Category Archives: Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan/China border post

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Crossing from Kyrgyzstan back to China was our most remote border crossing yet. We chose to cross the Torugart pass because the journey was considerably shorter than the busier southern route. Unfortunately it was also viciously expensive. We had to hire drivers on both size and pay for a bunch of paperwork. Total cost more than $400NZD. To be fair, that did include a whole bus to ourselves on the Chinese side. The bus had deposited an Italian tour group at the border, but had only us to carry back to Kashgar.

It was three hours drive from Naryn to the frontier, three hours of wait, and then four hours on to Kashgar. The landscape was the kind you’d want to live on if you were a nomadic horseman, all endless grasslands and hills with a gentle contour. But you might like to fly south for the winter. The border was at 3700m and it was pretty chilly.

Kyrgyz formalities were easy. Big snaps to them for being easily the easiest of the stans to get in and out of. Chinese formalities were no big deal either, except that there were four separate checks between the border and Kashgar and only in the last was our passport actually stamped. There’s a large military presence throughout Xinjiang, and the border is an obvious focus for the military. There was barbed wire and guard towers as far as we could see.

Most of the traffic over Torugart was trucks. Most were Kyrgyz flagged, but we understand they generally carry goods from China to Kyrgyzstan. There were also some German branded trailers being hauled to China. It’s a helluva long way to go from Western Europe, but via Kyrgyzstan is one of the most direct routes and there is serious talk for forging a railway through to connect China to Uzbekistan and beyond.

China’s influence in Central Asia doesn’t feel massive at the moment, in fact it was hard to believe how close it was to Naryn. We didn’t see so much as a Chinese restaurant, or a shop with imported plastic junk. The more noticeable ethnic minority is Russian. But there is a lot of chat about China seeking to increase its influence. The rail link through Kyrgyzstan is a good example, as is the pans for oil pipelines into Kazakhstan. I’d look out for MA-60s flying in Central Asia soon.

Unexpected support for Israel in rural Kyrgyzstan

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Check out these young Kyrgyz horsemen sporting an Israeli flag as they prance about their yard. They’re in a village in the middle of nowhere.

Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country, if a fairly moderate one. It’s hard to imagine there is much support for Israel there, or that the little boys know what the flag they are toting represents.

It’s much easier to imagine how they got the flag. Israelis are vastly overrepresented in the backpacker population. I understand this is largely because when they finish their military service they are given a lump sum payment from the government. One of them probably left a flag behind for the local kids. We just gave skittles. Much less divisive.

Fast food development: Kyrgyzstan

When tracking the infiltration of Western fast food brands it doesn’t get any easier than this. Not only have we seen no KFC, McDonald’s etc., outside the capital Bishkek we haven’t even seen non-franchised Western fast food on menus. No hot dogs. No hamburgers. Barely a french fry in sight.

That makes Kyrgyzstan an easy Stage 1 (no Western fast food brands) and the first one we have come across at that.

Horsing around Naryn

Eating horses is a Kyrgyz tradition. So is riding them. We’ve tried both. Riding is probably more satisfying. We spent a day on horses outside  a small town called Naryn en route to the Chinese border. The landscape we rode through was beautiful. The hillsides looked like they’d been drawn in pastel.

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At the start of our trek and were greeted by a sixty something grandmother who was once an English teacher. Her smile glinted with gold teeth and her English was the only spoken to us all day. She asked if we could ride horses. We said we couldn’t, really. We asked our horses names. She said mine was Brown Horse and Fiona’s was Black Horse. Inventive. Fiona took to calling hers Blackie. I stuck with Brown Horse for fear Brownie implied my steed was up for desert.

Riding was fun and surprisingly easy. Our horses were generally obedient although  averse to sudden swerves to the right. On occasion they would only go right by going so far left that they ended up right again. Perhaps they knew their riders too well. I was also enthused by how easily I could get Brown Horse to trot and canter. It felt like changing gears in a car. There was a short crunch as the horse got itself ready and then its whole motion changed and we were off.

I continued my 3/3 streak of getting the most rebellious animal on offer. Desert boy the camel lived outside Jaisalmir, India. He had a tendency to veer off, not following the line made by Fiona’s ride Celia. Brown Horse liked to try and chomp at the other horses. And he once successfully had a wee chomp at Fiona’s thigh. She has an impressive bite shaped bruise to show for it.

A highlight of our day was a visit to our guide’s home. He, his wife and four kids live in the middle of nowhere without electricity or running water. His wife served us weak milky tea, bread, jam and sour cream. We were also offered fermented mare’s milk. It smelt like retching and I just couldn’t get it down. Fiona made more progress than I, but we were both left with embarrassingly large untouched bowls of frothy goo.

We’re so accustomed to the basic questions that we get asked that the absence of English wasn’t too much of a barrier to our communication: Yes, we are married, two years…. No, we don’t have children… But we struggled to provide a satisfactory explanation for why we don’t have children (married for two years, what could possibly be the hold up?). Explaining that we were neither Muslim nor Christian was also a stretch especially as we resorted to some unfortunately graphic miming of what we think happens when you die.

