I bet you can't see your house from here.

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Kyrzbekistan Isn't Funny

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Laugh all you want about Kyrzbekistan -- the country accidentally invented this week by the New York Times, and now blessed with its own Twitter account and hashtag, and even put on the map by Conde Nast Traveler. But the birth of another ridiculous nonexistent "stan" is a serious issue for countries that have that syllable as part of their names -- and for the rest of us, too. It's a reminder that, as it becomes easier to travel the world, we do so in cocoons, making little effort to understand where we are.

Kyrzbekistan  -- born of a mountain climber's kidnapping by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was fighting off the army of neighboring Kyrgyzstan -- continues a line of high-profile "stan" gaffes. In 2011, U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain said in an interview he had no idea who the president of "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" was. In 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised diplomats working to support democratic institutions in "Kyrzhakhstan" (or maybe he said "Kyrzygstan," which is not much better).

Add to that all the fictional "stans" from computer games, movies and novels -- almost none of them nice countries -- and the slurs on "Londonistan" as a haven for Islamist terrorists and on Israel as "Jewistan," and it becomes clear why Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, last year suggested renaming his country:

The name of our country ends in “stan” as other states of the Central Asia. At the same time, foreigners take an interest in Mongolia, the population of which makes up only two million, but its name does not end in “stan.” Perhaps, eventually it is necessary to consider an issue of changing the name of our country into the “Kazakh Nation,” but first of all, it should necessarily be discussed with people.

The idea didn't fly, perhaps because someone pointed out to Nazarbayev that his oil-rich country attracted much more foreign investment than Mongolia, or perhaps because his suggestion -- "Kazakh Yeli" in the Kazakh language -- was clumsier than the original name. Nazarbayev was right about the "stan" stigma, though: It clearly exists if people keep confusing Central Asian nations, and other people (or sometimes the same people) keep laughing at their mistakes. 

That stigma isn't just the result of linguistic confusion. Few people mix up England, Ireland and Poland because they share an element in their names. It's a manifestation of our strange indifference to, or even contempt for, countries that appear remote, small or unimportant.

Americans are often accused of that. They are notoriously bad at placing countries on the map, and when they realize it's too hard, many feel compelled to mention "Borat," the movie by Sacha Baron Cohen that almost destroyed Kazakhstan's international reputation, though it was filmed in a Romanian gypsy village. It's not a uniquely American problem, though.

Last year, the BBC tried to get Muscovites to find Crimea, the peninsula Russia had just annexed from Ukraine, on a black-and-white outline map. Many failed. Some couldn't even find neighboring Ukraine. In the U.K., a survey by Hotels.com -- a site that presumably serves people who like to travel -- found that 74 percent of Britons couldn't find Greece, and 12 percent confused South Africa with Spain. I don't blame them: All resorts look more or less the same, and so do most trips people take for leisure: airport, plane, airport, hotel, beach, bar. Sometimes people are interested enough to go to the nearest town and tour the shops and museums, but that's largely it.

Little wonder, then, that all the "stans" look the same to journalists, casual travelers and even politicians. I feel geeky trying to explain the vast differences between them to Westerners who have never been to the region. A marketing effort involving name changes probably won't help: The new countries will just pass into the realm of Krakozhia, like the former Yugoslav republics that few people can correctly place on a map.

According to the United Nations, U.S. tourists spent $86.2 billion overseas in 2013. British, Russian and German travelers are also in the top five, along with those from China. You would think with such willingness to spend, and the relative ease of traveling to the most exotic and remote locations, people would take the time to learn about all these other places, the ones we do not call home. It doesn't look like essential knowledge -- until you're kidnapped by a splinter group while hiking, or confronted with the need to decide whether your government is right to go to war in some obscure "stan."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net