“The Lost Heart of Asia”, by Colin Thubron, Vintage

Then I heard Pasha calling me to return. It was late and dark, he said, and this was not our country.
It doesn’t happen often, for me, to arrive at the last word of a book and think Aw fuck, I wish it could last for some more pages. It doesn’t happen often, as I said, but this time it did. After this last sentence the next pages were empty, for Colin Thubron had reached his last destination in his journey across the scattering of –Stans that adorned the world map after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Thubron embarked in this expedition in the first spring and summer following the end of the Soviet Union, during the ephemeral moments when the bronze statues of Lenin still dotted the vast, deserted squares of the Asian cities, an arm raised to indicate a future that would now never come. A political order, 70 years old, had deflated and crumbled to pieces, leaving in its wake uncertainty, unemployment, corruption, inflation and the violence resounding in the crack of gunfire piercing through the silence of Bishkek.
The new nations – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan – orphans of the oppressive yet disciplining Soviet framework – were reinventing themselves, struggling to cope with the USSR’s legacy, a Pandora’s box made of the omnipresent economic problems, of different ethnicities (deported by Stalin or crammed within the same borders drawn by the colonialist’s pen), of toxic and radioactive wastes left by senseless bureaucrats.
Thubron starts off from the southern republic of Turkmenistan, whose people are busy rediscovering an ancient Turkic past, then witness this ethnic resurgence in the nearby Uzbekistan as well, where the ecumenical revival spurred by a newly found Islamic consciousness and an ever present Turkic sense of belonging clash with diffidence for their Turkmen neighbours. Differences begin to appear between the various Republics: some are still held by their former Communist rulers, who have paid a lip service to Islam; other are descending into gang violence and anarchy, such as Tajikistan, which will be ravaged by civil war after the passage of the writer; only Kyrgyzstan seemed walking, albeit uncertainly, towards democracy. Everywhere, no matter the country, ethnic Russians are on the run, having lost all the colonizers’ privileges.
Always a man of profound culture, Thubron is keen on rediscovering the ancient cultures that flourished on these lands where the Silk Road once passed. As it’s is custom, throughout the book, the author takes the reader through a historic voyage in the region’s past, showing how – even in remote times – these lands had been up for grabs by foreign powers: Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Arab Caliphs, the Seljuk and then the Mongols, Tamerlane and, finally, the Tsarists and Bolsheviks. A parallel is drawn with his present day when, even in the face of a newly found independence, the young republics are again subject to the influx of foreign powers, be them Turkey or Iran or the epicentres of Sunni Islam. Through the pages, Thubron’s acquaintances often mention an Iranian, Turkish or Saudi way to develop their country; rarely, if ever, an Uzbek, Turkmen or Kazakh way is considered.
I’ve always said that I’m yet to read another author who can describe a landscape as beautifully as Thubron, and this book proved me right yet again; but The Lost Heart of Asia is also very much a voyage through the landscape of mind: the author has always been deeply interested in knowing and talking to the locals and this time he’s pulled off his best effort ever, at least in my opinion. Willingly or unwillingly he had been able to paint a series of extremely rounded, colourful portraits of those he met, getting to know their history, their thoughts, their fears for the future and their behaviours. What emerges is a humanity of splendid normality, like Oman, the businessman-taxi driver-fixer who went on the road with Colin from Tashkent through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, or Zelim, the reclusive painter from Bukhara, or Pasha, the newly-converted Christian from Bishkek. Encounter after encounter, the book succeeds in creating a prospect on the Central Asia’s humanity that is as irresistible as the depiction of the physical landscapes, from steppes to deserts to the towering mountains of Tien Shan.
It might be that I’m partial, for I always wanted to visit Central Asia, but this is, to me, Colin Thubron’s best book. And I’d give a lot to know that he’s going back there, again, to see how 20 years have changed the –Stans. Hopefully he will.
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