Talas – or wonderful stories of bearded horse-guys and German cemeteries.

Some time ago, I left Bishkek for a weekend and visisted Talas, where the family of a friend of mine lives. Talas region is a beautiful place in a valley in between very high mountains. It is surrounded by mountain ranges which make it hard to enter (over a pass-road from the East) but make its nature all the more remarkable:

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Except for the nature there were some things that were new to me or that I had heard about but never really experienced with my own eyes and ears. It was pretty interesting so I wanna share three facts that Talas taught me:

1. Manas

the statue of Manas on "the square" in the centre of Bishkek

the statue of Manas on “the square” in the centre of Bishkek

Everyone in Kyrgyzstan knows Manas. There are numerous statues of this guy all over the country, on every flea market you can buy the Epic of Manas and lately a child in Issyk-Kul turned up who is thought to be the youngest Manaschi (people who can retell the epic and often do so in front of a public to pass on Manas’ glorious history to the people).
This going too fast for you? I’ll start at the beginning: Manas is the national hero of Kyrgyzstan and the most treasured expression of national heritage of the Kyrgyz people. The legend has it, that his father Жакып (Zhakyp) was born in Talas but was banished from the land after the Chinese invaded the region. However, in exile he is always praying to be able to go back to his home country one day. When his wife finally gives birth to a boy they decide to name him Manas. Manas is an extraordinary child, and possesses over incredible strength and charisma. In the Manas museum in Talas there are scenes depicted, showing him in fights or carrying very heavy stuff. It is also said that he was more than 3m tall). So, it doesn’t take long til the Chinese get notice and try to kidnap and kill him through their spies. However, Manas manages to escape and kill the infiltrators. Afterwards he unites the scattered Kyrgyz tribes under his command (he is elected Khan) and succeeds in freeing his people from the Chinese yoke. Then they decide to go back to the Kyrgyz home land, on their way defeating the Chinese army which decides to collaborate in the end. However, Manas is wounded by a Chinese noble who conspires against him and dies on the way back home.
This is just one of the major plots in the epic which is the longest epic in the world. In more than 500553 lines of verses, Manas also wins battles against the Uigurs and Afghans, discovers and survives several plots against him and marries Kanykei (which means “married to the Khan”).
Kanykei is also the start of the second part of the epic that deals with the life of their common son: Semetei (who has today one of the Kyrgyz cognacs named after him!). Many more things happen, but it’s not my place to retell this here.

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Manas mausoleum

Long story short: Manas is not only a bearded guy on a horse, but he’s a figure in Kyrgyz history, that the Kyrgyz people are proud of. Without him, some say, there would be no Kyrgyzstan. He was the first to unite all the Kyrgyz tribes or clans who had long just lived next to each other and he was a great warrior. However, some people doubt that Manas ever existed. And it’s true that the museum, I went to, mostly just retells the story – in pictures and with artefacts found in very early times. Another hint is his grave which apparently is as long as him, thus more than 3 m which makes it a little bit incredible.  But I think that it’s probably the same with every hero or heroine. People just tend to make them bigger and more supernatural during the course of time. The fascinating thing is, that the Manas epic is still being recited by Kyrgyz people – even some that cannot read or write, like the little 8-year old boy from Issyk-Kul. The guide in the museum told us, that the Manaschi are people who are chosen, they just have the epic in their head and have to recite it for the others. Unfortunately I have not have the chance to hear a Manaschi until now but I think it must be a great experience.

2. Germans!

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Christian cemetary in Talas.

It had already happened to me before, that a lot of people ask me about my family, assuming they are from Kyrgyzstan, or have lived there some generations ago – that’s why the question is often: are you a real German or Kyrgyz-German?
So, I knew that there were some German villages in Talas and my friend promised to take us there. During a walk the night before, we had already seen a Christian cemetary where there were some Russian but more German names on the gravestones.
But why all the Germans in Kyrgyzstan? So, the first traces of Germans in Central Asia (back then: Turkestan) are actually leading to Talas. Some researchers came to Kyrgyzstan in the 1880 after Russia had conquered the region and were joined by religious people, like mennonites, who did not feel free to pursue their faith in Europe. In 1890 the village Orlovka was founded, which is the village that I visited together with my friends. In the beginning the village had only German inhabitants, who stuck together and kept their own language and culture. Another big wave of Germans joined them in the 1940s. They had been deported to Sibiria and the Kazakhstani steppe by Stalin and after Stalins death made it to a more agreable region: today’s Kyrgyzstan.

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next to the street in Orlovka

Walking along the streets of Orlovka, my friend pointed out some houses that weren’t built in a traditional Kyrgyz way – different entries, different porches, and furniture – the German houses. In one big garden, we saw a blond man cutting the grass. He could have been Russian, because compared to the South there are quite a lot ethnic Russians in Talas, but we were lucky. My friend’s cousin adressed him and he turned out to be ethnic German. We talked a bit in German, about the village. And he told us, that he still remembered the time, when the village was mostly German, with only 5 ethnic Kyrgyz families. Today it is the other way round. After the break-down of Soviet Union and the renationalization of the Central Asian states, along with millions of Russians also a lot of Germans left the region.
I felt strange to talk to him, a random man in his garden, but he was very friendly and told us about his family. However, there has been some anger about tourists coming to the German villages, seeing the people there as some sort of tourist attraction. Especially after a ZDF(public TV-channel in Germany)-documentary got launched, in which the lifestyle of the Germans in Kyrgyzstan is presented as backwards (e.g. “they live like a hundred years ago”), I can understand the problems the Kyrgyz-Germans have with the attention from Germany. In some articles it is presented as if the life in Germany was much more desirable than a life in Kyrgyzstan. That might be true for some people, but definitely not for everyone.
The man we talked to had gone to Germany for three years to see what it was like. He had gotten a job there (a visa is no problem for the Kyrgyz-Germans). But he told us, that he never felt at home there. He missed the mountains, the air, the fruit which are sweeter in Kyrgyzstan, the work on the farm. And so he went back to where he was born and took over the farm of his father.
There we are! A lot of Kyrgyz-Germans feel that way when they first come to Germany. And some of them feel never integrated. My Kyrgyz boss had some German friends who left the country in the 90s-wave who were always complaining that they missed Kyrgyzstan. But they decided to stay in Germany, mostly because they feel that there is more opportunities in education for their children. But when I first moved to Bishkek and stayed at my bosses place, an old woman was our neighbour. She regularly brought us food (that my boss didn’t like and always threw away :)), because she didn’t have anyone else to cook for. Her family had left the country to Germany in the 90s. But she did not join them. She wanted to stay where she’d always been. If I remember it right, my boss said once: “she wants to die, where she was born”.

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