For the traveller, the great uniting joy of all the countries of the former Soviet Union is, I have always thought, their taxis and their taxi drivers. Central Asia is no exception: a short trip in an Uzbek cab contains the same mix of lurching acceleration, cheesy music, lax safety regulations and good-natured skeeziness that holiday-makers usually go looking for in end-of-pier amusement parks. What’s more, there’s plenty of good natured chit-chat to be had, full of curiosity (“Whereabouts in America is London?”) and salty Soviet Army vernacular. But, as my girlfriend and I discovered as we moved from dented Daewoos to vintage Volgas on our way through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, there’s one topic that tends to dominate the conversation: children. And, more precisely, why don’t you have any?
Early in our trip this summer, after hailing a modded-out Chevrolet in Samarkand — purple underlighting, vaguely Turkic house music vibrating the windscreen — I asked the driver — downy moustache, lopsided grin — what people do for fun in this Silk Road heritage town that’s so well-kept it feels almost anodyne. “We make love,” sniggered the young macho behind the wheel. Oh really? Was this a welcome sign of wildness in a police state? “To our wives. I have two sons and a daughter,” swiftly added the paterfamilias I had mistaken for a punk. “Don’t you have kids?!”
When taxi drivers weren’t holding forth about kids, they were giving a precise run-down on watermelon and tomato yields
It was the same story with Dior, who whisked us from Tashkent train station to the Fergana-bound bus stop in an ancient Mercedes, and with Nurik, whose gleaming white Chevy catapulted us back to the capital a few days later, while he held forth about the benefits of marijuana and Shariah law. The theme wasn’t limited to cabbies, either: before adroitly extracting a bribe in lieu of an entrance ticket (the distinction between the two was often deliberately vague), a skinny young cop, one of dozens milling around the Registan, the vast square flanked by a trio of richly decorated madrassahs that is Samarkand’s centrepiece, took a little time out to play the Jewish grandmother and expound on the benefits of having children as soon, and as often, as possible.
We only had to sip from a spring or a pot of herbal tea before we were ensured that progeny were imminent if we so much as held hands
You can understand why a childless couple in their late twenties would seem like an anomaly. Central Asia is a young place: in Uzbekistan, where the average woman has her first child at 23, more than 30% of the population is under 14. In neighbouring Tajikistan, according to the World Bank, each family has 3.82 adorable children, which is just ahead of Kyrgyzstan’s average of 3.10 bundles of joy. By way of comparison, the UK and US manage only about 1.9 spoiled brats each per household.
There is an obvious reason for this: despite the Soviet influence, society across the region is largely rural and traditional — you need all the help you can get on the farm and you don’t stop until you’ve got at least one boy. But I think there’s another underlying cause too: the very land itself seems to be willing you to conceive. The fertility of the soil is a source of great pride: when taxi drivers weren’t holding forth about kids, they were giving a precise run-down on watermelon and tomato yields.
And this bounty extended to people, too: wherever we went, be it mosque, mausoleum or mountain, we were told of the endless procession of barren old maids (some probably as old as 25) who had finally had their diaper-changing dream come true thanks to the magical qualities of the location. We only had to sip from a spring or a pot of herbal tea before we were ensured that progeny were imminent if we so much as held hands.
It started on our first day, in the mausoleum of Tamerlane, the sixteenth century warlord known to European legend as a ruthless killer and to contemporary Uzbekistan as Timur, the enlightened ruler who made his country into a temporary superpower. Samarkand was his capital, and his burial place, the Gur-e-Emir, sums up his built legacy — opulence tempered with elegance, a cerulean dome above a cool marbled central chamber, plus a giant trough for pomegranate juice in the courtyard. As we paced around Timur’s enormous dark jade tomb, pondering the intricate gold patterning of the interior and the great emir’s contested contribution to world history, we did not expect the tour guide’s incessant flow of long-since-memorised facts and figures to break off into a disquisition on the potential benefits of our visit for baby production.
One of the great tricks of patriarchy has been to suggest that fertility is a problem for women alone. Accordingly, the magical watersource industry seemed mainly aimed at a female market, both at Job’s Well in Bukhara and at the spring by the tomb of the prophet Daniel in Samarkand. Maintenance for men was kept altogether more discreet: in the heart of Bukhara, the storied trading town that continues to indulge travellers’ secret Orientalist fantasies with its winding alleyways and magnificent mosques, shimmering jewel-like in the unrelenting sun, there is a bathhouse that has been washing locals and out-of-towners since the sixteenth century. After 20 minutes practising human origami on my arms and legs, the masseur Torik (19-years-old, no children, shame on him) placed a smear of spicy ginger-infused paste on my fingers, gestured at the towel around my waist and said, in Russian, “Your eggs. Rub. You and your wife will thank me later.” My manful yelps echoed through the ancient subterranean chambers of the humid hammam.
