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.