A closely observed memoir of travels through Central Asia, where portents of continent-wide conflict loom.
Atlantic Monthly correspondent Tayler (River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny, 2006, etc.) locates at least one emergent cause for strife in the geopolitical reality of an exponentially growing China, which faces huge shortcomings in the form of pollution, joblessness, a lack of drinking water, degradation of farmland and energy shortages, but has a tremendous surplus of people. Russia has a comparative advantage, with per capita income many times higher than China’s and plenty of natural resources, but with a rapidly declining population. Likely this demographic context will result in changes of various kinds, perhaps including Chinese expansion into Russia and other Central Asian lands—and, if nothing else, in more deals for resource exchange between the two major powers that will have the appearance to some of an “anti-American alliance.” And why not, asks Tayler, who visits the future front and returns with countless character sketches to enliven an already interesting big-picture narrative. A Cossack ataman contemplating an Asian future, for instance, fervently insists that “it takes four generations for white genes to be reestablished after mixing blood, you know.” A Dagestani promises that a billion Chinese will die if they try to invade his homeland, and layabout Chinese youngsters in the unlikely desert metropolis of Ürümqi suggest that the rising generation may not be up to the task. Yet, as Tayler notes, ten years ago Ürümqi was “under construction and chaotic, all skyscrapers going up and cement dust coming down,” while today it is just one of many teeming, highly productive cities in a nation whose fortunes seem ever on the rise.
Tayler ventures at points into Colin Thubron and Robert Kaplan territory, returning with a satisfying narrative that is of considerable interest to students of contemporary events, and futurists too.