History and heroism on the trail of the forgotten masters of the Silk Road

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BOOK OF THE DAY: Out of Steppe – The Lost Peoples of Central Asia. By Daniel Metcalfe. Hutchinson, 241pp, £18.99.

YOUNG DANIEL Metcalfe left Oxford University in 2002 with a sense of adventure and curiosity as well as a degree in Classics, and not a little courage. Having taught himself Persian he set off alone to find and interact with some small ethnic groups almost lost in the vastness of central Asia. His determination led him to traverse the searing plains and huge mountains of the five “Stans” – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – where the Silk Road ran in early centuries.

It’s a place “where continents collide, steppes sprawl, cordilleros knot, and ideologies clash”. This is the Asian underbelly of the former USSR, where Daniel found his own lion’s den, as he was ignored, reviled, eaten by bed bugs, turned away by surly Russian-style officials at nearly every hand’s turn. And on the other hand, he met charm, generosity and amazing cultural survival.

His penetration into Tajikstan in search of the Yaghnobis is typical of the book: first he leads us through the history of the region from ancient times.

The Yaghnobis, a tiny community, have a spectacular heritage – they were the last surviving speakers of Soghdian, an eastern Iranian language spoken by the undisputed masters of the Silk Road for the first seven centuries CE (Common Era). He calls them “the unsung heroes of Asian history”. They were travellers and deal-makers, not warriors. The passion of the Soghnian kings was for trade, not conquest. How sad, then, that in 1970 the Tajik Supreme Soviet decreed that all remaining 3,020 Yaghnobis from 22 villages high in their mountain fastnesses should be helicoptered out to “resettle voluntarily” on the lowlands.

It was a crass and cruel displacement to supply labour for the vast dusty plains below where chemicals forced cotton out of thousands of hectares of land.

Today, there are some few Yaghnobis who found their way back to their villages, living in extraordinarily harsh conditions – but nevertheless a proud and unique people.

In Kazakhstan – two-thirds the size of the United States – he searched for the Germans of Kazakhstan, a once large and prosperous community.

From the time of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, Germans had been in the service of the Tsars as advisers, engineers and military commanders.

Catherine the Great in 1763 invited settlers to come from the country of her birth – and they came in their hundreds of thousands.

They settled in Ukraine, the Volga region, and some other areas – mostly prospering and keeping to themselves.

But gradually under the weight of history, and the first World War, they lost goodwill.

Lenin, respecting them, gave them their own Volga autonomous republic. This stability was short-lived, and Stalin carried out a savage deportation of the entire group, sending them – 800,000 souls – in cattle trucks to the bleak steppes of the east and – mostly – death.

Daniel Metcalfe found their descendants in Almaty, in the shadow of the Alatau mountains and met Irma, a lively 90-year old who had survived the deportation.

The German culture of their past had not died.

Yeltsin’s government, “in a moment of unprecedented candour” in 1991, admitted that genocide had been committed. The Putin era saw new fences and denials erected around its past.

This is a book of great warmth and immense scholarship, in the best tradition of travel writing. It opens up a region about which most of us are vague. It is fascinating reading.


Gemma Hussey is a former minister for education and author of At the Cutting Edge – Cabinet Diaries 1982-87and The Anatomy of Ireland – a Changing State

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