Family Article

Book of a Lifetime (the Shooting Star by Hergé)

A Tape Recorder in Central Asia

Tools of the Trade 

A Tape Recorder in Central Asia

I had my passport ready, I had filled in the two copies of the currency declaration the authorities demanded and I was queuing at midnight at Tashkent airport, waiting to fly south to Ashgabad. On either side, in other queues, silent men were waiting. Suddenly there was a noise, a burst of American anger.

'Look, I don't know how much longer we can stand this. I don't speak the damned language and you're supposed to have learned enough English to do your job. If you don't get things sorted out, I warn you, I shall complain.' They were a man and his wife pulling smart luggage on wheels, trailing a disconsolate interpreter. Someone must have told them that Central Asia would be a romantic part of the world to visit on holiday, the lands of the ancient Silk Road where nomads once wandered with their flocks and their yurts and where Tamerlaine built mosques and palaces even while he pillaged and slaughtered. They had been misled.

We had come to the region to collect material for a series of radio programmes for the BBC World Service. I would produce the programmes; Paul Bergne, formerly Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, would present them. Our purpose was to find out how the five states of what had been Soviet Central Asia were faring some five years after independence was thrust on them when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

It was early winter so to flee the season's coming we began in the most northerly of the capitals, Almaty in Kazakhstan. Set in a hollow, its back to the Ala Tau mountains, its face to the endless steppe Almaty sits under a blanket of smog, but everywhere there are trees. It's said that in the 19th century the city's founder ordered every citizen to plant five of them, which they obediently did, and the Soviet Russians continued the principle.You have the road, you have two or three rows of trees each side, then you have the pavement. It makes for pleasant walking. Few buildings are higher than the tree line and as you go you can see the mountains tipped with snow.

We had rented a flat whose owner had vacated it for the few days because letting to a couple of foreigners made good business sense. It was at the posh end of town though you'd not think so to look at it. These were blocks built only eight years ago but with a sort of contained obsolescence. The steps up to the doors were concrete, already crumbling, held in place by a webbing of iron bars. The lifts had no lights because a shortage of bulbs makes them desirable, but no graffitti either; the call button hung out of the wall; the doors onto each floor of flats were like the prison doors of drama -- metal and clanging and, every day, desperately difficult to open, from inside or out.

It all felt very Soviet: no plugs for baths or basins because Russians feel it's unhygienic not to wash under running water, and the central heating ran 24 hours a day at a temperature determined at the regional heating station, brought to the blocks through the vast overground pipes that follow the roadsides and rise over side roads or entrances in huge square arches. The loss of heat is immeasurable and steam rises from joints. Hot water drips. Slender gas pipes run overground too. A single blow from an axe could cripple a city. Wasting water, wasting energy -- these will turn out to be huge problems because none of these countries can afford to separate the systems, but nor can they afford to pump out what there is in the way they do, and still no one expects to have to pay. But our rooms, as other people's, were gloomy for want of light because there were not enough bulbs for the chandelier lights with their tulip uplighters. Someone could make a killing here setting up a bulb factory.

We were to meet a leader of a small opposition movement, a rarity here in that he describes himself as a muslim first and foremost. Hossain Hoja Ahmad lives in a flat in a Mikroraion -- a housing estate, whose system of numbering blocks and flats bewilders even its inhabitants. He had a carpet hung on one wall with a picture of pilgrims at Mecca pinned to it. That picture was the only symbol that distinguished his flat and furnishings from anyone else's --the sofa against the wall with the carpet, the table set before it, the lino on the floor, the glass-fronted bookcase.

A nationalist politician, but also a musician, he had musical scores in his bookcase, and pictures of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky on his piano, flanking a portrait of Ataturk. He railed against President Nazarbayev's government for its corruption, and its failure to promote the Kazakh language against the juggernaut of Russian. It's the street language of children, the language of the newspapers, TV and radio, and of station announcments, of the schools. But Kazakh has been promoted to the level of state language in parliament and civil servants must now speak it, so that now the large Russian population is complaining. Hosain Hoja Ahmad was unimpressed and dismissed the language laws as a diversionary tactic.

'Nazarbayev is selling us off,' he fumed, while a small and silent toddler crept into the room, opened doors and drawers looking for some fun, failed to find it and departed again. In another room we could hear the muted scratchings of people who would not show their faces while guests were in the house. 'He says he wants to raise capital for the economy but giving foreigners the major stake in factories and power stations isn't the way to do it. Any minute now, we'll end up like the Red Indians, living on reserves and selling carpets while the country's parcelled out to the foreigners who can pay for it.' He spoke in truculent bursts, saving some spectacular flurries for his opinions of the Americans. 'As soon as we were independent they came in all energy and enthusiasm to lecture us about democracy and elections, and all the while Nazarbayev was putting his dictatorship together. And do the Americans care? They do not. All they want is the commercial advantage. Our oil.'

(We were to find those views echoed throughout the region. 'America and the west cared about us when the oppressor was communist, but now the communists have gone all that talk of human rights and democracy is so much hot air.' All the presidents of all five 'Stans rule by decree, and whim. If dissidents are discovering that they can no longer turn to western governments, then the only outside support on offer would appear to be Islam. Only, so many people seem not to want it.)

A local journalist sat writing down his words, while Husain Hoja Ahmad, twice imprisoned by the Communists and once so far by the present dispensation, complained that he couldn't get his articles published anymore. Lack of money; lack of newsprint; lack of courage on the part of the editors. 'As for Islam of course we're not as muslim as some, we'll never veil our women. Never. And when we have guests, it's the women who pour the tea, not the men the way they do in Uzbekistan, know what I mean? But I'll tell you what. If it hadn't been for Islam we wouldn't be here as a nation. Islam stopped us from becoming completely dominated by the Russian colonialists and their church. Because that's what Orthodoxy was all about, you know. Nothing to do with serving God at all, it was just the arm of imperialist Tsarist policy.'

Outside a small blue and white church, Our Lady of Kazan, another arm of imperialist Tsarist policy gathers once a month to exchange news and gossip. The Semirechensky cossacks strut before their flag, wearing their striped trousers and medals of unknown provenance. Khaki greatcoats, huge flat officers' peaked caps, gold teeth and drum-tight paunches. You don't mess with them. There's been talk of the Cossacks further north wanting to re-constitute themselves as a fighting force, and some people are worried about this. But Colonel Ovsyannikov gave a sharp, behind-the-teeth laugh. 'All nonsense, although we have offered our services, should they be needed.' It wasn't clear who might need them, which army he had in mind when he told us that he had offered to train recruits. 'Cossacks have a long and fine tradition,' he said, 'and you don't want to take any notice of people who say we just get together to get drunk.' That long, fine tradition as Imperial Russia's frontier fist, semi-outlaws, sometimes runaway serfs, galloped through Jewish settlements beyond the Pale in the 19th century in the name of Orthodoxy. And it's Orthodoxy that is still the defining characteristic. 'Some people think anyone can become a cossack. Not a chance. You have to be Orthodox, point one. Point two you'd have to abide by our beliefs and traditions of authority and patriarchal control. It's no good thinking you can just put on the striped trousers and think that's all there is to it.' Colonel Ovsyannikov turned to Paul, 'Now you couldn't be a cossack. Not until you were part of our church, and been properly checked out. And then we might, we just might consider you.'

Nearby stood a group of 'elders' whose job it is to keep the young in line. 'And it needs doing,' said Boris Maximovich Bezborodov (Beardless), whose beard reached his waist and whose eyes squinted behind thick spectacles. 'We tell the young people,' his finger was upraised and wagging, 'that if they don't show respect to us now, what do they think it'll be like when they're old? Hmm? Worse, that's what it'll be like. But you know, they come out of school and shoot at pigeons and cut the legs off cats. Nothing better to do, but cut the legs off cats.' Nearby a cossack youth was fondling a fully-legged kitten, so the message was clearly getting across. 'We tell them, just because your old granny or your grandpa is old and frail doesn't mean you ignore what they say. They're still the masters of the household, and you should respect them. But these days, well, what can you do? A cossack is.. a cossack means a horse, and land, the church and the old traditions and it's all going to the dogs. And if we don't put a stop to it, where will we be? Nowhere, that's where!'

