than snatching the perfect photo for the record.

“At the journey’s gate”

The journey started in Istanbul, at the end of September, though one could say it was only a port of call. And yet, Istanbul is never just a port of call but rather the gate to Central Asia and the start of the old Silk Road. The increasing influence of Turkey in the region, built on cultural legacy, language proximity, trade capacity and Turkish Airlines routes, all makes you tumble time and again into the Turkic factor when wandering around there. This photo was shot from Galata Bridge and the gaze is directed to the Eminönü complex of mosques. The metal bar caught in the middle divides it in two halves, as if mosques and houses were deceptively subtracted from the watery road heading into Asia. With a convenient overnight stop in Istanbul, suddenly the journey was invested with a powerful symbolic source.


“Nazarbayev’s realm”

In appearance, Almaty is a typical Russian city on the Eurasian steppe. Erected as Fort Verniy by the Russians in 1854, it became Alma-Ata –Father of Apples– under the Soviets until the independence of Kazakhstan, in 1991. On 1 July 1998, a law was passed granting it special status as scientific, cultural and financial centre. There we met contractors and foreign advisors working in the energy sector, and debated with postgraduate students and lecturers in different universities. This photo was taken at the Kazakh National University named after Al-Fārābī, a Muslim philosopher from the 10th century, and shows a huge placard with President Nazarbayev surrounded by happy students. The city is plagued with big Nazarbayev photos and Soviet-style slogans celebrating the new nation’s identity and industrious temper.


“Lenin’s Shadow”

Looking back to the post-Soviet transitions, some of the more symbolic moments marking a break with the past related to the tearing down of Soviet statues. And yet, in Kyrgyzstan these are still in place as if bequeathed with the task of holding in custody the future of the new nation state. This photo shows the Lenin statue in Bishkek, a bronze figure weighing around seventeen tons, which is located in the square behind the Museum of History. It was set up originally in the Ala-Too Square but in 2003 was replaced by the Monument to Freedom (Erkindik). When some days later we came across a new Lenin statue in Osh, facing the Oblast building in Lenin Avenue, I asked our host Erkingul Karakozueva what Lenin meant for her: “Before the Soviets, we were a nomadic people without education or health care. The Soviets brought us civilization.”


“Wedding Shots at the Victory Memorial”

Our schedule in Bishkek was hectic, combining coffee with diplomats, meetings with officials and civil society, open lectures at the American and Turkish universities and dinners with spies. On the way back to Dostuk Hotel, we passed through Victory Square and the memorial dedicated to the victory in the Great Patriotic War. At the centre of it, three curved arcs represent a yurt and a woman with a cup in her hands stands near an eternal flame awaiting the return from war of husband and sons. Further away, other compositions: two men carrying a disassembled machine gun and a group of men returning from war. At one of the corners, on Sultan Ibraimov Street, a dodgy movement of cars and people livens up the night. During the day, the monument is used by couples as a cherished setting for their wedding photo sessions.


“The Power of Raw Commerce”

Aybek, one of Hotel Dustuk’s front desk guys, had arranged to take us to Dordoy Bazaar, some thirty kilometers outside Bishkek. This is a huge wholesale and retail market, one of Asia’s largest public market places only smaller than Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, as we were told. And yet, Dordoy is not just a major shopping centre for the Bishkek area or even Kyrgyzstan; it is a main entrepot through which consumer goods from China enter the region and get distributed to markets in Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. A modern monument to the power of raw commerce, as outlined by Daniel Sershen, the trade behind Dordoy has been a major issue concerning the membership of Kyrgyzstan in the Eurasian Economic Union. According to the critics, it will strangle the lucrative re-export of Chinese goods to Central Asia.


“Mosques and Soviet-style Hotels”

Leaving Bishkek to Naryn reveals a more islamicised Kyrgyzstan than imagined in Soviet-style avenues and parks of the capital. Besides, it started our unpredictable quest for local transportation and the bargaining that goes with it. Travelling for hours in overcrowded marshrutkas (vans) makes one be patient about the journey and incites curious conversations about sameness and otherness with fellow travelers. Arriving at the outskirts of Naryn in the middle of a hazy night, we depended on the good will of one of them to stop two young men in a car and take us to the town center. Unable to communicate in Russian, they took us to the Soviet-style Ala-Too Hotel. Unaware of the mistake, we sat in its dismal restaurant where a drunken middle-age fake blond was dancing at the warped sound of Modern Talking’s ‘Cheri Cheri Lady’ coming out of a cassette player.


