Saturday, 30 May 2020
Thursday, 28 May 2020
* Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, ‘Upheaval’, and ‘Collapse’
The Covid-19 pandemic represents a tragedy for its victims and their families, and economic hardship for the rest of us. As I write these lines in Los Angeles, 10 weeks after the state of California imposed a lockdown, some shops are reopening and a semblance of normal life is beginning to return.
But the costs have been great: in my case, the past month has brought the deaths of five friends, two of them among my longest relationships. Against that background, it seems vile to say anything “positive” about Covid-19. Paradoxically, though, the pandemic might also bring hope and permanent benefits for the whole world — depending on how we react.
Microbes have often shaped human history. Thousands of years before the Black Death, a previous spread of plague may have contributed to the intrusion of Asian steppe peoples carrying Indo-European languages into Europe. Later, far more Native Americans — including the Aztec emperor Cuitláhuac and the Inca emperor Huayna Capac — died in bed from European germs than on the battlefield from European swords and guns.
Those epidemics of the past had far-reaching harmful consequences: military defeats, population crashes, abandonments of land under cultivation and slumps in trade. They also resulted in conquests and replacements of populations, when previously unexposed peoples contracted diseases from invaders with a long history of exposure.
At the time of writing, official counts are approaching 350,000 deaths globally from Covid-19; the true figure is likely to be higher. Steep death tolls are still to come in populous countries such as Brazil and Mexico, aided by policies of denial on the part of those countries’ presidents.
Yet Covid-19 doesn’t represent an existential threat to the survival of our species. Yes, the pandemic will be a serious blow to the world’s economy, but that will recover; it’s only a matter of time. Unlike many of the epidemics of the past, the virus isn’t threatening to cause military defeats, population replacements or crashes, or abandonments of land under cultivation.
There are other dangers, present right now, that do constitute existential threats capable of wiping out our species, or permanently damaging our economy and standard of living. But they are less convincing at motivating us than is Covid-19, because (with one exception) they don’t kill us visibly and quickly.
Strange as it may seem, the successful resolution of the pandemic crisis may motivate us to deal with those bigger issues that we have until now balked at confronting. If the pandemic does at last prepare us to deal with those existential threats, there may be a silver lining to the virus’s black cloud. Among the virus’s consequences, it could prove to be the biggest, the most lasting — and our great cause for hope.
What, really, are our existential threats? There are four that I consider to be the most serious.
They start with the threat that could kill the most people in the shortest time: the detonation of large numbers of nuclear weapons, whether launched as a pre-emptive strike (for example, between India and Pakistan), as the unintended consequence of escalating responses (say, between North Korea and the US), as the response to misread early-warning signals (as nearly happened repeatedly during the cold war) or as an intentional action by terrorists.
The nuclear threat may or may not materialise, but the other three threats already have — and are getting worse. They have the potential to cripple permanently our standard of living, though they would leave many of us still alive. Those threats are: climate change; unsustainable use of essential resources (especially forests, seafood, topsoil and fresh water); and the consequences of the enormous differences in standard of living between the world’s peoples, destabilising our globalised existence.
This is the context in which the virus could actually bring us a benefit. As a motivator, Covid-19 is different from, and more potent than, those existential problems. Covid’s symptoms are palpable; they are indubitably due to the virus; Covid’s consequence of death poses no problems of definition or measurement; and that consequence follows swiftly. None of this is true of climate change, though it will do far more lasting damage to us.
But whether that motivational benefit of Covid-19 actually does emerge will depend on how the world responds to this truly global crisis. We can draw guidance from how nations respond to national crises. In my recent book Upheaval, I established a dozen outcome predictors that have made it more or less likely that a nation would respond successfully to a national crisis: among them were acknowledgment rather than denial of a crisis’s reality; acceptance of responsibility to take action; and honest self-appraisal.
For example, the outstanding success of 19th-century Japan in modernising began with the crisis provoked by the uninvited visit of Commodore Perry’s warships in 1853. Japan acknowledged its weakness; it took action by adopting a crash programme of selective changes; and it honestly appraised its military strength at every step of a cautious military expansion.
