Christian Bleuer is an independent researcher and consultant based in Central Asia. His research work focuses on security and governance, as well as regional connections to Afghanistan. He is the co-author of the book “Tajikistan: A Political and Social History” (Australian National University Press, 2013) and helped compile the book “Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography” (Afghanistan Analysts Network, Kabul, 2019).
In this interview, he talks about his personal experience traveling around Central Asia, his favorite places and routes, and gives helpful advice both for travelers going to Central Asia and for governments on how to attract them.
Traveling around the world has already become mainstream, but Central Asia is still “terra incognito”? Where and when was your first journey?
My first visit to Central Asia was to Tajikistan in 2009, a long-delayed arrival in the region after my planned 2005 trip to Uzbekistan was canceled by the fallout of the Andijon Massacre (I had hoped to go on a language program trip after studying Uzbek for three years at Indiana University). By this time Tajikistan had already been in my Lonely Planet travel guidebook for over a decade, so I was hardly in unknown lands. But I was certainly in a place that was not friendly to independent visitors. I eventually secured a tourist visa after an earlier rejection and made detailed plans. These plans were, of course, derailed immediately. The first hurdle was the guest house in Dushanbe that canceled my reservation (“the government has taken your room,” they said via email the day before I arrived, with no further details).
So after unfriendly experiences with the government and the local business community, I was lucky to meet some “real” Tajiks. At the boarding gate in the Istanbul airport, I started talking to a group of Tajiks soldiers returning from training overseas. Two Tajik brothers in the group invited me to the southern city of Qurghonteppa. They waited hours for me as my visa was processed at the Dushanbe airport, and I jumped in a car with them and drove south to a village near Qurghonteppa (after, of course, buying fresh bread at 6 am). I was then hosted by their family and fed an extreme amount of food – the usual treatment in the rural south. After gaining a large amount of weight, I was eventually released from their hospitality. The soldiers summoned their nephew and he brought me to an English language school where I volunteered as a teacher and made friends that I still talk to today, though they are almost all now working in Russia.
The rest of the experience includes the usual assortment of strange Central Asia anecdotes: a hotel refusing to give me a room, being robbed by police officers in Dushanbe, a Georgian restaurant that served me hot dogs on a plate with ketchup, stomach problems, bumping into the world’s most uncharismatic Evangelical Christian missionary, and making as many new friends as I could handle.
I was later informed that Tajikistan by 2009 was safe and boring and that the real experiences were to be had in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I now of course tell everybody who visits that 2009 was when travelers had the “real” experience.
Among the first Western travelers to the region were Marco Polo and Arminius Vambery, who inspired you more? Was there even a traveler to whom you looked for inspiration?
I can’t relate to most historical travelogues, because most of them were well-funded, well-connected, and well-supported people with some sort of official or high standing (and maybe even a letter from “the Amir” or the Tsarist foreign ministry). For example, the German explorer Willi Rickmers was the son of a man who today would likely qualify as a billionaire, and alongside him rode a representative of the Amir. Others were just spies, and interested in spy things.
And some were liars. I think it’s no coincidence that modern travelers who try to tell the story of an unbelievable adventure turn out to be telling falsehoods – it’s because you can no longer tell unverifiable stories, as a certain American mountain climber in Pakistan attempted, riding it all the way to a New York Times best-selling book of his incredible adventure before another American mountain climber (and anthropologist) started to unravel his story, which ended with Pakistanis getting involved in debunking his lies.
So I am cynical. I find old travelogues either honest and dull or entertaining, but likely mostly fiction. Probably there is a traveler with an amazing and honest story, but he was likely a semi-illiterate pilgrim who did not write down his tale.
So I take inspiration instead from actual fiction, from novels to film. When I was younger this would include anything from The Adventures of Tintin (even though Tibet was a close as he got to Central Asia) and old Hollywood adventure films set overseas. Now I sort through reports by Russian mountain climbers, looking for photos and descriptions of rarely visited mountain valleys and passes that seem interesting. I also go on Facebook pages dedicated to a certain mountain or rural districts to see photos and videos posted by locals.
What is your favorite place in the region and why? In general, where should a western traveler go depending on his interests? Is it all right to go to Uzbekistan for architectural monuments, and to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for nature? Or is everything more complex?
My favorite place in Central Asia is the Sari Khosor valley in Tajikistan. It is the only perfectly peaceful place where I can completely relax. And most importantly, the river is not cold – so I can go swimming whenever I want for as long as I want.
But in general, I suggest more common destinations for potential travelers to the region. I suggest for people to skip Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and to do an Uzbekistan (history/architecture) visit combined with a trip to Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan (mountains, nature). That’s hardly original advice, but that itinerary equals the best chance for an enjoyable trip. Of course, I do my best to tell people to do their research: walking around Samarkand in August will be too hot, and visiting Tajikistan’s mountains in May is really not recommended as there is still too much snow.
Of course, others will say that it is more complex, and that Uzbekistan has amazing natural spots, and that history can be enjoyed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Continuing the question, if you were asked to make an ideal itinerary in the region, what would it be?
August in Kyrgyzstan’s mountains (Karakol trekking, Song Kul horse riding, Arslanbob hiking, and a trip to Peak Lenin) then Tajikistan for all of September (Pamir Highway, Fann Mountains, and then add a third less-visited mountain region like Rasht or Kuhistoni Mastchoh). Then in October after the temperatures have dropped, visit Uzbekistan and see all the historical spots (Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, etc.). After that, come back to Tajikistan for two weeks in the lowlands (desert, grasslands) that are now cool enough to visit.
Central Asia is not yet familiar with mass tourism. In your opinion, as an avid traveler, how should the region attract tourists? What prevents the development of mass tourism and does Central Asia even need it?
Uzbekistan needs no help in attracting tourists, and Kyrgyzstan is really starting to do well with mountain tourism. Tajikistan could do well with mountain tourism, but many problems remain. The main problem with tourism developing across the region are the restrictions on free enterprise and the terrible business environment. Starting and running a business in Central Asia is a gladiator sport with a different opponent every day. Also, Central Asia has not quite figured out western European and American travelers as has Thailand, Morocco, Peru, Turkey, etcetera. This will take time.
Starting and running a business in Central Asia is a gladiator sport with a different opponent every day.
Does Central Asia need it? Anybody who says that mass tourism damages local societies needs to quit being so self-righteous and compare it to cotton farming, industrial production, labor migration to Russia, miserable wages in dead-end jobs, back-breaking agricultural work on industrial farms, and a thousand other job sectors in Central Asia that destroy the environment, wreck people’s health, and provide little opportunity beyond subsistence living. Tourism won’t do much as it would always be a small part of the economy in Central Asia, but it would do more good than harm. Don’t worry, Central Asia won’t ever attract roaming groups of drunk foreigners as does Prague, nor will it become an expat slum-like parts of Bangkok.
Is there a place in Central Asia where you have not yet been, but are going to go when the quarantine restrictions are lifted?
Yes, Kuhistoni Mastchoh district in Tajikistan’s upper Zeravshan Valley. The northern areas are restricted border zones (with Kyrgyzstan), but the southern areas are free and open. The only foreigners who visit the high mountain areas here are Russian climbing expeditions, and their photos are spectacular.
All photos by