Walking in forgotten lands: conservation in Kyrgyzstan

The rur­al climbs of Kyrgyz­stan are legendary. They are also under threat. Brett Wilson has been work­ing as part of an inter­na­tion­al effort to secure the future of Cent­ral Asia’s unique nat­ive flora.

One of many stun­ning views encountered in Kyrgyzstan’s Sary-Chelek Bio­sphere Reserve.

Cent­ral Asia was once the focus of trade across the world. The Silk Road ran from China across into Europe span­ning the moun­tains and val­leys of Asia’s cent­ral region. How­ever, as this region became absorbed into the USSR, its links to the West­ern world were broken and the trans­fer of know­ledge regard­ing this region’s biod­iversity was, unfor­tu­nately, lim­ited due to rising ten­sions between coun­tries. Today, after the break­up of the Soviet Uni­on and the inde­pend­ence of coun­tries such as Kyrgyz­stan and Kaza­kh­stan, the sci­entif­ic and envir­on­ment­al depart­ments of these coun­tries are grow­ing and the amaz­ing spe­cies diversity that these areas hold is becom­ing appar­ent.

I worked in the Repub­lic of Kyrgyz­stan in one of the biod­iversity hot­spots of the world, the wal­nut-fruit forest. These forests are thought to be the ori­gin of an incred­ible vari­ety of fruits and nuts such as apples, pears, apricots, wal­nuts, and pista­chio nuts as well as a range of flowers includ­ing tulips. Due to the his­tory of these coun­tries, little research has been car­ried out in these forests espe­cially with regard to some of the more Endangered spe­cies. The land­scapes where these spe­cies are found are heav­ily util­ised by the loc­al human pop­u­la­tion. The resources gathered from these forests have helped sup­port loc­al com­munit­ies for thou­sands of years and con­tin­ue to be an excep­tion­ally import­ant part of loc­al cul­ture and life.

Farm­ing and forest are nev­er far apart in the Kyrgyz land­scape. 

The forest eco­sys­tem, how­ever, is under pres­sure due to over­har­vest­ing of resources and excess­ive live­stock graz­ing with­in the forest land­scape. This is greatly lim­it­ing the regen­er­a­tion capa­city of the forest and may mean that these areas are not sus­tained for future gen­er­a­tions. As the loc­al pop­u­la­tions con­tin­ue to increase, this prob­lem also escal­ates. The remain­ing hab­it­at frag­ments are becom­ing more dam­aged and pop­u­la­tions of many fruits and nuts are declin­ing dra­mat­ic­ally. Numer­ous spe­cies loc­ated in these forests have been iden­ti­fied as threatened and in need of urgent con­ser­va­tion action. How­ever, lim­ited inform­a­tion on these forest sys­tems and the spe­cies with­in greatly inhib­its the tar­get­ing and there­fore the effect­ive­ness of any action planned.

I stud­ied the apple spe­cies Malus niedzwet­zky­ana, already on the Endangered list, with the hope of redu­cing the know­ledge gaps sur­round­ing threats to this spe­cies and its eco­logy. The apple is unique as it has a red pig­ment which per­meates through its leaves, flowers and fruit leav­ing red-tinged leaves, a deep red fruit from its skin through to its flesh, and pink flowers. This red pig­ment is a type of antho­cy­an­in which has been shown to have bene­fi­cial health prop­er­ties, with anti-inflam­mat­ory and anti-vir­al being two of the most sig­ni­fic­ant. Its unique genet­ic makeup high­lights it as a crit­ic­al spe­cies to pro­tect as it has import­ant poten­tial use in devel­op­ing new apple vari­et­ies.

The red fruit of the Niedzwetzky’s apple tree. The unique pig­ment­a­tion of this spe­cies makes it iden­ti­fi­able against oth­er apple spe­cies.

Work­ing with Fauna and Flora Inter­na­tion­al and Imper­i­al Col­lege Lon­don, I col­lec­ted data in four forest frag­ments that were known to be strong­holds of the wal­nut-fruit forest eco­sys­tem and where loc­al com­munit­ies were will­ing to provide sup­port to con­ser­va­tion prac­tices. Dur­ing my trip, I loc­ated around 150 indi­vidu­als [the largest data­set known glob­ally] and recor­ded the extent of threats from live­stock graz­ing and fire­wood col­lec­tion across these areas. I also explored the basic eco­logy of the spe­cies and developed a spe­cies dis­tri­bu­tion mod­el to invest­ig­ate his­tor­ic­al forest cov­er and try to devel­op evid­ence for past hab­it­at loss.

By gath­er­ing this inform­a­tion, I have been able to con­trib­ute to the pro­tec­tion of an icon­ic Cent­ral Asi­an land­scape and change the fate of one of its more unique spe­cies.

My research high­lighted that all forest frag­ments were greatly affected by humans.  How­ever, in the sites of Sary-Chelek Bio­sphere Reserve and Kara-Alma Forestry Unit, there was poten­tial to strengthen excep­tion­ally stressed pop­u­la­tions through sap­ling plant­ing pro­jects. I iden­ti­fied south-west slopes with rel­at­ively open can­opy as good areas to plant sap­lings. Using the spe­cies dis­tri­bu­tion mod­el, I provided evid­ence that the his­tor­ic­al range of this spe­cies was much lar­ger than its cur­rent range, high­light­ing the effect of hab­it­at loss. This affects not only Malus niedzwet­zky­ana but the whole com­munity found in the wal­nut-fruit forests.

By gath­er­ing this inform­a­tion, I have been able to con­trib­ute to the pro­tec­tion of an icon­ic Cent­ral Asi­an land­scape and change the fate of one of its more unique spe­cies. This work is crit­ic­al in design­ing the con­ser­va­tion actions that will pro­tect this spe­cies in the future and the com­munity in which it grows. To have been able to explore a scarcely known corner of the world, walk­ing through the forests where few have been before, was a truly remark­able exper­i­ence. The con­trast of Rus­si­an and Turk­ish influ­ences along­side the unique tra­di­tions of the region make this a ver­it­able cul­tur­al melt­ing pot. This region, hid­den from the world I grew up in, is full of incred­ible people, excit­ing nature, and won­der­ful oppor­tun­it­ies, a land which I hope the rest of the world will come to appre­ci­ate as I have done.

Brett Wilson car­ried out his research with the sup­port of Fauna and Flora Inter­na­tion­al, The Roy­al Botan­ic Gar­dens, Kew, and Imper­i­al Col­lege Lon­don, with fund­ing from the Glob­al Trees Cam­paign. His interests lie in tree con­ser­va­tion research and he is cur­rently an intern at Botan­ic Gar­dens Con­ser­va­tion Inter­na­tion­al where he works on pro­tect­ing tree spe­cies world­wide.

All pho­to­graphy by the author.

Europe and Kazakhstan

This art­icle ori­gin­ally appeared in the Novem­ber 2017 edi­tion of Poli­tique Inter­na­tionale. Per­mis­sion to repub­lish has been kindly gran­ted by the author.

Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner, former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Austria, outlines the growing interdependence of Kazakhstan and the European Union.

In 1991, as the USSR broke up, the repub­lics in Cent­ral Asia found them­selves in a new and chal­len­ging world. The region as a whole has advanced in leaps and bounds since then. Each year, the five nations of Kaza­kh­stan, Kyrgyz­stan, Tajikistan, Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan are mak­ing great­er con­tri­bu­tions to glob­al dia­logue on issues of crit­ic­al import­ance to the coun­tries of Europe. For almost every major sphere of inter­na­tion­al policy — from energy secur­ity to the envir­on­ment, com­bat­ing people and drug traf­fick­ing, and counter-ter­ror­ism — there is an ever-grow­ing alli­ance with Europe, and the poten­tial for fur­ther col­lab­or­a­tion is enorm­ous.

A Soy­uz space­craft is trans­por­ted by train to its launch pad at Kazakhstan’s Baikon­ur Cos­modrome, where many European Space Agency launches take place.

I have taken a great per­son­al interest in the region since my first vis­it in 1999 ahead of Austria’s chair­man­ship of the OSCE, dur­ing which we focused on the region in par­tic­u­lar.   I was struck then, as I still am today, by the industry and ambi­tion of the Cent­ral Asi­an states, and of Kaza­kh­stan in par­tic­u­lar. These qual­it­ies have seen the coun­try rise from a very chal­len­ging start to become the con­fid­ent play­er on the world stage that we see today.

