It’s easy to think of culture as a tangible thing when standing near Lab-i Hauz, a pond in the old center of Bukhara surrounded by 16th and 17th century buildings: madrassas, mosques and lodging houses for wandering Sufis. But culture is more than old stone.
In December, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan saw pieces of their “intangible cultural heritage” inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. A companion of sorts to to the World Heritage Sites list, the Intangible Cultural Heritage List comprises “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and skills that communities recognize as their cultural heritage.”
For Uzbekistan, the movements of the Khorazm dance, Lazgi were added to the list.
Although it originated in the Khorazm Region, the dance can be seen all over Uzbekistan and even found depicted in paintings at archaeological sites. Men, women and children can participate in the dance’s improvised form which breaks out at weddings and other community events. The list has a great number of dances, from Malawi’s mwinoghe to Indonesia’s saman, as well as Turkmenistan’s Kushtdepdi rite.
Kyrgyzstan managed to have its iconic hat — the kalpak or ak-kalpak — inscribed on the list. The felt men’s hat resembles a snowpeak and is such a point of pride for some Kyrgyz that a picture of a dog wearing the hat at a 2017 dog show in Bishkek sparked rage. In early 2018, the Kyrgyz parliament began considering a law to recognize the hat as a national symbol. In addition to mandating that top Kyrgyz officials don the kalpak during official foreign visits, the law entails punishment for disrespecting the kalpak. In early 2019, RFE/RL reported that the law was nearing passage, but it’s unclear if that happened or if the law is still in limbo. March 5 has been an unofficial holiday, Kalpak Day, since at least 2011 but hit a high point in 2016 when activists carried a 3-meter tall kalpak through the streets of Bishkek.
Per UNESCO, “Ak-kalpak craftsmanship is a cumulative, ever-evolving body of knowledge and skills passed down by craftswomen in the communities concerned comprising felting, cutting and sewing and pattern embroidery.”
Lastly, Turkmenistan succeeded in getting its traditional carpet making art added to the list. From UNESCO: “The carpets feature a dense texture ornamented with characteristic colored patterns pertaining to one of the five main Turkmen tribes.” UNESCO notes that the skills are transmitted within families.
This week, however, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reported that even as Turkmenistan scores an honor for its traditional carpet making techniques, the country has been closing carpet factories. According to the December 28 report, at least 14 carpet factories in Lebap province have closed in the past two years, leaving hundreds of women out of work. The difference between the Turkmen government’s celebration of the inscription of Turkmen carpets on the list and the comments fed to journalists about low pay, lagging interest, are stark.
Central Asia’s various cultural highlights are often cited as points of attraction for tourists, in a sense commodifying culture. The region’s dynamic dances, colorful carpets, and fun hats are not just valuable local culture, but also selling points. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, in particular, have worked to emphasize their attractiveness as tourist destination. Given Uzbekistan’s broader opening since 2016, Tashkent has scored a steady stream of favorable coverage of the country as a destination. Lonely Planet named the Central Asian Silk Road — namely Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — as one of the best regions to travel to in 2020. Turkmenistan, however, is much less attractive a destination given the country’s insularity. There are tours that will take you through Turkmenistan, but tourism to the country is minuscule.
The most recent data the World Bank has on tourist arrivals to Turkmenistan comes from 2007 and marks just 8,200 arrivals. For comparison, tourist arrivals to Uzbekistan that same year were logged at 903,000 — up to 2.69 million as of 2017. Kyrgyzstan in 2007, according to the World Bank’s data, marked 1.65 million tourist arrivals — up to 4.5 million in 2017. If Turkmenistan wants to ride its magic carpets to greater tourism numbers, it should look to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for advice but that seems unlikely.