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January 2013
» A blue thread in Africa’s tangled web of violence – Sunday Times

When 16 Tuareg men burst onto the desert road with AK-47s pointing at our heads, pulled over our car, hurled us to the ground and cuffed and blindfolded us, I didn’t think this was the beginning of the blowback from the Libyan revolution. That’s not the sort of thing that goes through your mind at such moments.

Nor did it occur to me at any time during the next 24 hours, while I was held at gunpoint with a Libyan friend and his traumatised family. When someone is threatening to kill you within the next few hours unless his comrades are released from prison, geopolitical analysis isn’t the first thing on your mind.

Survival was the only thing. Every few hours we were moved to a different sun-baked hideout deep in the desert, as the Tuareg kidnappers, a gang of twentysomething desperados, made sure the Libyan security forces could not find us.

Nobody knows the desert better than the Tuareg. Time wore heavily as the appointed hour of our death approached. There was a horrifying moment when a couple of Tuareg jumped out of a pick-up and started digging our graves. I started saying my prayers — but there was no bullet in the back of the head. Eventually I was released into the night with my friend’s family. He was kept hostage for another three weeks, during which time he saw more young men from his home town kidnapped, stripped and beaten. He was subjected to regular mock executions.

Looking back on that terrifying experience of late 2011, it’s clear that the Tuareg kidnappings were one of the earliest signs of the fallout from the demise of the Gadaffi regime. This was the first tremor of a seismic shift that is now shaking Mali and Algeria and reverberating across the Sahara and the Sahel, the semi-arid belt immediately to its south. For David Cameron the region, rich in oil, gas and uranium, has become the new front line in the fight against terrorism. More than a decade after 9/11, the world is wearily familiar with al-Qaeda. By contrast, the Tuareg, who find themselves caught up in a tangled web of illegal trafficking, armed rebellion and imported Arab terrorism in a part of the world that is suddenly at the centre of global attention, are an unknown quantity. For most people the word means a four-wheel-drive Volkswagen.

If my kidnapping was one extreme, my other brush with the Tuareg was completely different: a peaceful encounter at the beginning of a 1,200-mile journey by camel across the Libyan Sahara in 1998-99. Then, a British friend and I travelled with a succession of Tuareg guides from Ghadames to Murzuk, both former centres of the Saharan slave trade from which the Tuareg had once profited handsomely. Here we learnt from past masters the skills that were dying out as the ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruiser replaced the trusted but plodding camel.

The Tuareg are ancient and nomadic desert pastoralists, estimated to number between 2m and 3m today. They are known as the Men of the Veil and the Blue People, after the stains left on their skins by the indigo-dyed tagilmus veils, traditionally the defining symbol of the Tuareg. “Almost all Tuareg . . . would as soon walk unveiled as an Englishman would walk down Bond Street with his trousers falling down,” wrote Francis Rennell Rodd, author of People of the Veil, a 1926 study. Sartorial standards have slipped since those days — my kidnappers wore filthy T-shirts and trousers rather than flowing robes — but a Tuareg man is rarely parted from his veil. Like the Kurds, the Tuareg are a people without a state, caught between the gaps of the Great Power scramble for Africa that began in the early 1880s and resulted in new states with borders that frequently made a mockery of realities on the ground. Like travellers in Britain, their nomadic way of life frequently conflicts with that of settled communities. They rove widely in the Sahara and Sahel, their territory encompassing a vast swathe of land from Libya in the northeast, through southern Algeria, northern Niger and northern Mali into Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Although they belong to the Maliki sect of Islam, compared with many of their Arab neighbours they are not especially religious — the word Tuareg means “abandoned by God” in Arabic. In 2011 I marvelled at their ability to pray one moment then poke me in the chest with a Kalashnikov the next. Unlike their menfolk, Tuareg women are not veiled, a rarity in the Muslim world. Equally extraordinary is that theirs is a matrilineal society with descent and inheritance coming through the maternal line.

Where once they were the masters of Saharan trade, running what would be called a protection racket today, offering their services as guides and armed guards to caravans travelling through their territory, now the Tuareg are more likely to eke out a living from drought-ravaged animal husbandry and tourism, which is why the crisis in Algeria and Mali will have such a savage effect on them.