From the early days of its Inde­pend­ence Kaza­kh­stan has adop­ted a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al for­eign policy, and recently set out a “2050 Strategy” which aims to make the coun­try one of the 30 most com­pet­it­ive nations in the world by the mid-point of the cen­tury.

Con­sidered as a whole, the European Uni­on is Kazakhstan’s largest for­eign trade part­ner, account­ing for 50% in of its total extern­al trade, and the largest investor in Kaza­kh­stan, with a 60% share in its FDI. As for Kaza­kh­stan, it exports 60% of its oil to Europe, mak­ing it Europe’s third largest pro­vider of hydro­car­bons among non-OPEC coun­tries. In 2015 Kaza­kh­stan and the European Uni­on signed an Enhanced Part­ner­ship and Cooper­a­tion Agree­ment — the strongest pos­sible frame­work of bilat­er­al cooper­a­tion between non-neigh­bour states, which assesses 29 poten­tial areas of cooper­a­tion.

The part­ner­ship is set to grow fur­ther, as wit­nessed by Kazakhstan’s join­ing the Asia-Europe Meet­ing (ASEM) in 2014, the first Cent­ral Asi­an coun­try to do so. Kazakhstan’s land­mark elec­tion as a non-per­man­ent Mem­ber of the United Nations Secur­ity Coun­cil in 2016 will have greatly strengthened the country’s stand­ing in Europe; as will its acces­sion to the World Trade Organ­isa­tion in 2015, a devel­op­ment which was strongly advoc­ated by the European Uni­on through­out nearly two dec­ades of nego­ti­ation.

A new EU strategy for Kaza­kh­stan and oth­er Cent­ral Asi­an Coun­tries was announced in 2015, emphas­iz­ing areas for eco­nom­ic and social devel­op­ment. Since then, European lead­ers have lauded the improve­ment in busi­ness con­di­tions in Kaza­kh­stan and pushed for fur­ther invest­ment and trade in the coun­try. An improved visa regime has been mooted, as has fur­ther cooper­a­tion in edu­ca­tion.

A major pri­or­ity for both Kaza­kh­stan and Europe has been estab­lish­ing a part­ner­ship in the energy field. Kazakhstan’s vast energy resources are deemed to have played an import­ant role in the devel­op­ment of the South­ern Gas Cor­ridor (SGC) pro­ject, set to bring vast quant­it­ies of gas from the Caspi­an Basin to Europe. European coun­tries are also aware of the great poten­tial for the pro­duc­tion of green energy in Kaza­kh­stan, a ter­rit­ory well-suited for sol­ar and wind energy pro­duc­tion. “Future Energy” was the theme of EXPO 2017, which con­cluded recently in Astana.

Cooper­a­tion in inter­na­tion­al and domest­ic secur­ity is anoth­er key com­pon­ent in the Europe-Kaza­kh­stan part­ner­ship. Kaza­kh­stan has been fully sup­port­ive of EU region­al pro­grammes aimed at coordin­at­ing efforts in the field of counter ter­ror­ism, counter-nar­cot­ics and bor­der man­age­ment. The country’s pion­eer­ing policy of nuc­le­ar dis­arm­a­ment, and the con­crete steps it has taken to pre­vent nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion world­wide, have con­tin­ued to receive the EU’s full back­ing since the early 1990s.

As a European dip­lo­mat who has fol­lowed the rise of Cent­ral Asia since the fall of the USSR with great interest, the mutu­al bene­fits of an ongo­ing part­ner­ship between Kaza­kh­stan and the coun­tries of Europe seem self-evid­ent. From a European per­spect­ive, it is now cru­cial to build on the momentum for engage­ment with Kaza­kh­stan afforded by these pos­it­ive recent devel­op­ments, and keep strength­en­ing a fruit­ful part­ner­ship based on com­mon interests and shared val­ues. I look for­ward to see­ing what pro­spects the future holds in this respect.

Dr Ben­ita Fer­rero-Wald­ner is a prom­in­ent Aus­tri­an dip­lo­mat and politi­cian. Fer­rero-Wald­ner served as For­eign Min­is­ter from 2000 to 2004 and was the ÖVP’s can­did­ate in the 2004 Aus­tri­an pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, which she nar­rowly lost with 47.6% of votes. She has served as the European Com­mis­sion­er for Extern­al Rela­tions and European Neigh­bour­hood Policy, and as the European Com­mis­sion­er for Trade and European Neigh­bour­hood Policy, and is cred­ited with being the key dip­lo­mat in the 24 July 2007 release of five Bul­gari­an nurses and a Palestini­an doc­tor imprisoned by Libya. She also worked to improve con­di­tions for chil­dren infec­ted with HIV/Aids.

Wu-Stan Clan: Central Asia’s ancient rap tradition

It’s all about improvising. Who has the sharpest verses with the most musicality and rhythm and wisdom and wit?”

That’s Alagushev Balai, a Kyrgyz inter­viewed thir­teen years ago by the author Peter Finn. He’s describ­ing aity­sh, Cent­ral Asia’s adversari­al, ad-libbed per­form­ance tra­di­tion that’s half music and half sick flow.

Did­ar Qam­iev, born 1988, is a cel­eb­rated mem­ber of Kazakhstan’s new gen­er­a­tion of akyns.

Aity­sh is a con­test between two par­ti­cipants, or akyns. They sit across the room from each oth­er, impro­vising rhythmic, rhym­ing rebut­tals on sub­jects sug­ges­ted by the audi­ence. Though good-natured and often comed­ic, aity­sh has teeth. When one akyn needs to diss anoth­er, noth­ing is off lim­its: there’s a long-stand­ing cus­tom that allows akyns all forms of slander. They make back­han­ded polit­ic­al state­ments, cri­ti­cise each other’s style, flirt, and flat-out insult one anoth­er.

Dur­ing an aity­shakyns sing their songs in turns,” said Balai. “It is a music­al dia­logue, like a debate. When one akyn starts an argu­ment, the second one should con­tin­ue it start­ing a new rhyme or fol­low­ing the competitor’s one.”

The akyn’s goal is to con­vince his audi­ence that’s he is the bet­ter per­former. Just as in a rap battle, a crowd of onlook­ers is cru­cial in decid­ing the vic­tor.

The tra­di­tion is art­ful too, and often cut­tingly satir­ic­al. Polit­ics and mor­als have alwasy been cent­ral to aity­sh, and it’s as philo­soph­ic­al as Dylan, as gritty as Nas, and — some­times — as ego­ma­ni­ac­al as Kanye.

No one seems to know exactly where aity­sh came from, but it’s been a fix­ture for at least a thou­sand years. In the pre-Soviet days of major­ity illit­er­acy, akyns played a vital cul­tur­al role. They were the agents of social and his­tor­ic­al iden­tity, but also helped each gen­er­a­tion to expound its zeit­geist, cel­eb­rate its her­oes and hold its lead­ers to account.

Dur­ing the Soviet peri­od, unusu­ally, aity­sh wasn’t entirely scrubbed from Kaza­kh and Kyrgyz cul­ture, but requisi­tioned as a way to adapt old legends to the new rulers.

A lot of atten­tion was paid to akyn and the com­mun­ists used it as a pro­pa­ganda loud­speak­er,” said Balai. “Akyns sang about Len­in and the revolu­tion and the achieve­ments of the party.”

It was dan­ger­ous to be an akyn in Com­mun­ist Cent­ral Asia.

Dur­ing the Soviet peri­od, akyns and their poetry were strictly con­trolled,” the young per­former, Aaly Tutkuchev, told author, Elmira Köchümku­lova. “The KGB told them to write down the text of their poetry before they went out to sing in front of people.”

So tightly did aity­sh come to be asso­ci­ated with com­mun­ism, that by the col­lapse of the Soviet Uni­on the akyn art was almost extinct. Accord­ing to Finn, Kyrgyz­stan had only four akyns left in 1991. An influx of West­ern music — some of it, let’s hope, from Queens­bridge and Compton — gave aity­sh all the cachet of mor­ris dan­cing and oom­pah.

