On The Road Through Vegetables, Deserts and Lies: The Presidential Election in California

News and Politics, Travel

The following piece of writing was written as part of my A2 Creative Writing Coursework Unit. If you happen to be an exams officer who’s stumbled upon this blog through a plagiarism detector – yes, I wrote this. 

Prologue

West Sussex, Wednesday, 9 November

No way man. He’ll take Virginia 10/10

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I just saw Virginia

Peter

I just took 8 shots of vodka

If Trump wins all three I’m taking another 8

And if he wins overall I’m drinking 8 shots of lighter fluid

It’s 2:19am in England and my friend and I are staying up to watch the US election. The main contention right now seems to be the state of Virginia, which he is fairly certain will go to Donald Trump. I’m not convinced. Not all the votes have yet been counted, and although Trump is leading by several points, the traditionally Democratic Northern counties are still waiting to report. Sure enough, within the next hour his lead narrows, and by 4am Hillary Clinton has won the state by a margin of 5%. However, as everyone would soon realise, it wouldn’t be enough.

A few hours later, my 16 year old sister texts me from California. “This is so crazy. People in my school are wearing black tomorrow as a form of protest and honouring America’s funeral”. Later that night, thousands of protesters will block highways across the state. In New York, thousands more will march down 5th Avenue towards Trump Tower, furious at the fact that, even though their candidate would end up polling well over 2 million more votes, The White House would end up in the hands of someone very different. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed, reading paranoid cries proclaiming the end of Western civilization, I couldn’t help but mull over the fact that it was certainly entertaining, that is, in the same way that our sheer morbid curiosity has us watching slow-motion car crashes from the perspective of some Russian dash cam.

This was the election when everyone was suddenly concerned about the phenomenon of so-called “fake news”, when debate audiences shouted down fact checkers. An election fought between a serial liar and a man who seemed to posses a scorching contempt for truth itself. Neither of the two sides will ever admit this, but their candidates were just as dishonest as each other. Clinton lied until there was no one left to lie to, while Trump managed to find himself on opposite ends of every major policy position. “I hate the concept of guns,” were once the words of a man endorsed by the National Rifle Association. A man who shuffled between fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act and support for universal healthcare. A man who was such a devout Christian that he couldn’t cite a single bible verse, and such a strong believer in traditional marriage that he’s had three of them.

In the aftermath, his supporters continued to chant “Drain The Swamp,” a slogan meant to signify cleaning Washington of corruption and special interests, while Trump filled his transition team with a vast array of swamp creatures. Instead of draining the swamp, he seemed to be building a brand new one right next to it. Soon, in a moment so surreal it would leave Picasso envious, the clearly out of his depth President-elect found himself shaking hands with Barack Obama. “I have great respect” was what Trump then said about the man he previously claimed was “the founder of ISIS.” Otto Von Bismarck once said that “People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.” Over one hundred years after his death, the Prussian’s wise words certainly ring true.

 

Clinton Country

Los Angeles, Monday, 24 October

If there’s one thing Americans definitely take seriously, it’s Halloween. In a tale not unlike that of Christmas, it’s a holiday that has gradually evolved into the perfect expression of American capitalism. That is, to paraphrase Neil Degrasse Tyson, a Pagan holiday turned Christian holiday turned shopping holiday, it has long left behind its traditional religious roots in favour of selling children and adults alike on an array of terribly overpriced costumes. If you’re a kid, then it’s a holiday where you walk around and harass your neighbours for free sweets. If you’re an adult, Halloween is both an excuse to get drunk as well as a time to pay society back for all the free candy you got when you were a kid.

It’s about a week before Halloween and as I’m walking around our neighbourhood while still recovering from jet lag, it’s clear that the locals have prepared. Everything is covered in pumpkins and synthetic spider webs. Props and decorations are in front of almost every house, from skeletons to zombies and vampires, while a family down the road has even erected an entire graveyard. One of our neighbours, a funny young guy with a passion for surfing, has drawn Donald Trump’s face on a pumpkin and displayed it proudly on his lawn. Every so often, someone from their house comes out and whacks this poor little Trumpkin with a baseball bat. Attitudes like that aren’t uncommon in Los Angeles, for this is firmly Clinton Country.

