Bishkek, Burana to Kochkor.

We were down to breakfast early. Grey net curtains hung disconsolately in front of the dirty plate glass windows. Everyone seemed keen to get away and soon we were driving east. Nearly 90% of Kyrgyzstan sits over 5,000 feet above sea level. Bishkek is in the Chui Valley and as soon as one leaves the city one understands that for millennia top soil has been washed down from the surrounding mountains and enriched the plain. It is 32,000 acres of fertile land – one of only three such commercially farmable flat tracts in the country[1]. It is so flat that the Chui River, that rises in the wonderfully named Boom Gorge and disappears into the earth in Kazakhstan, snakes along very, very, very slowly. ‘Chui’ in Kyrgyz means ‘get a move on’ or ‘go faster’.

The further we ventured from urbanisation the more pyramids of carefully stacked fruit and vegetables by rickety garden gates, lined the route. Once into real countryside the black soil sustained uniformly even and bountiful looking crops in large fields. The wheat harvest was just starting and it promised yields with which any Fen farmer would have been satisfied and it was obvious the reason so many displaced peoples have chosen to remain there. This prime agricultural land continues to be tilled by Dungans, Germans, Chechens, Azerbaijanis and Lezgians[2] besides the Turkics and Russians. There were  sizeable units of agricultural machinery, storage facilities and animal housing centred in fields of maize, sugar beet, potatoes, sanfoin and lucerne.

For some miles the north banks of the Chui form the frontier between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and the highway east follows the southern Kyrgyz bank. I looked across at the cats-cradle of Kazakh barbed wire, knitted to discourage incursion. From our side of the river I couldn’t see anything inviting enough to tempt one across the murky flow but until recently small boys, too young to be gaoled, would be sent across with cattle and horses to sell to the Kazakhs. The superior grazing and Kyrgyz herds meant a profitable  trade was to be had – with luck. At best the boys would return with a wad of cash, at worst nothing much more serious than a Kazakh cuff.

Just outside Tokmuk, about 45 miles east of Bishkek, our inscrutable driver Alexander stopped for fuel. This gave him the opportunity to enjoy a cigarette which he lit without concern standing beside the pumps. Some of us eased off to ‘stretch our legs’.

The United States had had an air base nearby in which they had invested $9,000,000 and where they had helped equip and train Kyrgyz Special Forces. However relations between the two countries had fallen prey to more interesting overtures from Mr Putin and the Americans were invited to leave. The American investment might have explained the incongruously large roundabout nearby.  With the minibus re-fuelled and his lungs retarred, Alexander took one of the roundabout’s spurs and bumped onto a dusty lane. We headed south towards the Ala Too Mountains. The lane wound round fields of corn, potatoes and strawberries and past a crumbling Muslim cemetery. After a few miles we pulled up in front of an angle-iron gate. We had arrived at the Burana Tower, one of Kyrgyzstan’s two[3] remaining minarets from the 10th century Karakhanid[4] rule. The site is all that remains of Belasagun, a city that so impressed Chinggis Khaan that he spared it and renamed it ‘Good City’[5]. Next to the new angle-iron barriers, that were in the process of receiving an indiscriminately slapped coat of white paint, an egg-shaped piece of smooth granite about four feet high, had been cemented, none too delicately, into place. It was a human head, beautifully carved. It had almond eyes, clown-round cheeks and elegantly shaped eyebrows that continued down into the long thin nose like an inverted anchor below which it had a tiny, pursed mouth. Although the stone is vertical the head had been carved on it at a slight angle, quizzically. This is a balbal sculpted about 3,000 years ago. Balbals planted like tombstones represent portraits of the dead.

The Burana Tower is 82 feet of intricately patterned, restored brickwork. It stands a little lopsidedly on an octagonal base, each face of the octagon with an ornate false arch. Above the base, thirteen rings of alternating variations of the key pattern and flat bricks, rise to its sawn-off top. Originally 148ft tall it has suffered a number of earthquakes. One in the 15th century caused the top 60 feet to crash to the ground providing a good source of building material for the locals. By the 1970s it was in danger of total collapse and the west face was shored up and what remained of the tower was restored and made safe.  Marat promised that the view from the top would make it worth the climb. The entrance is just above octagon level at about 20ft and is approached by an external metal stair that goes across a footbridge to a door in the brickwork. There is then a steep, windowless, internal stone staircase that winds up and up and up in the increasingly pitch dark. The unevenness of the steps is testament to the number of feet that have trodden them. I wondered how much further there was to go when an encouraging shaft of light penetrated the darkness and perseverance paid off. On top there was a welcome breeze and Marat had been right. It really was worth it. We were the only people up there and we had a 360-degree view of the Chui valley. To the south the peaks of the Ala Too challenged scudding clouds in an otherwise blue sky. To the north in Kazakhstan, the gentler fingers of the Chu-lli, the Ortok Mountains, disappeared in the haze. In between, on the flat Chui valley the patchwork of crops was stitched together by poplar-lined irrigation channels. Below us there was some indication of Balasagun. Undulations like ramparts, covered in swaying, rank grass, encircle a large collection of balbals that have been collected from all over Kyrgyzstan. Near the entrance there were the remains of some mausoleums hidden behind an impenetrable overgrown hedge.

