From Here to There and Back Again: Horses and Cultural Ruminations in Kyrgyzstan
Below the snow-covered slopes of eastern Kyrgyzstan, the horses ran in the At Chabysh races that afternoon in early November with all of the power and the grace and the beauty of all of their forebears. So much in the foreground of human cultures has changed. But the horses and their willingness to do the bidding of their riders remain a constant. A constant, that is, in the development of empire and trade along the Silk Road. A constant, that is, in the fledgling new businesses of ecotourism that have been launched in the post-Soviet period. A constant, that is, in transportation in a country where only 10 percent of households own cars. And a constant, that is, in the tending of livestock and in people’s diets.
Who, though, were the many hundreds of people who patiently watched the races and then the awards ceremonies that ran for hours and hours through the late afternoon? What motivated a group of musicians and horse people from the northern Rockies to come halfway around the world to showcase the cultures of the American West? Why had an ad hoc group of about 25 French people volunteered and paid their way to Kyrgyzstan to help organize these races? Why is Switzerland so far in the lead among NGOs working in Kyrgyzstan?
Several days before the races began some of us had broken away from the preparations to ride on the slopes above the racecourse. During the morning of that day I had been involved in the set up of a photo exhibit that tenderly portrayed cowboys and rodeo riders at work. Others in our delegation did a sound check of the equipment to be used in a program of western folk songs that would be performed that evening. Another member of our group, Teresa Jordan, the greatly admired author of a memoir on ranching life, Riding the White Horse Home, had already done a slide show that morning depicting 30,000 years of horses in art.
The village that day, in which these events took place, was Tamga, a destitute small town above the treacherous and lightly used road that runs along the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul, a huge alpine lake in eastern Kyrgyzstan, into which the waters of the Tien Shan mountains flow. This particular spot had once been a resort for vacationing Soviet soldiers who stayed in bleak, multi-storied apartments in the town’s center about two miles above a dreary fenced-in picnic and beach area on the lakeshore. Nothing about the town or resort layout seemed inviting. And now that all of these facilities are closed and have rapidly fallen into disrepair, it was not at all clear how people make their living here, or why they would stay at all. Of course, people the world over tend to stay where they are, until circumstances like war or famine force them to make a change. The risk of losing what one has outweighs by far, for most people, the difficult-to-picture benefits of moving somewhere else and doing things that one can’t quite picture.
In Kyrgyzstan, the generalized but secure poverty of life in the former Soviet Union has been replaced by a market-based economy that is far more precarious, so it’s all but impossible to picture alternatives that open on to a better material future. Commonly, when a person goes trail riding in the western United States, they leave their day-to-day affairs behind and cross over into unpopulated areas, like the national forest or a wilderness area, where recreation and nature merge to give one the feeling of living sensually in a mythic present tense. But here where 60 percent of the people (versus less than 2 percent in the United States) derive their livelihoods from grazing animals and farming, the line between town life and nature is completely blurred.
In Barsko’on, a town of several thousand people, on a plateau between the mountains and the lake where the races were run, shepherds on horseback or on foot drive their small groups of cattle, sheep and goats out along the roads each morning onto the open ground at the edge of town that stretches away in all directions. There on the unfenced commons, shepherds spend their days moving their animals around in search of forage, returning to town after 5 pm and once again clogging the roads as the sun drops behind a distant ridgeline.
In November, there is still a slight feeling of repose, and this is when some of the great Kyrgyz distance races (since banned by the Soviets) were held historically. The harvest work is completed. The snows, which would soon make daily life so difficult and uncomfortable, wait patiently on the slopes above.
We rode our horses that afternoon for several hours, from the delightful, relaxing setting of middle fall to the sharply defined snow line 500 meters upslope. Over and over again I thought that we had come to the settlement edges beyond which no one else lived, but over and over again we’d turn the crest of a small knoll and find yet another dwelling nestled in a draw. The Kyrgyz that we saw that afternoon seemed both patient and attentive, their lives conspicuously influenced by the rhythms of their animals’ lives and the forceful progression of the seasons. As we rode by we nodded shyly at the people who stood outside their dwellings and watched us. But the gesture of contact, as far as it went, was miniscule. For surely we must have been as irrelevant to the day-to-day reality of their lives as a shepherd moving a flock of sheep along a distant ridgeline would be to passing motorists in the Rockies.
It was these qualities of patience and fortitude that we also intuitively observed in the people who came to watch the horse games and races that were held over the course of three days. People clearly enjoyed themselves. There was lots of laughter and conversation. But there wasn’t the restlessness in a crowd one would see in the West. And when an afternoon’s events concluded, people moved away much more slowly than their western counterparts would have done, racing to beat the traffic snarls.
