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Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia by David H Mould

David Mould’s travelogue—engagingly written in a conversational tone for the general reader—is not the sort of volume one would normally expect from an academic publisher. The unusual destination aside, Postcards from Stanland is a traditional travel-writing combination of personal stories, character sketches, descriptive vignettes and just enough historical and political background to provide context without being arduous.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia by David H Mould
Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia, David H Mould (Ohio University Press, February 2016)

Mould visited Central Asia on several occasions starting in the mid-1990s, often for extended periods, to teach journalism or engage in various journalism projects. These visits were almost entirely to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and so not quite the entirety of region implied in the title. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan is the largest of the Central Asian countries, while Kyrgyzstan occupies a strategic place in China’s “One Belt One Road” program, so these two countries are as good a place to start as any.

Mould is probably correct when he says that for many people Central Asia, or “Stanland” as he calls it, is a “geographical blank”. But that’s not because there aren’t any other good books about it. Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia covers, primarily, Kyrgyzstan in considerable and knowledgeable detail in a similar travelogue style. Daniel Metcalfe’s Out of Steppe covers the lesser-known ethnic groups of the region—and overlaps with Mould in the discussion of the ethnic Germans. And as far as pure travel-writing is concerned, it hard to surpass Colin Thubron, who visited and wrote about the region more than once. There is some good fiction as well, including Tom Bissel’s short story collection God Lives in St. Petersburg. Tim Cope traversed the region of horseback and his more idiosyncratic take is related in On the Trail of Genghis Khan.

Postcards from Stanland, therefore, has some competition when it comes to a first book to lead one out of the terra incognita Mould refers to. Although Mould is originally British, he has lived in the United States for several decades and goes to the region on Fulbrights, interacts with US Embassy personnel, etc. His, therefore—as opposed to Shiskin’s, say, who is Russo-Tatar—is a particularly American take on the region.

 

Postcards from Stanland is strongest when it discusses the subtleties of national and ethnic identity, the lingering and often still strong political, cultural and personal relationship with Russia, and the way the past affects the present. Particularly good are the passages on Semipalatinsk, now known as Semey in Kazakh. The town played an important role in Russian literature—Dostoevsky was exiled there—and Soviet history: it was the main town next to the nuclear testing area. That the town would end up located in an independent country would have seemed inconceivable only a few decades ago.

Yet, Postcards is well-named: it is, on the whole, a collections of selected vignettes. Mould includes the complaints about post-Soviet hotels and officialdom and the vagaries of road and rail travel that seem almost de rigueur in these books, he largely eschews the sort of Silk Road, Marco Polo and Tamerlane tropes that are sometimes dangled to entice readers. And herein lies the conundrum: for those not otherwise inclined to learn about Central Asia, the book’s enticements are unclear; for those that are, Postcards should probably be combined with other books to round out the picture.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.