As the new nation states matured, how­ever, young people began to redis­cov­er the tra­di­tion. Across the board, by the early 2000s, Cent­ral Asia’s cul­tur­al her­it­age gained a new import­ance. In 2003, UNESCO added the akyns to its list of intan­gible cul­tur­al her­it­age. In 2001, Kyrgyz pub­lic fig­ure, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, estab­lished the Aity­sh Pub­lic Fund, a char­it­able organ­isa­tion that pub­li­cises the art and has trained over a hun­dred new akyns.

Now, Kyrgyz and Kaza­kh akyns par­ti­cip­ate in the demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al pro­cess — passing from vil­lage to vil­lage to deliv­er a com­ment­ary, soap­box-style.

Akyns have always giv­en heart to the Kaza­kh people in times of hard­ship and misery,” Kazak akyn, Did­ar Qam­iev told the research­er, Jangül Qojakh­met­ova. “Dur­ing the Great Pat­ri­ot­ic War, in 1943, an aity­sh in Almaty raised people’s spir­its and hopes. Con­tem­por­ary aity­sh enlight­en people and enrich them spir­itu­ally.”

The natural and unnatural wonders of Central Asia

In terms of space, Central Asia has a lot of it.

With a com­bined land area of 3,926,790 square kilo­metres, the Five Stans cov­er 2.63 per­cent of the world’s land­mass. Although that is an area far lar­ger than India, Cent­ral Asia has a pop­u­la­tion dens­ity of just eight­een people per square kilo­metre. India, by com­par­is­on, is 25 times as densely pop­u­lated. What is in all of that space in-between the people? What does the nat­ur­al world con­jure across Cent­ral Asia? In this art­icle we take a trip to six of the most extraordin­ary centres of the nat­ur­al (and unnat­ur­al) world of Cent­ral Asia, to dis­cov­er how the people of Cent­ral Asia are both shaped and shap­ing the vast envir­on­ment around them.

Pamir Mountains (Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan)

It makes sense to begin with the “Roof of the World” — the Pamir Moun­tains. Writ­ten about in the West since the time of Ptolemy, cen­tur­ies ago three branches of the Silk Road used to cross the Pamirs. Whilst most of the range lies with­in Tajikistan, its fringes seep into Afgh­anistan, China and Kyrgyz­stan. A diverse array of soci­et­ies live in semi-autonom­ous and autonom­ous areas of the moun­tains. Many are small nomad­ic com­munit­ies of Tajiks, but size­able pop­u­la­tions live in small cit­ies such as Kho­rog.

Climbers in 1978 pose for a pho­to­graph with ‘Peak Com­mun­ism’, as the highest point in Cent­ral Asia was then known.

The tallest peak of the Pamirs — Kongur Tagh — is not in Cent­ral Asia, but China. Ismoil Peak is the highest in the region, at a mod­est 7,495m — the fiftieth tallest moun­tain in the world. Formerly known as Peak Com­mun­ism, the moun­tain was more formerly still named after Joseph Stal­in, but gained its cur­rent name in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury to com­mem­or­ate the Saman­id emir, Ismail Samani.

Gates of Hell (Turkmenistan)

‘The Gates of Hell’, which for the past four dec­ades has been a bench­mark for ‘The hot­test thing in Turk­menistan since…’

From the heights of heav­en, we jour­ney to the Gates of Hell. Yes, the door to the under­world can be found in Turkmenistan’s Karak­um Desert, 275km north of the country’s cap­it­al. The Dar­vaza Gas Crater emerged in 1971 fol­low­ing a Soviet drilling acci­dent. In an attempt to extract oil, engin­eers rup­tured a nat­ur­al gas pock­et unearth­ing an enorm­ous crater, and swal­low­ing up the rig. Imme­di­ately, tox­ic gas spewed from the 230 feet-wide crater and anim­als in the area soon began to per­ish. In an attempt to cull the spread of meth­ane, geo­lo­gists opted to set the crater on fire, and thus the Flames of Hell came to Earth. It is not unusu­al for gas craters to be set on fire but, usu­ally, they extin­guish with­in a few weeks, months, or at most, years; no one knows when, or even if the Dar­vaza Crater will stop burn­ing. Today, the Gates of Hell is a pop­u­lar tour­ist attrac­tion, which Google help­fully informs us is “Open 24 Hours”.

Aral Sea (Kazakstan and Uzbekistan)

The fam­ous ‘dis­ap­pear­ing lake’ act.

Tragedy hit Cent­ral Asia in the 1960s, in what many experts believe to be one of the greatest eco­lo­gic­al dis­asters of all time. The Aral Sea was one the world’s fourth-largest lake — the second largest in Asia. Cov­er­ing 26,000 square miles, it truly was one of the nat­ur­al won­ders of the region, divid­ing a chunk of bor­der between Kaza­kh­stan and Uzbek­istan.

Fish, and thus the loc­al fish­ing industry, has declined immensely since the dis­ap­pear­ance of water. This pho­to­graph of a beached fish­ing ves­sel in the Bay of Zhalanas, Aral­sk, Kaza­kh­stan, illus­trates the point.

Today, that bor­der requires not a boat to cross, but feet. In the 1960s, as part of the Soviet eco­nom­ic plan to make Cent­ral Asia the world’s largest pro­du­cer of cot­ton, the two great rivers of Cent­ral Asia were diver­ted for an irrig­a­tion pro­ject. The Amu Darya and the Syr Darya had fed the Aral, but cata­stroph­ic neg­li­gence rap­idly depleted the sea’s water sup­ply. By 1990, the sea split in two, and by 2003, the depth had fallen by 72 feet. Even­tu­ally, the Aral held just one-tenth of its ori­gin­al volume. Fish­ing ports turned to bar­ren waste­lands and dust bowl­ing swept up sand and chem­ic­al residues from the now exposed seabed. Although a glob­al effort led by the World Bank has sought to rein­vig­or­ate the North­ern Aral Sea, many experts believe that the vast major­ity of this once great lake will remain bar­ren. The Aral Sea dis­aster provides a stark and rather apo­ca­lyptic pre­quel to the world’s loom­ing water crisis.

Fedchenko Glacier (Tajikistan)

At elev­en times the length of Canada’s Ath­abasca Gla­ci­er, the Fed­chen­ko Gla­ci­er is the world’s longest non-polar Gla­ci­er.

2000km away from the Aral is Fed­chen­ko Gla­ci­er, the world’s longest non-polar gla­ci­er. First dis­covered in 1878, it is by far the biggest gla­ci­er in the Pamir range and its run­off even­tu­ally trickles into what is left of the Aral Sea. The ice on Fed­chen­ko Gla­ci­er, found in the east of Tajikistan, is 1000m thick in parts and meas­ures 77km in length. Put in per­spect­ive, Canada’s fam­ous Ath­abasca Gla­ci­er is just 7km long. The source of Fed­chen­ko is found in Gorno-Badakh­shan province upon Revolu­tion Peak, the highest point in the east­ern part of the Yazgulem Range.

Sharyn Canyon (Kazakstan)

Kazakstan’s great Canyon will most likely become grand in the next few hun­dred mil­lion years.

Close to the bor­der with China is one of Cent­ral Asia’s more unusu­al sites: Sharyn Canyon. The val­ley began to be formed rather recently — just 90 mil­lion years ago. Its most fam­ous point — The Val­ley of Castles — provides the off the beaten track tour­ist with some truly epic pho­tos for their Ins­tagram. Although it is dwarfed by the Grand Canyon for length, it is still nearly 100km long, and holds some remark­able eco­lo­gic­al sites. A pre­his­tor­ic forest, for example, con­tain­ing a large num­ber of Sog­di­an Ash, a par­tic­u­larly rare spe­cies of Ash. Sharyn Canyon Nation­al Park is 120 miles east of Almaty and the stag­ger­ing views of the ancient dust-orange rock canyon walls are a key attrac­tion for Kazakstan’s incip­i­ent tour­ist industry.