We have an app on our phone called Point It which is supposed to assist in situations like these. It’s just a collection of loosely ordered photos that are designed to avoid endless charades. It’s good for specifying you want chicken, but it was little help in conveying our understanding of the meaning of life. One the upside, using a touch screen to look at photos was massively entertaining for our guide and his kids. I think they scrolled through every photo there was.

How excited locals get about playing with your phone or seeing their picture on the tiny screen of your digital camera is a pretty good yardstick for development. Smartphones are all over China, but our guide was only half joking when he offered to buy mine. His kids marveled at the magic of pushing a button and seeing an image appear. Evidently it doesn’t take much cantering away from towns in Kyrgyzstan to see wealth levels really decline.

Locking down buckling up

Our share taxi driver saw a police car parked by the side of highway. He, and the passenger in the front seat both reached for their seat belts. They didn’t click them on. They just held them in place until the car had passed the cop. Then they let them go and they whizzed back into their holders. We were in the back seat. We couldn’t have been using seat belts if we’d wanted, there weren’t any.

We’ve now traveled to ten countries this year and none of them has the kind of “make it click” culture we grew up with in New Zealand where putting on a seat belt is an automatic reaction when you get into a car.

Lots of places there are no seat belts. Reaching over our shoulders to find no belt on offer has seriously dulled our reflexive buckling up. Even when there is, if no one else around us is wearing a belt there’s no cultural cue and we often end up, inadvertently, going without.

I’m not sure how New Zealand transitioned from a culture where belts aren’t used to where they almost always are, though I think it happened in my lifetime. But it is something we should celebrate. And other countries should copy. I’m looking at you, Kyrgyzstan.

From Central Asia with love

My grandfather was trailblazing trade representative for the New Zealand Dairy Board. He came home with many stories and one of them was this: he remembers crossing the border from China to Russia and it feeling like home. This was remarkable to him because it emphasised how strange China was and, because in the 1960s and 1970s, with the iron curtain still firmly drawn, Russia wasn’t supposed to feel like home. It was supposed to feel like a whole other world.

Fast-forward fifty years. When we left China for Russian-speaking Kazakhstan it also felt like a homecoming. There are few places that feel less like home than rural China. But whereas my grandfather had a clear idea of the Soviet states, as being distinct and being different, we just didn’t know what to think. Our stereotypes had probably still been packaged up by Bond and Borat movies, but really, we had no idea.

It’s still hard to generalise. Almaty was a cosmopolitan city with skyscrapers and ski resorts. Bishkek, Krygyzstan’s capital, felt like a medium sized New Zealand provincial city – Gisborne maybe. The best thing it had to put on postcards was a slightly quirky clock tower surrounded by manicured gardens. Everything in between the cities has been barren country and the occasional yurt.

The native people here look a little Mongolian. Its like their genes are saying “Chinghis Khan was here”. They live in yurts and are highly dependent on horses. Many are still nomadic. In the cities there is also a large Russian population. But our kind of European features still stand out enough for little kids to stare.

Russian language, and a shared modern history, binds the states of Central Asia together (some nasty border disputes notwithstanding). There is a Russian-speaking world with a population analogous to the US. It’s relatively easy for its citizens to travel between and work within neighbouring countries.

We’ve said some places (Colombia and China) are under traveled. We can’t say the same of Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan. Not because it isn’t fascinating, but because the travel infrastructure isn’t up to much. We would have really struggled to get to grips to Almaty without a host. Krygyzstan is the only country we’ve ever been to where there really aren’t buses, not even between big cities. Its restaurants all sell the same things – noodles, plov and shashlick – but only display them on Cyrillic menus. It’s tough going. Coming here was a bit unintended on our part. We had friends to visit in Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan then made geographic sense.

What we can say of Central Asia is that it is under understood. We’d like to come back to improve our own understanding one day. Although I will always be sad that we can no longer visit Turkmentistan in the month its dictator renamed for his mother. They’ve gone back to calling it April instead.

Every bread is sacred

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In Kyrgyzstan bread is considered sacred. You shouldn’t throw it out, and if you do you should separate it from other rubbish. You also shouldn’t put it upside down.

We’ve read this is true, but we have no idea why. Probably just because bread here is delicious. It is traditionally cooked in a tandoori over. It’s placed in the over on a tool that looks a bit like the thing you use to get pizza out of a really hot oven. As a result it ends up looking a little like a doughnut.

It’s nice to be in a country that knows what it is doing bread wise after dubious Chinese products.

Everything’s in a pickle

Winters in Kyrgyzstan are long and cold. Snows cover fields and there are no fresh vegetables available. As a result, a strong tradition of pickling has developed. They pickle all sorts of things: carrots, beans, peppers. Probably apricots for all I know.

