People

The welcoming hospitality of the Kyrgyz is famous throughout Central Asia and stems from their nomadic roots. In a culture where the horse is central and terrain is mountainous, baggage is paired to a minimum. Riders can travel with little food as they can be sure to be given the best a family could offer when they called on them at dusk. This is guest & horse culture in extremis.

The family is central to Kyrgyz culture. Life is very sociable, time is always taken to chat & gossip and to drop by friends & relatives. Questions upon meeting are about family, where you have come from, and where you are going to. People understand each other through the social fabric, not through categorising themselves, for example, as a plumber, accountant or artist etc...

With less than 5 million people living in a country the size of Portugal, Switzerland,Belgium and the Netherlands combined, space is the ever present quality that still dominates life and contributes to the relaxed approach of the Kyrgyz. It is not uncommon to see 10 year olds or less galloping across the steppe or snow-fields for the sheer hell of it. They are the horse riders par excellence.

Life is not easy, however. For a country only a few years old, thrown into the cauldron of world politics hard up against the dominant paradigms of business interests and self-sufficiency , it's been a painful experience. The strongly traditional/ conservative society which puts seniority as absolute, does not fit easily into the individualistic, work orientated, market blown, economics of the present order. People have more opportunities now to be rich, or poor, as their economy is restructured, mainly through external pressures, to suit this.

The Kyrgyz Republic provides a clear yet tragic example of the inertia of tradition to change and at the same time the wholesale erosion of culture that that change brings. The Kyrgyz Republic is a land of incandescent beauty both in terms of it's geography and history and the moving 'sweep of history' is plain to see in the everyday life of the Kyrgyz.

NOTE:

It is important to note that these photos have tended to portray the more traditional, summertime, mountain way of life. Most Kyrgyz in fact live in lowland rural villages or big modern cities, (like Bishkek or Osh),where a majority live in apartment blocks. Most people grow there own food in small family or clan based collectives and travel about by car, cart or horse.

Land tenure is currently a very important issue. There is much experimentation between the old state collective style and the old strip farming style that came back in when Soviet subsidies ran dry and IMF induced austerity measures caused many to become poorer and more self-reliant.

Interestingly everyone I asked -rich or poor, young or old - in the 15 months I lived with the Kyrgyz, said that life was better, but far from ideal, under the Soviets than it was now. Many also were of the opinion that independence and opening up to the world was a good thing, and that the current poorer conditions of most people was a phase they would have to go through in order to become better off later. It remains to be seen.

The most impressive aspect of Kyrgyz culture I felt was the much larger social arena that people lived in and the pre-eminence that this arena enjoyed, compared to, say, western culture. Thus people were always talking to and visiting other people. Rituals and celebratory holidays were an important part of life. This social side of life took precedence over work. I was reminded of the African saying of "Ubuntu" : "People are people through people".


Environment

The Kyrgyz RepublicTien-shan has a continental climate with over over 300 days of sunshine every year. The hotness in summer is tempered by the high altitude of much of the country. More than 95% of the Kyrgyz Republic are mountains with 40% over 3000m. The Tien-Shan include the legendary Khan-Tengri at 6995m and Peak Pobeda at 7439m, both of which border China. Almost every type of land ecosystem is represented including: semi-desert; steppe; meadowland; boreal; alpine; tundra and glacial.

The Kyrgyz still roam these mountains, in summer taking their flocks of several hundred sheep or yaks to graze in the high "jillo" (syrts), living in yurts (gers) and riding the unfenced wilderness. The only moisture is in the winding snow-line, the meandering, glacier fed rivers and the curling, cirrus, wisps of wandering ice-crystals high up in the jet-stream, all echoing the form of the hills against the palatial blue of the sky.

It is intensely peaceful and formidably natural.

 

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