Among other national outcome predictors, I judge as crucial the presence or absence of a shared national identity, which can help a nation’s people to recognise their shared self-interest and to unite in overcoming a crisis. National identities variously depend on different things for different nations, such as a shared language and culture, pride in a shared historical legacy and shared environment, or a shared common enemy.
That last factor has proved particularly potent in times of crisis. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor galvanised Americans literally overnight. It instantly created a shared determination to accept sacrifice, for however long it would take. For Finns, the galvanising experience was the Winter War of 1939-40, when they preserved their independence (albeit at the cost of enormous losses) by fighting to a standstill the invading armies of the Soviet Union, whose population was 40 times Finland’s. For Indonesians, fragmented among hundreds of islands, 726 languages and four major religions, unity coalesced around their shared independence struggle against the Dutch, and then around one shared national language.
For all three countries — the US, Finland and Indonesia — purposeful action followed an external threat. But global problems have never generated a comparable sense of urgency. Until the unprecedented danger posed by Covid-19, there has never been a struggle that united all peoples of the world against a widely acknowledged common enemy.
As a result, we have been hamstrung in our responses, especially to climate change. All four of those dangers threaten every one of the world’s peoples. Yet nations have been dealing with them, or have been avoiding dealing with them, one by one. Even before President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change, that deal fell far short of an effective solution to the problem. Nations haven’t joined in acknowledging that climate change will ruin every nation, that every nation is contributing to causing it (some nations more than other nations), that all nations must do their share in the struggle, and that the failure of even just one nation to do its share will harm all other nations.
The one-by-one approach is as impotent for solving the danger posed by Covid-19 as it is for solving the problem of climate change. Even if all countries save one should succeed in quelling their own virus outbreaks, that remaining country sustaining Covid-19 will serve as a permanent focus to reinfect the rest of the world. Covid-19 is at last providing us world citizens with a shared enemy, an unequivocal quick killer, a threat to the inhabitants of every nation.
There are precedents for our finding world solutions to world problems. The 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol) led to regulation that reduced pollution of the world’s oceans by separating oil tanks from water tanks on ocean-going ships, and by mandating double-hulled tankers for all transport of oil by sea.
In 1980, the World Health Organization completed the worldwide eradication of smallpox, among the most devastating diseases in human history. The stratosphere’s ozone layer became protected by the Montreal Protocol of 1987, restricting worldwide the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons and other gases. The 1994 Law of the Sea Convention at last delineated exclusive national and shared international economic zones around the world.
All of those efforts resolved very difficult problems by means of high-level international agreements, even without a sense of world identity on the part of the public at large. Thus, a best-case outcome of our current crisis would be for it to create, at last, a widespread sense of world identity: to make all peoples recognise that we now face the common enemy of global problems that can be solved only by a united global effort.
Covid-19 would then illustrate, at the world level, another outcome predictor of success in national crises and individual crises: the memory of a previous crisis that was overcome, creating confidence that a new crisis can also be overcome. When I first visited Finland in 1959, 19 years after the end of the Winter War, there was still a widespread consensus among Finns.
Nothing could have been more difficult, for Finland with its population then under 4m, than fighting off the enormous Soviet Union; but Finns nevertheless succeeded then, and so they expected to be able to overcome any new problem that Finland faces today.
Similarly, if the world joins to solve the current visible Covid-19 crisis against heavy odds, our current pandemic might thus represent the beginning, not of a dismal era of chronic worldwide danger, but of a bright era of worldwide co-operation. Hopeful signs already are the rapid recent development of co-operation among scientists studying the virus all around the world, and the shipments of supplies from China and Russia to the US to combat the American epidemic.
That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario would be if we instead continued our doomed attempts to solve the virus problem one country at a time, or even one American state at a time.
In that case, we’d also entrench our doomed attempts to solve other global problems one country at a time. Which of these two opposite scenarios will the world choose?
We’ll know the answer to that question by the end of this year.
