The natural and unnatural wonders of Central Asia

In terms of space, Central Asia has a lot of it.

With a combined land area of 3,926,790 square kilometres, the Five Stans cover 2.63 percent of the world’s landmass. Although that is an area far larger than India, Central Asia has a population density of just eighteen people per square kilometre. India, by comparison, is 25 times as densely populated. What is in all of that space in-between the people? What does the natural world conjure across Central Asia? In this article we take a trip to six of the most extraordinary centres of the natural (and unnatural) world of Central Asia, to discover how the people of Central Asia are both shaped and shaping the vast environment around them.

Pamir Mountains (Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan)

It makes sense to begin with the “Roof of the World” — the Pamir Mountains. Written about in the West since the time of Ptolemy, centuries ago three branches of the Silk Road used to cross the Pamirs. Whilst most of the range lies within Tajikistan, its fringes seep into Afghanistan, China and Kyrgyzstan. A diverse array of societies live in semi-autonomous and autonomous areas of the mountains. Many are small nomadic communities of Tajiks, but sizeable populations live in small cities such as Khorog.

Climbers in 1978 pose for a photograph with ‘Peak Communism’, as the highest point in Central Asia was then known.

The tallest peak of the Pamirs — Kongur Tagh — is not in Central Asia, but China. Ismoil Peak is the highest in the region, at a modest 7,495m — the fiftieth tallest mountain in the world. Formerly known as Peak Communism, the mountain was more formerly still named after Joseph Stalin, but gained its current name in the late twentieth century to commemorate the Samanid emir, Ismail Samani.

Gates of Hell (Turkmenistan)

‘The Gates of Hell’, which for the past four decades has been a benchmark for ‘The hottest thing in Turkmenistan since…’

From the heights of heaven, we journey to the Gates of Hell. Yes, the door to the underworld can be found in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, 275km north of the country’s capital. The Darvaza Gas Crater emerged in 1971 following a Soviet drilling accident. In an attempt to extract oil, engineers ruptured a natural gas pocket unearthing an enormous crater, and swallowing up the rig. Immediately, toxic gas spewed from the 230 feet-wide crater and animals in the area soon began to perish. In an attempt to cull the spread of methane, geologists opted to set the crater on fire, and thus the Flames of Hell came to Earth. It is not unusual for gas craters to be set on fire but, usually, they extinguish within a few weeks, months, or at most, years; no one knows when, or even if the Darvaza Crater will stop burning. Today, the Gates of Hell is a popular tourist attraction, which Google helpfully informs us is “Open 24 Hours”.

Aral Sea (Kazakstan and Uzbekistan)

The famous ‘disappearing lake’ act.

Tragedy hit Central Asia in the 1960s, in what many experts believe to be one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time. The Aral Sea was one the world’s fourth-largest lake — the second largest in Asia. Covering 26,000 square miles, it truly was one of the natural wonders of the region, dividing a chunk of border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Fish, and thus the local fishing industry, has declined immensely since the disappearance of water. This photograph of a beached fishing vessel in the Bay of Zhalanas, Aralsk, Kazakhstan, illustrates the point.

Today, that border requires not a boat to cross, but feet. In the 1960s, as part of the Soviet economic plan to make Central Asia the world’s largest producer of cotton, the two great rivers of Central Asia were diverted for an irrigation project. The Amu Darya and the Syr Darya had fed the Aral, but catastrophic negligence rapidly depleted the sea’s water supply. By 1990, the sea split in two, and by 2003, the depth had fallen by 72 feet. Eventually, the Aral held just one-tenth of its original volume. Fishing ports turned to barren wastelands and dust bowling swept up sand and chemical residues from the now exposed seabed. Although a global effort led by the World Bank has sought to reinvigorate the Northern Aral Sea, many experts believe that the vast majority of this once great lake will remain barren. The Aral Sea disaster provides a stark and rather apocalyptic prequel to the world’s looming water crisis.

Fedchenko Glacier (Tajikistan)

At eleven times the length of Canada’s Athabasca Glacier, the Fedchenko Glacier is the world’s longest non-polar Glacier.

2000km away from the Aral is Fedchenko Glacier, the world’s longest non-polar glacier. First discovered in 1878, it is by far the biggest glacier in the Pamir range and its runoff eventually trickles into what is left of the Aral Sea. The ice on Fedchenko Glacier, found in the east of Tajikistan, is 1000m thick in parts and measures 77km in length. Put in perspective, Canada’s famous Athabasca Glacier is just 7km long. The source of Fedchenko is found in Gorno-Badakhshan province upon Revolution Peak, the highest point in the eastern part of the Yazgulem Range.

Sharyn Canyon (Kazakstan)

Kazakstan’s great Canyon will most likely become grand in the next few hundred million years.

Close to the border with China is one of Central Asia’s more unusual sites: Sharyn Canyon. The valley began to be formed rather recently – just 90 million years ago. Its most famous point—The Valley of Castles—provides the off the beaten track tourist with some truly epic photos for their Instagram. Although it is dwarfed by the Grand Canyon for length, it is still nearly 100km long, and holds some remarkable ecological sites. A prehistoric forest, for example, containing a large number of Sogdian Ash, a particularly rare species of Ash. Sharyn Canyon National Park is 120 miles east of Almaty and the staggering views of the ancient dust-orange rock canyon walls are a key attraction for Kazakstan’s incipient tourist industry.

