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Kyrgyzstan: Taking the lead in Central Asia

A trip to Central Asia is a trip which, just over 20 years ago, was nigh-on impossible; out of reach and unknown in one of the most obscure areas beyond the Iron Curtain – an area surrounded by mystery.

October 10, 2013 - Stuart Wadsworth - Articles and Commentary



Then in December 1991, much to the world’s surprise, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, five new countries appeared on the map: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. None had previously had independence from Russia for more than a few months. Throughout the majority of the 1990s and 2000s, the region suffered economic collapse, conflict, corruption and extreme hardship, and barely became more open to travellers. Today, the picture is gradually changing, and the area has become safer and more conducive to exploration – although often still far from easy.

Over a six-week period in late summer 2013, freelance writer Stuart Wadsworth visited three of these countries – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – to find out how the region is developing. A four and a half thousand kilometre road trip from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Tashkent in Uzbekistan – the long way round by public transport (where it existed) through Tajikistan and the High Pamir mountains, to the deserts and “Silk Road” of Uzbekistan – took Stuart through some of the most spectacular high-altitude scenery in the world and to some of the most ancient cities in the whole of Asia, to discover a fascinating region in a state of flux.

The first problem on planning a trip to Central Asia is: how to do it? Looking at a map of this region in the heart of Asia, which most people fly over to get to China, India or the Far East, the borders comprise a bizarre jigsaw-puzzle that appear to have been drawn by a four-year old child squiggling for fun. In fact, these borders are the result of sober reflection by Joseph Stalin, whose policy in the region from the 1930s onwards was to divide and conquer, thereby eliminating political dissent.

The result of this today is several isolated enclaves within the region, displaced populations which can sometimes cause political flare-ups and a lot of frustrating bureaucracy. This makes travel to the region complicated; and to further complicate the situation, several borders are subject to closure, temporarily or permanently, depending on which way the political wind is blowing.

I decided early on to eliminate Turkmenistan from my plans: a desert country dubbed the North Korea of Central Asia, it requires several weeks and much patience to obtain a visa, and once there tourists must be accompanied by an official guide. Also, due to time constraints, Kazakhstan was left out – it being the ninth largest country in the world in terms of land area – and surprisingly despite its size containing relatively little of tourist interest. Thus, I had three countries to travel in six weeks – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – in that order, with two weeks apiece.

A beacon of hope

Choosing to start the trip in Kyrgyzstan proved a good decision: excellent connections to the airport in Bishkek enabled an inexpensive budget flight from Europe, and the lack of any visa hassle (they were abolished in 2011) means that arrival is remarkably easy and stress-free. The country is currently going through a transitional period: alone amongst the “Stans”, it has done away with visa restrictions for all EU countries and several others, as it tries to open up trade, tourist and political links with the West.

Trying to forge a new identity as a viable tourist destination, it has dubbed itself “the Switzerland of Central Asia”, which is not as inaccurate as it sounds; land-locked, mountainous and slightly aloof from the countries around it, it contains plenty for those with a passion for the outdoors especially. It may lack the banks, extreme wealth and cuckoo clocks, but it also lacks the stifling conformity and love of rules of Switzerland, and of all the “Stans” appears to have some hope of genuine democracy. Loathed, discredited president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in April 2010, a revolution which Vladimir Putin described as “the beginning of the Arab Spring”. Although several changes have followed, democracy is definitely a key-word here, and people are more apt to discuss politics than elsewhere in the region.

The feeling is that Bishkek is taking the lead and showing a possible route for the rest of the region to break away from post-Soviet autocracy and corruption; some political commentators have referred to it as “a beacon of hope”. Neighbouring Kazakhstan has never held an election considered free or fair, whilst Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are among the most repressive countries in the world with ex-communists in power since independence. The latter recently banned a satirical film about a tyrannical dictator and has one of the worst human rights records anywhere in the world.

Bishkek itself is a surprisingly relaxing city, and pleasant to wander round; designed to a grid-pattern by the Russians, babbling brooks run down its streets and the huge massif of the Kyrgyz Central Alatau range loom in the background, while the city’s many parks and trees often make you feel as if you have inadvertently taken a wrong turning into the countryside. Reminders of the country’s recent past remain: Lenin stands proudly behind the State Historical Museum (moved from the front after 1991, but revealingly not done away with entirely as in many other ex-Soviet countries), while the Museum itself somewhat glorifies its Soviet past with a whole floor given over to Soviet artefacts and iconography. Clearly it is not a nation which harbours any great bitterness towards its Soviet past. In fact, talking to people across the region, especially the older generation, you often get a feeling of nostalgia for the past and an impression that things were “better in the old days”; not surprising, given the economic hardship, large-scale unemployment and political turmoil that has followed the Soviet break-up.

The Switzerland of Central Asia

Travelling to the mountains in Kyrgyzstan is almost obligatory, and after a few days in the relaxing but sight-free streets of Bishkek, you are more than ready to see them. First stop is Lake Issyk Kul, (“Hot Lake” in Kyrgyz), the second-largest Alpine lake in the world at 1607m, the deepest in Central Asia (668m), and strangely freeze-resistant due to its slight salinity and geo-thermal activity. Although 118 rivers and streams flow in, mystifyingly, none flow out. It is one of Central Asia’s most beautiful natural sights. However, one sad result of Soviet (and post-Soviet) environmental disregard is an almost-total lack of fish in the lake due to over-fishing and the introduction of alien species in the 1960s; thus, no boats grace the lake, and very few birds live or breed here. The main resort, Cholpon-Ata, is a glitzy, crowded place with bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes lining its shores, attracting the nouveau-riche of the region, especially from nearby Kazakhstan (Almaty is only a three-hour drive).

