Creative Bishkek: Chihoon Jeong

‘I saw Bishkek as an unfilled linen canvas; one that I wanted to paint on’.

Chihoon Jeong is a South Korean entrepreneur based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. His Korean chicken restaurant Chicken Star has quickly established itself as a creative hub in the city, with regular cultural events and local art on the walls (including works by Chihoon himself). Recently, Jeong also launched Flask, a coffee shop on the AUCA campus, which is playing a central role in the city’s coffee revolution. Both Chicken Star and Flask will be expanding to Almaty this year. Through his community-centred, artistically motivated approach to service and business, Jeong has left an indelible mark in his short time in the Kyrgyz capital.

What led to you becoming an entrepreneur Kyrgyzstan?

After completing my master’s in Boston and working as an artist for a short time, I was set to start a PhD in Manchester in philosophy and art. I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to be in the library for 5 years, however, so I decided to start travelling to help guide my decision. During this trip, I visited my uncle, who has a business in Kyrgyzstan. At this point I already felt that I had to do something here. When I first went to Bishkek in November 2014, I remember thinking how raw and organic the city was – for example, there were amazingly clean and fresh ingredients but only very few decent dining restaurants, so I realised that I wanted to create something new there.

While living in the US, I was already interested in direct and sustainable business – so I only went or restaurants with locally sourced ingredients or cafés with locally sourced milk. Despite liking sustainable business as a consumer, I never thought about being an entrepreneur. Nevertheless, I saw Bishkek as an unfilled linen canvas; one that I wanted to paint on. As a result, I went back to Korea and started preparations for my new business, after telling my parents that I wouldn’t be returning to England to start my PhD. I decided with my uncle to start a Korean fried chicken restaurant – it had started to become popular around the world. Additionally, Kyrgyzstan is virtually the perfect location for a chicken restaurant, as it used to be the Soviet Union’s principal chicken supplier. Furthermore, sunflower oil is cheaper than corn oil in Kyrgyzstan because there are sunflower seeds everywhere – and so I thought that there are perfect conditions for a Korean chicken restaurant in Bishkek.

How difficult was it to create Chicken Star and organise it in a personal way?

It was very difficult at the start. I didn’t have any local connections and the bureaucracy involved in setting up the business was tough too. There were also language difficulties as I spoke neither Kyrgyz nor Russian and so I had to rely on my first manager for translation. Indeed, apart from the manager, none of the 7 people I originally hired could speak much English, so he had to translate everything while I was training my staff and explaining everything to them.

Chicken Star’s ‘Star Art Space’ (SAS)

It was a lot of fun though, as it was my first business and I hadn’t done anything like it before. I originally just thought ‘let’s do it’, which I think is the best approach, as I would have otherwise wasted lots of time learning about the legal system and how stuff works in the country, rather than learning by doing.

A key aspect for me from the very beginning was my view that it should be a people-centred business, with a strong focus on the team. I don’t want to give orders but rather expect everyone to be responsible and proactive. They should also not be afraid to make mistakes. From the beginning my goal was for my staff to grow and so I helped them to expand their skills – I brought in English teachers, for example.

I love the people, and especially the young people, in Kyrgyzstan – they are all super smart but sadly there is a lack of opportunities for them. I am a foreigner, and I could have just gone to ‘do business’ but I wanted to contribute something to society. As a result, I focussed a lot on building my team and a system, which required a lot of research before. I made sure to focus on teambuilding in the first few weeks after hiring my staff – we spent hours every day talking, cleaning, sharing food and working together – an important part of this for me was instilling the culture and philosophy that I wanted for the restaurant in my staff members. It was probably quite tough for them at the staff, as they weren’t used to this working culture, but most were really excited about it.

What is your vision for Chicken Star and Flask and how can you explain their success?

I have a clear vision for both. Chicken Star’s aim was to make the world more joyful than the day before – to keep growing and keep developing. Human conflict and suffering come from our relationships, but so do our happiness and joy, so it all depends how we handle our lives and relationships. Chicken Star is related to the Bishkek community so there’s a goal of building a good relationship with the city – whoever walks in should feel joy and should be treated well, even if they aren’t a client. This all forms my vision of building a sustainable community.

There are four aspects to Chicken Star:

  1. Special – being special and creating a unique atmosphere and treating everyone in the same way – every individual is special and has their own beauty.
  2. Tasty – maintaining the quality of the food, always controlling the taste and making sure the standard remains high.
  3. Artsy – the space is artistic. In my opinion, art inspires society and can help develop neighbourhoods. I have exhibitions every month and support local artists, including through 6-month residency programmes. This is a win-win, as I can support their work and it can help make art more accessible, while also providing atmosphere and inspiration in the restaurant.
  4. Responsible – without the community, we can’t exist and make business, so we have done multiple charity events. We’ve helped local orphanages and donate reusable food waste to a local community organisation, for example. We also try to recycle our trash and reuse as much as possible.

My aim for Flask is similar. Coffee is one of my passions – I love how much one cup can change based on where the beans come from and then how you roast and brew them. There are also so many different tastes – some are fruity, nutty, chocolatey etc. There’s also no alcohol and so you can share the joy of the amazing taste of coffee with everyone – and it isn’t that expensive. On top of this, I want to spark innovation. When I launched Flask I did a pitch to the AUCA saying that I don’t just want to be there to make a business but that I want to contribute to the AUCA community. We always create a new menu and only serve high quality coffee, tea and food products.

We have also started doing a lunch talk on Thursdays, where everyone is invited to come and share their stories. I believe that inspiration and innovation does not just come from famous entrepreneurs and scientists but from everyone and so I try to create a dialogue. This was perfect for the AUCA community, but I also want to expand to the city centre and other cities in Kyrgyzstan – I want to inspire people to tell their stories because everyone has their unique story and unique ability to surprise people.

This is why Chicken Star and Flask are different from other cafes and restaurants – I always wanted them to be unique and to give something to the community in an innovative way and with great service. I really encourage my team to be friends with our guests – naturally they have to give a service as our customers are paying but I want them to be friends as it creates a better atmosphere.

