Hair-Clips and Hierarchy

What ‘Mambetka’ means for Kazakhstan in the Age of Inequality

Walking home through the streets of Almaty as a young girl, I remember seeing a girl with the most beautiful hairdo pass by. As was the style in the early 2000s, her head was covered in dozens of butterfly clips. It also followed an intricate circular pattern, and every clip on her head was a colour of the rainbow. My young and impressionable mind was so fascinated by what appeared to me as bold and elegant fashion statement that I instantly started to plan a craft project of my own.

The minute my mom unlocked the door I ran off into my bedroom and started constructing my masterpiece. I wanted it to be even better than the hairstyle I saw on the street, so I decided to grab all the elastic bands, hairclips, headbands, scrunches and butterfly clips that I could find – and arrange them intricately in my hair. To complement the look I put on my puffiest, pinkest and snarkiest ball gown and a feather boa. With a proud posture and my head held high, I descended into the kitchen to showcase my magical creation to my parents.

Nowadays, calling a person from a village Mambetka is one of the many ways that urbanites reaffirm superiority over rural Kazakhs.

“Sweetie, you look like a mambetkamy mom chuckled the minute I appeared in the doorframe.

I slowly realised that my mom didn’t really dig with my avant-garde fashion choices, yet mambetka part of the feedback confused me, I wasn’t really sure what it meant. Although gentle, her mockery brought tears into my eyes as I tried to defend my beloved creation.

After all, what should I feel guilty about? The vision of an angel-like figure on the street with butterfly clips in her hair passed through my mind once again… My posture slowly regained its confidence.

Calmly, as though I knew a secret about life my mom was yet to discover, I deftly tilted my head and said, “Mama, mambetka bolayinshi” — “Mom, let me be a mambetka”.

Years later I uncovered the reason this story from my early childhood became a go-to anecdote in the family gatherings. You see, mambetka, or a mambet for males, was (and still is) a slur that so many of the sophisticated city gals and guys call people from the village. The term became popular during the Soviet rule and was enforced by the government as a way to segregate Kazakhs to educated and uneducated groups.

Nowadays, calling a person from a village Mambetka is one of the many ways that urbanites reaffirm superiority over rural Kazakhs claiming that so many of the so-called mambets don’t have the “city smarts”.

No one in their sane mind would choose a status of mambet by their own free will

But some villagers come to the city and discover an immense variety of products modern capitalism provides, it becomes an overwhelming experience; speaking Kazakh on the daily makes it their actual mother tongue, unlike the urban majority, for whom Russian is their lingua franca.

Growing up in the Kazakh steps, caring for the cattle, riding horses and cherishing tradition – they seem out of place in the stone-cold concrete jungles of the city. Hence, mambet in Kazakh society is synonymous with “bad taste”, “bad language”, and “bad manners”.

No wonder that the playful acceptance of the mambet status coming from the Almaty’s finest seemed to be so…. funny. No one in their sane mind would choose a status of mambet by their own free will because it almost guarantees job discrimination and a constant state of negligence in the hierarchal system of Kazakhstan. Yet, we – the alleged intelligentsia – uniformly ignore that none of the mambets chose their status of economic and social disadvantage; rather, they were born into it.

And yes, poverty and inequality are different, but they are much like the “Buy One – Get One Free” deal – they often go hand in hand. According to the United Nations “inequalities in income distribution and access to productive resources, basic social services, opportunities, markets, and information have been on the rise worldwide, often causing and exacerbating poverty.”

So what if my curious five-year-old mind unknowingly discovered a secret? Imagine living in a world, where instead of dividing ourselves and reaffirming superiority over mambets, we would actively choose to work together.

This pattern can be observed directly; from unequal distributions of school funding across regions – to higher poverty rates in rural regions when compared to urban ones. In fact, this poverty gap is so prevalent that according to an IMF report, the share of people with an income below the subsistence minimum in 2014 varied from 1.7% in Astana, the country’s capital, to over 10% in south Kazakhstan, a predominantly agricultural region.

As I dive deeper into my research I uncover that this hostile behaviour towards rural populations is not unique to Kazakhstan. On its Eastern border lays a country, wherein Hukou, a household registration system, lawfully restricts access to each city’s educational and healthcare system if an individual happens to have been born in a rural area.

