An American in Kyrgyzstan

At 5am, in a wide open plain on the side of the road, I found myself exiting my taxi to arm wrestle my driver while three of his friends watched on in intense, and not at all amused, fascination. Looking out at the city in the distance, several thoughts passed through my head. Most important was, “they’re going to kill me aren’t they?” but only slightly less prevalent was, “what the hell am I doing here?”

I had arrived in Bishkek, the capital of the former-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, at 3am that morning. I was 23, had no job, no contacts and no Russian and I had just moved to Kyrgyzstan for a year. I can’t remember at what point on my flight I had started to think that maybe it wasn’t the best of ideas, but I do know very well that it was at the moment by the taxi that it became very clear that I did not know what I was doing.

I lost the arm-wrestling match. Maybe on purpose, maybe not, but the important thing was that we got back in the car and continued to the hotel I was staying at without further incidence beyond having to pay 10 times as much as I should have for the fare.

Even though it did not take long for me to realize that moving to Kyrgyzstan was not a mistake, I often felt like I did in the cab on the first morning, bewildered, disoriented and slightly threatened. Kyrgyzstan is a small country but is covered by vast thinly populated landscapes. Kyrgyz are by tradition nomadic and though the Soviet architecture in Bishkek belies this truth, the Tianshan Mountains that make up the spine, arms and legs of the country still encompass countless tiny villages and movable camps.

In Bishkek, where one in five Kyrgyz live, a pre-Genghis Khan lifestyle has been transposed unwittingly into the tumult of modernity. Horses are traded for Mercedes, fermented horse milk for vodka, burkhas for miniskirts and the ultra macho, ultra masculine Kyrgyz culture seems more violent than beautiful and more hazardous than quaint. Bishkek is as turbulent for aspiring young Kyrgyz men and women as it is for lost American boys.

I eventually found a job as a Deputy Editor for the Times of Central Asia, an English-language weekly based in Bishkek. It was an exciting time to be a journalist in Bishkek. A ‘people’s revolution’ had toppled the soviet- era President, Askar Akayev, and forced democratic elections while in neighboring Uzbekistan the government had squashed a similar uprising, sending thousands of refugees into Kyrgyzstan. Geopolitical fault lines of global importance related to drug networks, terrorist networks and fossil fuel networks were bisecting the country, spurring cooperation and conflict among the region’s great powers, the US, Russia and China. Living in Bishkek in 2005, I did not feel like I was in some sleepy backwater but at the center of a new age of globalization and international connectivity.

In Bishkek, the tides of modernity and tradition ebbed and flowed, never letting me fully get my feet on the ground. At the inauguration of the new President, Kurmanbek Bakiev, a triumph in itself, or so we though, of Western- style democracy, I enjoyed a game that captures the traditional Kyrgyz spirit.

From far away, one could be forgiven for thinking the game was a localized version of polo (not that I’ve ever understood that game either). There are two teams of horseback riders, each looking to score in the other team’s goal, but instead of a ball, the horsemen have a headless sheep carcass. In fact the visual effect of a bloody sheep body being thrown around wears off quickly. The thing that catches your eye is that the horsemen have to grab it with their bare hands, which means their whole bodies are vulnerable to the thrashings of their team mates’ and opponents’ horses. The whole game ends up looking like rugby on horses with a bloody sheep thrown in for fun gradually manifesting itself into a more violent spectacle than anything we are used to in the West.

The game is nomadic strength in action and in Kyrgyzstan toughness is a supreme virtue. Vice is never questioned so long as it is masculine. This is a country where men’s ‘saunas’ are more ubiquitous than restaurants and wife- kidnapping is a firmly held local tradition. Wife kidnapping is not merely a Kyrgyz phenomena. It has existed at some point in every civilization in history. Wife kidnapping looks something like this: a girl is minding her own business when a man, sometimes a stranger, sometimes not, grabs her off the street. She is raped for several days before being brought back to her family at which point she must get married to avoid the shame of having lost her virginity.

It is brutal, primitive and cruel. And yet it is a tradition that lives on despite 75 years of Soviet repression. Even to some women it is thought of wistfully. A young woman once told me that in the villages, young girls dream of being kidnapped by a prince on a white horse and taken to a better life. The bizarre thing in Kyrgyzstan is that this is not just a practice of their forbearers, but a rising trend. As they see their traditional cultural eroded, first by communism and then by Westernism, Kyrgyz society is clutching at the straws of an outdated era just to keep its bearings.

While in most post-communist countries, societies tend to reach forward towards a notion, usually Western, of modernity, in Kyrgyzstan communism had been modernity. Without communism and the modern life enforced on it by the Soviet Union, part of Kyrgyzstan is instinctively reaching back towards a time when a horse was a man’s life partner and a wife was his beast of burden. In 2005, Kyrgyzstan was still a country struggling to justify its own viability. Nomadic forces, Islamic forces, Western forces and communist forces clash, intermingle and are blended creating exciting and sometimes disturbing outcomes. Living in this environment was a lot of things, but it was never boring. Life in Bishkek never let me grow complacent, with the unexpected always imminent, on the streets, in politics and in taxi cabs.

Text: Ben Kamarck
Images: Mircea Mocanu 

Published in Issue 24 GlobalisAsian, 2008