Guests in Chicken Star

What is Bishkek’s potential and how can creative-minded people help the city achieve these goals?

Bishkek has a huge potential, especially due to its freedom of speech and creative freedoms – this is why there are lots of artists here and why many Central Asian artists come here for their shows. As Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have many natural resources to rely on, art, culture and start-ups should be responsible for driving development in the country. They certainly have lots of potential and people here often don’t realise that. Young people often tell me that they want to bring Starbucks here, but I then tell them that I wish they could create something like Starbucks here and then take it to the world.

It will probably take a long time for Bishkek to realise its potential, however. I also hope that development comes from within, rather than from big foreign companies that would take away opportunities from local people. I think it’s therefore important for people to see the future and not just the present, which will enable them to launch their own projects. People in Kyrgyzstan are thirsty, and I think it is important for them to use this energy for good here rather than leaving the country and not coming back. Of course, life and opportunities are currently better elsewhere but if we provide opportunities for young people in Kyrgyzstan, they will stay and will contribute themselves to developing the country. As a result, the country really needs to focus on the human resources it has and should pay attention to education and seek to strengthen certain areas, such as IT.

I think it’s really important for there to be a focus on exporting rather than importing in the country. Importing ‘cool’ things is temporary – instead, the focus should be on improving future potential. This can be done by boosting Kyrgyzstan’s current strengths and looking for domestic solutions to its gaps. Creative-minded people are crucial to any future development, but they need to make sure that they remain patient and have a clear outlook for the future. If they succeed in this, I think Kyrgyzstan will have a very positive future.

How important is the role of entrepreneurship in Bishkek?

There are a lot of young entrepreneurs in Kyrgyzstan, including many people that I admire and respect, and I feel that I can learn a lot from them. I’m a partner of a group called Pro Art, which was started by young entrepreneurs in Kyrgyzstan. They created the group to help young students develop their education and career, which in turn helps develop the country and community. They are all creative entrepreneurs and when I talk to them I don’t feel any difference to the US. I just wish there were more people like them, as they do more for the community than me. I just own a small restaurant but since I’m a foreigner I get more attention from the population, even though there are much more incredible entrepreneurs in Bishkek.

How do you ensure standards and quality in your projects?

I give my team many freedoms but I’m very picky, I guess you could call me a perfectionist. The most important things are finding the right people, then training them properly and then putting them in the right position and continuously giving them a mission and goals. It’s really important to give freedom and responsibility to your staff while asking them to be proactive. For this to work, you have to make sure you clearly explain what your philosophy and vision are, and you have to remind them regularly what they are.

Any final comments?

I remember something my father told me when I was a child, 34 years ago in South Korea. He explained that the situation in Korea was difficult but that they were working for the future and that their hard work would pay off in the next generation. This is also important for Kyrgyzstan’s stage of development. Working towards the future may be slow and you might not be able to taste glory in your lifetime, but you leave your legacy.

People are naturally the most important part of this process and so in my company I want all the partners and staff to be successful because their success is my success. If they tell me that they got offered a job from another company I tell them that I think that’s great. I may lose one of the best workers in my team, but it is what it is and I’m glad that they can progress. There’s also the motivation of being able to train new people which is fun and allows me to create the great relationships with my team and the community. If they really care about their people, community and future, businesses will solve problems creatively and people will react positively. A lot of people want to make money, which is understandable. However, if they shift their motivation towards improving their community, they are much more likely to solve problems, which is a much better outcome for everyone.

I hope there will be many more young entrepreneurs that are passionate about the future. I always tell my team to not focus on competitors and to only think about our guests, as they’re the people we meet every day. We don’t meet our competitors and a lot of our people are spending too much time on this. It is better to focus on our guests in the restaurant, as I want to create a beautiful experience for everyone that comes.

Re-Meet the Stans: How Post-Soviet countries in Central Asia are redefining their identities.

Although an external observer still tends to label the five major countries of Central Asia’s vast region (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) as ‘Post-Soviet’, it might just be the wrong prism to use.

The shift away from the ‘Post-Soviet’ and towards the long-hoped-for modernization, although not a rapid or uncontroversial one, is seen as a positive development by the countries’ younger generation.

‘No one can deny the importance of Soviet economic developments and our shared culture,’ – says a Kazakh student, who graduated this summer and is currently an assistant at a local accounting company, – ‘and with my grandparents still nostalgic about the Soviet times, all of the younger people are genuinely looking forward.’

Cultural and political battles between the Stans’ Soviet legacies, and the growing emphasis on national identities, have largely been won by the latter.

Modern Center of Dushanbe, Tajikistan – from

This has been seen in the demographic changes. As the Kazakh census shows, ‘the number of Russians is on the decline’ (Dr. Merlene Laruelle, 2018)[: the percentage of Russians in the total population has fallen from ‘37% in 1989’ to ‘20% in 209’. The majority of Kazakh citizens – the overwhelming ‘95%’ – now identifies with their Pre-Soviet Muslim beliefs, moving away from Russians’ Christianity or Soviet atheism.

In Tajikistan’s capital – Dushanbe -, city planners tear down the buildings that once manifested Soviet presence in this trophy city.

In Uzbekistan, 25 years of Karimov’s dictatorship was characterized by attempts to present all Russian and Soviet in the most negative light, moving towards his own personal cult and nationalism. The new Mirziyoyev’s reforms aim to reshape the infrastructure and economy, try to polish Tashkent’s reputation and make the country more competitive for investment. The general political and economic trends show re-focusing on the future of the country and building on its Pre-Soviet culture, not the Soviet one.

Nur-Astana Mosque in Astana, Kazakhstan – from Wikipedia

While sharing the common Soviet culture, the five Stans are very different. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s land has seen one of the oldest civilizations, but Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures are that of nomads. Thus said, the evasion of the Soviet heritage can, to a certain extent, allow the countries’ historical identities to prosper and enrich the global understanding of their diverse cultural values. How the Central Asian countries’ differences are becoming more and more acknowledged is also emphasized in this article (on the EU’s strategy? The one That Gera wrote?).

