Friday, 20 April 2018

The Lost Heart of Asia

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I am just rereading Colin Thubron's The Lost Heart of Asia which I first read in the mid-90s, about his journey to Central Asia just after the USSR split up. 


It is quite marvellous and the perfect introduction to Uzbekistan. I wish I had reread it before my recent visit, though I did read his Shadow of the Silk Road about his return in 2006.

Uzbekistan is a place whose heart has been ripped out by communism. Lovely people but half destroyed by atheism, materialism, socialist internationalism and deracination. 

Had the khanates of Samarkand, Bokhara, Kokand and Khiva been British not Russian protectorates they might be something like the UAE now, with gold and plutonium instead of oil. Though thinking about Dubai that does not seem such an attractive idea.


For decades I only travelled in post-Communist Europe and I still find it rather depressing to go to Western Europe. All that shininess and affluence make my heart sink. Now I travel around Western Europe because it has the best monuments and to exotic places like Iraq and Mozambique, because I wanted to see the world, but I realise it is only Eastern Europe and the especially the former USSR that I really love - where people are human and normal. 

I loved Uzbekistan, as I expected to. Colin Thubron says he is in love with the whole of Asia but for some reason I am not.

China, Vietnam and Laos which still are Communist and Cambodia, which was Communist, do not greatly interest me. I wonder why not.

Is it because Uzbekistan was ruled by Russians and is therefore less Asian? No, because Indochina was ruled by the French. 


A lot of it is to do with the attraction of the Muslim world. I am a proud orientalist who thought Edward Said's critique of orientalism vapid and uninteresting. I found Pakistan more appealing than India.

The attraction of the Mohametan world and the former Soviet bloc. Former Soviet Central Asia is where the two circles overlap and it has the poetry of inaccessibility and obscurity.

"At the moment you see we have no feeling about ourselves as a nation. History is the key and the Soviets took ours away. We were sold a mass of Bolshevik stories and nothing of our own." An Uzbek talking to Colin Thubron in 1992. 


I detect faint echoes of this in present day Western Europe.

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