The balbals of varied portraiture had been sited in random rows and spanned 4 centuries up to the 10th. Some were conical and some flat-topped. A man with a goatee beard and luxurious moustache, sat cross-legged with one hand on his lap while the other held a glass or mug. He wore an Uzbek taqihah[6]. A headless woman with bare breasts had been placed nearby and someone with a sense of humour had placed another with raised eyebrows next to her. It would have been fun to spend more time looking at them – there must have been about 70 and those still with faces had such character, but Marat said we must press on to get to our next stop in time for shashlyks. On our way back to the main road we stopped by a field of strawberries. A woman in a pink straw hat with a large floppy brim was working the rows with her two smiling boys in baseball caps. Each row had been irrigated recently and little mud dams now diverted the water further down the field. Their father was sorting their pickings into trays and stacking them up in the shade of the trees. He welcomed our photographing of him and his family and gave us his e-mail address. We promised to e-mail the results when we returned home[7]. More immediately rewarding for them, Marat bought a tray of strawberries for our supper.

Our lunch stop was seemingly unattached to any habitation, in the middle of nowhere. It sat astride the road below barren mountain cliffs. On the north side of the road a row of fairly makeshift open-fronted restaurants had been strung together back from the tarmac, behind a row of saplings under which barbecues sizzled. On the road’s south side was a string of booths selling beach toys and fishing paraphernalia. The blasts of wind and dust from passing lorries made the bright blue inflated whales jostle the green crocodiles and water wings for prime exposure. A few miles further on the road divides and one arm heads for Lake Issyk-Kul – Kyrgyzstan’s riviera.

Beyond this incongruous assortment of girating plastic was the communal toilet ‘facility’. Jonny guided us across the road, obviously worried that the lorries, that were not going to test their brakes for anyone, might flatten us before the trek had even begun. He gave us the necessary tyin for the unsmiling babouchka who must have been trained to monitor hotel landings in the Cold War. She guarded the entrance from the security of her breeze-block booth and closely inspected our shrapnel before grudgingly handing over two sheets of hand-torn paper and allowing us to pass into the collection of squat-pans that she obviously regarded as none of her business to keep clean. Once back on the north side we dug into the shahslyks that were as delicious as their smell had promised.

The high sheet metal gate into our Kochkor home-stay hid a concreted passage between the original farmhouse, its in-bye animal housing and a new sleeping block. A washing line draped with nappies, children’s clothes and a couple of sheets, was attached to the gutters and zigzagged between the eaves. Alexander stopped the minibus with its windscreen just short of the sheets and its wheels within inches of a pink plastic tricycle. Just before the vegetable patch and the hens’ cage was a covered communal eating area with a low table and concrete benches covered in shyrdaks.

We were now in Naryn oblast, an area famed for its shyrdaks, so an early evening visit to a women’s shyrdak co-operative had been arranged. In a private house,  the ‘demonstration’ area was in a lean-to greenhouse at the back. Literally. Corrugated green plastic sheeting formed the roof and turned our faces green. Shyrdaks are made with stitched felt and the daughter of the house, aided and distracted by her two ankle-biters, showed us how the felt is made. She encouraged us to try it for ourselves. Bits of washed and dried wool were spread out on a cane mat (chiy) first in one direction then the other. Wetted, the wool was covered in an old bit of sacking and rolled up in the canes. Then to mesh the wool, encouraged by a jaunty take on western disco music, we took it in turns to stamp on the cane roulade. The process was repeated a number of times. Riding the roulade was difficult, especially in time to music, and reminded me of watching lumberjacks trying to ride logs. One by one we fell off as we tried it and dissolved into team laughter.

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Understandably the women hoped we would buy some of their beautiful and varied shyrdaks,.  We were ushered passed standing tubes of every colour combination and size into the front rooms of the house – the shop. It was a treasure trove of souvenirs, of new, of old, of tat.  Threadbare clothes were hung from ibex horns; worn cooking implements were balanced on creased leather boots.  A komuz, missing a string, leaned against a drum that I think was a dobulba – it looked as though it had been played with hands rather than sticks. There was a mouth harp (temir komuz) that was leaning against a sort of violin with two strings (kyl kyak) and a bit of wood with bells on it that might have been an asa-tayak. Some reed instruments, with either none or well-chewed reeds, were in a pile near a moth eaten wolf whose one eye seemed to be watching a moulting raptor precariously balanced on the shelf above it. A skin-headed mannequin supported a bear skin chapan. It was as though every house in Kochkor had had a clear-out. The State Museum could well have augmented its collection.

Although common sense prevailed when it came to the shyrdaks those who had missed the bazaar scooped up slippers and bags. The rest of us added miniature stacks of wooden yurts that fitted inside each other like Russian dolls. We bought purses and postcards. Everyone, satisfied – smiled.

After demolishing mountains of delicious home-cooked supper brought across the yard in relays from the home-stay’s kitchen, the hardened trekkers among us made inroads into the vodka with which we had stocked up in Bishkek. Under a black starry sky we listened to Marat’s and Jonny’s plans for us, sometimes breaking off to point at shooting stars. Two dogs snoozed stretched out on the concrete, a baby half heartedly called for attention from a distant room. The family padded between the buildings.

Eventually, leaving our flip-flops on the steps to the front door, we found our beds and fell straight asleep.

[1] The others are in the Fergana and Talas valleys.

[2] Lezgians, Lezgins – originally from the Caucasus.

[3] The other is at Osgon, nr Osh.

[4] The Kara-Khanid Khanate ruled Transoxiana 999-1211. Besides Belasagun and Osh their main centres were Samarkand and Kashgar.

[5] ‘Gobilik’. Some Kyrgyz think that Chinggis, who’s grave has never been found, was buried in one of the twelve cities believed submerged under Lake Issyk-Kul.

[6] Taqihah – a Muslim skullcap usually worn during religious ceremonies.

[7] 43.7% of the population have inter-net access and there are over 7.6 million mobile phones. The population is just over 6 million.

[8] There are seven administrative regions called ‘oblast’ (pl. oblasttar). In addition Bishkek and Osh are cities – ‘shaar’.

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