Nearly five years ago, I wrote a post comparing the Arctic and Central Asia. Though at first glance the regions don’t seem related, both are extractive frontiers: sparsely populated, climactically harsh, resource-rich lands where governments and corporations breathlessly extol the virtues of the seemingly infinite commodities available for exploitation and export.
The Arctic and Central Asia also both tend to be described, I explained, as places that are simultaneously peripheral and central. Potential investors take advantage of both regions’ relative underdevelopment compared to their surrounding economies to sell them as imminent crossroads for new railroads, highways, shipping routes, and pipelines. According to this line of thinking, the construction of these shortcuts will solve numerous problems. Delivering new infrastructure will improve regional economies and raise quality of life for people in the Arctic and Central Asia while also rendering intercontinental trade and transportation more efficient.
Yet time and again in the Arctic and Central Asia, outside interventions to transform environments like ice-sheathed mountains and bone-dry deserts into more traversable, hospitable places have failed. From the shrinking of the Aral Sea due to disastrous Soviet irrigation projects to the melting of the Arctic ice cap as a result of global greenhouse gas emissions, the two regions represent collective failures to sustainably manage the environment in the industrial era. Their misfortunes are even interlinked, for the Aral Sea’s decades-long metamorphosis from the world’s fourth-largest saline lake into a toxic desert has impacted the northernmost reaches of the planet. According to a research paper published in Science in 1988, traces of salt from the Aral Sea have been found along the Soviet Union’s Arctic coastline. Meanwhile, the same article notes, as the fish died off in the Aral Sea throughout the 1970s and 1980s, seafood was imported at a hefty price from the Arctic Ocean in a desperate attempt to keep the processing plants open, as they had suddenly found themselves hundreds of kilometers from the nearest shoreline. Fortunately for the Arctic, grandiose Soviet plans to reverse the flows of the Ob and Irtyush rivers, which empty north out of Siberia, to the Aral Sea were not realized. Worryingly, however, this type of “mega-engineering thinking,” as Central Asia hydrology expert Philip Micklin calls it, haven’t entirely been put to rest, for there are occasional rumblings of attempting the plan.
Five years after I first compared the Arctic and Central Asia on paper, I’ve now finally had the chance to travel to the southernmost edges of the former Soviet Union for the first time. Instead of ships sailing across ocean waves, trains rolled through undulating desert sands. In place of muskox roaming the Greenlandic tundra were camels plodding across the sandy wastes of the Kyzyl-Kum. And where in a place like Iceland, shepherds inhabiting a valley at the foot of a glacier turn cow’s milk into rich, thick skyr (a protein-rich yogurt), Kyrgyz shepherds churn that same milk into ayran, which I enjoyed with a generous pinch of sugar in the shelter of a yurt next to two men in camouflage and three shy, curious children. Icelanders and Kyrgyz also both eat horse meat, but the Kyrgyz drink the milk, too. They ferment the dairy produced by mares, turning it into a drink that is not for the faint of heart called kumis. I suppose Iceland has its own fermented delicacy: hákarl, shark that is buried underground for weeks until it acquires the appetizing aroma of…urea. Anthony Bourdain took to calling it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing.” I can’t say I had quite such an extreme reaction to the bowl of kumis I downed.
In Kyrgyzstan, I spent three days trekking at elevations upwards of 10,000′ to reach the zircon-blue lake of Ala-Kul. The perfectly perched body of water is fed by a sizable glacier coming off the Tian Shan mountains that barricade the country from China. At least, I had thought the slow-moving mass of ice and snow was big until Azat, my guide, told me he has noticed the glaciers shrink dramatically over the past few years. “Five to ten years ago, you could still see the glaciers from Karakol,” he remarked, alluding to the nearby town on the shores of Issyk-Kul, the world’s second-largest alpine lake. Now, you have to actually trek up to the glaciers to see them. Across the once icebound Tian Shan and Himalayan mountain ranges, climate change is as present here at the Third Pole, so called because it contains Earth’s biggest store of ice outside of the polar regions, as it is at the North and South Poles.
In many ways, the landscape of Kyrgyzstan reminded me of trekking in Iceland’s interior, just with surprisingly more tourists. (That may be because I hiked the well-known Landmannalaugar to Thórsmörk trail in 2011, several years before tourism to the North Atlantic island nation exploded). Dry and windy mountain passes led down to lush green valleys. In Kyrgyzstan, the horses were a bit bigger than their short and stocky Icelandic counterparts, and people lived in yurts rather than brightly painted wooden houses. But just as in Iceland, hot springs bubbled up from beneath lush alpine meadows, providing welcome places for weary feet.
Overall in Kyrgyzstan and Iceland, the people I met seemed to be living quiet lives of contentment, at least in the mild temperatures of summer when the days were long and the risk of avalanches was low. In the glacially carved valley of Altyn Arashan (“Golden Spa” in Kyrgyz, so named after the hot springs at the end), I watched a man and woman tending to grazing horses. The nearly 14,000′ Palatka Peak (“Tent” Peak in Russian) loomed in the background, shrouded in mist. Things were calm until two cows tied together frantically bolted down the hill towards the river. The woman suddenly stopped milking a horse (still a sight I can’t quite get accustomed to) and chased after the mooing ruminants. This was not anything I’d ever encountered in the Arctic, where cows are few and far between outside of Russia’s Sakha Republic and a tiny meadow in the Faroe Islands where I once stumbled upon three Highland cattle (another blogger did too once, and got the backstory). In any case, after the two stray Kyrgyz cows were recaptured, the rest of the afternoon continued on unhurriedly.
Whether in the Arctic or Central Asia, it’s easy to feel stuck in time when you’re deep inside isolated mountain passes and glacial valleys. But even here, the outside world trickles in, just as it has done for thousands of years. Silk Road traders from the east scaled craggy peaks seeking to trade luxurious bolts of silk for strong horses, while the ghostly genes of soldiers and missionaries from the west still peek out through the glittering emerald eyes of the occasional shepherd or taxi driver.
Now, as China rises again, plans to lay corridors of asphalt and steel in the name of free trade, efficiency, and globalization are making inroads into Central Asia and the Arctic. These frontiers, which supported local nomadic populations for millennia, are being turned into spaces to support global trade and transportation networks. The irony, as anthropologist Hugh Brody underscored years ago in his classic, The Other Side of Eden, is that it is not the nomads who are moving restlessly around all the time. It is, in fact, the settled farmers, who must always up sticks and find new places to live due to their constantly growing populations.
Now, their roads are finally penetrating into the spaces where agriculture has historically found it most difficult to succeed: Central Asia and the Arctic. In the short term, the outside world may succeed in integrating these spaces into their networks of concrete and fiber optics. But one other feature that the two regions have in common is that traveling in either place reveals the impermanence of civilization. The ruined desert fortresses of Uzbekistan, the abandoned Viking settlements of southern Greenland, and the monumental architecture of the Soviet Union all bear testament to this.
But the majestic River floated on,
Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
Into the frosty starlight, and there moved,
Rejoicing, through the hushed Chorasmian waste,
Under the solitary moon: — he flowed
Right for the polar star, past Orgunjè,
Brimming, and bright, and large: then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
And split his currents; that for many a league
The shorn and parcelled Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles —
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foiled circuitous wanderer: — till at last
The longed-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.
~ from Sohrab and Rustum, Matthew Arnold (1853)