Posts tagged Colin Thubron

More “Lost Heart of Asia”

I’ve picked up reading where I left off from Colin Thubron’s book titled “Lost Heart of Asia” which focusses more on Uzbekistan than any of the other Central Asian countries.  Seems Thubron may have preferred that country when he visited in the early 1990s because it was so exotic.  Still is. 

The following are some words I have picked up along the way which directly apply to the Uzbek culture and perhaps may be similar in meaning or customs to the Kazakhs as well:

Cheykhana”buy groceries with friends and prepare food together like teamwork – play a lot of group games together while cooking


Sochpopuk” – decoration for girl’s hair which is made out of the leaves of willows in spring.


Zakorat” – intellectual game


“do’ppi” – beautiful cap


Navruz – biggest Eastern New Year holiday, similar to Narooz in Kazakhstan


Hayit – holiday


Gurtik – drink tea and eat gurtik (not sure what that is?)


Sumalak – national food (not sure about this either but will check into it)


“Istiqbolli avlod – organization that works against human trafficking


Dilrabo – name which means charisma


Dilafruz – name means “beautiful girl”


“Shuhrat” medal – awarded by the Uzbek president for honorable service for the Uzbek nation and society


Kamolot – youth movement in Uzbekistan where the students learn how to handle difficult situations; learn to interact with those from other cultures or backgrounds, such as Russia.



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Dr. Olcott’s “turn of phrase” about the Kazakhs

Dr. Martha Brill Olcott wrote a much more scholarly book about Kazakhstan, titled “The Kazakhs” than did Colin Thubron in his short chapters of “The Lost Heart of Asia.”  That is, if you can manage to navigate past the minute detail she got from her plethora of other “scholarly” sources.  My husband bought this book in 1992 which was published by Hoover Institution Press at Stanford in 1987.  Judging by Olcott’s sources, 100 western (in English, not counting her own) and around 350 Russian, obviously she knows Russian and adeptly translated all her sources. But my question is, are they accurate even though this volume on the Kazakhs was in a Hoover Institution series about the Crimean Tartars and Volga Tartars, Estonians and Georgians as well.


What is also obvious to me is that she shows a dearth of writings in the Kazakh language, only 17 that she documented in her bibliography.  My husband wrote in the margins of this book which he read over 17 years ago that he suspected Soviet or communist propaganda was bleeding through her Russian sources about the Kazakhs.  I would posit that someone else needs to write about the Kazakhs in English for curious western readers and have a more thorough going approach to the history of this great country.


What I found of interest in Olcott’s seminal work was in her Conclusion about Olzhas Suleimenov.  Remember as you read her words that it was before the Soviet Union dissolved and there was an internalized tug-of-war going on over the nationalities question.


“A group of Kazakh writers and historians has provided particular trouble for the regime because of their preoccupation with the Kazakh past and with the historical figures who helped shape it.  These individuals seek the right to present a Kazakh-centered view of history, one which implicitly rejects Moscow’s contention that all history must be told from the Russian point of view.  However, these people are often treated as though they have taken the first step toward ideological heresy.  A case in point is the book Az I Ia (Alma Ata, 1975), by the poet Olzhas Suleimenov, which seeks to retell the “Igor’s tale” from a Turkic perspective….


…Kazakh scholars may study individuals who opposed Russian conquest, but the conquest itself must still be depicted as voluntary submission by the Kazakhs, since Russian contact with the Kazakhs must always be construed as positive.  Because Suleimenov’s book reversed this relationship and denied the Russians a central role in the history of the medieval period, Moscow reacted furiously. (p. 253)


Still, Kazakh intellectuals remain preoccupied with preserving the historical legacy of their past, particularly since the economic policies of the 1960s and 1970s obliterated the nomadic way of life in all but the desert regions of the republic.  These intellectuals, like many of their Third World counterparts, are glorifying a past that poses them no direct risk.  They no longer have to suffer the wrath of traditional leadership, and so the past may be romanticized.  Many prominent contemporary Kazakh poets – such as O. Suleimenov and K. Murzaliev – and novelists – such as S. Sanbaev, A. Alimzhanov, and I. Esenberlin – have made their reputations from works that rely heavily on historical themes in a tradition as old as Kazakh oral literature itself.  Some of these writers, such as Suleimenov and Sanbaev, talk about the old values and tell tales about nomadic life before the revolution; others write historical novels about important personages in Kazakh history, such as Esenberlin’s Khan Kene (1971, about Kenisary Kasimov) and Kochevniki (1979, a three-volume portrait of Khan Abu’l Khayr).