For China’s economy these migrants are essential as they account for half of urban workforce and create half of country’s GDP; yet, they are the most marginalised and vulnerable group of the population. Meanwhile, India has adopted the most recent addition to its post-colonial caste system based on linguistic discrimination; universities, government jobs and corporate sector all require fluency in English, yet only the ruling elite and middle class can afford to send their children to private English schools.

‘Divide and conquer’ they say  — and it seems as if the elites of the world are employing this technique to create artificial privileges. The go-to mambetka bolayinshi anecdote seems innocuous at first, yet its meaning in a broader context of marginalization has far-reaching implications. So what if my curious five-year-old mind unknowingly discovered a secret? Imagine living in a world, where instead of dividing ourselves and reaffirming superiority over mambets, we would actively choose to work together to ensure that no one has to suffer from the economic disadvantages that lie behind “bad manners” or garish hair-clips.

Fact File: Turkmenistan

Name Түркменистан
Population 5,662,544
Capital city Ashgabat
Official language Turkmen (official), Russian
Religions Islam (89%), Eastern Orthodox (9%), other
Life expectancy 65.74 years
Population growth 1.7%
GDP $36.18 billion (2016)
HDI 0.692 (2015) (111th)
Gini 0.41
President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow

The ‘Doors to Hell’ – a collapsed Soviet oil rig – has been burning for over 40 years, far longer than the anticipated few weeks.

History

Bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian sea, present-day Turkmenistan has been at a crossroads of world civilizations for a millennium. The city of Merv was one of the great Islamic cities, and until the fifteenth century was an important stop on the Silk Road, a trading route that connected Europe, Asia, and Africa. This region of cultural milieu was further emphasised by a history of different rulers, including Alexander the Great’s Persians, Islamic rulers, Turks, Mongols, and finally Russians in the eighteenth century. Despite figuring prominently among regions opposed to Bolshevism, Turkmenistan became a Soviet republic in 1924 and only gained independence at the break-up of the USSR in 1991. A recent history of Russian rule has meant that like other central Asian states, Russian language has remained the Lingua Franca post-independence.

Culture

Although there have been attempts to homogenise Turkmen identity since the 1930s, culture still has distinct unique clan-based characteristics, each with their own dialect and style of dress. As a nation, Turkmenistan’s most famed cultural export is its Turkmen rugs (often known as Bukhara rugs in the rest of the world). Throughout Turkmen material culture, clan differences can be observed in the styles and colours employed, most obviously in clothing, jewelry, and domestic decorations. Another distinctive manifestation of Turkmen culture are the large black sheepskin ‘Telpek’ hats often worn by men, somewhat resembling an afro hairstyle. Although the national cuisine of Turkmenistan possesses strong continuity with the rest of Central Asia, one unique element is the elevated position of melons; once the major supplier to the Soviet Union, melons are a subject of national pride, and are commemorated during the Melon Day holiday.

A woman displays a series of intricate carpets at a market in Balkanabatt. Carpet weaving forms such an important part of Turkmen culture, that carpet design is even featured on the national flag.

Politics

Despite elections taking place in 2012 and 2017, it is widely agreed that Turkmenistan is an autocratic single party presidential republic, demonstrated by current president Berdimuhamedow’s ability to win over 97% of the vote. A constitutional amendment in 2016 allows lifetime presidency. Human Rights Watch have designated Turkmenistan as ‘among the world’s most repressive and closed countries’, where the ‘president and his associates have total control over all aspects of public life’. This includes access to information, where the state controls all print and electronic media, and where journalists who attempt to publish material contrary to government sentiment are at risk of imprisonment and/or violence. Political dissidents are commonly incarcerated or forced into exile, and even in exile, there is risk of government reprisals for continued open government dissent. A supreme legislative body known as the Halk Maslahaty, comprised of up to 2,500 delegates (some of whom are elected by popular vote) is entirely made up of members of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, and is chaired by the president for a life term.

A giant golden statue to Turkmenistan’s first president – Saparmurat Niyazov – stands overlooking Ashgabat.

