‘Murderers in Mausoleums’: What Counts Is Your Blood

Travel Books: Jeffrey Tayler's latest book is a masterful guide to the divisions that define so much of human civilization. Jason Daley explains.

The independent nations of Central Asia are less angry (and drunk) it seems, and even a bit hopeful, emboldened by a recent oil boom. Tayler finds an emerging Kazakhstan where the locals don’t mind an authoritarian capitalist dictator as long as malls and oceanariums open in the centrally planned capital city of Astana. But he also finds a nation with its nose still pointed squarely at Russia. In a country where a woman was sent to a prison camp for saying German sewing machines were better than Soviet machines and where a generation of children were dosed with radiation from nuclear tests, Kazakhstan, as well as Kyrgyzstan, maintain a doe-eyed loyalty to the Russians who pulled them out of tribalism, educated them, set up heavy industry and drew them, at least during Soviet days, into the larger world. That’s the type of bond even the best American diplomat would have a hard time cracking. 

Tayler’s final leg takes him to the outlands of China, to Urumqi, one of the world’s largest inland ports and the capital of the Uighur Autonomous Area. There he finds a vitality and order that is missing in the Russian sphere. Even more, he finds in the nominally Communist country some of the reformist spark that had gone out in Soviet realms. “The West, now so unpopular in Russia, still evokes longing and enthusiasm in China,” he remarks, and finds that manifest at Chu Dong, a nightclub where he spends several nights drinking wine and Sprite while sussing out the Western-style dreams of the club’s 20-somethings.

Is Tayler’s final analysis—that “The new Great Game that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union has ended, and victory has gone to the home teams”—correct? If the opinions of Kazakh taxi drivers, Chinese club kids and nostalgic Russians count, he’s on the money. But whether or not Tayler has solved the Central Asian puzzle doesn’t matter. He’s bottled what’s in the air, taken the pulse of an entire region and glimpsed the aspirations of its inhabitants, a more difficult task than predicting politics. If all foreign policy could be presented this well, world affairs would quickly become our national pastime. 

In the end, Tayler’s unspoken conclusion is that America’s failure, or inevitable failure, to sway Central Asia to our side has to do with a fundamental mismatch between our homegrown idealism and a complex world order that has existed for centuries—ethnic bonds that strip clubs and democracy just can’t sever. “What counts, or what should count, is not blood but upbringing, education, and shared ideals,” Tayler argues to a Cossack nationalist in the city of Novocherkassk, Russia. “We’ve passed out of the tribal age, at least I hope, haven’t we?”

But the ataman, or chief, cuts to the heart of the matter. “I’ve told you, being American means nothing at all. What counts is your blood. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything.” And there the problem lies.

Jason Daley is a correspondent for Outside Magazine and writes regularly for Best Life, Backpacker, Popular Science and other magazines.

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2 Comments for ‘Murderers in Mausoleums’: What Counts Is Your Blood

Tracy 01.29.09 | 3:53 PM ET

This sounds like a very interesting read. I too have wondered why so many Americans expect the world to be just like us when so many other countries have such rich and interesting histories that outdate ours significantly. I enjoy reading books such as this one where locals from other countries get to speak their mind from their point of view.

Igor 02.02.09 | 5:19 PM ET

It is typical of Americans not only to expect others to be like them, but more annoyingly to romanticize the “rich and interesting histories that outdate ours significantly”. Let’s not wax poetic about unyielding age old ethnic hatreds, barbaric practices, merciless autocratic regimes, and nations and cultures so traumatized by centuries of wars, massacres, government repression, corruption and incompetence that they seek refuge in a collective paranoid schizophrenic psychosis. The West (and particularly America) might be destined to fail in our attempts to bring tolerance, decency, and yes democracy to these regions, yet let us refrain from denigrating these gifts of our civilization which we all to effortlessly enjoy and take for granted, and exalt as “rich” or “quaint” or “interesting” those cultures stuck in the morass of war, poverty, cruelty and medieval barbarism.

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