Kyrgyzstan is a country of contrasts. While clichéd to say it, it is a country of more cutting disparities than any I have ever experienced; and this comes from someone who just spent 8 months shuttling between Moscow and a tiny Russian village of 80 people.
After a painful encounter in the entangling red tape of Russian visa bureaucracy, I find myself doing a 6-week internship at an NGO in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. Prior to coming here, I knew nothing of the country other than the fact that some people spoke Russian (promising), and Borat was filmed somewhere like here (not so promising). However my experience is proving to be richly rewarding, and one of the crowing jewels of my year abroad.
Kyrgystan is situated in central Asia, south of Kazakhstan and is bordered by China and various other countries ending in ‘stan’. A former republic of the Soviet Union, it is proving to be delightfully not Russian, and at the same time not tangibly what I imagined Asia to be like either. On the streets of Bishkek, my beloved Russian mingles with the Kyrgyz language, written in familiar Cyrillic, but frustratingly unintelligible and closer to Turkish. On the city outskirts, blocks of flats are sprouting up, catering for a booming population. A handful of shiny shopping centres tower over a mish-mash of dusty bungalows, colourful cafes and small shops. Mercedes and Hummers negotiate the battered roads alongside crammed minibuses, serving public transport for 10p a ride.
As the city bakes in the spring sunshine, traditional fermented milk and grain drinks are sold on every street corner, whilst adverts for coke and iced tea plaster billboards. Disabled children quietly beg on Bishkek’s answer to Oxford street, as young Kyrgyz stroll by with their Nike air trainers and fake Chanel bags. This is an increasingly Muslim country with a recent history of state atheism. While the call of prayer echoes across neighbourhoods, I have seen more burquas in Cambridge, and beer can be bulk-bought from kiosks on the street.
Bishkek itself is an anomaly in this country which is 90% mountains. Situated on a plain in the north of the country, the constant presence of stunning snowy peaks encroaches on the city from the south. Leave the capital and the mountains stay with you all the way to the country’s borders, no matter which direction you head. I’ve left the city several times to experience Kyrgyzstan’s pristine nature.
Rural corruption, underdeveloped infrastructure and a huge urban/rural divide cannot overshadow the beauty of this magnificent, mountainous wilderness. Rural Kyrgyz have an immense pride in their homeland, traditions and culture, and are overwhelmingly hospitable.
A recent weekend’s hiking in the mountains and staying in a yurt with a nomadic farming family was a welcome break from my office intern’s routine. After a tough day’s trekking, as the sun set I watched the farmer coral his sheep into their stonewall pen. His wife waved a staff to count them and their chubby-cheeked little toddler squealed with delight nearby. That night I hunkered down under my fleece-stuffed blankets in the yurt, warmed by the wood burner, and thanked God for the red tape of Russian bureaucracy.