Economy

Extensive natural gas reserves, the fourth largest in the world, mean that since 1993 citizens have received electricity and natural gas free of charge by the government. These vast reserves also dictate the country’s international relations. A pipeline connecting China and Turkmenistan has ensured China is the nation’s most important economic partner, however plans for a trans-Caspian pipeline that would carry gas to Europe and a pipeline heading towards South Asia are demonstrating a desire to expand exports beyond Iran, Russia, and China. Despite these ambitions, and a positive balance of trade, Turkmenistan is still considered a particularly isolationist state. However, Turkmenistan remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and has become one of the top ten global producers of cotton in an attempt to diversify. Centralised state ownership of the economy pervades most large industries including finance and natural resources, however since Turkmenistan’s independence there has been a movement towards privatisation in trade, catering, and consumer services, and private sector ownership forms the majority in agriculture, trade, and transport.

Fact File: Uzbekistan

Name Oʻzbekiston Respublikasi
Population 32,979,000 (2017 estimate)
Capital city Tashkent
Official language Uzbek (official), Russian, Tajik
Religions Islam (88%), Eastern Orthodox (9%), other
Life expectancy 68.45 years
Population growth  1.7%
GDP  $67.22 billion (2016)
HDI  0.701 (105th)
Gini  0.45
President  Shavkat Mirziyoyev

History

Bordering the other four Central Asian “Stans”, Uzbekistan has a rich and colourful history of movement, conquest, and resistance. After Alexander The Great conquered the region in fourth century BC, Uzbekistan witnessed several distinct phases of external influence. Turkic nomads arrived in the sixth century AD and by the eight century Islam was introduced by the Arabs. Perhaps most famously the Mongol Empire, under Genghis Khan, consumed the region in the thirteenth century. With the steppes united, trade, communication and even diseases spread massively in the following centuries. Uzbekistan’s major cities, such as Bukhara, reaped the benefit of reinvigorated East-West trade links.

The Mongols and the Silk Road put the country firmly on the map, but it wasn’t until the early sixteenth century was invaded by the Uzbek. Under the leadership of Abdullah, the empire took in parts of Afghanistan and Persia, but soon broke down. That lack of unity left the Uzbekistani principalities at the mercy of the expanding Russian Empire in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the Uzbek fractured between Soviet supporters and the Basmachi, with the latter eventually succumbing to Stalinist policies. Collectivisation, industrialisation, and indigenisation were all pursued by the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic during the twentieth century. Soviet industry shifted from vulnerable positions in Western Russia to Uzbekistan during WWII, whilst in the post-war years a drastic drive toward mass production of cotton led to several major ecological disasters. With the collapse of Communism in 1989, Uzbekistan eventually secured its independence in 1991, after several centuries of Russian rule.

Artwork on the rooftop of the Tilla Kari madrasa in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo by Patrick Riggenberg.

Economy

Uzbekistan is currently witnessing a momentous period economic growth. According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan’s economy is set to grow faster than any Central Asian or Eastern European nation between now and 2019. State investment in gas, gold and cotton production has created a booming export economy. The future fortunes of exports are largely tied to the performance the Chinese and Russian economies, and their general downturn has concerned Uzbekistani policy makers. Yet even with that considered, a strong small business sector has lifted large sections of the population out of poverty and into employment, a sign that the country’s economy is shifting toward a greater reliance on internal rather than external markets.

Food

The meal is a central pillar of Uzbek culture. Tandoor baked bread (tandir) holds a sacred place at the meal, and can only be torn by hand and never thrown out. Palov (plov or pilaf) is perhaps the most famous dish in the region—and across Central Asia. Often considered to be the oldest dish in Uzbek cuisine and it is believed Alexander the Great was served palov after capturing Marakanda. Cooked in a large pot, palov is a rice based dish cooked with lamb, raisins, and entire bulbs of garlic, seasoned with turmeric, coriander, and cumin.

Pilaf (plov) is a popular dish throughout Uzbekistan and the Central Asia region. Photo Jarda Pulao.