Pickling here makes sense. You have to get your vitamins somehow in winter. What I don’t understand is why they choose to include so many pickles in their summer cuisines when fresh produce is abundant. The need to eat pickles exclusively in winter would, one would think, increase the appreciation of freshness in summer.

Sadly, Krygyz do not seem to share my views. We’re staying at a guest house that serves dinner including a soup. So far so good. The problem is the abundance of pickled veg in the soup means it tastes like how the liquid in a jar of gherkins smells. Not appropriate.

I rank the over use of pickles behind bridenapping but above the polo game played with a dead goat in my hierarchy of traditional Krygyz sins.

When borders go bad

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The squiggly red line you see is what separates Kyrgyzstan from its Western neighbours: Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Borders like this were first drawn in the 1930s when the Russians set about carving up territory into ethnically based soviet republics. Their determination to have ethnic groups governed by their own people and/or their determination to create cumbersome, weak states that would be unlikely to challenge their authority led to some of the crazier borders in the world.

Of particular note are the enclaves: territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that are completely surrounded by Krygyzstan like the Vatican City is completely surrounded by Italy, but without the same market for postcards.

To start with there wasn’t much trouble. Governance of Central Asia effectively took place in Moscow, which could easily make plans that crossed the nominal borders it had drawn.

When independence came in 1991 the borders of the previous Soviet Republics were an obvious starting point for the new independent stans, and they fit comfortably with the idea that new nations would be bound together by ethnicity.

Things haven’t been peachy since. Enclaves and ‘chessboard towns‘ (jointly governed and where your ethnicity determines your citizenship) have seen frequent violence and protests. Governments have been pouring resources into protecting their borders (and Uzbekistan puts mines around their enclaves in Kyrgyzstan). But border authorities tend to be abusive and violent. Both Russia and the US are giving significant military aid to all the countries to beef up their borders further. Borders close without warning. Enclaves can be disconnected from the country that governs them. It’s a mess.

There have been some efforts to renegotiate borders, or at least to agree on the bits still drawn with dotted lines. But progress is slow – not one kilometre agreed since 2006 – and tends to take a back seat whenever there is a burst of violence.

There is another alternative to the issue. Instead of redrawing borders, just reduce their importance. Lots of other former soviet states allow free trade and free movement of people. That’s long been the arrangement that has sustained the crazy Belgium-Netherlands border which curls about and cuts through houses. I accept this idea isn’t easily applied when states still mark their territory with landmines but I dare say the solution to the regional tension here is less border security, not more.

Bridenapping: a terrible Krygyz “tradition”

It’s an idyllic summers day here in rural Kyrgyzstan. Somewhere in a village nearby a young woman is probably being kidnapped and forced to marry. They call it ala kachuu – literally to take and flee – and NGO estimates say that 40-50% of Krygyz marriages go down this way. There’s some impressive photography here.

The unsuspecting bride to be is scooped up by the groom and his henchmen groomsen and taken by car to a ceremonial yurt. The women of the groom’s family set about convincing the bride that marrying their relative is a good plan and when she submits, as the majority do, a wedding ceremony is performed. At some point the bride’s family is brought along. They generally give their consent.

Best case scenario this bridenapping is just an incredibly unusual ad traumatic way to pop the question. Men capture girlfriend like this, and some have talked about it in advance. Then the protests that the bride makes are a show of their innocence and purity. That’s the claim of this documentary that talks frankly with bride and groom. It’s well worth watching, but despite the veneer of consent, it left me feeling pretty squeamish.

Estimates suggest that two thirds of bridenappings are not the best case scenario. The young woman is taken against her will by a potentially unknown groomzilla. Social pressures lead her to comply with her kidnappers’ demands. But brides who find themselves in marriages like these don’t have a good time. There are high incidences of domestic violence and suicide.

Kygyz who are questioned about kidnapping claim its tradition, but it’s not an ancient one. Sure roving horsemen used to rape and steal, but their violence was abhorred by society not ordained. Neither is the practice sanctioned by the kind of Islam practiced here.

There is a more modern explanation of bridenapping as an unintended consequence of Soviet pushes for gender equity. The Soviets offered education and relative independence to young women. The advent of collective property meant the demise of the dowry payments that had made the system of arranged marriages go. But young couples in love still faced an uphill battle to convince their traditionally minded parents they could make their own marriage choices. If the parents were unmoved the groom would sometimes ‘kidnap’ his bride in what amounted to a dramatic form of eloping. Once the bride had spent the night with him she was impure, and her family couldn’t protest her ongoing union.

Since independence in 1991, Krygyzstan has fought hard to establish a national identity of its own. The relatively new bridenapping seemed like a good thing to pick up and claim as a cultural pillar.

Bridenapping is illegal. But police apparently don’t know this is the case, or don’t care. They’re prepared to turn a blind eye. Debates about the proper legal status for bridenapping continue. As they do estimates suggest between 8,000 – 12,000 women are bridenapped each year.