Come to Central Asia
Experience a Fascinating Cultural Tradition
In addition to a light handshake, a common Central Asian greeting involves placing your right hand above your heart and bowing your head slightly.
Following the 1992 breakup of the Soviet Union, the five newborn nations of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have found themselves mired in the growing pains of post-socialist independence. Which is not to say that Central Asia is no longer an interesting or accessible part of the world. Quite the contrary: for travelers who want to experience a fascinating cultural heritage and tradition there is perhaps no better place to head than to Central Asia. The artistic, literary and intellectual contribution the people of Central Asia left on society is remarkable; the region's idyllic setting of nomadic pastures and soaring mountain crests inspired some of the finest poetic writing the world has ever seen. But, an iron-fisted colonial Soviet socialist rule kept the people of the Central Asian republics at bay and cut off from much of the industrial and commercial development of the 20th century. The political and ethnic entities themselves were in fact created by Stalin's imposing nation-building program as a means of stifling nationalist sentiment.
By far the most impoverished and underdeveloped nation in Central Asia, Tajikistan's economy was held back by a ravaging civil war in the mid-1990s. But now, it is surging ahead with local development, and the nation's capital of Dushanbe is teeming with loads of expatriate U.N. and NGO staff zipping around town in sparkling SUVs, an indication that positive things here are brewing. A U.S. State Department travel advisory was recently lifted, meaning that tourism is slowly coming to an area that used to be off limits to outsiders. The Pamir mountains in the east are rated second only to the Himalayas in their intimidating beauty, and in the hills below you’ll find hiking and trekking havens that give Nepal a run for its money. If you can manage to get a visa—not yet an entirely glitch-free process—even a short visit here is well worth your time. And for those able to take a longer sojourn, Tajikistan offers ample opportunity for work and volunteerism.
The ninth largest country in the world, this mammoth landscape of steppe and mountains was used in the early 1900s by the Soviets to house gulags for the likes of Dostoyevsky and Trotsky. Now that the Communist permafrost has melted away, it offers superb trekking opportunities rivaling the Indian and Nepali ascents. The gentle city of Almaty, makes an excellent stopover, with ample air and overland connections and easy access to Kazakhstan's nearby alpine landscape.
With some of the oldest settled cities in the world, including the must-see destinations of 5th-century Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, Uzbekistan is the most popular republic for travelers. Like the other republics, travel is cheap here because of the appetite for western currency. The Tashkent market and embassy bombings in 1999 and 2004 temporarily scared off visitors, but tourist activity is returning —along with improved security measures—and the capital makes a great stop-over destination. Do not miss an opportunity to visit Uzbekistan’s central region and explore the visually striking mosques, mausoleums, and madrasas that are Islamic Central Asia's historical soul. Indeed, the Persian poetry that originated in meccas like Bukhara and Samarkand is still considered to be among the most profound and beautiful writing ever penned. Uzbekistan is also one of the most accessible of the countries in Central Asia, with direct flights from London and several other European cities.
Hissor Fortress, the 18th century residence of Turkic viziers under emir of Bukhara, is a short drive from the Tajik Capital of Dushanbe.
In order to be issued a visa you'll generally have to follow the antediluvian process of showing proof of both airline booking and hotel reservations. The following web sites can help with visa and logistical travel arrangements: www.centralasiatravel.com, www.stantours.com, www.fantasticasia.net.
If you're looking to spend more than a few months here, American Councils (www.americancouncils.org) runs a program sponsored by the Department of State that offers summer- and year-long study and homestay programs in nearly all the countries of Central Asia as well as greater Eurasia. Several American universities also offer study abroad programs to Central Asia.
If you're interested in working here, one of the best ways of experiencing the country and culture is by teaching English. You get to meet and interact with local people and you don't really need any special skills or qualifications to find a job (though having a TEFL certificate can make it easier).
If you're looking for something more directly related to a vocational interest, the best route is to contact one of the numerous NGOs here directly. Counterpart International (www.counterpart.org), is a great resource for finding information on NGOs and other international organizations currently working in the region.
For short- and long-term volunteer experience, check out the following organizations: www.volunteerabroad.com, www.vfp.org, www.peacecorps.gov.
ROGER NORUM is a graduate student at Oxford University. He spent this summer in Tajikistan studying Classical Persian.