Music

Music is omnipresent in Uzbek society. Whispers of the ancients can be heard in traditional recitals at funerals and commemorative ceremonies, distinct from European music in its monophonic texture. Uzbekistan boasts some incredibly influential musicians in the region. Ari Babakhanov is amongst the most famous. Known for his immense contribution to traditional Bukhara music, he also transcribed and noted down extensive amounts of Persian poetry and popular Uzbek and Tajik works. Today, Uzbekistan has a diverse music scene, with rock and rap the most popular forms.

Customs

Close friends or family of the same sex greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. At a meal, guests are expected to take a turn as toastmaster, praising the host for welcoming them into their home. Family and community is of immense value in Uzbekistan. Communities are governed by the mahallya, a self-governing unit of neighbours and families supporting one another. Most girls marry before the age of 21, and weddings involve the entire community; hundreds of guests are typically invited.

A ‘sweet plov’ salesaman at a Nowruz festival between 1865-1872

Politics

2016 witnessed the election of a new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan. Prior to Mirziyoyev’s election, the nation had been ruled by Islam Karimov, a deeply controversial who was consistently criticised by the international community for extensive human rights abuses in the country. For example, the United Nations has found torture to be institutionalised in the country. Press censorship remains a major issue and many western news outlets are not allowed to function in the country. However, whilst human rights abuses remain a key issue, the government has taken steps to eradicate human trafficking and cultivation of opium for export purposes.

Fact File: Tajikistan

Name Republic of Tajikistan
Population 8,734,951
Capital city Dushanbe
Official language Tajik, but Russian is widely used in the governmental and business sphere
Religions Sunni Muslim (85%), Shia Muslim (5%), other (10%)
Life expectancy 69.7 Years
Population growth 1.62%
GDP $6.9 billion
HDI 0.627 (129th)
GINI 30.8 (133rd)
President Emomali Rahmon

Geography

Situated in the heart of Central Asia, the Republic of Tajikistan is bordered by Uzbekistan from the west, Kyrgyzstan from the north, China from the east, and Afghanistan from the west, which provides a politically significant location to the country. Its complex landscape is paired with a sharply continental climate, including areas with desert and subtropical climate. Ninety-five per cent of the surface is covered with mountains, the two most significant being the Pamir and the Alay Mountains, which are the sources glacier fed rivers, upon which the country’s hydropower economy is built. Tajikistan is rich in other natural resources as well, such as uranium, which allows for an influential political standpoint, a variety of precious metals, namely gold and silver. Its environmental features considerably influence the challenges Tajikistan faces, particularly frequent flooding and landslides coming from the melting glaciers due to climate change.

The Pamir Mountains, viewed from the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan.

History

Tajikistan has always been at the crossroad of magnificent cultures. The Tajiks emerged as a distinct ethnic group in the eight century. At the same time, Arab invaders conquered Central Asia, introducing Islam to the region, which still has a prominent influence today. Eastern, especially Chinese cultural effects influenced the region through the trade on the Silk Road, which had three main routes crossing the current territory of Tajikistan. During the course of centuries a wide variety of cultural forces influenced the area as a result of its annexation to the Persian, the Mongol, and the Timurid Empire, before falling under Russian rule in the 1860s, and becoming part of the Soviet Union in 1921.

After more than a hundred years of Russian domination, pro-democratic protests emerged in Dushanbe, and with the fall of the USSR, Tajikistan declared independence on the 9 September in 1991. As a result of the protests, the first direct presidential elections were held. However, a year later, anti-government protests swept through the streets of Dushanbe escalating into a civil war which took 20,000 lives, and demolished the industrial and agricultural sectors of the economy. Subsequently, Emomali Rahmon became the new head of state, and is still serving as president to the present day.

Culture

The government actively promotes defining and defending the traditional Tajik culture. Russian-style surnames are outlawed, and even though 85% of the population is Sunni and 5% is Shia Muslim, Arabic-style beards and hijabs are banned, as they don’t reflect religiosity, and people should ‘love God with their hearts’. Women are encouraged to dress in traditional, bright coloured cotton dresses and long skirts, while men wear caps lined with black lamb skin.

An early colour photograph by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky shows Tajik boys and men, probably around 1910.

