Central Asia used to be the center of the world. The Silk Road — arguably the most important trade route in history — ran through the region and set the stage for the Islamic world to become a hub for great innovators of art, philosophy, and science. It is a place of legends, from Alexander the Great to Ghengis Khan to Timurlane.
But for most of modern history, this region that is now known as simply “the Stans” — e.g., Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan — has been relegated to a place of global obscurity. For years, these nations were seen as a playground for foreign governments to exert influence, a place where Emirates and Khanates gave way to empires and the Soviet Union created satellite republics with no real reverence for the area’s cultural identity. When these puppet states ultimately collapsed, chaos ensued, and people in the West largely forgot about this corner of the Earth.
When Dutchman Thijs Broekkamp quit his full-time job to pursue a career in photography, he looked to the world map for guidance on his new path. For starters, he wanted to tell travel stories, ones based on his fascination with how life actually looked in the far-flung places we can so easily point to on a map. He realized that his eyes always lingered on the countries of Central Asia, and that besides the mysterious uniformity to their names, he knew almost nothing about them.
His initial curiosity grew and grew the more that he read about these societies. Soon enough, Thijs was making concrete plans to travel there, certain that thousands of years of rich history and tradition awaited him. But his enthusiasm was largely met with skepticism and outright dismissiveness — many people were confident that it would be dangerous in these countries, even though they readily admitted to, like him, knowing very little about them.
But where enigma deters one person, it attracts another, and Thijs became determined to understand how these fearful perceptions came about. Was it, as some hinted, because of their proximity to “scary” governments like Russia and Iran? Their adherence to Islam? Or was it simply a result of too few people like him visiting? After all, in terms of GDP, no region on Earth makes less money from the travel industry than Central Asia — for Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, it constitutes less than 2 percent of all business (the global average is 10 percent).
In any case, these reactions bothered him. “Prejudices can lead to massive misunderstandings and have pretty bad consequences,” he said. “I felt a need to advocate for open-mindedness and the importance of thinking for oneself. That’s the message of the project: always look at the other side of the story. Question everything.”
With this in mind, Thijs enlisted two friends to join him on his project to explore and understand the Stans, and they set off. First it was to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. From there, they would drive in a large circle around Kyrgyzstan and lake Issyk Kul, looping back eventually to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Then, a flight to Afghanistan and a land border crossing into Turkmenistan. Finally, two weeks in Kazakhstan, the largest country by land area on their route.
It was not an easy itinerary, but it was practically airtight. Trying to remain committed to it was the group’s first and foremost challenge, but they very quickly discovered it would not be the last.
From landing with incorrect visas to struggling with the (typically) simple things like renting a car, it was clear to Thijs right away that they were very far from home. Familiar sights were replaced with gigantic portraits of presidents, familiar sounds with strange languages that changed from nation to nation, and even within them. And all around, people stared at them like they were the wonder — because as the rare tourists in Central Asia, they were.
But in spite of these obstacles, and contrary to the warnings of people at home, the constant surprises on their journey were always amazing. For every comfort and expectation the group let go, they seemed to receive a reward in turn. They learned to surrender the notion that anything was going to go the way they planned. “The little setbacks were almost too many to count,” Thijs said. “But looking back, I am a bit annoyed that I focused a lot on reaching certain destinations at certain times. It was a great lesson in letting go.”
Their first rental car in Kyrgyzstan was a Lada Niva, a relic of Soviet times that Thijs jokes they used to “ride in style” — hard not to do in a car that’s mostly made of discarded tank metals and whose most distinguishing feature is the constant reek of gasoline. They slept in the car throughout their three weeks in the Kyrgyz mountains, with only the incredibly rare square meal or proper bath. The reward for this display of resilience? Getting lost, and running out of gas.
“When we finally reached a village, we had this comical exchange of calling the word ‘gas’ to someone, whose only response was the word ‘tea.’ They would only help us if we let them nourish us, too. We intended to accept the tea and be on our way, but before we had the chance to move, massive platters of food appeared before us. When we emptied those, more followed. There was no way to escape the hospitality, and we happily accepted we were getting nowhere fast.”
While this hospitality is a very important part of the culture in Central Asia, Thijs believes it was even more pronounced because of a desire to share that culture with the world: “The Soviet connection will be left in the past. Most people are not at all impressed if you speak Russian with them, but say a word or two in their own language and they’re ecstatic. They are proud of who they are.”
Nowhere was this pride clearer than at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan, which proved to be a highlight of the trip for Thijs. Their group arrived simply hoping to observe and admire, but they soon found themselves actively taking part when a group of Munduz tribesmen invited them into their yurts. An afternoon of traditional accordion music, tea, vodka, and dinner carried well on into the night, long after other visitors like Thijs and his friends had gone home.
As far as religion is concerned, Thijs says the openness and tolerance of local Islam in could be a lesson to Westerners. “All in all, the only prejudice that holds true about these countries is how much they love vodka! Everything else about it being unsafe or inhospitable is dead wrong,” he said. “The best friend we made in Tajikistan shed a tear when we left, and told us, ‘if you ask me about my religion, I would say it is humanity.”
“We should love, live, and learn with everybody.’”
To learn more about this project and stay up-to-date, visit Thijs Broekkamp’s website. Have a fascinating travel story from Central Asia? We’d love to hear it!