“The last words of Elizabeth Taylor”

Kyrgyzstan is a divided country by recurring ethnic conflicts, where a more homogenous North looks down on an ethnically patchier and more complex South. After Naryn we headed further south to Osh, a city much affected by the 2010 clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek in the aftermath of President Bakiyev’s ouster. Since the Kara Buman Mountain Pass was already closed for the winter, we went back to Bishkek and then took a flight to Osh. There we met Graziella Pavone, OSCE Human Dimension Officer, and talked at length about ethnic mistrust in Southern Kyrgyzstan and her memories of what followed the 2010 clashes. The University of Osh let us an apartment for an inexpensive price but full of mosquitoes. On the windowsill, a newspaper reporting on Elizabeth Taylor’s last words was shriveling with the passing of time.


“On the Pamir Highway to Khorog”

They call it Pamir Highway, Pamirsky Trakt in Russian, but it is nothing more than a winding goat track crossing the Pamir Mountains, linking Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Khorog on the Tajik-Afghan border, and ending in Mazar-i-Sharif on Afghan soil. A Tajik student at the University of Osh, Farrukh had promised to take us to Khorog, where we had arranged a visit to the Aga Khan University of Central Asia. It was 6 in the morning when we left Osh in his second-hand Nissan Pajero, overpacked with food and cheap goods for his family in Khorog. In addition to the dramatic scenery, travelling through the M41 is a leap back in recent history and more recent regional entanglements. The M41 was used by Soviet troops in the 1980’s to invade Afghanistan and is nowadays a busy route for regional smugglers.


“End of the Line at the Bordobo checkpost”

“It is a tricky business travelling into Gorno Badakhshan, but the Bordobo checkpost is open”, we had been informed by an American intelligence guy in Bishkek. Entering the unruly province was more restricted after recent clashes, but the Tajik visa and the special GBAO permit issued by the Embassy in Brussels gave us some confidence. It turned out that, since the week before, the Tajik authorities were asking for additional papers and we were stuck at the Bordobo checkpost. At the Kyrgyz side, a phone call to Osh solved the trouble but on a Sunday, Tajik officers could not reach the university people in Khorog and it was out of question to disturb the boss. This photo shows Farrukh convincing Tajik officers to let us through; to no avail. He had to move on and considered dumping us there, at 4,000 masl.

“Stuck in Sary-Tash”

Going back to the nearest village and dump us cost Farrukh precious time to move on and reach Murghab and Khorog as he had planned. We paid the price, gas and an additional ‘fee’ at the Kyrgyz checkpost. At Bordobo, he asked whether we would manage to go back but finally condescended to dump us at Sary-Tash. When we arrived there it was about dusk and it started to snow. A family used to accommodate travelers in the house and we were taken there. The feeling of being stuck in the middle of nowhere overpowered me. The Khorog meetings were lost and I even doubted we could reach Dushanbe on time and take the flight back home. After a cold night, I woke up early to use the toilet outside the house. The morning light was overwhelming and I couldn’t help taking some photos.


“Mr. Beshimov’s Advice”

After a better than expected sleep and a decent breakfast, we were on the road again. The host family let us use their cell phone and we could reach Erkingul in order to settle the transportation from Osh. The guy in the house had booked two seats in the 9am marshrutka for us, and from Osh Erkingul had arranged a shared taxi to cross the Ferghana valley and take us to Batken, near the Tajik border in the Southwest of the country. In my poor Russian, I tried to check the journey with Mr. Beshimov. After checking his 1980’s Soviet Atlas to locate Portugal, he warned me not to take a taxi in Osh; “too expensive”, according to him. We had better reach Jalal-Abad instead and from there find transportation to the border. This photo captures his grand-daughter leaving for school that morning.


“A New Silk Road Paved by the Chinese”

From Sary-Tash to the North, towards Osh, the road gets considerably better, nothing like the goat track heading for the Kyzyl Art Mountain Pass and the Bordobo border. The Chinese have put a lot of money in this section of the road linking Kashgar in Western Xinjiang to the heavily populated Ferghana valley, but their influence in Kyrgyzstan is limited to goods and infrastructure. The influx of people is limited by law and remains a sensitive subject in popular perceptions and political debates. According to the Development Check website, the Exim Bank of China approved a donation of 91 million dollars to the rehabilitation and construction of the Osh-Batken-Isfana road, extending from 2013 to 2018. Apart from the impact on the economy of Osh and Batken provinces, this project will cover the entire road in tarmac and divert old sections out of Tajik and Uzbek enclaves.


