“You’re having too much fun there,” my best friend from home commented on my recent bout of travel in Central Asia.
He was probably right.
While I have to say that I ultimately have fun everywhere I travel, this state of being runs in a higher gear in Central Asia. It’s no mystery why: I just really like the people here. I like talking with them, I like going out and doing things with them, I like drinking with them. It’s really that simple.
Sure, I like everyone, everywhere, but there is just a way that the society in Central Asia — and in the post-Soviet states in general — reacts towards foreigners that makes interacting within this sphere overtly enjoyable: they treat you like a normal human. You’re not viewed as money on legs or as having two heads here, you’re just a person — a person that the people here seem to be as much interest in talking with as you have in talking with them.
Throughout the Soviet period people and cultures were really mixed up in Central Asia. Entire villages in the Northern Caucasus were transplanted in Kazakhstan, untold numbers of people were exiled here, and millions were moved around the USSR to work on various projects and initiatives like pieces on a game board. While the individual identities of the myriad cultures of this realm remained intact, they did so under an umbrella “Soviet” identity. The lasting effect today is a unique type of cosmopolitan society that is relatively open to outsiders. Mixing this with Central Asia’s built-in sense of “nomad” hospitality, and traveling here becomes something incredibly engaging.
To put it in one blunt phrase: the people of Central Asia are accessible. My playground has many swings and slides here.
Central Asia is a span of the world that’s prime territory for travelers who like people. This may sound like a strange thing to say — what traveler doesn’t like people? But when you look at the places that most people tend to travel to, the preference seems to be gawking at piles of old rocks than interacting with living humans. The social accessibility of tourist towns is one tick from nilch.
As far as I know there are no real big ticket tourist sites in Central Asia. Maybe there’s some ancient Silk Road cities that have been Disney-fied by UNESCO in Uzbekistan or something, but that’s about it. This lack of big attractions seems to keep mass tourism at bay and visitors from being solely viewed as customers. I don’t believe that Central Asia is the last frontier of tourism — there is just too much nothing to see here. Hanging out in Astana with Jon from Moscow simply doesn’t hold much weight in a tourist brochure. This is a place that is about the people, not the attractions.
That said, once you really engage this place it is the full of those particular WTF?-type experiences that you travel for — i.e. the stuff you write home about. Sitting at a bar wearing a green army helmet while a scantly clad woman makes you chug a succession of flaming drinks while systematically bashing you over the head with shovel, a fire extinguisher, and an empty beer keg as everybody cheers is something I don’t believe I’ve ever had happen to me before.