Chuy Valley (Kazakhstan)

Kaza­kh­stan is the alleged birth­place of can­nabis, and in the Chuy Val­ley, 400,000 hec­tares have grown wild in amongst the Tien-shan moun­tains. Ever since the restrict­ive drug policies of the Soviet Uni­on, this has been some­thing of a polit­ic­al head­ache; where­as nature was defeated in the Aral Sea, the hardy nature of wild can­nabis has allowed the crops to sur­vive mul­tiple erad­ic­a­tion attempts, mak­ing can­nabis Kazakhstan’s most potent per­en­ni­al weed. Under the cov­er of night, loc­als are known to des­cend into the val­ley to col­lect small quant­it­ies of wild can­nabis — which is famed for a low potency and con­sequent lack of hangover effects. Large-scale har­vest­ing is inhib­ited by an annu­al police crack­down on efforts to organ­ise col­lec­tion efforts — as such, organ­ised crim­in­als rub shoulders with bohemi­an enthu­si­asts, with no groups hav­ing a mono­poly on the region of nat­ur­al abund­ance.

A ‘high’ val­ley in Kaza­kh­stan. Photo: Mari­usz Kluzniak.

There is your heav­en to hell then — a whistle-stop tour of the nat­ur­al won­ders of Cent­ral Asia. Though it would rarely come to mind when we think of the epic of our nat­ur­al envir­on­ment, Cent­ral Asia pos­sesses some of the most remark­able examples of the undis­covered, the unbe­liev­able, and unfor­tu­nately, the unnat­ur­al. Whilst the Dar­vaza Gas Crater is an example to poke fun at, the Aral Sea dis­aster is not. Per­haps the great meas­ure Cent­ral Asia’s nat­ur­al won­ders is, then, humankind’s utterly fra­gile rela­tion­ship to the nat­ur­al world.

Cheques through the mail: the changing nature of Central Asia’s remittance economy

Central Asian nations must supersede historic economic ties with Russia both by fostering employment and investment links elsewhere, and by generating a meaningful internal economy.

A work­er moves fish at a pro­cessing plant in Aral­sk, Kaza­kh­stan.

The eco­nom­ies of Uzbek­istan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyz­stan are heav­ily depend­ent on remit­tances from migrant labour­ers in Rus­sia. Tajikistan is the most remit­tance-depend­ent coun­try in the world, with four in ten adult males seek­ing employ­ment abroad. The increased move­ment of people across post-Soviet Euras­ia echoes the his­tor­ic­al con­nectiv­ity and cross-cul­tur­al inter­ac­tions with­in the region. These young work­ers have found employ­ment in low-income jobs indus­tries such as con­struc­tion sites and nat­ur­al resource extrac­tion.

Accord­ing to the World Bank, remit­tance inflows in Tajikistan rep­res­en­ted 42% of the country’s GDP in 2014. At an indi­vidu­al level, remit­tances sup­port the daily sub­sist­ence of poor fam­il­ies, and act as a medi­um for domest­ic con­sump­tion. In turn, this improves the bal­ance of pay­ments by provid­ing gov­ern­ments with tax from goods pur­chased through remit­tances. How­ever, remit­tances to Cent­ral Asia have begun to dimin­ish.

Coun­try 2015 2016
Uzbek­istan $3 bil­lion $2.74 bil­lion
Tajikistan $2.2 bil­lion $1.9 bil­lion
Kyrgyz­stan $1.5 bil­lion $1.7 bil­lion

Remit­tances from Rus­sia to Cent­ral Asia, www.eurasianet.org

The above fig­ures demon­strate the decline of remit­tances from Rus­sia to Cent­ral Asia. This fall is linked to devel­op­ments in the glob­al eco­nomy. The glob­al plunge in oil prices has caused a slump in the Rus­si­an eco­nomy, trig­ger­ing a reces­sion.

Migrant workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan face tougher immigration laws as the two countries do not belong to the Eurasian Economic Union”

West­ern sanc­tions imposed after Moscow’s annex­a­tion of Crimea has fur­ther com­poun­ded the eco­nom­ic crisis. These two devel­op­ments have res­ul­ted in a devalu­ation of the Rouble and thus the value in dol­lars of remit­tances. The weak­ness of the rouble has res­ul­ted in the fall­ing of real wages in Rus­sia. Eco­nom­ic deteri­or­a­tion in Rus­sia has, in turn, lowered demand for Cent­ral Asia labour, for­cing migrant work­ers to return home. Moreover, migrant work­ers from Tajikistan and Uzbek­istan face tough­er immig­ra­tion laws as the two coun­tries do not belong to the Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on. This phe­nomen­on has also affected migrant work­ers from the Cau­cas­us. It will be inter­est­ing to see if the lack of employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies in Rus­sia pre­cip­it­ates a flow of migra­tion to oth­er coun­tries in Europe or Asia.

Bey­ond Russia’s eco­nom­ic trav­ails, a remit­tance-depend­ant eco­nomy sig­nals low levels of invest­ment (and thus a lack of pro­duct­ive non-primary jobs), declin­ing terms of trade, and per­sist­ent vul­ner­ab­il­ity to the vicis­situdes of the glob­al eco­nom­ic cli­mate. Moreover, the iter­at­ive waves of emig­ra­tion serve to under­mine the fra­gile nation­al con­scious­ness in nas­cent demo­cra­cies and cause a vari­ety of social frac­tures as a con­sequence of wide­spread absent­ee­ism. Hence there is a need both to move away from Rus­si­an depend­ence, and the remit­tance eco­nomy itself.

Increased foreign direct investment (FDI) from China and Turkey highlight the geopolitical shifts occurring in the region.”

The struc­tur­al over-reli­ance on remit­tances have cre­ated an eco­nom­ic dilemma for Cent­ral Asi­an gov­ern­ments. Lower remit­tances have engendered a fall in eco­nom­ic growth as the pur­chas­ing power of cit­izens dimin­ish. Tak­ing into account the excess­ive debt affect­ing these coun­tries, gov­ern­ments are forced to increase spend­ing, thereby exacer­bat­ing fisc­al defi­cits.

How­ever, the com­bin­a­tion of estab­lished migrant com­munit­ies from Cent­ral Asia in Rus­sia and the ease of assim­il­a­tion via a shared lan­guage act as recal­cit­rant bar­ri­ers to swift trans­itions in the nature of Cent­ral Asi­an remit­tance eco­nom­ies.

Clearly, these coun­tries must seek altern­at­ive solu­tions and diver­si­fy their eco­nom­ies. Increased for­eign dir­ect invest­ment (FDI) from China and Tur­key high­light the geo­pol­it­ic­al shifts occur­ring in the region. Increased invest­ment in infra­struc­ture will reduce the depend­ency on remit­tances and stim­u­late the employ­ment mar­ket in a region that offers cheap­er labour than its neigh­bours. The pur­suit of altern­at­ive cur­rency inflows sig­nals a region will­ing to adapt and evolve to changes in the glob­al eco­nomy.

China is cur­rently the largest investor in the region. Its Silk Road Eco­nom­ic Belt (SREB), estab­lished in 2013, offers an altern­at­ive to eco­nom­ic strategies ori­ented towards Rus­sia. Like­wise, the Beijing-led Asi­an Infra­struc­ture Invest­ment Bank rep­res­ents a nov­el source of fund­ing for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and infra­struc­ture-build­ing in Cent­ral Asi­an states. As Cent­ral Asia re-ori­ents itself in the glob­al eco­nomy, it is faced by a pleth­ora of oppor­tun­it­ies, chal­lenges, and poten­tial traps. Will lead­ers look bey­ond Moscow and seek friend­ship else­where?

Banking on Islam: Central Asia’s future in the world of Islamic finance

Unsur­pris­ingly, things changed in Cent­ral Asia after the end of the USSRLike Rus­sia, industry was privat­ised and mar­ket cap­it­al­ism embraced. How­ever a less obvi­ous trans­ition is the uptake in Islam­ic fin­ance (IF) facil­it­ies, both as a com­mer­cial source of invest­ment and liquid­ity, and private bank­ing ser­vices.

The fin­an­cial dis­trict in Almaty, Kaza­kh­stan, where Islam­ic has its first foothold in Cent­ral Asia.

Accord­ing to Reu­ters, Islam­ic fin­ance growth world­wide has been double-digit since 2000, and this trend is mani­fest­ing in Cent­ral Asia with the emer­gence of new facil­it­ies and incor­por­a­tion into wider glob­al IF net­works. Islam­ic fin­ance is struc­tured by, and com­plies with, sharia law — espe­cially in con­sid­er­a­tion to the goods and ser­vices it funds (for example, pork or alco­hol) and the pro­hib­i­tion of par­tic­u­lar forms of interest. These insti­tu­tions have grown in tan­dem with a glob­al reviv­al of Islam­ic iden­tity since the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury, and a dis­il­lu­sion­ment with ‘west­ern’ bank­ing forms and the per­ceived reg­u­lar­ity of their fail­ure to suc­cess­fully under­write risk. In tan­dem, the Soviet policy of reli­gious sup­pres­sion once enforced in Cent­ral Asia was lif­ted after inde­pend­ence, cre­at­ing a region­al renais­sance of Islam­ic obser­va­tion and expres­sion across this Muslim major­ity region, which fur­ther facil­it­ates the enthu­si­ast­ic embrace of IF.

