10 Interesting facts from Central Asia you probably don’t know

Borat may have done a splendid job of putting Kazakhstan on the international map (I’m sure most locals probably wish he hadn’t) but despite his best efforts it’s fair to say Central Asia is still one of the least known and celebrated regions of the world as far as Westerners are concerned. During my winter months spent in Tbilisi I did some extensive research in order to learn more about what was, even to me, a totally mysterious part of the world.

Here are 10 of the most interesting facts I discovered:

1) During the first millennia AD a local mathematician, named Al-Khorezmi, came up with a unique process for additions and multiplications. His work was printed in his book titled ‘Al-Jebr’ and, when it eventually reached Europe, it was translated and titled ‘Algebra’. The modern term ‘algorithm’ is a derivative of the scholar’s name.

2) Astronomer Al Biruni from Khorezm (modern day Uzbekistan) deduced that the earth circled the sun, some 500 years before Copernicus made the same claim. In around 1000AD, he estimated the distance of the moon from the earth and was off by only 20kms.

2) Revered Arabian horses are believed to have originated in Turkmenistan, from a breed known as the Akhal-Teke. There are only 6,600 pure-blooded Akhals horses left in the world today.

3) The Silk Road trade is credited with being the original information highway to have ever been created. The most important and pivotal export, which lead to our modern day civilization, is believed to have been the Chinese skill of paper-making.

4) The most famous European explorer to scour the region was Marco Polo, however his father and uncle preceded him by travelling along the Silk Route in the 1250s. During their journey they met with Genghis Khan’s grandson who was then ruling the region. He was so taken by their tales of life in the west that he made them a proposition: go home to your Pope and tell him that if he sends me 100 of his most learned religious scholars to convince him why their religion is better than all others, he would convert his whole empire to Christianity. It took the Polo brothers nearly 3 years to return to Italy, but once they got home, no-one believed their story. When they organized a return visit a few years later (when they also took a 20-year old Marco along), the Vatican only allowed two priests to accompany them, both of whom decided to not travel further than modern day Armenia. The three Polos ended up spending over a decade and a half in the region. On their return home, no one believed their travel story…yet again.

5) Kazakhstan is so large, that people who live on the western border are closer to Vienna than they are to Almaty, their own country’s capital. The country is also home to the second-largest oil field in the world.

6) The oldest and most revered sport of Central Asia is buzkhashi, which is an exotic form of polo on horseback, except the ‘ball’ is replaced by the decapitated carcass of a goat.

buzkhashi

Buzkhashi…a rather long-winded method of tenderizing meat! (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

7) During the Soviet rule in Central Asia, the local Arabic alphabet was swapped for the Latin one almost overnight. Within months, literally millions of people became ‘illiterate’. For a period of two decades grandparents and their grandchildren could only understand each other if they spoke, not if they wrote notes.

8) One of the world’s worst manmade environmental disasters to have ever occurred is the draining of the Aral Sea, which was actually a lake fed by two rivers and bordering Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. During Soviet rule, water was diverted from the feeding rivers to irrigate thirsty cotton plantation and, within just two decades, the whole sea was almost completely drained. The southern end of the lake dried up so fast that fishermen did not have time to organize for the removal of their ships.

View of Lake Aral from Moynaq

This was our view of Lake Aral from the ‘port’ of Moynaq

9) The Black Death plague is said to have originated in Issyk Kul (modern day Kirgizstan) in the early 1340s. Mongol fighters famously carried the disease-riddled body of their dead comrades west towards Crimea, dropping them along the route. This is where Genoese merchants were living and trading. Once the Italians realised what was happening , they scrambled on their ships sailed back to the Mediterranean, bringing with them diseased rats. The Black Death spread like wildfire in Europe and decimated the entire continental population by almost 60%; over 100 million people died in Europe alone.  This is the reason the plague is also known as the Mongol Kiss of Death.

10) The Central Asian region has been invaded countless times in history, yet it is said that Alexander the Great’s rule over the region is the reason why a distinctive number of native Tajiks have blond hair and blue eyes.

Bonus #11) Borat was filmed in Romania, not Kazakhstan!

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10 Responses to 10 Interesting facts from Central Asia you probably don’t know

  1. Steve says:

    Great facts, Laura! Awful stuff about the lake draining. Stupid Soviets. Good thing we’d never do something like that in Australia…(Cubby Station, rice, cotton, Murray-Darling river)…

  2. Decapitated goat carcasses? Eww!!!

  3. Are you going to visit western Uzbekistan / the Aral Sea region? Is Tajikistan still in your plans? Your trip sounds really interesting.

    • Hi Kristine!!

      We actually crossed into Uzbekistan from the north and took on an epic desert crossing all the way to Lake Aral. This was by far our favourite Uzbek experience of all and will be the subject of my next blog post.
      We are now in Dushanbe for a week…isn’t that where you are?

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