However, it is not uncontroversial to suggest that all of these developments are positive: infrastructure projects in Tajikistan, for instance, lack proper city planning and consideration for the important Soviet era’s influence on the region. One might question whether it’s right to completely wipe out such a huge and influential part of the region’s history as the Soviet era, which did determine people’s lives and cultural awareness.

Moreover, ‘Post-Soviet-ness’ is still present in a few places: Russian is the most spoken language in both Almaty and Bishkek, while Stans still look up at Russia for economic support (Kyrgyzstan, in particular). Stans have a very long way to go.

Yurt, traditional form of housing in Central Asia – from US Air Forces Central Command

It is important that countries change to allow progress, and culture itself iss never a static concept – it is always in flux. With the Stans’ aspirations often held down by the fact that their independence has been so short and turbulent, this vast land of mountains, grasslands, and desert lying on Eurasia’s crossroads, should attract more foreign interest as important players with great potential.

More importantly, one might argue that Stans should no longer be defined by their ‘Post-Soviet-ness’, but by their distinct identities.

Creative Bishkek: Aida Sulova

Creative Bishkek: Aida Sulova is the second interview of the series introducing the lives and work of talented and creative people from Bishkek, who are helping to establish Kyrgyzstan’s capital as the region’s cultural hub

Kyrgyz artist and curator, Aida Sulova, developed Bishkek’s leading art centre: Asanbay.

She has helped produce public art in the Kyrgyz capital and been involved in art education in the city. She is currently working in New York.

How did Asanbay originally get created and what have the early challenges been?

I returned to Bishkek after finishing my undergraduate degree in New York and soon after I started working for Henry Myerberg, HMA2 Architects, who is the architect of the new campus of the  American University of Central Asia (AUCA), in Bishkek. While at the AUCA, I was engaged in a public art programme with local curators and artists, in this time we produced a number of pieces and had an exhibition curated by Ulan Djaparov. This was how my engagement and collaboration with local artists started. Not long after this, I was approached by local entrepreneurs and investors in the development and restaurant business who showed me a 1800 square metre space, which they intended to use for a brewery business with a dance space. My proposal was to found a flexible multi-purpose place which can transform its space and resources for various events. The main activity of the Center are a strong art and education programs that are supported by side commercial activities such as a restaurant and event hall. This was the original idea for creation of multi-disciplinary Asanbay, which now has event spaces, a gallery and a Georgian restaurant.

Bishkek’s leading art centre, Asanbay, developed by Aida Sulova

The mission of the center is to be a flexible space for art, education, and entertainment programs for communities to enrich their cultural life. However, not everyone reacted enthusiastically after we opened Asanbay. Some people, for example, accused me of commercialising art by making it too accessible and by serving food and drink in an art space. After I explained to them that most museums in the world work like this, and have an additional entrance fee, they started to listen, so I think it’s mainly a cultural thing. People need to understand that due to the cost of production and rent, it is only possible to have free exhibitions alongside these commercial activities.


Asanbay is but one of Bishkek’s many exciting new creative projects – do you think the culture of the city is changing and where do you see the city heading?

There’s been a dramatic change in the last couple years and I see it as largely positive. There is a real thirst and strife for a better life and the civil community has become much stronger in recent years. There are now lots of people who are launching their own creative projects and the city’s start-up culture is improving. There is now even speculation that Bishkek is becoming the Berlin of Central Asia. My only concern here is that there is no central vision or mission, so I hope the younger generation will be able to provide this. I really hope that education and culture are seen as priorities – culture is so underestimated in my opinion and I think it is really important for people to understand that it is an effective tool to bring social changes.

I think collaborative initiatives are extremely vital – and not just from artists, but also from businesses, the government and the creative community. I’ve already seen the challenges involved in these initiatives at the Asanbay centre, as people often have conflicting interests and ideas. Nevertheless, as Asanbay shows, such collaborations can produce very positive results. I’m also happy that there are more initiatives like co-working spaces, urban talks, research labs, etc. and that people in culture are starting to bring international artists, curators, and art managers to the city. Cultural exchanges such as these are groundbreaking and so I think the city is heading in the right direction, all things considered.


How different is the process of being an artist in Central Asia compared to Europe or the United States?

The contemporary art scene is strong in Bishkek and I can see the thirst that artists in the scene possess. Artists there are constantly producing art and the fact that there isn’t funding and support isn’t really an obstacle for them. An artist in Kyrgyzstan is an artist, whereas an artist in the States is an artist, manager, curator, specialist and PR manager – as such, artists in New York have much more knowledge about the art market and they are more experienced in promoting themselves. I think this is about survival though – the context in Kyrgyzstan is different as artists there are less focused on personal promotion. It is probably more genuine in Kyrgyzstan and their message is stronger. I have tried to promote some Central Asian artists by making websites for them – not everyone understands the value in this though.


Do you think Central Asian artists will soon start to have this broader defined set of attributes?

Surprisingly, it is the older generation in Central Asia that have started to get involved online and especially on Facebook. There are now artist groups like the Central Asian pavilion of contemporary art – this shows that there has been a shift. Younger artists have increasingly started to self-promote on Instagram also. This is of course largely about economics and it is generational. What makes Central Asian contemporary art different from the rest of the world is that artists in the region are not forced to come up with an issue because the issues are already all over – social issues, personal issues, gender issues. The artists there truly reflect openly and freely and this is channelled in their art. Most of the work I see at Art Basel and the Venice Biennale, for example, strikes me as lacking substance or a strong idea, which I don’t often find in Central Asian contemporary art.

Have you personally curated any Central Asian artists to show them to a broader audience?