Tuesday, 5 May 2020
Fasten your seat belts: the US hybrid war against China is bound to go on frenetic overdrive, as economic reports are already identifying Covid-19 as the tipping point when the Asian – actually Eurasian – century truly began.The US strategy remains, essentially, full spectrum dominance, with the National Security Strategy obsessed by the three top “threats” of China, Russia and Iran. China, in contrast, proposes a “community of shared destiny” for mankind, mostly addressing the Global South.
The predominant US narrative in the ongoing information war is now set in stone: Covid-19 was the result of a leak from a Chinese biowarfare lab. China is responsible. China lied. And China has to pay.
The new normal tactic of non-stop China demonization is deployed not only by crude functionaries of the industrial-military-surveillance-media complex. We need to dig much deeper to discover how these attitudes are deeply embedded in Western thinking – and later migrated to the “end of history” United States. (Here are sections of an excellent study, Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia , by Jurgen Osterhammel).
Only Whites civilized
Way beyond the Renaissance, in the 17th and 18th centuries, whenever Europe referred to Asia it was essentially about religion conditioning trade. Christianity reigned supreme, so it was impossible to think by excluding God.
At the same time the doctors of the Church were deeply disturbed that in the Sinified world a very well organized society could function in the absence of a transcendent religion. That bothered them even more than those “savages” discovered in the Americas.
As it started to explore what was regarded as the “Far East,” Europe was mired in religious wars. But at the same time it was forced to confront another explanation of the world, and that fed some subversive anti-religious tendencies across the Enlightenment sphere.
It was at this stage that learned Europeans started questioning Chinese philosophy, which inevitably they had to degrade to the status of a mere worldly “wisdom” because it escaped the canons of Greek and Augustinian thought. This attitude, by the way, still reigns today.
So we had what in France was described as chinoiseries — a sort of ambiguous admiration, in which China was regarded as the supreme example of a pagan society.
But then the Church started to lose patience with the Jesuits’ fascination with China. The Sorbonne was punished. A papal bull, in 1725, outlawed Christians who were practicing Chinese rites. It’s quite interesting to note that Sinophile philosophers and Jesuits condemned by the Pope insisted that the “real faith” (Christianity) was “prefigured” in ancient Chinese, specifically Confucianist, texts.
The European vision of Asia and the “Far East” was mostly conceptualized by a mighty German triad: Kant, Herder and Schlegel. Kant, incidentally, was also a geographer, and Herder a historian and geographer. We can say that the triad was the precursor of modern Western Orientalism. It’s easy to imagine a Borges short story featuring these three.
As much as they may have been aware of China, India and Japan, for Kant and Herder God was above all. He had planned the development of the world in all its details. And that brings us to the tricky issue of race.
Breaking away from the monopoly of religion, references to race represented a real epistemological turnaround in relation to previous thinkers. Leibniz and Voltaire, for instance, were Sinophiles. Montesquieu and Diderot were Sinophobes. None explained cultural differences by race. Montesquieu developed a theory based on climate. But that did not have a racial connotation – it was more like an ethnic approach.
The big break came via French philosopher and traveler Francois Bernier (1620-1688), who spent 13 years traveling in Asia and in 1671 published a book called La Description des Etats du Grand Mogol, de l”Indoustan, du Royaume de Cachemire, etc. Voltaire, hilariously, called him Bernier-Mogol — as he became a star telling his tales to the royal court. In a subsequent book, Nouvelle Division de la Terre par les Differentes Especes ou Races d’Homme qui l’Habitent, published in 1684, the “Mogol” distinguished up to five human races.
This was all based on the color of the skin, not on families or the climate. The Europeans were mechanically placed on top, while other races were considered “ugly.” Afterward, the division of humanity in up to five races was picked up by David Hume — always based on the color of the skin. Hume proclaimed to the Anglo-Saxon world that only whites were civilized; others were inferiors. This attitude is still pervasive. See, for instance, this pathetic diatribe recently published in Britain.
The first thinker to actually come up with a theory of the yellow race was Kant, in his writings between 1775 and 1785, David Mungello argues in The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800.