To vary­ing degrees oth­er Cent­ral Asi­an nations have embraced Islam­ic fin­ance (most not­ably Kyrgyz­stan), but Kaza­kh­stan leads the way in the devel­op­ment of IF. In 2009 Kaza­kh­stan became the first former-Soviet nation to issue IF guidelines, and in 2010 the first Islam­ic fin­an­cial insti­tu­tion — Al Hilal Bank — was gran­ted a license to trade through an inter­gov­ern­ment­al agree­ment between Kaza­kh­stan and Abu Dhabi. Since then, a pre­vi­ously con­ven­tion­al bank — Zaman — became an inter­na­tion­ally recog­nised Islam­ic Fin­ance insti­tu­tion, and in 2015 the gov­ern­ment out­lined its policy object­ives for the future of IF, with optim­ist­ic tar­gets set for 2020. Kaza­kh­stani gov­ern­ment­al sup­port for Islam­ic Fin­ance has included grow­ing mul­ti­lat­er­al cooper­a­tion with more estab­lished IF reg­u­lat­ory bod­ies, includ­ing the Islam­ic Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Board (IFSB), the Account­ing and Audit­ing Organ­isa­tion for Islam­ic Fin­an­cial Insti­tu­tions (AAOIFI), and the Inter­na­tion­al Islam­ic Fin­an­cial Mar­kets (IIFM). Fur­ther­more the Islam­ic Devel­op­ment Bank (IDB) has com­mit­ted to fin­an­cing invest­ment in infra­struc­ture and indus­tri­al pro­jects val­ued at $1.5 bil­lion, demon­strat­ing the impact of glob­al IF net­works.

Undoubtedly, the com­par­at­ively recent rein­sti­tu­tion of Islam across Cent­ral Asia has con­trib­uted massively to the uptake of Islam­ic fin­ance, a new reli­gi­os­ity (not neces­sary con­fined to Islam) equally per­vad­ing the pop­u­la­tion and the insti­tu­tions that uphold these society’s struc­tures. How­ever more prag­mat­ic inter­pret­a­tions of IF’s rise in the region have been mooted by for­eign schol­ars. Sebasti­an Peyrouse high­lights the poten­tial polit­ic­al bene­fits accrued by estab­lished Islam­ic states (includ­ing the Gulf States and Malay­sia) through the use of IF as a vehicle for closer eco­nom­ic, polit­ic­al and religious/ideological rela­tions. On the oth­er hand Dav­in­ia Hog­garth at Chath­am House high­lights IF as part of a wider ‘multi-vec­tor’ strategy which, in Kaza­kh­stan espe­cially, seeks to reduce eco­nom­ic reli­ance on any single for­eign part­ner by embra­cing invest­ment from a max­im­um num­ber of sources. Although cur­rent estim­ates sug­gest that Islam­ic fin­ance is of min­im­al scale in Cent­ral Asia, the con­sequences of its growth undeni­ably are not lim­ited to com­mer­cial and fin­an­cial interests, and IF’s growth will surely be tracked intently by inter­na­tion­al busi­nesses and gov­ern­ments alike.

Observ­ers must be real­ist­ic when not­ing this upwards IF trend. After all, even as the Cent­ral Asi­an nation with the deep­est rela­tion­ship with Islam­ic fin­ance, Kazakhstan’s tar­get for total IF bank­ing assets by 2020 is only 3 – 5 per­cent of the nation­al , while IF assets today make up only one per­cent. How­ever Reu­ters’ out­look for Islam­ic fin­an­cial invest­ment ranks Astana as a top rank des­tin­a­tion, with mul­tiple inter­na­tion­ally trad­ing banks includ­ing Al Baraka and May­Bank show­ing interest in Kazakhstan’s bour­geon­ing Islam­ic fin­ance mar­kets. The major­ity-Muslim pop­u­la­tion of Cent­ral Asia is cur­rently an untapped cus­tom­er base for IF insti­tu­tions, while gov­ern­ments across the region are real­ising the invest­ment oppor­tun­it­ies of IF as an altern­at­ive to Rus­si­an and Chinese sources. Though young, Islam­ic fin­ance seems likely to expand through­out Cent­ral Asia in the com­ing years.

One Belt, Whose Road?

China Nation­al High­way 215, a new 641km road in China’s Aksai Kaza­kh Autonom­ous County that’s firmly aimed at Kaza­kh­stan.

With remark­ably sparse inter­na­tion­al fan­fare and a great deal of nom­in­al con­fu­sion, China’s première, Xi Jing­ping launched the largest devel­op­ment push since the Mar­shall plan onto the world. The Belt and Road Ini­ti­at­ive (BRI), an increas­ingly catchy term, will pro­foundly impact Cent­ral Asia. The Silk Road Eco­nom­ic Belt (SREB) forms the BRI’s key com­pon­ent, it is a devel­op­ment strategy that focuses on infra­struc­ture invest­ment; espe­cially con­struc­tion mater­i­als, rail­way and high­way con­struc­tion, auto­mobile pro­duc­tion, real estate cre­ation, and power grid gen­er­a­tion.

At an estim­ated $900 bil­lion, the SREB pro­ject is set to be the largest invest­ment pro­gram in human his­tory. The invest­ment bil­lions will be chan­nelled into pro­jects through­out Cent­ral Asia, with the offi­cial aim being to help them to move away from an export-ori­ented eco­nom­ic mod­el, par­tic­u­larly in terms of nat­ur­al resources, along with bet­ter con­nect­ing China to grow­ing (i.e. West­ern Africa), as well as estab­lished (namely European) mar­kets. Cur­rent dis­cus­sions regard­ing the pro­ject typ­ic­ally focus on what the ini­ti­at­ive implies in the con­text of a rising China. Many over­look the fact that the oth­er par­ti­cipants in the ini­ti­at­ive are equally import­ant.

The Belt and Road Ini­ti­at­ive prom­ises infra­struc­ture devel­op­ments on a scale nev­er before seen.

Geo­graph­ic­ally, the Cent­ral Asi­an states con­nect Tibet and the Xinji­ang province to the Caspi­an Sea, they also serve as a halfway point between Europe and Africa. In the past, they formed the meet­ing point of the East and the West; in today’s world, the quant­it­ies of undis­covered resources sur­round­ing the region are at the core of com­pet­ing world powers’ mater­i­al­ist­ic interests, espe­cially in the con­text of cli­mate change. Indeed, the first stage of the pro­ject indic­ates that bil­lions will be devoted to estab­lish­ing rail and road links to Cent­ral Asia and across it to Iran, Rus­sia, the Cau­cas­us, Tur­key, and Europe. The goal is to min­im­ise phys­ic­al, tech­nic­al and polit­ic­al bar­ri­ers to trade, with a long-term vis­ion of a free trade agree­ment in the region.

Wheth­er this will empower Cent­ral Asi­an states in their new­found inde­pend­ence, or con­sol­id­ate them as either vas­sal states of China (or, if China’s designs fail, and Putin’s Euras­i­an Cus­toms Uni­on takes root, Rus­sia) remains to be seen.

Cer­tainly, the mul­ti­lat­er­al ties built through the Ini­ti­at­ives will be very use­ful in expand­ing the China’s glob­al soft power capa­city. There have been debates on how the SREB sym­bol­ises a con­test between Rus­sia, China and poten­tially India in terms of ‘lat­ent’ con­trol over Cent­ral Asia. How­ever, com­ing from an altern­at­ive per­spect­ive, hav­ing the agen­tial power to choose who to sup­port enables dif­fer­ent states to become more act­ive in the region. It has been said that the Cent­ral Asi­an states now dare to openly cri­ti­cise Rus­sia, such as how the Pres­id­ent of Kyrgyz­stan openly addressed how Kyrgyz migrants have been under attack in Rus­sia because of xeno­pho­bia in one of his speeches. Wheth­er this will empower Cent­ral Asi­an states in their new­found inde­pend­ence, or con­sol­id­ate them as either vas­sal states of China (or, if China’s designs fail, and Putin’s Euras­i­an Cus­toms Uni­on takes root, Rus­sia) remains to be seen.