Inside the church the liturgy was under way, well-attended by Russians who appeared to be regulars. Oddly, there was only a small female choir interspersing the incantations of the priest with the regular and harmonious Gospodi pomiluy, 'Lord Have Mercy'. But a moment after he had intoned, 'peace to all', he suddenly turned on his congregation followed by an acolyte bearing a vast washing-up bowl of water. The priest had a plasterer's brush in his hand, and with an expression of naked fury, taut-lipped, teeth bared under his reddish beard, he flung brushfuls of water into the faces of astonished old ladies, hurling the liquid at them so that they recoiled, mopping at themselves too late, whimpering, 'Oi! Oi!'. We fled. Outside in the sunshine and the birdsong a photographer was taking pictures of Colonel Ovsyannikov and his men.

That evening, we walked through a wood above the city along a path by a dried stream, all stones and papery fallen leaves. Small, single-storey Russian houses stood along a bank above us, each with a fenced courtyard and heavy-shouldered guard-dog tugging on its tethering rope. It was growing dusky and we began to be uncertain whether this path would lead out to any road we might recognise. But then we saw, coming up the path towards us, a small group of men and women, with a guitar. Russians not Kazakhs. Should we ask them the way? They looked a little drunk. They came closer and looked very drunk. Better not bother. But as we passed them they were singing so we invited them, 'Give us a song, why don't you?'

'Only if you come back to our bonfire, and we'll sit and sing, and you can sit and sing, and we'll have a jar,,,'

And there, under the trees was the bonfire, figures in the growing darkness stoking it. They brought out vodka and brandy. Someone came running from one of the houses with cake and a sort of brawn. We drank. We sang. Oleg Gumin leaned on his guitar and told us about his family.

'Our forbears were serfs up in Voronezh and when they were liberated in the 19th century they didn't know where to go. They started off trying Siberia but it was too cold so they came south and ended up here. The cossacks wouldn't have them, not good enough I suppose, so my great-grandfather became a miller and built a house up there in 1887, that one, see it? Actually, it came down in the earthquake but they got it up again and I was born here and grew up here. Had my first drink here, and my first girl. And now, with our kids it's the same. You couldn't live anywhere else, you wouldn't want to. But things have changed. This river, for example. When I was a kid it was so wide and fast you had to hold onto a horse's tail to get across.' On the other side of the riverbed his children and their friends were weaving in and out of the trees on a moped. Up on the ridge his neighbours' dogs were barking. Eventually, when we couldn't drink any more and Oleg Gumin and company could barely move, it was so dark we knew we wouldn't find our way on our own, so they led us in a lurching group out of their wood to the road. Grown sentimental with booze we all embraced, whereupon they turned back into the trees and were instantly invisible.

It's impossible to gauge how old Babalykov is. It has been difficult finding his flat because his instructions were so hard to understand; his Russian is poor. He's not a local Kazakh but comes from Xinjiang in China's north west. Mao tried to sinicize them, he says, and then beams, his ancient cheeks pink, his eyes crinkling. There had been a time when the Chinese Kazakhs had written their language in an adapted form of the Arabic script but the Chinese tried to force them to use the Latin alphabet instead. Kazakh who were willing to dump their culture were given prefential allowances, the others penalised. Meanwhile all over Soviet Central Asia, of course, people had had to pass from the Arabic to the Latin and finally to the cyrillic alphabets. Now the question is, will they stick with what they've got or will they opt for change? The Uzbeks are Latinising, arguing that international exchange and computer technology demand it. Others, the Tajiks still unable to climb out of the civil war that broke out with independence, say quite candidly that alphabet change is an expensive dream. For them, it would be the Arabic script as the Iranians use it, for Tajik is a form of Farsi. But there is also the view that cost apart, too much would be lost if there were to be another change. The links to European and world culture is cited as an example, accessible through Russian which everyone knows.

The old man is an ethnographer, and he feeds us on raisins, dried apricots, walnuts, jam and tea with evaporated milk from a tin labelled Dutch Lady. A young woman, is she a daughter or a grandaughter? rushes back and forth to bring fresh tea as he calls for more. Just as Hosain Hoja Ahmad said, the women in Kazakhstan are not shut away. They're privileged to pour the tea, which she does for us each in turn with her hand on her heart in that lovely gesture which is so quiet and dignified. Since she's right handed, it's her left hand she places on her heart which has, for the moment, conveniently wandered to the opposite side of her body. Increasingly I am made to feel, and behave, as an honorary man. Before setting out I was warned that I might not be taken seriously, but that has not happened. Yet it's impossible not to feel uncomfortable as the only woman out and about in restaurants and on airplanes.

Watch-repair shops, tiny ones, are springing up, and tyre-repair, called everywhere vulcanisation. It reminds me of the first ventures into private enterprise in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution. But five and half years have passed since Kazakh independence and somehow they seem only now to be starting. Kazakh capitalism is moving, but slowly. They're not the wide boys of Uzbekistan, whom they slightly mistrust, but greatly envy. Kazakhs are stolid and friendly and warm and, one feels, infinitely cheatable. They fear this could indeed be so. Some of the young men are trying their hand at being spivs but their heart isn't in it. They haven't the attitude of their Uzbek colleagues down the road.

The women are very beautiful and leather is in fashion. Even in the snow they wear high-heeled boots. One of our interviews was with the editor of the only woman's magazine in the country. Her card tells us she's a member of parliament, a writer, dramatist and 'chief-in-editor'. She sure is. Altynshash Jaganova arrived at her office late, her female staff wringing their hands in embarrassment, and swept plumply in with coiffed hair, red shirt, black suit and crisp make-up. The female staff buzzed round her. She smoked furiously and was very, very confident.

In her role as MP, she explained Kazakhstan's predicament. 'We were always the provider of natural resources, but we never manufactured anything entirely. They (the Russians) took our oil and gas, but everything we needed we had to buy from them.' Like Hosain Hoja Ahmad she insisted that Kazakh Islam is easy going. 'No veils. We women won't allow that. What's more, we've been brought up on European literature, on Pushkin. It has an effect and we're not going to turn away from that.' She spoke slowly in a measured, cigarette-husky voice.

In her role as editor of the women's magazine she said that Kazakh women are highly educated, but relegated to the background. 'Mind you, we do have an eastern cast of mind which is as it should be. What it means is that we naturally give way to our men. Yes, they run the country, and that's fine -- so long as they don't go round saying women are more stupid than men. Frankly, that's just male egoism.' Then she grew scathing. 'Men aren't actually men at all anymore. There was a time when they used to hunt or build houses, but now they pay someone else to do their bit of building for them, and instead they sit in offices pushing bits of paper around. Call that being men? Psssh! Or they spend their time being academics or writers, though there's nothing wrong with that, I'm a writer myself of course, but our men are more like our sons than our husbands these days and it's the women who do all the work.' She's fighting for women's rights, she said, no longer so difficult in the city but hard in the countryside where attitudes are different and the poverty is serious. Unemployment has hit hard since the collapse of the Union, and it's hit the women most of all.

A portrait of President Nazarbayev smiling in his leather jacket hung on her wall, as it did on so many walls. I wondered whether she felt a need to display his picture by way of insurance. But not quite. 'Look, we need strong government at the moment. You can't go into a sudden transition like this and expect to have democracy overnight. We do want that, we do need an opposition. But all in good time. Besides,' and she pointed to the opposite wall which had a picture of a crying baby. 'I want our President to keep looking at that child and remind himself that no baby should have to cry like that under his regime.' But the President wasn't looking.

The building, which housed the offices of other magazines, was smart on the outside, deeply tatty inside, the staircase treads of marble or malachite literally crumbling underfoot. Everywhere the decoration was unfinished and there was a sense of lack of workmanship as if the Soviet approach had been to get the damned buildings up, hold the walls and roof together somehow, bung in the pipework and move on. Nothing quite fits.

