In a haven of verdure

Print edition : January 10, 2014

Almost 80 per cent of Kyrgyz Republic is mountainous but the hills are interspersed with expansive pastures and lush valleys.

In the capital, Bishkek, a statue of Manas, the nation’s legendary hero celebrated in an epic of the same name.

A street in Bishkek.

State Historical Museum in Bishkek.

Bishkek is a lovely city with a lot of greenery.

Selling "non", the local bread, in Osh's fabled market.

On the road from Bishkek to Osh.

Outside a tunnel in a mountain pass on the route to Osh.

A roadside fruit vendor on the route to Osh.

Autumn colours on the stunningly beautiful route to Osh.

On the "roof of the world". Kyrgyz Republic is home to some majestic mountain ranges—Alay, Tien Shan and the Pamirs.

On the Pamirs. Roads wrap around the mountains like a giant black serpent.

The road from Bishkek to Osh. It passes through the Tien Shan range.

Osh town, with a newly built mosque in the foreground.

The dargah of the legendary conqueror Babur atop the Sulayman hill in Osh.

The Indian delegation crossing over from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyz territory, at Korday.

THE Central Asia motoring expedition organised by the India-Central Asia Foundation (ICAF) crossed into Kyrgyz Republic eight days and 4,000 kilometres after it began on September 18, 2013, at Astana in Kazakhstan. Kyrgyz Republic shares borders with China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, each with many border crossings. We chose the shortest route though, between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic, one that takes no more than two hours. Korday, a village on the Chu river on the Kazakh side becomes Akjol-chu on the other side of the border. It is a busy crossing where traders cart merchandise from one country to the other. Everyone entering Kyrgyz Republic through a land border is required to take his/her personal belongings and walk through barricades for about 500 metres under the glare of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras and the watchful eyes of border security guards. The crossing itself is uneventful and the immigration officials are friendly. But as I step into Kyrgyz territory, one of the guards asks me to step aside in order to inspect the recent photos in my camera. He makes sure I delete pictures of the check post in my camera before waving me off. We board a minibus and head towards Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyz Republic.

Sandwiched between the endless steppes of Kazakhstan and the barren desert landscape that makes up most of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz Republic is a haven of verdure. Almost 80 per cent of the country is mountainous but the hills are interspersed with expansive pastures and lush valleys. Arable land is limited to the fertile Ferghana Valley in the south, shared with neighbouring Uzbekistan.

It is therefore natural that Kirghizia has traditionally been home to nomadic tribesmen and -women who kept moving with their portable yurts (cloth tent dwellings of nomads) and livestock. The horse and the soaring condor were their sole means of transportation and communication respectively until almost the 20th century. Even now, in the remoter parts, the nomadic lifestyle subsists, vignettes of which we could glimpse as we sped through the highlands.

Kirghizia, befitting the appellation “roof of the world”, is home to some of the stunning mountain ranges of our planet—Alay, Tien Shan and the Pamirs—all of which we cross at some point during our journey. The Tien Shan range (Heavenly Mountains) extends westward for approximately 370 km from the Chu river to the Talas river in Kazakhstan. It rises to a height of 15,994 feet (4,875 m) at the West Alamedin peak and forms part of the border between the two countries. However, the route from Almaty to Bishkek is flat and almost entirely urban, with shops and businesses lining the highway.

Kyrgyz Republic is perhaps not as well endowed with minerals as neighbouring Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It does have a massive gold mine at Kumtor, the second highest in the world after Peru’s Yanacocha. Located on the banks of Lake Issykul in the Tien Shan range, this mine is worked by a Canadian company and has already produced several thousand tonnes of gold. The country also has deposits of mercury, uranium, silver, copper and coal in modest quantities. What Kirghizia has in abundance, however, is yet another precious resource, more valuable than even gold —water. Home to two major river systems of the region, namely, Amu Darya and Syr Darya and their many tributaries, including the Irtysh, the land is alluvial and is conducive to cultivation. Cotton and tobacco are the main crops. The vast pastures sustain huge populations of goat and sheep, which yield both wool and meat.