The Tajik culture, with its legendary hospitality, is very family centric. Weddings were historically celebrated over the course of seven days, however this is now restricted by the government as a result of the huge expenses such festivities incur. Today, the most widely celebrated festivals are religious ones, such as the Muslim New Year, or Qurban Eid, for which entire villages get together and prepare traditional dishes, such as the ‘kabuli pulao’, which is a rice based dish with shredded yellow turnip or carrot, meat, and olive oil. The Tajik culture has different music for different occasions, but traditionally, there is a solo instrument, such as the ‘daf’, for percussions, that can be traced back to the fourteenth century, accompanied by singing. The classical national dance, which is emotions driven and energetic, is also an essential feature of celebrations.

The Tajik literature is a prominent component of the culture too. Whilst during Russian rule, literature had to comply with the official views; producing pieces about the civil war, industrialisation and collectivisation; the most well-known epic poetry originates back to long before the USSR, to the tenth century. Shahname, translated as the Book of Kings. It is the world’s longest poem created by a single poet, Firdowsī. His piece has been the inspiration for many Tajik movies made in the country’s own film studio, which was established, along with numerous theatres and museums, by the art-favouring Soviet Union. Tajik people are fond of sports as well, the most popular being football, with the national team competing in FIFA. Given the geographical conditions, hiking, climbing and skiing are favoured as well.

Politics

The state of Tajikistan is a presidential republic with a dominant party system. The head of state is Emomali Rahmon sice 1992, who has recently declared himself a Leader of the Nation. Originally, presidents are elected for a maximum of two terms, each which lasts seven years, however, Rahmon has held a referendum which allowed him to serve four consecutive terms. Elections are internationally criticised as neither fair, nor free, especially since banning the main opposition party. The president captures every opportunity to consolidate his power, which is also expressed by building a tea house worth 1% of GDP, a new city in the desert, and setting up the tallest flag pole. Moreover, independent press is restricted, along with web content.

Due to the unstable domestic politics, education and public healthcare are not sufficiently supported. Access to education is limited by individual resources, and healthcare is only present in the urban areas, pushing most people into primitive living conditions. With regards to international politics, Tajikistan is geopolitically significant. The state has co-operated both with Russia, with respect to counter-extremist and drug-trafficking measures; and the United States, in providing non-military assistance for their operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, their trade in resources with China has perked both political and economic interest in Tajikistan. Islamic extremism — especially as a result of spillover from the Afghan war, has become an increasing security threat in Tajikistan. Counter-measures, such as curtailments of cultural expression, have often been repressive, and potentially counter-productive.

Economy

Tajikistan is the poorest country in the Central Asian region. However, it has secured an exemplary track-record in alleviating poverty, having halved rates of indigence since independece. Almost half of its GDP is made up of remittances sent home from over a million Tajiks working is Russia and Kazakhstan, making Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Hence, the economic uncertainty of Russia poses a great threat to the Tajik economy, leading to socio-political instability, if the migrant workers have to return home.

The main economic sectors are agriculture and industry. Two-fifth of the population works in agriculture, which is mainly focused on cotton production, raising livestock, and cultivating fruits, vegetables, grains, and rice. In spite of the significant role of agriculture, food insecurity is a fierce challenge for the country, relying highly on food import. With regards to industry, light industry is centered around agricultural production; hence, textile and food-processing sectors are critical to the internal economy. Heavy industry predominantly concerns coal mining and oil extraction. The energy sector is the principal investment sector in the Tajik economy, and it has garnered increasing international attention over recent years, especially from China. Chinese investments have promoted economic development and trade in the region, largely in order to promote and maintain socioeconomic stability. One recent projects to this end is the One Road, One Belt project, which aims to reconstruct the Silk Road, and build up a trading link running from China to Europe, through Central Asia.

Torn between two worlds — how Social Media is impacting Kazakhstan’s development

The harsh din of my alarm bursts rudely into my dreams and drags me slowly back into the real world.

Yes, 15 minutes before my actual wake up time, I look to my smartphone to ground me from my hazy state, and I slowly come-to by catching up with all the global and personal updates that happened overnight. As I scroll down endless messages, Instagram updates and Facebook notifications I realize that this sentence is supposed to be relatable to all of us, who have a privilege of living in the information technology age.