Bakhora was our fixer and adviser, small and bustling, with too much to do, embarrassed that our landlady was 'a bit on the mucky side, housekeeping not up to much.' So she bulleted in with mops and sponges, wiping surfaces and disinfecting the fridge. Central Asian hygiene is one of those topics one isn't supposed to raise. Bakhora was married to a man she didn't love and had never loved but would stay with because that's how you expect it to be. She had five children, whom she had been bringing up largely on her own. Really the family were based in Tashkent, capital of another country, but she'd brought her youngest up to Almaty with her, and the child was pining for her brothers and sisters. But Bakhora had to earn where she could. All of a sudden she'd had a disaster. She was buying a flat and had put down $1000, the equivalent of two years' salary as deposit. The day she moved in she discovered that the man to whom she'd handed over the money was not the owner at all, merely the tenant, who'd decamped with every tenge. The real owner, who hadn't been intending to sell, happened to come in, found her ensconced and wanted to know who the hell she was. She called the police, managed to convince them that she really had been given to believe the flat was for sale. True, she hadn't actually seen any documents because the 'owner' had said he'd deliver them later. How was she to prove her loss? The whole business of buying flats is so new. The police told her they'd find the villain because 'there's a lot of this about'. In fact, they suspected the owner himself might be in on the scam since he and the tenant came from the same town. Thus it turned out to be. First a part of the money was returned. Then the rest was promised, if only, the owner suggested, she would agree to withdraw the charges. 'Get the money back first' the police advised, '-- and then press charges anyway. People have got to be made to understand that they can't get away with things like this.'

We were off to meet Mansur, senior academic, taxi driver and purveyor of Kazakh carpets. We flagged down a car in the proper way, standing by the roadside with a finger flopped dejectedly over the spot in the road where you hope a car will pull up. Generally they do, because you pay. Mansur wanted to persuade Paul to buy a carpet. In fact, he wanted to persuade Paul to help him find some means of exporting carpets to England. Mansur was building a house for himself, his wife and father-in-law on the outskirts of the city opposite a burning rubbish tip. He'd been going at it for four years, a little every day. The main structure was done, the loo bought and lying on its side ready to be installed. The radiators were waiting. And so was his wife who had been living these past four years in a shack by the house. She looked as grumpy as anyone might in the circumstances, but Mansur had no time for any of that. He and his small squinting father-in-law unrolled carpets, one after another. These were big and bold, warm with deep reds and far, far too heavy to take out on an airplane. He was disappointed. How much would one of these sell for in England? $1000? Paul thought £600 might just do it, but you'd have to bear in mind the cost of transporting them the huge distance -- Kazakhstan is too vast for anyone's ease -- the customs charges, the protection money to the various mafiosi along the way, the overheads of the salesman in England. Mansur was crestfallen. It all sounded so complicated. Perhaps we might find him some English agent who'd buy the carpets here in Almaty and see to the rest himself.

Later, playing taxi driver, surely the most lucrative of his different professions, Mansur drove us to the airport to fly to Akmola, 800 miles north, destined shortly to become Kazakhstan's new capital, a sort of glum Brazilia of the steppes, a sea of flat land the size of western Europe where no trees grow. Although Mansur had warned us that it would be minus 10 already, it wasn't yet that cold. Later, soon in fact, it would be minus 40, and stay that way till May. A perpetual and powerful wind blows across the land making it colder. There are only 120 frost-free days a year, and in summer, when the prevailing winds put their feet up, the mosquitoes take over. Here we were to stay in a hotel for a couple of nights. There was no heating, no light and no water. The power stations have been privatised, many of them bought up by foreigners who wish their bills to be paid. But the Oblast of Akmola has run out of money and hasn't paid, so the foreigners turn off the juice. Knowing this might be so we brought our warmest clothes with us for this part of the trip, and we needed them.

Next morning it was snowing, the second fall of the year. An elderly waitress shlepping in flat slippers explained that it always snows twice, melts twice, then snows finally and definitively. Our first call was to the press centre, for without their say-so we would be grounded. Mr Makanov's office was just beyond a vast marbled hall with wide steps, coat counter to the right, porter's desk to the left. Mr Makanov was very nervous. He crept out from behind his desk and reminded me instantly of some character in a Tintin book. A thin man with exceptionally yellow skin, and the narrow eyes of the Kazakhs, his eyebrows were pulled together in perpetual worry, and from their inner corners his entire face draped away like a pair of curtains -- eyelids, nose and cheeks. He had two gold teeth, top right and a pair of matching ones, bottom left. His moustache was clipped, his glasses solid and his German pullover looked cosy. We had already spoken to him but he needed proof of identity, and further proof and oh dear, he couldn't get hold of anyone and oh dear, he wasn't not sure what was the best thing to do, there are so many useful and important people you might speak to but I really don't know if I should, on the other hand perhaps if I just...and could you tell me again exactly who you are... and why? Mr Makanov was our first, and only, scared Kazakh. For all Hosain Hoja Ahmad's complaints people seem to speak their minds.

Outside in the square where they used to have the march past, Lenin still stands massively looking down on an area that would rather see phalanxes of combines than tanks. The statue is swathed in a cloak but is foolishly bare-headed and snow lay on his bald pate. You cannot say this is a lovely city. To call it bleak is to be kind. All the lines are straight. The sky is straight, the horizon is straight, the streets are in exact blocks. High on the roof of a long block there is a slogan dating from Khruschev's days: Long Live the Subjugators of the Virgin Lands! In the 1950s Khruschev hit on the idea that the vast steppelands could be brought under the plough according to the principle that the greater the cultivated acreage, the greater, surely, the yield. But land that was once able to accommodate the semi-nomadic Kazakhs who moved their herds between winter and summer pastures turned out to be unsuitable for wheat. It's too cold for too long. Never mind. Once begun, no experiment should be halted.

They sent a car from the Mayor's office to take us to meet Pavel Kazantsev, Deputy Mayor and thrusting young man, Russian not Kazakh. He had seen the future and it was called Akmola. Faster than the normal human tongue can move he articulated all the reasons why the Kazakh capital should be re-located. The air is fresher that in Almaty, because of the constant wind. The city is architecturally a textbook case, leisure area and parks all to the east, then come the housing areas, then the industrial ones. Because the wind always blows from one direction, and always blows, the pollution is swept away into the steppe. Almaty is on a known earthquake fault, how dangerous! Almaty is close to China. Even more dangerous. (In Almaty we had been offered exactly the opposite proposition: since being close to China is a problem for anyone, best of all that the capital should be nearest the border, so that the world's eyes will be focused on its fate.) Akmola has the magic of the steppe, it has hunting and's going to be just wonderful. Of course people were nostalgic for the old days when they could look at their pay packets and say, okay, I can or can't buy a TV, I can or can't buy a fridge, and if I can't now when I'll be able to. Of course it was simpler when salaries and prices didn't change, and now, okay, people don't actually get paid in cash anymore, it's more likely to be in kind, but what the hell...the future looks great so long as you weren't one of the generation who'd spent all their active lives under socialism.

Mr Kazantsev's secretary brought us sweetened black tea and chemical meringues in pink and white. His office told us he was a rising star. In a corner his fax was almost as excited as he was. The furniture they'd given him was black with rounded corners, and could have come from Habitat. If you were on the way up, you had Habitat black. If you were only so-so, you got your desk and cupboards in deal or formica. Mr Makanov, back at the press office, was so-so.

'How was your interview with Mr Kazanstev?' he asked, chewing his knuckles.


'You were certanly there for a long time.'

'Mr Kazanstev had a lot to say.'

'Oh yes, Mr Kazanstev is very young and ...energetic.' Mr Makanov slumped with exhaustion.

Aldan Samailov, Kazakh, editor at the Akmola radio and tv station sits at the end of a long thin office wearing dark glasses and a totally impassive face. His black hair is swept back from his half-hidden face. Henchmen stand on either side, but admitting us, he dismisses them. When he talks only his top lip moves. Every few sentences he drags in a breath then exhales an extenuated sigh. Is it his country's history that troubles him or the overseas visitors?