Kant rates the “white race” as “superior,” the “black race” as “inferior” (by the way, Kant did not condemn slavery), the “copper race” as “feeble” and the “yellow race” as intermediary. The differences between them are due to a historical process that started with the “white race,” considered the most pure and original, the others being nothing but bastards.
Kant subdivided Asia by countries. For him, East Asia meant Tibet, China and Japan. He considered China in relatively positive terms, as a mix of white and yellow races.
Herder was definitely mellower. For him, Mesopotamia was the cradle of Western civilization, and the Garden of Eden was in Kashmir, “the world’s paradise.” His theory of historical evolution became a smash hit in the West: the East was a baby, Egypt was an infant, Greece was youth. Herder’s East Asia consisted of Tibet, China, Cochinchina, Tonkin, Laos, Korea, Eastern Tartary and Japan — countries and regions touched by Chinese civilization.
Schlegel was like the precursor of a Californian 60s hippie. He was a Sanskrit enthusiast and a serious student of Eastern cultures. He said that “in the East we should seek the most elevated romanticism.” India was the source of everything, “the whole history of the human spirit.” No wonder this insight became the mantra for a whole generation of Orientalists. That was also the start of a dualist vision of Asia across the West that’s still predominant today.
So by the 18th century we had fully established a vision of Asia as a land of servitude and cradle of despotism and paternalism in sharp contrast with a vision of Asia as a cradle of civilizations. Ambiguity became the new normal. Asia was respected as mother of civilizations — value systems included — and even mother of the West. In parallel, Asia was demeaned, despised or ignored because it had never reached the high level of the West, despite its head start.
Those Oriental despots
And that brings us to The Big Guy: Hegel. Hyper well informed – he read reports by ex-Jesuits sent from Beijing — Hegel does not write about the “Far East” but only the East, which includes East Asia, essentially the Chinese world. Hegel does not care much about religion as his predecessors did. He talks about the East from the point of view of the state and politics. In contrast to the myth-friendly Schlegel, Hegel sees the East as a state of nature in the process of reaching toward a beginning of history – unlike black Africa, which he saw wallowing in the mire of a bestial state.
To explain the historical bifurcation between a stagnant world and another one in motion, leading to the Western ideal, Hegel divided Asia in two.
One part was composed by China and Mongolia: a puerile world of patriarchal innocence, where contradictions do not develop, where the survival of great empires attests to that world’s “insubstantial,” immobile and ahistorical character.
The other part was Vorderasien (“Anterior Asia”), uniting the current Middle East and Central Asia, from Egypt to Persia. This is an already historical world.
These two huge regions are also subdivided. So in the end Hegel’s Asiatische Welt (Asian world) is divided into four: first, the plains of the Yellow and Blue rivers, the high plateaus, China and Mongolia; second, the valleys of the Ganges and the Indus; third, the plains of the Oxus (today the Amur-Darya) and the Jaxartes (today the Syr-Darya), the plateaus of Persia, the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates; and fourth, the Nile valley.
It’s fascinating to see how in the Philosophy of History (1822-1830) Hegel ends up separating India as a sort of intermediary in historical evolution. So we have in the end, as Jean-Marc Moura showed in L’Extreme Orient selon G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophie de l’Histoire et Imaginaire Exotique, a “fragmented East, of which India is the example, and an immobile East, blocked in chimera, of which the Far East is the illustration.”
To describe the relation between East and West, Hegel uses a couple of metaphors. One of them, quite famous, features the sun: “The history of the world voyages from east to west, Europe thus absolutely being the end of history, and Asia the beginning.” We all know where tawdry “end of history” spin-offs led us.
The other metaphor is Herder’s: the East is “history’s youth” — but with China taking a special place because of the importance of Confucianist principles systematically privileging the role of the family.
Nothing outlined above is of course neutral in terms of understanding Asia. The double metaphor — using the sun and maturity — could not but comfort the West in its narcissism, later inherited from Europe by the “exceptional” US. Implied in this vision is the inevitable superiority complex, in the case of the US even more acute because legitimized by the course of history.
