Friday, May 25, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Kyrgyzstan—The View From The Roof Of The World


Woman looking over the Tien Shen Mountains
Our guest this week is Kelly Raftery, who grew up in the Midwest with an abiding passion for the Russian language and culture. A summer studying in Leningrad ignited a life-long passion for the world behind the Iron Curtain. After graduate school, she spent five years in the wild world of Soviet collapse bringing capitalism to the masses as a small business consultant in locales as far-flung as Russia’s “Venice of the North” and the Silk Road’s “Gem of the East.” Kelly has taught Russian language and Soviet Pop Culture to eager undergrads and worked as a freelance interpreter/translator. She currently lives with her family in Colorado’s Front Range.

Close your eyes and picture yourself at the top of the world. Mountains surround the nation’s capital, soaring towards the sky like the buttresses of a medieval cathedral. The Apostle Matthew is rumored to be buried in a monastery on the shore of a high-altitude, sapphire blue lake. Going to the south, you find a city three thousand years old, protected by a sacred mountain named for King Solomon. Do you know where you are yet? Any guesses?

Yurt nestled in the mountains
I will tell you. You are in the Kyrgyz Republic, a small country nestled between China and Russia along the fabled Silk Road. I first visited and fell in love with the Kyrgyz Republic (and not coincidentally, my Kyrgyz husband) well over a decade ago, when the country was undergoing the initial growing pains of its separation from the Soviet Union. Until the collapse, the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, as it was then known, was officially closed to foreigners, mostly due to its role as a center for military research and development. My middle-aged husband remembers the day the first American arrived in his home country, remembers the first American he ever saw in person, it was that significant an event for his people.

Now he is an American himself and his country has continued to endure sweeping changes—two revolutions, the installation of American and Russian military bases and a profound outmigration that calls to mind the Irish fleeing the Potato Famine. At the end of the Soviet period, the Kyrgyz Republic boasted a population of just over five million people. Today, over one million Kyrgyz live abroad. I am of two minds about this; part of me is deeply saddened, knowing that the reason for this vast departure is both economic and political. The Kyrgyz Republic is a poor country and very few people see any opportunity for advancement at home. The other part of me is wryly amused, because until the Soviets forced them into collective farms and factories, the vast majority of Kyrgyz were nomadic, this most recent immigration just seems to bring their heritage into the 21st century.

Lake Issyk-Kul, where it is rumored that the Apostle Matthew
is buried in an Armenian Monastery on the northern shore.
The Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek has been home to several major settlements dating back to the 6th century, but the city as it exists today was established by Russian Army engineers in the late 1880s. I smiled when I read that in the first official census in 1882, the city had a population of 2,135 people. Six were Kyrgyz. The history of the Kyrgyz is not written in cities or monuments, their culture developed on horseback, in yurts, in clans and tribes. Summers were spent in the mountains with their flocks, winters in the valleys. Their cultural knowledge was not found in books, but in song. Longest epic poem known to man? It’s Kyrgyz. A half a million poetic lines learned by heart and sung at special occasions. My wedding celebration featured part of the poem sung by my brother-in-law and his young son. Afterwards, he came up to me, deeply concerned that I had been frightened by the intensity and content of his retelling of Manas. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that all I heard was a very rhythmic, “Blah, blah, blah! Blah, blah, blah!” You can see a version of Manas being sung here.

I did not know when I married my husband fifteen years ago that I also married into the entire family of Kyrgyz people, for in their tradition when a man takes a bride, she becomes a member of his tribe. While my utterly modern computer programmer husband brushes off being a member of the White Deer tribe, I still remember an occasion when I had been asked to be an interpreter for a high-level Kyrgyz government official at a lecture. I had never met this man, an adviser to their President, and when we were introduced, I was presented not with my professional credentials, but as a Kyrgyz wife. 