Yet, being downstream of Tajikistan makes the Kyrgyz a bit vulnerable since the former plans to build a series of dams that might affect the flow of water downstream in the Amu and Syr basins. Of special concern is Tajikistan’s CASA-1,000 hydel project, which has concluded a deal to export electricity to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The transmission lines will have to transit Kyrgyz territory and could thus bring substantial transit revenues to the republic. The Kyrgyz government is in talks with both Afghanistan and Pakistan to export electricity from its own hydel projects as well.

The nation’s largest ethnic group is the Kyrgyz, a Turkic people who constitute 70 per cent of the population. Other ethnic groups include Russians, concentrated in the north, and Uzbeks, living in the south. There are also small numbers of minorities who include Dungans, Uighurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs and Ukrainians. Of the formerly sizable Volga German community, exiled here by the Russian leader Joseph Stalin from their earlier homes, a few small groups remain.

In Bishkek, the ICAF delegation participates in a round table where many think tanks and universities are represented. While reiterating the historical and cultural ties between India and the Kyrgyz Republic, our hosts take this opportunity to apprise us of their current needs. The Kyrgyz need hospitals and are in talks with the Apollo Hospitals group to set up one in Bishkek. In the early 1990s, the Government of India had offered credit lines to Kyrgyz Republic, but the envisaged projects did not take off and the credit lines expired. Now, the Kyrgyz are looking to India for training their youth in information technology and associated skills.

We are assured that unlike the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz consider themselves Asians foremost and that they are looking to India for cooperation and synergy. N. Aitmurzaev, Rector of the Diplomatic Academy under the Foreign Ministry of Kyrgyz Republic, is keen that the transmission lines going through his country should extend beyond Pakistan to India. It would be well worth India’s while to explore the possibility of accessing hydel power from the two water-rich Central Asian neighbours, just as it has done with Bhutan. After all, as the crow flies, Bishkek is only 1,600 km from New Delhi, and India can use all the electricity it can tap from its neighbourhood. Jayant Khobragade, India’s Ambassador to Kyrgyz Republic, hosts a dinner for the ICAF delegation. He is full of ideas to strengthen Indo-Kyrgyz relations through the extension of soft power as represented by Bollywood. He is also exploring the possibility of Indian investors setting up hydel projects in Kyrgyz Republic. Technology has not only shrunk distances, but also conquered geographical challenges.

Irena Oralbayeva, former Kyrgyz Ambassador to India and an experienced India hand in the republic, is worried about the proliferation of madrasas in her country. Decades of Russian domination had virtually obliterated religious bigotry from the region. But now, headscarves and chadors are making a comeback. While one spots an occasional chador-clad woman on the streets of Bishkek, they are much more ubiquitous in the Ferghana Valley. This was not the case during Soviet times, Irena Oralbayeva tells us. While Kyrgyz Republic does not share a border with Afghanistan, it does have a border with Tajikistan which has its own brand of the Taliban: Hizb-ul-Tehrir, the Central Asian counterpart of militant outfits in South Asia, is a destabilising influence in the region. That explains why the Kyrgyz would rather have the Hamid Karzai government continue in Afghanistan since, according to them, he is able to stanch the seepage of militancy across his border. Apart from Afghanistan and the Hizb-ul-Tehrir, the Kyrgyz also have to reckon with a 1,000-km border with the Xinjiang region of China with its attendant problems of Uighur infiltration.

Bishkek is a lovely city, and like Almaty, its streets are tree-lined and park-studded. Business establishments still sport names painted in the Cyrillic script. Kyrgyz was originally written in the Turkic alphabet, but gradually a modified Perso-Arabic script replaced it.

The Soviets, of course, brought in the Cyrillic script. When Kyrgyzstan became independent following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, it was hoped that the country would revert to the Latin alphabet with which it had a brief dalliance before the Russians introduced Cyrillic, but that has not yet come to pass. The youth, however, are keen to learn English which, they believe, will open many doors to employment.

Osh & Ferghana valley

The next leg of our journey—from Bishkek to Osh, the second largest Kyrgyz city located in the Ferghana Valley—takes us through the most spectacular landscape of the entire trip. Persuaded by our hosts to leave after lunch, we have a delayed start from Bishkek although we have some 700 km of almost entirely mountainous terrain to cover. Our delegation transfers to six smaller cars, and we brace ourselves for the very long journey ahead. Following some terrorist incidents in the not-too-distant past, buses and vans are not allowed to ply on this route. On the “roof of the world”, there is a delicate peace prevailing for now, but in 2005, these highlands seethed with ethnic clashes in which hundreds of people died. The Tajik border is just 20 km away from a certain point on this road, and we are advised not to linger until we cross this point. Kyrgyz Republic is building an alternative road that will skirt the Tajik border, but that is for the future. For now, this is the only route for all travellers to Osh unless they choose to fly from Bishkek.