'We didn't ask for independence. It was dumped on us, by Gorbachev. Beats me if I know why. Some people say the guy lost control. Gave his empire away. I don't know.(Sigh) Maybe.' Like Altynshash Jaganova, Samailov thinks the Soviet Russians deliberately organised their production to ensure that no republic could ever be self-sufficient. He's disarmingly full of contradictions. 'The Russians have never invented or produced anything worth having. Did you know that? Anything the Soviet Union came up with that had any quality actually came from Central Europe, from the Czechs. Culturally? Rubbish. And d'you know what? When Khruschev decided on his Virgin Lands policy, they moved 600,000 Russians and Ukrainians into our lands in two years. Now if those people had been workers or intellectuals, then fine. But they weren't. A lot of them were zeks, (convicts) d'you know what I mean? Vagrants. The dregs. And they drank. And they were useless, no idea what work meant. So if Kazakhstan fell behind economically, that's why. But according to the ideology of the times, they were hailed as the...' (now his voice goes sarky) '...the Pioneers, the subjugators of the Virgin Lands. But what did they subjugate? Us. Our land. It was humiliating.'

Yet Samailov doesn't resent Russians, even though internal migration made the Kazakhs a minority in their own land. 'Look. They had as bad a time as we did. We died of starvation, so did they. We were kicked about. So were they. It's the politics not the people you have to look at.'

But now, surely, things are different. A lot of Russians have hightailed it back to wherever their parents or grandparents came from and other countries are stepping to fill the vacuum. 'Turks, you mean? Well, yes. They're building, hotels and schools and what have you. But you know, we were always told that we were ethnically the same as the Turks, way back. Our language is related to theirs, so we thought, yes. That's where we should look. But then they came and -- it just didn't feel right. We'd rather have the Russians. We've been to school with them, we think like them, we feel easy with them and we don't want them to go.' Then Samailov pulled out two chipped glasses and a mug, and a bottle of brandy from a fridge behind his desk. 'I was 50 last weekend. Help me drink to it.' Half an hour later, he drove us home, following a weaving path through the snow. His car had one light working at the front, one at the rear and two holes in the windscreen as if it once interrupted a gunbattle. The glass was murky from the slush thrown up by other vehicles. I crouched in the back, grateful on this occasion that men take precedence and must sit in the front, and assumed Samailov was always pissed behind the wheel.

We went to a car hire company to book a car to take us out to what had once been a state farm, now privatised. It was power cut time and the lights were out. Two women peered at us through a small hatch window. Beyond them the off-duty drivers were sitting at a long trestle table, playing dominoes in the dark. The cuts were unpredictable, no one could say how long each would last. Hours? Days? What would happen if offices were computerised?

Out in the steppe the population is suddenly much more clearly Kazakh. People live on this sometime collective in low concrete buildings which are going to be iceboxes in a few days time. There is no means of heating but the centrally supplied power. The director has managed so far, unlike many others, to keep the farm kindergarten running, but only just. The woman who runs it is Russian and takes our presence as an opportunity to vent her frustration.

'I'll tell you what's happened these past five years. Everything's got worse. D'you know what we were doing yesterday? We were sitting with a list of all the kids here having to decide which ones to throw out because we can't keep the place going the way we used to. So now we're only to have places for the ones whose parents can't feed them. And it's freezing. They've cut off the electricity so we've brought in a gas cylinder. It stinks, doesn't it, and it's illegal. But what are we supposed to do?' She has seven different nationalities of children, all Russian speaking. 'Look. There's our piano. But we can't find a music teacher who'd accept the miserable pay.'

Paul suggests, 'Perhaps one of you could play the piano with the children?' But the idea is unthinkable. Under the Soviet system people became adept at patching up tools and machinery, but only a fully qualified musical pedagogue can touch the piano.

So, no electricity here today either. The electric typewriter in the outer office was disabled, as were the farm's corn mill and bakery. The director was squat and looked at us sideways as if he were avoiding the powerful rays of a midsummer sun. Reticent at first, Marat Kamzebaev grew voluble and said much that one might expect. That they'd grown up with orders and decisions from above and the hardest thing was having to think for oneself.

'In the past all that mattered was being on the right side of the bosses. If your production was up you got medals and so on. If you made losses, they'd write them off. Now, you've got to be cleverer than the next man, and if you make a loss you end up in someone or other's cabal, just about a debt slave. What can I say? Except, if you've got a head on you and you're prepared to work, you'll do okay. You'll do better than before. Only we've got to make sure that the very poorest and the old ones don't actually starve.' But we felt the odds were stacked against him. The old Soviet subsidies have gone. The automatic market to Russia has gone, and everywhere else is so incredibly far away. The electricity can't be relied on. Harvests are down. At the same time, they're nervous of the southerners coming up north with 'different rules of the game'. The southern Kazakh town of Chimkent they call Texas, almost in awe, and again, they refer critically and enviously to the Uzbeks' famed ability to run rings round them.

In one of the schoolrooms there is an empty podium with only a stain on the wood where the bust of Lenin once stood. They have stashed Lenin carefully in a cupboard...just in case.

Marat Kamzebaev showed us a little mosque they were building, their first, still hollow and echoing, awaiting its carpets. Popular demand, he said, and they'd paid to send their mullah to Turkey to be trained. Multi-lingual Paul read the Arabic inscriptions over the doors and windows, which amazed them, for no one here had any idea what was written there. What would happen to these friendly people this coming winter we wondered?

We caught a late night flight to Tashkent, and once again I was aware how rarely women travel. I sat by the aisle to write up some notes and a Korean climbed across me to find a seat. There are many Koreans in Central Asia, deported in 1937 by a paranoid Stalin who removed them from Kamchatka, assuming they would make common cause with the Japanese. But this man dressed differently.

'English or American?'


'I am trying to learn, to study the language but the structure is so difficult.' He told me he was resident in Moscow, working for an American foundation. His mission, he said, was to bring a particular book to the attention of young Russians, and young Central Asians.

'Is it religious?'

'No, not religious?'

I asked a foolish question. 'What's it about?'

'Throughout human history people have misused their sexual organs...'


'...and if I say I love you it should be forever. But fijical dejire is making many people not stay in the marriage. We must teach young people they must not think of fijical dejire.'

'Is the book successful?'

'The teachers like it very much. Very much.'

'And the young people?'

'They will like it also.'

'But, excuse me. If throughout human history people have misused their sexual organs, why would they stop now?'

'Because they want happiness.'

It occurred to me to suggest that perhaps for many people happiness and misusing their sexual organs, or at least fijical dejire were one and the same. But of course that was precisely his point. At the back of my mind I suspected he was probably right, if only he had not been peddling a book on behalf of an American foundation. Like Beardless the Cossack Elder, the message couldn't really be faulted, but there was something insufferable about its delivery.

In beautiful autumn weather Tashkent is, as someone said to me, 'an alright city'. Again, the trees, clothed for the present in russet and gold, and there's a smell of burning leaves. Much of the city is laid to criss-crossed lanes of single storey houses behind walls, each with its enclosed courtyard garden. This is the Mahallah area, a sort of ancient Islamic neighbourhood watch where no one can be lonely nor anyone left alone. The rest is Soviet building, thrown up for incoming Russian workers in the 1960s. Many of these blocks collapsed in the 1966 earthquake, and were put up again within the year. The Mahallah houses, shaken by the quake but left standing, have buttresses against them.

Here there is no question. The Russians are on the run. The Uzbeks are the most populous of the Central Asian nations, and the most confident. When Stalin carved Turkestan into separate states in the 1920s, Uzbekistan was left with all the historic and symbolic centres of power, Samarkand, Bokhara, Khokand and Khiva. Paul tells me that this country is the only landlocked country in the world surrounded by other landlocked countries. People speak Russian but they're turning to other languages instead, and Uzbek signs and announcements predominate. If I were a Russian living in Tashkent, I would feel miffed at the sudden turn of events, and then I would be uneasy. And they are.

November 10th 1996 was the 125th anniversary of the coming of Orthodoxy to Central Asia, and to celebrate this event the Patriarch of all the Russian Orthodox Church came to Tashkent's Ouspensky Cathedral, a building of bright sky blue and tinny gold. Traffic laboured through the surrounding streets as the crowds converged. Police lined every pavement fearful, perhaps, of Islamic militancy of which there was no sign. It seemed that every Russian living in Tashkent was gathered for the liturgy; those who couldn't get in pressed their faces, sodden with weeping, against the glass of the side doors, scratching on the panes begging the attention of stony-faced young priests on sentry duty inside. Under their cassocks the priests, pimply and adolescent, wore jeans and dusty boots.

