Children of Central Asia

Little Uzbek smiling girl in green sweater

Khiva, Uzbekistan, September 2008.

Pretty and photogenic 10 year-old Dinaza, shy but putting out beautiful smiles, carrying a pack of pasta, she took a piece of our heart with her, before we crossed back into the old, walled city. Muslim Central Asia was much different from the Arab countries where people at best shake their head and at worst run away when they see a camera. Here, so many people begged us to take them in photo, and then they thanked us! Of course this is the digital age, and they can see themselves on the little screen, but far from everybody asked for that. It’s more like the former Soviet influence and the absence of mass tourism shaped a more genuine, less money oriented, open people. We also noticed they were more politically and historically conscious, like the Azeri immigration official at the Caspian ferry dock who looked at Blanca’s place of birth, smiled, and shouted, El pueblo, unido, jamás sera vencido !


Baku, Azerbaijan, September 2008.

We got stuck 5 days in this oil capital because of next-door megalomaniac Saskawhatever who tried to grab Ossetia hoping he could take advantage of the moribund days of his friend the Monkey. That was 3 weeks before our departure and we almost could not cross Georgia, but we did, then got stuck on the shore of the Caspian Sea. A train bridge had been destroyed in Georgia, so, no freight was coming into Azerbaijan and, as a customs official told me at the port, No train, no ferry! The boat carries freight across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan and Central Asia. Passengers are accessory, more like a nuisance, they wouldn’t give us any hard news during my 3 daily visits to the port, just, Nyet ferry!

Thankfully Azeri and Georgian food is delicious and Azeri kids delightful, at least those we bumped into in the back alleys of the old city. Ismail (here with Ibrahim), a 10-year old with a blue Tom-en-Jerry t-shirt, was very expressive and made my companion laugh hard. I was shooting and had not noticed. He was eating a bag of chips but was trying so hard to get my attention and have me shoot him too that he lost track of it. When he realized the others had taken advantage to finish his chips, he was so upset that he hit a wall with his fist, a retarded 12-year old girl mimicked him, only to cry from pain. Their address had Gasser Dongya, Red Door instead of a number.


Murgab, Pamirs, Tajikistan, October 2008.

Beautiful kids, full of life and hope and energy, Mongolian or Indo-European faces, like Tajik Sayora in the Pamirs’ second, yet quite rundown town at 3,700 m high. “They have the egg face of the Arameans, who are Indo-Europeans”, explained Russian, Turkmen resident Oleg. “We call them dolichotcephal. We oppose them to the Uzbeks who have a round, bull face, brajotcephal, like also the Kyrgyz and the Kazakhs”. Long, and short, head in Greek. Whatever the racial theories, whatever her nationality, whatever the proportions of her head, Sayora is one of those we can’t forget, and we are so sad we probably won’t see them again or at best once in several years. I sent photos to over twenty people, a letter to Baku, Azerbaijan and one to Fergana, Uzbekistan were returned as undeliverable, only one 14-year old replied.


Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan, October 2008.

Of all of this village’s many portraits Guli’s was the most deserving. The 12 years old did all the chores of the house. We were the only guests but the family was big. Upon arrival she had served us tea and sweets on a lovely terrace overlooking a narrow valley, the place was cute, we had a room in a small, independent pavilion overlooking the master house. Güli brought us a candle when lights went off, she brought us driver Murat too who, instead of walking around with us, had downed a couple of vodkas in the village.


Bulgun, Karakum desert, Turkmenistan, September 2008.

A few stone houses with corrugated metal roofs, some yurts, a few camels sitting, stacks of dry branches, a potholed, dirt road, and lots of kids running around, this is the desert. The capital is another story, president Turkmenbashi (the Father of Turkmens) is trying to break Guiness book records. The tallest flag on a pole by the entrance to the National Museum, the biggest carpet hanging inside that museum, the tallest minaret in Kipchak, 91 meters erected at independence in 1991 (hence the height) in the Guy’s hometown, tens of white marble apartment towers (for state employees), golden domed official buildings, 6-lane avenues for precious little traffic – to cross one is like walking a block of house elsewhere – equally large lawns that would make happy any golf player.

By the way, who is constructing all this? French consortium Buig, also spelled Bouyges. And these apartments come fully equipped with Siemens products, down to the microwave. It doesn’t matter “authorities have continued censorship, cracked down on dissent and kept limits on access to information” [Reuters, March 19, 2009]. On the same day this news appeared, Sarkozy’s Secretary of State for Foreign Trade Anne-Marie Idrac was accompanying French businessmen in an official visit, saying: “Old close relations connect two countries and cooperation greatly develops” [Trend News, March 19, 2009].

Megalomania is the only term that comes to mind, just think of the watering of these lawns in the middle of one of world’s largest deserts, the same ecological catastrophe as golf courses in Thailand. And lights continuously on, even in semi-finished buildings, multi-color fountains & multi-color construction cranes, the Education ministry is housed in one tower in the shape of an open book, the Health ministry in another one representing a cobra, etc etc etc

Jared Diamond could have written his book just for Turkmenbashi: Collapse — How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Imagine when gas and oil reserves end, let alone some other ecological disaster.


Tuyuk, Xinjiang, China, November 2008.

A mud village tuck in between bare hills, at the entrance of yet one more canyon with a thousand Buddha caves, I guess thousand means a lot! A dozen kids surrounded us with leader Nuri, a 9-year old smiling girl in a red sweater and white boots, with a crew cut. We chatted and took photos, then a stern-looking mullah came by and chased the kids away, happy with his intervention he entered the mosque. We wandered through the mostly empty streets and started for the canyon when villagers tried to stop us, Chinese are so bureaucratic and stubborn. Anyway, not much remains from these caves.


Kokpek, Kazakhstan, October 2008.

In a market village, on the way to the remote and wild quarters where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China meet. There was not much to see in the whole country, a flat steppe, no monuments (except Turkistan’s mausoleum), the most expensive prices anywhere, a big bureaucracy, and especially, people were the least friendly of all the Stans, so we decided to respect the stay limit of 5 days without registration.