A defining aspect of the Kyrgyz Republic is its topography. Mountains. Bishkek is on a plain which extends into Kazakhstan and Osh is at the end of the Fergana Valley — but, yes, mountains. High mountains.
On the border with China at the far right of this map is Jengish Chokusu, ‘Victory Peak’, 7439m asl. It is very rarely climbed because of weather and access issues and the fact that the most common route involves a 14km trek along the top of the massif of which it is a part, above 7000m all the way. On the Chinese side (pictured at left) it is called Tomur, ‘Iron Peak’ in Uyghur. I think it has only been successfully climbed once from this side.
The big lake in the map above is Issyk Kul, ‘Warm Lake’, one of the largest bodies of inland water in the world. Despite being at an altitude of 1600m and in a zone of ferocious winters, it never freezes. It is, lightly, saline. It is also endorheic. While it has plenty of tributaries (118), it has no apparent outlet and appears to maintain the same level year round. Magic. With its average depth of 280m, it almost certainly feeds an undiscovered underground aquifer, but still. How does it maintain exactly that level? And how do you explain the remnants of two ancient cities which have recently been located on more shallow parts of its floor?
This area has been a crucial landmark on the Silk Roads and was something special for us to see.
We got to Balykchy at its eastern end. Karakol at its western end, by road 225 km away, is larger and the regional capital.
I want an excuse to put this photo in but I haven’t got one. Thomas, Swiss financier, Tony, Australian engineer and public administrator, and an unknown local who was interested in this collection of travellers.
You can get the train to Balykchy, one of many important Russian contributions to Kyrgyz public infrastructure.
We had already had some other local colour, high order local colour.
Whip in mouth, he is picking up the headless body of a goat weighing 30-40 kilograms so that he or one of his mates can carry it tucked under one leg (!) down one end of a paddock and throw it onto a circular rock cairn.
I was interested to see that all standard game procedures apply — man-on-man, zone defence, the chop out, pop one over the top of the defence to a spare loose man. Ulak tartish, a very popular Kyrgyz sport and a staple of the Nomadic Games. Highly photogenic, and er hem manly.
We ate at this village in the Headman’s house. Artem is reaching for the right word for his translation during the q&a session. The Headman is wearing a Kyrgyz hat, which in the country were everywhere in evidence. ‘It is shaped like that to remind us of the mountains.’ The Burana Tower, a major Kyrgyz landmark, is featured in the picture behind them.
Hospitality has a fundamental place in Kyrgyz culture. It is a matter of great shame to seat a guest at an empty table. The food must be waiting. Et voila!
In the foreground are borsok, soft and light doughy things which have been deep fried and are very popular. Three excellent salads with ingredients straight out of the garden, hard-crusted and sturdy white bread, drinking yoghurt, something else — very just from the dairyish — perhaps a dressing to have with the salads, piles of biscuits (including Tim Tam look- and tastealikes), and small mountains of confectionary. The other yellow things are like soft crostoli which might have been dipped in condensed milk. Good, but you don’t need too many of them. A vegetable soup to come and then some sort of meat stew.
Elsewhere you might have the option of shashliks on a metal skewer: like clockwork, two pieces of lamb meat, one piece of lamb fat, two pieces of lamb meat. Plov. Naryn (thinly sliced meat with noodles in bone marrow broth). Or fruit. It was high summer, the height of the growing season and we were given the best of it.
This is just so unrelated but never mind. Near here, and possibly exactly here, was where the Bubonic Plague which killed one-third of the world’s human population is believed to have begun. The Burana Tower is all that is left of the Qarakhanid kingdom which once dominated this area and far more. It suffered a 100 percent wipeout. One theory is that the disease was carried by fleas in marmot furs which were traded along the length of the Silk Roads. The Plague (1340-1400) definitely did begin in Central Asia and travelled in both directions along the Roads.
We spent the night in a homestay on the fringes of Kochkor, among other things a trailhead for outdoor adventurers. Downtown looked like this.
(For those who have played the clip back and forth back and forth desperately trying to catch it, Myrna is discussing her brother’s interest in eccentric cars and motor bikes. Torquil, with similar interests, had found an old Lada. How do you double the value of a Lada? Fill the petrol tank. Boom Tish!)
The drive alone was worth the price of admission.The Tokol Valley.