Archbishops, bishops, archpriests and priests, deacons suddenly processed in a crocodile with the Patriarch jostled in their midst, joslted between his six shiny-suited bodyguards with ear pieces and bouncer stance. Their armpits bulged. But well-schooled, they bowed and cross themselves, noses lifted for the incense, faces concentrating on the messages of the ear-pieces.

The cathedral was so crowded that every now and then a fainting crone was lugged out like Polonius by a burly cleric and handed over to the care of the weepers outside, provoking further pleading. For every crone removed, surely there should be space for another to insert herself? The sentry priests set their faces. The Patriarch asked for tolerance between the Orthodox and muslim communities; symbolising a lost Russia here, he was a reaffirmation for the devout women that way up in Moscow they hadn't been forgotten. Many of the congregation were poor and had lost the one thing that perhaps gave them dignity -- Russian dominance in Central Asia. The patriarch called for a spiritual imperium of Orthodoxy to replace the old physical one -- and solemnly named, one after the other, the bishops of all the Orthodox communities around the world, in Canada and the USA, in Antioch, Jersualem; then in Central Asia: Semipalatinsk, where the Soviet union left behind a nuclear mess of mindboggling proportions, Akmola, Chimkent, on and on.

For all the ceremony and gorgeous Patriarchal raiments, for all the carefully rehearsed exchange between officiating priests and two choirs, this is still a peasant ritual. People come and go, children crawl between the tiring legs of their parents and grandparents -- Orthodoxy keeps you on your feet for three hours and more. Only twice does the congregatation join in, to chant first the Creed, then the Lords Prayer, more robustly than in the days when only grannies dared go to church, but imbuing their prayers with a hopeless national statement.

Out on the street, where a public address system the Soviets would have envied relayed the liturgy over the surrounding area, and over the muslim market, an elderly Uzbek up from the country approached us to ask what we thought of it all. Dodging his question, we asked what he thought.

'It is good that they go to church but they do not really have faith in God anymore. We have nothing against the Russians, but they don't like us, unless we give them whisky and vodka. That's all they care about, instead of thinking about God and their children, they think about drink. We aren't like that. Our religion does not allow us to drink.' Perhaps in the villages the Uzbeks do spurn alcohol; not here. Then he took fright. 'But perhaps now they have seen me talking to you they will come and take me away. I must say how much we are thankful for the great things our great President Karimov has been doing for us...'

President Karimov, like the rest of them the old Party boss in place when the Soviet Union imploded, is prepared to tread on many toes in the name of stability. He points to Tajikistan on his borders, and Afghanistan beyond as a justification, and the governments seeking to invest here profess to be won over. But this is a stability held in place by heavy police activity and presidential ukase. Anyone talking on the record is careful to introduce the name of the president at least once as the man without whom no improvements could be possible. Shortly after a human rights conference held with many fanfares and much self-congratulation in Tashkent in September 1996, the son of an opposition figure was kidnapped and threatened with execution; later his father and all his relatives, inlaws amd their relatives, were ejected from their flats.

In a central square there is a podium, previously occupied in reverse order by Stalin, The Beacon of the Peoples of the East, A hammer and sickle, Karl Marx and General Kaufmann the first governor general of Turkestan under the imperial Russians. Now, there is a new statue, of Tamerlaine, Amir Temur, astride his prancing horse with a generous hand extended over his people, eyes fixed confidently on the future, and on the new domed museum dedicated to his memory. It so happens that Temur was not an Uzbek. He massacred Uzbeks as enthusiastically as he massacred everyone else in the region. But he has become the symbol of new Uzbekistan and, along with President Karimov's, his name now has to be mentioned in every formal speech. A Tashkent economics newsletter argues that Temur antedated Adam Smith by four hundred years in inventing an equitable system of taxation and the inland revenue as well. Recently it's been discovered that he anticipated Amnesty International too, and he' s known, we're told, the world over as a great statesman. There is nothing that people might find admirable in the west that Temur did not hit upon first. Strange, then, that Uzbekistan's present government seems so reluctant to emulate his example.

President Karimov is also jumpy about religion. He makes great play about the building of new mosques and Islamic shcools, the madressehs, but his opponents charge the official muftiate with being government stooges, and charge the government with seeking to block the spread of Islam. Again, Karimov can flick a hand in the direction of Afghanistan where the Taleban have been consolidating their control. But invasion across two borders apart, does he or anyone really believe that Uzbekistan's own people want Islam in that form?

Professor Goga Hedoyatov, historian, sliced the cake his daughter made and poured our tea. Islam took such a hammering during the Soviet period, he said, he doubted that it could be restored here as a religion, except possibly in the Fergana Valley where Islamic scholars had gone underground and taken their teaching with them. Yet he insisted that as a way of life Islam has remained. I found this puzzling. What is this way of life that is different from religion? Does it come down to eating plov, that mixture of tough mutton and greasy rice everyone is so anxious to prepare and share? Is it the tradition of hospitality which presses food and drink on the visitor who doesn't know how to explain that he can take no more? Is it the unrolling of mats to sleep on at night under heaped and brightly-coloured quilts? Is it the chauvinism that keeps the women out of the room when visitors arrive? What precisely makes for an Islamic way of life that is distinct from religion?

Professor Hedoyatov is an academic who admires Shakespeare as the world's greatest historian because he was able to see so many points of view, something which President Karimov seems to consider a luxury. Whenever we have attempted to ring a young mullah in the religious centre of Namangan our telephone has been cut off. It could be that the authorities don't wish us to speak to this mullah who says his father, the Imam, was kidnapped on his way to a religious conference in Moscow and has been held incommunicado ever since. Or perhaps we have breathed in the paranoia that infects this part of the world. Everybody is a conspiracy theorist.

Dollars are on everyone's mind. In October the president suddenly changed the rules by which the Uzbek currency, the Som, was partly convertible. Exchange points and banks were closed, the Central Bank itself was put under investigation for corruption. Overnight the blackmarket took off. When we arrived there was the official rate -- 50 soms to the dollar, and a tourist rate of 80. By the time we left the blackmarket rate had risen to 105. It's as if Karimov is wary of the free market he professes to have espoused, nervous that the investing foreigners he so wants to attract will make off with their profits in hard currency, leaving Uzbekistan in the lurch.

Indeed, the foreign investors are having second thoughts about involving themselves too closely with a country whose President can change his mind so easily and so frequently, where no firm laws operate to protect either locals or outsiders. Even the Koreans, who are making Daewoo cars here, and TVs and videos, and who are supposed to be overhauling the country's telecommunications system, even they are feeling the pain.

In the streets young men in black leather and the slicked hair of newly-hatched spivs mutter that they buy dollars. The dollar murmur passes from lip to lip, swelling around evident foreigners as people turn to look, and to offer. Professor Hedoyatov tells us that young people are leaving their studies at school or university to go out and sell cigarettes and chewing gum or to wash cars. They can make as much washing a car as he makes in a month on his professor's salary. There's a gap between the generations for the first time, he says, and this in a country where in principle there is still respect for one's elders. The young cannot imagine how their parents lived on only one salary, coping with the limited possibilities of the past. The old cannot see why the young need to think so much about money and what it buys when so much is on the verge of collapse and standards, moral and intellectual, are in disrepair. But the professor doesn't criticise the young and counsels others not to. Their reaction is natural he says, and maybe this is the way for the country to accumulate capital. Teachers are leaving their posts all over Central Asia to fly to Turkey or Malaysia to buy T-shirts and leather jackets, sometimes to buy electrical goods for re-sale at home.

Walking along a back street one day we were passed by a man in a hurry who suddenly paused, exclaimed and picked something up from the ground.

'He's the lucky one,' said Paul. 'He's found some dollars.'

Recognising the magic syllables the man turned to us pasty-faced, his jowels trembling.