Hegel thought that history must be evaluated under the framework of the development of freedom. Well, China and India being ahistorical, freedom does not exist, unless brought by an initiative coming from outside.
And that’s how the famous “Oriental despotism” evoked by Montesquieu and the possible, sometimes inevitable, and always valuable Western intervention are, in tandem, totally legitimized. We should not expect this Western frame of mind to change anytime soon, if ever. Especially as China is about to be back as Number One.
Wednesday, 29 April 2020
Monday, 16 March 2020
The sky over Tajikistan was a deep deoxygenated blue as we sped through the desolate mountain landscape of the eastern Pamirs. For days we had been driving one of the world’s most treacherous roads, the Pamir Highway, which snakes through the highlands of Tajikistan before turning north toward Kyrgyzstan along the border with China. We had just crossed the highest pass yet: nearly 15,000 feet above sea level with views to the Hindu Kush. Now the road stretched out, empty and endless, over a glaciated, monochrome terrain of ridges, gorges and craters.
The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis
The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis
“On a clear day, you can see 7,000 mountains from here,” said Omurbek Satarov, our 38-year-old Pamiri driver, gesturing toward the Himalayas. He pointed out places of intrigue: the site of what was once a clandestine Soviet biological laboratory; a mountain laced with gold deposits that the Tajik government recently traded away in a “secret deal” with China; a cliffside Russian Empire checkpoint built in 1912 and held together with a paste of mud and camel fur; a flock of spiral-horned sheep running across a rock face.
The sheep are called Marco Polos, named for the Venetian explorer who passed this way when it was part of the ancient Silk Road, a vast network of trade routes running from China to the Mediterranean, spreading not only silk and other goods, but art, technologies, ideas and belief systems across the globe.
Omurbek pointed out another checkpoint, built, he said, on the site of a mass grave of Basmachis, anti-Bolshevik Muslim guerrilla fighters who rebelled against Soviet rule early in the 20th century.
“They say it’s haunted,” he said from behind wraparound sunglasses. “Border guards see ghosts there — poltergeist.” He knew this because his father, uncles and grandfather had all been Soviet border guards. He himself had been a counternarcotics officer pursuing drug traffickers bringing Afghan opium and heroin up toward Moscow, where it is redistributed — a newer, more pernicious East-West trade network.
“It wasn’t a pleasant job,” said Omurbek, who now works in Tajikistan’s expanding tourism sector.
My husband, Roham, and I were at the two-thirds point of a trip I’d been dreaming about for years: following a section of the Silk Road through the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, a part of the world that for centuries was a cradle of civilization — the holy grail of empire-builders from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan — but that, until recently, has been difficult, if not impossible, for Westerners to visit.
For generations, the region’s Buddhist and Zoroastrian temples, ornate mosques and madrassas, ancient bazaars and breathtaking natural landscapes were hidden behind the Iron Curtain, then enveloped by dictatorship, poverty, social turmoil and war.
But in recent years the tide has been turning as relative economic and political stability settles over the region. The death in 2016 of Uzbekistan’s brutal, long-ruling dictator Islam Karimov has led to reform and a tentative thaw: the “Uzbek Spring.”
Tajikistan has undergone remarkable reconstruction since the end in 1997 of its devastating six-year civil war, and the rioting and unrest that plagued Kyrgyzstan a decade ago are fading into the rear view. Borders are opening and visa restrictions are lifting: As of 2018, citizens from more than 100 countries, including the United States, can travel visa-free through Uzbekistan for up to five days with proof of an onward flight, and a new e-visa system makes longer stays relatively easy. There are even plans for a “silk visa,” offering access to five Central Asian countries.
Regional transportation has improved, in part because of China’s controversial, trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, a colossal infrastructure project stretching from East Asia to Europe that aims to expand China’s political and economic influence and which critics worry could lead to a debt crisis across the region. Only the tightly controlled police state of Turkmenistan remains closed-off.
