Welcome to the Land of the Stans - Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan - and their neighbors, Iran and Turkey! Perfect vacation destinations, if you like getting strip-searched, paying bribes at checkpoints, getting imprisoned if your visa is not up-to-date, and, of course, raging diarrhea leading to bleeding of your anus. Author Ted Rall takes a somewhat perverse pleasure in going to this area of the world over and over again, drawn by its people, its culture, and its strange post-Soviet ambience. It’s a politically and religiously unstable group of nations ruled by tyrannical, despotic, often idiotic rulers for life, put in power under the Soviets, who have managed to stay in power despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s also an area the United States would do well to pay attention to and foster good relationships with - it is geographically strategic, and many of the countries contain huge amounts of untapped oil and natural gas resources.
In Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, Ted Rall writes of his first experiences of Central Asia and subsequent visits and tours he has conducted in the region. His first trip was due to an idea he floated to the Randall, his editor at P.O.V. magazine when he worked there, at the magazine’s “1996 year-end party.” P.O.V. was flush with money, and his editor made Ted Rall an offer he couldn’t refuse:
“Dude,” Randall put his arm around me, “what’s the wildest, craziest, most over-the-
top story you’ve ever wanted to write but couldn’t because you didn’t have the money? You name it, we’ll do it!” he promised.
Ted thought back to when he was in junior high school and read in National Geographic that the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic had been described in it as “the remotest place on earth.” Thinking then that there was no chance he would ever be able to travel to the most remote place on the planet, he put the idea away to some far corner of his brain - until hearing his editor’s offer, possibly resulting from the amount of alcohol both were consuming at the party. Regardless, Rall proposed a plan to travel the entire old Silk Road:
“I’ll drive the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul,” I proposed, “via Kazakhstan,
Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Turmenistan, Iran and Turkey. I won’t do research. I’ll
just show up and see what happens.”
That’s just what Rall did. He alternates between telling his story through writing a sort of mashup of memoir, travelogue, and political commentary about the region and the U.S.’s often controversial role in its history and development. He also employs cartoons, making sections of the book a graphic novel of his experiences. An example is the chapter titled “Karakoram Highway 1999,” in which he and a friend travel via bus on the Karakoram Highway (known as “The World’s Most Dangerous Highway”) that linked Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to the Pakistan capital of Islamabad. As they were traveling, “General Pervez Musharaf seized power in a coup and opened the Kashmiri border to Taliban insurgents.” Rall spent many tense moments, detailed in the comic, when the bus is stopped and its occupants are detained by insurgents to check their papers and see which ones are Americans. The Americans are supposed to be taken away and shot.
As luck would have it, the soldier who talks to Rall and has orders to shoot him went to college in New York City, and they have a conversation about the city and American women. The soldier allows Ted to get back on the bus, giving him a signed “safe conduct letter to present to any Talibs I might meet in the future.” He also gives Rall a haunting warning:
“America will be attacked in America. War will come there. You will suffer as
you have made the world suffer. It will be terrible, but necessary...”
Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East? is also a story of how “America failed Central Asia, for the administration of President George W. Bush decided in its infinite wisdom to side with the regimes rather than the peoples,” as Ahmed Rashid writes in the book’s introduction.
It’s not too late to try to mend our strained relationships with the countries of Central Asia, though it will be an uphill struggle. Rall writes about some things America needs to do to improve its relationships with the peoples of this region in his chapter “What Is To Be Done?” Although you may think that a book which deals with political subject matter and a part of the world whose nations most Americans know little to nothing about (and have a difficult time even pronouncing correctly) might be dull and boring. Instead, Rall has written a very interesting and often LOL humorous account that anyone who wants to learn more about this politically unstable region and anyone who likes travel memoirs will enjoy highly.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Douglas R. Cobb, 2009