Kyrgyzstan: Yurts, Russian, and Radicalization Fears and Realities

As an adolescent, I hated yurts, which smacked of a patronizing variety of poseur-hippie that rubbed me in all the wrong ways. The offensive yurts always seemed to pop up on university campuses, at homeschooling conferences, and random stretches of grass, accompanied by a posse of beckoning dreadlocked evangelists, “Hey, do you want to come and see our yurt? Come inside!”

It’s not that yurts aren’t cool, it was just that they seemed so cliché.

With this in mind, it is with a touch of embarrassment that I confess that my greatest goal for my trip to Kyrgyzstan was to, at some point, sleep in a yurt. I knew it was likely to be a tourist yurt, but sleeping in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan makes me less of a poseur than homeschooling-conference hippies, right?

Maybe not, but people can change.

Anyway, at an undeniably touristic yurt camp where I stayed, where German tourists flock to bask in the natural glory that are the pastures and mountains of Kyrgyzstan, I fell in with a group of Kyrgyz tourists who, like me, were entirely unused to yurt-living.  They arrived a few hours after I did, and cheerfully plonked themselves beside me in the dining yurt and began chattering.

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The afore-mentioned dining yurt

“I slept in a yurt once before actually,” said one of my new buddies. “But it wasn’t as comfortable as these ones. It was a real yurt.”

“You mean you don’t stay in yurts regularly, not even for vacation?” I asked. “No,” said another girl. “We don’t. We’re from Bishkek.”

The following night, the same girls regaled me with tales of their daytime activity, a show of traditional horse games and archery. As we ate we watched a young Kyrgyz girl dance to traditional music and then stood while she conducted a “master class” which was supposed to be a way for us to experience Kyrgyz dance, and was definitely a way to make us all look like total idiots. The Kyrgyz women were barely better than me at the moves, which surprised me. I’d thought that they would have at least some background, though movies or a lesson in an elementary school gym class – something. It didn’t appear to be the case.

We sat down again to munch on cookies and sip tea mixed with jam. The conversation went on in Russian, so I mostly focused on eating because unless I’m being spoken to directly, it’s hard for me to follow. I looked around at them. They comprised a wider variety of ages than I’d first assumed. The youngest girl I met was 15, and the oldest member of the group was in his early thirties.

“How did you all meet each other?” I asked, as the conversation lulled.

“Actually,” one explained, “This is a program called Muras and it’s about kochman. In Kyrgyz, kochman means nomad, and this program is about bringing youth who are Kyrgyz but who don’t have their culture anymore to experience the traditional Kyrgyz culture. You know, all Kyrgyz people used to be nomads and live in yurts, but now there are also a lot of people like us who live sedentary lives in Bishkek and speak usually Russian.”

“Are there any Kyrgyz people who don’t even speak Kyrgyz?” I asked.

“Yeah, maybe. We go to school in Russian and university in Russian, and maybe there are some parents who speak only Russian at home. In Bishkek, it’s possible. Or people speak Kyrgyz, but not at an academic level. Anyway, with this program we go around Kyrgyzstan for ten days for free, and we see some traditional things like what it is like to live in yurt, riding horses, dances, crafts and things like that. Some of us are writers, bloggers, and journalism students. We take pictures and write about our experience in order to encourage other youth to know more about traditional Kyrgyz culture.”

“I have another question,” I said. “During the Soviet Union, Kazakh people were forced into collective farming and more or less stopped being nomads. Did that happen in Kyrgyzstan too?”

“Actually, yes, there are lots of sedentary Kyrgyz people now,” said the woman sitting next to me, a doctoral student called Gulbara. “What usually happens nowadays is that people in the villages have some animals, but instead of taking them to pasture in the summertime they pay another shepherd to take his animals to pasture. So maybe only five people from every village go to live in a yurt in the summer. The rest stay in town and work. A lot of people don’t want to stay in yurts. Moving is expensive, and being in a yurt can be a bit boring.

Next up was an interview with camp staff, conducted by the journalistically inclined members of the group. The gist of the interview, translated for me later, was that the woman working at her camp loved her job because she saw it as a way to combat the rise of radicalization in Kyrgyzstan. “Why are youth interested in radicalization?” she asked. “Why not be interested in our traditions? That’s why I do what I do.”

I asked one girl, a journalist called Jibek, about her job outside of this program. “I mostly write about success stories,” she said. “In Russian and sometimes in English.” “Not in Kyrgyz?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Actually, my English is better than my Kyrgyz.”

At the next meal, I got a question I wasn’t prepared for: “So, what did you know about Kyrgyzstan before coming?”

I stammered, both because I was expected to answer in Russian because I hadn’t expected the question. “Um, I heard that you have yurts, that you eat a lot of meat, that you used to be a part of the Soviet Union… but you know, North Americans really know nothing about Central Asia. Really nothing. So I can’t say I was raised to think about Kyrgyzstan at all.”

“Well,” said one of my conversation partners helpfully, “Kyrgyzstan is actually kind of a contradicted country. We are right next to China and we look Asian, but we’re not Chinese. We speak a Turkic language, but we’re not Turkish. Many of us speak Russian and we were part of the Soviet Union, but we’re not Russian either. And we have many different ethnic groups – Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek, Muslim Chinese, some Turks and Koreans. And we’re kind of at a strategic location between all of those countries, so everybody wants a piece of the pie – especially China.”

The next day the group was rejoined by a woman working for UNICEF Kyrgyzstan, and the topic of radicalization came up again. “I work with education and things,” she said, “and some healthcare too. There is a big problem with radicalization in Kyrgyzstan, so we had a measles epidemic recently because of it. There were some people that were telling parents that vaccines weren’t halal, and that’s all it took.”

It seemed funny to me. Kyrgyzstan seemed utterly different from Turkey; few women were wearing Islamic coverings and I heard the call to prayer drifting from a nearby mosque only rarely. Still, the topic of radicalization had come up twice, and it seemed as though people were talking enough about it that it must have been current.

I left the yurt camp and my new friends to work for a few days in the nearest large town of Karakol. My homestay host had things to say about radicalization to. “Kyrgyzstan has some very nice, very good traditions and very good things,” he said. “But also some problems. Like radicalization is a big problem. In the south, about 1000 people went to join radical Islamist organizations this year. (Note: I’m just quoting, but this link claims 500.)  It is mostly happening in the south, among young men who are not educated and don’t have anything good to do in their life. Yes, it’s a problem. A very big problem.

It seemed almost preposterous to me, as on the surface Kyrgyzstan had none of the overt aggressiveness that Turkey sometimes has, particularly when it came to young men. I occasionally got greeted in the street, but nobody touched me or tried to follow me, and most people did not even extend their greeting to flirtation.

I was standing in line at the airport in Bishkek waiting for my flight to Istanbul when the bombs went off at Ataturk airport. The latest news appears to indicate that one of the bombers was from Kyrgyzstan, so I guess there was something to what everybody seemed to be saying.

The main gist of the trip, however, was not radicalization but hospitality. And yurts. They were as good as I imagined.

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