Unpronounceable Identity Crisis

Unpronounceable Identity Crisis

The Kyrgyz – that’s pronounced ‘Keer-Geez’ with a hard ‘g’ – are experiencing something of a identity crisis. Like my Alzheimer-suffering Aunt, they don’t know who they are half the time. Partly, this is because, after over eighty years as part of the failed Soviet experiment, the Kyrgyz think, act, and speak like Russians.

The confusion starts on landing, Taxiing to the terminal, large blue neon letters glare through the darkness to spell out ‘Welcome to Manas International Airport’. It’s not until disembarked and jostling in the un-refereed rugby scrum that surrounds the lone consular official at the visa desk that it becomes clear we have not landed by mistake in a country called ‘Manas’.

The taxi driver taking me into the capital, Bishkek, tells me he is also called ‘Manas’. The first road-sign to loom through the early morning mist points the direction to a nearby town. Guess what. It, too, is called ‘Manas’. And when ‘Manas’ turns on the radio as he speeds by the turn-off to ‘Manas’, the Krygyz folk song we listen to is also about a guy called – you’ve guessed it – Manas.

Manas, as it turns out, is some local Kyrgyz folk hero – probably a genocidal maniac as most rulers were in those days – who saved the country from the invading Mongols centuries ago.

I said we were “speeding along”. Not quite true. We were, in fact, crawling at 40 mph along a newly tarmac’d and completely empty dual-carriageway.

Manas, as it turns out, is trying to avoid a speeding fine. Not much hope of that. From behind a row of white-painted poplars in the middle of nowhere, out steps a policeman in a ridiculously over-sized hat wielding a blinking orange stick. With an audible sigh, Manas pulls over. After a few minutes of haggling over the impromptu and completely random ‘speeding fine’ – which has been reduced to 40 Somoni (one US dollar) for no other reason than the policeman shares the same name – we continue on our way, our little contribution to the policeman’s pension plan safely tucked in his pocket. Crisis number two: Endemic corruption.

Kyrgyzstan is one of the last unspoiled wildernesses of the world. At least it looks that way at first glance. It should be magnet for all those trekkers, mountain-bikers and assorted ‘aventuristas’ who love to do dangerous things such as extreme white-water rafting, heli-skiing, or paragliding.

But it isn’t. This is largely because of the second identity crisis; The name of the country includes the word “stan”. Most of its land-locked neighbours are called “stan”, too. Kazahkstan. Tajikistan. Uzbekistan. And with each “stan”, the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism and nihilistic Taliban atrocity looms larger in the un-informed and timid potential tourists’ mind. No wonder the newly re-elected oligarch that runs this place insists on calling it “The Kyrgyz Republic” instead.

My recent brush with immigration, military, and police authoritarianism gives me a clue as to the third: The older generation of Kyrgyz appear to be un-reconstructed communists who hanker after the good old days while drinking vodka in gloomy basement billiard halls; whose memories of the gulag have dimmed as fast as the combine-harvesters have rusted to lie broken and twisted as scavenged heaps of scrap metal in the hedgerows we so recently crawled past.

Why this nostalgia ? After a few days in this lovely mountainous country, it is not hard to see.

Before, everything worked. The price may have been invisible – paid in ‘rubles’ by the far-off apparatchniks of Moscow and in un-explained disappearances which have been conveniently forgotten – but things worked. Not now, though. Now, despite heroic efforts by the world’s development agencies to patch things together, everything is either broken or in danger of imminent collapse.

The politics is broken – if it ever started off in one piece at all. July’s elections were a farce with only the incumbent despot’s party having access to the airwaves, and all dissent quashed. The water distribution system is broken. The sewage treatment plant is broken. The health system is broken. And the schools are broken. What’s left to break ? My three-year-old niece – the Belgian New Yorker who likes to hurtle her new scooter down the ramp to ‘track eleven’ at Grand Central Station yelling “Never give up! Never surrender !” to startled ticket collectors – would struggle to find something else to break here. And, like all three-year-old’s, she’s good at breaking things.

Perhaps I am being a little unfair. I mean, in its own authoritarian way, the airport worked. Unlike in England, the baggage trolleys steered in the direction you pushed them in and had round wheels rather than the square ones they use at Heathrow (which imbecile is responsible for ordering those ?!). The taxi worked, even if it did travel rather slowly and run out of petrol. Even the hotel lift worked in spite of emitting alarming screeching noises as it passed the fourth floor.

And I’m sitting here, in a pavement café on a broad, tree-lined boulevard next to a fast-flowing open drain watching policemen stop the traffic to allow yet another member of the former communist nomenklatura swish by unimpeded in his brand new Mercedes, sipping a beer brewed in Siberia. Commerce surely works, too ?

It’s not a cold beer, however. In Bishkek, cold beer, or any cold drink for that matter, is as difficult to find as an ashtray on a motorbike because the Bishkekers – well, I called them on the basis that someone who lives in Hamburg is surely called a ‘Hamburger’, and no-one corrected me – think that cold drinks make you ill. Although day-time temperatures during the Summer nudge into the forties, the polka-dot-dress wearing residents of Bishkek will happily throng the numerous pavement cafés to drink hot green tea and get sprayed by the passing water bowser – which, incidentally, seem to work, too.

