I spent most of the month of April in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Republic in Central Asia. And now, seven months later, I'm going to blog a little about it!
I liked Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek, the capital, was very Soviet. Wide streets, huge squares, women sweeping the sidewalks in the gray light of dawn. It was spring, and I think spring in that part of the world comes on fast -- it was rather chilly when we arrived, four weeks later it was mellow and warm with flowers everywhere.
Kyrgyzstan is a smallish country that is mostly mountains. Bishkek sits on the plains some miles north of where the mountains end. When the air is clear (which, since this is a former Soviet city, it isn't often) you can see the mountains in the distance. They're the Tien Shan -- a range I'd barely heard of. But they're huge: five, six thousand meters. Higher than the Alps, steeper than the Rockies. I had no idea.
Kyrgyzstan's economy has three pillars. One is remittances from Kyrgyz workers who have left the country, mostly for Kazakhstan and Russia. (That's pretty common across the former Soviet Union -- Moldova was much the same.) The second is the mining and re-export of gold. While we were there, the gold bubble popped, which caused a certain amount of entirely justified consternation. The crash in gold prices is going to knock a couple of points off Kyrgystan's GDP this year, and they were pretty poor to begin with.
The third pillar is that Kyrgyzstan is a major re-export center for Chinese goods. They come across the border on trucks and then get transshipped to Russia and the other Central Asian republics. At one point in the visit, we went to the "bazaar" outside of town, which combines wholesale and retail. Whatever image the word "bazaar" conjures up, this didn't much look like it. It was more like a series of enormous interlinked warehouses covering a couple of hundred hectares.
One section of the bazaar was all Chinese shoes. imagine a metal roof, two or three hundred meters long and maybe 20 meters off the ground. Under it, freight containers in rows two high. The lower containers are mostly retail outlets and/or showcases. The upper row of containers, connected by flimsy catwalks, are wholesale, just filled with shoes. A million shoes? More? Anyway, enough to hit some critical mass that the whole place had a special smell. glue and leather and plastic and whatever they make soles out of. You've had a whiff of it in a shoe store but never like this. A Platonic Smell Of Shoe.
Unfortunately, the transshipment business is also not doing so well -- the Chinese are figuring out how to bypass Bishkek, eliminate the middlemen, and sell directly to the Russians and Kazakhs. So, all in all it's looking like a rocky year or two ahead for the Kyrgyz economy.
What else? Well, Istopped by the Bishkek train station. It was very Soviet -- reminded me of the one in Chisinau, and also the one in Yerevan. Apparently the station (along with some 200 km of track) was built by German POWs after WWII. Also, it seems that many of the POWs died in the process, and were dumped in mass graves somewhere in the area. I haven't been able to find any details online, though. There was no monument or memorial, not even a plaque or something, in the train station. Kyrgyzstan was a back
The Kyrgyz themselves? I really liked the Kyrgyz. They're phenotypically very diverse -- Kyrgyz can look like Mongols, like south Chinese, like Turks, or even like South Asians. But if you speak the language, and self-identify as Kyrgyz, you're Kyrgyz. (Kyrgyz is a Turkic language. Everyone is bilingual in Kyrgyz and Russian.) The folks I met and worked with consistently were friendly, hospitable, and professional. Kyrgyzstan has all the standard post-Soviet problems, but the people are pleasant and the food is good.
Last random detail? The Kyrgyz, like the Mongols, play a game that is basically bocce ball with sheep vertebra. I thought it was a cultural relic that got trotted out for tourists maybe. But no -- walking through a big monument square, there were a bunch of kids and teenagers playing it, and they were obviously deadly serious.
Kyrgyzstan: I really liked it, and would go back any old time. (And if I do, I won't take seven months to get around to blogging about it.)