Panoramic view of Almaty from the hills of the Kok Tobe.

This transformation is truly global; it impacts everything from the disruption of traditional industries and creation of new ones to the questionable imprint of globalization and changing patterns of personal interactions. In Kazakhstan, these changes not only shape the nature of economy but also have a significant influence on one’s identity and self-image.

Over the past decade, Kazakhstan has witnessed a staggering increase in Internet users from merely 3% in 2005 to more than 55% in 2016. And whilst my grandma is quite an active Facebook user, a majority of Internet users in Kazakhstan are urban millennials located in two major cities — Almaty and Astana.

In fact, the split between rural and urban areas is so prominent that while more than 70% of the urban population has access to the Internet, only 45% of the rural population gets covered by national providers. This issue only highlights the ever-pressing problem of an urban-rural split in Central Asian region.

Having been born and raised in Almaty, the biggest Kazakhstani metropolis, I always had a privilege of being surrounded by clean streets, trendy restaurants and shiny malls. It was only later in life that I have discovered the beautifully constructed image of my hometown not to be a full reflection of the nation.

For most rural Kazakh citizens; having access to clean hot water, heating during winter, education and healthcare is a daily struggle to overcome. Poorly implemented agricultural policies combined with the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union have resulted in poverty and ill health of its rural population. Similarly, limited access to worldwide knowledge in rural regions fosters a pre-existing income inequality and hinders social mobility for the young.

On the other hand, while the Kazakh healthcare system is collapsing with underpaid and overworked doctors and nurses; the inherent kindness in Kazakh culture, combined with the age of social media, has created a unique type of non-profit organisation. In essence, these NGOs consist of online-operated charities such as Dara and Kus Zholy, which are providing people with second-hand clothing and food — and have created crowd-funding pages to help sick children get access to world-class healthcare, along with supporting children with special needs. All this is being made possible because of generous donations from community-minded private citizens, who often live on the brink of poverty themselves. This unique generosity is deeply intertwined within Kazakh traditions, but is also influenced by Kazakh ego and self-image.

Uyat boladi” is a phrase that I, as a Kazakh woman, grew up hearing on daily basis. This almost always meant the end of a discussion. For a foreign ear this phrase, which is being repeated in each and every single household several times per day, sounds harmless and almost poetic. Yet, its translation — will be shamed — combined with an already self-conscious nature of social media, serves to create harmful effects.

Bigger exposure to Kylie Jenner types on Instagram has fuelled a new wave of insecurities faced by Kazakh women. Now expected not only to be an example of a modest and saint-like bride to all the neighbours, the Kazakh woman is now forced to become two-dimensional: her worth is also determined by the number of likes and comments she gets on an Instagram post. Being constantly pressured to be the perfect Stepford wife with a perfect body and perfect manners; young women enter a vicious self-depreciating cycle fuelled by a stream of negative comments. All the while, they are forever torn by the tug of two polar opposites: the hypersexualised female body, so normalised in the media; and the “Uyat boladi” conservative and patriarchal mindset.

Seeing glorified Western lifestyle on their feed, young people strive for everything Western — from Caucasoid facial features right through to the way they dress and speak. Majority Muslim, Kazakh society is now undergoing a transformation. This comes as no surprise to me; adverts, clinics, and cases of operative adjustments — such as double eyelid plastic surgeries — are becoming omnipresent, not just in Kazakhstan, but throughout the East Asian region as well.

Although harmful to the self-esteem of the young, social media has undoubtedly boosted Kazakh economy. According to CNP Processing, an international business research firm, the e-commerce sector of the economy has generated more than $5million in 2010 on advertising; while overall the sector has generated $300 million in sales in 2012, and the figure has been on the rise ever since. Online businesses such as Lamoda and Chocolife were very quick to spot the untapped potential that a sparsely populated and tech-savvy nation promised. Meanwhile, a niche of independent online retailers mostly operated through Instagram caught onto the wave, and in doing so generated jobs and fostered the country’s economy.

