At the beginning of this year we spent 3 months learning and teaching each other about the countries of Central Asia. Our first task was to master the spelling of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan etc. The ancient Silk Road, which links China to the Middle East and Europe, has run through this part of the world for over 2000 years, and consequently its peoples have had a very chequered history. They have been overrun and conquered many times by various nomadic tribes, notably Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century.
From the eighteenth century until their independence in 1991, they came under the rule of the Russian Empire, latterly the USSR. A variety of local languages are spoken and the majority religion is Islam. Armenia is an interesting exception to this, having become, in 301 A.D., the first country ever to declare Christianity to be its state religion. Today 95% of Armenians are members of the Armenian Church, which is separate from the Greek and Russian Orthodox and from the Western Christian churches.
The Central Asian countries are situated just where the Indian tectonic plate is colliding with the Eurasian plate and so they suffer frequent earthquakes. But this geological fact also means that they are rich in fossil fuels and in rare and valuable metals, especially gold and uranium.
Large areas are desert and a lot of the land is mountainous, but the valleys are very fertile and fruit and vegetables are plentiful. Rice and wheat are staples, and grapes, apricots, sunflowers and almonds grow in abundance.
We were surprised to learn that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are important exporters of cotton.
But the production of cotton has had a serious impact on the Aral Sea because the rivers which feed it have been diverted, especially in the Soviet era, to irrigate the cotton fields. The Aral Sea used to be the 4th largest freshwater lake in the world but it is now only a tenth of its original size as can be seen in this video:
These are just a few of the interesting facts we discovered in researching Central Asia. Before we began we weren’t even quite sure where these countries were on the map. Now we are much more aware of their existence and some of the problems they face today.