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 eight­eenth 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 twen­ti­eth 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?”.