Travel Tuesday: Visions of Kyrgyzstan
Article and photography by Emilie Adriaen-Gourraud
Bishkek - formerly Frunze during the Soviet era - is just waking up as we arrive early on Friday morning. After an eerie drive through the countryside and a taste of the crisp, autumn air, we discover the capital bathed in cold, luminous light. Wide roads bordered by yellowing trees and the old, wooden turquoise-green gates of nearby houses contrast with the gaping concrete of buildings in construction.
At home, the garden is still full of roses, tomatoes and chillies, as well as the last few strawberries. The sun is shining and we are quickly shedding layers.
After a quick breakfast of lipioshka, a Central Asian round bread punched in the centre with decorative marks, we head out for a walk through the city.
Crossing the street is a dangerous enterprise as cars whizz by, regardless of whether or not there is a crossroad or zebra crossing. As we quickly find out, half of the cars are imported from Japan, and the other half are bought second-hand from Russia or Europe. This means that steering wheels are on the right and left side. Whether this impacts the city traffic is hard to say, but it probably doesn’t help the fact that road accidents are the number one security issue in the capital. Consequently, unpaved dirt roads are a blessing, as they are full of potholes, which force the cars to drive at a reasonable speed.
Russian babushkas and young Russian men sell herbal remedies, flowers, and cactuses on the sidewalks. Ethnic discrimination prevents them from getting jobs, and a lack of solidarity in Russian families pushes old women to go abroad. Over two decades, the population in cities has changed: in the 1990s, Russians were the largest ethnic group, whereas today most of the population is Kyrgyz.
We arrived a day after the presidential election, which has been praised as being the first democratic election in Central Asia. That is, there was actual doubt as to which one of the two candidates would win. We notice the traditional motifs and the traditional high felt hats worn on the streets. Their presence hints at a recently developed sense of national belonging: the Kyrgyz are traditionally nomads, a people never united under a flag or national borders, but instead by customs and their way of life. It was only after the formation of the USSR that Kyrgyzstan was delineated. Bishkek, the chosen capital, is located on a fertile plain stretching into Kazakhstan against a backdrop of snowy summits called the Ala-Too range. The Ala-Too central square that we discover on Saturday is impressive, but more monumental than majestic. A statue of Manas, the national hero, towers over us on a great column. Knowing that this square used to be called Lenin Square, one can only imagine the size of Lenin’s statue that once stood in the place of Manas’.
On Tuesday morning, we leave Bishkek at sunrise to avoid any traffic on the way out of town. We drive through industrial zones in the morning haze. There is a grey smog, due to coal heating.
It’s difficult to tell at what point we leave the city. Although we seem to be in the countryside, there are still uninterrupted rows of houses on each side. These ‘villages’ are strung together like beads on a necklace: it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other starts. Trucks full of beets, cabbages, and pumpkins travel in the opposite direction towards the bazars of the city.
There is a great need for schools in the country. Schools now operate on a shift system as they are over-populated: children can attend school in one of three slots, either early in the morning, in the early afternoon, or late in the afternoon. Therefore, we constantly see children heading to and from school on our travels. When the children aren’t in school, they can also be found alongside the roads, scavenging for what falls out of the passing trucks. In the mountains, this is usually big chunks of coal that potholes have dislodged, and in the valleys, enormous sugar beets lost on their way to the sugar factories.
We leave the main road a couple of hours later and start the steep ascent towards the Töö Ashuu pass at 3400 meters high. The road isn’t as busy as usual because of snowy weather. Even so, we zig-zag up alongside a few trucks, which carry diesel now instead of vegetables.
As we reach 3000 meters above sea level, it starts snowing and the temperature drops to minus 3°C. A blizzard has started and visibility becomes extremely poor, so we can barely distinguish between the surrounding summits. Beyond the pass, a three kilometer long tunnel awaits before we can go down to the Suusamyr Valley. The tunnel was built in the 70s, and it is still in use since it is the main road connecting the northern and southern regions. When the road to the pass is closed - which happens very rarely in cases of avalanches - the entire country is cut in half.