I have a foundation called “Kachan?” (translated from Kyrgyz as “When?”) and through this I managed to bring a few Central Asian artists to Washington a couple years ago. In Washington, there is little cultural knowledge of Kyrgyzstan and so I wanted to display the works of two provocative artists from the region – one was about the revolution and was called the ‘Kinematics of Protest’ by Eugene Boikov, while the other was called ‘Perestroika’ by Shailo Djekshenbaev . This was the start of my cultural exchange programme.


What other projects have you been working on recently?

A few years ago, I did quite a few urban art projects on the street – as I didn’t go to art school and am not trained I prefer these kinds of projects to more classical gallery pieces. One of my major projects was about how people react to surprises on the street and in the city environment, an idea which is known as hijacking the space. For example, I decorated trash cans and bus stops in Bishkek as a response to the city’s garbage problem.

Urban projects: decorated trash can in Bishkek

I’m also currently working for an architectural firm, helping on projects in both Kazakhstan and in the States, which I have been doing for a little while. Recently, I have started working on a project to change the role of libraries in Bishkek, which I see as really important. The library has changed its role and has become more of a community centre. As a result, librarians can become more like curators and event organisers – people who provide more knowledge than just giving out books. I find this especially important as Bishkek’s libraries are empty currently, even though they could be used by new startups, for example, who currently rent expensive studios in order to be more like Silicon Valley startups. I’m convinced the role of libraries can be enlarged and they can be used to create a stronger and happier community.

Urban projects: decorated bus stop in Bishkek

Have your projects been particularly inspired by any cities you’ve lived in or visited?

Of course my projects have been inspired by places I’ve visited but I do think that most of my ideas are fairly universal, rather than geographically bound. People will say that I copied the idea of Asanbay, but every large city has an art centre with activities. The concept behind Asanbay was naturally also influenced by experiences I have had in New York, Berlin and Tbilisi.

On a more personal note, leaving to study in New York had a major impact on my outlook and personality. I like the fact that I was able to express myself the way I wanted there, which hadn’t been the case before. In that sense, I was able to follow my own American dream. Nevertheless, I always felt that I wanted to return to Bishkek, in order to help develop the city. The international experiences I gathered before returning were crucial in knowing how to enact positive changes there.

Urban projects: hijacking the space

Any final comments about Bishkek’s future and its creative scene?

When I talk about my country, I don’t want to talk about it in black and white terms – it’s cool and it’s doing well but sometimes it gets the wrong leaders – I am however hopeful for the future and think we’ll see more positive changes soon.

Creative Bishkek: Maksat Sydykov

Creative Bishkek: Maksat Sydykov is the first interview of the series introducing the lives and work of talented and creative people from Bishkek, who are helping to establish Kyrgyzstan’s capital as the region’s cultural hub

‘I am trying to bring the world here’ – Maksat Sydykov reflects on his role in the world of contemporary Kyrgyz ballet.

Maksat Sydykov

Maksat Sydykov is a Kyrgyz choreographer based in Bishkek, who has performed in ballets for many of the world’s leading companies. He is currently also the head of the Kyrgyz public foundation Pro Art, which supports art and culture in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan. While at Pro Art, Sydykov has been responsible for putting on several ambitious productions, such as Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev and The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.

Since Pro Art’s launch in 2016, the foundation has invited many of the world’s leading choreographers to the Kyrgyz capital. Due to financial limitations, many young Kyrgyz dancers are unable to travel, and so Sydykov set out to ‘bring the world to Kyrgyzstan’. After many years of experience studying and working in the UK at the English National Ballet and Europe, Sydykov decided to return to his native land to ensure that Kyrgyzstan’s next generation of artists would stamp their mark on the world map. 

Romeo and Juliet staged by Pro Art

How was your experience studying in London and how has it affected your career and later creative projects?

Studying in London was a great experience. The city really opened my eyes to a lot of things, which was in large part to its being alive 24 hours a day. It is a fantastic cultural hub and I was fortunate to see a lot of great premieres, shows and museums. London showed me the size of the world and how much is going on and it definitely allowed me to become more creative and open as a result. This has definitely influenced my career and subsequent projects.

Thanks to my experience studying in London and working in Europe, I have been able to collaborate with many crazy and creative people, which has especially been the case in Germany. I was never afraid to try new things and try to meet new people and this has also been beneficial to me, through collaboration with many different people you can create something amazing.

Maksat Sydykov in London

This has inspired me with my aspiration for Bishkek. I hope that my city will turn into a small Central Asian Berlin. Berlin isn’t a beautiful city but the people make it special: they provide it its spirit and atmosphere and are the reason why so many people have fallen in love with the city. A similar phenomenon exists in Barcelona and Portugal, where artists have helped create creative hubs. Hopefully one day more people will start to creative small creative spaces in Bishkek and will spark a creative shift in the city – this is why I believe artists and creatives are so important to cities.

What do you see as the fundamental differences in creative education in Central Asia and Europe and what do you see as Kyrgyzstan’s potential in this area?

The English system is very open and teachers in the UK tend to give their pupils maximum freedom to experiment. The focus is on guiding pupils while leaving them their freedom. In Kyrgyzstan, there is an older system where a teacher tells you what to do and guides you within certain rules, which leaves pupils with less freedom. One of my motivations in returning to Kyrgyzstan was to try to encourage young dancers to go beyond this strict system and to try something new.

Maksat Sydykov in a contemporary ballet piece

I want to bring choreographers to the country that can get young artists to experience a different approach. This has been slightly tricky at times as some of the young dancers are very young – only 16 or 17 – and are often, as is common in Kyrgyzstan, somewhat shy and conservative. The artists are very talented and driven, however, and thanks to the internet and the region’s internationalisation, people in the region have started to become a bit more open, as they can see what’s going on in other countries.

I do however think that Kyrgyz young people could do with more international experiences and a more open mindset. Sadly, due to the region’s economic situation this is not possible as many people cannot afford to travel. As a result, I am trying to bring the world here.

Nutcracker staged by Pro Art

Will Pro Art continue to focus on Bishkek or are you looking to expand into other areas?

