Kyrgyzstan (Western)

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Kyzyl Oktobryi (Red October), Kyrgyzstan, October 2008.

We had an incredible streak of luck, while driving I saw to our left several horses running on a far ridge and a few cars parked along the road. I knew that was it, a buzkashi ! To see it you have to be at the right time and the right place, which is usually at holidays. And here they were, very spontaneous, no uniforms, not touristy at all. I quickly made the driver stop and hurried towards the field. Two teams of (excellent) riders – the tchopendoz, mounted shepherds in a region where everybody is on horse – try to get hold of the carcass of a goat full of sand and drop it in a hole. It’s not as simple for they sometimes gallop for hours, trying to outrun their competitors. I took more than a hundred shots, risking being overturned by the galloping horses. It was exhilarating, the decapitated dead goat passing from one experienced rider to another, the furious troop running from one side of the extended fields to another, but never too far from where I was, in the middle, with several dignitaries from the nearby villages, among whom the former champion, now a bellied giant with the felt Kyrgyz hat. Just like in Joseph Kessel’s Les Cavaliers, this Frenchman of Russian origin’s so well written book about the buzkashi, set in the regions of Afghanistan bordering on Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. A game of honor as only Orientals can have it.

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Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan, October 2008.

I had a hard time remembering the name of this Uzbek village set in Kyrgyz territory till I recalled Alp Arslan, the Seljuk sultan who defeated Byzantine emperor Diogenes in 1071 at Malazgirt, in Turkey, west of Van Lake (the Byzantines had rejected his peace offer), a place I had visited on a birding trip looking for the gracile but elusive Demoiselle Cranes who people the Murat River sand banks. This victory decisively opened the road of the West to the Central Asian-born Turks. The surname Alp Arslan means “valiant lion” in Turkish, the man had already conquered Armenia and Georgia, and “bob” is Gate – Arslanbob was the epitome in terms of portraits, everybody requested a photo from us as soon as we got out on the main square, by the little kiosk where the elders gather (above).

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Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan, October 2008.

The girl looking away reminds me of a photo in another mountain village, Karimabad, on the Pakistani Karakoram “highway”, land of the Hunza people (see Pakistan). There, another female duo looked physically similar, wearing bright clothes, and being more liberal than the mainstream Muslims. They were from the Ismaili sect which has also followers in this region. Their spiritual leader, Geneva-resident billionaire Aga Khan, whom they address as “His Highness”, built the University of Central Asia in the Kyrgyz capital, with two more campuses, one of which we saw in Khoroj, Tajikistan. Actually these two sets of girls are not far apart, 500 km as the crow flies, above the Tien Shan, Pamirs, and Hindu Kush, a high mountain maze that blends south-east with the Karakoram range then the Himalayas. The same setting with constructive (Aga Khan) and destructive (U.S.) forces at play.

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Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan, October 2008.

Instead of accompanying us to the mountain (never seen a professional driver walk), Murat had downed a couple of vodkas in the village. That had metamorphosed him, he was merry and I took plenty of spontaneous shots of him, laughing or gesturing or drinking tea (here). He was shouting, “Chinese no good!”, while showing with his hand shorter and shorter people. We said, “Kyrgyz good !!”, and he answered, “Kyrgyz no good, Uzbek no good, Russki no good, Chinese no good!”, he put an emphasis on the last one, thriving people are always despised. Then with a roar, “El Salvador, gooooood !!!”

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Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan, October 2008.

They say, save more time for Tajikistan than Kyrgyzstan, and indeed, the Pamirs and especially the Wakhan corridor against Afghanistan, have an incredible scenery and hospitality. Yet, we ended up entering three times into the land of the Kyrgyz due to the convoluted, artificial borders, spending double the time, and taking triple the amount of photos. Of course we had the incredible luck of bumping into an authentic bouzkachi (a kind of polo using the carcass of a goat or sheep instead of a ball) played by two villages not far from Osh, see lots of multicolor flowers around vast Issyk-Kul Lake to the East, and go horseback riding in the huge Tian Shan mountain range which extends into Western China – and the portraits… we had to keep emptying the camera’s large memory to accommodate the demand. This village was particularly photogenic and we bumped into tens of kids, one group after the other, going up the mountain. The two above were in the fields beyond the village limit, in a wild and majestic, rocky setting, and it took the one below, right by the houses, a while to flash a smile, timid but genuine like most in Central Asia.

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Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan, October 2008.

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Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, October 2008.

The Kyrgyz capital has got it all. The Russian nouveau riche culture, which means travel is luxury, so, the hotel was the most expensive so far, 53 dollars. Food was the same, fancy bars with overpriced menus, so we got our usual fare at the supermarket, with vodka and red Kazakh wine. An open-air exhibit by French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, thirty double-face, large panels on the central Ala-Too square, near the Lenin statue and the White House. I was more interested in the faces of the onlookers than in the oversize photographs some of which though were stunning. Well, if you get me on a helicopter at low altitude I too can shoot impressive stuff! Lots of young women and mixed groups, Kyrgyz Chinese-looking faces mingled with Slavic blondes, most watchers had the urban air of cultured people, nearby was an art exhibit. The Ala-Too Teatr offered Hitler Kaput, Almirant, a violent movie with Bangkok in the title, one with Richard Gere. Busy streets against the tall Alatau mountain range in the background. A war memorial attracting wedding parties video-taped against the trees and the flowers. And… two babushkas who repeated: Keep these photos to yourselves!

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