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My First Journey to Central Asia

Almost ten years ago, I travelled to Central Asia for the first time on the occasion of a conference which gathered participants from all five Central Asian republics and from the Xingjian region in China. Shortly before boarding my plane to Beijing, where I had to change for Ürümqi, I panicked: While being an avid traveller equipped with several world languages, I had never travelled on my own to a country, a region, where I did not speak the language and about which I could hardly find any information on the internet back then. Many hours later, I arrived at the small Ürümqi Airport and was picked up by a driver who did not speak English and a student of the local university who did. I realized how fortunate I was only later on when a colleague told me that his taxi driver had to return him to the origin of his travels since he could not make him understand that he wanted to go to the Sheraton Hotel. Both spelling and pronunciation were just too different.

The conference itself was not only interesting because of its content, but also because of its cultural setting. The food was Han Chinese and the European and Central Asian participants regularly got into a friendly fight over the few knives and forks available at the hotel. Every night, the European participants convened under an artificially lightened purple tree by a lake to drink a few beers and deal with culture shock. Most were lamenting the lack of coffee, especially in the morning, which exacerbated the jet lag.

What struck me most in my few days in Ürümqi was the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of life on the streets. While the strangeness was based on the lack of a common language, it was deepened through the complete lack of recognition of brands of food items or stores that you usually see on every main street from Seattle to Baku.

However, there was also an equally strong sense of familiarity in the friendly faces of the inhabitants of Ürümqi for whom I – as a tall European woman – was equally exotic as they were to me. Of all the friendly encounters, I most vividly remember the moment when my eyes met those of another woman trying to soothe her baby at the bazaar. Even though we did not speak a common language and did not know anything about each other’s lives, the situation was very familiar to me. I left Xingjian with a strong feeling of how small the world really is.

Fast forward to 2018 and our Horizon 2020 project SEnECA, which aims to intensify existing relations between the European Union and Central Asia and to create a sustainable network of academics, decision-makers and relevant stakeholders from both regions. On a personal level, the application process for the funding for this project was influenced by my first encounters with researchers from Central Asia and by my strong belief that these relations make our research richer and more substantial. In addition, I have experienced that while other scientific relations within Europe or with the United States are much more established through programmes like Erasmus and Fulbright, this is not yet the case for relations with Central Asia. Therefore, I am looking very much forward to deepening and strengthening these relations and to broadening my horizon during the following 24 months.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Katrin Böttger from the Institut für Europäische Politik