We will just stay in Bishkek for now. It is a young foundation and so we should focus on turning it into a success here for now. If the programme goes well, I think we can and should look into expanding, though. I would like to move it into Uzbekistan, for example, which has an even more conservative culture than here. The focus for now is on Bishkek though.

How do you fund the foundation?

I stage ballets in different parts of the world and get paid for them. I then use this money to help fund the projects here. I also sometimes get support from friends. Sadly, supporting the arts is not so common in Central Asia, unlike in the United States or Europe, and so it can be a struggle sometimes, but we get by.

What success has the foundation had so far?

We have staged a lot of productions already and have always used dancers from the big ballet school in Bishkek, which has around 400 students. We always try to work with people that want to be artists in the future, to help further their careers and provide financial support. We have staged some more classic productions, like Romeo and Juliet and the Nutcracker, as well as more contemporary pieces. Sadly we have had difficulties raising money for the project at times, such as when our ambitious charity gala, for which we invited 14 of the world’s best dancers, was unable to raise any money for future productions. The Swiss embassy really helped a few years ago and thanks to their funding we were able to fund future productions.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, staged by Pro Art

In general, is there a lot of support for what you are doing?

I think so, yes. People like what we are doing but we can’t always ask supporters for money and so we need to work towards becoming self-sustainable. That’s why we always try to reinvest the money we get from ticket sales into new productions. It will take a few years for major productions to be financially viable and so I want Pro Art to work and I want it to be sustainable. I want more financial support for the project but it is working well so far.

How much of an impact has your strategy of ‘bringing the world to Bishkek’ had?

It has been crucial. I am currently the only modern choreographer in the city and modern dance does not really exist in Kyrgyzstan. I am also the only Kyrgyz, as far as I’m aware, that has worked in big international companies, such as the Deutsche Oper, and so nobody else has the required know-how here. It is thus also difficult to form local partnerships with other groups, and so most of our local collaborations have been with local designers, costume makers and composers, rather than other dance groups.

It was a slight shock for the dancers, as well as the audience, when I started to introduce contemporary dance into the repertoire. In the Soviet Union, the priority was always classical ballet and there was never any experimental dance, a legacy that has carried on. As a result, it was a challenge for dancers initially, as you have to move differently in modern and contemporary dance. A good case in point was when I invited choreographers from New York, Switzerland and Germany for a performance. Their creativity and freedom in the studio shocked the dancers initially. The dancers were taught to listen to the music and to use objects to really go into the piece – they were all trained dancers but had never done anything comparable. The effect was remarkable, especially mentally. Their level improved by 200% after and it has also enabled them to become better classical dancers, funnily enough.

Romeo and Juliet staged by Pro Art

Do you know many other people that have spent many years abroad that have then gone back to launch their own projects in Bishkek?

Not many unfortunately. Most people that leave Kyrgyzstan want to stay abroad and don’t want to return. I do love meeting the rare exceptions, however. If you return to Kyrgyzstan you tend to do so because of passion rather than money, due to the country’s tricky financial situation.

My parents always ask me why I come back for example. I had a good salary and the freedom to travel everywhere and I worked hard for many years to get to that level. I didn’t come back to Kyrgyzstan for the money but rather to do something good for my country and the country of my ancestors. I want to help it develop. I want my children to be in a prosperous, nice, friendly and open country and I feel that it is partly my responsibility to create this future Kyrgyzstan for the next generation and I wish other Kyrgyz would think about it in the same way.

Romeo and Juliet staged by Pro Art

Is there a brain drain away from Kyrgyzstan? How could this situation be improved?

Certainly. In Kyrgyzstan there is not an equivalent of the Kazakh Bolashak programme, where students receive funding to study abroad on the condition that they return to the country for five years after. This could be a good programme for my country also – if you want prosperous, creative and driven youth they should explore the world and learn abroad and then return and share this information with everyone else.

Luckily I do feel that the country is becoming more international – more people have started to come and the country is becoming more open. The youth here is hungry, people want to learn and become part of the global society. This is in large part thanks to the internet – they want to see what the world is like in other countries and are now also global citizens and want to see what happens elsewhere. 

Maksat Sydykov in a contemporary ballet piece

There is also always a difference between urban and rural areas and so I want Pro Art to start to expand into rural areas, as they are often neglected. Then youth can also see what happens in cities. In general, I have a positive outlook for youth in the country though. I work a lot with them and have noticed that they don’t need a lot and are happy – I just think that they need to choose a good profession and focus their attention on this.

How easy is it to run creative projects in Bishkek?

I don’t see many barriers. There is a very open youth culture, young people just need to get involved in projects – once they get involved in projects they can follow their own dream. This approach has been successful at Chicken Star, a local Bishkek restaurant, where the youth are encouraged to launch their own projects after Chihoon, the owner, has trained them. This is why he is so popular, as he helps a lot of people develop through a kind of employee educational programme. People in Central Asia need an environment like Chihoon’s.

*answers have been lightly edited for readability

The new recommendation

On the 5th of December, the Eurasian Council of Foreign Affairs (ECFA) published the recommendation for EU’s new strategy on Central Asia at the annual meeting in Cliveden House. As a student from Central Asia, I was extremely excited to be invited to the meeting as a part of the Central Asia Forum (CAF) delegation and to be one of the first few to get to know the potential roadmap of the future EU-Central Asia relationships.

The press conference was presented by ECFA Advisory Council Chair Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Former Foreign Minister and Chamber President of the Italian Council of state Mr Franco Frattini, the EU Special Representative for Central Asia H.E. Ambassador Peter Burian and the Managing Director of Russia and Central Asia at EBRD Ms Natalia Khanjenkova. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Mr Roman Vassilenko also contributed towards the discussion.

Dr Ferrero-Waldner summarised the main points of the newly published analysis: more focus on the ‘soft power’, the reduction of the number of priorities and the results-driven, more pragmatic approach – combating trafficking, terrorism and tackling the challenges of water and energy.