While I’m on the subject, what country struggling to find its post-Soviet place in the world would allow its Capital city to be called Bishkek in the first place, as if it were some meat processing factory for Macdonalds ? With its allusion to ‘beef-steak’, Bishkek can hardly claim to be the meat-eating capital of the world any more than Glasgow can claim to be the cultural capital of Europe. I mean, despite the romantic association with ‘the Silk Road’ and Genghis Khan, the Kazahks across the border didn’t even like ‘Alma Ata’ enough as a name for their Capital, so not only did they change it to ‘Almaty’ but they then decided to move the whole shebang over a thousand miles north into the frozen tundra to a collection of huts called ‘Astana’. But I guess you can do that kind of thing if you have oil. And the Kyrgyz don’t have oil. Just oil pipelines – which is nearly the same thing in the topsy-turvy global economic madhouse we have allowed our bankers to create.

But scratch the chattering, sun-dappled surface and it quickly becomes clear that all these observations have something in common: There is water everywhere, but none of it is safe to drink.

My grandmother, bless her, once told me that she used to cool her Gin & Tonics during the days of the Raj with ice which, because it was made from contaminated water, was made in a condom – I always thought this quite disgusting until I realised that condoms weren’t covered in slimy spermicidal jelly in those punkah-flapping days. To cool your beer with ice in Bishkek is to risk a similar fate as, unless it has been made with bottled water, it too will give you a serious case of ‘the runs’.

Turn on a tap in Bishkek anywhere other than in the city centre where the foreigners and dignitaries live, and, if anything comes out at all, watch mud and bits of rubbish gurgle down the plug-less drain. This is the real crisis. Which explains why you can see huddles of people collecting water in plastic bottles from the ground-water hand-pumps that dot most street corners.

The Kyrgyz have lots of water, though. After six months of sub-zero temperatures, melting snow from the Ala-Tau (pronounced ‘Alla Two’) mountains mixes with melt-water from the retreating glaciers of the Pamir and Himalaya ranges to cascade in muddied torrents through the gorgeous canyons of northern Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and beyond.

I snatched one glorious morning to ‘white-water’ raft down one of these rivers, the Chuy (pronounced ‘chewy’ as in chewing gum), with a mixed bunch of Russian, Kyrgyz, and foreign UN co-workers, all of us paddling for dear life conscious that we didn’t want to find ourselves being resuscitated in a Kyrgyz hospital knowing that if the river didn’t drown us, the hospital would surely finish the job.

Actually, white-water rafting is a bit of a misnomer. We were, more correctly, ‘grey-water’ rafting for, having chopped down most of its forests, the country’s productive top-soil is eroding at an alarming rate. The country is washing itself into no less than three of its neighbours. This erosion is bad enough. But it gets worse. ‘Tailings’ from the many Uranium mines left over from the eco-unfriendly Soviet era are also getting washed into the rivers. The combined effect is that previously drinkable ground-water deep in underground aquifers is becoming increasingly contaminated with salt and radioactive waste.

Downstream, this water feeds the vast network of irrigation ditches that succour the flat wheat and cotton field to the South. Upstream, it generates hydro-electric power via some of the largest dams in the world. These dams, like the irrigation ditches, were built during the Soviet era and, although over-engineered to withstand military attack at the time, are now falling into disrepair after decades of minimal, if any, maintenance. As is all the steel pipework that diverts this torrent to the urban treatment plants of Bishkek and other major towns.

The hydro-electric scheme has only a handful of generators any longer capable of producing the energy required to heat and light the rapidly expanding urban populations. The result is that power cuts are normal during the winter, with villages receiving less than six hours per day. The knock-on effect of these frequent power outages is that the pumps needed to keep the water flowing – pumps designed to run without stopping – burn out in the electrical surge that comes when the un-regulated power is switched back on. And the knock-on effect of that for those pumps that do kick back in, is a ‘hydraulic shock’ that bursts the underground water pipes that, as one Ministry official put it to me, “are anyway held together by rust, pressure, and God’s will”. That is, if they haven’t frozen solid first.

These pumps are also needed to circulate water through treatment plants where chlorine is added as a disinfectant. They are needed, too, to treat the sewage that returns from the homes the water has been pumped to. But only one such plant still functions in Bishkek, and none at all in Kyrgyzstan’s other main urban centres. The result is that un-treated water circulates in contaminated pipes and the un-treated effluent discharges straight back into the very river I had been rafting down. Not so much as ‘grey-water’ rafting as ‘brown-water’ rafting, then.

It’s the same in the rural villages. Extraction and distribution of clean ground-water from underground aquifers is sporadic and highly likely to be contaminated on its way to the home. Where systems are disrupted or broken, people have little recourse but to collect surface-water from irrigation canals and streams. With livestock drinking from, and shitting around, these sources, this water is un-safe and not fit to drink.

No surprise, then, to learn that children experience an average of two bouts of diarrhoea every month in Kyrgyzstan and die unnecessarily and in alarming numbers from something which a bar of soap and a little regular hand-washing could prevent.

Nine out of ten also suffer from serious helminthic infection – worms, to you and me – they picked up while walking barefoot through human and animal shit or from eating un-washed food straight out of the kitchen garden which has been fertilized with un-composted animal shit. The lack of clean water doesn’t help much, either. Children often carry up to four different types of worm, some round, some flat, each more parasitically loathsome than the next. Among other debilitating effects, such loads result in nutrient deficiencies (which retard mental and physical growth in children), exacerbates anaemia in pregnant women (which, in turn, gives rise to complications in pregnancy and childbirth), and makes it much more difficult to achieve in school.

A lot is being done to address these deficiencies, but not on large enough scale to really make a lasting difference to the 4 million or so people living in Kyrgyzstan, over 40% of whom now live near the poverty line owing to the compounding effects of reduced income, energy shortages, lower crop-yields, escalating commodity prices, and collapsing infrastructure.

Come to Kyrgyzstan. It is safe. But its water isn’t. So, be warned, don’t drink tea from a Samovar and use only bottled water.

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