Landing in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek can prove to be a little daunting, mostly because it feels like your plane is touching down not on a professionally built runway but rather a collection of shell craters. Suitcases shuffle violently in the baggage compartment, a baby is screaming somewhere and I’m trying very hard not to smack my head against the seat in front. The reason for this awfully shaky landing becomes obvious as soon as I recover from the initial shock and shift my gaze towards the window. To the left is a long line of transport aircraft, huge Boeing C-17 Globemasters carrying the inscription “US Air Force”. As one might imagine, 13 years of landing 120-tonne planes have certainly taken their toll upon a runway built in and barely maintained since the 1970s.
This is ‘Manas International Airport’, which since 2001 has also served as a major support base for American Forces in Afghanistan, six hundred miles away. This might seem a little odd considering Kyrgyzstan’s former membership of the Soviet Union, however money talks and six Globemaster aircraft are equal to the country’s yearly GDP.
Kyrgyzstan is a fascinating place, and quite possibly the most beautiful on Earth. Positioned along the ancient silk road, it borders China to the South East, Kazakhstan to the North and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the South West. As it did not become an independent state until 25 years ago, the area which is today Kyrgyzstan changed hands numerous times throughout its two-thousand-year-old history; depending on what empire or khanate then ruled over the mountains and plains of Central Asia.
The word “Kyrgyz” itself is believed to be derived from the Turkic word “forty”, a reference to the forty clans which united under the legendary hero Manas in the 9th century AD. Together they managed to defeat the Uyghur Khaganate, and for the next two hundred years established themselves as the dominant power in the region. Then the Mongols came, and the Kyrgyz tribes found themselves conquered once again; this time by Jochi, the son of Genghis Khan, who incorporated them into his Golden Horde. Over the next six hundred years, control of the region shifted from one khanate to another. In the late 19th century, the Kyrgyz found themselves facing the Russian Empire, as the latter continued expanding Eastwards. Kyrgyzstan was formally annexed in 1876, and in 1936, following the Bolshevik takeover, it was established as one of the fifteen Soviet Republics.
With Soviet Rule came both civilization and oppression. Roads, schools, and entirely new cities were built. Nomads were forcibly resettled as part of land reforms; dissenters were imprisoned and or executed. In August of 1991, as the Soviet Union was finally collapsing under the weight of its own inefficiency, Kyrgyzstan declared independence; and the country went to the dogs. With financial backing from Moscow gone, infrastructure collapsed, the economy declined and everyone who could, left to find a job in either Russia or nearby Kazakhstan. Today, Kyrgyzstan is a failed state of approximately six million people. Its GDP falls behind Rwanda and Zimbabwe while over 40% live under the international poverty line.
There’s not that much to do in Bishkek, but be sure to pay a visit to ‘Obama Bar & Grill’; an establishment which has been rather popular with American servicemen. You may also want to make a trip to the Osh Market, or as European visitors call it, ‘the bizarre bazaar’. The main speciality here is American military gear. Boots, jackets, trousers; as long as it’s not lethal, the Osh market has it. Due to its massively overblown budget, the US military changes all its equipment every other year; and instead of chucking the old stuff away, the airbase at Manas sells it to the local market. It’s all very high-quality stuff, and the prices are ridiculous. A brand new pair of hiking boots that would cost over a hundred dollars in Europe can be found here for less than thirty bucks.
We drive to lake Issyk Kul, one of Kyrgyzstan’s few holiday destinations. Like much of the country, it’s an area of stunning natural beauty. The majestic peaks of the Tian Shan mountains tower over both sides of the lake. The tallest of these is ‘Lenin Peak’ at eight thousand metres high; two thousand higher than ‘Boris Yeltsin’ peak and three thousand higher than ‘Vladimir Putin peak’, both of which are indeed real mountains in Kyrgyzstan.