As e-commerce markets grew and online news consumption became conventional, another transformation emerged — Kazakhstan developed a profitable blogger sphere. Facebook’s live streaming allowed independent voices to be heard, while YouTube provided a legitimate and user-friendly platform. One of the most prominent examples of these independent voices is Yerzhan Rashev — a creator and host of the Rashev Show and an occasional live streamer, who not only freely expresses his opinions about the nation’s development but also is explicit about corruption within the branches of government. He champions for transparency, a good moral code, and self-improvement; all delivered in an articulate manner that encourages discussion and further debate (usually in the comment section). Younger comedians — teams Yuframe and Jokeasses, highlight important social issues in a more light-hearted manner, but yet again encourage their audience to be better than the generation of post-Soviet turmoil with its prejudices and “Uyat boladi” mindset.

Social Media is already making its impact on Kazakhstani self-image as young people are becoming more tolerant towards each other’s differences; it also fills them with hope for a better future by bringing the sum of human knowledge in the world to their fingertips — and hopefully by extension helping them to learn to think critically. Social media and the Internet have just started to penetrate the Kazakh market, and there is a lot of progress to be made in terms of digital freedom and censorship of the information. I can’t help but wonder what would the future entail for a young and progressive Kazakh society? Would the progress made in the last decade and the kind inherent in Kazakh culture be enough to create a modern, democratic and open-minded society — or would social media continue to harm self-esteem of the young while also widening the economic inequality between urban-rural populations? Yet again, Kazakhstan is at the crossroads. The question is: what path will the nation choose to take?

The only tourists in Bishkek

Ironic travel, Central Asia, and earning a place on the map.

The cultural clout of the famous ‘International Brigade’ during the Spanish civil war won, and continues to win, a romantic niche in the sentiments of young artists and activists. In 1961 the (then) young Canadian author, Leonard Cohen, saw in the anti-imperialist fight of the nascent post-revolutionary Cuba a chance to fulfil his internationalist duties as an artist. With little haste, he grew out a beard, bought some khakis, and boarded the next boat to Havana. But rather than valiantly battling the boats of United Fruit at the Bay of Pigs, Cohen quickly found himself an unwanted accessory to the streets of Havana — eventually penning the mournful poem The Only Tourist in Havana. Finally, an embarrassing diplomatic telephone call from his mother warranted his return to Quebec.

It was an odd link, but mingling with the characters in the ex-pat hangouts of Bishkek, Cohen’s words weighed somewhat heavy in my mind as I slowly came to the realisation that, in the middle of March, we may well be the only people actually holidaying in a city whose architecture Lonely Planet charmingly described as ‘forgettable’. Among the myriad people we met, it seemed that we were the only tourists in Bishkek.

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

But this by no means brought the feelings of lonely melancholy burdening Cohen. We were in a part of the map of which an awareness is quite literally absent from the minds of most of our compatriots. This provided an enormous sense of freedom and discovery. Kyrgyzstan, as with most corners of Central Asia, remains unjustly unknown in Europe. Hence here we turn to the meta-narrative of the article; the purpose of the forum, to build a time-neglected bridge between these two worlds. This certainly isn’t an argument for cultural globalisation, manifest in a desire for a Hilton, Starbucks, and McDonald’s on every street corner from Astana to Osh — neither is it an attempt to weave further cobwebs of stereotypical narratives surrounding self-acclaimed ‘deep travel’ in the ’stans’. Rather, this is an ode to unfortunate unknown — what you make of it is up to you.

First, we have to ask ourselves why, along with her ’sister stans’, does Kyrgyzstan remain unknown? Why is it that, in moments of silence, the radical astonishment one has at the thought of actually being there (let’s go ahead and call these moments Kyrgyzstential crises) creeps up and leaves you nervously giggling?

We can turn first to politics and the hangover of the Cold War. Most of the Central Asian republics only gained independence from the USSR in the early 1990s — thousands of years of history had been subsumed in a couple of centuries of Russian rule: not only had the alphabet become Cyrillic and the city design Soviet, but the area had been effectively off limits to those west of the Berlin wall. Consequently, the countries of Central Asia have only had a handful of years to imprint themselves on the international consciousness, and some have had little agency in fashioning that imprint (take the free ticket the ‘orient unknown’ element has granted shows from The Ambassadors through to Borat, or the go-to stories about the amusing lives of certain dictators).

