11.08.2012 - 27.08.2012 37 °C
This being my first visit to Central Asia, I was not really sure what to expect on landing in Kyrgyzstan. Emerging from the plane in the dark I was reassured to find that I wasn’t immediately cloaked in the usual humid fug, which I’ve experienced in so many Asian airports. Instead I looked up to be greeted with a beautiful view of the Milky Way: a small element of familiarity, in what would be an otherwise unfamiliar world. I had thought that I would find a few more signs of being in Asia than I initially recognised: where was the chaotic traffic, street vendors, and odd jumbled buildings? Who had rounded up the meandering animals from the middle of the road and marshaled the locals down from the roofs of the buses? Where were the half-finished houses, and half-crumbling government buildings? Instead, Bishkek’s grand, austere architecture and large solid-looking concrete edifices served to remind me that until the 31st August 1991 Kyrgyzstan was under the rule of the Soviet Union, only gaining independence following its collapse. Wandering around Bishkek, I got a sense that this was a place where North meets South and East meets West. Once we had cycled into the mountains (90% of Kyrgyzstan is above 1,500m in elevation) I revised my judgement to just "East meets the Wild West".
In GDP terms, Kyrgyzstan is ranked just 143rd out of 228 countries, and surprisingly, even smaller than countries such as Rwanda, and Laos. Kyrgyzstan has visibly suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90's and the political turmoil of 2010 in Osh and Jalal-Abad which left nearly 2000 dead, and lead thousands more to flee to Uzbekistan. In the rural mountain areas we traveled to, there was little evidence of political upheaval, but it was clear that wealth was difficult to come by, and subsistence the norm. The obvious signs of wealth that I did see, in the form of cars, trucks, and interior decoration tended to herald a previous era (mainly the 1980's), with the odd exception.
They say "necessity is the mother of invention", and cycling along the dirt roads through sparsely populated towns and villages, there were constant examples of imaginative recycling: oil tankers converted into cafes and basic accommodation; ex-Soviet railway carriages forming a row of terraces. In one particularly remote area on the North side of Son Kul Lake, we found a family that had adopted a railway carriage, rather than the traditional yurt as their summer residence. It looked as though someone had dropped it from the sky, and appeared so utterly incongruous with its surroundings that I failed to notice a goat being castrated about two metres away. It did rather beg the question as to how it actually got there, and why only the one carriage....?
The other striking observation from cycling the back roads of this mountainous country, was the abundance of only two types of vehicle: clapped out Ladas, and Audi-80s hailing from the late 1980’s / early 90’s. As they shuddered or bombed past us on the barely surfaced roads, this confirmed Kyrgyzstan as one of those places (together with Morocco, Nepal and India) where the locals have an exceptional ability to adopt relics of a bygone era and maintain them to a standard of “barely functional” for decades to come.
Plenty of examples in the “no longer functional” category were also to be found in odd places. Fortunately the same principle didn’t seem to apply to the traditional mode of transport in these parts: horseback. The horses we encountered appeared well looked after and were vigorously ridden. It was quite common for us to be overtaken by galloping Kyrgyz children, teenagers and adults alike, clearly getting a thrill from riding bareback at speed, and surprising unsuspecting foreigners. When they turned and galloped off again in a cloud of dust, or I awoke to the vibration of cantering hooves on the remote ground near our campsite, it was these times that I felt I was truly in the wild, wild east.