A Central Asia Reading List – last update June 2015
Part of the enjoyment of travel is understanding what one sees, and part of that understanding comes from reading. Here are a few books that helps me enjoy the so-called Stans trip, through several of Central Asia’s ex-Soviet republics. Those underlined I have read, the others not yet. I will still update this list from time to time.
- Where to start with reading about Central Asia’s history? For me, I started with Peter Hopkirk, an accomplished historian who combines an extraordinary amount of knowledge with a writing style that makes you think that history is no more than a thrilling boy’s book, with good guys and bad guys and a seemingly endless stream of adventures. “The Great Game” (1990) is such a book, and its describes, mostly from a British point of view, the buildup of tension in the hitherto unmapped Himalayas, between the British, firmly established in India, and the Tsarist Russian expansion into Central Asia. Part of the adventure component of the book is the reconnaissance of British explorers into ever more remote parts of the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, and to the Silk Road oasis towns of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. If you ever needed proof that non-fiction is more exciting than fiction. Highly recommended.
- “Setting the East Ablaze” (1984) is another book by Peter Hopkirk, and could well have been called The Great Game, part 2 (even though it was written before his book, The Great Game). It deals with the arrival of Bolshevism in Central Asia, and the renewed threat to British India. Tashkent features prominently, as the initially chaotic Bolshevist base from where both Samarkand and Bukhara were subdued, as well as the subversive strategy against British India was conducted. Equally thrilling book, which reads like another adventure story, with occasional sidetrips to Mongolia and Chinese Kashgar.
Hopkirk wrote several more books about the extended region, which are all equally worth reading. There is “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road” (1980), about the stream of adventurers disguised as archeologist that roamed the Taklamakan desert at the beginning of the 20th Century, in search of Buddhist treasure; “Trespassers on the roof of the World” (1982), about the 19th and 20th Century attempts to open up the reclusive mountain kingdom of Tibet, and “On Secret Service East of Constantinople” (1994), once more focusing on Central Asia as the route to British India, but than in the WW I setting.
3. Hopkirk’s primary sources are the books written by the adventurers themselves – those who survived to tell. Frederick Burnaby in one of them, a British officer who wrote “A Ride to Khiva” (1876, reissued 1997), about his secret mission that brought him to the then-mysterious desert city of Khiva.
(Burnaby is not the only one to have recorded his journeys. Alexander Burns famously wrote about his adventures in “Travels in Bukhara”, in 1834. Nikolai Muravyov was a Russian envoy who also tried to further his country’s diplomatic relations with Khiva, written up in “Journey to Khiva” (1819). A 100 years later F.M.Baily wrote up his adventures in “Mission to Tashkent” (1918). The river Oxus – today’s Amur Darya – also attracted the necessary interest in those days, from “A Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Source of the River Oxus, by the Route of the Indus, Kabul, and Badakhshan” (1841), by John Wood, to “The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus” (1895), by George Nathaniel Curzon. And lots more, each of Hopkirk’s books has an extensive list of sources)
- In the 20th Century Central Asia also attracted adventure travelers. The Swiss Ella Maillart wrote “Turkestan Solo: A Journey Through Central Asia”, about her trip on horseback to the high peaks and glaciers of Kirgizstan in 1933, with a team of experienced climbers, and the continuation of her journey into Uzbekistan, visting Tahskent, Samarkand, Bhukara and Khiva, amongst other places, by plane and by train, even by boat on the Amu Darya. Whilst one can only have the utmost respect for the achievements of Ms Maillart, as single woman traveling through this then rather backward yet bureaucracy-ridden part of the Soviet Union, on a tight budget, and occasionally weathering quite a bit of hardship, her descriptions are perhaps less exciting, lots of observations, sometimes in a great amount of detail where this is not necessarily called for, and lacking sufficient context. At the same time, it is these observations that provide a unique glimpse in life in Soviet Turkestan in the 1930s. The second half, in Uzbekistan, is, as far as I am concerned, the more interesting part, although die-hard alpinists may disagree. And the real adventure travel is at the very end, Ms. Maillart heading home, after Khiva.