Simply walking around most of LA’s suburbs is enough to realise who’s winning here. Lawn signs and placards declaring support for the Clinton campaign are everywhere and after a few hours I’m still yet to find a single one advertising for the other side. In fact, I’ve seen more people publicly endorsing Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s unsuccessful primary opponent, than the official Republican nominee. It’s as if the entire mighty Trump movement has gone underground, and there’s nothing more to blame than America’s ancient two party system.

Most democracies have changed quite a lot over the past two hundred years; universal suffrage was expanded, women won the right to vote and more proportional voting methods and electoral systems became widespread. That is, unless you happen to live in The United States. Sure, universal suffrage for white men was introduced in 1856, for black men in 1870 (although voter suppression of African Americans continued for decades after) and finally for women in 1920. However, the electoral system by which Americans elect their President, or rather don’t, has remained unchanged since its very inception.

Votes in US Presidential elections are given to states, not people. Each state is given a number of votes depending on its population, and whichever candidate wins a state, no matter the majority, he or she receives all of that state’s electoral college votes. Out of the 538 total votes, 270 are needed to win.

This is an awful way to run an election in any modern democracy, with the most obvious problem being that someone can easily win the Presidency without getting the most votes from actual people. This has happened before, most recently in 2000 when George W Bush received 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore but still won due getting just 500 more in Florida. Furthermore, the fact that each state gets 3 votes before the rest are distributed according to population means that smaller states get disproportionately more, and bigger states disproportionately less, than they logically should. As a result, it is mathematically possible to become the President of The United States with only 22% of the popular vote, a scenario that, while extremely unlikely, is so ludicrously indefensible that its very existence is enough reason alone to push for electoral reform.

The only reason that such a result has never yet happened, however, is another strike against the Electoral College. As most states tend to lean heavily in one direction or the other, votes in some places happen to be worth far more than in others. If you’re unfortunate enough to be a Democratic supporter in Texas or South Carolina, you might as well stay home. This is also why the Republicans aren’t putting in much effort in the suburbs of Los Angeles. According to Nate Silver, one of America’s top polling analysts, Trump’s chances of winning California currently stand lower than 0.1%, which is why neither of the two candidates have even visited the state since the primaries.

Walking back home, I can’t help but gawk at a particularly enthusiastic household, even by the aforementioned Trumpkin standards. Several Clinton signs are displayed on the walls, on the lawn and on the tree in the front garden. By the doorway stands a lifesize cardboard cutout of the Democratic nominee herself, holding a sign which reads “Vote!” To her immediate right, an equally large cutout of a smiling Barack Obama with a sign proclaiming “I’m with her,” a slogan used heavily by the Clinton campaign to emphasise her female credentials. Finally, from the roof hangs what appears to be a piñata, a piñata dressed as Donald Trump. Presumably, come Halloween, the members of this household will smash it apart and devour whatever contents lie inside. It reminds me of that time when mining villages in South Yorkshire celebrated Margaret Thatcher’s funeral by hanging and burning effigies of the former British Prime Minister. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about getting people involved in politics, but surely everything has its limits.

 

Farmers For Trump!

Central Valley, Near Bakersfield, Friday, 28 October

We decide to take a trip to San Francisco, about a six hour drive from Los Angeles along Interstate 5, a journey which can say a lot about the current political situation in America. After finally escaping the infamous LA traffic, the highway initially leads through the San Emigdio Mountains, separating the LA and Kern Counties. Emerging on the other side of the mountain range feels like entering a completely different reality, as the bustling metropolitan landscape of the second largest city in North America gives way to the sparsity of the Central Valley.

