The 'Stans' project

Traveling to some of the most unknown, obscure and misunderstood countries in the world.To show that we shouldn’t always believe our prejudices. To have authentic and inspiring interactions with locals. And to drink a lot of Vodka. 

please note: this page is under construction
Central Asia and Afghanistan. Our destination for this project. Central-Asia consists of the countries Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazachstan: all former Sovjet republics. The enigmatic names of these countries already have a mysterious and engrossing ring to it. It is an area on the world map that has long fascinated and intrigued me because I didn’t know anything about it. How do these countries even look like? Gray and Russian-like, I thought. Who are the people that live there? What do they do? I had no clue.

A friendly imam in Uzbekistan who said a prayer for us

In fact, very few people had an idea. When I told people we were going to Tajikistan, often they’d respond with ‘is that a country?’ And no, it is not the birthplace of the classic Greek side dish tzatziki sauce either (too bad, because: delicious). These countries barely ever make it to our news coverage and when they do it’s mostly in a negative way. The lack of publicity, messages from media and other people’s opinion would form your image of these countries. And when we know very little about something our someone, it is easy for us to perceive it as dangerous. Especially when they are far away, culturally and religiously different (Islamic) and surrounded by scary sounding countries that do reach our news coverage but exclusively in a negative form (Afghanistan, Iran, Russia).

This idea was the basis for the project. So I started my research, did my preparations, asked two of my closest friends if they would like to come on this trip and so we went.

Goals

The aim of this project was to adjust, refute, or hopefully eradicate even, the prejudices people back home have about countries like this and show them a different image. The real image. And not only the positive things, because there are plenty things not in order, but just the reality. To show that fear of something or someone you don’t know anything about is often irrational and misplaced. Everybody who had not been to these countries told me they feared it would be unsafe for me to travel there. Everybody who had been there told me it was great to travel there. The way we are influenced in our prejudices and opinion forming, by other people or the media for example,  forms the red thread of this project.

We wanted to travel Kyrgyzstan in style so we went for the Sovjet classic: the Lada Niva. (okay it was also the cheapest car) Guaranteed nods of approvement of fellow proud Niva owners in Kyrgyzstan
Characteristics: uncomfortable, smells like gasoline inside (typical for the Niva we were told), will get you through anything (extensively tested).

As they are developing countries we also want to investigate the effect of tourism. It can have a very positive impact, for example as a new way of generating income in these poorer countries. There are also downsides to it, such as commercialisation, commodification of their culture and losing authenticity. This fine line between positive and negative effects is a topic of discussion that concerns me everywhere I travel. I met and interviewed some of the local tourism organisations to learn more about this and was amazed to

learn about their already far developed views on sustainable and community based tourism, working to the ideal situation where a community profits from tourism without losing their culture and authenticity whilst protecting their natural resources. They help the locals to adapt to the challenges and possibilities of globalisation. And this is the other theme of the project, how tourism can positively or negatively influence the local population and their environment.

The luthier of Dash, Tajikistan. He handcrafts traditional instruments (called rubabs)

Central Asia is a place where life feels real. Here, the wind blows hard, the mountains are high, the heat is scorching and the snow is cold. Here, history left its mark. Here travel is not comfortable and things never go as you planned them. And here life isn’t always easy. But here life is genuine. It is place where you can make real connections with people, have true interactions, look behind the differences our culture have, and most importantly, drastically increase your tolerance of Vodka. Yes, that is a prejudice that was absolutely true, but Central Asia left a mark on my liver. .

Curiosity and a desire for authentic experiences were the driving factors behind this project. Just trying to understand one another, even though we come from completely different cultures, is immensely interesting and rewarding. Pretty soon you’ll find out that in essence we all are, and want, pretty much the same. Especially in these times of polarisation and growing xenophobia I find it more important than ever to open yourself up to understanding cultures, customs and habits that are different from your own.

Luckily for the goal of this project, I learned that indeed our prejudices were wrong. Traveling here is not unsafe at all (except Afghanistan) there is incredible scenery to be found and it is culturally very rich. And wouldn’t you know, there are actual people living here, just trying to provide for their family and looking for happiness in life, like we all do. Who’d have thought?

The incredible hospitality of people that have far less than you, was mind-blowing. A trait that is barely present in my country. Their authenticity, sincerity, friendliness and curiosity had absolutely made a lasting impact on me. People are incredibly social here and often I found myself (positively) weary at the end of the day, just from talking to everyone, getting invited everywhere and have curious eyes pointed at you all the time. Traveling here also made me re-evaluate (once again) the norms, values and way of life we uphold in the Western world. The people here laid some wisdom on me that I’ve rarely heard from your average Western citizen.

I learned to go with the flow because in Central-Asia nothing happened the way you thought or planned it.

The supervisor of the oldest mosque in Afghanistan invited us in his little hut to smoke hasj with him. We had told ourselves beforehand to accept every invitation we got to connect with locals. As a Dutchmen I was sure that I could handle my shit but let’s just say it was a blurry day and I didn’t take any good photo’s for the rest of the day. 

Instead of just touching onto the highlights, it is important to learn a bit about the countries you are seeing. Before the countries slipped into obscurity and out of people’s memory, Central Asia played a pivotal role in world history and was once the center of the earth during the Silk Road times. The west looked at the east in admiration, of art, luxury produce, science, astronomy, philosophy, everything was coming from that region and highly desired by the west. How come none of my peers knew this (including me) and we didn’t learn about this in history class in school? After the disintegration of the Silk Roads around the 18th century, the area would reappear in forming the playground of the ‘Great Game’ (a cold war of sort between Britain and Russia in 19th century) which resulted in the countries getting absorbed into the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union, drastically altering life in this region. Once an area connected to famous names that we all know; Alexander the great, Djenzghis Khan, Marco Polo. They all had business in Central-Asia. It is not like the history of the region hasn’t been uneventful, but it is largely underexposed in Western countries.

”How is it that the places that in the earliest cartography were placed at the centre of the world are now almost impossible to locate on modern maps?” – Peter Frankopan

Related stories

Image is not available

Kyrgyzstan

Tangible remains of one of the most stirring times in history can still be found in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. Abandoned uranium plants and mining towns form an eerie reminder of this past.

Slider

Photography

Browse through the galleries of the respective countries to view the images.

Afghanistan
Tajikistan
Kyrgyzstan
Uzbekistan
Turkmenistan
Kazakhstan

Film

Abandoned Soviet towns

Afghan mobile mini circus in Kabul

Behind the scenes

Publicity

Lonely Planet

Daily Mail

Lectures

We are very glad to have been able to organise a series of lectures in the Netherlands around our friend David Mason from the Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children. We met and interviewed David in Kabul and were incredibly inspired about the work he is doing with children traumatized by the war. He expressed his wish to come talk about his work in the Netherlands since he has a lot of Dutch fans after appearing in a well known travel show. So we set to work and were able to organize lectures in March 2019 where I talked about our project and David about his work.