“Proletarsk Don’t Need Hand Sanitizer”

From Osh to Batken, the old road gets in and out of Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan, exposing the jigsaw pattern of the political border both share with Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz Southern provinces are a complex ethnic patchwork and the Ferghana valley seems always on the brink of war. The departure from Osh was planned for around midday, but some extra time was needed to try and accommodate a cooker on the roof of the second-hand Mercedes serving as a taxi. The first stop was at Nookat, a commercial center full of diners, and the fellow travelers shared a table to have a quick meal. Back into the Mercedes, I handed out my hand sanitizer to the fellow traveler sitting next to me; he laughed out loud and rejected it. Alongside the route, strange place names recalling other worlds: Kommunizm, Internatsionalnaya, Proletarsk.

“Entering the Persian World”

After the trouble at the Bordobo checkpost, and all the traveling through the Ferghana valley that day, I feared the approach of the Isfara border. It was easy though and no requirements were asked, except for the brief exchange of words with the officer who peremptorily demanded that the forms be filled in in Russian. In Batken we said goodbye to the Mercedes companions who diligently helped us find another taxi to the checkpost. The new guy waited for us on the Tajik side and then drove to Isfara town where we approached a new taxi driver to take us to Khujand. After a two-hour drive, the day came to an end and we finally arrived in the Persian world. Khujand is situated on the Syr Darya River and is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia, a major entrepot along the old Silk Road.


“Azad Goes to Moscow”

After a non-edible breakfast at Ehson Hotel, we headed for the marshrutka terminal with the hope of a quick last ride and the certainty to be in the capital around midday. We were exhausted and the will to bargain completely gone. We paid what was asked and got into the first vehicle promising to leave Khujand, a second-hand Ssangyong SUV shared with six Tajik guys heading for the airport in Dushanbe. Azad, the one on the right in this photo, told me they were going to Moscow to work in the construction industry. Just outside Khujand we made the first stop to buy melons and I could not help thinking what it would be like for this Tajik guy to work in Moscow, most likely with no documents, and on top of that in winter. Azad hoped to pay for his studies with the money made in Moscow.


“Zigzagging up and down the Shakhristan Pass”

The paved way stopped shortly after Khujand and so the journey turned out to be much slower than expected. Most of Tajikistan’s transportation system was built in Soviet times but deteriorated quickly due to the lack of investment and poor ground conditions. China is investing heavily on this side of the border but problems with the quality of infrastructure have been reported repeatedly and delay the project’s completion. What we expected to be a swift ride to the capital turned into a long zigzagging up and down the Shakhristan Pass. Every year authorities handle 5 to 10 avalanche emergencies there but all you can do is laugh along with your fellow travelers at the reckless driving everyone is enjoying. Further on, a 5 km tunnel is behind schedule. While disgruntled machines displace tons of dirt inside it, we drive through for half-an-hour as if sailing in Moby Dick’s guts.


“That Sense of Togetherness”

The Gissar Ridge sits at the Western extremity of the Pamir-Alay Mountain Range and the Ssangyong SUV drives us literally to the verge of Uzbekistan. By surviving the highway, we were awarded a repairing meal at the Khushikat oasis. After twenty days on the road, I had learned to cherish these relaxing moments with fellow travelers, eating meat brochettes and drinking tea. Even if the conversation was sparse, so much time spent in dire conditions gave everyone a sense of togetherness that always materialized around a table and a meal. As in Kyrgyzstan, rivers here also sign the landscape once you reach the vales and foreshadow wild water disputes with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. We finally got out of the SUV, at the juncture of Rudaki Avenue and Omar Khayam Street. I wished good luck to Azad while retrieving my backpack from the SUV roof and dusting it off helplessly.

“Good Bye Lenin!”

The journey came to an end in Dushanbe. There I would finally realize how similar and different Tajikistan is from its Turkic neighbours. The Soviet layer makes itself visible in the distinctive military-bureaucratic cultures surviving in the region but the Persian legacy is unquestionable while strolling around Khujand or Dushanbe, as much as the Turkic one is unmistakable in the streets of Bishkek or Naryn. That last day we took a long walk to Rudaki Park after meetings at OSCE and Asian Development Bank. We then sneaked into TsUM department store, a big shopping venue full of Tajik socks and hats, but my eyes overlooked the crafts. Curiously enough, though times were different and the content incomparably more prolific, there was something in TsUM that took me back to Leningrad 1990 and its big state-owned stores, full of nothing but buttons, that still haunt me after all these years.

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Published by AsfarEurope in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)