Monday, December 13, 2010

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan - A Town On The Edge

by Ben R.
To see the complete set of photographs accompanying this post, please
CLICK HERE.

I'd heard a lot about Balykchy whilst living in Bishkek (the capital of Kyrgyzstan), and without exception nobody had a good word to say about the place. When I quizzed people as to what the town was like, I usually received a grimace as though someone had just let off a bad smell in the room merely by mentioning its name. Everyone I asked in the nation's capital told me of the squalor that would await me should I travel there. When I mentioned that I wanted to visit the place people would try to persuade me not to as though the town of Balykchy was a national shame that a proud people preferred not to show to outsiders. "Go to Cholpon-Ata, it's much more beautiful" people would say but Balykchy and the horrors it held, or not, had gripped me. I had to see for myself.

On a Saturday morning in February I took a taxi across the city to the main bus station looking for a ride East to Issyk Kul's western corner. I found a mini bus that would be passing through Balykchy on it's way to somewhere else and squeezed into a seat next a young Kyrgyz man in the pre-requisite shiny black jacket and cap. The bus wound its way through Bishkek's traffic before joining the main road towards the lake. I settled in with my knees crushed against the seat in front and stared out of the window watching the world pass.

About 5 miles out of Bishkek I was reminded of the corruption endemic in the nation as our bus was flagged down by a traffic policeman. I watched our driver intently as he walked over to the policeman and in full view of passing motorists handed over a small wad of som (Kyrgyz currency) into the policeman's hand, disguising the action in a handshake. The policeman put the money in his pocket without looking at or counting it and stared down the road for his next payday. It was modern day highway robbery. I spent the next part of the journey wondering how the economics of these transactions worked. Did the policeman share the money with his superiors, how did he choose who to stop, did he have to pay a superior to get this lucrative spot on the main Bishkek to Almaty highway? And what of the drivers who had to pay, was there any point in refusing or speeding on without stopping? I doubted it. I suppose that just like in other countries when you buy a car you accept that you will have to pay for road tax or a motor testing certificate; in this part of the world you accept that a kickback is part of owning a vehicle. If you didn't like it I suppose you just bought a bicycle.

The road passed Tokmok, with its Soviet jet fighter guarding the entrance, before heading out into a barren river valley that skirted the Kazakh border. Kazakhstan was only 500 metres away in distance but a lifetime away in potential. The giant that is Kazakhstan is blessed with huge quantities gas and oil whereas Kyrgyzstan has little to offer the outside world except for, it seemed, land for foreign military air bases.

As we neared the bottom of the mountain range that separated the valley from Issyk kul the road deteriorated, every bump and boulder we hit jarred my knees against the seat making the journey more of an endurance test then anything else. Soon however the gears were crunched down to a lower number and we began our slow ascent up to the pass. To our left, far below were the murky waters of the river Chui, and to our right were the barren mountains of the Alatau range, which had the most amazing clouds I'd ever seen. Running up the faces of the mountains were long slim clouds hundreds of metres long like giant children's slides. I'd never seen anything like it before. We reached the top of the pass and hitting a higher gear began the descent towards Balykchy. It suddenly became warmer.

A sign let me know we had entered the outskirts of my destination. A low built dusty town spread out before me, indistinguishable from other such dusty towns I'd seen in this part of the world. It was the kind of place you would film a modern day western - there was even some sort of tumbleweed blowing across the road. We drove down what appeared to be the town's main road to the bus station. On the side of the road stood women with kerchiefs on their heads selling dried fish on string. I didn't get the impression they were doing much business. We pulled into the town's bus station and I was immediately surrounded by fish sellers as I stepped of the bus. I didn't really have a plan except to have a look around before getting the evening bus home. At one end of the parking area leaning nonchalantly on his Lada taxi was an old Kyrgyz man. I told him that I had heard a lot about Balykchy and asked him to show me what it was really like. We negotiated a fee and set off; I could not have found a better guide.

I didn't need to ask questions as he began pouring out his life story and the town's history in torrents of words as though he had been in solitary confinement for years and I was the first person he had been able to talk to. Little bubbles of spit landed in all directions as he hurriedly pointed out 'landmarks' and told me what they were. A lot of the government buildings seemed disused and locked up but that could have just been because it was a weekend. There was not much happening in town, no markets bustling with shoppers and traders, no lovers strolling arm in arm under the warm sunshine… it was just dead. But then I suppose in my own country it is only really the high street that provides atmosphere and noise and vibrancy; take away people's disposable incomes and you are left with the basics of life with little in the way of distraction. That was my impression of Balykchy, life had been reduced to its bare minimum: there was a petrol station, a food shop, a cafe, a bus station, a railway station, and nothing else. Nothing else was needed.

"I'll take you to the docks, that's really what this town was about......" the driver breathlessly said as we swerved to miss potholes and stray dogs. We turned down a small track towards the ship yard, its main building topped with a torpedo motif as they had tested submarines here in Soviet times. We parked by an old Soviet mural showing, amongst other things, the muscular Soviet-Erectus, arms thrusting a Soviet flag skywards. None of the people depicted on the mural had Asiatic features, the triumvirate of planners studying a map were all Caucasian. The Asian end of the empire always knew its place in the order. They were equal, but some were more equal then others.

I approached the gates and a guard came out of his hut to ask me what I wanted. I asked if I could enter to photograph the abandoned fishing boats I could see in the distance but was told it was not allowed. Of course the words 'not allowed' are merely the opening gambit in the inevitable negotiation, nothing is really 'not allowed' in the former Soviet Union, unless you don't have money. I paid him a 100 som and removed my lens cap. There were rusting hulks beached on the shore. Abandoned repair jobs lay scattered amongst steel debris, old rivets, drill bits and porthole hinges. I walked to the waters edge, here brackish, and clambered on board a beached boat long stripped of anything of use or worth, even the window panes had been removed probably to be used in someone’s dacha or as a motorcycle screen for a Ural.

