Unexpected Adventures in Central Asia
At the beginning of March 2022, I found myself back at home mid-way through my year abroad, having made an unexpectedly sudden exit from Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. I was initially disappointed at the abrupt end to my studies in Russia, but reminded myself of the importance of perspective as the tragedy in Ukraine unfolded with ever-increasing severity. Keen to try and be of use in what was quickly becoming a large-scale European refugee crisis, I set off with Joe, a fellow Oxford Russian student, first to Berlin and then to Przemyśl on the Polish-Ukrainian border. We volunteered for a month as translator-interpreters at the train stations in these cities, providing any assistance we could to the steady stream of refugees arriving from Ukraine. In the meantime, we considered the various former Soviet countries whose Russian-speaking populations would enable us to continue our language studies abroad: the South Caucasus, the Baltic States, and Central Asia. We settled on the latter as our destination of choice. Having studied the topic of Soviet nationalities policy in Central Asia as part of my university History course, I was drawn towards a region of the world which few in Britain know much about, and which even fewer have visited. After finding a suitable language school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, we booked our flights and set off east to begin the next phase of our year abroad journey.
First impressions in a new place are often shaped by the weather, and Bishkek was no exception to this rule. The torrential rain which greeted us on arrival, combined with a lack of sleep and an Air-BnB miscommunication made for a far from ideal start as we sat in vain waiting for the owner of our apartment to let us in. It was not long, however, before the hospitality of the people in this region – which would become a consistent theme of the trip – soon made itself apparent for the first time. Seeing a pair of bedraggled foreigners sat on his pavement, one of the neighbours, a friendly man called Adilet, came out to check on us, before inviting us into his house for tea and home-made soup and telling us about a cheap guesthouse just down the road. A hearty dinner of Uzbek Plov – a rice-based dish widely eaten in Central Asia – later that evening completed our turnaround in fortunes, marking the beginning of a thoroughly enjoyable stay in the city.
Bishkek is the capital of the small, mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan. Ethnic Kyrgyz constitute the majority of the country’s population; yet although the Kyrgyz language (along with others such as Uzbek and Kazakh) can often be heard, practically everyone in urban centres speaks Russian, owing in large measure to the language policies of the Soviet Union. Russian influence pre-dates the Soviet period: the city originated in 1825 as a military fortress called “Pishpek”, which became a Russian settlement in the second half of the nineteenth century as the Russian Empire expanded. Modern-day Bishkek is not particularly big. Its centre has a bustling, almost chaotic feel which fades into the calmer, more tranquil atmosphere of the tree-lined suburbs. As our first taxi-ride in the city made clear, driving here is not for the faint-hearted: the drivers are unforgiving and use of the horn is seemingly obligatory at every traffic-light. Modern development seems to have taken place in a haphazard fashion, with new high-rise apartment blocks standing alongside older, decrepit buildings and crumbling pavements. But the city has an undeniable charm and lacks the imposing, intimidating aspect of other major capitals.
Outside our Russian lessons at the language school, we had plenty of time to explore the city. We wander along wide, warm streets punctuated by street-vendors selling varieties of the country’s traditional fermented yoghurt drink, chalap (a taste which, despite numerous attempts, I am yet to acquire). A trip to the Osh Bazaar opens our eyes to the sprawling world of Central Asian markets, where it is possible to buy anything from fresh spices (which we do) to goats’ skulls (which we do not). We are introduced to the city’s best pubs and bars by Edil, a local man and avid Manchester United fan with whom we were put in touch by a mutual contact from Russia. We fine-tune our Russian listening skills at the cinema, in an avant-garde audience-driven theatre session, and at an open-mic comedy night where the speakers seem to particularly relish making jokes at the expense of the two British boys trying their best to keep up with the unrelenting stream of slang and swearwords – but the humour is always in good taste, carrying with it a friendly tone which matches the demeanour of almost everyone we meet.
The State History Museum gives us an insight into the country’s varied past, spanning the cultural heritage of the Kyrgyz people, the period of Soviet rule, and developments in Kyrgyzstan since the attainment of independent statehood following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The vast marble building of the museum is situated in the city’s main Ala-Too Square, opposite a huge, billowing national flag and a towering statue of Manas, the hero of the eponymous epic poem which forms a central component of Kyrgyz national mythology. Installed in 2011 to mark twenty years of independence, Manas stands in a spot formerly occupied by a statue of Lenin; the latter is now positioned in a less prominent location behind the museum, a shift signifying the changes in national emphasis which have occurred in the course of Kyrgyzstan’s post-Soviet journey. Of course, the echoes of Soviet and Russian influence still reverberate to some degree – most obviously in terms of the language we use every day – but I sense that the Kyrgyz people are proud of their country’s independence, their national traditions, and their democracy, however fragile the latter may be.
