From the thousand-year old epic poem of Manas (the greatest hero in history, by volume), to the still common tradition of bride kidnapping, Kyrgyzstan is a place beyond imagination.
In four photo-essays so far, I’ve tried my best to bottle-up some of this country and give you all a sip:
One aspect of Kyrgyzstan struck me more than everything else. Epic-er than Manas; striking-er than the landscapes; wilder than the road circus; and legendary-er than Arslanbob.
Rivers cut their way down narrow valleys, past inquisitive wild horses and shy chubby marmots. These enormous alpine landscapes can only be done any justice in panorama.
Ladas and their kin of boxy, Soviet-era cars bumble down the streets (often loaded with animals) alongside a hodge-podge of battered old foreign luxury-brands. (Often “stolen” from their original German owners in cahoots for insurance money). These Mercs and Beamers get driven up into alpine meadows and down rutted mud tracks to animal bazaars, until even their emblems fall off. Add to this auto-melting-pot all the Japanese imports with steering wheels on the wrong side – which makes sitting in the passenger seat while your driver tries to overtake very exciting – and the nation’s roads become a circus.
Only 7% of Kyrgyzstan is suitable for farming. So in this jailoo and repeated across hundreds of others, Kyrgyz families continue the nomadism that most other cultures ended centuries ago. I understood this firsthand when hiking, as I was caught in more than one avalanche of wool and horn.
In that tiny fraction of arable land, towns emerged so thick with legend they hardly feel real. Like Arslanbob, a town the Prophet himself is said to have called “the most beautiful place on Earth”. The layercake of history, created in small part by centuries of travellers on the Silk Road, has elevated this humble town through ancient history (Mohammad sent walnut seeds) to modern day fame (UNESCO protection of the largest walnut forest in the world).
But one aspect of Kyrgyzstan struck me more than everything else
Epic-er than Manas; striking-er than the landscapes; wilder than the road circus; and legendary-er than Arslanbob.
The Kyrgyz people’s faces.
From day one, I couldn’t believe the variety I witnessed in the faces around me, nor how beautiful they were. I walked the streets and had daily interactions with countless strangers. And in their faces, I could see the entire world. In Kyrgyzstan, I had to became a portrait photographer. And now I want to share with you my fifth, final, and favourite photo-essay:
The Entire World in a Face – The People of Kyrgyzstan.
[Please do yourself a favour: Click images to make full-screen, and use the arrow keys to move between photos]
A Kyrgyz father and his armful of cry-babies, clearly enjoying my portrait session.
In the rainy, higher, alpine meadows of Jeti Oguz, we found a nomad camp headed by this patriarch, clad in classic Soviet style.
Taalai and his father Taburbek, my guides in Jeti Oguz. Taburbek was a transport engineer until the USSR collapsed; then he was a taxi driver. Things changed a lot for people here.
The Lonely Planet-famous Valentin of 'Yak Tours' in his element, at the communal table of his alpine hut, regaling us with stories. I spent 3 days here in the company of a steadily rotating stream of fascinating foreigners and spinning yarns.
This friendly nomad spends the summer high in the mountain meadows, known as jailoos, herding his flock. The flock is mostly sheep, with a few mischievious goats, and he spends much time relaxing in the grass drinking kymyz (mildly alcoholic fermented mare's milk) while his two obedient dogs do most of the herding.
All the folks at Karakol's Animal Bazaar were friendly; some of them wear funny hats.
A boy shivers behind his family's Lada, put in charge to sell their one sheep. Note his authentic shirt.
One of the thousands of the rugged Kyrgyz people attending Karakol's weekly Animal Bazaar.
This guy looked like a Lenin / David Suzuki mashup. He came to the market with only one sheep, and a pink umbrella.
Most women don't allow portraits, but my cute Japanese friend Yuka softened them up. These ladies were hilariously silly, making faces and photo-bombing each other's portraits with bunny ears.
I noticed a kerfuffle at the back of the bazaar. A horse was struggling to escape from straps. Then I realised I'd never seen a shoeing before.
Through Wikitravel I found a women with a makeshift hostel in her apartment. It was near-impossible to find, and (unrelatedly) she was deaf. Surprisingly though, communication with her was easier than with a typical local! She carried her laptop, and we took turns typing into a translator, to have a conversation. As I was leaving, she asked if I could take some portraits of her infant daughter.
This man and I spoke (or at least tried to via my dictionary) for half an hour as we waited out the rain. He pointed up to the hills, said the Russian word for 'danger' (I thought), and then made devil horns. I thought he was warning me about evil spirits. Turns out he was talking about his goats.
This girl, probably about 11 years old, watched over her younger neighbours. Most women around here were camera-shy and even hostile towards travellers – but she let me take a photo.
I told this man I was making portraits of all the amazing faces in Kyrgyzstan. He said, "The reason for such beautiful faces is because we have clean air from the high mountains, and fresh water from the many rivers. If it wasn't for the car pollution we would live to be 200!" Every morning at 5am, he walks to the mosque, 3km return, to pray.
An elderly man I chatted with in the streets of Arslanbob (thankfully it was outside the CBT office, and Hayat was there to translate)
This dude selling mini-cucumbers from the boot of his Lada allowed me to take a photo. Then he *thanked me* for the photograph, insisting that I take some cucumbers!
Arslanbob has been a crossroads for millenia – a settled town of farmers amongst a sea of nomads, not far from the Silk Road. Centuries of mixing cultures has created so many faces you'd struggle to place on a map.
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