'Please don't tell anyone. Please, promise me.' We promised with easy hearts for why should we not, and continued on our walk. But moments later a second man came running up behind us with the desperate stumbling of the panic-stricken. His hands were dirty, his clothes scruffy.

'I've lost my money. Has anyone seen my money. My savings. I've lost them. I dropped them here. I must have.' Now we were in a quandary. Pasty-face was shaking his head at us with tiny movements. You promised, he seemed to say.

Scruffy leaped on pasty-face and shook him by the lapels. 'Have you got my money? Show me what you've got because I'd recognise mine anywhere. I wrapped it specially.'

Pasty-face fished some crumpled Som from a pocket. 'Sorry, mate. See? This is all I've got.'

Scruffy, nearly weeping, turned to me. 'What about you? what have you got?' I had bought trousers for this trip with various zipped pockets, warned to beware of muggers, carrying many of the BBC's dollars. Feeling cowardly I too fished out some crumpled Som from my Uzbek pocket. Scruffy was beside himself and pulled at Paul's jacket to see his wallet. But Paul kept a grip on it and he too displayed only the local notes.

While they were engaged on this I whispered to Pasty-face. 'Look, if you don't say something we will. This is theft. Can't you see the man's frantic?'

'Don't say a word and I'll split it with you,' hissed pasty-face and the noise attracted scruffy's attention. He lunged at pasty-face.

'You have got my money after all. Give it to me, give it back.'

Pasty-face shot me a reproachful glance and handed the wadge over. Scruffy grabbed it and galloped away down the lane with Pasty-face in pursuit, shouting, 'I was going to give it back to you all along. Can't we talk about this?'

'My, my!' we said, setting off again. Until Paul stopped abruptly on the pavement. 'Wait a minute! Wait a minute!' He took out his wallet and counted its contents. Scruffy had been light-fingered and we had been set up.

Farmers coming in from the surrounding countryside have heaped melons and pumpkins for the winter all along one of the main roads. Not as sweet as the earlier crop, they're known to be good keepers. Onions and shallots look as if they've been tipped from a dump truck, gleaming and pinkish. There are buckets of chrysanthemums and carnations and in the spring Tashkent is a city of blossom; in the early summer it boasts the world's finest roses.

People drive in Uzbekistan as if theirs was the only vehicle on the road. They don't signal, they don't switch on their lights when it's dark, they don't give way for pedestrians. Pedestrians, meanwhile, meander about the roads, even along the fast highways, sauntering into the traffic alone or being led by a languid cow, as if there were no danger. Stationed every few hundred yards is a duo of colourfully-uniformed traffic police. One of them, always the larger of the two, wears a Saddam Hussein moustache and a large peaked cap. He clamps a whistle between his teeth, and dangles from his fingers a sort of inverted lollipop, the sucky bit in bright red. Together they flag down passing cars. If the driver 's papers are, unfortunaely, in order, they fine him for the dust on his number plate, for the expression on his face, for the make of his car or because it's raining, or isn't raining or might. In a week we are stopped eleven times. While we fuss and expostulate, Uzbeks shrug. People have to make a living one way or another.

The Fergana valley is flat, not undulating, and surrounded by mountains. At its widest it is 100 miles across and 170 miles long. Shared between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, half of Uzbekistan's 20 million people live here, and it is the mostly densely populated part of Central Asia. There are apricot trees in the fields and mulberry trees along the roadsides for the silk factories. Lone women with lightweight sacks diagonally over one shoulder are picking the last white balls from the finished cotton plants. Others are gathering the dried bushes in bundles for fuel. The mud brick walls of the low houses abut the road, some with a bower of vines in front. The mud brick walls are built around wooden frames which do not topple when the earth shakes; the mud bricks may fall out, but they can be built back in again. Huge stacks of cotton are covered with tarpaulins. Cotton is a useful crop, as a Turkmen agronomist informed us. It doesn't spoil, you can kick it around, and everybody, but everybody wants it. (But it was for cotton that Soviet planning plundered the Aral Sea, diverting the rivers that feed it for irrigating land unsuited to the crop.) Here and there a new house is under construction. If it's baked brick and if it's two storeys high then the owner is a rich man. The style of building remains Soviet, windows in rows, all the same Soviet size, spaced the Soviet distance apart.

To reach Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, you have to drive over the mountains along a road of great beauty but much precariousness where the snows close the pass early in the winter. Or you can fly from Khojand, a small Tajik town not far from the Uzbek border. Arriving there at six in the morning, after a five hour drive from Tashkent, Paul secures the seats on the plane which we have been assured are not available by pointing out to the woman at the desk, some stray dollars between his fingers, that her Foreign Minister will be dismayed if we arrive late for our appointment. The woman has startling red hair and scarlet lipstick. Her leather bomber-jacket has a wide sheepskin collar, and she wears a cream woollen skirt that reaches to mid-calf, split to the thigh on each side. Her boots are high-heeled. She is the belle of Khojand where nobody comes. And when they do, what will they want of her and what other choices will she have?

We have been ushered into the VIP lounge where a television in one corner is playing MTV, REM and Bob Marley. Two pictures, chocolate box scenes of tumbling mountain brooks, frame the door and chequered armchairs mark the perimeter of the carpet. A group of silent men in trenchcoats, homburgs and elastic sided boots wait, together but without communication. A lone American, part of an aid plan, wanders up and down disconcolate, Someone had told him he'd get a ticket, no problem, and now it looks if they may have been wrong. While the sun rises the Ode to Joy is playing on a ghetto blaster, sung by a Paul Simon soundalike. Without warning we're all harried onto the little Antonov which flies us into over the mountains, some snow-capped, others still dirt brown. We can make out the road that leads to Pakistan, once the old silk route, now the new drug route where the customs officials can't stop the flow for fear of the mafia, or can't bear to for fear of the loss of private revenue..

Before Soviet times Dushanbe was a collection of houses which held its market on a Monday -- Dushanbe in Tajik. What has been delapidated in Tashkent or Almaty is here in collapse. There was no fighting during our stay, although there had been before and there was to be again later. After dark people stay at home because the streets are dangerous with enervated muggers and youngsters with guns anxious to let fly. The university, set back from the road in pink stucco had been partly burned out from earlier gunbattles, but the tussle between government troops and the joined forces of the secular and Islamic opposition was at that moment confined to border areas and the region around Tavildara further south. We were driving to the Government Dacha, once the preserve of Communist Party cadres on vacation. It is secluded in its own gardens behind a high fence of iron railings and the sliding gateway is manned by two disconcertingly young boys with kalashnikovs.

Our driver was small and smelly, and inclined to talk. His wife had left the job she had in a factory because she hadn't been paid for months. 'I told her, you might as well sit at home and take it easy.What's the point of working without pay?' It's an option for her here in town, but I've heard that in Tajikistan, if you demur at working without pay in the countryside, they shoot you. He asked me, insisting on the answer he expected, how much better life was in London than here. I thought of the rain in November and of the many people who wander homeless and derelict in the streets where I live and tried to suggest that perhaps not everyone in London has it easy either. But other people's bad news failed to cheer him.

During Soviet times Tajikistan had the highest birth rate and the lowest standard of living anywhere in the USSR. Now it is poorer still. The country is mountainous, most of it uncultivable and possibly it will never manage on its own. At the Ministry of Education, the deputy minister, Abdulrashid Rashidov talked to us with a desperate passion in his voice. Who will help little Tajikistan? Why does nobody come out here to teach English when that is what people most want? Where can they get the books that they cannot afford? As elsewhere, the literacy rate is high but the war is draining the country in every sense and Mr Rashidov is pessimistic. Who can blame him? Tajikistan has no mineral wealth of note to tempt foreign investors; it is not of strategic importance; its clan-based society is diverting funds intended for the nation as a whole just as they did in the past, although some say the clans are these days less tribal and more the leftovers of the old, Soviet nomenclatura rattling their sabres from faded powerbases.

A free-lance economist has ducked our meeting. There have been too many dead bodies in the centre of town, invariably journalists or writers, members of that peculiarly Russian category, the intelligentsia.

