West of China, south of Russia, hemmed in by mountains, steppe, and desert, lie the five Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Cut loose from Moscow in the early '90s, the five "Stans" (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan) discover that their newly found freedom plays tug-o-war with despair and a nostalgia for the certainties of the Soviet past. It's during this time that author Colin Thubron travels the width of central Asia, asking questions about the past, present, and future. Not content to simply bounce from place to place, Thubron travels from person to person, uncovering their many vibrant stories and developing a deep understanding of the area's lesser-known history. Kyrgyz and Uzbeks debate the place of Islam. Koreans and Germans, descendants from forced migrants, wonder if they know enough of their ethnic tongue to return to their homelands. Russians find themselves left behind, disbelieving, as the tide of Russian power recedes toward Moscow.
Central Asia was mostly off limits to foreigners during the Soviet years, and while officials are still uncertain about how to deal with a backpack-wearing solo traveler, the locals Thubron meets are not. Thubron finds the heart of Asia in the hearts of its people, swimming in a sea of tea, vodka, and hospitality. From the oldest-known Quran to a deserted Soviet naval base on the shores of a high mountain lake 1,500 miles from the ocean (used to test torpedoes far from spying eyes), Thubron's writing echoes the melancholy emptiness of the wide spaces he passes through. The Lost Heart of Asia is a rare meeting of a marvelous writer and a mysterious land. --Ken Peavler [via]