The nearby low-key resort of Tamchy is preferable for those seeking something a bit more peaceful, and there are fantastic views to be had from here over the Central Tian Shan range bordering China, towering to over 7000m in the East. China looms, physically and psychologically, over this small country; the economic power-house of Asia is a huge investor in the region and many projects are undertaken by Chinese companies, much to the chagrin of Russia. This region has traditionally attracted a lot of Chinese, especially from the repressed Dungan (Chinese Muslim) community from western China. Karakol, a town on the eastern shores of the lake, contains some interesting Dungan architecture, in particular a mosque which looks for all the world like a Buddhist Temple, constructed entirely of wood and built without nails. The lake’s southern shore is far less populated, and arguably more beautiful.

In tiny Tosor it is possible to stay in a remote yurt camp on the lake’s shores with stunning views of the nearby mountains. One great aspect of travel in this country is a community-based tourism (CBT) project, a government-led initiative which puts independent travellers in touch with locals. Home stays can be had for 10-20 dollars a night, full board, thereby ensuring the money goes straight into local pockets. In addition, you can be put in touch with local guides who will show you the region’s many mountain attractions. Camping in a yurt here is an experience not to be missed; these igloo-shaped constructions made of felt and canvas are surprisingly cosy and spacious inside, decorated with colourful local carpets and thick blankets. A night in one of these is a quintessential Kyrgyz experience.

Central Kyrgyzstan contains the remote, spectacular Lake Song-Kul (higher, smaller, colder and more remote than Issyk-Kol), and the spectacular jailoos (high mountain pastures) for which this country is famed, are well worth exploring. The mountains are mostly bare, and deforested, which has the advantage of allowing visitors to easily explore without guidance. The scope for exploration is endless, and the adventurous will find themselves in their element here; you can wander the mountain pastures for hours without seeing anybody other than a few farmers or locals in their distinctive tall felt hats. Kochkor makes a good base to explore Song-Kul – a taxi must be hired to access it – and the beautiful road that heads west towards Osh passes through Sussamyr and Kyzyl-Oi, villages which contain CBT home stays and countless hiking opportunities.

CBT home stays exist throughout the country, and many travellers take advantage of them in this region particularly where hotels are scarce; the independent, back-packing travel scene is starting to flourish in the country, and such projects really do seem to be making a difference. Most home stays are comfortable, clean and friendly, and also supply the best home-cooked food you will find, although it is most likely to be shorpo (mutton with potato soup), plov (rice with mutton) or laghman (noodles with beef); cuisine is not a valid reason to travel to Central Asia, and can get quite repetitive. Despite a lack of top-quality food and hot water, and occasionally running water, the hospitality of the locals makes travel here a genuine pleasure. People are not used to tourists and they show a keen interest – sometimes manifesting itself in impromptu invitations to down vodka shots with locals, so a sturdy stomach is a pre-requisite.

Simmering tensions

The journey from Bishkek to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, is extremely arduous, via several precipitous mountain passes and serpentine roads, taking 12 hours or more to cover a 500km journey, but was happily broken up by a visit to the beautiful mountain town of Arslanbob, famed for having the largest walnut forest in Central Asia, as well as numerous hiking opportunities. The city lies in the lowland Fergana Valley, the most heavily-populated region of Central Asia and also the centre of much unrest in recent history, including a massacre of 400 people in 2010 during riots following the ousting of President Bakiyev. Simmering tensions remain today and there is a slight air of menace here unlike anywhere else in the country. Uzbeks make up 40 per cent of the population due to one of the more absurd borders in the region, and the town has more in common with the eastern Fergana province of Uzbekistan.

Whilst these tensions don’t directly affect the traveller, it is worth being wary here, especially at night, where some attacks on foreigners in recent times have been reported. The town itself, although having ancient roots – locals maintain the city is older than Rome – is a plain commercial centre with little architectural interest to detain the visitor, although the bustling bazaar is huge and one of the most fun to discover in all Central Asia. A jagged, barren rock overlooking the city called Solomon’s Throne – a Muslim place of pilgrimage for many centuries, supposedly because Mohammed once prayed here – is the only other major site in town. Osh is useful mainly as a base from which to launch yourself into either China or Tajikistan’s High Pamir – the latter route being the one I had plotted.

Kyrgyzstan was both immensely enjoyable and physically tiring, but the overall impression was overwhelmingly positive. Opportunities for tourism here are only beginning to be realised, and visitors to the country at this time will be rewarded for their sense of adventure not just by the incredible friendliness of the people, but by a travelling experience that is rare these days: one totally unsullied by commercialism and in which you really feel you are travelling sustainably – something to be treasured in these times of mass-tourism; it appears this obscure nation really can show the way forward in this historically-troubled region. If the Central Asian republics are to forge a new identity once the ex-communist generation finally fades away – and they must – this country is at least trying to show how it can be done.

So, having stocked up on supplies and dollars, my mind was now focused on the next challenge: Tajikistan’s High Pamirs – a remote region in a remote country. The journey was going to get a whole lot more challenging on the second-highest road in the world – the Pamir Highway.

All photos are published with kind permission of Stuart Wadsworth.

Stuart Wadsworth is a freelance writer and travel photographer, and has contributed to Rough Guides, Urban Travel Blog, the Krakow Post and other media. He has a blog: http://www.offexploring.com/stuinkrakow. Stuart has spent the last decade travelling to, and writing about, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, and has visited every country in the old Eastern Bloc. He calls Krakow his home for now and enjoys spending his spare time watching and reviewing live music, and in the summer escaping to the mountains. His career as a food critic was curtailed due to an expanding waistline.

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