Guardian article written by Simon Reeve about the Meet the Stan series:
AS THE headless corpse of the goat began to slip out
from under my leg I realised I had neither the stomach
nor the skill to play the legendary Central Asian game
of Kokpar on horseback in Kazakhstan.
I had been forced onto a horse and into the game, best described as something akin to bloody polo, by a village elder after pausing to see a traditional baby-naming ceremony. It was supposed to be a brief stop on the road to Almaty, the main city in Kazakhstan. But the entire village turned out to watch, so I took a deep breath, grabbed at the goat’s mangled testicles to keep it from slipping to the ground, urged my horse forward, and was rewarded with an invitation to the village feast. I just wish I could have washed my hands before eating bits of goat with my fingers.
Generous hospitality is legendary in Central Asia, and woe betide anyone thinking of spurning a proffered glass of vodka, or a week-old piece of goat meat, as I discovered on a long journey through ‘the Stans’ (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) with a BBC television crew for the documentary series ‘Meet the Stans’.
After writing a book on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the late 1990s, I had long been fascinated by this forgotten corner of the world, where Islamic militancy is on the rise, and which I fear could be a potential future flashpoint and focus for the ‘war on terror’.
The Stans were a backwater of the Soviet Union until the country collapsed in 1991. Independence and the discovery of the world’s largest untapped energy reserves has barely raised their profile. Central Asia is a vast area bigger than Western Europe, but it remains perhaps the most obscure region on Earth.
We began our journey in the far north-west of Kazakhstan, by the Russian border, and travelled by plane, train, helicopter and 4WD east across the endless Kazakh steppes to the Chinese border, then south through little Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the Afghan border, and west through Uzbekistan to the ancient Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.
The region was fascinating and bizarre in equal measures. One of our first stops was the dry bed of the contaminated Aral Sea. Formerly the world’s fourth largest inland lake it has shrunk to half its size since the Soviets diverted rivers to irrigate cotton fields.
Local fishermen have started breeding camels while their huge boats rust and rot. My attempts to fend off one of their amorous camels were successful; not so my attempts to avoid downing fermenting camel’s milk and most of a bottle of vodka early in the morning.
Heading east across Kazakhstan, with a brief stop for my game of Kokpar, our 4WD suffered a steady series of punctures on the potholed roads. Our record was four in one day. The nights are cold on the Kazakh steppes, and none more so than when we suffered a flat at 11pm one night 100 miles from a depressed little town called Kyzylorda. We walked through the darkness to a police checkpoint and hitched a ride for a 2am audience with the Kazakh Beatles, a tribute band who suffered years of state harassment during Communist rule.
Further east on the road to Almaty, the main city, we visited a biological weapons laboratory abandoned by the Soviets. Underpaid scientists in what is now described as a ‘plague research institute’ showed me vials of anthrax and plague stored in tupperware jars in old fridges. Security against attack by committed terrorists seeking biological agents weapons was woefully inadequate.
Almaty offered more surprises. Parochial and glamorous in equal measures, it offers plenty of late-night diversions. Taking the road south into Kyrgyzstan, we found an Islamic militant threatening to martyr himself against the West, visited a contaminated radioactive waste dump, and talked our way onto a US-led coalition airbase in the former Soviet Union. Mountainous and beautiful, Kyrgyzstan offers fantastic trekking, if only people could find it on the map.
A wizened farmer on a donkey cart took me across the border into Tajikistan, the poorest state in the former Soviet Union, where up to 150,000 died during civil war in the 1990s. They don’t get many visitors in Tajikistan, and the country has the worst accommodation in the region.
Tajik doctors and government officials earn between £3-£5 a month, and corruption is a major problem. We had agreed to stay in a foreign ministry official’s home in Dushanbe, the capital. At first sight it was bad enough, with mould, windowless rooms, and damp, smelly mattresses. As I stood at the sink waiting for the water to turn from brown to clear, idly watching two cockroaches scuttling along the filthy floor, I nearly trod on a colossal brick-sized rat-trap, primed with a chunk of rancid cheese.
Tajikistan has become a major transit route for heroin from Afghanistan. It shares an 800-mile border with the war-torn state, which supplies 90 per cent of European heroin. I followed the police on a raid in Dushanbe and watched as they caught a mother of six with a kilo and a half. The police just shrugged, and showed me a store containing half a ton.
With a Colonel from the Tajik Secret Police in tow we drove down to the Afghan border, which is guarded by 19-year-old Tajik conscripts living off bits of bread and old potatoes. Despite empty cupboards, the border guards arranged a minor feast for us with a tin of pilchards.
We had been told to leave the border region before dark and quietly because of militants and armed Taliban sympathisers. But as the sun set the vodka emerged. Eight large bowls later I was pouring drink into my sock to avoid an early demise. We left after midnight singing out of the open windows of our 4WD.
Chugging back from the border along Tajikistan’s horrendous roads, we met the country’s top pop star, a 22-year-old ex-Etonian called Wills who runs his Canadian father’s gold mine, and a former warlord. Tajikistan has a laid back Wild West feel. I loved the place.
By contrast Uzbekistan, our next stop, reeks of oppression. Thousands have been jailed as the government cracks down on dissent and Islamic militancy. Uzbeks are sick of their leadership and its bizarre laws. Late one night, I crept around the back of a gutted shop in Tashkent, the capital, and broke Uzbek law by entering a pool hall to play a few games. Snooker and pool were banned last October. Gossips claim the son of a Presidential aide lost a fortune on a game, and his father banned the sport in a fit of pique.
But despite its problems, Uzbekistan, like the whole of Central Asia, remains a joy to visit. In legendary Samarkand and Bukhara, the holiest city in Central Asia, we found Islamic architecture on a par with the finest in the world. In Bukhara near the end of our journey, I stood in a mosque courtyard near the base of the 800-year-old Kalon minaret as the muezzin chanted the haunting call to prayer. The experience, which banished my exhaustion, was one I cherish to this day.
Simon Reeve, 2003.
Simon Reeve is the author of The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism, and the presenter of ‘Meet the Stans’, to be broadcast on BBC4 on September 29th and 30th at 9pm, and on BBC2 later this year.
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Details of Simon's books:
The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism
and also here
One Day in September: the full story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and Israeli revenge operation 'Wrath of God'
Details of Simon's TV Travels:
Equator - a long journey around the warm waistband of the planet
Places That Don't Exist - a series of adventures in countries that aren't officially countries
Meet the Stans - Simon's long journey around Central Asia
For those interested, here's a biography of Simon
And some photos
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