Nev­er­the­less, bey­ond the focus on cap­it­al pro­vi­sion, the plan inher­ently car­ries an ideo­lo­gic­al mean­ing. Ulti­mately, the whole devel­op­ment strategy is deeply rel­ev­ant to the so-called ‘China mod­el’, with an emphas­is on state-led approach. It also rein­forces the Chinese invest­ment mod­el that prides itself on not force­fully impos­ing any con­di­tion­al­ity on the receiv­ing parties, as has been demon­strated in a num­ber of Afric­an cases. In such cir­cum­stances, it is vital to not for­get about the lived exper­i­ences of such pro­jects. For instance, In the case of Ken­kiyak, where the Kaza­kh­stan – China oil pipeline passes through, the town kinder­garten has become a hostel for Chinese work­ers. Moreover, the qual­ity of their liv­ing envir­on­ment has also deteri­or­ated sub­ject to pol­lut­ants pro­duced by the pro­ject. And as for the allure of prom­ise jobs, the best roles are gran­ted to Chinese work­ers rather than loc­als.

The BRI seeks an infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment pro­gramme on a scale unseen since the Mar­shall plan — but will it trap Cent­ral Asia in debt?

It is widely acknow­ledged that West­ern media has paid lim­ited atten­tion to the Cent­ral Asia region. And as this devel­op­ment ini­ti­at­ive catches the world’s atten­tion, the region gradu­ally devel­ops its own voice as well. Some may say that such views exag­ger­ate the sig­ni­fic­ance of Cent­ral Asia, because the region per se does not cast much impact oth­er parts of the world; Their names are barely seen. How­ever, it is not the case that there is noth­ing to study or to under­stand; rather, through­out human his­tory, there has been a tend­ency to over­look what we deem as inap­plic­able in or irrel­ev­ant to our con­texts, often to be proved spec­tac­u­larly wrong. Situ­ated at the cross­road of the world, the area is embed­ded with a diverse array of his­tor­ic­al stor­ies and bur­ied know­ledge. In light of the SREB, it may be high time for us to a redis­cov­er Cent­ral Asia.

Manas, memory, and the making of the Kyrgyz national myth

Truth is not necessarily fact, and fact not necessarily truth” (Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

The plane ride into a new coun­try makes for a good oppor­tun­ity to brush up on a bit of loc­al know­ledge. For some, that’ll mean drowsily brows­ing through a hand­ful of help­ful phrases on the red-eye shift before a dawn land­ing. For oth­ers, it’ll be a quick per­use through the sites, sounds and tastes pro­posed by a guide book. For those inclined to the cul­tur­ally refined, it may even mean a dig into the nation’s house author — every Rus­sia has a Dostoyevsky just as every Niger­ia has a Soyinka. Yet, look­ing at the little orange puffs of the oil fields in the dark expanses on a night-time flight over north­ern Kaza­kh­stan, I didn’t want to turn on the light for fear of dis­turb­ing the gentle chor­us of snores from the seats around me. Instead, I found myself listen­ing to Har­vest by Neil Young, and pon­der­ing wheth­er I was the first to do so in this situ­ation. (I prob­ably wasn’t, but I ima­gine I’m safely embed­ded in the first ten).

As such, my ignor­ance on arrival is some­what jus­ti­fi­able. As I was to find out, a dive into the Epic of Man­as would have served me a bet­ter edu­ca­tion on the coun­try I was enter­ing. At 500,000 lines though, the Kyrgyz epic poem is no Aer­o­flot flick — indeed, it is one of the longest epic poems in the world. All the same, Man­as is a dynam­ic, indeed liv­ing doc­u­ment on Kyrgyz his­tory — and a touch­stone for Kyrgyz iden­tity. So much so, that there exists a spe­cial role in soci­ety for the bards who per­form and pass on the story of Man­as, the man­as­chi.

As an account of the past, it is an “absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history”… yet this is why it is so damn interesting

Why then, is the story of Man­as so import­ant? As a story, it fol­lows the lives of three gen­er­a­tions of Kyrgyz lead­ers: Man­as, the skilled horse­men who throws off the yoke of Uighur dom­in­a­tion to return his people to their moun­tain­ous home­land; and his son and grand­son — also respect­able war­ri­ors. This might be fas­cin­at­ing in its own right, but it does little to jus­ti­fy Manas’s pre-emin­ence among oth­er stel­lar tales by Kyrgyz authors.

As an account of the past, it has been described by VV Bartol’d as an ‘absurd gal­limaufry of pseudo-his­tory’ — its age is unknow­able (although it was likely trans­planted, and hence frozen, in writ­ing dur­ing the eight­eenth cen­tury), and it con­cerns events that occurred between 995AD and 1800AD (albeit, most likely closer to the lat­ter), and its account of these events muddles them con­sid­er­ably. Yet it is this last point that makes it so damn inter­est­ing; how can the fluid­ity of a myth mould and be moul­ded to the mal­le­able memory nar­rat­ives of a chan­ging soci­ety, and hence tinker, sup­port, and chal­lenge nation­al iden­tity? Just as indi­vidu­als build their iden­tit­ies on the string of memor­ies that fit their stor­ies, so too does a coun­try. By this pro­cess of self-shap­ing, a nation can look to the past to define its future. As Wil­li­am Faulkner pos­its, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past”.

The Kyry­gz com­poser, Abdylas Maldy­baev, here pic­tured on a Kyrgyz 1 som note, based his first opera, Ai-Churek, on the Epic of Man­as.

Here stems an ant­ag­on­ism between his­tor­icity; the euro­centric ideal of his­tory as a lin­ear account of veri­fi­able events in a fixed and stat­ic past; and nar­rat­ive, with its focus less on what actu­ally happened, and more on what should have happened. The former approach treats our present real­ity as a moment cre­ated by, but ulti­mately cut off from, the past. Nar­rat­ive, on the oth­er hand, is a flu­id story that seeks to explain and guide the present. Nar­rat­ives com­pete and con­stantly adapt. Per­haps the most apt example of this is the his­tor­ic treat­ment of the Bible — select­ive inter­pret­a­tions have jus­ti­fied everything from the Jew­ish pogroms of Rus­sia to the lib­er­a­tion theo­logy of Lat­in Amer­ica.

From these two approaches to the past, it’s no sur­prise that the European world sanc­ti­fies writ­ten text — but Cent­ral Asi­ans have long feared the poten­tial loss of oral tra­di­tions, and the liv­ing flex­ib­il­ity that comes with them. In The Uses and Abuses of His­tory, Niet­z­sche decried stat­ic mono­lith­ic accounts of his­tory, and instead favoured memory as a dynam­ic and crit­ic­al exer­cise: memory makes us, and as such, we should work to make memory.

How does this relate to the Epic of Manas?

Enough the­ory. How does this relate to the Epic of Man­as? To explain this, we should look to the dif­fer­ences between Man­as the man and Man­as the myth. Some­time dur­ing the the 1920s and 1930s, Manas’s appar­ent tribe ceased to be the Nogay people and became the Kyrgyz. This high­lights the import­ance of estab­lish­ing an eth­nic link around the time that Kyrgyz­stan was organ­ising its place as a state in the USSR.

Moreover, although it was widely agreed that the events described in the epic took place  only about 400 years earli­er, in 1995 the new Kyrgyz gov­ern­ment hos­ted mass cel­eb­ra­tions of Manas’s thou­sandth anniversary. No doubt linked intrins­ic­ally with the col­lapse of the USSR four years earli­er, this dis­par­ity between dates emphas­ises the need in Kyrgyz­stan to estab­lish deep his­tor­ic­al roots; the legit­im­acy to hold togeth­er a brand new nation state.

