Lucy Kelaart spent much of 1999 riding across Central Asia and into China by horse and camel. Her latest endeavor is a glossy magazine called Steppe, edited with Summer Coish, fellow veteran of the region. Although perhaps aimed more at the armchair traveler than those willing to tour the Silk Road themselves, the publication matches Kelaart's trip for expansiveness, romance, and ambition.
Steppe is an arresting tribute to the arts and culture of Central Asia, strewn with vivid full-color photos and rarely interrupted by more than a page of text or advertising. At $18 per issue, the biannual journal is equal parts coffee-table book, museum catalog, and in-flight magazine.
But its modern design, high-quality production, and sumptuous photography indicate that this is no throwaway from an airplane seat-back. Rather, Steppe is one of the more urbane components of Central Asia's belated introduction to the world, a counterpoint to both Borat's fictional Kazakhstan and the very real fight for the region's energy resources.
"What we think is so important is that the outside world really starts to understand what Central Asia is," said Coish. "That's what we wanted to provide," she added, "a broader spectrum."
The magazine's content lends credence to Coish's comment that life in Central Asia is about much more than just "eagle hunters and nomads and yurts." Subjects range from prints of early 20th-century Bukhara by Russian imperial photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii in full color, making them seem strikingly contemporary to a feature on the still-active public bathhouse in Almaty, Kazakhstan. A geological and photographic survey of the Pamir Mountains is followed by a report on Central Asia's best ski areas.
The variation was no accident. By Steppe's definition, Central Asia includes the five former Soviet republics plus Afghanistan and the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Equitably covering such a massive cultural space demands a discerning eye.
But politics and economics are largely excluded from the balancing act. According to Coish, this was deliberate, since Steppe hopes to convey an understanding of the region that goes beyond calculations of money and power.
"You've got all of these other sources that bring you politics and economics," she said. "There are sources you can go to that are trustworthy and give the full story." But there is "not anything that really focuses on the culture and kind of brings everything together."
Coish said that she and Kelaart were considering ways to include commentary on regional events to help provide context. She emphasized that they were not deliberately avoiding political topics, but merely trying to approach them from new angles. "The typical story on the Aral Sea [environmental disaster] has been written a hundred times," she said, but "for our next winter issue we're going to do a story on ice-fishing on the Aral Sea."
"There's no way that we won't mention what has happened or incorporate the disaster of the Aral Sea into the story."
The sensitivity of purely political and economic commentary is perhaps heightened by the select, globe-trotting audience Coish and Kelaart hope to attract. They see Steppe as a calling card for the local elite, and for the international companies and Western governments with whom they do business. As such, Steppe's purpose is to showcase Central Asia's most intriguing aspects.
Another delicate point is that Steppe's founding sponsors consist of a pipeline supplier and two oil companies active in the region, including Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell. Naturally, these firms would also be interested in seeing a flattering picture of Central Asia emerge.
But Coish rejected any suggestion of editorial influence. "We won't cede editorial control at all over anything," she said. The support of Steppe's founders had been essential in launching an ambitious but penniless project, she said, although the magazine hopes to attract backers outside of the extractive industry as well.
"What we're doing now is really trying to create this brand, and brand awareness of Steppe," Coish said. In the future, this might include sponsorship of local artists or cultural events to help reach a broader audience," she added. "People would see Steppe and they would think, 'arts and culture, Central Asia.' That's the goal," she said.
Daniel Sershen is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek. To find out more about Steppe, visit: www.steppemagazine.com