- More recent travelers include Colin Thubron, whose “The Lost Heart of Asia” (1994) covers more or less the area we intend to travel. Except that Thubron did this 20 years ago, when the Stans were clearly the ex-Soviet republics. One of the themes of the book is indeed how the Stans will develop, whether communism will come back, or Muslim fundamentalism will establish itself, or the Pan-Turkic region of influence will emerge, indeed something that I recall was debated at the time (when I was living in Turkey). Thubron is not one of my all-time favourites, but this is perhaps the best of his books I have read so far, a mix of history – including more and less relevant, yet entertaining anecdotes -, adventure travel and genuine contacts with the locals, which makes for a very personal story. He combines an extensive knowledge with a willingness to learn, a rare quality in mature travel writers.
- Colin Thubron went back to cross from China via Central Asia and Afghanistan to Iran and Eastern Turkey, to travel the ancient Silk Road. He published “Shadow of the Silk Road” in 2006, the book, but more so his journey, an extraordinary feat, given the threat from SARS in China and the hostilities in Afghanistan at the time. All the more striking, then, that Mr Thubron, quiet and relaxed as always, just does his own thing, finds his own way, often ignoring official directions if he thinks they are useless and ineffective. He may get arrested, so once in a while, but it doesn’t seem to bother him that much. As I have observed in other books of Mr. Thubron, he has a special way of observing, not necessarily focusing on the tourist highlights, but often on more obscure, somewhat irrelevant yet interesting aspects of the region he travels through. Helped by his linguistic skills, he travels off the beaten track, and he meets people, mostly ordinary people. All very interesting, yet, it seldom gets very exciting – which does not, in any way, diminish the respect I have for this man, who wrote his first travel book in the 1960s!
- With the Silk Road, I also introduce that other traveler of the area, Marco Polo. His “Travels” were first put to paper by a scribe called Rusticello in 1298, but since the text has been adjusted many times, from one transcription to another translation (my copy was published in 1997).
- Another early traveler was the Moroccan Ibn Battuta, who in the 14th Century, after completing the hadj, decided to travel on, amongst others to some of the Central Asian oasis cities. His travelogue, also simply called “Travels”, was only published in the late 19th Century. “The Travels of Ibn Battutah”, edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith in 2002, is a very readable, abridged version of the original.
- Of a different nature is “A Carpet Ride to Khiva” (2010), by Christopher Alexander, who went to Khiva on a six months NGO contract and stayed seven years, and only left because he was declared a persona-non-grata. Mr Alexander’s entertaining book tells of his efforts to establish a carpet weaving workplace with mostly local disadvantaged women, and some men, using traditional Khivan and Timuran designs and natural dyes. On the one hand the book deals with the troubles and challenges of setting up and subsequently running the workplace, spiced with lots of anecdotes about personnel issues in the widest sense of the word, about natural dye purchasing trips to Afghanistan, and about facing down the mayor of Khiva – his ultimate undoing, or so it looks -, on the other hand it is a powerful personal story of how Mr Alexander managed to establish himself in the Khivan community. Not easy for a vegetarian who doesn’t like vodka. A story written with a lot of humor, but also with empathy, and with a healthy dose of self-depreciation – only the self-pity that creeps in in the last few chapters, after his forced departure from Uzbekistan, could have been somewhat more compact. Nevertheless, Mr Alexander has written a beautiful book, worthy of reading even if you don’t plan to go to Khiva, or visit Uzbekistan. Highly recommended!
- Uzbekistan also features in “Murder in Samarkand” (2006), written by maverick, and therefor former, British ambassador Craig Murray. Mr. Murray’s message, about continuing Uzbek human right abuse, condoned by Western allies in the War on Terror because of Uzbekistan’s strategic position next to Afghanistan, is something we can all sympathize with. His exposure of a dictatorial regime that wrecks any economic progress for personal gain is also a subject worthy of attention, and if Mr. Murray would have focused on these two themes, and the way Western governments ignored their own principles in the case of Uzbekistan, his would have been a very powerful narrative. Unfortunately, Mr. Murray uses the book to show one side only – his side – of the battle he fought with his employer, the British foreign office, a battle he lost, because his job as an ambassador is to promote British government views and British policy, not his own – however genuine and well-meant his own views may be. On top of that, Mr Murray is quite full of himself, which at times is quite irritating, and he also needs to comment on most women by describing them physically – pretty girl, great bum, beautiful body -, which is even more irritating, and totally unnecessary. In fact, he paints himself as a bit of a sleazy guy, heavy drinking sessions and nightclubs, which he just calls ‘unconventional’. Hmm. Nevertheless, if you can read through this, there is enough in the book to make you look over your shoulder a few more times, whilst traveling through Uzbekistan.