We had been driving along the Kashgar-Bishkek four-lane highway constructed by the Chinese to make it easy to get stuff from Chong Qing and Chengdu into Central Asia, before we turned off here: if you like, from the best road in the KR to, in a very competitive field, one of the worst. Our initial destination was the 3600m pass at the end of this valley. A farm every kilometre or ten. It’s hard to tell when progress is so slow and such a battle was being waged against corrugations, potholes, mudslides and missing bits.A template for the farms. Small house and bigger barn, all mud brick, a woman hanging her washing out, sheep, goats, horses. A stream. You might note the open roof cavity. Ubiquitous in this very difficult climate. The ceiling would be made of mud brick or concrete and, however non-intuitive, this would be considered a system of insulation. The unaccustomed start shivering just looking at it.
Up and over the pass. 3600 metres. The cold was well established, but some people were too rugged to notice.And very strangely, just out of nowhere, came this horseman. Literally nowhere. We were a long way from even the sign of human habitation. A horseman. I accused our guide, Artem, of setting this up. ‘You right Keneshbek? What? Yeah well we’re here now. Now. Come on. Have you got the good horse? The good horse! Yeah just ride out, no need to look at us or anything. Just … ok. Great.’It was a moment. A great photo as a result of the sheerest good fortune.
Then down, but not very far in terms of altitude, into the Song Kul (‘Last Lake’) basin. It’s the second biggest lake in the map beginning this blog, thick healthy summer pasture surrounded by very high but quite placid mountains.Below: our accommodation, and perhaps more interestingly, our dining room and the kitchen as well. There wasn’t anything else.
Dinner: excellent bread, the absolutely ubiquitous tomato capsicum cucumber and white onion salad, lamb and vegetable soup, fish from the lake, biscuits, lollies, red and white Kyrgyz and Uzbek wine, cognac-infused tea or coffee. Complaints? None.
I went off with the walkers, although some animal lovers went for a ride. That is what it looked like from up the hill. The yurts are the white dots by the lake at the horse’s rear. There are some petroglyphs on the rock I’m standing near. Couldn’t really … perhaps you needed to be more expert than me to get hold of their full significance.
This is how you put up a yurt. Three of the distinctively Kyrgyz tunduks are visible, one at the top of the frame and two leaning on the covers at left. Erecting a yurt is one of the sports at the Nomadic Games. I think I remember Artem saying that the record is less than 10 minutes.
The journal: ‘I’m in a yurt. It’s 150m to the toilet and it’s raining. There’s a leak dripping right on to the end of my bed and creeping up towards me. Very nippy. Probably about minus 5 with a good wind chill factor. How is this going to go?…’
‘Sleeping in a yurt loomed as one of the challenges of the trip. Dormitory accomm, snoring, cold, 150m to the toilet etc etc. But it turned out just fine. It was cold. Formidably. We did have a number of people in the yurt. It was 150m to the toilet. Fresh snow is falling on the hill we climbed yesterday. When I wandered off for a pee it was absolutely silent, and still — no animal noise, dogs had been barking earlier — no wind either. The bedding weighed kilos and the [coal and very effective] stove went out, but it was snug. And I was happy.’
The snow in the night had rendered the next pass impassable, so it was a long and tedious drive back the way we had come, through Kochkor, five hours over the shocking roads rather than two. That might have been one of the reasons that getting to Kyzyl Oi was such pleasure, but there were others.
We staggered out of the minibuses to be greeted by a herd of children wanting to speak English with us. Unexpected. And being able to do so quite capably. Even more unexpected. Go the teachers of English at Kyzyl Oi.
It was a lot warmer: that was another thing. While a new challenge had emerged — old bitumen road with remnant tarmac like anti-tank traps and craterous pot holes in which goats could hide, razor sharp edges — we had still managed to come down about 2000m to this extremely warm welcome. There isn’t much at Kyzyl Oi, just a remote village that wanted tourists, and not just for their money. This was where we stayed. Just to the left out of frame an addition was being built to the very well outfitted ablution block (flush toilets and a sewerage system rather than two planks over a big hole). Myrna is with our hostess who brought a desire, an expectation and a capacity for conversation with breakfast. Her elder son was a dentist, another daughter a midwife. The younger daughter helped her with the hospitality. The kid on the right, a very sweet boy, is her youngest.I got the feeling that this was a town that wanted to be part of the contemporary world outside, where you developed yourself moving on if necessary, you had ambition. It is strange how this communicates itself so obviously. When I lived round there, Nullawil — a tiny community, a few families really, near Birchip and Wycheproof — was just the same. A clutch of strong, interesting outward-looking people determined to maintain and cultivate those qualities.