At Dushanbe airport waiting to fly back to Khojand we mingle with a band of military men in bright fatigues, large moustaches and small black furled umbrellas. A single smooth- haired Alsation has been posted on the tarmac to guard the airport all on his own, shivering in the snow which fell overnight. He gets up to harry a trotting sheep from the runway. The sheep trots on unworried and disappears from view. The dog returns to his position. We had seen an identical dog on guard outside a department of the Ministry of the Interior up in Akmola, also quivering in the snow. Once again I am the only woman travelling. But Mr Rashidov, dapper in a grey coat and hat, is also waiting to board the plane and he comes to greet us, all smiles and handshakes, and offers to help me with my rucksack.

The plan had been to find our way to the Khojand flat of a Tajik poetess, Azad Amin Zadeh, where other poets were scheduled to gather. But conceivably poets of whatever nation are not easily scheduled. It was another no show, and we had to make do with her. At first sight, and thereafter, she looked like a Russian granny who has put all her savings into her gold teeth.

We squeezed into the tiny kitchen, the only corner of warmth, and drank bowl after bowl of tea. In the early hours, being insomniac, she had made a loaf of bread for our coming. Now she unwrapped it from the teatowel that had been keeping it fresh, and laid out sweets and nuts, dried fruit and a bowl of eight year old honey, dark and chrystaline. Her plov was bubbling on the stove. 'It only works if the rice truly dances in the pan, but look at that! The gas pressure is so low my plov is bound to be spoilt.'

Azad Amin Zadeh writes sugary paeons to her motherland in Tajik, through the cyrillic script and is now, over sixty years old, struggling for the first time to learn to read and write Persian. As a Party member and valued and sentimental writer she was a relatively privileged citizen when the Russians were here. Now all that's gone. She can't publish her poems for lack of paper she says. 'We all have to get sponsorship these days and I simply can't find it. It amazes me, though. There are people, even from the villages, who get the sponsors, and what they've written hasn't even been controlled by the Writers' Union!' The flat she shares with her husband is large by local standards, a reflection of the past privilege. Red and pink and purple quilts are piled high on a chest with a blanket over them to keep them clean. She presses us to stay the night, for there are quilts enough for everyone.

She was never interested in politics but there is no doubt life was better under the Soviets, although one had to be careful. One was always afraid. Now, there's nothing to fear anymore but she's afraid all the same. One of her uncles left to work for Radio Free Europe, bringing all manner of trouble for the rest of the family. She hasn't forgiven him for that. In the past all the people in all the republics helped one another and felt they were one people. No longer. Everything's worse. It's already so cold and no one can say whether there will be heating this year. Last year there wasn't. You pay for services according to the number of people registered in any one flat. Nobody knows how much it costs to run the city's heating or pump in the water. It was never necessary to know. Now they simply turn it all off. And yet she notices that the place is getting its character back, sloughing off some of the soviet dreariness and the shops are filling, the markets getting lively again. Where there is new building, it looks Tajik not Russian for the first time, and people are going to the mosques, some of them. Her husband for one. He goes all the time. She doesn't though, although she believes in God. 'You have to believe that someone up there is in control of the planet. Without a controlling God people don't know how to behave.'

We drove into Osh in Kyrgyzstan in heavy sleet. If Tajikistan is plunged in poverty now because of its war, the Kyrgyz are just plain poor. In 1994 they had the lowest growth rate of any former Soviet country with the exception of Armenia which had just had an earthquake and a war. It has little industry and little agriculture. Like the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz were once herders. They call their land the Switzerland of Central Asia because of the beauty of its mountains and valleys; one peak near the city has holy associations so that two pilgrimages to its shrine are said to count for as much as one to Mecca. But it's hard to see how this isolated Switzerland can make a go of it. The Kyrgyz applied for help to the IMF which demanded stringent regulations to restructure the economy. There has been some success in the low rate of inflation and the relative strength of the currency. But the great price has been in social deprivation. At a school in a working class district an eight year old boy assumed that since we were foreigners we must be representatives of some aid organisation. Some families cannot send their children to school for lack of shoes. Others cannot afford soap, and infectious diseases are on the increase. The boy's head teacher says he's lost fifty percent of his staff to business; they've joined their colleagues over the frontier on the clothes run. You can feed a family on the proceeds of leather jackets but not on a teacher's salary -- even when it's paid. The roads, the houses by the roads are noticeably poorer than in Uzbekistan. Huge potholes tip cars and lorries from side to side like ships in a heavy sea. At the UNHCR headquarters the representative gives us a careful interview because, like so many representatives of international organisations in Central Asia, he must be more than measured in his tone if he wants the project he's working on to continue. Trying to sound optimistic he fears for the future, that growing poverty may spark off a repetition of the inter-ethnic riots of 1990 when the local Kyrgyz inexplicably turned on the Uzbeks living among them. Cafe talk hints darkly that a powerful neighbour may have fomented the troubles to persuade people of its continued importance in the region.

Osh lies plum in the middle of the Opium Road that ferries heroin and its 'precursors' from China and Pakistan to Europe. Tajikistand and Kyrgyzstan have found their climates ideal for the opium crop too and now some of the nearby villages depend on drugs for their entire livelihood. A UN survey of local school-children found that 54% of them had taken drugs, and none of them feels there is anything wrong in that. 'It's not addiction yet maybe,' said the spokesman, a Pole Andrzej Mayczyk, 'but the opportunities are all there.'

In the capital Bishkek further north a police chief lamented the rising crime rate. Apart from drugs, cattle rustling was the thing, an old regional crime which Stalin had stamped out with harsh punishments in the 1930s. Now, living conditions are dropping so rapidly people are drawn into it again. For a policeman it's a real headache. The rustlers travel enormous distances on horseback, crossing frontiers into Kazakhstan where rustlers operate too, and by the time the police catch up with them, as often as not they've already sold on the animals they stole or, just as likely, eaten them.

'The trouble is the kids these days. The old ideology has gone and we haven't found a new one to replace it. They don't have a conscience anymore,' (the phrase he uses, literally is, 'they don't have a Tsar in their heads anymore') 'and even the young ones already think might is right. They swagger about, joining gangs and pushing people around. And it's not only in the towns. We've already lost one generation and if we're not careful we're going to lose ten.'

He might be describing Britain or America, where it seems as if the Tsar in the head was deposed long ago. He makes me think of the old Cossack and his warning, wagging finger, and of the annoying Korean. He makes me think that Islam might reinstate the Tsar. But this is northern Kyrgyzstan where people are confessedly 'bad muslims.'

It is a six hour drive over the Tian Shan mountains back to Tashkent. The highest point that we pass is 8000 feet although further along the mountains rise to 20,000 feet. Fleeing the civil war in Tajikistan people have been crossing these highest passes carrying what they can, usually just a bundle, but also the greatest gift the Soviet Union gave them -- their education.The road is collapsing under the weight of heavy mining lorries that have passed over during the past two years. It has snowed recently and the surface is slippery and unstable under rolling stones and small rocks. But then, as we descend, there is a foul black cloud in the sky and we are coming down into Angren, a vast opencast mine slashing through the valley where the air, the soil and everything on it is covered in coal slime and its mostly Russian population have written letters of desperation to the English Queen. No one knows if they ever had a reply.

We fly to Turkmenistan over the desert with the Oxus snaking through it, a band of arable land slim on either side. The Russians built the world's longest canal through the desert, the Karakum, all of 3000 kilometres long. Once again it was cotton it was destined to irrigate, and once again, the land hasn't always been suitable. The evaporation from the canal must be phenomenal and one wonders why the ancient Persian system of underground qanats wasn't copied here. Now, of course, the water pumps have broken down and no one can get spares, so the fields above the canal remain dry anyway.

President Saparmyrat Niyazov wants his country to be self-sufficient which is not, experts tell us, economically viable. But Turkmenistan may have plenty of oil under whatever should finally turn out to be its section of the Caspian Sea, and it certainly has enormous quantities of natural gas, which has led the government to assume that the country, huge in geography, small in population, is on track to be a second Kuwait. But it may not be so easy. There's no world shortage of oil at the moment, and both Iran immediately to the south and Russia to the north have gas of their own. And anyway, where should the pipelines run? The swiftest route out would be through Iran, but for the moment the United States won't allow that route having designated Iran as a rogue state which must be isolated. There's some swapping -- Turkmen oil going into Iran in the north and a similar amount of Iranian oil finding its way out at the south, but the quantities are relatively small.