Chuy Valley (Kazakhstan)

Kazakhstan is the alleged birthplace of cannabis, and in the Chuy Valley, 400,000 hectares have grown wild in amongst the Tien-shan mountains. Ever since the restrictive drug policies of the Soviet Union, this has been something of a political headache; whereas nature was defeated in the Aral Sea, the hardy nature of wild cannabis has allowed the crops to survive multiple eradication attempts, making cannabis Kazakhstan’s most potent perennial weed. Under the cover of night, locals are known to descend into the valley to collect small quantities of wild cannabis – which is famed for a low potency and consequent lack of hangover effects. Large-scale harvesting is inhibited by an annual police crackdown on efforts to organise collection efforts – as such, organised criminals rub shoulders with bohemian enthusiasts, with no groups having a monopoly on the region of natural abundance.

A ‘high’ valley in Kazakhstan. Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak.

There is your heaven to hell then — a whistle-stop tour of the natural wonders of Central Asia. Though it would rarely come to mind when we think of the epic of our natural environment, Central Asia possesses some of the most remarkable examples of the undiscovered, the unbelievable, and unfortunately, the unnatural. Whilst the Darvaza Gas Crater is an example to poke fun at, the Aral Sea disaster is not. Perhaps the great measure Central Asia’s natural wonders is, then, humankind’s utterly fragile relationship to the natural world.

Fact File: Uzbekistan

Name Oʻzbekiston Respublikasi
Population 32,979,000 (2017 estimate)
Capital city Tashkent
Official language Uzbek (official), Russian, Tajik
Religions Islam (88%), Eastern Orthodox (9%), other
Life expectancy 68.45 years
Population growth  1.7%
GDP  $67.22 billion (2016)
HDI  0.701 (105th)
Gini  0.45
President  Shavkat Mirziyoyev

History

Bordering the other four Central Asian “Stans”, Uzbekistan has a rich and colourful history of movement, conquest, and resistance. After Alexander The Great conquered the region in fourth century BC, Uzbekistan witnessed several distinct phases of external influence. Turkic nomads arrived in the sixth century AD and by the eight century Islam was introduced by the Arabs. Perhaps most famously the Mongol Empire, under Genghis Khan, consumed the region in the thirteenth century. With the steppes united, trade, communication and even diseases spread massively in the following centuries. Uzbekistan’s major cities, such as Bukhara, reaped the benefit of reinvigorated East-West trade links.

The Mongols and the Silk Road put the country firmly on the map, but it wasn’t until the early sixteenth century was invaded by the Uzbek. Under the leadership of Abdullah, the empire took in parts of Afghanistan and Persia, but soon broke down. That lack of unity left the Uzbekistani principalities at the mercy of the expanding Russian Empire in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the Uzbek fractured between Soviet supporters and the Basmachi, with the latter eventually succumbing to Stalinist policies. Collectivisation, industrialisation, and indigenisation were all pursued by the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic during the twentieth century. Soviet industry shifted from vulnerable positions in Western Russia to Uzbekistan during WWII, whilst in the post-war years a drastic drive toward mass production of cotton led to several major ecological disasters. With the collapse of Communism in 1989, Uzbekistan eventually secured its independence in 1991, after several centuries of Russian rule.

Artwork on the rooftop of the Tilla Kari madrasa in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo by Patrick Riggenberg.

Economy

Uzbekistan is currently witnessing a momentous period economic growth. According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan’s economy is set to grow faster than any Central Asian or Eastern European nation between now and 2019. State investment in gas, gold and cotton production has created a booming export economy. The future fortunes of exports are largely tied to the performance the Chinese and Russian economies, and their general downturn has concerned Uzbekistani policy makers. Yet even with that considered, a strong small business sector has lifted large sections of the population out of poverty and into employment, a sign that the country’s economy is shifting toward a greater reliance on internal rather than external markets.

Food

The meal is a central pillar of Uzbek culture. Tandoor baked bread (tandir) holds a sacred place at the meal, and can only be torn by hand and never thrown out. Palov (plov or pilaf) is perhaps the most famous dish in the region—and across Central Asia. Often considered to be the oldest dish in Uzbek cuisine and it is believed Alexander the Great was served palov after capturing Marakanda. Cooked in a large pot, palov is a rice based dish cooked with lamb, raisins, and entire bulbs of garlic, seasoned with turmeric, coriander, and cumin.

Pilaf (plov) is a popular dish throughout Uzbekistan and the Central Asia region. Photo Jarda Pulao.

Music

Music is omnipresent in Uzbek society. Whispers of the ancients can be heard in traditional recitals at funerals and commemorative ceremonies, distinct from European music in its monophonic texture. Uzbekistan boasts some incredibly influential musicians in the region. Ari Babakhanov is amongst the most famous. Known for his immense contribution to traditional Bukhara music, he also transcribed and noted down extensive amounts of Persian poetry and popular Uzbek and Tajik works. Today, Uzbekistan has a diverse music scene, with rock and rap the most popular forms.

Customs

Close friends or family of the same sex greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. At a meal, guests are expected to take a turn as toastmaster, praising the host for welcoming them into their home. Family and community is of immense value in Uzbekistan. Communities are governed by the mahallya, a self-governing unit of neighbours and families supporting one another. Most girls marry before the age of 21, and weddings involve the entire community; hundreds of guests are typically invited.

A ‘sweet plov’ salesaman at a Nowruz festival between 1865-1872

Politics

2016 witnessed the election of a new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan. Prior to Mirziyoyev’s election, the nation had been ruled by Islam Karimov, a deeply controversial who was consistently criticised by the international community for extensive human rights abuses in the country. For example, the United Nations has found torture to be institutionalised in the country. Press censorship remains a major issue and many western news outlets are not allowed to function in the country. However, whilst human rights abuses remain a key issue, the government has taken steps to eradicate human trafficking and cultivation of opium for export purposes.