18/August/2019: My wife Empi arrived in Bishkek in the afternoon of the 17th of August from Stockholm, Sweden, and I arrived from a 24 trip by bus to Almaty, Kazakhstan a few hours later. Almaty has a more modern, ’reconstructed’ and anonymous feel than Bishkek, whose tree-lined avenues, large blockish buildings and monuments unaltered from decades prior evoke a communist past that is difficult to find these days.
We spent a pleasant hour in the morning walking around this part of the city, in almost complete isolation from other human beings, which added to the sensation of a different world at our feet. Kyrgyzstan’s population density of 29/km2 is not dissimilar from the more sparsely populated northern European countries such as Sweden, so while the city aesthetic is predominantly Asian, the difference with other capitals in the continent could not be more stark!
We were invited to lunch by a Kyrgyz couple to whom we had been introduced by an ethnomusicology university professor of Empi’s. Raziya and Damir prepared May Tokoch bread fried in oil and delicious vegetables cooked in their juices, many from their garden about 20km south of Bishkek.
Our lunch hosts had helped us with detailed advice for a four day drive around the country, including lodging and sights along the way, and since Damir had a week off work scheduled, they decided to come along for the drive with their two children aged 8 and 11. This would prove to be a tremendous boost to our ability to get immersed in the geography, culture, traditions and music of Kyrgyzstan. We made the 2.5 hour drive to our first stop, Ashu guest house in the Chong-Kemin National Park, where we had a tasty dinner of beef in a tomato sauce and rice.
19/August: Empi and I started the morning with a gentle hike in the foothills just south of the guesthouse. The drive to the trailhead was the first test for our 4WD Lada Niva on steeper trails, and it handled itself very well.
After fueling up with 95 octane gasoline and great coffee an hour from the national park in a station of the reliable Gazprom chain, we continued along the north shore of Issyk-Kul lake on roads recently renovated with a combination of funding from China and the Kyrgyz government to accommodate the logistics needs of the World Nomad Games. Kyrgyzstan has hosted the games continuously since 2014, and usually brings home the most medals in events such as Buzkashi, or Dead Goat Polo. Issyk-Kul is the world’s second largest alpine lake, and the second deepest after Baikal in Russia. It is slightly salty, and does not freeze even in the brutal winter at 1,800m of altitude.
Located in a funky building modernist halfway along the north shore is the Museum of Nomad Civilization, where we made the next stop. As we entered one of the side galleries for lunch I was delighted to find several books and photographs covering the 1906 expedition of Finnish army officer Carl Gustaf Mannerheim to Kyrgyzstan and the region. Mannerheim is Finland’s indisputable national hero, having played a crucial role in the drive for Finnish independence in 1917, the defeat of the communists in the 1917-18 civil war and preventing a Soviet invasion in 1939-40, among other feats. During Finland’s status as a Grand Duchy in the Russian empire, Mannerheim was sent by the Tsar to Central Asia and China in his capacity as an Army Colonel to investigate the military preparedness of the great powers of the region (Britain, China and Japan), disguising himself as an ethnographic collector. He fulfilled his spy expedition for the Tsar, while also collecting enough objects and taking hundreds of photographs to give substance to his supposed mission. Many of these photographs and collections form important records for both the Finnish and Kyrgyz files, including a photo of the meeting between Kurmanjan Datka and Mannerheim in 1906 (see below). Kurmanjan Datka was an instrumental politician in the 19th century khanates of the region, and oversaw the accession to the Russian empire in 1876, though not without strife and protest. She died at the remarkable age of 96, six months after the meeting with Mannerheim. The well-curated museum gives a comprehensive history of Kyrgyzstan and an understanding of nomadic culture and practices.
We completed the drive to Karakol at the eastern end of this 170km lake by nightfall, and enjoyed a dinner of beef plov (rice) at the house of Tolon Kasabolotov, an experienced practitioner and teacher of the Komuz stringed instrument – a perfect introduction to the musical traditions and techniques of Kyrgyzstan which we would enjoy in the days to come.