Sunday, May 3, 2015

Central Asia - Identities

Nov. 8, 2014 - May, 2015

Ever since the collapse of USSR and independence of the central Asian countries, these countries found crises of new national identity and ideology. While all five Central Asian countries claim they are secular countries, they all have revived their Islamic religion and encouraged repair, reconstruct, and build new, mosques, madras (monasteries), and mausoleums. Although many buildings look impressive, they are new. Some built with new tiles, some are painted; some are even covered with printed paper. The best places to see these reconstructed buildings are Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, and Tashkent, in Uzbekistan.

Each of the three countries I have visited has found a historical or legendary icon for itself. Uzbekistan has found Amir Temur (known as Tamerlane) as the national hero, and his statues are everywhere in the country. Kazakhstan put up an archaeological discovery of 7th-6th century BCE – a man wearing attire decorated with gold pieces: Golden Man. This golden horse-rider and archer became the national icon. For Kyrgyzstan, there is still a dispute about the origin of a legendary hero Manas. But anyway, the country has decided to make him a hero for the nation. His statues are also found everywhere. Many places changed their names into Manas.

Amir Temur, claimed himself as the direct descendent of Genghis Khan, was the founder of Timurid dynasty, which conquered and controlled central and west Asia, southern Russia, and northern India in the 14th and 15th centuries. He followed almost entirely the footsteps of Genghis Khan in cruelty, mercilessness, and military ambition. He was born in Shahrisabz, some 80 km away from Samarkand, and not far from Tashkent, and later based in Samarkand as his main capital city. He died in Otrar, a ruined town in today’s Kazakhstan not far from Uzbek border, but his body was brought back to Samarkand and buried there. His sarcophagus is made of black jade, they say from Mongolia, but I am afraid it is from Khotan where there is rich deposit. Ulug Beg, the grandson of Temur, a famous astronomer and ruler himself was buried side by side with Amir Temur. I visited his birthplace, dying place, and mausoleum, sensing big pride as well as propaganda in his name. In Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, there is a central park with his gigantic statue in the middle. There is also a national museum in his name on the side of the park.        

The Golden Man of Kazakhstan belonged to an ancient nomadic group called Schythians, later Sakea, who lived in the Great Steppe of Eurasia from Black Sea to Siberia. These people were known for their gold work. One of my purposes to go to Kazakhstan is to study these magnificent gold pieces, thousands of them. Their unique and intriguing designs tell us a lot about the culture. The gold works are found all over the country. To my surprise still, there are more than one Golden Man found. There are several of them! No wonder people are proud of him. In my preliminary studies I found a connection between the designs of these gold works with textile designs found far in the south crossing the Taklamakand desert in northwest of China; now I have seen more original pieces and found more evidences.

In Kyrgyzstan, one of the things the government tried to revive as a way of differentiating itself from USSR time is shocking to me: Bride Kidnapping! I met two Fulbright colleagues in Bishkek and Karakol, and both talked about the problem of such kidnapping. My tour guides (Russian ethnicity) also commented on it as a terrible backward practice. While this custom did have a long history, it was banned during USSR period. Now the rate had risen 50% since the collapse of the Soviet. It seems the government intentionally encourages the practice.

The colleague in Karakol told me that just the day before we met, she had had to substitute for a few days for a lady colleague whose husband had suddenly died in jail and to participate in the funeral with her. The woman, a college professor in English, had gotten bride-kidnapped some years ago, had agreed to marry the man, partially because of the family and social pressure and partially because it was cheaper and simpler for the wedding (!?). But recently the husband had had an affair with a married woman, and the woman’s husband probably had done something, and then the woman died. This English professor’s husband became a suspect and got arrested and beaten up. Then he died without a clear cause.

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have had a great tension for about a decade. Riots between Kyrgyz and Uzbek in the Osh region near Uzbekistan border in 1990 and 2010 affected the two nations’ relationship tremendously. When I was still in Uzbekistan traveling to Fergana valley, a fertile region bordering with Kyrgyzstan, on the highway, I was warned constantly by the local driver not to take pictures at the check points and get passport ready all the time. And there were indeed several check points with heavy army guards. At one such point, there is narrow valley where three countries meet: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.      