- A different approach is the one from Tom Reiss, who wrote “The Orientalist” (2005), his search for a man called Kurban Said, author of a touching love story Ali and Neno (1937), about two lovers from different sides of the spectrum, different cultures, too, at the start of the Second World War. The love story itself is equally appealing.
- In “Silk, Spices, Veils and Vodka” (2014), Felicity Timcke, who has lived life as an expatrate wife, amongst others in Uzbekistan, has bundled her letters home. Which was a mistake. Letters home should be just like that, letters home, to friends and family, who have completely different interests than the unsuspecting book purchaser, and are also a lot more forgiving. Whilst bits and pieces of Ms Timcke’s letters are no doubt interesting and insightful, I really don’t care about the cats she took in, or the Christmas menu she prepared away from home. I didn’t finish the book, far from it. This should never have been published.
- In “Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia” (2013) Philip Shishkin describes some of the more recent developments, mostly in Kyrgyzstan, and a bit of Uzbekistan. Mr. Shishkin, who is of Russian descent and speaks the language, is an investigative journalist with an adventurous nature, who takes his fact gathering serious. So he went to Andijan immediately after the massacre in 2005, and to the border town of Kara Suu after it declared its independence. And he uses his very extensive network to talk to an enormous amount of people, from all sides of the various issues he discusses. He also presents a great deal of detail – perhaps a little too much, at times – about the way especially the Kyrgyzstan power brokers have operated before and after the various revolutions, and within the framework of American interest in the Manas airbase outside Bishkek: a truly incredible story that at the hands of Mr. Shishkin becomes perfectly credible. A great achievement, especially because despite the detail, and the occasional repetition, the book reads easily, providing a rare insight in the workings of this newly independent republic – probably not much different from many other dubious republics.
- & 15. Two more background books are “Central Asia in World History” (2011), by Peter Golden, and “The Turks in World History” (2005), by Carter Vaughn Findley, both published in The Oxford University Histories Series. And that is what they are, factual history books.
The travel guides:
We carried the following:
Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarakand (2014), the Odyssey Illustrated Guide, written by by Calum MacLeod and Bradley Mayhew. Lots of detail, lots of background, excellent guide in that respect, but on the more mundane side – maps, hotels and restaurants, transport info – not so good.
Bradt Travel Guide for Kyrgyzstan (2011), by Laurence Mitchell, a bit more basic that the Odyssey guides, but perfectly well suited for our needs, still with plenty description and background – although once again, the mundane section isn’t as good as the Lonely Planet. Which is a missed opportunity, because one does get the impression, at times, that other texts have been quite literally taken from that same Lonely Planet.
I also have an old version of the Lonely Planet for Central Asia (2004), which in the end I also packed. Even though I have become less impressed with LP, they remain extremely handy for the more mundane things in travel: good maps, good sections on transport, and a logical lay out which makes it easy to find things back quickly, something the other guides simply cannot match.
There are a few more books I would like to acquire, and read, perhaps (leave a comment, below, if you have views about them):
- “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane” (2013), by S. Frederick Starr, a scholarly work, well regarded by critics, but at 680 pages perhaps too much detail – will I ever read it?
- “Inside Central Asia: A Political and Cultural History of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan, Turkey and Iran” (2009), by the well-regarded Indian historian Dilip Hiro. A comprehensive history of this part of the world , strategically located, with a predominantly Muslim population, its hydrocarbon and other valuable resources, which received mixed reviews; perhaps good to get an idea of each nation post-Soviet Union; including a general history of the region.
- “Success Stories on the Threshold of the New Millennium in Glorious Uzbekistan”, by David Mikosz. One of the many books by Peace Corps volunteers and other American aid workers, most of which are badly written, but this one appears funny – should try this one.