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TASH RABAT and NARYN, southern Kyrgyzstan – It’s the ultimate Silk Road location, as untold millions around the world dream of: a solitary, fortified caravanserai, 3,500 meters high in the mountains, dating from the 15th century (and restored in the early 1980s), in a little valley off the main road leading to the Torugart pass, the Chinese border 100 kilometers away.
Tash Rabat is arguably the best preserved historic Silk Road caravanserai all the way from Xian to Petra. As winter approaches, it is already buried in more than 50 centimeters of snow. Nasriya, 17, fresh from finishing high school, is the lone caretaker, living in a small farmhouse along with her three dogs, “and my friends” – an itinerant collection of ibex, Marco Polo sheep, eagles and wolves.
It’s easy at Tash Rabat to time-travel and imagine the golden days of the Silk Road, the valley dotted with nomadic yurts (tents) in the summer and camel caravans transporting silk, porcelain, paper, tea, lacquer ware, medicinal herbs, perfume, gems, gold, silver, ivory, jade, wool, Mediterranean colored glass, wine, spices and much more.
The new Silk Road unravels only 15 kilometers away from Tash Rabat. There is a huge Chinese market in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Merchants travel there via the Torugart pass loaded with dollars, and come back loaded with avalanches of cheap Chinese merchandise. Bandits know it very well: last March they attacked and robbed a bus filled with flush Chinese traders.
At the end of the 20th century, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev was extremely busy selling to Europe the idea of a new, Great Silk Road – with the potential to develop Kyrgyzstan as a key transit stop between China and Russia and Europe. The problem is, Akayev’s drive at the time was on economic cooperation, while the European Union was more interested in human rights violations, the power of local mafias, growing heroin trafficking across Kyrgyzstan, and Islamic fundamentalism in the Fergana Valley – shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The European Union – as well as the United States – is now totally committed to the fight against drug mafias and Islamic fundamentalism. Nobody talks about human rights any more. But the New Silk Road commercial potential for the moment remains unexploited: it is no more than a one-way street for China to export to Central Asia its unbeatably-priced, mind-boggling array of manufactured goods.
Most of Kyrgyzstan still practices a kiosk economy. The country needs foreign investment to profit from its substantial reserves of gold, coal and uranium. But as an unrivalled “Switzerland of Central Asia,” for the moment the most realistic source of foreign exchange is via tourism – barring the hazards of Russian operators fleecing foreign visitors considered as no more than walking teller machines.
Lake Issyk-Kul, “warm lake,” high in the Alatau mountain range, which is the northern arm of the Tian Shan, is indeed warm, by a combination of extreme depth (more than 800 meters), high thermal activity and mild salinity: it has been an oasis for centuries. The lake’s northern shore is dotted with sanitariums, including the delightful Soviet monster the Aurora – named after the legendary cruiser that started the October Revolution in St Petersburg in 1917 – where one can go to the beach as far from the ocean as humanly possible.
Near the town of Karakol lies the grave and a museum dedicated to legendary Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky, who from 1870 to 1885 went to the farthest corners of Mongolia, Tibet, the Tian Shan, the Lop Nor desert and the Taklamakan desert. The Karkara Valley is the former summer headquarters of super-conqueror Timur (Tamerlane). And in summer the most spectacular helicopter ride on the planet is available over the central Tian Shan towards the Khan Tengri mountains, near the Chinese border.
The town of Naryn is a key New Silk Road crossroads. The local police chief, over tea and a bowl of laghman – noodles with meat and vegetables – says that he is not worried about Islamic fundamentalism, but rather heroin trafficking coming from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The garish-looking local mosque was financed by Saudi Wahhabis – but there’s not a hint of radical Islam in these parts: just outside of Naryn, the stunning landscape is pure nomad territory, dotted with the odd solitary horseman roaming free and tending his flock against the dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Forget about Westerns in Arizona: this landscape would have driven John Ford wild.