Finally, bey­ond being an adept ruler and a skill­ful war­ri­or, Man­as fought off neigh­bour­ing soci­et­ies to estab­lish the inde­pend­ence of what is now Kyrgyz­stan. A power­ful counter-nar­rat­ive to his­tor­ic occupy­ing powers (indeed, the USSR sup­pressed cir­cu­la­tion of the Epic of Man­as on account of its appar­ent ‘bour­geois-nation­al­ism’), it now acts as a defi­ant sym­bol for a free Kyrgyz­stan — a nation with a nomad­ic past and an inde­pend­ent future. Every major town and city is pillared with images, statues, accounts and museums that rev­el in Man­as. Even the flag invokes Man­as — its forty rays rep­res­ent the forty tribes united under Man­as. It is through these sym­bols that inter­pret­a­tions of the past form the iden­tity of the present, and set the course of the future.

The Epic of Man­as, even in Eng­lish trans­la­tion, is by no means light read­ing for a air­line jour­ney into Kyrgyz­stan. Yet a quick dive into the his­tory of the epic could explain why, four hours by plane from Moscow, one might find one­self touch­ing down amidst the last of the winter snow on a chilly March morn­ing at Man­as Inter­na­tion­al Air­portBishkek.

The main ter­min­al build­ing at Man­as Inter­na­tion­al Air­port in Bishkek, Kyrgyz­stan.

Fact File: Kyrgyzstan

Name КыргызстанQırğız­stan
Pop­u­la­tion 6,019,480 (2016)
Cap­it­al city Bishkek
Offi­cial lan­guage Kyrgyz (offi­cial), Rus­si­an
Reli­gions Islam (80%), Rus­si­an (17%), oth­er (3%)
Life expect­ancy 67.2 (men), 75.1 (women)
GDP $7.061 bil­lion (2017)
HDI 0.655 (120th)
Gini 27.4
Pres­id­ent Sooron­bay Jeen­bekov (incom­ing)


Almost entirely covered by the Tian Shan range, around 90% of Kyrgyz ter­rit­ory rests over 1500m above sea level. Nestled beneath smog-shrouded sum­mits of the Ala Too moun­tains, Bishkek acts as the cul­tur­al and polit­ic­al hub of Cent­ral Asia’s most open demo­cracy. With a rich nomad­ic cul­ture tangled with a Soviet his­tory, Kyrgyz­stan is in a peri­od of cul­tur­al trans­ition as it forms a new iden­tity going into the twenty-first cen­tury.

A track leads to Issyk-Kul, a Kyrgyz land­mark and endorheic lake, which sits beneath the Tian Shan moun­tain range.


Each soci­ety needs its found­a­tion myth — where issues of what should have happened are pri­ot­ised over what prob­ably happened. This is no dif­fer­ent in Kyrgyz­stan: the forty rays stem­ming from the sun on the Kyrgyz flag rep­res­ent the forty tribes united under the epic hero Man­as, who (at some point between 1000AD and 1800AD), conquered the Uighur to the east and the Afghans to the south to define the land of the Kyrgyz

The 500,000 line Epic of Man­as, which out­lines this tale, has been updated and changed at vari­ous points (espe­cially dur­ing the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury), has been used as a tool to shape and mold Krygyz nation­al iden­tity through col­lect­ive memory.

In 1876, the land that is now Kyrgyz­stan was integ­rated into the Rus­si­an empire. Come 1917, this war­ran­ted a dir­ect trans­ition into the USSR — although giv­en the remote nature of Kyrgyz­stan, Soviet con­trol didn’t reach Bishkek until 1919. Dur­ing this peri­od — agri­cul­ture was col­lect­iv­ised, edu­ca­tion was stand­ard­ised, and the ethno-cul­tur­al dynam­ics of Kyrgyz­stan fun­da­ment­ally changed; in 1989, only 22% of Bishkek was eht­nic­ally Kyrgyz.

Bishkek’s pala­tial state-run bus ter­min­al lies mostly unused now that enter­pris­ing minicab oper­at­ors have out-priced inter­city buses.

Fol­low­ing the implo­sion of the Soviet Uni­on, the former USSR region­al powers retained con­trol of gov­ernance — yet in 2005, the ’Tulip Revolu­tion’ saw the over­throw of the uncon­tested pres­id­ency, and the instilla­tion of a more com­pet­it­ive demo­cracy. Riots — fuelled by cor­rup­tion alleg­a­tions — led anoth­er pres­id­ent, Kur­man­bek Baki­yev, to flee the office. In 2017, Krygyz­stan saw Cent­ral Asia’s first suc­cess­ful com­pet­it­ive demo­crat­ic han­dover of power.


Focal to Kyrgyz cul­ture is its nomad­ic his­tory. Tra­di­tion­al sports — typ­ic­ally equine based — are still pop­u­lar, with nation­al hol­i­days often entail­ing vari­ous horse­back sports, such as Tyin Emmei, where riders attempt to pick up a coin from the ground at full gal­lop. Fal­conry, both for sport and as a part of life — remain cent­ral to Kyrgyz cul­ture. Moreover, the yurt (an intric­ate nomad­ic tent), remains so integ­ral to Kyrgyz iden­tity that a bird’s eye view of a yurt is fea­tured on the centre of the post-inde­pend­ence flag; indeed, the Kygyz nomad­ic games team holds the world record for yurt assembly, in just over two hours (knock­ing almost 24 hours from the pre­vi­ous record).

A hunter takes a mid­day break in the high­lands above Issyk-Kul with his horse, hound and eagle.

Nowruz, the Per­sian new year, is cel­eb­rated each year between 21 and 23 March, with a series of music­al and culin­ary fest­iv­it­ies. Typ­ic­al cent­ral Asi­an dishes, such as plov and sam­sas, are pop­u­lar through­out Kyrgyz­stan — with the south­ern city of Osh act­ing as an offi­cial culin­ary cap­it­al. Moreover, cer­tain Kyrgyz-spe­cif­ic meals, such as Naryn (some­thing to the effect of horse­meat with noodles) bear a not­able pres­ence. Of the Kyrgyz nation­al beers, Arpa, is sur­pris­ingly pop­u­lar amongst beer con­nois­seurs — not­ably for its hoppy pale ale char­ac­ter­ist­ics (rather than being a simple lar­ger). Cognac is also very pop­u­lar in Kyrgyz­stan, yet giv­en the expens­ive price of imports, Nash Cognac (‘our cognac’) is dis­tilled in Kyrgyz­stan. Nat­ur­ally, vodka retains a strong pres­ence as one of many Soviet hangovers.

Some corners of Kyrgyz cul­ture remain some­what con­tro­ver­sial. Although not strictly ‘tra­di­tion­al’, bridal kid­nap­ping remains pre­val­ent through­out rur­al Kyrgyz­stan, yet giv­en its illeg­al­ity and grow­ing unpop­ular­ity, attempts have been made to erad­ic­ate the prac­tice.


In 2017, Kyrgyz­stan became the first Cent­ral Asi­an coun­try to have a suc­cess­ful com­pet­it­ive elec­tion, with the rul­ing Social Demo­crat­ic Party can­did­ate won just over half of the pop­u­lar vote in the first round of elec­tions, mean­ing that there will be a peace­ful han­dover of power in Janu­ary of next year, a not­able step for a coun­try that has had two pop­u­lar revolu­tions since inde­pend­ence in 1991. Kyrgyz­stan form­ally oper­ates as demo­crat­ic uni­cam­er­al gov­ern­ment, how­ever, per­vas­ive Rus­si­an influ­ence, restric­tions to free speech (such as anti-gay rights advocacy laws) and cer­tain weak­nesses in the rule of law — cause Kyrgyz­stan to be con­sidered only a ‘partly free’ coun­try by Free­dom House, with an index score of 37 (com­pared to three in Uzbek­istan, or 78 in Seneg­al).

Con­flicts between Uzbek and Kyrgyz eth­nic groups have often flared into viol­ence over recent years — occa­sion­ally rising to a level that threatens civil war. How­ever, these issues have been broadly quelled over recent years.

Kyrgyz­stan remains the most open of cent­ral Asi­an coun­tries, with com­par­at­ively expans­ive journ­al­ist­ic freedoms, and visa-free travel to and from many oth­er coun­tries. How­ever, the state tax col­lec­tion base remains slim, thus squeez­ing pub­lic expendit­ure pos­sib­il­it­ies and leav­ing open a large inform­al eco­nomy.