Mr Frattini noted that the recommendation is to learn from the past and step away from the ‘Christmas tree approach’, when too many goals are set, and the focus is widely dispersed resulting in the low visibility of the EU in Central Asia. Mr Frattini also pointed at the Eurocentric ‘Teach and Preach’ approach that  “ in some cases made our interlocutors quite reluctant to fully engage in an open cooperation with European institutions”. The recommendation is that the new approach should be more pragmatic, state-by-state with great visibility to ordinary people.

From the left to the right: R. Vassilenko, N. Khanjenkova, P. Burian, B. Ferrero-Waldner, F. Frattini – photo from Jibek Nur

Peter Burian reiterated the need for the reduction of the number of priorities and pointed towards the main objectives– security and sustainability. He also raised thepoint that there should be greater synergy with Russia and China as influential actors in the region.

The representative of Kazakhstan, Mr Roman Vassilenkoexpressed the enthusiasm about the future partnership and the desire for more ambitious plans. The regional projects, he stated, arewelcomed, especially on maintaining the rule of law, education, private enterprises.

Representing the EBRD,which holds great interest in Central Asia, Ms Natalia Khanjenkovastressed the importance of the EU support for the investment especially in private sector development and education or ‘capacity building’.  The development projects, MsKhanjenkova outlined, will also benefit from the greater connectivity of countries in the region as well as from the greater connectivity of foreign investors. She expressed positive expectations for investors synergy. Coming from the investment forum in Beijing, she claimed that the Chinese investors are open for the cooperation.

Overall, the report is the result of the evaluation of the previous 2007 strategy which was very broad. The recommendation seems to primarily focus on the development approach which could be great for the cooperation as Central Asia nations greatly welcome this trajectory of the EU support. The development projects, as the recommendation urges, should be in a greater cooperation with Russia and China, without the ‘unnecessary competiton’.  After all the common goal is to increase stability and security in the coming future of the region.




Central Asia Between Eastern Europe and the Developing Asia: Academic Invisibility from a World Systems Theoretical Point of View

World systems theory (WST) dates back to Immanuel Wallerstein, who developed his understanding on world power relations by building on Marxist concepts of capitalist world system and on the core-periphery models of dependency theories.

WST suggests the division of the world (of anything) to central, peripheral and semi-peripheral agents. While most analysts used WST to the description of economic or political inequalities, I have successfully adopted WST as a framing tool for the description of global academic odds in many of my former analyses. In this short post I will argue that, in terms of academic contribution, Central Asia (CA) is a typical peripheral region of the world system of global academy which has been impacted between semi-peripheral world regions like Eastern Europe and the Developing Asia.  I will use both historical and empirical argumentation to show that CA is almost invisible in the map of global science, and, which is a bad job, its minimal contribution consists of mainly fake-internalisation.

Observatory of Ulugh Beg ruler and astronomer in Samarkand

Historically, from an academic point of view, the most important fact about CA is that it consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, so it was part of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. The most obvious consequences of this fact are, from our point of view, that 1) teaching and learning of English as the lingua franca of international science was contraindicated and, in some cases, even impossible; 2) the region was almost hermetically excluded from international academic associations; 3) it was very hard to reach Western academic literature, not to mention expensive Western periodicals; and 4) the econometric indices including state fund on scholarship were way too low as contrasted with those of the Global North. As a result, for almost 40 years, it was very hard or even impossible to keep up with Western or international standards of research, methodology and publication habits. So it is not at all surprising that after the end of the Cold War, all regions of the former Soviet Bloc found themselves as peripheral agents of global academy, and – sadly, with the consent and even the active operation of the West – this subordained position hardly changed since then.

Al-Farabi Kazakh National University ranked as 10th best university in Emerging Europe and Central Asia by QS World Rankings 2018

Kazakhstan, that is, the biggest and academically most successful country of CA was placed ninety-ninth among 144 countries in terms of quality of scientific research institutions in 2014, while the other three countries, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, had even worse positions. The Kazakh Ministry of Education and Science tried to raise the level of academic quality by a relatively stricter publication requirement for Kazakh PhD students and faculty members, but, as we will see soon, these attempts have not resulted in serious incline in terms of academic output. Table 1 shows that if we consider the total sum of academic articles, CA trails after not just the developing Asia but after Eastern Europe and even some African countries.  Since we are discussing on global science, we considered only Scopus-indexed articles. Scopus (with Scimago) is the most widely used international database for the comparison of academic performance, and it is more inclusive than ClarivateAnalytics’s Web of Science.

RegionCountryDocuments (Scopus)Citation/documentH‑index
Central AsiaKazakhstan19,4443.6181
Developing AsiaChina5,133,9247.64712
North Korea74616.6455
Developed AsiaJapan2,539,44115.38920
South Korea1,004,04212.25576
Hong Kong263,60219.06479
AfricaSouth Africa241,58712.94391
Eastern EuropeRussian Federation956,0257.07503
The CoreUS11,036,24324.252077
The Netherlands886,13525.58893

Table 1 World regions in science and their academic output. H-index refer to the number of articles with at least a given number of citations so, for example, H-index 81 means that the country has 81 articles in Scopus with at least 81 citations.

Our empirical data clearly show that even a small Eastern European country like Hungary has almost 5 times stronger international contribution than the whole CA region, and semi-peripheral countries of the developing Asia like Malaysia or Indonesia have even better performance. As a matter of fact, even the scientifically absolutely insignificant North Korea has more than 2 times more Scopus-indexed articles than Turkmenistan. The most successful country of the region, Kazakhstan, has the same academic output that the extremely poor Ethiopia. The abyss that divides CA to the core regions is unutterable: the small Western country, the Netherlands has more than 25 times bigger science output than the whole CA region.

As a summarisation of this present post I would conclude that, from an academic point of view, CA could be conceived as a relatively unnoticeable peripheral region of the world system of global science and it seems like it hasn’t yet recognised that in order to brake out from the periphery it should get to the centre by publishing in core journals. I hope that the data provided here could help CA scholars and their mentors confronting these facts and they will try to set out more successful strategies in order to raise the visibility of this very important and precious region of the world.