Interestingly, the three –stans I went, all still have strong Soviet remains, both mentally and materially. People still admired Stalin’s leadership in the Second World War Two and commemorated the local soldiers died in the war. In many cities, the central public park is a memorial park to the victory of the war and dead soldiers with guns and aero planes displayed and monuments erected. Only in Kazakhstan, I saw an exhibition criticizing Stalin’s terrible execution of his own party members with a long list of intellectuals from the country. A daughter of a woman who had been put in a labor camp by Stalin was at the exhibition.        

I could not go to Turkmenistan although I was six kilometers away from its border in Uzbekistan. The visa to the country was difficult to get, even for Uzbeks. In fact, I learned later, that a Fulbright colleague who had been assigned to teach in Turkmenistan was replaced to a different country simply for the difficulties to obtain too many documents for a visa. A tour guide told me that Turkmenistan was very rich now. Housing, electricity, natural gas, water, transportation, etc. were all free for the citizens. Another tour guide told me that Turkmenistan had everything but freedom. Nobody in the country was allowed to move around freely, and definitely not to any foreign country. Foreign visitors were not allowed to take a blanket out of the country except as a present given by the government. I wanted to go to Turkmenistan because it had been known for its kilim textile weaving, so I do not understand why the country does not allow people to take its famous products out of the country. I only wonder what kind of national icon Turkmens established after their independence.     

Kazakhstan - Turkestan Shymkent

Oct. 26, 2014

Dear Colleagues:

Several days have passed since the last interruption. Now I am writing in a hotel in Shymkent, a third or fourth largest city in the country. It is in the south of the country, the climate is the same as most part of Uzbekistan. And in fact there are many Uzbeks live in the region, and the city is only 2 and half hours to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

Comparing to the northern steppe, the city of Turkestan (I was there yesterday) and Shymkent are much warmer and suitable for agriculture. Many sorts of crops and fruits grow here.

In Turkestan (Oct.25) yesterday, the weather was so warm and pleasant that the guide Maria (half Russian half Armenian) and I sat in a park for a long time talking about her family story. On her father’s side, her great grandfather was afraid of Bolshevik for he was a business owner (just a shoemaker!!) and escaped Armenia to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan at the beginning of the twentieth century. Maria’s mother is from a Russian family from Kazakhstan which moved from Russia to Kazakhstan during USSR time as being encouraged to move to build new cities in the “empty” places (similar to the situation my parents had. They were assigned to work in Xinjiang to help build New Socialist Xinjiang, far from their original home).

Modern Turkestan is built upon an ancient city that was an important trading post on the Silk Road. One can tell why it can be important especially after being to the north barren steppe. It is close to Sry Darya, the largest river in Central Asia, the climate, the soil, etc. all ideal for agriculture and economy.

The importance of the town since Middle Ages is that an Islamic teacher and philosopher (Yasawi) lived and died here. The town and his tomb were destroyed by Chingiskhan, but later, Amir Temur ordered to rebuild his mausoleum.

Between Turkestan and Syhmkent, there is ruined town named Otrar. This is the place where Amir Temur died. 

Kazakhstan - Aktobe Atyrau

Oct. 22, 2014

Dear Colleagues:

I am on a train from Aktobe to a southwest city Atyrau where there is a village that played important role on the ancient Silk Road. The train will run for 16 and 1/2 hours so I can take some time to write.
I have been in the city of Aktobe since yesterday afternoon. Mr. Rakhym Beknazarov, a professor of Ethnography in the largest university in the region, gave me a drive through the city. The population of the city is only 300,000. The professor invited me to his home, where he, his wife and children, and his parents live together. His mother and wife (a school teacher in German language) prepared their national food Beshparmak (meaning meat eaten with your fingers手抓肉). It was a mixture of beef and horse meat. Rakhym’s father used to be a vet doctor; he is retired on a pension of about $300 per month. Rakhym compared pension with Chinese in Xinjiang (northwest of China with a long border with Kazakhstan), where a pensionist (they used that funny word) could get $700 per month. Rakhym is a big fan of his president. He thinks that his president has a strategy of building a relationship between Kazakhstan and China like that of Canada and the United States.

This morning I was taken to a local museum where I found something unexpected: some gold pieces of Schythian-Saka time. It is good evidence that the Schythian-Sakae were active in this area around 8th-7th century BCE. The city is 90 km away from Russian border.