The journey begins
Bypassing the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, we began the trip in the ancient, holy city of Bukhara. Second only to Baghdad as an intellectual lodestar of the Islamic world, Bukhara was a center of trade, scholarship, religion and culture stretching back millenniums. It was where the great Persian poets Ferdowsi and Rudaki composed their most important works, and where Avicenna, the so-called father of modern medicine, wrote the treatises that would imprint centuries of scientists and philosophers from Cairo to Brussels.
The trip from Berlin had not been easy, but two days of low-cost air travel hell were forgotten the moment we stepped out at dawn into the 17th-century Lyabi-Hauz plaza. Two blue-tiled madrassas flanked a vast stone reservoir, along with a Sufi cloister and a teahouse, all of which stood empty and blanketed in mist, silent but for the screeching of birds in the mulberry trees.
We slept for a few hours at Lyabi House Hotel, one of several bed-and-breakfasts in Bukhara housed in 19th-century Jewish merchants houses, and then headed for the Po-i-Kalon religious complex, the city’s architectural highlight. Located south of the ancient Ark citadel, Po-i-Kalon includes the exquisite 12th-century Kalon Minaret, one of only two buildings in the city spared by Genghis Khan. For centuries, condemned criminals were thrown from the top, leading to the minaret’s nickname: the Tower of Death. Some believe the ornate diamond patterning of its kiln-fired brickwork is the inspiration — via Marco Polo — for the Doge’s Palace on San Marco square in Venice.
In a kind of trance we walked the town’s maze of blue-domed mosques, mosaic-tiled courtyards and former caravanserais (essentially inns where travelers could rest with their animals), all threaded together by ancient arcades only partially defiled by tacky tourist development. Between two domed bazaars, where locals now hock handicrafts of variable quality and authenticity, we visited the Maghok-i-Attar, Central Asia’s oldest mosque and a palimpsest of Bukharan religious history: a 16th-century reconstruction of a ninth-century mosque built atop the remains of a fifth-century Zoroastrian fire temple, which was itself built on top of an earlier Buddhist temple.
Then we decamped to the 350-year-old Bozori Kord Hammam to be steamed, scrubbed, massaged and rubbed with honey and ginger by various members of the Iranian-Uzbek family that now owns it.
By sunset we had a table on the terrace of a restaurant called Minzifa, overlooking the sun-bleached domes and rooftops of Bukhara. There we made our way through a greatest-hits of Central Asian cuisine, which was shaped by diverse culinary cultures, from East Asia to the Mongolian steppe to the Persian Gulf.
A salad of Chinese cabbage, cucumber, onion and beef in a soy-sesame chile dressing was followed by plov, or rice pilaf, the Persian-influenced Central Asian staple that probably originated in the culinary methods of the Islamic golden age, pollinating national rice dishes from Spanish paella to Indian biryani. Rice is browned with meat — usually lamb or mutton — then stewed in a caldron called a kazan with onions, garlic and carrots, and spiced with cumin, coriander, barberries or raisins, marigold and pepper. Minzifa’s version was delicate and flavorful, an ideal lead-in to well-charred shish kabob of lamb and beef, washed down with the ubiquitous Central Asian green tea.
Foodwise, the trip would go downhill from there. While it’s possible to find good and even great versions of plov, the East Asian-style dumpling called manty, and other dishes, I had to agree with the adage that you don’t visit Central Asia for the food.
The treasures of Samarkand
We set out early the next day on the sleek high-speed train line that has drastically reduced travel times in the country, running, as of 2018, all the way from Tashkent to the Silk Road city of Khiva in the west. Cotton fields flashed by in the blue of morning until we finally reached Samarkand, a city as old as Rome or Babylon, whose architectural riches surpass even Bukhara’s — many built by Timur (also known as Tamerlane), the Turco-Mongol conqueror of the late Middle Ages who made it his capital.
At the Ulugbek Observatory, one of the first and finest in human history, we gazed down into a trench at the remaining quadrant of the great meridian arc that allowed early astronomers to measure time and celestial objects with breathtaking accuracy.
