The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part I


There are many sayings about the excellence of Osh
Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, India
“Older than Rome”. “Established by Alexander the Great”. “No, by King Solomon; Suleiman Too is named after him”.
The two youths at my hostel couldn’t quite agree on who established the Kyrgyz town we were in but, regardless of which near-mythological figure could be credited with fathering the city, they both agreed on the fact that Osh was older than Rome. “3000 years old” they nodded in unison.
It was hard, for me, to find clues to back up what my hostel friends were claiming with such vigour in this restless city of a quarter of a million people. Rome, Istanbul, Jerusalem: all have fields of ancient ruins scattered around the modern urban texture, proof of a long history of settlement; here, I couldn’t see any detritus left by the generations of men and women who lived in this corner of the Fergana valley. All I could see, from the bus we hitched a ride on, were plots of land – dark, rich, fertile soil – tended by hand by men in blazers and women in headscarves, and the flotsam of the Soviet civilisation: a graveyard of white Ilyušin airplanes, gutted Russian trucks, an abandoned yellow tractor.
We drove along a road shaded by a neat row of poplars, the lower half of their trunks scrupulously painted white. It was early morning, but already the heat washed the blue out of the sky and blurred the horizon, where the hacksaw silhouette of mountain peaks, as barren as the valley floor is lush, rose to close abruptly the perspective.
We drove past throngs of women draped in long, colourful dresses and men with towering qalpaq hats, looking ageless with their high cheekbones and delicately elongated eyes. We pushed forward past a large roundabout where the little traffic there was tried – and succeeded – in generating chaos. A large statue loomed above the carousel of metal plates and exhaust fumes.
“This is Manas, our national hero”. The lady who volunteered to deliver us to town pointed a little hand towards the statue, now receding into the traffic, and smiled. She was a diminutive figure, cutting a very neat appearance in her knee-length skirt, white shirt, navy cardigan and crop haircut. Her distinctive, beautiful Kyrgyz lineaments are arranged in a perpetual smile, and she spoke a near flawless Italian with only the lightest of accents. We’ve met on the airport bus in Biškek and, upon arrival in Osh, she guided us through the mob of cabbies to her waiting nephews, one of whom – much to my dismay – wore a Juventus cap. She’d been providing a running commentary of the road and the country ever since the van left the airport parking lot.
A rare gap in the poplar formation allowed for a quick glimpse of the mountains to the west. Her hand was ready to indicate loosely in that direction, towards a vertical landscape deducible in the distance: “That’s a nice area for trekking and camping, a region that’s 99% Kyrgyz”. For someone grown in PC and diverse Europe, this mention of purity is somehow surprising; that’s when it hits me that all the toponyms and stories, she’s told us are indeed related or originating from the Kyrgyz people, with nothing at all said of the other communities inhabiting this valley, be them Uzbeks or Tajiks. I prodded her for suggestions on places where to sample the Uzbek culture, so prominent in Osh, and her blankness was palpable. No, she said after a while, she didn’t really know much about “that lot”.
The valley where Osh lied is a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, a wide corridor funnelled through the high Pamirs, carved up by the Communist colonialists into three separate republics, successively morphed into independent states: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Like in much of the colonialized world, at a stroke of a pen the occupying power united enemies and separated friends in the best divide et impera tradition; it only was to be expected, then, if the Fergana valley saw the worst ethnic unrest in the region.
Osh went up in flames twice in thirty years – literally – even though we’d be hard-pressed to find traces of it as we strolled along Masalieva street, busy with traffic and shoppers and workers adding garish ornaments to shops and restaurants. The root of the violence lied in the same noxious cocktail of perceived social injustice, economic disparities and deep-rooted jealousy, whipped up by hate propaganda. In this particular twist of the recipe, the Uzbeks played the part of the urbanite minority, politically under-represented and marginalised but punching above its weight from an economic point of view. From their point of view, the majoritarian Kyrgyz community lamented economic misfortunes and the lack of ownership of the lands they were cultivating.
Between 1989 and 1990 the Soviet economy spluttered, coughed, rumbled and finally gave up like the antediluvian Kamaz trucks belching exhausts on the Navoi street overpass. A fragile economy and strong state security were what prevented both communities from beating the respective daylights out with their cahiers de doléances; when both started vacillating, there wasn’t much standing in the way to violence. And violence indeed did erupt. June 4th, 1990; a rally of ethnic Kyrgyz marches towards Lenin Kolkhoz, in the outskirts of the city. This was an unusual collective factory, for Uzbeks ran it, which probably was the reason for the rally, whose main request was redistribution. It ended in fisticuffs, which then functioned as the proverbial spark that lit the whole tinderbox.
Within a day the whole Osh region was in flames. The police, which in a totalitarian state you’d imagine being akin to an all-seeing eye, broke up along ethnic fault lines. Three days of killing, raping, burning and pillaging – worth of a Genghis Khan invasion – ensued, until an exasperated Gorbachev sent in the Red Army. By the time the tanks arrived, though, a thousand had died. Swift justice was brought by the infant Kyrgyz republic, but very little was done to the underlying problems that precipitated the situation; they were left untouched, to heal by themselves or to grow gangrenous. Judging on what happened twenty years later, it’s fair to say that they didn’t improve at all.
