Why can you buy German bread in Kazakhstan?

A sto­ry of mass move­ments through­out Cen­tral Asia, by Niko­lai Klassen.

Not only is Rus­sia a rid­dle, wrapped in a mys­tery, inside an enig­ma: frag­ments of the puz­zle are also repli­cat­ed and reca­pit­u­lat­ed through­out Cen­tral Asia, with the five ‘stans’ all bear­ing idio­syn­crasies that point to a past as rich and unpre­dictable as the present. Let me address one such mys­tery: why, like myself, are there so many Ger­man-Kaza­khs? Nowa­days, Ger­mans rep­re­sent a size­able minor­i­ty in each Cen­tral Asian coun­try, for exam­ple, there are still 179,476 eth­nic Ger­mans dwelling in Kaza­khstan. How­ev­er, eth­nic Ger­mans only began to form a size­able chunk of Kazakhstan’s demog­ra­phy short­ly after 1941. So, why did so many Ger­mans go to Cen­tral Asia? And what does my grand­moth­er have to do with this story?

Ger­man set­tle­ments through­out the globe, notice the con­ce­tra­tion around north­ern Kazakhstan.

Like my grandmother’s fam­i­ly, many Ger­man speak­ing set­tlers moved east in search of oppor­tu­ni­ties off the back of Russia’s devel­op­men­tal efforts. Under Ivan II (1462–1505) some experts, such as doc­tors, archi­tects, and mil­i­tary offi­cers migrat­ed to Rus­sia. At the time of Peter the Great (1682–1725), Ger­mans increas­ing­ly began set­tling along the Vol­ga Riv­er in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers. Anoth­er fig­ure dri­ving Ger­man Migra­tion in Rus­sia was Kathrine the Great. In 1762, she invit­ed Ger­man farm­ers and crafts­peo­ple to Rus­sia to help mod­ern­ize her coun­try, giv­ing them land, reli­gious free­dom, excep­tion from mil­i­tary ser­vice and tax exemp­tions. Escap­ing high tax­es and polit­i­cal ten­sions in the Holy Roman Empire and lat­er Prus­sia, most came to lay the foun­da­tions for new set­tle­ments. Some 30,000 arrived in the first wave between 1764 and 1767 and they had a pro­found impact on improv­ing Rus­si­a’s agri­cul­tur­al out­put. More start­ed com­ing after 1789 and they kept com­ing until 1863. Most of them were Catholics or Men­non­ites seek­ing reli­gious free­dom, a new place to set­tle and polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty. As they swept down to Russia’s east­ern and south­ern bor­ders, the first Ger­man set­tlers arrived in mod­ern-day Kaza­khstan by the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry. In due course, Ger­mans found­ed their first per­ma­nent set­tle­ment in 1785, called Friedens­feld. Dur­ing the peri­od of the Sto­lian reforms in 1905—1911, Ger­mans had already formed towns such as Alexan­der­tal, Alte­nau, Königs­gof, and Pug­ger­hof. The migra­tion did not stop there though: Ger­man set­tlers even tried to reach as far as Azer­bai­jan in the 1930s. The rea­son: increas­ing hos­til­i­ty and dis­trust direct­ed against the set­tlers due to the polit­i­cal cli­mate in Ger­many at that time. This time, Men­non­ites have been sus­pect­ed not because of their reli­gion but because of their nationality. 

His­to­ry is rarely kind, and World War II is known for its force­ful relo­ca­tions with­in the Sovi­et Union. Most of the Ger­mans were off­spring of Vol­ga Ger­mans, who lived in the Vol­ga Ger­man Autonomous Sovi­et Social­ist Repub­lic locat­ed in Rus­sia, or the Black Sea Ger­mans, who lived in Ukraine and Crimea. This demo­graph­ic spread reached an abrupt end­ing dur­ing the ear­ly 1940s; with forced relo­ca­tion to Kaza­khstan being ini­ti­at­ed in July 1941, after Hitler declared war on the Sovi­et Union. More­over, Stal­in ini­ti­at­ed a state of emer­gency: Ger­mans were declared spies a pri­ori, a deci­sion which result­ed in all work­ing-age men (15–85) being con­fined to Sovi­et Labour camps – the so-called gulags. Accord­ing the Sovi­et Gov­ern­ment, a decree to relo­cate the Ger­mans was imposed because:

