The ‘Stans’ of Central Asia – A Beginner’s Introduction


Compiled by Ross Hunter, sometime Geography teacher, Baku

The world’s countries furthest from the sea are usually furthest from our consciousness, too. Here is an oversimplified introduction to the five ‘Stans’ of central Asia.

1. Where?

Along with neighbours Afghanistan and Mongolia, these are the countries furthest from the sea, by many miles. All are landlocked; Uzbekistan shares the unique distinction, with Lichtenstein, of being ‘double landlocked’ – surround entirely by countries which themselves have no seacoast. Being landlocked is one of the most accurate predictors of a country being economically poor.

2. What in common?

Some simple over generalisations cover all five, and large parts of their immediate neighbours, too. Dry, mountainous, low population density, low incomes except where oil and gas money has arrived recently, agriculture mostly traditional and extensive (herding), apart from cotton irrigated at the cost of the Aral Sea.

All are ethnically mixed, with a predominance of the Turkic peoples (except Tajikistan) who stretch from Siberia and western china right across to Istanbul. Islam is the majority religion, but with many other religions, and a general tolerance of diversity (with some poor exceptions).

All have been invaded over the centuries from all directions: this is a story far too complex for this little piece – look it up, and you will find a terrifying list of names, and complexity, including Ghenghis, Attila, Golden and other Hordes, Huns, Tamburlaine and more. The horse was domesticated around here, and the people of the Steppes live on horseback: migration is easy and often necessary.

All were conquered by Russia in the late C19th; and all suffered under Stalin. All left the crumbling USSR in 1991; and all have found the transition to modern economies and governance to be rocky paths, with limited democracy. Most have had to export many of their people, to seek work in Moscow and everywhere else, from Beijing to Baku and beyond.

Mountainous Tajikistan fits the general picture less well than the others; but what is true here also applies in all directions, including across the Caspian.

3. A different postcard from each country.

Kazakhstan – The size of western Europe with the population of Benelux: the Steppe, deserts and mountains are very, very large and even emptier. A country working hard to transform itself, and escape from the disasters of Soviet times, which left displaced populations, gulags, atomic waste, and destroyed the Aral Sea. The word ‘Kazakh’ means free spirit, and implies travelling on horseback: a complex history and etymology seems to link it to ‘Cossack’. Astana is on the same latitude as London, but five time zones East.

Turkmenistan – Historically on The Silk Road, now on a gas and oil field. 80% of the country is desert, with mountains to 10,000m in the SW and SE corners. A strong, centralised and personally led government since Soviet times.

Uzbekistan – The central country, the only one to border all the other four, plus Afghanistan. Extreme continental climate, so expect above +40 deg C in summer and below -20 deg C in winter. Home to huge forced movements of population, and today still an exporter of workers. With Kazakhstan, home to some of the world’s great archaeological sites.

Kyrgyzstan – created by the 40 clans, each shown by a ray on the flag, along with the roof of a Yurt, nomadic tent. The world’s country furthest from the sea, and home to the second largest mountain lake (after Titicaca). Some of the most beautiful scenery, too.

Tajikistan – The most remote and isolated country, the most mountainous, and hardest to summarise. Fully half of national income is from remittances from workers abroad. The flag and the language are close to Persian/Iran. The few who have visited say it is the greatest place to visit.

Now go and take your own pictures; write your own stories and postcards.