100 km wide and 720 km long, the valley appears to be a living oxymoron. Suffering from what is now a five year drought, the landscape at first appears barren, devoid of much life or vegetation. However, what soon follows is thousands upon thousands of acres of farmland, stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s a spectacle that can make even the world’s greatest pessimist revel in admiration, for despite the worst drought in recorded history, this valley accounts for over half of the vegetables, fruits and nuts grown in the United States of America. It is an achievement only made possible by an extensive system of synthetic reservoirs and canals – a true feat of modern engineering. However, there is also cause for great tension here.

Despite being a concern some of us might only think applicable in either the developing world or dystopian fiction, water is a huge issue in California, so much so that wasting it is now considered a criminal offense. Anyone hoping to maintain a garden in Palmdale or Los Angeles will find themselves combating ever tightening regulations, while fines for acting carelessly with this ever so important resource amount to hundreds of dollars per person. Yet many campaigners want to tighten the laws further, a truly alarming prospect to the 450,000 people currently employed by California’s 46 billion dollar agricultural sector.

To many of them, these efforts are nothing but an ill advised attempt by the state’s ever growing metropolitan elite to indulge in ‘ignorant farmer bashing.’ Quite understandably, they aren’t prepared to stand aside and let their livelihoods be destroyed by millennial environmentalist campaigners sitting on MacBooks and sipping Starbucks coffee. Many of them are prepared to vote to prevent this from ever happening. While cruising along  Interstate 5, we make a stop for petrol. Getting out of the car, I am immediately greeted by two signs fixed to the side of a rusty detached freight container. On the left, We Need Water & Jobs NOT Jim Costa, a reference to the local Democratic congressman who has accused farmers of pumping groundwater at unsustainable rates, and on the right, VOTE TO MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

When Hillary Clinton was filmed at a fundraiser back in September saying that “half” of Trump’s supporters could be put in what she called “The Basket of Deplorables,” it was easily one of the greatest own goals of this entire campaign. As she happily labelled millions of people as “Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it,” she not only broke what is often considered to be rule one of political campaigning (say whatever you want about your opponent, but never, ever, attack the electorate), but also helped to advance an already established view of herself as someone who couldn’t care less about ordinary people. Soon enough, Trump supporters had completely appropriated the term for their own ends, as “Deplorable” t-shirts were being sold at rallies all over the country.

Logically speaking, there was certainly truth in what Clinton said. After receiving endorsements from familiar names such as the Ku Klux Klan, I am willing to wager that just about every single xenophobe and white nationalist in America is voting for Donald Trump. However, most of those people don’t live in the kind of places that matter in US elections. Should every single confederate flag waving lunatic living out of a trailer park in South Carolina come out and vote for Trump in November, that wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference as far as the electoral college is concerned.

Instead, this election will be decided not by the deplorable but by the disenfranchised, and those people are turning out for Trump in droves. Certainly there has to be a better reason than mere prejudice behind every Farmers For Trump! billboard that we drive by on our way to San Francisco. These people aren’t racists or xenophobes, they employ thousands of immigrants. Their farms are only running thanks to the Mexicans, Jamaicans and Guatemalans that work on them, approximately a third for less than the minimum wage. So why then? Why is a New York billionaire who grew up in Manhattan and lives in mansion in Palm Beach so fervently supported by farmers in rural California?

Despite what you may hear from the other side, it’s not racism, and neither is it stupidity. It is because while Hillary Clinton has focused on maximizing support among the metropolitan elite of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Trump has been very clear about which side he represents in California’s ongoing water war. “There is no drought.” he told a Fresno audience during the primaries back in May. “We’re going to solve your water problem… If I win, believe me, we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive.”

Everyone knows that there’s a drought in California; simply going outside is usually enough evidence to prove it, however, most people also know that Donald Trump isn’t particularly clever. They might question his reasoning, but they certainly don’t doubt his intentions, and while a few hundred thousand agricultural workers in the Central Valley will not swing this election, their story is replicated everywhere across the country.