As well a river roared past. This is the Kokomeren, major tributary of the Naryn, one of the Kyrgyz Republic’s big rivers. They fish in here. And make catches. How? It’s hurling past at, what, maybe 40km an hour?The farmers of Kyzyl Oi take their stock over this bridge on a regular basis. There must be others but it is the only bridge I can remember for 80km. It has taken quite a whack to its concrete pile supports and the girders on this side have collapsed, but I’d hate to be the person trying to rebuild it. Just watching the water power past in a fury was entertainment in itself. We followed it up its gorge for about 60km and not for one second was it less than a noisy torrent until it spread out through the pastures of the Suusamyr basin. But first …
Worth waiting for! What a statue! Superb. A horse on manback rather than a man on horseback. Fantastic aesthetic and structural balance, well chosen and deft modelling. That’s the one in Bishkek outside the Sports Palace and over the road from the Arzu restaurant celebrating Кожомкул, Kojomkul — a real person who was born in 1889 and died in 1955.
Sources agree that he lived in a village (above) in the Suusamyr basin now named Kojomkul after him, that he was kind and concerned about the common good, that he was unchallenged as a wrestler, and that he was big. Definitely big. How big? 230cms tall (7’6″), and weighing 165kg (350lbs). That big. One story has him lifting and carrying on his shoulders (maybe moving?) a stone weighing 750kg.
Just out of town there is this memorial, a rickety shelter over a mud yurt where a friend of his (or ‘a distinguished figure’, or from one source, his mother) was buried in 1924. He carried this stone weighing 160kg from the flood plain of the river several kilometres away. (I nearly got it. If I’d had proper shoes on …)
And the horse? Well, it is said that in his prime Kojomkul carried a horse on his shoulders 100 metres to commemorate and perhaps prove the legitimacy of the story of At-Bashi (Horse Head), a town not so far from here. In her blog Madeline Stoddart, an American Peace Corps worker in Kyrgyzstan, tells it like this.
A man, having sold his cattle, began returning to the North on horseback. Exhausted after crossing the Tian Shan mountains, he stopped at Jailoo, a summertime pasture, to rest and turned his horse free to graze under the stars. The man woke as the sun rose over the mountains, but the horse refused to return to him. He chased it down from the pasture, finally catching it in a valley. The horse stubbornly refused to let the man ride, so he hoisted the animal up on his shoulders to walk to a sheltered place for the night. Tired and hungry from the chase, the man killed his unfaithful horse and roasted the meat over a great fire. He ate heartily, then packed for his long journey North. At the edge of his camp, he left the horse’s head, calling the place At-Bashi – in Kyrgyz, horse head. The rest of the horse he carried on his back, eating every night until there was only enough meat scraps to boil for soup. This dish is called naryn, a boiled bone soup with finely cut meat, and where he left the bare carcass of his disloyal horse became the city of Naryn.
Under the Soviets Kojomkul became a chairman of his collective farm, while still competing in wrestling tournaments throughout Kyrgyzstan. A story common to all the sources suggests that he was known for distributing his winnings (goats and sheep mainly) amongst members of his community. He also spent a year in gaol for refusing to write letter condemning a chairman of the neighbouring commune. These are stories entirely appropriate to such an excellent statue.
Suusamyr and surrounds
A high plain, 2500m or so above sea level, surrounded by snowy peaks. We found coffee at the Gazprom service station over in the distance, but ate lunch here in a yurt.These foals are tethered to the ground so the mares won’t stray and are easy to milk, because this is the starting point of kumis, fermented mare’s milk, for sale at road stalls for 50km along this busy road (Bishkek to Osh as well as bulk tourism on its southern entry). The owner of these horses showed us how he made it, fermented with a piece of yeasty bread, slightly smoked in some underground container and regularly paddled.
I don’t know how popular it is as a drink; maybe it’s the sort of thing you do when you’re on holiday. But it could be culturally important. After all a bishkek is the paddle used to churn the fermenting milk.
We’d come in from a quiet rural track up to the pastures. It got grubby with rubbish discarded from the additional traffic on the big road as well as high and cold. Alabel Ashuusu Pass where the sign said 3175m above sea level and Marty’s altimeter app said 3173m. I’m sure we could have got him up those last two metres.
It was a longish drive to Toktogul down the hill through collections of resort accommodation, food stops and roadside stalls — their purpose was clear, their nature more mysterious — to a fertile valley and a circumambulation of the rather splendid Lake Toktogul.
