We left straight after breakfast. Our hosts were visibly disappointed in us. It was impossible to explain, language shortcomings aside, that although they had fed us and looked after us peerlessly, we had been spoiled by our travels over the past four years. We had stayed in ‘real’ yurts lined with shyrdaks, hung with tus kiyiz and with stacked juk. Yurts neatly carpeted in needle-cord and fitted out for European habits no longer cut the mustard. Besides anything else they didn’t work as well – there was a howling draught where the needle cord on boarded floor didn’t meet the edge of the yurt. Having finished our ride we wanted to get back to Bishkek to do a bit of shopping. We wanted to sort ourselves so that the following day we could make the most of the 25th Anniversary of Independence from the Soviets. Marat had got tickets for Kok Boru in the National Hippodrome. We didn’t want to miss a minute of it.
We drove over the 11,300ft Kalmak Ashu Pass and wound down into the Tolok valley, beside the river past willow-banked hay-fields. Tolok village had grown and supported a new mosque that shone in the sun as if made of tin foil. As we hit the Kochkor to Naryn road Marat made a telephone call and told us that his brother and sister-in-law had invited us to lunch in the family home. Like Marat, his brother had been fast tracked for the Diplomatic Service and had only recently returned from working in the embassy in Tokyo. He had opted to set up and run a poultry unit in his parents’ garden to provide eggs for the district. Until then all eggs for Kochkor had been transported the 120 miles from Bishkek.
Depending on which guidebook one reads Kochkor is described as a large village or a tourist jumping-off point. I suppose that one does not preclude the other. It is on the junction of the Bishkek – Karakol – Kashgar roads. Kyrgyzstan receives 300,000 tourists a year, so used as we are to the UK’s 36 million, Kochkor didn’t hit me as a tourist town. It is agricultural and with a population of 19,000 it is about the size of Hawick. Situated at 6,000 feet it is surprisingly mild and potatoes grow well. An animal market is held weekly and thrives – unlike Hawick’s that closed in 1993 and is now the site of a supermarket. As an erstwhile farmer it was joyous to be in a community where agriculture is regarded as more than a way of providing a sylvan amenity for urban folk.
Of course there are a number of legends about the origin of its name. One is about an old woman who had a ram to sell but she was not fit enough to walk it to the market in Osh – not entirely surprising as it is about 400 miles. Two friends offered to take the ram for her and by the time they arrived the ram was pretty fit. They entered it into a ram fight. It won. They entered it into another and it won that also. So it went on and prizes and gambling money accrued. The ram became famous and the town was named after the ram – Kochkor. In 1909 the town was renamed Stolypin after the Russian prime minister but as Lenin opposed Stolypin in 1917 it was again renamed – Kochkorka. After independence it reverted to Kochkor.
It became clear that Marat had landed us on his sister-in-law but in true Kyrgyz fashion she welcomed us generously and cooked up the perfect lunch, the while keeping a toddler and new baby calm and happy. While she did so we made the most of their plumbing; enjoyed showers; caught up on e-mails and wrote a few postcards. Afterwards Marat’s brother showed us his poultry shed. It wasn’t free-range but huge fans kept the air circulating and the hens provide 1,000 eggs a day. It was not only the lustrous vegetable patch that benefits from the enterprise; he told us that he hopes soon to be in a position to buy some land outside the town and go into beef production.
We pushed on to Bishkek. In every town and village that we passed lamp-posts had been adorned with portraits of community stalwarts and important personages. Red, green and yellow flags fluttered. The atmosphere was building up to the 25th Anniversary of Freedom from the Soviet yoke. As we neared Bishkek we noticed an increase in the number of top of the range European and Japanese 4 x 4s since the previous year, although we still didn’t see any car salesrooms.
One of the changes since Independence has been religious freedom. Not only have the Orthodox churches been repaired and congregations allowed to flourish, but there has been what has been described as The Mosque Building Boom. 25 years ago there were 39 mosques, now there are over 2,300. We seemed to pass a new tin-foil mosque in every community. Most have been built with Saudi money but the nearly completed mosque in Bishkek has been financed by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Ministry. It seemed enormous and is. It sits on a 5 acre site, has 4 minarets, is nearly 230 feet high, covers 14,000 square feet and can accommodate 10,000 people at a time. It will be the largest mosque in Central Asia and there is nothing tinfoil about it.
While we sat in the evening rush hour, talk turned to the death of Islam Karimov, the particularly unpleasant president of Uzbekistan. It had been reported the previous day by the Uzbek opposition’s Ferghana News Agency, but was denied by his daughter.
“He probably has been dead for days” came a wry comment from the front of the minibus “they will be fixing a successor so they can announce it as a done-deal to pre-empt the opposition and gain Putin’s approval.” Those who have survived the Soviet yoke manage to laugh at the way things are handled. It was August 30th. His death was later announced as having happened on September 2nd. Delegates from 17 countries managed to get to Samarkand for his funeral remarkably quickly – it was held on September 3rd. Two months later a square in Moscow’s Yakimanka district was named Islam Karimov.