More will be drawn into the lucrative smuggling business, trafficking people, drugs and cigarettes to the Mediterranean. A decade ago, trans-Saharan smuggling was worth about £850m a year, according to Jeremy Keenan, an expert on the Tuareg at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, with single convoys worth £10m travelling north from Mali or Niger into Algeria “not uncommon”. With the breakdown in security, this illicit trade is set to increase.

As the West tries to understand a complex and suddenly violent region, it is critical to distinguish between the Tuareg, who belong in the Sahel and Sahara, and the incoming fundamentalists of al-Qaeda, who do not. The travel writer Alistair Carr, author of a book on the Sahel to be published this year, worries that lines between the two will be blurred. “My first reaction when I heard the news about Algeria was concern that people would confuse the Tuareg rebellion [against the government of Mali], which is all about their marginalisation and struggle for political rights, with the fundamentalist Islamist factions responsible for the hostilities and destruction in Mali. They are distinct.”

Many fear French involvement will radicalise a new generation of Tuareg fighters and intensify the Islamic threat in the region. But the Tuareg and al-Qaeda are not natural bedfellows. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which took control of northern Mali last year in an attempt to forge an elusive yet long-wished-for Tuareg homeland, is generally considered a secular, nationalist movement that opposes al-Qaeda.

While many would criticise Cameron’s assertion that the war in north Africa and the Sahel may last decades, he is surely right to emphasise the need to confront the Islamists’ “poisonous narrative”. Having worked on a successful project for the African Union and United Nations countering al-Shabaab’s Islamist narrative in Somalia, it is difficult to argue with the power of such an approach.

For the Tuareg, however, any more strategic miscalculations, such as the alliance with Gadaffi and the current dalliance with al-Qaeda, are only likely to spell disaster for this tough, turbulent and marginalised people.

Justin Marozzi is the author of South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara; @justinmarozzi

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» A High Time in Kyrgyzstan – Sunday Times travel

It’s jam on arrival in Bishkek. Apricot jam. Strawberry jam. Raspberry jam. Apple jam. Pear jam. Cherry jam. Blackcurrant jam. There’s even something called sea-buckthorn jam (no, I hadn’t, either). This is in addition to a large bowl of porridge, yoghurt, smoked sausage and fried egg, cheese, apples and grapes, pancakes and coffee. This is the Full Kyrgyz Breakfast. Such a homely introduction comes as a surprise in a country better known — to the extent that it is known, which it isn’t, really — for wild, yurt-filled landscapes peopled with moustachioed Genghis Khan lookalikes hunting on horseback with eagles amid the snow-ravaged peaks of Central Asia.

Yet this is only the capital, a small, Sov­iet affair in an obscure corner of a murky part of the world where British travellers are noticeable only by their absence.

While many former Soviet republics have long ditched Lenin, the bald, finger-wagging ideologue remains one of the most common sights in Kyrgyzstan. True, since independence in 1991 he has been demoted from the plinth in the main square that used to bear his name — now renamed Ala-Too, after the crinkly, snow-topped mountains hung up against a pale blue sky to the south of the city — but he hasn’t moved far. Having loomed large in front of the State Historical Museum, he now lurks in a square immediately ­behind it, a stone’s throw from a cosy statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in animated conversation on a park bench. Who said the Soviets were dead and buried? And who guessed that many Kyrgyz earnestly wish they were back?

Bishkek is a tranquil little city of wide boulevards, tree-lined avenues and pleasant parks of oak, maple, silver birch, walnut, pine and fir. There are one or two antiques shops to interest those in search of Soviet memorabilia, and the vibrant Osh Bazaar, with its pretty pyramids of many-coloured spices, but this is not the reason most travellers come to Kyrgyzstan.

This easternmost of the “Stans” is a land of mountains, rising to almost 25,000ft in the far southeast. It’s a place of wide horizons and sun-warmed steppes, crashing rivers and steep-sided valleys, the home of white-tailed eagles, yaks, curly-horned Marco Polo sheep and ibex, and the elusive snow leopard. It is, in other words, an adventurer’s playground, the place to hire a horse and unleash your inner Mongol warlord.