On the other side of the tunnel, trucks are queueing up. A herd of about forty horses, motionless in the blizzard, also await to cross the tunnel to return to the northern valleys for the winter.
Going down towards the Suusamyr Valley doesn’t take too long, since it is pretty high in altitude. The glacial valley opens up into what I would usually call a steppe, if it weren’t for the mountains encircling it. Very flat, wide land stretches into the distance, before crumpling into small hills that become the Tian Shan mountains.
Although we are well into October and the jailoos (summer yurt camps) are gone, many herds of horses still roam free. The grass is short and yellowed but when the sun shines on the hills, they look as if they are made of velvet.
When we finally arrive in Kyzyl-Oy, we are pleased to find out that our hosts have prepared us a delicious borscht which we eat quickly, as there are horses waiting outside for us to explore the countryside with them. Our guide, a native of the village, constantly gallops ahead of us on his red horse, and often calls his friends or looks up where to go next on Google Maps. He decides to show us a rock formation on a hillside, where he spent hours of his day playing as a boy while his father watched over the sheep down in the valley.
After dinner that night, we hear that kökbörü is being played to celebrate a wedding. Kökbörü in Kyrgyz (known as buzkashi elsewhere in Central Asia) is a game played on horseback. It was Genghis Khan’s favorite game and was possibly invented by him. The carcass of a beheaded goat is placed in a circle on the ground and horse-riders have to reach down to grab it before racing to the other side of the field (in some cases, another valley) to drop it off in a circle. Kökbörüs are great events, bringing together hundreds of riders in the spring, or just a few, as we saw in this village. The players are young boys who have the opportunity to practise and demonstrate their riding skills. Although the rules do not specifically exclude girls, I have never seen women ride but donkeys in Central Asia.
After such an eventful day, we watch the horses and the boys fight for the carcass over and over again until night falls. The game ends and everyone slowly heads back, passing cigarettes to one another while on horseback.
The next few days feel surreal. We hike across breathtaking canyons, sleep in yurts, and encounter a flock of camels by the Issyk-Kul lake, which stretches so far that we cannot see the other side. Snowy peaks seem to float above the water like distant clouds.
Probably one of the highlights of my trip was the visit to a salt mine on our way back to Bishkek. The place is rather empty: they do not extract salt, but offer cures. Supposedly, sleeping in the mine for two weeks cures any respiratory problems, such as asthma and allergies. For a small fee we are allowed to visit. The entrance is an old building which serves as an antechamber. A door leads into the mine. Narrow tunnels are decorated with patterns of drilling machines, which appear as oddly aesthetic overlapping circles. Wooden planks creak underneath our feet, and chandeliers hang from the low roof. Carved into either side of the walls are all the attractions of this absurd spa: a prayer room, a pool table, a bar, a room where salt stalactites hang from the roof of the mine, a small underground lake where you can toss coins for good fortune…
The dorms are made up of small niches where two or three narrow beds are squeezed together. The logic to this arrangement is that the closer a patient is to the cold mineral walls, the more efficient their treatment. In a big cave which has been turned into a large TV lounge, the only visitors - a Russian couple from Kazan - are watching a movie. They tell us that they have been living underground here for five days, but they are intending to stay another week.
Going back out into the fresh air feels great. Just half an hour spent in these bleak tunnels is enough for me.
The last images I remember of the Chuy oblast (province) are crepuscular visions of trucks lined up outside sugar factories. At dusk, we catch a glimpse of abandoned Soviet factories, and the gloomy and gray decrepit apartment blocks which stand with their windows illuminated, and where workers still live to this day.
Ahead of us, an old truck full of beets drives sluggishly toward a town named Kant. Two little boys seize the opportunity to collect a few beets that have fallen off the cargo truck, not without a little help.