That night we stayed in this Soviet era accommodation designed for use by Youth League/ Young Pioneers groups.
Its evident decline was offset by this view, the lake and the swim we had in it.The lake is dammed at one end for hydroelectricity production. Some of this is sold to Kazahkstan; some may go to Uzbekistan although it has plenty of energy resources of its own. The hydro plant was showing major signs of wear and limited upkeep, but you could get an idea of what, quite recently, had once been.
‘Hard Coal’. That’s what the name says. A mining town in the middle of what looked like a paradise of minerals, it spread for some distance along the Naryn River here much modified for industrial purposes. Just out of town was this building.It’s not a great photo. It’s from the van where I was holding my teeth apart to stop them from shattering. But for me it was history.
I say this is, was, a Russian administrative headquarters — mining? civil? possibly even military but probably not. It says order and stability, and four storeys says substantial, plenty of work gone on in there. The roof is enclosed. The symmetry and once good order of the windows suggest good quality industrial craftsmanship. The mural, that you can’t see, on its wall wants you to think positive if perhaps unaccustomed thoughts and suggests an identity that you might want to aspire and relate to. It’s not the work of nomadic horsemen or ulak tartish players. And, unused, an anachronism, it is sliding at some pace into disrepair. The grave sites cement these impressions. (Kyrgyz cemeteries look like complex tiny towns with endless small buildings.)
What have the Romans ever done for us (I mused)? ‘Well there was the aqueduct … sanitation, yes …, irrigation, medicine, public baths … roads.’ ‘They brought peace.’ ‘Brought peace?!! Oh shuttup.’
In this case, just imagining, what was brought might have included, say, a big shoe factory, a car parts manufacturer, a huge food processing plant, industrial style tourism, the mining development, the hydro … some of which at least would have been set up for reasons of decentralisation and to give people ‘new style’ work regardless of where the markets said they should have been located. And when Big Brother (wearing his Motherhood costume) withdraws, what then? Who is to say who benefits from the effects of imperial oversight (and injections of hard cash)? Nothing is simple.
There are two histories at work here, as elsewhere in the Republic: that of 1924-1991; and everything that came before. They don’t marry easily. But that doesn’t make the country any less interesting.
We were on our way to Arkyt, scarcely visible at left from up the top of the hill, another remote-ish homestay at the end of an odd little run of Holidayland — yurts with fiber glass roofs, ‘log’ cabins, unemployed frames of rusty steel with flapping fabric, coffee shops but not as we know them. That sort of thing.
And this was The Worst Road Ever. Ever. The purpose of roads generally is to allow/ enable passage. This road had deliberately chosen to actively oppose any ingress. It had an invisible sign up saying: ‘Ye shall not pass. Irregardless. Anyone who ventures further is just so cactus that, mate, I can’t tell you. Fully gone.’ On this occasion that was us.
We didn’t need to go. At the other end was a lake in the middle of the mountainous ‘Yellow Bowl’ so called for its flora. But you didn’t need to take Kiwis or Swiss there. They’ve got better at home. And we’d seen the like. Quite often. And we’d been driving over shit roads for days now grump grump and our bedroom didn’t have a window grump grump grump grump grump.
At the lake, a further 90-minute drive from the village over a 40km cattle grid interspersed with inexpressible voids, three groups of people drew my attention.
The dancers. Twenty or so middle-aged mostly men but a couple of women dancing to an accordion very capably played I must say. They had eaten but weren’t I think drinking. Nonetheless, to my grumpy mind something indeterminately salacious was happening. I could be way wrong about this, way wrong, but it was a bit like lurching through a door and finding the makings of a swingers’ party. Grump grump grump.
The young men sitting on the ground under a tree. (The girls were taking selfies down by the water.) I went past them several times perhaps an hour apart and they hadn’t moved, doing nothing except smoking and looking like they were mortally offended by even passing company. The word ‘surly’ was coined for just such a situation. But surly with slightly menacing overtones.
The chaps staying in the dacha. Up the top there were a small number of places to stay. We walked past them, and their occupants were layed out on the wooden outdoor furniture dead drunk or close to at two o’clock in the afternoon. Fair enough. Their choice. They weren’t bothering anyone.
But I felt bothered. Like I’d had an encounter with a range of cardinal sins. I hadn’t. Just GRRRumpy. I’ve already said. I do beg your pardon. Sorry.
It was a delicious dinner.