All roads for this line of things lead east to Karakol, a quaint town of crumbling Russian gingerbread houses in the Tien Shan, the Celestial Mountains of Chinese folklore. To get there you must follow the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul (Warm Lake), the world’s second largest alpine lake, an alternately serene and stormy stretch of water. This is the territory once known to both the Mongol world conqueror Genghis Khan, Scourge of God, and his 14th-century reincarnation Tamerlane, Sword of Islam and Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction. Both men ran amok in Central Asia and spilt enough blood — metaphorically speaking — to fill the lake.

After another prodigious, jam-filled breakfast one morning, I have an app­ointment with Almas, a diminutive, ­latter-day Genghis with piercing eyes and a dark smudge of a moustache. Taking advantage of the rising number of visitors to Kyrgyzstan in recent years, Almas has built up a stable of horses. Some are for riding, the mares are kept to make kumis, the mildly alcoholic fermented milk, which is, alas, out of season during my visit.

To an untrained eye, Makiza, the slender, seven-year-old chestnut gelding Almas assigns to me, appears rather too slight an animal to cope with hauling 15st of hapless rider up to 13,000ft. Needless to say, I am completely wrong. Though resolutely unimpressed by affectionate patting and verbal encouragement to keep up a respectable pace, he proves a robust and steady fellow as we climb out of Karakol, past the industrial squalor of Ak-Suu village. Almas is also less than impressed by my reluctance to use the whip with meaning. Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky, the fearless 19th-century Russian explorer during the Great Game (as the rivalry between Britain and Russia there was called), would no doubt have taken a tougher line on his mount. He was convinced, as he wrote in one of his travelogues, that “three things are necessary for the success of long and dangerous journeys in Central Asia — money, a gun and a whip”. Horses for courses, perhaps.

There is a wild splendour to the landscape as we take the rough track up the Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa) valley. The blue-blurred river flows fast over giant, copper-coloured boulders alongside the shocking yellow and rusting orange of silver birch and apricot trees in autumnal decay. A day’s ride takes us steeply up into the mountains, through fir forests to a romantically decrepit wooden cabin presided over by Valentin, a vodka-­quaffing Ukrainian whose parents were deported to Kyrgyzstan by Stalin.

Over the next few days the Kyrgyz weather throws everything it can at us. One day, cerulean skies and gentle zephyrs, the next, swirling snowstorms and blinding white-out. Leaving the shivering horses and Almas behind one morning, I strike out alone towards Ala-Kul Pass, which rises starkly above us. A steep ascent, it is said to command fabulous views over the lake of the same name. The weather has other ideas. A bullying wind whips up and driving snow reduces visibility to a few yards. For a brief moment, the brute face of the final climb is tantalisingly revealed, a near-vertical, dread-inducing ­app­roach to the pass, then the sky darkens again, snow is flying in all directions and everything is lost to sight, forcing an ignominious, scrambling retreat. On a particularly steep and slippery section, I come a cropper, flying into the air and landing expertly on my coccyx. At 41, I no longer bounce. Consolation comes below in the form of a muscle-soothing soak in the guesthouse’s hot spring, followed by a restorative volley of vodka shots with a boisterous party of locals and high tea with pots and pots of fresh jam.

After descending to Karakol, there is time to visit the astonishing site of San Tash (Counting Stones), where legend has it that, ahead of a military campaign in the east in the late 14th century, Tamerlane ordered every one of his soldiers to deposit a stone in a pile. On their return, each soldier was required to remove a stone. Each boulder in the vast cairn that remains is a monument to one man’s death. Other ancient voices echo in the catacombs of Svetly Mys, a charming, poplar-lined hamlet that has the unique distinction of being the possible burial place of St Matthew on the one hand, and the origin of the Black Death on the other: an apocryphal apocalypse, if you like.

A final, monumental breakfast awaits. Among the piles of bread and fruit, cheese and meat, once again there is enough jam to defeat a Mongol army. Apart from the hospitality of its people, as boundless as its steppes and mountains, this, surely, is the essence of Kyrgyzstan. As the late, great writer and war hero Paddy Leigh Fermor once said of a particularly glowing review of one of his books: “It’s jam all the way through.”