An old woman appeared out of the reeds with a shopping bag on her way to the shop. I asked her when life was better, now or in the Soviet days. It's a question I’ve often asked, but here the answer was in the junk strewn yard in which I was standing. Balykchy was once a thriving fishing port. Fish were caught here and sent from its rail station all over the USSR to be eaten by families from Leningrad to Vladivostok. Ship building was also a massive part of the local economy. The importance of boats on the local economy can be found all over the town in unexpected places: a motif on a padlock, a boat carved into a wooden fence. That was all before the collapse. Nothing was built here now and it was hard to imagine a time when it ever would be again. Without a subsidised economy, building boats so far from an ocean made no economic sense, and Issyk Kul itself has little need for ships.

I returned to the car and my driver continued his monologue about the town. "I worked in the factory myself, most of the town did, but then our directors started paying us late. We waited months to get our pay, then when we complained, the directors started mentioning ideas like paying us in fish, like we were performing seals! It was then that we knew that we'd been bent fucked by the party. That was when I decided to leave the factory and do this instead." He patted the dashboard paternally.

We drove to the residential area, and pulled into a large dusty area surrounded on three sides by apartment buildings. One of the buildings was abandoned, seemingly having never been completed. A group of Kyrgyz teenagers were hanging around. I asked them to show me inside the building. It was empty except for the occasional mattress on the floor. Some of the walls had graffiti on them, names of western or Russian music groups, English swear words and loving laments ‘Maksim ya tebya lublu, no ti menya ne lubish.’ (Maksim, I love you, but you do not love me.)

I returned to the car to continue my tour. "I'll show you something you wont believe" the taxi driver told me, "we call it our Iraq!" We drove to a dusty plateau overlooking the top of the town along a dusty track that seemed to be capable of bursting our tyres at any moment and then I saw it. Spread out before us on a gently sloping hill was a sight quite like anything I'd seen, a scene of utter desolation. The whole area was a wasteland of rubble, maybe 30 or 40 ruined houses, their walls shattered. These were not just houses that had just been left to fall into disuse, these were houses that had been smashed to bits, crushed to rubble as though by some great hulking fist from the sky, like you see in the early Soviet propaganda posters of a giant peasants fist smashing a Kulak’s house in retribution for grain hoarding. Just the footings were left where once had stood family homes.

It truly was like a war zone; Dresden after the raids. I walked about photographing the destruction and saw a wooden house in the distance, seemingly occupied. I poked my head over the fence and startled an old Russian woman tending to her garden. "I came with my husband in ‘67, it was a beautiful place. My children grew up here, there were never any problems. Neighbours would always help you, but not now. Everyone thinks only about themselves. My husband died in ’87; at least he never saw what we have become." Her children had left, gone to Russia but she would not return. "This is my home. My children call me from Russia telling me to come, but what for? I'm old and I don't want to be a burden, let them live their lives."

We went for something to eat in a cafe where my driver seemed to know everyone, "I have a famous journalist from The London Times" he mischievously announced. We were joined by an elderly Kyrgyz gentleman. I asked him about the future of the town, "Nobody cares about this place, nobody. You see our President* drive through on his way to Cholpon-Ata. We say that the reason for his blacked out windows is not so that we can't see him but so that he isn't reminded about us. They're all bandits. Our mayor is another one, what has he ever done for us?" I spoke to others all telling sad tales of a town that was seemingly falling into oblivion. Another man told me how the town's electricity supply was cut for 12 hours every night. It did not surprise me; I couldn't imagine how the population could afford to pay their bills as it was. Surprisingly another man told me that the municipality cut off the water supply in the summer, I couldn't imagine why. (*This was before the April 2010 revolution that ousted now former President Bakiev.)

I have visited economically deprived areas in other parts of the former Soviet Union but this place had a feeling unlike any other I'd visited - and I realized what it was. There was no hope. In the run down areas of Belarus the people had placed their faith in an autocratic president, in Russia they had their "Real Man" (Putin), the Moldovans I'd met in the backwater of Unghen had hoped for EU accession, but what could the residents of Balykchy put their hope in? I pondered the question but drew a blank. Despite it's location on the shore of one of Central Asia's wonders, tourists would never flock to Balykchy in the way that many did to the other towns such as Cholpon Ata. Balykchy was always a place of industry and trade, lacking the sandy beaches and stunning backdrop of the other areas of the lake and it lacked tourist infrastructure. Who would invest millions in constructing hotels in this wind swept town? No, Balykchy had known the good times but now it would have to live on those fading memories. It was the 'Tomsk' of Kyrgyzstan, always knowing its past was greater then its future.

My driver took me back to the bus station. Whilst I was heading back to the capital's bright lights, the residents of Balykchy would be settling in for another dark night without electricity. I paid my driver and thanked him for his tour of Balykchy. As I boarded the bus he shouted out "Next time go to Cholpon-Ata, it's very beautiful!"

To see the complete set of photographs accompanying this post, please CLICK HERE.

10 comments:

  1. Very interesting blog, I have always been fascinated with the Central Asian Ex-Soviet states like Krgyz, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc. Guess because when I was growing up in the US we never heard any news or anything really coming out of the region. Now since they all have gained their independence, I find myself trying to learn as much as I can about those nations. I'm also interested in Siberia and I'm going to check out your posts on that and Lake Baikal.

    Anyway, enjoyed the post, I was linked through Jane's Daily Blah.

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