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Tour du monde en autostop - Jeremy Marie

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 Travel Diary : The Stans of Central Asia

Quite unknown in the rest of the world, this area of countries in “Stan” is a conclusion of the explosion of the USSR. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Those five countries have a quite similar history, but there are still some differences between them. Central Asia is located on a roundabout of civilizations, between Europe, Middle East, Russia and China. 

A roundabout, but also a transit zone. This land of mountains and deserts is indeed located on the old Silk Road. There are indeed many different cultural influences, which makes the travel and the 
encounters interesting. 
 
Land of business, land of exchanges, but also land of wars. Central Asia has a lot to offer, even if to access it is not always easy. Here is a piece of Central Asia, an area that was totally foreign to me before to enter it. 
A mosaic of ethnic groups
One land for one civilization, this a bit the idea that I had when I entered Central Asia. The Kazakh in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, the Turkmen in Turkmenistan... The border that we draw on the map never seemed to me closer to a concept of ethnic groups. 
A group of Kyrgyz men, near Osh in Kyrgyzstan
 
 
-Turkish influences
By looking closer at it, those ethnic groups seem more or less belonging to the same family. The Kazakh, the Kyrgyz, the Uzbek and the Turkmen have Turkish roots. As the Uighurs that I met in western China, all this large ethnic family has influences from the Anatolian plateau. The language, the music, the facies. There is a great resemblance with the culture of the Turkish people. 
 
Adil, an Uzbek that I met in Asaka, in the Ferghana valley
 
 
Of course, each ethnic group has something unique.
In Uzbekistan for example, I saw many men wearing the traditional long coat 
 
A young Uzbek wearing the traditional long coat 
 
 
In this country, as well as the neighbors ones, the men and women often have a golden smile. Indeed, the local fashion is to fix gold teeth in its mouth. Another fashion for the women is to draw a connection between the two eyebrows.
 
-Persian influence 
Another large ethnic group that lives in this area. The Tajik, as well as the Afghan, are connected to Persian culture. A Tajik person will not have problem to discuss with an Iranian.
 
Jahovir and his family in Khujand in Tajikistan
 
 
-Slavic influence 
Until 1991, the Central Asia countries belong to USSR. Since I crossed the border from China to Kazakhstan, I started to hear about Ukraine, Latvia, and other countries of the ex-USSR. I live this transition as a gigantic geographic step forward, going mentally from China to east of Europe.
For example, the alphabet became Cyrillic in Kazakhstan. Russian is still practiced as a second language in the whole area of Central Asia.
 
The Cyrillic alphabet comes back in Kazakhstan 
 
 
Several hints reminds me constantly that those countries belonged to USSR. Especially in the cities, as those concrete blocks that I face quite often.
 
The concrete blocks remind me that Central Asian countries belonged to USSR, as here in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan
 
 
Religion too, came with the Russians. Even though Muslims are still in majority, I could discover some Orthodox churches.
 
The Christian Orthodox cathedral Zenkov in Almaty, Kazakhstan
 
 
The society was also organized differently during the Soviet Empire. Communism shape those countries until the explosion of USSR.
 
A statue of Lenine, still in the center of Bishkek
 
 
 
Dictatorial states

Nursultan Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, Saparmyrat Nyazov in Turkmenistan (until 2006), Emomali Rakhmon in Tajikistan. You might never have heard of them, but they are “presidents” of the Central Asian countries since the fall of the USSR.
 
Nursultan Nazarbaev, here on a wall of Almaty
 
 
They all have a pretty huge ego (the biggest should have benn awarded to the Turkmen leader Nyazov), as none of them have been able to give back the leadership when they were supposed to. 
Corruption is very high in Central Asia, and I could hear many tales about the behavior of the people empowered in those countries. 
In Tajikistan, a kindergarten assistant told me earning a salary of 30 dollars a month. The politic of the dictator Rakhmon completely destroyed the economy of the country. It is close to impossible to survive in such conditions. Here is the reason why almost half of the Tajik population in age of working emigrated to Russia.
 
The portrait of Emomali Rakhmon, near Khujand in Tajikistan
 
 
To remain as long in the government, those dictators created police-states. Uzbekistan is a real nightmare at this level. Every day, I was controlled at least three times. At least five policemen at each metro station, dozens of checkpoints between each cities.... A real exercise of patience!
And when we mix a high police presence and a high corruption, the result can't be unexpected:
“The night of my arrival in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan, two policemen come to control me. I give them my passport, as I didn't have the time to photocopy it. 
As I didn't check in any hotel or friend, they ask me to follow them into the police station, so they could investigate a little bit more about me. 
They take me across a park, and lead me into a dark area between two vehicles that are parked. At this moment, they ask me to open my bag.
Remembering my Venezuelan experience, my heart start to beat a little faster. I ask, and insist, to make this checking in the police station. They still have my passport and they block me the way. Impossible to escape. So, I do what they request and open my bag. I take of my travel book, where are all the pictures and newspapers article, and put it closed in their hands. 
By chance, they open it and start to read about my journey. From this, I can start the conversation, earn they friendship, and leave them as they give me back my passport.
Without this luck, I don't know what would have happen, but one thing is sure, their intention were not to become my friend in the first hand...”
 
