Well, news from the Kyrgyz elections suggests that the formation of a coalition government may be imminent. You may have crippling electricity shortages, a total lack of industry, a bloody revolution threatening to topple over into actual civil war, and a deposed president hiding out somewhere whose associates are (supposedly) fomenting bloody internal revolt, but there’s always something worse that can happen to you, isn’t there? Let’s hope they get their position on child benefit and university tuition fees sorted out well ahead of time, or the country really could be in trouble.
It is, of course, a big world (though I’m never completely sure what people are comparing it to when they say that), and in a way it’s understandable that the recent travails of this tiny and insignificant country usually attract very little attention form the western media. I myself couldn’t have found it on a map before I went to work there in 2008, and indeed when I actually tried to I couldn’t, as the map was older than the country itself.
I have had the enormous good fortune to be able to travel and live in a number of countries in Europe and Asia, including some of the most charismatic and famous. And yet in some ways my memories of Little K (as we old hands of the place call it) are as vivid as any of them. Life there is hard, even for a relatively well-off foreigner – one might even say especially so, given the fondness of certain restaurants to institute a sliding scale of charges when anyone who’s a native English speaker walks in the door, and the keenness of certain members of the police to help in any way possible – help themselves to your money, help themselves to your passport, and so on. On more than one occasion I have ordered shashlik from somewhere in the capital city and received something either totally inedible or actually poisonous. The national dish is boiled offal on a bed of noodles, and manages to be even less appetising in the flesh than that sounds. (I should point out that Bishkek also hosts large numbers of terrific Chinese restaurants of various hues, a fine German beerhall, at least one great Indian place, and a number of pizza parlours, at least some of which are amongst the best I’ve ever patronised.)
Using public transport poses the multiple challenges of getting where you actually want to go while being probably unable to see out of the bus windows, while simultanously avoiding being pickpocketed. Using taxis is fine – and probably the best way to travel long distance, provided you can negotiate effectively in Russian – but you’ll have to use one or the other, because you won’t be walking anywhere for several months of the year. The streets turn into an ice-rink for three months of the year as the first heavy snow of winter thaws and then re-freezes day after day, night after night. In the summer, on the other hand, it can feel almost as hot as the tropics, although thankfully less humid.
For at least part of the time while I was there, we regularly received a schedule telling us when the electricity was going to be switched on – although unscheduled cuts also seemed to have a place in the hearts of the authorities. And for all its claims to be a thrusting post-Soviet state, the central heating is just that – centrally controlled. We had no heating until the government decided to switch it on at the end of October, necessitating many evenings spent bundled in duvets asking ourselves exactly why we’d gone there. There was no hot water at all for the month of May, as that was when the pipes were maintained.
Looking back on all these things now I am almost amazed that I stuck it out there for the full ten months – but it didn’t seem a trial at the time. I’ll never forget my first trip out of the crumbling capital to the mountains which had so stunned me every morning as I crossed the courtyard from my apartment to the building where I worked. Some parts of Kyrgyzstan can compete with the greatest national parks of America in terms of their beauty. The al-Archa valley is captivating in both summer and winter. The fame of Lake Issyk-Kul is just as well merited.
It has a bleak kind of beauty, to be sure – if I had to pick one image that defines my memories of travel through Kyrgyzstan, it would be seeing necropolis cities in the wasteland drifting slowly past, the roofs dotted with crescents or hammers-and-sickles, according to the interee’s tastes, mountains brooding in the distance. But beauty is surely too rare to ever be quibbled at.
And the people, of all their different ethnicities, were (mostly) lovely, epically hospitable, and good-humoured. I had the honour and privilege to spend a lot of time with Kyrgyz families as they celebrated their festivals, both national and personal. They’re by no means perfect people, but then the fact that they’re people might have tipped you off to that. But they just want to get on with their lives the same as anyone else – they didn’t choose to be born into one of the three poorest non-African countries on Earth.
I still find I care about the place more than I would have expected to. And despite being a man of generally liberal and egalitarian views I wonder if it’s really suited to Coalition rule. If living there brought one thing home to me, it was that living a life so hard, so rough, so close to the edge left the people with no time for finer sensibilities. When I expressed my general discomfort with the levels of copyright piracy which virtually the entire population seemed to be involved in, I was either stared at or laughed at. Poverty breeds pragmatism, extreme poverty all the moreso. I’m not sure that consensus is part of the national psyche. But I hope they manage to work something out for themselves.