From the Registan, Samarkand’s ancient central square with its triptych of madrasahs, we walked to the forgotten-feeling Old Jewish Quarter, then headed to the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, a vast labyrinth of blue-tiled, honeycomb-vaulted mausoleums where pilgrims and tourists wander in awed silence among the mosaic and majolica.
The sites were extraordinary, but even more than Bukhara, Samarkand suffers from overdevelopment of its tourist attractions. Shah-i-Zinda was aggressively restored in 2005, and pushy souvenir-sellers now clog the beautiful, holy madrassahs of the Registan.
It’s an issue that’s been pushed to the forefront in Uzbekistan, particularly after the bulldozing of a 1.2-mile-long tract of medieval residential buildings in the southeastern city of Shakhrisyabz nearly led to the revocation of its UNESCO status. It remains to be seen whether the right lessons were learned.
The next morning, we took a taxi out of Samarkand and deeper into the lush Zerafshan Valley, passing cotton and wheat farms and fields of blood-red poppies, until we reached the Tajik border. There we walked a fenced-in border zone hovered over by sun-faded billboards of the Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, and Karimov’s successor, the Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, triumphantly clasping hands. It’s one of several Uzbek-Tajik crossings to reopen in the last few years — part of an easing of tensions between the two countries that followed the death of Karimov.
In Tajikistan, frescoes, hot springs and ruins
On the Tajik side, we caught a ride with one of the burly drivers jockeying for our business and headed for Penjikent, an ancient town just beyond the border. After stopping to look at Neolithic ruins on the outskirts, we headed to the Rudaki Museum, which is devoted to the great Persian poet but is best known for its phenomenal eighth-century Sogdian frescoes that depict court life and scenes from epic Persian literature.
We marveled at the frescoes, evidence of the great wealth and sophistication of the Sogdians, the main caravan merchants of Central Asia from the fifth to the eighth centuries, who played a major role in bringing Buddhism to China and silk to Europe. I was so deep in historical reverie that I hardly noticed I had walked into a room filled with rotting taxidermied animals, warped into grotesque expressions of agony and terror. But by this point, we were used to such surprises.
The truth is that in order to enjoy this kind of trip through Central Asia, you’re going to have to be on reasonably amicable terms with the weird and unexpected, with greasy meat dishes, bleak squat toilets and frequent incidents of abject, often hilarious, transactional chaos.
Over the course of our 12-day trip, we were drawn into several road crises, spent countless hours searching for functional A.T.M.s in the company of a ragtag group of “helpful” locals, and were once cornered in a border zone by a hulk of a man in military fatigues with a mouthful of gold teeth, insisting we get in his car because the other drivers are “not normal.” We woke up one morning to a taxi driver banging on our hotel room door insisting on bringing us to another town, and once, in a banquet-style restaurant, were served a glistening chalice of mayonnaise.
And yet we also rode horses at dawn through mountain pastures of frosted wildflowers, watched Afghan camel caravans cross the Wakhan Corridor in a snowstorm, and bathed in hot sulfur springs in the mountain air, laughing with locals. It was difficult and chaotic and grueling, and it was without a doubt one of the most memorable trips of my life.
From Penjikent we continued to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, to explore its wide Soviet boulevards and monuments, which have undergone dramatic beautification since a new mayor came to power, Rustam Emomali, son of President Emomali Rahmon. The elder Emomali has led the country for 26 years, stabilizing it, but with increasing authoritarianism. His son is widely expected to be the next president.
Yet there are other forces at play — from East and West. Tajik teens in Nikes and Adidas cluttered the streets of Dushanbe, and on our way to have beers on the grand terrace of the Soviet-era, Persian-style teahouse Chaykhona Rokhat, we passed a crowd gathered around a makeshift stage, holding up smartphones under a banner that read, “Huawei Tajikistan Selfie Show.”
In the morning we met a driver from a company called Roof of the World — the nickname for the area known as High Asia, including the Pamirs, the Himalayas and Tibet — and an adventurous 29-year-old Russian coal executive whom I’d found on a message board looking to share the $1,200 cost of a driver from Dushanbe to Osh. It’s usually a six-day drive; we decided to do it in four, which meant making it on day one to the mountain town of Khorog, a 16-hour journey.