The earliest residents of Kyrgyzstan were the famous Scythian warriors – who fiercely resisted Alexander the Great’s march towards Central Asia in the 4th century BC. There are many Scythian burial mounds around lake Issyk-Kul, where archeologists have found extraordinary gold and bronze treasures. The ancestors of the Kyrgyz came from Siberia to the Tian Shan in the 10th century – with the migration picking up speed with the expansion of Genghis Kahn’s empire in the 13th century. Kyrgyzstan was part of the inheritance of Chaghatai, Genghis Khan’s second son.
It’s easy to romanticize it, but every-day life for Kyrgyz nomads has always been extremely harsh. This is still a country 94 percent composed of mountains – 41 percent of them higher than 3000 meters. Less than 5 million people are outnumbered five to one by their flocks of horses, cattle, sheep and goats. As much as the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz were progressively pushed by Russians settlers to the far corners of the mountains. Most Kyrgyz nomads resisted the Soviets until 1929. They were forced to settle down in the hardcore collectivization drive of the 1930s. Joseph Stalin’s pogroms devastated most of the Kyrgyz elite. Very few nomads joined the Communist Party afterwards.
Even with progressive urbanization, it’s traditional ceremonies that reveal the inimitable version of Kyrgyz chic: Guests and government bureaucrats in suits and ak kalpaks – the traditional Kyrgyz white felt hat – at a moment’s notice climb on a horse and go hunting with a golden eagle or a white falcon perched on their shoulders.
The traditional nomadic yurt – bosuy in Kyrgyz – warm in winter, cool in summer, light and portable, remains the ultimate feat of nomad engineering. Urbanized Kazakhs have forgotten about their yurts, but Kyrgyz, whenever they have the chance, especially in summer, run to the jiloos (summer pastures) and set up their yurts.
A master craftsman in Naryin still takes three months to make a mini-yurt that is an exact replica of the real thing. It takes one year for a family of five to build all the components of a collapsible yurt. It can be expertly assembled in two hours. A yurt would look great on the green White House lawn. With the added benefit that if the going gets tough, its proprietor can pack up and go at a minute’s warning.
While the commercial new Silk Road does not materialize, the new Silk Road of education is fast becoming a viable proposition, thanks to the University of Central Asia (UCA), which bills itself as “the first private institution of higher education to be internationally chartered.” The idea springs from the Aga Khan, the top Ismaili authority and his Aga Khan Development Network, based in Geneva, which promotes “the social conscience of Islam through institutional action.”
This initiative beats any convoluted World Bank project. The solid aim of the UCA is “sustainable development of economies and societies in mountain regions,” working to prevent a catastrophic scenario that is already happening all over Central Asia: capital cities exploding with millions of new, involuntary immigrants, mostly young males, unskilled, unemployed, impoverished, disoriented and prone to violence.
UCA directors stress that “the losses in mountain areas would be equally tragic. Ancient communities that have maintained worthy traditions throughout the millennia would die. Rich bodies of practical and philosophical knowledge would be destroyed. Mountain regions, which whole countries depend upon for water and other resources, would lose their natural and most knowledgeable protectors. Sensitive environments would be exposed to new rounds of degradation. Those few who remain in the mountains would become ready recruits for drug traffickers, religious extremists, or warlords of the kind who nearly destroyed both Afghanistan and Tajikistan in recent decades.”
The main UCA campus is being set up in Khorog – high in the Pamir mountains, in Badakhshan, southeastern Tajikistan. The other two are in Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn, close to the Tian Shan, and Tekeli in Kazakhstan. The presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev; Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev; and Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmonov, have all signed with the Aga Khan an international treaty, ratified by their parliaments, establishing the university. The Aga Kahn has donated US$15 million. But more investment is sorely needed. The World Bank should get involved – as well as the Asian Development Bank, the US Agency for International Development and the European Union.
The UCA is private, independent, secular, adhering to international standards, and all admissions are merit-based. Students will pay the tuition fees that their families are able to afford. John Herring, an American, the dean of Tekeli campus, has enthusiastically signed for three years with the project. On a visit to Naryn, he says this is either “the most visionary project in the whole of Asia, or total lunacy.” This is in fact Islam at its best and most creative, tackling the root of all problems – lack of education – instead of its inevitable consequences, drug-trafficking and terrorism.