Yet, for Joe and me, it was in the realm of the natural world that Kyrgyzstan was at its most thrilling. On a trip to Issyk Kul, one of the largest lakes in the world, situated around 200km east of Bishkek, we saw the dazzlingly vivid colours of natural canyons, swam in the refreshing waters of a lake which never freezes despite sitting at an altitude of 1607m (its name means “warm lake” in Kyrgyz), and camped in a yurt, the round, tent-like structure emblematic of traditional nomadic culture in the Central Asian steppes. Alongside Issyk Kul, the defining feature of Kyrgyzstan’s nature is its mountains. They are an integral part of this country, woven into its very fabric: over 90% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, and Bishkek itself is situated at an altitude of about 800m. The city is fringed by the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountains, a section of the mighty Tian-Shan range which stretches across Central Asia and into Western China. These snow-capped mountains provide a beautiful backdrop to the city’s southern edge on a clear day; it is an enthralling view whose pull we could not resist. On a warm spring Saturday morning we made the short drive to the Ala-Archa national park, a popular destination for city-dwellers keen to escape the heat and bustle of urban life. From the park border, we managed to hitch-hike up to the beginning of the mountain trail, first in the front seat of a lorry-driver’s enormous water tanker, and then in the back of a family’s ramshackle old trailer. From hereon in the journey had to be made on foot, as we embarked on a stunning ascent up to the Ratsek Hut, a mountain base where trekkers can eat, rest, sleep, and prepare for further climbs. At an altitude of almost 4000m, the evening sunset and the wonderfully lucid night-time panorama of stars are views that will long be imprinted on my memory.
Nearing the end of our time away, Joe and I decided to round off our travels with a trip to Almaty, a mere few hours drive away across the border with neighbouring Kazakhstan. We made the border-crossing with an Estonian-Finnish (and Russian-speaking) couple we’d met in Bishkek, and arrived in Almaty in a classic marshrutka, the type of minibus common in the former Soviet republics, and infamous for their complete lack of timetable (the marshrutka simply departs when it is full, or, failing that, when the driver feels like it), and for their stomach-churning road manoeuvres. Almaty is not the official capital of Kazakhstan – since 1994 that title has belonged to Astana in the north – but is the cultural and commercial heart of the country. It is the elegant city of Soviet writer Yuri Dombrovsky’s novel The Keeper of Antiquities. Dombrovsky was a Russian writer exiled to Kazakhstan by the Soviet authorities, a fate shared by many other Soviet citizens – indeed, it is this fact which in part explains the staggering ethnic diversity of modern Kazakhstan. Almaty is bigger and more developed than Bishkek – reflecting Kazakhstan’s relatively more buoyant economy – and is characterised by a wonderful fusion of architectural styles. These include Soviet-era Khrushchyovkas (low-cost apartment blocks introduced under Nikita Khrushchev), impressive examples of Soviet socialist modernism with their expansive concrete exteriors and irregular shapes, neo-classical buildings decorated in national Kazakh style, and shiny modern developments. It is a city perfect for gentle strolls along broad, tree-lined avenues or through peaceful parks in the warm evening air.
We were shown round some of the sights by Samalbek, a local tour-guide whose details we were given by a guide we had met in Issyk-Kul. He is engaging, knowledgeable, and intelligent, and seems to epitomise Kazakhstan’s youth – a forward-thinking, ambitious group frustrated by the corrupt kleptocracy which has maintained a strangle-hold on power in the country since its inception as an independent nation in 1991. Samalbek tells us about the protests which swept across the country in January of this year, initially triggered by economic grievances before swelling into larger, more violent, and more politically charged demonstrations. Indeed, although the unrest has long subsided – Almaty has a remarkably tranquil air – certain traces remain etched into the physical landscape, such as the government building torched by protestors whose burnt-out shell stands adjacent to the State History Museum, covered by a dark tarpaulin. This eerie sight serves as a stark reminder of the discontent which lurks below the surface of large portions of society in Kazakhstan, and of the difficult task faced by President Tokayev as he attempts to lead the country forward on a new path following the twenty-eight-year rule of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first president.
I concluded my stay in Almaty by meeting Miras, a doctoral student in History at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University who spent a term studying in Oxford several years ago under the supervision of my tutor. He was typically generous in his hospitality, inviting me to stay at his family home in a small town outside Almaty and serving me beshbarmak for dinner, a noodle dish which is one of the main national dishes in Kazakhstan (the name means “five fingers” – a nod towards the traditional method of consumption which I did my best to attempt). It was a fitting way to end a trip which was in many ways defined by the warmth and kindness of the local people I met in both countries. I will definitely be returning to the region in the future.