Just by the way, this is what I mean by an open roof cavity. That building is finished. It will stay like that even when the temperature is minus 20. And they are our roadweary vans.
Either on the way there or on the way back we fell to talking about the Kyrgyz ‘cultural tradition’ of bride-kidnapping. Do, as Kyrgyz lore asserts, ‘all good marriages begin in tears?’ Is it worth talking about except as an interesting relic of times past?
A research study supported by a Kyrgyz non-government organisation recorded 24,000 cases of non-consensual bride-kidnapping in the two years 2015 and 2016. This number is inevitably coloured by the process of categorisation and could be lower. Or it could be higher.
Some other responsible estimations indicate that about one half of all Kyrgyz marriages stem from this practice. The same source suggests that two-thirds of these are non-consensual, often involving violence, cultural shame, and, in the very worst cases, rape. If the kidnapped woman has been kept in the house overnight it will be assumed that ‘the marriage’ has been consummated. The stigma associated with leaving a forced marriage, even before the marriage begins, is so great that many women stay out of fear, shame, or lack of an alternative.
Not all bride kidnapping is violent. ‘Ceremonial’ bride kidnapping is exactly that – a ceremony that commemorates a distinct if somewhat distant part of Kyrgyz culture, but where all parties are expressly involved and consenting. Mock bride theft is also consensual. It can be used to evade expensive dowry payments or parental disapproval. It is also sometimes used to speed up an engagement toward marriage or to hide pre-marital pregnancy.
One of the stories told in our conversation was of a bride in a taxi so distraught that the driver stopped and refused to be involved in the process any longer. The bride quickly straightened up, stopped crying and spoke severely to the driver. ‘Just do your job!’ Might be true, but it is an easy out. A screen shot from a Russian comedy, ‘Kidnapping, Caucasian style’ using the topic as a central theme to hang the jokes off. Real images of the process look rather more horrible.
The research referred to above suggests that genuine bride theft is a corruption of a consensual tradition and has been steadily increasing since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some believe that, after the generations of gender equality encouraged by the Soviet system, bride-kidnapping has become a tool to reassert the dominance of masculine identity in the Kyrgyz Republic, a country that has struggled with identity politics since long before the Soviets left in 1991. The judicial system often sides with the men in the very few cases that actually make it into the courts.
There are dozens of other countries where bride-kidnapping is to a greater or lesser degree an embedded practice. But without any fear of insensitive cultural intrusion, it does seem like something that could genuinely be left behind forever. Urgently.
Still eating? Come on. Everyone’s left.
This might have been at Suzak. We were working our way round the very complex eastern border with Uzbekistan on our way to Osh and the end of the tour. We stopped at this bakery/ restaurant, and this pic appears here to reflect again on the astonishing (and colourful) hospitality that was so often a feature of our time in the KR.
It is the owner’s private garden. There were too many of us for out the front. We would be easier to manage. The food was modest, plentiful and very well cooked. And exactly as requested. We had been driving through the end of the Fergana Valley, this remarkable hub of fecundity, and all along the road were piles of various types of delicious-looking melons. I asked if we could have some. Off someone went to the market and this was the result. Another feast.
The rooftops of Osh (from Sulayman Mountain), where we didn’t spend nearly enough time. The thumbnail dip into it suggested a really interesting city with a great deal to entertain a traveller.
We got there late-ish, climbed the Mountain, the only World Heritage site in KR. It has a museum of some importance built into its side to celebrate the 3000th anniversary of Osh, unlike Bishkek an ancient city.
Sulayman Mountain, sometimes called the Stone Tower, reaches strikingly upwards out of the flatlands of the Valley. It is considered the mid-point of the Silk Roads. That was exciting.
It also contains a shrine that supposedly marks the Biblical King and Islamic prophet Solomon’s (Sulayman’s) grave. According to legend, women who ascend to the shrine on top and crawl though an opening across the holy rock will give birth to healthy children. Saw this. Didn’t do it.She may have. It could have been a bit lost in translation but these are her five children. The perky chap in the red polo shirt who spoke good English and wanted to engage in conversation is 10. She is 25.
The Mountain is surrounded by the graves of those who want to be buried as near as possible to a holy place. The same phenomenon is obvious in Jerusalem and probably anywhere there is a place with some religious significance.
We ate a celebratory final dinner too tired to do justice to such delicious cooking, a genuinely sumptuous meal. Next day we crossed into Uzbekistan or, as they would prefer, Uzbekiston, and that was an experience.