They call this country Absurdistan. At the beginning, in 1990, there was a year of relative freedom when Niyazov dithered, uncertain what to do with the independence that had tumbled into his lap. Then suddenly he realised he could be a tin-pot dictator all on his own. He didn't need to have Soviet power behind him to be a tyrant. All over the country the portraits of the President, Turkmenbashi, Great Leader of the Turks, sprang up on billboards and buildings. Hoardings in bright white on shiny green backgrounds line the roads, much more obtrusive than the old Soviet ones simply because these are so new. A canny young man we met who had spent a year going through bureaucratic hoops seeking permission to open a shashlik stall and cafe eventually hit upon the idea of erecting his own gleaming sign: Long Live great independent, democratic and neutral Turkmenistan. The ploy worked and the shashlik stall, crouched behind the sign, is doing good business.

Niyazov, of course, professes to be bemused by the cult of personality and has even been reported as saying, in his genial way, he wishes it would all stop. He wants his people to open up and feel able to criticise -- although they must first learn what constitutes constructive criticism. An Ashgabad history teacher has recently learned. He gave an interview which was published by Pravda in which he said that there might be alternative policies to the President's. He was sacked the following day and Pravda is no longer available on the newsstands. There were once two Russian television channels getting through, but one of them transmitted a criticism of Niyazov so it's now off the air.

One evening I watched the television news read in Turkmen by a male newsreader and thought I could tell that the broadcast was devoted entirely and only to the doings of the president. The following day, housebound with food poisoning, I watched again. This time the newsreader was a woman but I had the impression that this was exactly the same news. Could it be? Broadcasts in a language you don't understand can, after all, be confusing. But I was told that, well yes. Since the news can only concern itself with Saparmyrat Turkmenbashi, and since he cannot be doing new things every day, the broadcasts remain unchanged until he does. At the shashlik stall they shrugged. 'It's not that we expect them to tell us about, I don't know, Venezuela or somewhere, but Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, these are our neighbours and they matter to us. Surely we could hear what's going on there.'

Disgruntled Russians queue untidily outside the Russian embassy everyday applying for visas to get them back to the Motherland.

'It's not the politics, it's just everything. I don't want my kids growing up here. They'll end up speaking Russian with an accent, whereas up there, back 'home' you hear they teach English and all sorts in the kindergartens even. No, the sooner I can get out of here the better.' 'That's right. No one wants to stay now that the Soviet Union's not in control. And I'm an invalid, Class Two, but d'you think that makes any difference?As soon as I've sold my flat, I'm out of here.' It's been a bone of contention, this question of flats. At first, when the Russian emigration began, Niyazov was so piqued he decreed that any Russian wanting to sell their property had to leave the country. That caused outrage in Russia, and it was meat to the racism of Russian nationalists. The law was evetually rescinded, but since property values are lower in Ashgabad than in the Russian towns where these people have relatives, their move may turn out to be even harder than they imagine.

Niyazov is one of those leaders who feels the need to stamp a presence on his nation in the buildings: a series of new presidental palaces to which all new roads will run; a giant mosque without worshippers; facing the lovely snow-capped mountains on the border with Iran an entire street of marble hotels staffed around the year with pastry cooks, flunkeys, cloakroom attendants, waiters, chambermaids -- but without guests. We went to look. Fountains were playing in a great hall, and round tables and chairs stood on the edge of the pool, reflecting emptily in the water. Light music began to tinkle gently in the speakers by the bar as we came in as if stirred to life by sensors detecting untoward body heat.

'How many people do you have staying at the moment?'

The receptionist was wary of Paul and his question, and who could blame her. 'Just at the moment, atually none. But we always have a great many.'

'Who was the last?'

'Your Prince of Wales was the last. But we had also the Prime Minister of Turkey.'

'Who else stays here?'

'Everybody can stay here.'

'But who does?'

'Who has money, they can stay. Foreigners. Rich people.' Somebody told us that in order to bring the water out here to the hotels it had to be diverted from the city, leaving a part of its population without. Somebody else said that one night, when Ashgabad was asleep, a truck of Iranians drove round the night-time streets and without being heard or spotted prised up all the manhole covers and made off with them. Why? Well, (shrug) to melt down for arms perhaps. Yet another story has it that in Turkmenistan people are so cavalier about the quantities of gas waiting to be exploited that they leave their cookers on all day -- to save on matches when they want to light a cigarette. Urban myths, maybe, in a country where nobody likes to talk to outsiders, especially outsiders with a tape recorder. On the other hand, although the gas was not lit in the flat where we were staying, they were only just beginning to replace the manhole covers.

In Ashgabad you don't see, as you see in other Central Asian cities, women sitting on the pavement by an upturned box on which she's displaying three packets of cigarettes for sale. Nor, when you need to change money, do young men grow out of the ground at your feet offering to act as a one-man bank. They would be swiftly swept away by the police if they tried. Nor do people, however senior their ministerial position, keep the appointments they have made to give interviews. There was one man, however, more courageous than the rest.

Not far from the British-built airport some five thousand people live in a shanty town made of beaten out oil drums. In the middle of the day with the sun standing high and hot it was quiet, a couple of camels shifted from foot to foot and a small group of children with satchels passed by, returning from school.

'I wouldn't bother going there, nobody will talk to you.' A local journalist's advice. 'Pretend you're demographers.' Suggestion from the shashlik stall. But the man we approached, standing in a courtyard in his vest and scratching under his arms, wasn't fooled.

'Radio Liberty, is it? They tell the truth about this country.' His wife called to him from a doorway, urging him to come in out of the cold. 'Listen to her,' he laughed. His father, white-bearded and squatting under the tap sluiced water over his forearms and shouted out in a thin voice.

'What did he say?'

'He said, if I talk to you they'll be coming for me. But I don't care.' There's no electricity, although water and gas run along each street. The water tap by the roadside serves a cluster of families. But it's much better here than they have it on the other side of the canal, on the collective farms; at least here they leave you alone. At least here there's a school for the kids, no work though. Not anymore. 'You can't call it living. It's existing. Maybe it's worse than it used to be, but not much.' He was born here and so was his father more than sixty years ago. The shanty town is a blot on the Soviet system as well as on the Great Leader of the Turks.

Going back to the days when, as nomads, the Turkmen only chose a leader for the purpose and duration of conducting a raid on another tribe, they have the reputation of disliking authority. The living conditions in some areas of the country have dropped so low that regular observers of the country predict both starvation and then rioting. But they were also Soviet citizens for seventy years.

There is much that unites the countries of Central Asian, and much that separates them. Three of them share the Fergana valley, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Four of them are Turkic-speaking, the Tajiks are not. Three, the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz and the Turkmen were nomadic. Four have united in a military alliance in response to the fear of the Taliban in Afghanistan, from which Turkmenistan remains aloof in its newly-donned neutrality. (Its proximity to Iran and Afghanistan has caused the government to make friends quietly where it can.) Two feel drawn towards the Russian Federation either because -- Kazakhstan -- the percentage of ethnic Russians in the country is so large and because Russia is the obvious trading partner, or because -- Kyrgyzstan -- it's too small and too poor to make out on its own. All of them are more or less Islamic although sometimes that's hard to notice. All of them acknowledge a debt to the Russians for the extraordinarily high rate of literacy and for the infrastructure of roads and industry, even if , to western eyes, it is substandard. And despite the ecological mess the Soviet Union left behind, people seem to feel warmly towards the Russians and cannot be provoked into saying unpleasant things about them. All of these countries are led by men who were the Party bosses before independence. All these party bosses are in their sixties or seventies, the generation that grew up with the communists. All of them can expect the differences between them and the growing younger generation to widen. Above all, all these countries woke up one morning to find that maybe as much as a third of their GDP had disappeared overnight in lost Sovet subsidies and transfer payments and none of their leaders or managers had ever had to formulate a policy of any kind for anything before. What can that have been like? How much more fortunate we are.