Posts tagged The Lost Heart of Asia

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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“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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