These books, romantic treatments of times long past, reflect the influence of socialist realism as much as of traditional Kazakh themes; they are in no way meant to incite Kazakhs to resist Russians.  The books were published and many were widely distributed and translated as well; they are meant to portray the distinctive heritage of which all Kazakhs should be proud.  However, Moscow tends to view any increase in Kazakh national self-awareness as dangerous and so watches the Kazakh authors closely…” (p. 254)


“The philosophy of the Kazakh intellectuals is far more difficult to categorize and may ultimately be more dangerous.  Apparently harmless demands for greater Kazakh cultural self-determination potentially threaten the status quo, although the search for a modern Kazakhstan has thus far been restricted to cultural autonomy (witness Suleimenov’s reinstatement) – appear to have been met, and Moscow’s attack on erring Kazakhs has been relatively low-key.  Were the Kazakhs to demand greater control of their economic and political lives, they would be unlikely to receive a mild response.” (p. 255)


“The impact of the tradition of Kazakh secular nationalism on present political developments in Kazakhstan is difficult to assess, but some points are clear.  A minority in their own republic, the Kazakhs have managed to exert strong control not only in their political life but in cultural, social and religious affairs as well; they have politicized cultural issues in a way that other Central Asian nationalities have not.  As a result they have managed to preserve at least part of their history from complete reinterpretation by the Soviets.  Their literature is strongly linked to that of the prerevolutionary period, and although heavily ideological hack writers exist whose works receive wide distribution, they do not overshadow the large group of serious Kazakh writers.” (p. 256)


Yes, I would like to meet these serious writers, or at least read their works if translated into English.  I want to be able to read about this buried treasury of Kazakh history from what has been handed down orally for centuries.  I would hope that some of my own Kazakh students would take up this challenge and let the western world know what an amazing culture and country this really is!



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“Turn-of-phrases” – Part III

The following are quotes taken from Colin Thubron’s book titled “The Lost Heart of Asia.”  He has some insightful perspectives, even though they are dated.  Much has happened in Kazakhstan since Thubron visited in the early 1990s.


“Next morning I flew to Karaganda, the second city of Kazakhstan.  This was no more than a feint into the heart of a steppeland spreading thinly peopled towards Siberia, for you could travel it for weeks and encounter no one.  Far down, under the wings of our groaning Tupolev, drifted an unchanging, dun-coloured earth, where cloud-shadows moved in grey lakes and there was no glint of life.  It was hard to look on it without misgiving.  In these secretive deserts and the grasslands lapping them to the north, the Russians had for decades concealed an archipelago of labour camps, nuclear testing sites, ballistic missiles and archaic heavy industry.  It was the dumping ground of unwanted nations.  Around the handful of those exiles it hammered into stature – Dostoevsky soldiered here in disgrace, Solzhenitsyn festered – millions more succumbed into death or obscurity.  Trotsky spent two years banished in Almaty, before the murderer’s ice-pick found him in Mexico.”


From time to time the land had floated visions.  In the late 1950s Russians and Ukrainians flooded into the northern steppes to plant a hundred million acres of wheat and barley on Kruschev’s ‘Virgin Lands’ (lands not virgin at all, but Kazakh pastures) and for a few years the scheme flowered spectacularly, before soil erosion called it to heel…” (p. 337)


“But the testing sites near Semipalatinsk have left half a million people ill with radioactive sickness, some of them – in Stalin’s time – exposed intentionally as guinea-pigs.  Over a region now riddled with unfissioned plutonium, some 500 bombs, exploded over forty years, have undermined a bewildered populace with cancers, leukemia, heart disease, birth defects and blindness, so that the first act of an independent Kazakhstan in 1990 was to ban all tests on its territory.  All across this blighted country, lead smelters and copper foundries, cement and phosphates works still plunge the skies and waters in poisonous effluent, and some two million Kazakhs and Russians are rumoured chronically sick from the pollution.” (p. 337)


In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan the author met a writer named Kadyr.  He informed Thubron of the following problem:  “We’ve hundreds of writers, but no money…and our publishers can’t get paper.  It used to come to us from Russia, but now everything’s atrophied.  So at last we have our freedom to write – but no paper!” His lank hair and glasses lent him a juvenile charm which drifted on and off.  An ingrained wariness pervaded him.  Questions turned him vague. ‘There was always too much that we couldn’t say. We couldn’t draw on our traditions or write our own history.  Now our spiritual situation is richer, far richer, but our material one is hopeless.”

‘What did you used to write about?’