Politics goes hand-in-hand with geography. Whilst tourists are often happy to take the long flights out to tourist hotspots of the Thailand-Vietnam mould, the brute fact that countries like Kyrgyzstan are far away from highly-populated areas makes the trip out either an ordeal of connecting flights or one hell of a drive.

It’s, therefore, an esoteric rag-tag bunch that make it out. There are the lost business people, sent out by head offices to check on regional affairs, floating in flannel suits to the only establishments that sell a suitably safe Westernised cappuccino (thus negating the burgeoning local artisanal coffee scene) and wait for the return flight. There are of course the locals — amongst them a cosmopolitan youth with impeccable English and a penchant for the question, “How come you guys are in Kyrgyzstan? It’s not even the summer”.

Rope market at a village in Kyrgyzstan.

In addition to the locals, there are the culturally-local, say, Russians taking the trip to their summer house by Lake Song Kul, or undertaking a section of their studies. Then there are those dragged there by the winds of fate — to whom a job opportunity, a desire to escape, or even brute chance, has thrown an atypical parcel of land in what to most people is ’nowhere’. Marion, a young French woman, was a neat microcosm of this last category. After growing tired of teaching French in the UK, she cut up each country in the world, placed the names into a hat and pulled out Kyrgyzstan. True to form, she took up a post teaching English, and set out to pass two years in Bishkek.

Unavoidable (although notably absent in the final breaths of winter) are the infamous ‘adventurers’ — with Tibetan garms, fledgeling dreadlocks, and dreams of following the craggy mountains of the ‘Silk Road’ — they neatly pillar blogs with stories of adventures in the nomadic steppe of post-Sovietistan. It would be unfair to be so blindly acerbic to this latter band, they can be as sagacious as they are sanctimonious by way of travel. Finally, there is the small collection of travellers there on a similar premise to ours — an ironic journey into the unknown — a small attempt to make a facetious answer the question mark nestled south of Russia and west of China, if only because it is a question.

This is why we should be interested in taking the trip to Kyrgyzstan. I can’t help but indulge in subjective experience — as a comprehensive answer would require far more room for starry-eyed diatribes. Put simply, there are the possibilities for peregrinations in the present, and potential paths for forging a fascinating future. Chihoon, a Korean man who has spent his last six years in Bishkek, is perhaps the best embodiment of this mantra. He saw in Kyrgyzstan the opportunity to create a community hub based around good food (Korean chicken, and recently, a café), music, art and dance. In doing so, he has sought to enact a cultural movement from the ground-up, so as to prevent Kyrgyz city culture falling into the clutches of corporate hegemony — what he calls the Almaty-isation of Kyrgyzstan. The proceeds of his restaurant support local artists, entrepreneurs and performances. However, the open mic nights of a nascent international scene within Bishkek represents only a small portion of what Kyrgyzstan offers the traveller. As a beautiful country with rugged mountainous terrain, wildflowers in the high grassy jaloos, fascinating cultural quirks, and glassy Alpine lakes; Kyrgyzstan could cater to the taste of any tourist; especially in the reals of adventure travel.

Yet, to open up to the world, a number of steps will need to be taken — and a number of murky risks lay loathsome in the foreseeable future. Surprisingly, blowing away typical stereotypes need not be one of them; tourism may well thrive off the mysterious muddling of facts and fictions — and keeping the romance of the mountainous steppe alive, as in the novels of Chinghiz Aitmatov, may well pay dividends in bringing in wondering wanderlust travelers. A real threat will for the domestic ownership of ‘opening up’. If opening the doors to the world is to ostensibly benefit the people of Kyrgyzstan, then movements to accommodate the new trade — from horseback travel to alpine boating — should come from the people themselves, and not international conglomerates and foreign investors.

It’s cliché to expound the ‘hidden gems’ within central Asia — but as a sentiment it is also entirely just. One hopes that one day the question will shift from “how come you guys are in Kyrgyzstan?” to “so, when will you next be in Bishkek?”.