It was only a couple of days later, after we’d refused a farewell 7am dip, that the laconic yurt-camp owner felt compelled to break his silence and explain that this too had been a baby boot-camp in disguise
We moved on into Kyrgyzstan, beyond the sphere of influence of Biblical figures of dubious veracity and ointments of undoubted potency. Just outside of Karakol, an old Russian garrison town nestled between the jagged white peaks of the Tien Shan mountains and the deep blue of Lake Issyk Kul, we deserted our trusty taxis and continued on horseback up into the foothills. Our destination was Altyn Arashan, a lush glade beneath a tent-shaped peak pierced by a raging stream and dotted with burnt-orange wildflowers. There, among a cluster of houses and yurts (and one enterprising shop selling warm beer and Snickers) was a sign, in English, red letters on white — “Hot Springs”. Canny local operators have realised that these springs, which have the same temperature and smell as a freshly boiled egg, are the perfect place for hikers to rest their weary limbs. It was only a couple of days later, after we’d refused a farewell 7am dip, that the laconic yurt-camp owner felt compelled to break his silence and explain that this too had been a baby boot-camp in disguise. His exhortations were genuine, and genuinely moving, as he explained the time-honoured significance of the springs, their medicinal powers, and the continuity that they have given to generation after generation.
But, our time in Kyrgyzstan constantly showed us that any temptation to indulge in misty-eyed contemplation of ancient folk traditions would soon be checked by examples of modernity in action. Once we returned from the highlands, we attended a felt-making workshop in a village by the shores of Issyk Kul. I felt the usual pangs of tourist guilt about the artificiality of the situation, about how tourism appropriates and cheapens “authentic” local skills. I probably shouldn’t have bothered: the nimble fingered women cheerily explained the details of their long-term contract supplying toys to Japanese homeware giant Muji.
Likewise, traditional medicine has felt the impact of globalisation. We stayed that night in the home of a local yurt-making magnate, one of the unlikely beneficiaries of festival glamping. His sister, as hospitable and open as everyone we stayed with, naturally took an interest in the reproductive health of the childless couple sharing her roof. To get to the bottom of the problem she invited us to stand on a vibrating massage platform manufactured in the industrial city of Tianjin in China — in strict accordance, no doubt, with the strictures of traditional Daoist medicine — while she read our palms and pushed some new products on us. Thus I found myself, oscillating at seven thousand vibrations per second, faced with the hardest translation task of the trip: explaining to my bewildered girlfriend the benefits of multi-use sanitary towels made with Tibetan herbs.
I could detect within myself a growing sense of neo-colonial kinship with Madonna
While our hostess started unpicking layer after organic absorbent layer, explaining how the microbeads work in harmony with your body (I had found myself in David Lynch’s lost Bodyform advert), two of her children wandered in, bright eyed little girls aged two and four. Here, as our trip neared its end, was a final example of Central Asia’s greatest inducement to child-rearing: the endless parade of adorable bashful-brave little tykes who greet you round every corner with a wave and a perfectly enunciated “hello”. The avocado-fed toddlers of London, peering out from giant buggies like tow-haired tank commanders, just don’t have the same effect. I could detect within myself a growing sense of neo-colonial kinship with Madonna: who wouldn’t want to travel the world adopting a Benetton band of multiracial munchkins?
But good sense and prohibitive legal fees soon crushed that dream. And just as well, I thought, as we made one final early morning taxi journey to Bishkek airport (talk of children thankfully replaced by soothing Eighties pop). While our bags might have been full of the traditional exports of the trading nations of central Asia (pottery, silk, felt, dried fruits, unpalatable dairy products), it was those same taxi drivers we had been talking to, young men who had picked up their Russian on building sites and in restaurants, who represented the main export of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. They were back home, for now, but most of them had plans to return to Moscow, or Irkutsk, or Minsk, or wherever there were jobs to be had. In countries haemorrhaging young people, a high birthrate is a natural psychological response; for all of these men, personally, those children had been what they had gone away for, and what they had come back for.
The early signs are that we have managed to survive our accidental fertility tour without bringing back any unwanted baby baggage. But maybe all that holy baby-making water has had a lasting impact. Now, when I get in the back of an eerily silent late-night Prius to trek through the kid-free deserts of central London to the toddler-rich oases of its north-eastern suburbs, my first question to the stony-faced Uber driver is: “Do you have any kids?”