The Economist: The other side of the looking glass

A fascinating trip

I recently returned stateside after a month of travel in the five Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is a phenomenally fascinating part of the planet, and a place that reminds me how fortunate I am to be an American.

Arriving in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan at 2 a.m., driving down a four-lane highway lined with beautiful lights and countless marble buildings, some outlined in neon, is like waking up on the other side of the looking glass. There are no cars and no people, but then again, it is 2 a.m. Still, the next day there were no cars and no people, although there were dozens of new multi-story apartment buildings. 

Our guide warned us to be cautious when asking him questions with others around. He would be the one to get in trouble, not us. If one is accused of saying something negative about the president, she is taken to a sanatorium for therapy and never heard from again. “Even the walls have ears,” he warned.

The border crossing into Uzbekistan involved eight passport checks, a retinal scan and a mile walk pulling a suitcase along a pitted sidewalk dotted with armed soldiers. Going into Tajikistan was similar, just a shorter walk. Uzbekistan is anxious to keep out the drug trade that flows between Afghanistan and Europe, so it has closed most of its border crossings.

Of the five countries, Tajikistan is considered the poorest, according to official data. Output per person is only $2,300 compared to $3,800 in Uzbekistan and $14,100 in Kazakhstan. Oddly though, Tajikistan appeared to be much more prosperous than Uzbekistan. The roads are better and the towns are bustling with activity. Vibrant is the word that kept coming to mind when I thought about the economy.

Fortunately for us, one of our co-travelers is a friend of the U.S. ambassador in Dushanbe, and we were invited to dinner and a briefing at the embassy. “What is going on?” I asked the economics officer, a Tajik economist. He explained that the No. 1 source of income is remittances. One-third of men of working age are employed outside the country, primarily in Russia. The second largest source is the illegal drug trade. Tajikistan shares a border with Afghanistan. Other sources are the fresh produce stands sprinkled down the streets. None of this, of course, is officially reported.

I had visited Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in 1994, when I was teaching economics at Moscow State University, so I was anxious to see how things had changed. The most obvious change is the number of cars. In contrast to Turkmenistan, Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) was one massive, chaotic traffic jam. There were few traffic lights or police and no one paid much mind anyhow. Outside the cities, most of the highways are two-lane but the center line is ignored and people pass on hills and curves.

Two things struck me about this fascinating part of the world. First, Chinese men and women are plentiful. I don’t think there was a single time when I commented on a good road or tunnel through the mountains and wasn’t told, “Oh, it was built by the Chinese.” The old Silk Road, the trade route from China to Europe for centuries, is alive and well. And, today the Chinese are building strong, positive relationships with these governments and people.

Second, in four of the five countries we were told that most people say life was better when they were part of the Soviet Union. Everyone had a job and a place to live, and goods were inexpensive, even though there were lines and shortages. 

We need to keep these things in mind as we sort out our relations with our global playmates.

Author’s note: This will be my last column for ColoradoBiz. I’ve enjoyed writing these columns since 2007 and I’ve especially enjoyed all of the comments you’ve emailed me.

Categories: Economy/Politics, Magazine Articles