Kazakhs in the region are not nomadic anymore. They all settle in the cities and villages. The climate here is not good for agriculture although there are still farms growing some grains. Fruits, nuts, grains, are mostly imported from southern region of the country or from abroad. There are farms of horses, cattle, and sheep. The region has rich resources of oil, gas, and chromium. People make livings by working for the oil/gas and rare minerals industries. The largest foreign investor in the region is China. The Sino-Petroleum Company built the highest building in the city. There is even a Confucius Institute in the university. The second largest investor is Russia, of course. Korea and Japan are after.

I wanted to go to Caspian Sea from Atyrau city (only 20 km away), however, the road condition is very bad in this season; and also since it is on the border, any foreigner would be charged for $495 for a permit which must be applied at least a week in advance. So the trip to Caspian is cancelled!


Atyrau (continued to write on Oct.26): Ural River dividing the city into Asia side and Europa side. I came back and forth several times within a day between Asia and Europe! It is a small city, but two “golden men” were found here; the guide in the local museum called these golden men Sarmatians as being different from Schythian-Sakae (must check with scholarly interpretation). A village called ???? was originally built in 10th century, later destroyed by Chingiskhan, rebuilt again, but eventually abandoned (because of the dry off the river?). It used to be a large kingdom in the region and an important stop for caravan merchants on the Silk Road. A Spanish traveler of the 15th century traveled here and wrote about the town.

Kazakhstan - Astana

Oct. 21, 2014 Clear but cold day (below freezing point)

Dear Colleagues:

I am waiting in an airport again, this time, Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. In 1997, the first (and the only so far) president of the country after independence (1991) from USSR decided to move the capital from Almaty to Astana, a central north place in Kazakhstan, typical great steppe environment with vast flat grass land. For some reason, people (maybe just the president himself) did not want to have their city spread out on this empty land, instead, they built skyscrapers. So, Astana is a new city full of modern buildings. It must have been an ideal place for architects to fulfill their dreams. In fact, several internationally famous architects came to have designed buildings here, including British Norman Foster, Japanese Kisho Kurokawa, and Italian Manfredo Nicoletti.   

Here I truly had an adventure for I have not hired a tour guide, and the local hotel does not even have its own business card or a simple map to orient their customers. So every day I take two slips of paper with me when I go out: a slip with my destination name and address, and one with the hotel name and address. I showed the slip to people at bus stations to direct me. People are very friendly, hospitable, and helpful, although we do not understand each other’s languages. Russian is still a major language, but Kazakh is the national language now, and most people do speak Kazakh. My very few Uyghur vocabularies help a little. Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken in Xinjiang (Northwest of China), Uzbekistan (actually it is very close to Uzbek language), and Kazakhstan, shares a lot of vocabularies with other Turkic languages. I learned some words (I have regretted so much that I did not learn enough) in Xinjiang where I grew up. So at least, I can find right food for myself for a real meal. Over all, the food here is not as good as that in Uzbekistan. There are fewer varieties on the menus and fewer restaurants available. I have to take a bus for about 15 minutes to a restaurant for supper.
Compared to Uzbekistan, tourism has just started to develop. People here do not have the concept of tourism, and things are not convenient yet, except money exchange. You can change your USD in any bank or withdraw Tenge (Kazakhstan currency) from any ATM machine. ATMs are everywhere. It is pity that I just get familiar with the city and won’t get lost anymore, I am leaving.

Kazakhstan does not have many ancient ruins or old busy towns as Uzbekistan does. If one goes as tourist, one might not find many interesting places to go. But for me, I found what I have been looking for. In the National Museum, I found amazing artifacts right for my research project. Unfortunately at first that photography was not allowed even I offered to pay a fee. Eventually I had to ask Fulbright office in the US Embassy to get a special permission for me. So they wrote an official letter for me to take to the museum. That’s when the magic happened! I spent 5-6 hours there to photograph several thousand small golden pieces from 8th -4th century BCE time. These artifacts are exactly the stuff I have been looking for to compare with a special group of textiles (the designs and iconography) I have been studying. That was the happiest day of this trip so far!

I was invited by the director of archaeological institute in Astana to give a lecture at the National University of Kazakhstan. There I gave a presentation on my research related to the artifacts discovered in Kazakhstan, and received unexpected enthusiastic responses. I was overwhelmed.