There are a lot of policemen in Central Asia, as here in Bishkek
 
 
 
Hitchhiking in Central Asia
 
Hitchhiking in Central Asia goes from medium to difficult. 
The biggest difficulty is that every vehicle can become “taxi” the time of a ride if they want. This is cultural and it looks like non-organized car-sharing. This is indeed very easy to stop someone on the side of the road, even in the city center. The only problem is that the driver will stop as a taxi-driver, so nothing to do with the will to give a ride to a hitchhiker. 
 
Hitchhiking in the outskirt of Almaty in Kazakhstan
 
 
Uzbekistan was for example quite difficult to cross by hitchhiking. To find a driver that wasn't going to be a taxi-driver was a real mission. 
Indeed, Uzbekistan has a very narrow economy. Importing a vehicle from abroad is only possible after having paid heavy taxes. In consequence, the Uzkek people consume local. Local means that they will buy “Chevrolet” because there is only one brand produced in Uzbekistan. 
 
In Uzbekistan, everyone (or almost) drives “Chevrolet”
 
 
As everyone drives with the same car, I couldn't identify the intentions of the drivers from his vehicle, which was a strategy I used a lot during this journey. I had to stop every single driver and look if the people inside the car seemed to know each others. 
The other strategy was to stop the trucks. They usually didn't want to charge for the ride.
 
With two Kyrgyz truck drivers, near Osh
 
 
To technically stop the vehicles,  I used my thumb in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. I was using the word “avtostop”, which is quite similar from French. This word came from the Russian language. 
In the other countries, I was using my hand, as the thumb did look as something impolite.
In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I was using the word “papouti”, while in Tajikistan, the word “besplotno” was working better. 
 
My driver's tire got flat near Tashkent in Uzbekistan
 
 
As everywhere, hitchhiking was possible, although it was quite a challenge sometimes. Moreover, the roads were quite in a bad shape, while the mountains were difficult to cross, especially in winter.
 
 
Mountains and deserts
 
The landscapes of Central Asia vary a lot. As an extension of the Himalaya, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are essentially made of mountains, and some summits easily go over 7000 meters. 
 
Kyrgyzstan is mainly made of mountains
 
 
As in Tajikistan
 
 
Winters can be rude. I beat my record of cold for this world tour in Almaty Kazakhstan. The temperature went down to -29°C. As I am not equipped for this kind of climate, going out on the street was always a quite violent experience. 
 
Winters can be rude in Central Asia
 
 
West of those mountains, so in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and inner Kazakhstan, there are flat plains and desert steppes. Turkmenistan for example is nothing else than a huge desert.
 
Turkmenistan is nothing else than a huge desert
 
 
 
In Bazaaristan
 
Those mountains, those deserts, those dictators... I would almost forget that I am on the old Silk Road. This center of business and exchanges, abandoned around the XVth century, let still some influences in the life of today.
 
The bazaars
The culture of exchange can still be felt in the numerous bazaars that we can find in Central Asia, as here in the Osh Bazar in Bishkek
 
 
I always found that the markets, or the bazaars as here, were popular places where it was possible to have a better feel of the local life. I took pleasure to taste many local dishes in those places. 
 
The famous Uzbek Plov in Tashkent 
 
 
Or the shashlyk, which are kebab skewers easy to find everywhere in Uzbekistan 
 
 
If this is not food, it can be carpets that we find in bazaars, as here in Bukhara
 
 
The jewels of Central Asia
If Central Asia doesn't sound too familiar, maybe that the names of the most famous cities will remind you something. Samarkand, Bukhara are considered as the jewels of Central Asia. Indeed, their atmosphere are quite special and unique.
To finish this article, here are some pictures of places I discovered in those cities
 
The Bibi Khanum mosque in Samarkand
 
 
The Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand
 
 
The Kalon minaret in Bukhara
 
 
The famous Registan in Samarkand
 
 

 
Central Asia has been an interesting area to visit, but the corruption and the visa problems were enough of a problem to have been a hassle.
Ethnically, this is a very interesting place to discover, as it is situated on a roundabout of civilizations. I found pieces of Turkish and Persian culture, introducing me with my following visit of Iran and Turkey.
I am now in Iran, a very hospitable country. I see you soon for the next article about Iran, which will be the last country I visit for the world tour. Indeed, from Turkey, I will take a road that I already traveled during the beginning of this journey in 2007.
 
See you soon,
 
Jeremy



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