An optimist about Central Asia – and for good reason

Suma Chakrabarti is president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (image source: EBRD)

I am, by temperament and outlook on life, an optimist. That makes me a strong enthusiast for all the different regions where the EBRD works.

I am, however, particularly excited about the future of Central Asia – and not just because I was recently in Beijing for a regional investment forum which we organised there and which attracted hundreds of senior business executives and policymakers.

Today, Central Asia really is one of our world’s most dynamic regions. This year, for example, we expect its economies to grow at an overall rate of 4.6 percent. That’s the highest growth in 2018 of any of the regions where we operate.

But my optimism is based not so much on forecasts of what is likely as on the substantial achievements we have already achieved on the ground.

The EBRD and our partners take considerable pride in our record in Central Asia. We have been active in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan ever since they gained their post-Soviet independence, and in Mongolia from 2006.

We are the largest single investor there – with the cumulative sum now standing at US$ 14 billion. Our local knowledge is profound and, I would argue, without equal – which gives me even more cause for optimism about the future.

At the same time, stand back from the here and now for a moment and you can see how quickly the momentum for still more change is building.

Given its location, the region has always been central to the world’s geography. But for much of the last century – and indeed further back in history – it was a land apart, one largely isolated and cut off from the global economy.

Its status today is quite different. Central Asia is assuming, once again, its ancient role as the bridge joining Europe with East Asia. A new Silk Road is taking shape before our very eyes, one consisting of trade routes which are, of course, not so much new as rediscovered. And thanks to these new trade routes, the region will be better connected to and integrated with other regions than ever before.

This Central Asia will, I am convinced, be central not just in geographic terms but to global prospects for economic growth as well.

For now we at the EBRD are having major impact across sectors and borders there: strengthening financial systems; pioneering renewables; promoting energy efficiency; modernising infrastructure; boosting small businesses and advancing the cause of economic inclusion.

Note that none of this activity is in the ‘traditional’ sphere of carbon energy-based and natural resources. Instead, Central Asia is the region where we are rolling out some of our most innovative products, services and initiatives.

They include: financing wind and solar power in Kazakhstan and Mongolia; providing credit lines and empowering female entrepreneurs in Tajikistan; enhancing access to health care in Kyrgyzstan; helping SMEs in Turkmenistan and piloting a Cultural Heritage programme in Uzbekistan to promote sustainable tourism.

To sum up, the opportunities to be involved in the success story that is Central Asia have, to my mind, never looked more attractive. I would thus urge anyone with a taste for adventure, optimist or not, to ‘Go East’.

A Thousand and one nights at the crossroads of the universe

Baghdad – A City of the Silk Road

By the river of Tigris, home of the mythical merchant and sailor Sinbad, Baghdad was at the heart of a complex network of trade routes and markets: the Silk Road. This is represented in the various sources and destinations of the trade activity of the city including China, India, Ceylon, Japan, Korea, Russia, Sicily, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Samarkand, Egypt, Eastern Africa, Yemen, Hejaz. But how this metropolis emerged from the sand of desert to be one of the capitals of the Silk Road in the medieval age?

The city of Baghdad between 150 and 300 AH (767 and 912 AD) from Muhammadanism

Ambition of the Abbasids

The history of Baghdad (also known as Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace or Round City) starts with an assassination and ends with the downfall of the Assassins.

After Omar, the Great had been assassinated by a slave, one dynasty rose to power from the escalating conflict: the Umayyads. As they gained most of their support from Syria, they moved the capital of the Caliphate from  Medina, the Islamic religious centre, to Damascus. The House of Abbas, opposing the Umayyads, retired to Persia to wait for the right time to overthrow the Umayyad rule.

This moment has arrived with Abu Abbas Abdullah who founded the Abbasid dynasty as the ruler of the Caliphate. His successor in power was his brother, Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur, who extended the rule of the empire to Persia, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Syria. To represent the triumph of his dynasty, he wanted to create a new capital, close to his Persian allies somewhere at the heart of his empire.

As he sailed down the Tigris to find the perfect place, he was advised of the most suitable location by Nestorian monks, who had lived there earlier than Muslims. Abundance of water and the possibility of control over strategic and trade routes of Tigris determined the location of the new capital: it was established on the coast of Tigris at the point where it is the closest to the Euphrates, the other main river of Mesopotamia. These two rivers linked the city to north with upper-Syria and Asia Minor, and south with the Gulf of Basra and further to India. It faced east towards the Iranian plateau and Central Asia. Therefore, it is not surprising that according to ninth-century Arab geographer and historian Yaqubi, author of The Book of Countries, the position of Baghdad on the Tigris close to the Euphrates gave it the potential to be “the crossroads of the universe”.

Suq-al-Ghazal Minaret in 1911, the oldest minaret in Baghdad from MidEast Image

It is the ambition of the Abbasids which erected Baghdad’s towers and walls and tempted merchants and adventurers to its bazaars and ports. This is the city from which mythical hero Sinbad set sail and where some of the tales of A Thousand and One Nights takes place. But how did the scene of Arabian Nights look like?

Inside the circle of flames

Reflecting Persian and Sasanian urban design, the city was built in a circle surrounded by walls. Construction works started on 30 July 762 as royal astronomers predicted this day as the most favourable for building work to begin. Mansur supervised the whole procedure rigorously: to ensure the most precise work he placed cotton balls soaked in naphtha along the layout on the ground and set alight to mark the position of double outer walls. Being around a circle three miles in diameter, it was constituted by two-hundred-pound blocks of stones in a height of 90 feet and width of 40 feet. As Yaqubi mentions, 100,000 workers got involved in the construction process.

