The next phase of my trip takes me through Central Asia proper. I plan to cycle through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia (and possibly Armenia). See the map for my planned route.
Kyrgyzstan, or The Kyrgyz Republic as like to call themselves, has had a violent history. Various tribes, mostly nomadic, have travelled through the area for at least 25,000 years. The descendants of today’s Kyrgyz arrived between the 6th and 9th centuries, and were thought to have been living in southern Siberia. They were known for their stamina and horsemanship. A nomadic people, they were scornful of sedentary tribes, who were considered vermin.
Things were going quite peacefully for the Kyrgyz until the arrival of the Mongolian juggernaut of Genghis Khan in 1219. The Mongol army massacred on a scale unmatched until the 20th century. Ol’ Genghis may have been brutal but he wasn’t stupid. He only destroyed those people who resisted his domination. Unfortunately the Kyrgyz be their nature were resistant to outside authority and were soon overwhelmed. But even then Genghis spared the skilled artisans and technical staff required to build and run an empire.
After Genghis died and the Mongol empire declined, Timur “the lame”–hence, Tamerlane–attempted to emulate Genghis, but with less purpose and vision. It was a poor emulation. Tamerlane plundered and massacred without reason.
Various other dynasties controlled Central Asia over the next few hundred years, each one seemingly worse than the previous. Meanwhile the Russian Czars had their eyes on the area, and slowly began to exert more influence on the local leaders. As Czarist Russia declined the Bolsheviks grew stronger. By 1918 the Bolsheviks were deeply entrenched and it was inevitable that Kyrgyzstan was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1924.
If you look at the map of Central Asia today you see a jumble of bizarre international borders. Stalin himself had a hand in drawing these up in order divide and conquer. These artificial political boundaries have wreaked havoc among the ethnic peoples of the area. Osh, for example, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, is made up mostly of Uzbeks. Even today people will tell you they are Uzbek, although they were born and raised on the Kyrgyzstan side of the border. In Soviet times, this was dangerous. People were known to disappear if they proclaimed their ethnicity too loudly.
The Soviets radically changed the cultural and historical lifestyle of the Kyrgyz nomads. They were forced onto collective farms, forever destroying their nomadic way of life. Rather than see their flocks absorbed by the state, herders slaughtered millions of sheep, horses and cows and ate all they could. Other fled to China. Opposition to collectivism was branded reactionary and was dealt with ruthlessly.
Kyrgyzstan suffered from Stalin’s purges of the 1930s as well. From 1936 to 1938 hundreds of people were murdered for showing nationalist or bourgeois tendencies.
When the USSR disintegrated, Kyrgyzstan was thrust onto the international stage with no lines. They were totally unprepared for independent rule. More violence erupted in 1990 when ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks fought brutally, leaving more than 1000 dead.
For now the country is coping. Corruption plagues the political system, a bureaucratic mess left over by the Soviets. They are trying to regain some of their culture. One interesting new law requires the President of the country to speak Kyrgyz (Russian was previously the official language). They even must take a test to prove their proficiency.
I have found the people quite friendly. I get a lot of hoots and whistles as I pass and everyone wants to know where I am from. Kids all run out to the road when they see me coming and wave, saying “bye bye.” They may be a bit too spirited. A couple guys have tried to get on my bike and give it a test ride. This is a no-no.
One odd thing about this country is that I have seen more bike tourists here than any other country I have been in. In one week I have seen: 2 Swiss, 2 Dutch, 2 French, 1 Australian, 2 more French, 2 Serbians, 2 Germans, another Swiss, another Dutch, 3 Austrians, 6 Russians, 5 Slovenians and 1 American, all on bicycles. What the hell is going on?
I will write more on Kyrgyzstan later. Meanwhile, the photos.
Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country. Here is a view south toward Tajikistan.
The roads are awful. Very difficult cycling, especially uphill. Here’s the road coming from the Chinese border.
More mountain views. Check out the guy on the horse. He came up to me and greeted me with salam aleykum, peace be with you.
These kids were selling koumys, fermented mare’s milk, by the roadside. It tasted about as good as it sounds–like sour buttermilk.
Coming down from one of the passes. Riding down these dirt roads is almost as difficult as going up.
One of my nicer campsites right by a river. Bathing in ice cold water certainly is refreshing.
A local girl herding sheep across the hillside.
A woman selling nan bread in the city of Osh.
Part of the Osh market.
Some local people (Kyrgyz or Uzbek I am not sure) at a cafe I stopped at.
One of the cyclists I mentioned earlier. This is Frank, a Dutchman who has been cycling on and off for about 30 years. He has been to every continent (including Africa four times). We rode together for a day. Here we are in … Boston?