A beginner’s guide to Central Asia

Nov 12, 2012

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In an attempt to provide a basic introduction to the region, and in similar style to many a quiz game, we’ve chosen eight categories. Pick and choose, or read all of them.

*DISCLAIMER: This is brief and so will miss out many important facts, and we therefore apologise to any Central Asia buffs for the selection process*


Central Asia is, well, central. It is commonly known as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (two Ks, two Ts and a U), though sometimes Afghanistan is included. Uzbekistan has the largest population at 27 million, while Kazakhstan has the largest land mass, and is not only the ninth largest country in the world but the world’s largest landlocked country.

Here’s a map to help you out (courtesy of The Nations Online project).

The area was home to one of the world’s fourth largest lakes, the Aral Sea, which has gradually disappeared due to Soviet irrigation projects. This has been labelled as ‘one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters,’ and was at one point so shocking that even the Daily Mail seemed to care about it.


This is a tricky one to be brief with, but basically the area now known as Central Asia was Iranian before Islam, and during the early spread of Islam. It then became home to various Turkic peoples. From 100BC to the mid 15th century the ancient trading route of the Silk Road passed through Central Asia, which impacted crafts in the region.

Throughout the nineteenth century, and the period known as The Great Game, Central Asia succumbed to Russian domination and occupation.

The tribes that lived in Central Asia were formalised into the Soviet Republics of the Kazakh SSR, Uzbek SSR, Kyrgyz, SSR, Tajik SSR and Turkmen SSR, and borders were drawn while the Orientalists of the Soviet Union got happy creating ethnic distinctives about each republic.

This postcard from 1976 of dolls wearing ‘traditional Uzbek costume’ shows this nicely.

During Soviet rule the region saw much industrialisation and building of infrastructure which in many cases has not been updated since, but there was a huge cost in the way of the loss of local cultures, hundreds of thousands of deaths due to collectivisation, particularly in Kazakhstan, and a lasting legacy of ethnic tensions and environmental issues (such as the Aral Sea).

The diversity of the region today is due to Stalin’s mass deportation campaigns, where entire populations were deported from other areas of the Soviet Union to Central Asia, including Germans, Koreans and Kurds.

In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and the republics got their independence. Sadly they all remained under the power of despots. More about that to follow.


So this is kind of cheating, as neither of these are made by Central Asians, but I just wanted a chance to share my two favourite short You Tube videos about Kazakhstan.

The first is an oldie, featuring a karaoke version of Tupac’s Changes.

Good hey? It works well as an antidote for a grey morning.

The second is a parody of a Sting song, bizarrely sung by an Italian who is now becoming quite a celebrity. Shymkent is a city in the South East of Kazakhstan that gets a lot of stick, and is known locally as ‘Texas’ for its stereotyped image of backwardness and crime. We think its a great place.

Now to the real films.

There’s a thriving film industry in Kazakhstan, and an emerging industry in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan’s is subject to so much government censorship and bribe payments that its not worth mentioning, Turkmenistan’s is in a similar position, and Tajikistan’s is underfunded. Cinema was at one point banned altogether in Turkmenistan – the ban has only just been lifted.

Some classics by Central Asian filmmakers available with English subtitles include Tulpan (Kazakhstan, 2008, winner of  BFI & Cannes Awards) and The Light Thief (Kyrgyzstan, 2010). Both are available to hire from Love Film.

There are many incredible documentaries about Central Asia, but I’m particularly looking forward to watching Buzkashi, about a traditional sport in Tajikistan involving a team of men on horses competing over a dead goat.

Here’s the trailer.


Most people are now aware that Saddam Hussein rained poison gas on a Kurdish village in his own country in 1988 in an attempt to wipe out the Kurds, killing 5,000 and injuring 10,000.

Similarly, its well known that Gadaffi hand picked 40 highly trained military virgins, his ‘Amazons’, to be his makeup high heel wearing bodyguards.

Yet Central Asia’s dictators have been overlooked, largely due to Western regimes hopes to keep the region stable for a better outcome in Afghanistan. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have had the same Presidents since the Soviet Era, while Turkmenistan’s new President is not much better than his predecessor, and received a suspicious 98% of the vote in the last election.

Kyrgyzstan is technically a democracy after two revolutions to rid despots, but it remains a clan-based society with much corruption and rampant ethnic nationalism making life difficult for ethnic minorities.

Here are a few Central Asian dictator facts:

  • In 2005 the then President of Turkmenistan closed all hospitals and health centres in the country, apart from those in the capital city.
  • The Uzbekistan regime not only boil people to death, but freeze them to death too.
  • Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s President, was named the world’s third worst dictator by People Magazine. Turkmenistan’s President was sixth.
  • It is illegal to criticise the President of Kazakhstan, legalised in Article 318 of the Kazakh Criminal Code.
  • According to a Wikileaks cable released in 2010, most of the revenues from the “technically state-owned Tajik Aluminium Company (Talco) end up in a secretive offshore company controlled by the president” and “the state budget sees little of the income”.

For entertaining stories about dictators from Central Asia and beyond, follow @sillydictators on Twitter.


Despite the differences in cultures across Central Asia, there is a surprising level of culinary consistency. Plov seems a good place to start.

Every bit as delicious as it looks, this rice dish with carrots, lamb and garlic, is an Uzbek food now claimed as their own by all Central Asian countries. I’ve eaten plov in places including Moscow, Osh, Bishkek and Almaty, and sampled the differing regional variations in Uzbekistan, but I can safely say the best plov I’ve ever eaten was at The Central Asian Plov Centre in Tashkent.

Yes, an entire place given over to plov. I’m told they serve several thousand portions a day.

Here’s what a cauldron of the stuff looks like.

If you’re visiting Tashkent, a trip to the Plov Centre is a must. If not, and you’re London based, then check out the over-priced (£14.95) small yet delicious portions at Samarkand,  served by people from Central Asia and prepared by Uzbeks wearing traditional Uzbek hats.  For those who like more value for money, then the Camberwell Kyrgyz/Kazakh house is a better option – for the adventurous eater there’s even a Kyrgyz/ Kazakh mixed mezze on offer.

Oh, and one more thing you should be aware of is that cooking plov is somewhat of a seduction technique, as its eaten traditionally on Thursdays, the day when most babies are conceived, and supposedly acts as an aphrodisiac.

If this has whet your appetite, here are some further reading suggestions for the beginner to Central Asia.


Books & Magazines

‘Apples are from Kazakhstan’, by Christopher Robbins

‘Traditional Textiles of Central Asia’, by Janet Harvey

‘Murder in Samarkand’, by Craig Murray

‘Jamilia’, by Chingiz Aitmatov

‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva’, by Christopher Aslan Alexander

Steppe Magazine: A Central Asian Panorama


Online News & Blogs


Uzbek Journeys





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