The round design was unique in that time and it proved to be effective: four equidistant gates led to the city centre through straight roads. The four gates are: Khorasan Gate to the north-east, Sham (Syrian) Gate to the north-west, Basra Gate to the south-east and Kufa Gate to the south-west. Kufa and Basra opened at the Sarat Canal, a key part of waterways that drained the waters of Euphrates into the Tigris. Sham Gate led to the main road to Anbar, and across the desert to Syria. Khorasan was close to the Tigris and ensured the connection with boats on the rivers.

The main roads starting from the four gates leading to the city centre were connected with arcades crowded by shops and stands of merchants from all along the Silk Roads. However, the heart of the city was a royal preserve with the Great Mosque and the caliph’s Golden Gate Palace an expression of the union between temporal and spiritual authority. Only the caliph had authority to ride within this area. His palace rose above the buildings with its emerald-coloured dome in 130 feet high, nicknamed ‘The Green Dome’.

Buniya Mosque in Baghdad in 1973

As the city expanded with bazaars and shops settling outside the walls, Al-Karkh district was formed at the south. The prospering city reached its zenith in the eighth and ninth century where poets, scholars, philosophers, theologians, engineers and merchants raised the intellectual and economic of the city. Wealth poured from every corner of the world to its market and buildings, erected high above the desert and the waters of Tigris. Its library had the largest repository of books which later could be the ground of the great achievements of Arabic and European science.

Courtyard of Mustansiriya madrasa, an institution of higher education, established by Al-Mustansir in 1227

Hülegü and the end of an era

In the tenth century, caliph Mu’tasim moved the centre of the empire from Baghdad to Samarra, and the once centralised empire began to demolish. Baghdad has never reached that status it had under the early-Abbasids.
It was 1257 when the greatest political event first reached Baghdad – the Mongols. In September, Mongol Hülegü Khan sent an ultimatum to the caliph bidding him to surrender himself and demolish the outer walls of the capital. As the caliph rejected, the Mongol conqueror set forth to punish the city. He arrived to Baghdad in January 1258 and defeated the city in a month, which fell to the Mongols. Baghdad faced massive destruction of its buildings and massacre killing 800,000 of its inhabitants.

This is how the medieval glory of Baghdad passed away. It later suffered from Tamerlane and the war of two nomadic Turkic clans, the Black Sheep and the White Sheep. From 1534, after hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, the city became able to develop rapidly again in the twentieth century, but that is another story.

A celebration of history and culture: the World Nomad Games

Nomadic culture leaves a deep and colourful imprint on Eurasian history. Nomadic empires first arose as shadow empires in response to the centralisation of China according to one of the main academic debates.

On the eastern side of the steppe, necessity forced the nomads into creating a centrally-administered Mongolia to conduct potentially violent business with China in order to maintain their existence. They did not have the capacity to fight China head-on as their existence was built around their mobility in small numbers – entirely distinct from the sedentary cities of the Chinese empire. Nomadic groups aimed to preserve their mobile lifestyles, yet not in conquered lands. They adopted an imperial-style administration system where they ruled indirectly through boyars or Russian noblemen collecting taxes for them.

Some argue that the arrival of the Mongol Empire contributed to the emergence and construction of the European nation state. In contrast, to the west of the steppe, nomads made a living not by violent negotiations but by dominating the trading network. These groups created the political framework for the Silk Route through policies providing security to the caravans crossing Eurasia, ensuring the smooth working of the trade network that potentially contributed to European unity.

The World Nomad Games thrives to revive, preserve and develop this unique history and ethnocultural particularities of the nomadic civilisation in order to foster more tolerant and open relationships between people in the age of globalisation and amidst the political and economic regional transformations.

Turkmenistan’s performance at the opening ceremony of the II World Nomad Games

Every two years, beginning from 2014, the Games take place in the lakeside town of Cholpon-Ata, in the Issyk-Kul province of Kyrgyzstan, although the hosting location is set to change for future games. This year, athletes from 74 countries participated in 37 traditional nomad games, involving horse games, wrestling, martial arts, archery, hunting and intellectual games. The zeinth of strength and showmanship is found in horse game of Kok Boru (sometimes known as Buzkashi). The game is described as a fusion between rugby and polo, with two teams competing to throw a headless carcass of a goat into a goal at each end of the field. Traditionally the winner would take the carcass home and cook it up in a feast.

Er Ernish, another Kyrgyz sport, sees two athletes wrestle on horseback seeking to dismount their opponent. Wrestling is the most represented sport at the Games with fifteen different types on offer from the participating countries, including Alyh, or belt wrestling, where the participants throw the opponent on the ground by grabbing their belt around their waist.

Participants do not only compete in ethnosports but also in everyday activities of nomads, such as yurt building, hunting with a golden eagle (Burkut Saluu), falconry (Dalba Oynotuu), dog racing, and hunting (Taigan Jarysh).

Kazakh athlete with his golden eagle

While Cholpon-Ata hosts the sports games, the cultural base is the town of Kyrchyn Jailoo in the mountains, displaying performances of Kyrgyz customs, entertainment and games and those of the participating countries. These ethnocultural shows introduce the dances, fashion, bazaars, and music of the nomads – embracing their originality and diversity. In the extensive yurt camp set up both by the official organisers and local Kyrgyz families as accommodation, guests can experience Central Asian hospitality, traditional cuisine, horse taxis, and hot air balloon rides in the mountains.

Nomadic yurt village at the Games

Unsurprisingly, the 2018 World Nomad Games were won by Kyrgyzstan, with Kazakhstan in second, and Russia on the third place. At the closing ceremony, Kyrgyzstan ceremonially handed a vessel of glacial water -the totem of the Games symbolising simultaneously both life and the difficulty of finding fresh water – and the book of great winners to Turkey, who will host the next Games in 2020.

The World Nomad Games were broadcasted all over the world in over 60 countries, the sports, traditions, cultures and lives of nomads reached hundreds of millions of people. With such an extensive celebration of the nomadic culture and history the commentator of the second Games was right: ‘If Genghis Khan were alive, he would be here’.

Walking in forgotten lands: conservation in Kyrgyzstan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photography by the author.