But why were we, as people of the West, from France and Switzerland and the United States, there at all? If what I thought I saw in eastern Kyrgyzstan is linked to factors in the natural world that deeply influence how people there live their lives, where were we coming from environmentally and culturally? What are the deeply embedded aspects of our lives that draw us halfway around the world?
Self-referential inquiries like these shouldn’t be allowed to absorb too much of one’s attention. But the fact is that, like factions in a political party, we’d talk a lot among ourselves about the Europeans we got to know tangentially over the course of two weeks. And hopefully by describing the other outsiders, I’ll come around to some conclusions as to why we, the Americans, were there.
As for the French, they were the least ambiguous, the most dedicated. The leader of their group of racecourse volunteers was Jacqueline Ripart, a wiry woman in her 50s (I’d say) who has documented and collected DNA samples from horse breeds all over the world. It was she who decided several years ago to revive the traditional At Chabysh celebrations after the long interval during which they were banned by the Soviets. And it is she who’s leading a sustained effort to preserve the Kyrgyz horse breed before its characteristics are completely lost to crossbreeding.
Thrifty and powerful, the relatively small Kyrgyz horse is superbly adapted to life in the high mountains. Renowned for its energy and for its capacity to travel for days without food, it is undoubtedly one of the world’s first or original breeds from which all other modern horses descend.
Alongside their efforts to make a new society, the Soviets also wanted to develop an improved version of the Kyrgyz horse by mixing its bloodlines with thoroughbreds. They also slaughtered thousands of Kyrgyz horses after World War II, a documentary film by a Kyrgyz producer asserts. At this point in time it’s not clear what the Kyrgyz horse really is or isn’t in terms of its DNA profile. And the only criteria for entering the At Chabysh races were that the horses be smaller than thoroughbreds.
While the Americans played a lead role in bringing entertainment and cultural offerings to several villages in the vicinity of the races, the French focused completely on the horses, the races and the media work of documenting, in idealized romantic terms, everything that was going on. They didn’t appear to be more than politely interested in the cultural programming that the Americans brought in (… historically shallow, already familiar?) but they were obviously very respectful and very fascinated, as we were, by everything Kyrgyz.
As I looked through some French magazine takeouts on Kyrgyzstan and Jacqueline Ripart’s work that had been photocopied, several things stood out. One was that in France there are at least several very well done magazines, like Animan, Les Routes du Monde, that are dedicated to the subject matter of faraway foreign cultures. On the cover of an issue in which Jacqueline describes her work in Kyrgyzstan, a photograph shows two solitary camel drivers walking with their steeds in different directions across a sand dune in the Sahara. The ideas imparted by this photograph are that the human being stands alone in the world; that vitality comes from a natural world that is inhabited by those who are strong; by those who have not been corrupted by modernity and politics.
The beautiful photographs that appear in Jacqueline’s article portray the nomadic life styles and distant mountain residences of the Kyrgyz people. Nothing modern, like cars or radios, can be seen. These images could have been set 200 years ago.
The American version of this story would more likely have been built around photographs of pure, “unpeopled” nature. But more to the point – there wouldn’t be anything like an American version of this story. Beyond National Geographic and the publications that serve tightly defined recreational subcultures, like rock climbers for example, there are no magazines that would publish photo texts on remote foreign locales (… thank you, Polo’s Bastards).
One cannot help but admire the energy and curiosity that the French bring to cultures in remote settings. And even though this inquiry might be romanticized and self-referential at times and always, always, media attentive, it’s a life choice that produces much less of a drain on world resources than the choice to stay at home and immerse oneself, as Americans commonly do, in a bottomless materialism that passes for a way of life.
Understandably, the French people we met were not particularly interested in us. They weren’t bellicose or dismissive, but like many of France’s cultural heroes, the French who’d come out to Kyrgyzstan were straight ahead, unapologetic, completely specific in their own agendas for being there. Coming as they do from a culture that is renowned internationally for its sublime and aristocratic contributions to world culture, many modern day French people seem to look beyond France for a sense of renewal and self-affirmation. But perhaps surprisingly, the French are much less directly involved in helping the Kyrgyz via non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it appears, than the Swiss and Germans and even the Americans are. The Swiss in particular are very visible because Helvitas, the country’s largest NGO, directs its formidable resources to specific places and projects that it selects autonomously.
