Our next journey will explore some of the relatively newly independent republics in Central Asia, as a continuation of our earlier Silk Road trip.
Years ago, whilst living in China, Sofia and I travelled the Silk Road, seven weeks from east to west China, from Xian to Kashgar, and then across the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan. Thoroughly exciting, thoroughly adventurous. However, the Silk Road was much more than that, a complex set of routes branching off in different directions, and one important part continued into Central Asia, across mountains with impressive names like the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush, and to exotic-sounding ancient places like Samarkand and Bukhara. We vowed to come back one day, to continue where we left it.
Fifteen years later we still haven’t returned: after all, there are so many other interesting destinations in the world. However, we also realise that more and more destinations become no-go areas. Mali, Niger and Chad were high on our list, until secessionists teamed up with jihadists to turn Mali into a war zone too dangerous for your average adventure tourist; Syria would have been part of our Middle East trip three years ago, but the uglier side of the Arab Spring prevented us from going much further than Lebanon; and just last year we had firm plans to continue our South Eastern Europe trip into the Crimea, until Russia decided to annex the place and close its borders – even without closed borders, we probably would have thought twice about going, anyhow.
Back to the Stans, this group of countries in Central Asia through which the ancient Silk Road continued its westward extension, across the Pamirs and past Samarkand and Bukhara. Some 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union you can hardly call them ex-Soviet republics anymore, some have had their share of internal unrest and civil war, other have played a role in world energy policies thank to huge fossil fuel reserves, or in security issues thanks to their position along the border of conflict-ridden Afghanistan, benefitting from both American and Russian strategic interest. Yet what they do seem to have in common is a rather limited idea of democracy, and fairly despotic rulers, including some septuagenarian and octogenarian presidents-for-life who are not getting any younger. What if one of them dies? Would his fiefdom turn into another target for Russian expansionism? Or, alternatively, would tribal interest, with our without jihadist overtones, take hold of such country, turning it into another Afghanistan, or an extension of the Caliphate? Whatever happens, it seems best to not risk postponing our Silk Road continuation plans any longer, and benefit from the relative stability of dictatorial rule as long as it lasts.
So, off to the Stans, this summer.