When I told everyone back in Germany I was going to Kyrgyzstan, the most common reaction was to pull out their smartphones and look up the country on googlemaps.
“Wow, that’s almost China”.
In smartphone-less contexts I often faced confusion with other countries that are better known, mostly Kazakhstan and – (!) Kurdistan. This seems to be fairly common (I found this confusion on several webpages) and my stories about that even led to the fact that a geographically well-educated person (I still don’t know who it was – so hereby: respect!) drew the outlines of Kurdistan on the map that I had hung up for my farewell party:
Thinking about the causes of this German, or European, ignorance towards Kyrgyzstan I could think of several factors:
1. it’s all about the media, meaning Kyrgyzstan is just never on TV – even the 2010 revolution which is probably the highest news coverage the country ever got, seems to have slipped people’s minds already.
2.unlike the “powder kegs” Balkan and Caucasus, Central Asia is simply too far away
3. Post-Soviet whatsoever – it’s just one of these countries that were created after the big danger of “Russians” had disappeared leading to a shift of focus to different parts of the world – since Kyrgyzstan is not “muslim” enough (which I, in cynically mirroring European Islamophobia, hereby equal with extremist Islamism), it doesn’t constitute a danger worth fighting and therefore is not of other interest either.
4. no resource interests. Although there have been plans to build up a pipeline that provides Europe with oil that comes from Central Asia (not Kyrgyzstan) the place is already dominated by other powers like first and foremost Russia and China but also Iran and of course the USA in Afghanistan maybe making it unattractive for Europe to join the party.
Although I’m quite sure that you already closed googlemaps by now and are aware of the basic geographical situation of Kyrgyzstan, I thought some basic facts might be useful.
Let’s start the investigation of Kurdistan then…. 😉
Kyrgyzstan, in russian: Киргизия (Kirgisia), in kyrgyz: Кыргызстан (Kyrgyzstan), officially: Кыргыз Республикасы is also known as Kirgiz Republic, Kirghiz Republic, Kyrghyz Republic, Kirgizstan, Kirghizstan, Kirgizia, Kyrgyzia, Kirghizia. In German there can be added Kirgisistan to the whole confusion. So just chose your favorite – I chose mine: it’s the one which is closest to the transcription of the Kyrgyz original name. Moreover – I remember the tricky part of ‘where to put the z’ by thinking of the a twisted German ß (sz) –> zs.
Now, seriously: Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country which means it doesn’t have access to any ocean in the world. Nevertheless it is the “water-richest” of the Central Asian republics which leads to certain tensions with its neighbours. The spring water from the mountains is said to be extremely healthy and tastes much better than Berlin tab water (by the way: it is possible to drink the tab water here, too). Kyrgyzstan borders Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (more on border issues here).
Some philosophy (or Kitsch):
Legend has it that when God had created the world he called all the people together and gave each people a piece of land to live. The Kyrgyz, however, did not appear as they had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they were shocked to discover that all the land had been given away and that nothing was left. They went to God and beseeched Him to give them a piece of land also. So God looked around, over the whole world, but could not find a piece of land which He had not already given away. Finally He said “All the land has already been allocated, except for one small piece. That piece is so beautiful however that I wanted to keep it for Myself, but I will give it to you.” And that piece of land now is called Kyrgyzstan.
I think God’s choice might be made because of the great differences that are reflected in the landscape of Kyrgyzstan. Even just in the Issyk-Kul region you can see snow-capped mountains next to green hills with sheep that resemble Ireland. Rough mountainous passes next to yellow sand canyons and all of those surrounding the mountainous lake Issyk-Kul that, with its (artificial) beaches and some clouds that hid the other side which is really far away anyway, reminded me of the sea.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been to the South yet which ought to have a much different landscape yet again (see more pictures of different regions here).
About the facts (since I am quite bad in Geography, I will just take them as facts without asking for the critical stuff – whatever this is in Geography):
Mountains dominate the country to 90%, whereby the Tien Shan Mountains make up for 80% of the countries surface. This leads to several factors that are said to influence Kyrgyz lifestyle until today:
1. Pastoralism and “nomadic” lifestyle as organizing patterns of society. Although agriculture is the main employer of the country and accounts for 20% of GDP only 8% of the land is arable land, meaning that a high percentage would be livestock raising (according to CIA world fact book cattle, sheep, wool and goats are among the most frequent agricultural products).
2. Division of the North and the South: the North consists of large valleys like the Chuy region where also Bishkek is situated. In the South of those valleys is the “heart” of the Tien Shan mountains (Celestrial Mountains) with only one road (Bishkek – Osh) to lift this topographical division of the country. In the South region the Pamir mountains begin with the Chon Alai:
On the map you can also see the highest mountain Pik Pobedy (Victory Peak) which is situated at the border to China and is 7430 m high (!!!). Another mountain with a fancy name is Peak Lenin (7134 m). For more and geographically more sound information about the topography and peaks you can look here.
Kyrgyzstan is divided into seven regions (oblasts) with the two biggest cities (which are counted as 2 additional oblasts) in the Chuy Region (Bishkek – 874 000 pop + me) and Osh Region (Osh – 243 000 pop). This is comparable to Frankfurt and Wiesbaden. All other cities do have a population under 100 000. All in all, Kyrgyzstan does only have 6 Million inhabitants which would be like Berlin in ten years (hopefully not, just joking!). 70% of them are ethnic Kyrgyz. In the same time it is extremely multicultural, meaning that there are lots of other “ethnicities” in the country (just to name a few: 9% are Russian, 14% Uzbek, followed by small percentages of Dungans, Uygurs, Tajik, Kazakhs, Ukrainians etc.) Interestingly official documents do have a distinction between “nationality” and “ethnicity” here – accordingly a Kyrgyz-born person with Russian ethnicity will call him_herself “Russian” which leads some stupid foreigners to the even more stupid question: “Where in Russia are you from?” and might cause some confusion on both sides when the answer is: “Oh, I’ve always lived in Bishkek”.
Since everywhere in the world identity-building goes with distinction of the “self” from the “other” it is also visible in some common prejudices among the different “ethnicities”. But I wanted to stay largely geographical tonight so I will close now with some geographical issues that will be of importance when considering politics in Kyrgyzstan:
1. Water as powerful pressure tool towards the neighbours (like I already indicated above)
2. Ferghana Valley – Osh Region, Jalal-Abad and Batken are situated next to the Ferghana Valley, the border region to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan which is highly politically and economically important (most of the arable land is situated there) and therefore frequent scene of quarrels with the neighbouring countries.
3. Mining in the mountains which has some ecological and economical effects on the country
4. Rural and pastoral structure (due to the mountainous structure) with influence on Gender, Traditions and Economy
5. North-South division with perceived impacts on culture (closer to Kazakh/Russian culture on the one hand and Uzbek/Turk culture on the other)
The list could be much longer, I guess, but I want to close it for now. So shut down you smartphones right now. “Kyrgyzstan – come on – of course I’ve heard of that”