Justin Marozzi travelled as a guest of Steppes Travel (01285 880980, For packages, see over


In the late 19th century, the high passes and ancient cities of Central Asia were the exotic setting for the Great Game between Russia and Britain, with dashing officers and explorers such as Nikolai Mik­hailovich Przhevalsky and Alexander “Bukhara” Burnes competing for influence on behalf of their country’s respective empires. There is no better or more gripping introduction to this period of history than Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, published in 1990. Today’s visitor to Central Asia no longer runs the very real risk of having his or her throat slit or head lopped off by some maniacal ruler, yet the Stans, as they are known, offer the adventurous and historically minded traveller mesmerising possibilities.


For those in search of magnificent monuments, it is hard to beat Uzbekistan, home to the cities of Samarkand, Buk­hara and Khiva. Samarkand, Tamerlane’s blue-domed imperial capital, made a profound impression on George Curzon, the Tory MP and future viceroy of India, in 1888. “The Registan of Samarkand was originally, and is still even in its ruin, the ­noblest public square in the world,” he wrote. “I know of nothing in the East ­approaching it in mas­sive simplicity and grandeur; and nothing in Europe… which can even aspire to enter the competition.” Then there’s Buk­hara, my favourite, a med­ieval warren of mosques, madrasahs and minarets, still ponds, or hauzes, and teahouses. Khiva, a World Heritage Site and home to an open-air museum, is an extraordinary city, ­albeit too glitzily restored for some tastes.

Desert explorers will thrill to the wide spaces of Turkmenistan, plaything of the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov from 1990-2006, a place of pilgrimage and pre-Islamic mysticism, home to the Karakum Desert and the Silk Road city of Merv, which has a cameo role in A Thousand and One Nights.

While Kyrgyzstan has the Tien Shan mountains, Tajikistan boasts the marginally higher Pamirs. Few road trips can compete with the Pamir Highway for roof- of-the-world exhilaration. The Wakhan Valley, which Tajikistan shares with Afghan­istan, is a wilderness scattered with Buddhist ruins and Silk Road fortresses within sight of the mighty Hindu Kush.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan, one of the world’s largest countries, combines the modern, limousine-filled cities of Almaty and Astana with endless steppes and horse-riding opportunities galore.

For all these countries, make sure your rucksack contains Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia, a plangent memoir of Central Asia in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.


For much of the region, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are the best times to travel. July and August are very hot and dry in Uzbekistan, but are the ideal time to visit mountainous Kyrgyzstan before temperatures plummet. Winters (December to February) can be extremely cold.


Kyrgyzstan, the most straightforward country to visit, does not require a visa for a stay of 60 days. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan both require visas. Turkmenistan requires a visa and a letter of invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tajikistan requires a visa and a GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permit if going through the Pamirs.


Travel in Central Asia inevitably involves expeditions to remote, sometimes inhos­pitable places that are often far from ­creature comforts and modern hospitals. Security, however, is generally excellent. As a rule, terrorism is less of a threat than theft and pickpocketing. The latest advice on all countries is available from the ­Foreign Office (, which tends to err on the side of caution. Your biggest risk may be falling off a horse.


For western visitors, at least, not to mention local dissidents, activists and opposition figures, human rights in Central Asia are not what they could be. Uzbekistan, whose grey-faced President Islam Karimov has clung grimly to power since 1990, is surely governed by the region’s most unpleasant regime, with a penchant for boiling dissidents to death. Torture and forced child labour are endemic. As Human Rights Watch succinctly puts it: “Uzbekistan’s human-rights record
remains appalling.” Kyrgyzstan also has a recent record of torture.


The Stans are a region where — depending on your Russian-language skills and willingness to rough it — you may find it sensible to travel with a specialist tour operator rather than go it alone. Steppes recommends a package, but also advises that “independent travel is a possibility in all Stans except Turkmenistan, where a guide must be provided. Some travellers prefer to do their own sightseeing in towns such as Bukhara, Samarkand, Bishkek, Almaty, Astana and Dushanbe, where it is quite easy to do so independently”. Some visitors may strike a compromise, using a tour operator to plan the bare bones of a visit and improvising on the ground as the fancy takes them.

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