Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?

This is the book I wanted to write instead of To Afghanistan and Back — everything you ever wanted to know about Central Asia, without having had to attend grad school — but didn’t have time. Five years later, I was able to release my Central Asia brain dump, a book anyone can read cold and come away understanding the importance of the region and why it’s so interesting.

Comprising travelogue, political analysis and five graphic novellas, “Silk Road to Ruin” examines the “New Middle East”–a part of the world the United States is focusing upon more than the Middle East. “Silk Road to Ruin,” featuring an introduction by “Taliban” author Ahmed Rashid, includes 200 pages of essays about everything from oil politics to the wild sport of buzkashi and 100 pages of graphic novel-format comics about each of my five trips to the region.

Elderly Central Asians are starving to death in nations sitting atop the world’s largest untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. Looters are cavalierly ambling around in flatbed trucks loaded with disinterred nuclear missiles. Statues of and slogans by crazy dictators are springing up as quickly as their corrupt military policemen can rob a passing motorist. And on the main drag in the capital city of each of these profoundly dysfunctional societies, a gleaming American embassy whose staff quietly calls the shots in a new campaign to de-Russify access to those staggering energy resources.

CIA agents, oilmen and prostitutes mix uneasily and awkwardly in ad hoc British-style pubs where beers cost a dollar–a day’s pay and more than enough to keep out the locals. In an extreme case of the “oil curse,” wealth is being pillaged by U.S.-backed autocrats while their subjects plunged into poverty. Meanwhile Taliban-trained Islamic radicals are waiting to fill the vacuum.

It is a volatile mix. But does anybody care? Maybe not — but you should.

Transformed by what I saw being done in America’s name and eager to sound the alarm, I went back to remote Central Asia again and again. I returned to visit the region’s most rural mountain villages. He brought two dozen ordinary Americans on the bus tour from hell. I went as a rogue independent and as a guest of the State Department. I came back to cover the American invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, then went back again. Capitals moved, street names changed and the economic fortunes of entire nations turned on a dime from year to the next, but those changes merely reinforced my  belief that Central Asia is really the new Middle East: thrilling, terrifying, simultaneously hopeful and bleak, a battleground for proxy war and endless chaos. It is the ultimate tectonic, cultural and political collision zone. Far away from television cameras and Western reporters, Central Asia is poised to spawn some of the new century’s worst nightmares.

“Ted Rall’s Silk Road to Ruin is a rollicking, subversive and satirical portrait of the region that is part travelogue, part graphic novel. It’s fresh and edgy and neatly captures the reality of travel in the region.” —Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia

For decades in the 19th century, the world’s superpowers competed in Central Asia in what became known as the Great Game, an epic scramble for influence and resources that still is being played today. Despite the high stakes — including what may be the planet’s largest reserves of oil and natural gas — the competition for the exotic lands between the Himalayas and Russia’s southern border has had remarkably few chroniclers. With ‘Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?’ Ted Rall fills that void with a book that combines fascination with Asian exoticism and the punchy distancing of cartoons and pop-culture irony. Rall is a former investment banker and expert in the harsh but potentially wealthy region known as ‘the Stans.’ His book is an unconventional, provocative and bitterly funny mix of travel diary, tour guide and graphic novel based on the author’s voyages, from Beijing to Turkmenistan through China’s remote Xinjiang region and the oil-rich steppes of Kazakhstan. The resulting collection is a travel book unlike any other. Besides pipelines, snow-capped mountains and Islamic radicals who may have alluded to the 9/11 attacks two years before the fact, Rall encounters along the way corrupt police, bizarre cult-of-personality regimes and the world championship of a sport where players are often killed during matches. —Bloomberg

Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?
Essays and Graphic Novellas, 2006
NBM Hardback (Original 2006 Edition), 6″x9″, 304 pp., $22.95

NBM Paperback (Expanded/Revised 2014 Edition), 6″x9″, 320 pp., $22.95

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