 

Designed In California

San Francisco, Saturday, 29 October

After six hours on the road, and one night spent at a motel somewhere along the way, we finally get to San Francisco. As we drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, the city in front of us is covered in a thick fog. For many of Donald Trump’s supporters, it serves as a perfect representation of everything that is wrong with contemporary America, both in cultural terms as well as economic. Culturally, it is viewed as a place that has been completely overrun by out of touch quasi-liberal fruitcakes. Economically, it represents a growing shift in Western countries, a shift away from manufacturing and towards Research and Development.

To the south of the San Francisco Bay Area, around the city of San Jose, lies Silicon Valley: the home of Apple, Google, AMD and dozens of other multinational corporations. It is only due to this massive sprawl of local startups and global tech giants that California can now proudly call itself the world’s fifth largest economy, having recently overtaken both France and the United Kingdom. On the surface, this might seem like an incredible achievement, but not one that is appreciated by everyone across America. For many of those living in post industrial Northern states, their support for Donald Trump stems as much from their opposition to Silicon Valley as it does from their opposition to Wall Street. Since Western economies have shifted from industry to R&D, it is those working in manufacturing jobs that have been left behind.

America is a big place, and one would be wrong to assume that everyone who lives there happens to share in the same values and priorities as they do. What excites and energises a farmer living on the outskirts of Bakersfield is likely quite different than a Santa Monica Liberal Arts graduate. Now imagine you’re a poor, thirty something, blue collar worker from South East Michigan. You’ve recently lost your job because the car factory that you used to work in has packed up shop and relocated overseas. Let’s also say that you have a wife who is a teacher at the local elementary school and gets paid a pittance, and two small kids that need to be clothed and fed.

Up comes the election, and two very different candidates are fighting for your vote. One of them is a massively corrupt political insider that lobbied and voted for all the familiar sounding trade deals. You know, the trade deals that have sent your beloved car factory to Calcutta and yourself to the job seekers’ queue. The other candidate is a massively corrupt sexist asshole that wants to tear up that goddam trade deal. In a normal election, you would probably have concluded that your best chance to get that job back is voting for the Democrat. However, this isn’t any normal election. If you want to understand a crucial part of Trump’s appeal, just read the smallprint on the back of your iPhone – “Designed in California. Assembled in China,” It could very well have been his campaign slogan.

There may even be an argument to the effect that, had the Democrats run a typical establishment candidate with a relatively clean record, they might have at least won the moral argument. But what chance of that is there now? For the past few months, the Clinton campaign has been running ads showing Donald Trump saying a plethora of naughty words. Earlier in October, recordings surfaced in which the Republican nominee essentially admitted to groping women. The media exploded with condemnation; some said that the election was practically over, that we might as well hold hands, sing kumbaya and embrace her majesty Mrs Clinton.

However, most of those voting for Trump don’t see him as the ultimate arbiter of morality, and it’s pretty hard to claim that moral high ground when your past is as reprehensible as that of Hillary Clinton. Trump may have used his billionaire status to force himself on unsuspecting women, however, Clinton also just happened to be complicit in the harassment of a number of women who’ve accused her husband of sexual assault. Now, whether groping is a more heinous offense than harassing rape survivors is up to you to decide, but surely neither can claim to be a moral authority intent on telling others how to behave.

Corruption and lies are the two things which, above all, have come to characterise the rise of Hillary Clinton. It certainly doesn’t help that she’s married to a man who, to paraphrase US lawyer David Schippers, lied to a criminal grand jury, lied to the people, lied to his aides, lied to The Congress and kept on lying until there was no one left to lie to. For the Clintons, lying has all but become an impulse, an instinctive reflex used to extend their political survival. Many American voters still remember Mrs Clinton’s story of “landing under sniper fire” and having to run to her vehicle during a visit to Bosnia in 1996. A tremendous PR disaster soon ensued when it emerged that the entire episode had been wholly manufactured. In truth, the then First Lady spent several minutes on the tarmac with a large Bosnian greeting ceremony, footage of which emerged not long afterwards.