Reminders of its Soviet past are scattered all over the countryside. While the Northern shore of Issyk Kul is filled with tourists, the Southern side (just like most of the country), is a place forgotten in time. The beaches are empty of people, but full of abandoned hotels. Giant holiday resorts which were built towards the end of the 1980s, but never actually opened. In full accordance with the mood, the only cars around are also products of Soviet Russia. Our Suburban SUV feels terribly out of place here; local children gaze upon it as if it’s a kind of spaceship.
Except for our car, the only modern thing around is a giant mural standing alongside the road. It depicts an absurdly surreal interpretation of Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 revolution, which succeeded in replacing its president with another. Central Asia as a whole is infamous for its political instability. Nearby Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are well known as military dictatorships with appalling human rights records while most of Kyrgyzstan is run by the local Mafia. In a country where the government’s own power barely extends beyond the capital, bigger gun diplomacy is very much the norm; the police are just another branch of organised crime, and occasionally known to be involved in the drugs trade.
We’ve been driving for about five hours now. If you’re the kind of person who is known to get car-sick, then I suggest you avoid this country like the plague. Kyrgyzstan is twice the size of Portugal, but its total population doesn’t even compete with London. Getting anywhere at all involves a lot of driving, on roads which at best often resemble wartime Berlin, and it’s possible to drive for hundreds of kilometers without encountering a single living person. But this has a certain majesty about it. This sheer sense of scale and natural beauty so far away from civilization is unlike anything you’ll ever find in Europe. Parts of Kyrgyzstan feel like you’ve driven to the very end of the world.
The place we’re in now is known as ‘Chernobyl’. It’s a ghost town, but unlike the Ukrainian fallout zone it’s nicknamed after, this place was never settled to begin with. It’s also located in what is essentially a territorial vacuum. Like every place in Kyrgyzstan, it stands next to a mountain range. However over this particular range is The People’s Republic of China. Since the elevation here is over two thousand metres above sea level, and winter temperatures can go as low as minus fifty centigrade, the nearest border post is 150 kilometers from the Chinese frontier. This here is no man’s land, and ‘Chernobyl’ is somewhere in the middle.
The real name of this town is ‘Ynylcheck’. Its population was supposed to be three thousand people, and everything is here. Housing comes in rows of four and five-storey apartment blocks. There’s a sewage system, a school, and even a basketball court. The score remains at zero. No child has ever played here; no person has ever lived here. From a stone tablet hanging off the side of a wooden shack, a picture of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin watches over his empty domain. It’s overwhelmingly creepy.
When driving from Issyk Kul back to Bishkek, we stumble upon a rare occurrence. Major roadworks are underway in a small opening in-between the mountains. The Kyrgyz government has no money or even people for such an undertaking; considering most of its male workforce is likely building roads in Moscow. The people before us are Chinese convicts, and their government is doing this work for free. As the joke goes, “God made the world. China made everything else”, and Beijing needs a new land route by which to transport its cheap goods to the Russian market. Two thousand years ago, during the reign of the Han dynasty, Chinese silk flowed through this region on its way to Persia. Now, history is repeating itself; and this new silk road carries everything from clothing, to cheap mobile phones to plastic children’s toys.
We’ve just made it out of the tunnel and now find ourselves near the top of the mountain. A great flat plain of 80 km in length presents itself below. As it is early May, it’s full of red poppies and herds of livestock which graze on the nearby fields. The sheer sense of scale is simply breathtaking. I’m standing here, at four thousand meters high, and below me is just space and emptiness. Turning back to the car I spot a circular concrete boulder. We’re told that a statue of the late Vladimir Lenin used to stand there once; a statue which the local nomads have long ago picked apart and sold for scrap metal. Chances are, they hadn’t the slightest idea as to who it depicted. Now it’s used by passers-by as a makeshift toilet, and I’m struggling to find a better metaphor to describe the collapse of the former Soviet Empire.
Photography courtesy of http://mykgstan.com