Meeting the “Stans”

Written by  Michael Soncina May 17, 2012

A Canadian intern in Central Asia sees the guns—and the roses.

My journey began as I flipped through the pages of Verge Magazine in search of some much needed inspiration. Preoccupied with thoughts of my next great adventure, I came across an ad for the International Development Manager program at Humber College. A spark began to glow and I knew that I needed to take this course.

For months, I had been looking for ways to get involved in sustainable tourism and I felt an understanding of international development would be vital to reaching this goal. Upon being accepted and entering this program, one of the first classes I had was called World Geography. While I don’t remember specifics about the class itself, I do remember a nightmare of a project on Central Asia that demanded a lot of research on countries in the region, including the “Stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Try as I might to collect relevant information, I soon discovered these countries to be more or less overlooked. Nonetheless, I was drawn to this mysterious part of the world and ended up getting more out of the assignment than just a good grade.

During my research, I became enchanted with horsemen, golden statues that follow the sun and mountains of hospitality that few from the global north ever really experience. I knew I had to visit, so when it came time to complete my internship I tried my hardest to end up on the steppe. My efforts paid off and I ended up arranging a position with the NGO, Hospitality Kyrgyzstan. I spent four and a half months in the region, spread out between the republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, talking to tourists, learning about the various cultures and drinking endless cups of black tea.

But it wasn’t always tea and roses. During my adventure, I jumped out of a moving car to escape a crazed cop; had a Kalashnikov pointed at my head by an Uzbek border guard and almost got my head bashed in by some Kazakh alpha males when I hit on their girl at a club in Astana while mingling with diplomats. But no matter how bad these experiences, nothing could ever let me forget the night I wandered Dushanbe with some drunken Afghans, couch-surfed the Kazakh steppe, or enjoyed the hospitality of the Tajik people.

In the end, I got more than I bargained for: the worst and the very best of the Central Asian Republics. I also learned that no matter how much time you put into research, you cannot prepare for everything or forget those experiences you’d rather not remember, like the taste of fermented horse milk. Trust me, I’ve tried.

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