‘My novels were about nature,’ he said quickly, as if exculpating himself from something, ‘how the mountains sit in people’s spirits, and how people relate to them and to one another.  There are inhabitants of Bishkek like that, and I suppose I’m one of them…People call us ‘the mountain people’ because we’ve never really left the wilds.”

To write about the mountains, I supposed, was a covert way of expressing patriotism.

‘It wasn’t dangerous,’ he said, ‘Nature is nature, whoever is in power.’”

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“Lost Heart of Asia” Has Compelling “turn-of-phrases”

The “Steppelands” section about Kazakhstan does not appear until the eleventh chapter in Colin Thubron’s book titled “The Lost Heart of Asia.” Seemingly Thubron was preoccupied with describing his early 1990s visits to the newly independent countries more exotic, such as, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan first.  His final chapter 12 ends with his visit to Kyrgyzstan.  Perhaps we might have walked past each other on the Bishkek streets during his visit while I taught at a university in Bishkek from fall of 1993 to 1995.  But first Thubron starts out with explaining his adventure to Kazakhstan:


“I was entering the fringes of a formidable solitude.  For almost a thousand miles Kazakhstan stretched northward in rolling grasslands and dust-coloured desert.  For hours, on all sides, the land was the same, a treeless wilderness under a dead sky.  It lay like a caesura in Asia’s heart, as if this were the earth’s natural state of rest.  Here I was out of the tilled oases and into the nomadic hinterland, from where centuries of warrior-herdsmen had descended on the valleys of the south…”


“…For more than a million square miles this opaque nation sprawled between China and the Caspian.  It was the size of Western Europe.  Its people had coalesced as late as the fifteenth century from Turkic tribes which had swept in from the northeast nearly 1000 years before, and from Mongol invaders, and the Russians found them sprinkled over their vast plains in three confederate hordes.  As the czarist settlers inched towards the trading centres of the Uzbek valleys, and of Persia and China beyond, the Kazakhs fell first into alliance with Russia, then into servitude, until by the mid-nineteenth century they had all been overrun.  But they had still been a nomad people, who circled with their herds over huge migratory paths, and Islam sat light on them.” (p. 311)


“In time Kazakhstan became the waste-bin of Moscow’s empire.  A rash of labour-camps covered it, and Stalin transported whole unwanted peoples here during the Second World War.  Then the Soviets chose it as their prime atomic and nuclear testing site. Entire regions were envenomed by radioactive dust, while the titanic factories of an antiquated heavy industry still suffocate others in a toxic fog.”


“This was the most Russified of Central Asian states.  Its government, like most others, was composed of old Communists under a new name, barely irked by a mosquito-cloud of opposition parties.  Yet now it had sponsored a drive towards privatization which was biting deep in commerce and agriculture.  Quietly, with independence, the climate was changing.  The high native birth-rate had already lifted the Kazakh population just above the Russian, and the economic tied with Moscow were straining.  The mineral and energy resources of Kazakhstan – the biggest deposits of iron, copper, lead and zinc in the old USSR – were alerting international business, and Western companies cautiously investing in its gas and oil fields.”(p. 312)


“Yet the old people went on feeling nostalgia for the past.  Their bitterness, where it existed, fell far short of their sufferings.  In 1920-23, towards the end of the Civil War, almost a million Kazakhs died of famine, and later the forced collectivization was crueler here than anywhere in the Soviet Union.  Between 1930-33 a ferocious and chaotic campaign to settle the nomads and reduce the richer farmers led to Kazakhs burning their grain and slaughtering their cattle rather than let them fall into alien hands.  Almsto half the livestock of the steppes vanished.  Some people fled towards China, but only a quarter survived the trek; others were killed by the Bolsheviks.  Out of a Kazakh population of only four million, over one million died of famine or disease. By the end of the decade the Great Terror had decimated officials, teachers and whole general of early Kazakh communists.  Yet even now, with independence, people scarcely spoke of it.  The tragedy had descended on them impersonally, perhaps, on native and Russian alike, and was scarcely scrutable.” (p. 314)


Author Thubron talked to a 40 year old man who was Kazakh.  He said the following: “…Afterwards the famine came. The old people still speak of it, but there are hardly any old people left. Almost my whole village died of hunger then.’

‘How do you forgive that?’

“It was very big.  Three million of us died, you know.’ He gave a dulled, compensatory smile.  He did not try to explain anything.  This blackest estimate of three million was becoming truth all over the nation. ‘But that’s all over now.  We’re not haters.  Our people get on all right with the Russians, I’ve plenty of Russian friends.’” (p. 316)

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