Kyrgyzstan, partly because it is mountainous, receives lots of aid in the form of the applied expertise that engineers, hydrologists, foresters, ecotourism consultants and others who work in alpine settings can offer. In all of the conversations that I had with Swiss people there, an emphasis on what’s really needed was apparent. In the same way that Switzerland follows its own path in Europe, the Swiss projects in Kyrgyzstan are independently chosen and funded with the awareness that resources, along with what can be actually be accomplished, must be tightly defined.
For example, Bernard Repond, the long time Director of a summer school near Gstaad, travels to Kyrgyzstan several times each year to monitor the construction of bridges that will open the high country to herders, an operation paid for by an NGO that he launched six years ago. In 1999, while trekking in the Terskey-Alateu Mountains, south of Lake Issyk-Kul, Repond encountered whole drainages that were inaccessible by people living nearby, because bridges allowing access had fallen into disrepair.
“For many years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, nobody even knew where the villages were,” Repond said. “The villagers themselves were waiting for the government to repair the roads and bridges. And in the meantime they [were overgrazing] the areas near their summer encampments that could be reached.”
Using powerful winches that villagers would not have access to, Repond realized that bridges all over the country could be repaired or built from scratch for as little as $5,000 apiece. Local people could be paid to do the work under the supervision of a technically trained person.
When Repond went to international aid organizations like the Central Asian Mountain Project, he found that expensive studies on the grazing potential and ecology of high mountain pastures were being done. But when he pointed to the far simpler work of repairing bridges, an official admitted to him that the issue of access had never been identified.
“This pattern among large NGOs of studying problems and discussing them in the setting of international conferences absorbs much of the money that’s available for project work in Kyrgyzstan”, Repond said. In Karakol, a small city on the eastern end of Lake Issyk-Kul, below the 7,000 meter peaks of the Tien Shan range, he had counted, at one point, no fewer than seven NGOs simultaneously studying the ecotourism potential of the region. “They are all very busy. They’re all doing reports,” he said, “and yet in Bishkek (the capital city 300 miles away) in this, the 15th year of independence, there is still no single office in the center of the city where a visitor to Kyrgyzstan can go for maps or basic information.”
This can-do quality of the Swiss, their realism and careful deployment of resources runs through much of the work that they support in Kyrgyzstan. As for the Americans – what is the personality of their involvement? Beyond the heavy-handed geopolitical aspirations of the US government to maintain a military presence in this strategically significant part of the world, there is a growing and very active community of missionaries who are funneling resources into impoverished villages. The work of modern day missionaries is much less based on counting converts than it is on the activist tradition of working with the poor. But in spite of this, the work of missionaries is very controversial. It also demonstrates how Americans tend to subordinate their efforts and labor to larger causes. And it follows, surely, that our ad hoc group of musicians and horse people could be seen dispassionately by an outsider as the embodiment of something specifically American.
But what really was distinctly American about our participation in the At Chabysh festival? For me, it’s hard to separate our purposes in being there from the ideas of Candra Day, a remarkable charismatic woman in her 50s who several years ago developed an arts center in Jackson Hole that cost $12 million and now somehow had cobbled together the funding that was needed to send our delegation of 13 Americans half way around the world.
For Candra, and for all of us who are swayed by her vision, the arts can be a doorway to honest, long-term relationships. “The ‘delight factor’ embedded in the arts is a powerful force for the good and is freed from the interferences that economic and political pressures sometimes produce,” she said. “And mountain cultures have lots to teach one another.” There’s a natural curiosity and a kindred spirit that ties mountain peoples together on a planet where only 10 percent of the human population lives above 1,000 meters. And in places like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is the wealthiest single county in the United States, there’s an opportunity to raise money and use it to get things done in parts of the world that desperately need infusions of capital.
So this was why we were there. As Americans, we tend to be drawn to agendas that are larger than ourselves. We’re embarrassed by many of the policies that our government pursues in our names. We want to go further into foreign cultures than pleasure-based tourism allows. And perhaps in a subtle way we feel guilty (or at least awkward) about the very large amounts of wealth that flow into our lives from places unseen. It’s marvelous, on the one hand, that we can do the simplest things for one another in the United States and be so amply rewarded for the exercise of such ordinary talents. But it’s also vaguely apparent that there are lots of people living in other places who probably work just as hard as we do and who are just as capable, who earn pennies compared to our dollars.
The opportunity to go out into the world and to share some of our cultural traditions would have been the idea that drew our polyglot group of “cultural ambassadors” together. On the ground, none of this was particularly clear. All of us appreciated the assignments that gave structure to our meanderings, and many of us probably doubted that we were more than marginally qualified to do the tasks that we had been assigned.
In other words, it was life as usual, albeit in a very unusual and distant place.