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Out of Steppe by Daniel Metcalfe

After spending a year in an apparently less-than-appealing Tehran university dormitory, Daniel Metcalfe sets out to visit some of the lesser-known endangered peoples of Asia: the Karalkapaks of the shrinking Aral Sea, the Jews of Bukhara, the Germans of Kazakhstan (originally brought to Russia by Catherine the Great), the Yaghnobis of Tajikistan (the last living descendants of the ancient Sogdians), the Hazaras of Afghanistan (reputedly the descendants of Genghis Khan’s soldiers) and the Kalasha of Pakistan (struggling to maintain their pre-Muslim religion and culture).

Out of Steppe by Daniel Metcalfe
Out of Steppe, Daniel Metcalfe (Cornerstone, March 2010)

It is an interesting selection: people whose culture and often physical well-being is threatened by long-term political and social developments. As in many other parts of the world, the region’s ethnic and linguistic diversity is being replaced by ever-greater homogeneity, with many ancient peoples down to a few villages. This is, at the very least, sad.

Central Asia is also a place that the rest of world would do well to understand better. Lightly populated, it is chockablock with oil and gas. China has extended its influence; America has had bases, lost them and regained them; Russia alternates between cooperating and pushing back. The region’s political newness, nascent nationalism and less-than-democratic political processes makes its future unpredictable.

Central Asia is more of a personal “quest” for Metcalfe than a subject for political or ethnographic inquiry, and the result is more a travel book than anything else, a pleasant and interesting mixture of personal anecdote, historical tidbit and exotic local characters. When Metcalfe writes well, he writes well indeed, at his best when he recounts discussions with the shamans of the Kalasha.

But travel-writing is, if you think about it, a peculiar genre. Why should one be driven to write about one’s tribulations with insects, conversations with taxi drivers and other serendipitous acquaintances or exotic arrangements for personal hygiene and think that people one had never met would be interested in them?

Colin Thubron’s two books on Central Asia, The Lost Heart of Asia and In The Shadow of the Silk Road, or Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane, provide the answer: some travelers are very good writers or, perhaps, some very good writers are also travelers, and can distill something immediate and relevant from their anecdotes and conversations.

There isn’t much in print about Central Asia, and even less that is accessible to the general reader, and Out of Steppe commends itself for that reason alone. But the very diversity of Metcalfe’s subjects presents a problem: the marooned Kazakhstani Germans and besieged Kalasha have little in common except their current dire straights.

It may be unfair to expect a great deal of coherence in a travel book—after all, serendipity is the hallmark of the genre—but Metcalfe presents Out of Steppe as something more: an exploration into the definition of Central Asia. None of his prior researches, he writes in the prologue, “had ever given me a clear definition of Central Asia.” Unfortunately, the concept isn’t much clearer by the end of the book. Whatever definition one uses for Central Asia (Metcalfe mentions “smell”, “wide Turkic faces” and the “silk road”, while my preference, because such designations are often more political than geographical or ethnographic in origin, is the five former-Soviet Central Asian republics plus, if I am feeling provocative, Xinjiang), the Pakistani mountain home of the Kalasha is not just far (in all senses) from the steppe of the title but is also pushing the Central Asian envelope a bit far.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.