Kyrgyz­stan remains the second-poorest Cent­ral Asi­an nation, and des­pite com­par­at­ively high levels of equal­ity, per-cap­ita income remains low. This is largely a con­sequence of hav­ing lost the Soviet Uni­on as a large export mar­ket. Moreover, it seems that most Kyrgyz people have not benefited from the trans­ition to a mar­ket eco­nomy, indeed, many have found their stand­ard of liv­ing to have fallen as pub­lic ser­vice qual­ity has declined. Non­ethe­less, prof­it­able Kyrgyz export indus­tries, such as a min­ing and pro­spect­ing, have allowed for the inflow of for­eign cur­rency, if not for­eign invest­ment. It remains to be seen wheth­er this cap­it­al inflow will gen­er­ate many jobs.

Rice fields near the vil­lage of Choy­un­chu, Leilek Dis­trict, Kyrgyz­stan. Agri­cul­ture remains a back­bone of the Kyrgyz eco­nomy.

Fact File: Kazakhstan

Name Қазақстан Республикасы
Pop­u­la­tion 17,987,736 (2016 estim­ate)
Cap­it­al city Astana (moved from Almaty in 1997)
Offi­cial lan­guage Kaza­kh (offi­cial), Rus­si­an
Reli­gions Islam (70%), Chris­tian­ity (26%), oth­er
Life expect­ancy 62 (men), 73 (women)
GDP 133.7 bil­lion USD ‎(2016) (42nd)
HDI 0.788 (56th)
Gini 26.4
Pres­id­ent Nur­sultan Naz­ar­bayev


As the largest, richest and most well-known of the Cent­ral Asi­an nations, Kaza­kh­stan is often referred to as ‘land of the wan­der­ers’.

From the icy-cli­mate of Kazakhstan’s indus­tri­al­ised north to the oil-rich low­lands of the country’s west­ern fron­ti­er, the country’s geo­graph­ic diversity has been a bless­ing and a curse. The country’s enorm­ous min­er­al wealth, des­pite the chal­lenges presen­ted by its vast­ness, have helped to off-set some of the pains of a post-Soviet integ­ra­tion into the glob­al eco­nomy. Great­er ties to the US and China have fol­lowed invest­ment in the oil-eco­nomy.

The Mauso­leum of Khoja Ahmed Yas­awi in Hazrat-e Turkest­an, one of only three UNESCO World Her­it­age sites in Cent­ral Asia.

The nation­al flag of Kaza­kh­stan, chosen in 1992 after the col­lapse of the Soviet Uni­on, was designed by Kaza­kh artist Shaken Niyazbekov. It depicts a golden sun shin­ing above a golden steppe eagle in full flight. The steppe eagle is an import­ant cul­tur­al sym­bol for the Kaza­kh people. It is a migrat­ory spe­cies, but breeds on the cent­ral Kaza­kh plains. As for many nations, it rep­res­ents free­dom, strength and dig­nity. Both sym­bols are placed on a sky-blue back­ground, a col­our cent­ral to Ancient Turkic reli­gious belief. On the hoist-side, a ‘koshkar-muiz’ (the horns of the ram), a tra­di­tion­al orna­ment­al pat­ter, is presen­ted.

A short history

  • Between the first and eight cen­tur­ies both Turkic-speak­ing peoples and Mon­gol tribes settle in mod­ern-day Kaza­kh­stan.
  • By the late fif­teenth cen­tury the Kaza­khs emerge as an iden­ti­fi­able eth­nic group.
  • Dur­ing the eight­eenth cen­tury the Khans of the Three Zhuzes become a de facto Rus­si­an pro­tect­or­ate.
  • In 1917 fol­low­ing the Octo­ber Revolu­tion in Rus­sia, civil war breaks out in Kaza­kh­stan.
  • By 1920, Kaza­kh­stan becomes a self-gov­ern­ing repub­lic of the USSR.
  • Between 1954 – 62 around two mil­lion people, mainly eth­nic­ally Rus­si­an, settle in Kaza­kh­stan as part of Soviet-lead­er Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Vir­gin Lands’ pro­ject.
  • In 1986, thou­sands protest the appoint­ment of an eth­nic Rus­si­an as head of the Com­mun­ist Party of Kaza­kh­stan by Mikhail Gorbachev.
  • In Decem­ber 1991, Kaza­kh­stan declares inde­pend­ence from the USSR fol­low­ing the land­slide pres­id­en­tial elec­tion of Nur­sultan Naz­ar­bayev, who has remained in power since.
  • May 2004 sees a deal signed with China over the con­struc­tion of an oil pipeline from Kaza­kh­stan to China.


With just under 18 mil­lion people, com­prised of 131 eth­nic groups, spread out over a mil­lion square miles (mak­ing Kaza­kh­stan the largest land­locked coun­try) — Kaza­kh­stan under­stand­ably has a remark­ably diverse cul­tur­al com­pos­i­tion. Des­pite a brief inter­lude of state athe­ism under the Soviet Uni­on — Islam has remained the dom­in­ant reli­gion in Kaza­kh­stan since the eight cen­tury AD. Islam, how­ever, is one of many ten­ets that com­prise a Kaza­kh cul­tur­al his­tory rooted both in its pos­i­tion as a glob­al cross­roads, and the dis­tinctly nomad­ic and pas­tor­al qual­ity of his­tor­ic Kaza­kh life. As such, while glob­al­ised sports, such as foot­ball, are pop­u­lar (the Kaza­kh foot­ball team came twenty-second at the 2016 Rio Olympics, nar­rowly beaten by Uzbek­istan), tra­di­tion­al nomad­ic sports — typ­ic­ally equine based — remain alive in Kaza­kh soci­ety. One such game, Kyz kuu, (chase the girl) is an elab­or­ate game of kiss chase on horse­back.

Riders play the tra­di­tion­al Kaza­kh game of ‘Catch the Girl’ in a demon­stra­tion of their eques­tri­an her­it­age at the open­ing cere­mon­ies of Cent­ral Asi­an Peace­keep­ing Bat­talion, 2000.

Kaza­kh cuisine often reflects nomad­ic tra­di­tions centered around the rear­ing of live­stock; with meat and dairy act­ing as the lynch­pin of typ­ic­al dishes. Vari­ations on pilaf (plov) are pop­u­lar in Kaza­kh meals, and are usu­ally accom­pan­ied by soups and vari­ous appet­isers. Fer­men­ted mare’s milk is a pop­u­lar alco­hol­ic bever­age — the Cent­ral Asi­an For­um makes no judge­ment as to its taste


Kaza­kh­stan oper­ates as a bicam­er­al unit­ary repub­lic — with the pres­id­ent Nur­sultan Naz­ar­bayev as the head of state. The pres­id­ent is required to renew their man­date through nation­al elec­tions every five years. Wheth­er by charm, luck, skill or oth­er­wise, Naz­ar­bayev — the former Soviet première of Kaza­kh­stan — has won each elec­tion since inde­pend­ence with over 90% of the vote. Nazarbayev’s Otan party cur­rently hold a major­ity of seats in both houses.

For nearly two dec­ades of his twenty-six year ten­ure, Nur­sultan Nazarbayev’s (centre) Rus­si­an coun­ter­part has been Vladi­mir Putin.


As the eco­nom­ic power­house of the Cent­ral Asi­an region, Kaza­kh­stan car­ries sig­ni­fic­antly more eco­nom­ic clout in the inter­na­tion­al scene than her neigh­bour stans. Eco­nom­ic growth has been driv­en primar­ily by exports of min­er­als and fossil fuels. How­ever, efforts have been made post-inde­pend­ence to break Kazakhstan’s reli­ance on extern­al demand for raw mater­i­als by diver­si­fy­ing their eco­nom­ic activ­ity. One such effort has been the Nurly Zhol ‘path to the future’ policy, which has sought vastly increased infra­struc­ture spend­ing so as to foster eco­nom­ic rigidty in the face of chan­ging glob­al cir­cum­stances. Kaza­kh­stan 2050 is an eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment pro­ject announced in the 2012 annu­al pres­id­en­tial address — it is a mul­ti­fa­ceted pro­gramme which seeks to estab­lish Kaza­kh­stan amongst the world’s ’top-30’ eco­nom­ies by 2050, it fol­lows on from a sim­il­ar Kaza­kh­stan 2030 scheme.

Min­ing and steel pro­duc­tion remain import­ant in Kaza­kh­stan, and are dom­in­ated by ArcelorMit­tal — a com­pany with strong Brit­ish ties.