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.
The 'Stans' project
Central Asia and Afghanistan. Our destination for this project. Central-Asia consists of the countries Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan: all former Sovjet republics. Just the enigmatic names alone of these countries already have a mysterious and captivating 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? They must be gray and dull: Soviet style, is what I thought for a long time. 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 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 Tzatziki sauce either (too bad, because delicious). These countries barely ever make it into our news coverage and when they do, it’s mostly in a negative way. The lack of publicity, negative news coverage and other people’s opinion construct your image of these countries. And when we know very little about something or 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 frontpage and almost exclusively in a negative way (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 on we went.
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 side, because there are plenty things amiss there, 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, formed the basis of this idea. The red thread of this project is that we must keep an open mind towards other cultures as to prevent xhenophobia.
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 wanted 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 profit from thepossibilities of globalisation. As the countries are becoming more well-known to the world, how tourism can positively or negatively influence the local population and their environment, is an very important issue to take into consideration.
Central Asia is home to some of the most awe-inspiring and wildest landscapes in the world
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. In terms of art, luxury produce, science, astronomy, philosophy; everything was coming from that region and highly desired by the west. After the disintegration of the Silk Roads around the 18th century, the area would reappear in forming the playground of the ‘Great Game’ (a covert war between Great-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. Central Asia is an area that is connected to famous names that we all know; Alexander the great, Djenzghis Khan, Marco Polo. Still, the history of the region has been 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
The luthier of Dasht, Tajikistan. He handcrafts traditional instruments (called rubabs)
Looking for authenticity
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 I couldn’t refute and was absolutely true; Central Asia left a mark on my hart and 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 anymore in most western societies. 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. About tolerance, what it means to be happy and appreciating internal values over external ones, such as financial success. Another important lesson that we were taught many times was not to cling so much to your plans. In the West we like to plan everything and then act according to those plans. In Central Asia we learned to just go with the flow and improvise on whatever situation comes your way, because nothing goes as planned. Same for life, you can map everything out for years in advance but you never know what happens on the way.
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.
With sharing these photographs and stories to the world, I want to stir up compassion, kindness and cross-cultural understanding. Instill a sense of wonder and to celebrate the amazing diversity of cultures and people in this world. To show that there is a life going on in these places that we don’t expect.
Unfortunately, we all have noticed the rising tensions in the world. The conflicts across cultures will continue endlessly if we do not change our behavior toward each other. I believe that Perseverance in trying to understand one another will ultimately prevail over ignorance and mistreating one another. Gaps in empathy and understanding feed anxieties. Anxieties that lead to intolerance.
Connecting with strange cultures and trying to understand each other is one of the most rewarding things there is. True connections transcend bounds of creed, ethnicity, language, gender or nationality. While media and governments fuel our prejudices, let this project serve as an antidote to xenophobia and a celebration of cultural diversity.
So far I have been busy with writing articles, giving lectures, setting up a Dutch foundation for the Social Circus in Afghanistan and participating in exhibitions. There are many more excitings things in the works of this project so stay tuned! This year (2019) we will travel to another ‘Stan’ and re-visit countries that we have been to and continue to spread this message. To continue finding ourselves in awkward situations. To continue with tasting and experiencing real life. And to continue trying to understand one another.
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.
The World Nomad Games are held every 2 years in Kyrgyzstan with the aim of preserving nomadic culture and traditions and foster cultural exchange. I aptly renamed it the World Vodka Games after meeting the Munduz tribe. When they invited us to come stay with them in their yurt, a heavily vodka fuelled night ensued, new and meaningful friendships were forged, rustic Dutch dance moves displayed and a hangover for days developed.
Abandoned Soviet towns
Afghan mobile mini circus in Kabul
Behind the scenes
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.