In the land of the big, attractive, slanty-eyed Russian-speaking Muslims… It sounds like a guidebook description of a mash-up point of different cultures, but it feels more like a koo-koo fantasy world that Philip Pullman might cook up. It’s natural, one expects strange things from the Central Asian Stans. Especially if one has seen the movie Borat. But Borat wasn’t filmed in Kazakhstan: it was filmed in a Gypsy village in Romania where it exploited the hell out of people’s birth defects then took advantage of their illiteracy and poverty by not paying anyone a dime. In the real Kazakhstan, people don’t look like that. Because in the real Kazakhstan, people look very Asian. Because it’s in Asia. Kazakhs and Kyrgys look infinitely more Chinese than they do like Romanian Gypsies. A little bit south in Afghanistan there is a wider range of how people look, but still, over half of the Afghans I’ve met on this trip could have passed as Chinese. Did you know Afghanistan borders China and is nowhere near Iraq? Here’s another fact: Kazakhstan is a very wealthy country. It’s not poor, nor has it ever been poor. As a historic trade link, one-time ruler of the world, and current possessor of mass oil resources, Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana is a citadel of gold. I mean, its disgusting: it looks like somebody puked shiny gross billion dollar skyscrapers all over the place. But it’s certainly not poor or underdeveloped. These two next fact might interest no one but me, but I found them so shocking that I’m hesitant to even believe them: 1) Nobody smoked indoors. 2) Drivers are incredibly conscientious and go out of their way to stop for pedestrians. Weird? Or weirdly… not weird?
Central Asia is full of fun facts and stories. The president of Kazakhstan flew in Kanye West for $3 million to play his daughter’s birthday. Not to be outdone, the leader of Turkmenistan renamed cities, the month of January, schools, a brand of vodka, two kinds of cologne and a meteorite after himself. Then he renamed the month of April and bread (as in, the food product) after his mother. Then he built a 250 foot gold statue of himself which revolves on an axis so as to always face the sun, banned algebra, physics, smoking, recorded music and makeup on women (based on the plausible argument that Turkmen women are the prettiest in the world and don’t need makeup). Then he wrote a book, renamed the month of September after it, forced all Turkmen to memorize it for their driver’s licence, shot a copy into outer-space to inform the cosmos of his greatness, and built a huge mechanical statue of said book which every day opens and speaks the gospel while golden jets water shoot out of it. Then he built a palace out of ice in the middle of one of the world’s most brutal deserts. And Turkmenistan is on fire, by the way: gas reserves have been burning continually in a big pit since 1971 when the Soviet Union lit it on fire to see what would happen.
So Turkmenistan unequivocally won the insane competition. But like the Soviet Union and USA one-upping cock size in the Great Space Race, the nations of Central Asia have pointed their sights at the heavens to assert their superiority. Flag poles. The biggest flagpoles in the world. Azerbaijan was first to throw their nation’s pride and wealth to the sky with the world’s tallest, mind-bending 531 foot flagpole (actually an engineering marvel in one of the windiest cities found anywhere). Of course Turkmenistan jumped in the game and built a mighty pole of their own – probably crowned with a gold figurine of their leader. Uzebekistan kind of missed the point and drained the Aral Sea instead, leaving big hulking Soviet armada rusting in the sand, and Krygyzstan quickly gave up and collectively said “fuck it, we’ll just be the guys with the world’s craziest hats.” And so Kyrgyz men casually stroll the streets wearing giant felted pope penises on their heads like its the most natural thing in the world. “NBD dog, it’s Central Asia.” But then little Tajikistan stepped up to the plate and served the entire world with a whopping, record breaking, 541 foot stick in the air. BOOM SON!! Now that’s a flagpole. But who won the Great Space Race, you might ask? Kazakhstan. And not the metaphorical flagpole “space race,” but the actual space race. On April 12, 1961, the first human was blasted into outerspace from a deep desert in Kazakhstan. The more you know.