The Faces of Central Asia

Sir Barken Hyena writes:

Via Robert Byrons’ “Road to Oxiana” I’ve stumbled on a rich vein of literature on Central Asia, mainly written by steely Kipling-types. But also Ancient and Medieval literature, wherever from. No personal account of travels I’ve read is more recent than 1910 and I did no reading on current conditions. I’m afraid of what I’ll learn.

At that time in the Tarim Basin, focus of my interest, contact with the West had only just begun. Ella Sykes, whose “Through Deserts and Oases of Central Asia” displays just about every good thing about the British, was only the second European woman in Kashgar. I filled this in with great wiki-feasts and many hours on Google Maps, to complete the picture. Which I found stunning, and unique.

The continuity of the culture across time is stunning, like nothing I’m aware of. Then, now and always, the great powers volleyed a great game across the court of the Tarim Basin, throwing a light and passing yoke over the dozens of oasis city states along the Silk Road. These live and die by the whim of springs and rivers, and end entombed in sand. Thus ephemera such as paper, cloth, wood and mummies are often pulled from mounds in amazing condition. Archeologist Aurel Stein found elaborately carved wooden columns and beams from ruins 2000 years old, then encountered identical carvings in newly constructed houses. Weaving patterns, farm tools, kitchen implements and household objects (a mousetrap in particular comes up a lot), identical to those currently in use were repeatedly found.

Nailed like spikes in the sand were the numerous shrines. Many showed a layer cake of repurposing for passing religions – Animist, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Nestorian, Muslim –  is Communist next? Also bearing traces of common spirit: one then a haven for Buddhist rats, 1200 years later for Islamic pigeons, in each case the animals are fed as a prayer. Stories of princesses and kings echo across ages, preserving some strange essence, detail or twist.

More continuities: an ancient Buddhist kitchen with bread oven, shelf nook for utensils, tripods for water vessels, and adjustable cauldron arm identical to those built in 1900. At Ordek’s Necropolis, featured in Rudofsky’s “Architecture Without Architects”, wooden planks were driven into the sand next to the head of the deceased. Percy Sykes in 1910 described the local burial: a slat is driven into the ground next to the head. This, 4000 years later.

The many languages and ethnicities are a thorough melange, traces of this dizzying array of peoples – invaders, merchants, immigrants, refugees  – some whom passed through and stayed, marrying local women. Speaking of whom, they seem to have always had a better position here than elsewhere, especially under Islam. They went unveiled, mixed in public, owned land, property and businesses, had no fault divorce and pre-nuptial agreements, all by long tradition. I encountered no mention of sharia law. One story featured a man beating a fanatical Mullah who had struck his wife for going to the bizarre unveiled. Crowds cheered. Their proud but relaxed faces today, and the mummies of the past, betray women who could command such.

And the faces are simply amazing. The pick of the Chinese fashion industry comes from here, favored for their elusive blend of features, East and West flourishing in apparent amity on the Silk Road. Their songs celebrate the diverse beauty –  and ready availability – of the women, in effusive detail.



The nearly universal consensus across the centuries is that the oasis people are a mellow lot, totally unwarlike, exceedingly pleasant, warm and welcoming. The accounts I read are chocked with tales of incredible hospitality, total strangers showing up and given the free run of a farm estate, and urged to stay on for weeks. Chinese officials insisted on throwing a multi-hour greeting feasts. Town notables road out a dozen miles into the desert to meet strangers and welcome them, often camping for days in waiting. Highway robbery was simply unknown. China secured the whole frontier and the 36 oasis towns with as few as 400 soldiers, a region 1000 miles across and 500 miles, north to south. They payed their light taxes without complaint.  Irrigation water was free and agriculture wildly productive. Percy Sykes called them “lotus eaters” for their ease and indolence, preferring festivals with friends, picnics and dancing. Their musicality and grace was famous, many Europeans commenting on the engaging melodies. The country was mad about music, songs made a cycle through the oasis towns, new ones arriving fresh each spring and autumn to enjoy a few months vogue.

Ella Sykes corrects this idyllic view with complaints about the dirt and sloth of the people. Basically everything is made of mud and dust, and it’s hard to get anyone to work because they are so well fed. Some locales are plagued by goitre, which they just tolerate rather than move.

One modern detail I couldn’t avoid seeing was the presence of new Chinese skyscrapers, vast town squares, sports fields, Corbu-esque apartment blocks, dams and canals, and a vastly expanded irrigation and population in the satellite photos. Old Kashgar with it’s ancient walls has been completely demolished for this kind of thing. I won’t pretend to know their feelings about these changes. I prefer to think it’s more of the same story, another remodeling of the shrine. With certainty, whatever Globalization brings, it’ll be just another layer of dust on the Taklamakan in the end.

About Sir Barken Hyena

IT professional and veteran of start ups. Life long musician and songwriter. Voracious reader of dead white guys. Lover of food and women.
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1 Response to The Faces of Central Asia

  1. Hugh Mann says:

    Don’t forget the Tarim mummies, or the Caves of A Thousand Buddhas

    I get the impression that after various Islamist-inspired attacks by ethnic Uighurs, the area is destined to suffer “Sinicisation” a la Tibet.


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