One might assume that, following such a humiliating incident, Hillary Clinton might be encouraged to pursue a slightly more transparent approach, but to no avail. Near the end of the summer, speculation began to emerge that the Democratic nominee might be suffering from poor health, but the Clinton campaign vigorously swept aside any such speculation. In the end, this secrecy merely culminated in yet another PR disaster, when during a 9/11 remembrance event in New York City, the kind of event where every political bone in your body should be screaming “don’t make news,” Clinton was filmed collapsing while being escorted away by her secret service detail. As her campaign soon revealed, turns out Clinton had pneumonia, not exactly something most people would deeply care about. However, the damage was already done, and it was two sided. Clinton’s fervent secrecy not only helped to present her as an untrustworthy individual, but also created a vacuum in which conspiracy theories far more exciting than mere pneumonia could spread.

 

Epilogue

Santa Monica, Wednesday, 21 December

“He’s just a fucking idiot, if you’ll excuse my French.”

“Oh no, it’s fine.”

“Just a massive fucking idiot.”

After an offhand comment on my part, the Uber driver started talking about Donald Trump. Back in California for Christmas, things have seemingly returned to normal. The Halloween decorations and presidential piñatas are gone, almost as if the prophesied end of the world hadn’t even happened.

“You know, I think his children will soon disown him,” he continued.

“Oh yeah? Which ones?”

“Well… I think Ivanka.”

“She definitely seems to be smarter than him.”

“But, you know, I think generally what we’re seeing is a good thing. The country, I mean, it feels like it’s going to go back to the people. You know? Like back to the principles it was founded on.”

Well, he clearly wasn’t a terribly big fan of Trump, yet somehow there was cause for optimism. Although the argument that Trump won because of “the people” is slightly countered by the fact that he got almost three million fewer votes, the cause for optimism isn’t necessarily unfounded. Sure, the next leader of the free world is a massively insecure man-child whose Twitter account has a good chance of causing international incidents, but perhaps his ascent to power represents something greater than any one single US President.

More than anything else, American elections are traditionally won on the backs of gigantic piles of cash, yet rather paradoxically, Trump, the single wealthiest individual to ever enter the Oval Office, might have just ended that trend. The Clinton campaign outspent its rival roughly two to one, just like Obama had outspent Romney and John McCain and just like Bush did in his campaign against Gore and then Kerry. The pattern seems to be clear. Want to be the leader of the free world? No problem, just fork over more money than the other guy or gal. Except this time that didn’t work.

Maybe that’s the silver lining this time around. Whoever was going to win this election, the White House would have ended up in the hands of a corrupt and lying narcissist. While a victory for Clinton would have also been one for America’s political establishment, Trump’s assent to power was nothing short of a political revolution. Proof, if you will, that the American people can still eject from power those that they feel have screwed them.

Perhaps Trump is merely a rough stepping stone towards a country whose rulers once again fear the wrath of their electorate, and not the other way around. It is also, undeniably, a personal triumph of incredible proportions. When, in June 2015, Donald J Trump descended down an elevator to the sounds of cheers from “supporters” who were paid $50 a head to be there, everyone either dismissed or laughed at him. I’m not sure what Mahatma Gandhi, the legendary leader of India’s independence movement, would have thought of Trump, but his words have ended up as prophecy: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, and then you win.”

 

Kyrgyzstan: In The Soviet Shadow

Travel

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.

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‘Manas Air Base’

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“Kyrgyzstan is a fascinating place; and quite possibly the most beautiful on Earth”

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.

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Nomads in Suusamyr valley

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A boy looks over a flock of sheep

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.

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“The majestic peaks of the Tian Shan mountains tower over both sides of the lake”

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“The only cars around are also products of Soviet Russia”

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.

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“Parts of Kyrgyzstan feel like you’ve driven to the very end of the world”

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“Lake Issyk Kul”

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.

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“The score remains at zero”

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“Lenin watches over his empty domain”

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