“Among the Ger­man inhab­i­tants, who live in the Vol­ga Region, are thou­sands and ten thou­sand of sabo­teurs and spies who are await­ing a sig­nal from Ger­many to exe­cute explo­sions in oth­er regions, but also against their own people.“

In the course of the depor­ta­tion, my grandun­cle and my great-grand­fa­ther were sent to two dif­fer­ent gulags near­by Archangel­sk to work in a forestry sta­tion in pitch-black win­ters and all-day sum­mers. For­tu­nate­ly, they were work­ing as doc­tors and were impor­tant for the camps’ over­seers. They were able to sur­vive the extreme tem­per­a­tures and harsh labour con­di­tions, and were lucky not to have been sent to an even-more puni­tive camp, where their med­ical skills may not have been called upon. 

Pho­tos from Crimea, tak­en before my fam­i­ly’s re-location.

Offi­cial­ly, peo­ple were nev­er deport­ed: they were brought to safe towns, away from the front­lines. The areas to “spread” the Ger­mans across the coun­tries were areas, such as the Altai region (650,000 re-locat­ed), the Qaraghandy region (500,000), Kyr­gyzs­tan and Tajik­istan (both home for 70,000 Ger­mans). The regions where Ger­mans were spread gen­er­al­ly had a low pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty and a demand for work­ers in agri­cul­ture and min­ing. The labour short­age arose from the huge demand for troops to send to the Sovi­et front­line, leav­ing many Cen­tral Asian towns stripped of their male pop­u­la­tions. As Ger­man set­tlers were sus­pect­ed to be spies and sabo­teurs, the author­i­ties saw fit to keep an eye on them and extract their pro­duc­tive ener­gy through keep­ing them in tight­ly-con­trolled labour camps. In addi­tion to forced labour, Ger­mans in the Sovi­et Union were sub­ject to forced assim­i­la­tion, such as through the pro­hi­bi­tion of pub­lic use of the Ger­man lan­guage and edu­ca­tion in Ger­man, the abo­li­tion of Ger­man eth­nic hol­i­days and a pro­hi­bi­tion on their obser­vance in pub­lic. Not only were Ger­mans stripped of their lan­guage and cul­ture, they were often open­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ed against and pub­licly mocked. At around this part in our sto­ry, my Grand­moth­er, then a young girl, was mak­ing her way across the frozen mid­win­ter Steppe in a cat­tle wag­on. In 1941, she, her moth­er, and oth­er 38 peo­ple put into the wag­on were forcibly relo­cat­ed to Seren­da (Зеренда, nowa­days in Kazakhstan).

My Great-grand­par­ents at their house in Найман with their dog друг, who once sur­vived being shot on the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that he was a wolf.

Sup­pres­sion of eth­nic Ger­mans in the Sovi­et Union did not end with the Sec­ond World War. Though some Ger­mans were able to live unof­fi­cial­ly in Ger­man com­mu­ni­ties in tows they’ve been sent to, their cul­ture had to remain hid­den: still, they were able to secret­ly hold holy ser­vices, speak Ger­man, and cel­e­brate Ger­man hol­i­days. In 1949 most Ger­mans were final­ly released from the labour army, although no pub­lic apol­o­gy or excuse was giv­en for the 4‑year delay. In August 1964 the Sovi­et Gov­ern­ment final­ly began reha­bil­i­tat­ing the Ger­mans to their pre-war set­tle­ments. Accord­ing to the new­ly appoint­ed pres­i­dent Bresh­nev, the accu­sa­tions against were not jus­ti­fied, and a ter­ri­ble mis­take had been made. How­ev­er, most chose to stay on in Cen­tral Asia, and only a few returned to the Vol­ga area. Oth­ers trav­elled around and went where they could find employ­ment. Oth­ers still tried to claim their pre-war homes, even though they lost the right to do so. After 1964, the Ger­man pop­u­la­tion became dis­persed and mobile — find­ing new homes and shap­ing new iden­ti­ties. The num­ber of Ger­mans involved in agri­cul­ture declined while those occu­pied as aca­d­e­mics and teach­ers rose, as those liv­ing in the coun­try moved to the cities. In that process Ger­mans final­ly man­aged to blend into their milieu, los­ing their cul­tur­al unique­ness as their lan­guage, arts, cus­toms were becom­ing more and more Rus­si­fied. Many Ger­mans moved in among non-Ger­mans and start­ed fam­i­lies with peo­ple of oth­er eth­nic descents. The trend towards urban­iza­tion also caused a drop in the birth-rate and the size of Ger­man fam­i­lies, which had been erst­while char­ac­ter­ized by high birth rates. By 1991 less than half of the Ger­man Rus­sians claimed Ger­man as their first lan­guage, and instead regard­ed Russ­ian as their moth­er tongue.