Yurt with family at a traditional gathering.
Photo: Tracing Tea/Shutterstock.com

Towards the end of the afternoon, I was mortified when an eminent scholar in the audience stood up and challenged how I had interpreted part of the talk into English. The President’s man replied that I had, in fact, correctly interpreted what he had meant to say. Afterwards, as we said good-byes, he pulled me close, laid a gentle kiss just beneath my hairline and said, “Thank you, daughter.” It was that day that I realized what it meant to be part of my husband’s tribe, my husband’s people.

Many years have gone by since that gentle encouragement from that man, but I have never forgotten it. Today, I live a dual life, one of my own making – that of an independent and outspoken American woman and one that I was adopted into, that of a Kyrgyz wife. So, while you may see a typical suburban housewife dressed in sweats, ponytail swinging, I know that I am the adopted daughter of a very special people who live on the Roof the World. 

Wild horses in front of the Tien Shien Mountains

19 comments:

  1. Kelly writes with color and vibrancy. Her transparent love of the area , people and culture infuse every word.

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  2. This gorgeous description of Kyrgyzstan and its people is so tender and appropriate. I look forward to reading more of Kelly's writings about the beloved nation.

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  3. Interesting story with the Presiden's man, thank you for sharing with us. I would love to read your new stories about my beautiful country and their special people. Best regards. Altynai Berksoy

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  4. Wow, beautiful story, and very nice description.

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  5. Excellent depiction of the land and people!

    signed.. a kyrgyz :)

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  6. Thanks for this glimpse into the Kyrgyz culture. I was a Russian studies major and had ambitions, at one time, to learn the language of one of the captured cultures and interpret, since there were already so many Russian interpreters. Other things happened, but I'm glad *you* got to travel to and live in that part of the world, and bring some of it to us.

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    1. Thanks Kaye, there is still time - I just got my Kyrgyz language materials...now to start hitting the books!

      Best,
      Kelly

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  7. Wow!!!! Just fantastic. Bravo, my dear friend, Bravo!!
    Jen Freeman

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  8. Thank you very much for sharing your story, Kelly. Well done.

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  9. Your story is fascinating. Thanks for sharing it with us at Novel Adventurers.

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  10. Thanks for the comments everyone...much appreciated!

    Best,
    Kelly

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  11. Your story re-awakened my long held fascination with the the former USSR and the other countries along the Silk Road. I would love to get to Kyrgyzstan before I leave this earth. I was able to visit Uzbekistan twice during the last two years of the Soviet Union and loved it. The people were so warm and friendly.

    Thanks for the post.
    Julie

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  12. Loved your story, and join the others in wanting to hear more about this fascinating culture. I watched a couple of movies on NetFlix recently that were set in this area of the world where all the world crossed, and the movie doesn't tell me where it is supposedly set. One was Lemon Vodka and the other Absurdistan. I look forward to seeing these different cultures brought to the light of the 1st-world nations.

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    1. Both of these stories take place (and were filmed) a bit to the west - Lemon Vodka in Armenia and Absurdistan in Azerbaijan. These countries also have a fascinating culture, not to mention amazing food! For movies with a Central Asian taste, you can try Nomad - for more action or Beshkempir, which is more arty and shows village life in Kyrgyzstan.

      Best,

      Kelly

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  13. What a fascinating story. I, too, married into a different culture. In the same way, I was immediately accepted into my Indian husband's family. I'm called Auntie by all the nieces and nephews, and when visiting am made to feel truly like a member of their family. Thank you for letting us have a peek into a very different culture, one I admit I knew nothing about.

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  14. Kelly, you know I've long been fascinated by your story and love our chats about Kyrgyz culture. Thanks so much for blogging with us this weekend and sharing your experiences in such a lovely, descriptive post.

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  15. Thank you so much for letting me share on Novel Adventurers, I was honored to be asked!

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  16. I'm late to the game, but what a lovely tribute to your adopted culture, Kelly. Thank you for sharing this--I too look forward to reading more about your forays along the Silk Road.

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