There are no villages en route, only yurts, and nowhere to stay the night if we get stuck. But as we near the foothills of the Tien Shan range, one of the cars has already sprung a leak and is steadily dripping green coolant all the way, forcing us to make an unscheduled stop to fix the problem. Our Kyrgyz driver is unfazed. He does some jugaad and, voila, we are cruising again through tunnels and mountains.

It is a stunningly beautiful route that needs to be savoured at leisure, but we are zipping through flawless macadam wrapped around the mountains like a giant black serpent. At places, the road plunges into valleys that offer a 360-degree horizon with brilliant hues conjured up by an abundance of ozone. The meadows—highland steppes—are clothed in emerald. The slopes and valleys are dotted with grazing horses, their silken manes silhouetted against the setting sun. Tribesmen and -women in colourful clothes sell solidified mare’s milk, a delicacy in these parts. In certain stretches, there are apple orchards; almost all the fruit vendors are women, seated on low stools by the highway with their produce. We keep a watchful eye for the legendary Kyrgyz condor but find only lesser birds of prey. Yonder, layer after layer of mountain ranges unfold and the scenery is breathtaking.

On the other side of the mountain ranges lie the Ferghana cities of Jalalabad and Osh. The Kyrgyz Ferghana has 600,000 Uzbeks and many Tajiks. Similarly, there are 500,000 Kyrgyz in neighbouring Uzbekistan and a considerable number in Tajikistan. Separated by a quirk of history and caught in political crossfire, the people of the Ferghana Valley have learnt to live with uncertainty. They fear that when the United States’ troops pull out of Central Asia in 2014, this region could once again turn into a tinderbox.

We stop for tea at a wayside eatery and watch a spectacular sunset on the banks of the Naryn river. A 12-hour drive later, we reach Osh around 2 a.m. through a scenic landscape veiled in darkness. Surprise, surprise, even at this unearthly hour, three Indian medical students, studying at the Osh State University, are waiting for us with stacks of rotis, dal and vegetables cooked lovingly in their bachelor apartments. The three helpful men remain with us throughout our brief stay in Osh, helping us make the most of it.

The following day we visit the Osh State University and meet the faculty and some students. Kanybek Isakov, the Rector, fields all our questions with grace and patience. The university, established in 1951, trains 27,000 students in 14 faculties. We are impressed by the vibrant atmosphere on this campus, which attracts many Indian students. There is an India Study Centre at the Osh State University; India was the first country to establish one like this.

The university has taken it upon itself to popularise the epic of Manas, a traditional epic poem celebrating the legendary hero of Kirghizia. The plot of Manas revolves around a series of events that coincide with the history of the region in the 17th century, primarily the interaction of the Turki-speaking people from the mountains to the south with the Mongols from the bordering area of Jungaria. The epic of Manas is a unifying force in a nation that is made up of many different tribes. The government of Kyrgyz Republic celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Manas in 1995. Throughout the Soviet period, each Kyrgyz considered it a matter of national responsibility to tell the Manas story to his or her children, and the epic survived that era just as it survived the Mongol invasion of the 12th to 14th centuries. Isakov holds up a voluminous copy of the epic and tells us that it needs to be translated into Hindi.

We visit Osh’s fabled open market with its profusion of produce, most of which is local. The bazaar is redolent with the aroma of non, the local circular bread. However, the merchandise is almost all Chinese.

The Sulayman hill on the outskirts of Osh provides a fabulous view of Osh town with its newly built mosque. On this hill is a modest edifice which the Kyrgyz claim is the home of Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. While Babur hails from Andijon in the Uzbek part of Ferghana, the Kyrgyz believe that he spent many years in this tiny tenement planning his campaigns. It has now been converted into a dargah. We huff and puff up the hill to see it though we are sceptical that Babur had anything to do with it. But Babur is such an outstanding son of Ferghana that the Kyrgyz may be forgiven for wanting to claim their share of this legendary conqueror.

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