The hor­rors of depor­ta­tion and the tragedy of Stal­in­ist cul­tur­al sub­ju­ga­tion became far bet­ter known through his­tor­i­cal stud­ies dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s, after the Sovi­et Union fell apart. Most of the remain­ing eth­nic Ger­mans emi­grat­ed to Europe and beyond, with a major­i­ty opt­ing for Ger­many. In 1990, after my Grand­fa­ther returned from a vis­it to Cana­da, he and my grand­moth­er decid­ed to move to Ger­many, where they felt they would be treat­ed as equals. From there they invit­ed oth­er parts of my fam­i­ly and final­ly also my father and my moth­er, who was preg­nant with me while moving. 

Ger­mans in Russ­ian Folk­lorist out­fits; Tak­en in Kara­gan­da, 1953.

In 1990, there were around 2.9 mil­lion eth­nic Ger­mans in the Sovi­et Union, of which only 41% resided in mod­ern-day Rus­sia. The rest were spread through­out Cen­tral Asia and the Cau­cus­es, with 47% being based in Kaza­khstan, 5% in Kyr­gyzs­tan, and 2% in Uzbek­istan and Tajik­istan. As these pop­u­la­tions either blend­ed into their cul­tur­al wood­work, or made their way to Ger­many, these pop­u­la­tions have fall­en to about 1/3rd of their orig­i­nal size. Yet their foot­print lingers on in count­less aspects; so, should you ever find your­self North of Astana and notice rock-hard dark breads curi­ous­ly sim­i­lar to Ger­man pumper­nick­el, please spare a thought for my Grand­moth­er who, like so many oth­er Sovi­et-born Ger­mans, has left a last­ing mark on Cen­tral Asia’s demography. 

Creative Bishkek: Ulan Djaparov

A lead­ing fig­ure of Bishkek’s post-Sovi­et arts scene: CAF inter­views Ulan Djaparov as the lat­est instal­ment in the Cre­ative Bishkek series.

Ulan Djaparov is seen by some as the godfather of modern and contemporary art in post-Soviet Bishkek. 

Along­side found­ing a con­tem­po­rary art and archi­tec­ture space, Stu­dio Muse­um, he is a dri­ving force of the city’s recent artis­tic boom through his work on social media – pri­mar­i­ly as the admin­is­tra­tor of the influ­en­tial Face­book group Cen­tral Asian Pavil­ion of the Con­tem­po­rary Art.

What is Stu­dio Muse­um and why did you cre­ate it?

The archi­tec­tur­al stu­dio Muse­um has a long his­to­ry. In 2018, we cel­e­brat­ed the 20th anniver­sary of the studio’s offi­cial sta­tus and the thir­ty-first anniver­sary of the cre­ation of the group Muse­um. Dur­ing this time, there have been sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of ‘stu­dioists’.

Natives of the stu­dio are now work­ing in var­i­ous cities in the world – from Vladi­vos­tok to Cologne, and from Moscow to Auck­land. The spe­cial­i­ty of our stu­dio is that, in addi­tion to archi­tec­tur­al projects, we are also engaged in projects in the field of con­tem­po­rary art, as well as per­son­al artis­tic prac­tices. Anoth­er empha­sis of our stu­dio is seen through our wide net­work with oth­er artists through­out Cen­tral Asia, as well as peo­ple from dif­fer­ent fields (non-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tions, busi­ness­men, etc) who are inter­est­ed in art.

How much has the con­tem­po­rary art scene in the city changed in the last few years and how have you contributed?

Mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art as a phe­nom­e­non appeared in Kyr­gyzs­tan rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly — a lit­tle more than 20 years ago. Orig­i­nal­ly, there was not a sin­gle art insti­tu­tion or offi­cial cen­tre for con­tem­po­rary art. Every­thing was done on per­son­al enthu­si­asm. The muse­um and I, as the cura­tor of many of the first exhi­bi­tions, were among the sev­er­al ini­tia­tors of this process. 

