Silk Road to Ruin

Who are the Stans. What are the Stans? Where are the Stans and what in the hell are they up to?

These are questions I never considered asking, let alone considered implication wise until I read Ted Rall’s Silk Road To Ruin.

The Stans are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and to a lesser extent Afghanistan and wanna-be member the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that really is an integral part of China. The Stans are all Central Asian countries, an area that is little-known and barely covered by the media, who’s more much interested in covering manufactured wars in Iraq and Lebanon, and, rising with a bullet, an invasion soon to be coming right down Main Street Iran . What the Stans are up to is a more difficult question to answer and involves politics, oil (perhaps a synonym for politics), history and geography.

Rall has visited the Central Asia region a number of times, on his own, with his wife (they must have a real strong marriage based on the conditions described in the book), as a tour guide for a group of volunteer travelers (read naïve and/or deranged) and with friends.

To say that conditions are difficult would be an understatement. Poor bordering on inedible food, countless border checks/shakedowns, bad roads and constant violence make a visit to this esoteric part of the world an adventure for the knowledgeable, tough and slightly crazed. Admittedly Rall travels off the beaten path, so the conditions he encounters are not totally representative of the entire region, that boasts fine hotels, restaurants and cultural icons in the larger cities.

But consider this from a chapter titled “Good Eats:”

Thanks to the trip’s previous gastronomic attacks I had already migrated from my loosest to tightest belt loop. (I subsequently borrowed an awl to punch new holes.) I had become accustomed to shitting at least once an hour …

How much worse could things get?

Let’s just say, “worse:

Our waiter broke our dehydrated reverie with a flourish. “voila he answered, depositing two covered plates on the plastic checkered tablecloth covering our plastic table …

But what stone cold food it was!

“What is it,” I asked Alan not expecting an answer …

Alan picked up his (skewer) and sniffed at it. “Sawdust, mixed with urine,” he guessed …

Then we scanned the perimeter of the patio.” The waiter’s still not here,” Alan said, flinging his meatpod at the dogs a second before I did the same.

The ravenous beasts ran up to our offerings, tongues dangling, paws bleeding from glass cuts. Then something terrible happened.

Alpha Male took a small bite. A puzzled expression crossed his face. He let out a horrified yelp and ran off at full speed, his front paws swinging between his back ones as his comrades followed himBear in mind that these animals were at death’s door, scavenging for sustenance in blazing heat.

The above gourmandish experience was typical of all but a few meals in the region, and hotel accommodations were just as good–rooms with beds without mattresses, hordes of savage mosquitoes, large rates, leaking roofs. Perhaps what one should expect in the true middle of fourth world nowhere?

Rall mixes these sometimes darkly humorous riffs with cartoons, some over 15 pages long, and chapters described each country from politics to geography to religion to the populace. Each country has a sidebar treatment of one page complete with map and pertinent facts. There are also numerous black-and-white photos, most taken by the author and his wife, and many courtesy of the US Department of Defense. The mix of narrative, sidebars, cartoons and photos is visually intriguing and helps make a complicated subject much easier to comprehend, to digest.

Rall, 43, is a syndicated editorial cartoonist and columnist for Universal Press Syndicate. Author of the award-winning To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogue, He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and two-time winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. He frequently travels to and writes about Central Asia.

The values of Silk Road To Ruin are many, chief among them are thorough descriptions and analysis of the political and cultural dynamics of an area few of us are familiar with, let alone have ever traveled to. And chapters like “Lenin Lives,” “Checkpoint Madness,” “High Anxiety,” “Eco Hell” and the aforementioned “Good Eats” take the book out of the realm of political science ennui and into the sharp, if not dust and windblown, terrain of educated adventure travel. Rall clearly loves this part of the world as evidenced by the sections of passionate writing, the thoroughness of his research and the numerous trips he’s made to the region.

Here’s an example from “High Anxiety,” a chapter on “The most dangerous highway in the world,” the Karakoram Highway, KKH for short:

Here the highway runs anywhere from five hundred to a thousand feet above the river. Glaciers turn the mountains wet and slick, releasing saturated buildups occasionally in the form of mudslides. Downed power lines crisscross the road; our bus drove right over sparkling high-tension wires. I lifted my feet off the floor. Missing guardrails and Telephone poles–and small Muslim tomb markers topped with a crescent moon–offer mute testimony to those who came before and never left.

One of the more stunning revelations, and there are a number of these, in the book concerned Kazakhstan, a country with newly-discovered oil reserves that well most likely exceed those of Saudi Arabia. The problem is that Kazakhstan is landlocked, far away from any sea ports, so lengthy pipelines need to be built. And guess what? Three of the most logical routes run through Afghanistan, Iran and along the northern border of Iraq. I’m trying to recall where we’ve been engaged in wars recently and where we may be headed next. Perhaps there’s a pattern showing her or there.

Rall also devotes a chapter to a regional sport called Buzkashi, an activity that makes the NFL seem like badminton. The object of the endeavor is for a horseman to pickup a decapitated, blood-drained and gutted goat (a sheep or calf carcass may be substituted) soaked in salted water the night before and race past a defined goal line. The only problem is that there are dozens of other mounted maniacs armed with quirts and whips turning the whole thing into a bloodbath. Men are blinded, crippled, maimed and killed. Twenty-two participants lost their lives during the semi-finals one year. Prizes include televisions, dishwashers or “A brand new car!” Usually a luxury Russian Volga that seats nobody comfortably. The finest and fiercest games are played on the outskirts of Detonable, the capital of the Republic of Tajikistan. A quaint variation on Buckish practiced in the northern provinces substitutes a decapitated and disemboweled human for the goat. There many subtle nuances and variations to this ancient sport that Rall delineates with the precision of a true aficionado.

My only minor complaint, and it’s not Rall’s fault, is the poor line editing of the book. There are a number typos, words left out or used twice (as in “the the”),

The bottom line with Rall’s Silk Road To Ruin is that this is an inspired work written with accuracy, wit and passion about what is already becoming and extremely important corner of the planet.

JOHN HOLT is the author of numerous books, including the gripping novel Hunted, and Coyote Nowhere: In Search of America’s Lost Frontier. He lives in Livingston, Montana and can be reached at: hunted@wispwest.net


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