It should have been grueling, but it was mostly wonderful. Dushanbe’s outskirts gave way to undulating blue-green vistas and the fantastical aquatic terrain of the Norak water reservoir, a major hydroelectric energy source. Cloud shadows passed over cliffside hamlets glimmering in the evening light as chimneys spat smoke.
Eventually we reached the Panj River, separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which we would follow for the next two days, seeing as much of Afghanistan’s untroubled rural north on the other side of the river as we did Tajikistan.
We stopped at hot springs and hiked to the ruins of Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples and fortresses that once formed a network along the Silk Road. At night we would stop to eat and sleep along the chain of homestays that links the region today. Every mountain village has a few, where hospitable Pamiris offer visitors a hot meal and a bed or a spot on the floor.
Into the mountains
As we climbed higher and higher into the eastern Pamirs, its wild remoteness closed in around us. Great gorges and rock faces stretched across the horizon, interspersed by streaks of green — agricultural plots worked by farmers using traditional methods that languished during Soviet times, when goods were largely imported.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, nowhere was hit harder than the Pamirs, the poorest and most isolated region of the poorest country in the former Eastern Bloc. The Pamiri took the losing rebel side in the war, leaving them doubly decimated. Yet in the last decade, they have seen remarkable recovery, in part because of foreign assistance, much of it from the foundation of the Swiss-born Aga Khan, a spiritual leader of the Pamiri population.
But tourism is also making a huge difference, explained Ruzadorova Bakhten, a beautiful 48-year-old homestay proprietor and wife of a yak herder, as she served us a heaping platter of fried fish in the remote village of Bulunkul. “Every year there are more and more visitors. This makes us very happy, not only because they spend money,” she said, “but because sometimes they come and help in other ways.”
Last year, she said, an American who first came as a tourist returned to install a new weatherproof roof on the school, of which Ruzadorova is also the director. After lunch, she walked us through the school, heated with rudimentary ovens and plastered with peeling posters in Russian, Pamiri, Tajik and English, then through the rest of the village, which sits on a vast, wind-ravaged plateau ringed by soaring snowcapped mountains.
“It’s beautiful here,” my husband said in Farsi to some local men making repairs to solar panels donated by a German N.G.O. “Oh yes, so beautiful!” retorted one of the men with a sarcasm so sharp it broke the language barrier as children rode rusted bicycles in figure-eights around dwellings built from clay and yak dung.
That afternoon, we moved higher into the eastern Pamirs, stopping to marvel at the shimmering freshwater lakes of Yashil Kul and Bulunkul. In the high-Pamir town of Murgab, at 12,000 feet above sea level, we met Omurbek, who had the right papers to bring us into Kyrgyzstan.
The drive was climatically jarring to say the least. Within little more than an hour, the blazing-white, snow-blanketed peaks of the Taldik pass gave way to the rolling green of Kyrgyzstan’s Alay Valley. Cows and horses grazed in the hills and occasionally wandered into the road.
The green turned greener still as we descended into the Fergana Valley, the lush ancient corridor between Greek, Chinese, Bactrian and Parthian civilizations, finally arriving in the Silk Road city of Osh. We were too early in the season to visit the extraordinary high mountain pastures, or jailoos, of Son-Kol, Kochkor or Karakol, so after a night we headed an hour out of town to the Kyrgyz-Ata National Park. There, we stayed in a yurt set high on a hill near the home of a shepherd and his family.
We spent our last days in Central Asia riding horses through dense juniper forests and up mountains, learning the Kyrgyz riding style, often left unattended to ride in the wilderness. Brambles scratched my legs, and I was so sore from riding it became difficult to walk. There was nothing to eat but plov and day-old manty, and a late spring snowfall battered the yurt, dripping down into the sides, leaving much of our bedding sodden. We woke up shivering under blankets, gazing up through the center of the yurt to the pale spring sky. It was tortuous. We hoped it would never end.