Nowa­days there are a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions of young artists and art activists, with new ideas and forms of exis­tence. Of course, there are some minor dif­fer­ences between groups – the gen­er­a­tion of 35 to 40-year-olds still remem­ber the Sovi­et era, the dif­fi­cul­ties of the 90s and so on. The gen­er­a­tion of 20 to 25-year-olds is already very dif­fer­ent – they are more mobile, prac­ti­cal, not so tied to ‘old’ values. 

Nonethe­less, every­thing still depends on the per­son­al dri­ve of artists in Bishkek, inso­far as the com­mer­cial art is itself out of reach, Bishkek’s mod­ern art scene is still led by the artists’ per­son­al inter­est and desire to put for­ward chal­leng­ing ideas.

Do you par­tic­i­pate in oth­er projects in the city, and if so, which ones?

Our stu­dio Muse­um is quite spe­cif­ic, and has been since its cre­ation. We main­ly coop­er­ate with good friends who have inter­est­ing ideas and we help them to design and visu­alise them their ideas archi­tec­tural­ly. Ide­al­ly, we help them to realise what is not always pos­si­ble. Often, this is the devel­op­ment of archi­tec­tur­al con­cepts. In addi­tion, some­times we organ­ise exhi­bi­tions of con­tem­po­rary art. 

We coop­er­ate with young, but also more expe­ri­enced, artists from all over Cen­tral Asia. A few years ago, I was the edi­tor-in-chief of the Cen­tral Asian almanac Kurak (art and soci­ety). Recent­ly, we began to coop­er­ate with some NGOs. For exam­ple, we are devel­op­ing and rec­om­mend­ing on ‘set­ting mod­els of a safe edu­ca­tion­al envi­ron­ment with the help of design in pilot schools of Kyrgyzstan’.

What is the role of mod­ern cul­ture in the devel­op­ment of Kyrgyzstan?

The sit­u­a­tion is inter­est­ing. Every­one has a dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing of what mod­ern cul­ture is. Some appeals to some kind of archa­ic or pure­ly nation­al forms and wrap them in mod­ern pack­ag­ing, oth­ers try to relay to us ‘uni­ver­sal cul­tur­al val­ues’ (but often this is the result of work­ing off grants, or for mar­ket­ing pur­pos­es), while again some­one else is look­ing for/creating a cul­ture at the junc­tion between our real sit­u­a­tion and spe­cif­ic and mod­ern form. 

Mean­while, there is a large lay­er of reli­gious cul­ture in the back­ground, which is becom­ing increas­ing­ly pro­nounced every year. Mod­ern cul­ture has only real­ly tak­en form in the urban space, as the pop­u­la­tion of the city has great­ly changed since the 1990s.

How impor­tant is coop­er­a­tion between cre­ative peo­ple in the city?

I think that the con­cept of cre­ative peo­ple is some­what broad and vague, but the process of coop­er­a­tion itself is inter­est­ing and this is almost our only oppor­tu­ni­ty to do some­thing inter­est­ing here in our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. And if ear­li­er there was some tight­ness in dif­fer­ent social groups and stra­ta, now there is a cer­tain inter­est in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary projects and cooperation.

How is Bishkek chang­ing? Are these changes pri­mar­i­ly positive?

Bishkek is chang­ing a lot; some peo­ple see this as pos­i­tive, while oth­ers lack the same enthu­si­asm. Out­ward­ly, Bishkek has turned into a larg­er city (high-rise build­ings, shop­ping cen­tres, offices, etc.). Some ele­ments have also become more civ­i­lized, which is nice. How­ev­er, in most cas­es, there is some negligence. 

For exam­ple, there have some rather aggres­sive new devel­op­ments in the city that do not con­sid­er the cur­rent con­text and pri­mar­i­ly have mon­ey as a moti­vat­ing fac­tor. The prob­lem does not only con­cern short fallings in town-plan­ning poli­cies, but also con­cerns a van­ish­ing social con­sen­sus about com­mon cul­tur­al val­ues; espe­cial­ly with respect to pre­vail­ing urban envi­ron­ments and their con­nec­tions with pri­vate initiatives.

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.

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?”.