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

NameOʻzbek­iston Respub­likasi
Pop­u­la­tion32,979,000 (2017 esti­mate)
Cap­i­tal cityTashkent
Offi­cial lan­guageUzbek (offi­cial), Russ­ian, Tajik
Reli­gionsIslam (88%), East­ern Ortho­dox (9%), oth­er
Life expectan­cy68.45 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.

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.