In 2007 I went on an overland trip from Shanghai, China to Uzbekistan. The highlight of the trip was the Pamir Highway, an old road famously traveled by players of the Great Game in the 19th and 20th centuries. Our entry point into Central Asia was the sketchiest border crossing of my life, from China into Kyrgyzstan — an outpost where people who only speak Kyrgyz and Russian try to communicate with people who only speak Chinese. English is as obscure there as Creole is here. There is about 10 km of a desolate dirt track between these two parties, and getting through it took an entire day of confusion, dust, thirst, negotiations, and great frustration, particularly when neither of my guy friends would claim me as their wife and thus spare me from the border guards’ suspicions of my motives for travel.
Hearing about the violent ethnic clashes in Osh, Kyrgyzstan between the Krygyz and the Uzbek this week reminds me of what a strange, compelling, and complicated place that country seemed to us, even from our short, surface explorations of its casinos, public pools, ice cream vendors, streetlife, and highways. Because few people know of the country, or its peoples, I am posting some photos of it so you can visualize the place you might hear about in the news. You can also see Matt’s photos of this section of the trip and his blog post “Love And Yogurt” about the border crossing.
Since this is a blog about beekeeping, I’ll also say that there is a tradition of beekeeping in Central Asia, partly because when under Soviet rule, people were allowed to sell honey for personal profits. Beekeeping there is transhumant, which means that many large-scale (150-300 hives) commercial beekeepers attach their hives onto massive trailers and drive them around for seasonal nectar blooms.This happens in America too, most notably when most of the country’s bees are taken to California for the almond bloom. This is good/vital for huge crops like the almonds, and it also enables the beekeeper to isolate what kind of honey he or she is harvesting based on the place and time it was collected and what crop was blooming then.
This family runs a beekeeping dynasty in the Fergana Valley, with an operation of over 4000 hives, and manages sophisticated practices like queen-rearing.
Central Asian history as it was explained to us by a Tajik (former Muslim insurgent turned evangelical Christian preacher): Before Stalin, there were separate nations of Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajiks, among others, with their own languages, customs, and identities. After Central Asia fell to Soviet rule in 1917, Stalin carved it up with geopolitical borders that in no way respected the native peoples’ histories or practical geography. (In fact, borders were redrawn and territories renamed many times during the beginning of the long Soviet rule, 1917-1991.)
Stalin divided their land up arbitrarily, with the goal of weakening all existing nations by mixing ethnicities within new borders. So the Kyrgyzstan that Stalin drew on the map was actually a mixture of all these Central Asian peoples. There was resentment over the new, ethnically-mixed-up nations, eventually followed by civil wars. For example, rich and culturally-important Tajik cities were suddenly declared to be part of Uzbekistan, greatly offending the Tajiks, who felt robbed of their heritage. Stalin did this on purpose so that no one country would become cohesive, or strong enough to challenge his imperial rule. From my understanding, the clashes in Kyrgyzstan this week between groups of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are probably in some way results of the legacy of Stalin’s 1920s map. (That’s just my opinion and not well-informed by any actual news articles.)
Our first night in Osh we met two Americans working in the Peace Corps. They told us to get out of there as quickly as we could. That was disconcerting and never fully explained. I think there was some kind of mafia that ruled the roost there –motocades of black Mercedes sped through street lights, overpowering the Russian shoebox-sized cars we were ferried around in. Much of the world’s heroin comes out of Afghanistan on the Pamir Highway, bound for Russia and Europe.
I don’t have many photos of the city of Osh, but I remember lots of nice trees and shady suburban-feeling streets, a strange meal of caviar and champagne at the Rich Man Cafe, pale white Russian kids playing with Kyrgyz kids at the pool, the tiny Soviet elevator in our crumbling hotel, and how you could buy noodle soup in some of the hotel rooms whose doors were left open.
Kyrgyzstan, like all of Central Asia, is a beguiling country, difficult for us to understand as we had no language with which to crack the surface of the place. Histories and borders are shifty depending on your ethnicity or your empire, yurt-living is not just for tourists, Chinese goods pour in from the east, Afghan poppies from the south; and many religions, including the beautiful Ishmaeli sect of Islam, which bore the Aga Khan, coexist with a peculiar blend of globalization influenced by foreign aid, a modern-day imperial battle for air base control, Sovet blok architecture, Chicago Bulls t-shirts, and thrill-seekers like us on the Pamir Highway.