It was June again. Kyrgyzstan was in turmoil after what went down as the Second Kyrgyz Revolution ousted president Bakiyev only a handful of weeks prior; on June 9th it was again time for Osh to witness another orgy of violence and score-setting. Alleged economic mistreatment, past wrongs, cupidity motivated bands of Kyrgyz thugs to attack the Uzbeks, who in turn retaliated or fled to their ancestors’ homeland. There were reports of soldiers and policemen aiding the Kyrgyz, something the government always vehemently denied; however, by the time order was eventually restored, more than 2,000 laid dead in the streets or in their charred houses, and 400,000 fled to safety in Uzbekistan.
I visited Osh almost on the eve of the anniversary of the first riot but nothing, in this sometimes shabby but nevertheless lively city, belied the importance of what happened here some 27 years ago. It is a strange city, Osh: it doesn’t seem to have a centre around which the city revolves; or, rather, it has one, but it isn’t what you’d normally expect, a square or a boulevard. It’s the bazaar.
From high up on Suleiman Too, or even from the Navoi street viaduct, Osh bazaar looked like a post-apocalyptic encampment, a tangle of alleyways sheltered by ramshackle roofs made of coloured tarpaulins or odd scraps of corrugated iron; from street level, it presented a maze of passages, clogged with people and with the overspill of hundreds of stores and workshops. It was a place where to walk gingerly in a dusty penumbra, with the occasional pool of sunshine spotlighting a sack of flour, heap of biscuit or menthol crystals.
There were heaps of round naan bread, baked with a sprinkle of salt, pepper or poppy seeds. There were cakes, sacks of biscuits, lump of dark beef meat hanging from hooks oscillating in the warm air, the comings and goings of flies only intermittently disturbed by the butcher’s flyswatter. There were sacks of black tea, spices, bottles of detergent manufactured by Unilever, light bulbs, paintbrushes, candles and nylon garments sporting all conceivable pirated permutations of the Adidas logo, and then some more.
But what was literally ubiquitous, to the point that stall after stall after stall was creaking under the weight of it, were the freshest, ripest, most beautiful fruits and vegetables I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. Such was the triumph that even the most modest of the kiosks would have mopped the floor with the sanitised, bubble-wrapped, plastic-enclosed pathetic excuse for fruit on sale in the poshest of London’s supermarket. The cornucopia yielded by the Fergana valley – whose adjective of choice by anyone who wrote about it, “fertile” is very much justified – was for everyone to behold. Pyramids of apricots, mounds of blood-red tomatoes, buckets of raspberries and mulberries, tight formations of purple plums and crates of apples were enough of a spectacle for me to walk besides them with the same rapt expression of fashionistas outside a Hermès boutique, or techies beside an Apple store.
We strolled along a scruffy boulevard, one of those that must’ve looked impressive in the architect’s renderings before the cost estimate was given to the client. Behind the trees, enclosed by fences decorated with the Kyrgyz flag symbol, relics of the town’s Soviet past emerged like flotsam after a squall, all at different stages of reappropriation by the nascent Kyrgyz national identity. Neoclassical buildings, their wedding-cake looks and plastering gliding to the ground in large, vaporous flakes, mingled with nude concrete behemoths, big, squat, squared shapes sitting grumpily amidst flower beds, their appearance rekindled by coloured ribbons with traditional Kyrgyz motifs. A large stone monolith stood in a park, a bronze frieze showing not the unstoppable advance of the people but Kyrgyz horsemen launched in an unbridled gallop. A dull façade has been redecorated with bas-reliefs styled on the artwork of the Soviet cosmonaut iconography but, instead of rocket-men and leaps to the starts, it showed men, qalpaq on their heads, playing qomuz and women holding horses by the bridle. Everything was being rebranded to fit with the dominant ethnic group’s culture, with little mention or space for those minorities – like the Uzbeks – that made forty-five per cent of the town’s populace.
A rare street sign catches my eye: Ленина. Even without speaking – or reading – Russian I could understand that this was Lenin Avenue. In the midst of a pervasive nationalistic rebranding, Lenin Avenue had been left untouched, and there was more to come. In fact, at the end of four lanes of tarmac void of traffic, facing an empty square pock-marked with white signs used to line up troops in parade, stood a statue of the man himself.
It stood on a granite plinth so tall to resemble a small ziqqurat, incongruous in his heavy coat and three-piece-suit under the relentless beating of the Central Asian sun. An arm – as wide as a young tree – stretched northwards, undoubtedly in a pose that the artists thought inspirational, but that to me looked more dismissive. In that hot afternoon, Lenin’s open arm made him look like as if he’d just thrown in the towel.
Journalist Tiziano Terzani toured the dying Soviet Union in 1991, seemingly serenated by the clangour of Lenin’s statues being dragged down from their pride of place. Homages to the father of the nation were ubiquitous throughout the USSR, yet – as Terzani skilfully narrated in his Goodnight Mr. Lenin – they fell with the same rapidity of rainforest trees before the loggers’ chainsaws. Why did this one survive?
Perhaps the answer lied in the enormous flagpole erected in front of the waving statue, from which fluttered a crimson flag, a banner that didn’t bear a hammer and a sickle but the delicate, stylised yurt frame that is the symbol of the Kyrgyz nation. Perhaps Lenin’s statue was spared so that it could stare, for eternity, at the flag of a nation that he actively tried to dissolve in his pursuit of the new homo sovieticus but that, ultimately, survived him.
Sunset fell over our last day in Osh. Tomorrow we would leave this city of contrast, of 4G SIM card sellers rubbing elbow with gold-toothed babushkas, of murals commemorating the 1980 Moscow Olympics and Toyota billboards, bound for the Pamir Highway and to what Lord Curzon, India’s viceroy, defined the “frontier school of character”.
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10 Responses to The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part I

  1. Anna says:

    Fantastic writing! I enjoyed this a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. J.D. Riso says:

    Osh. There’s something so enigmatic and vast in this single syllable. Another fine travelogue, Fabrizio. You sure are getting around to some far flung, offbeat places lately. Good for you, son. I recognize all the post-Soviet traces, but what’s really surprising is the fresh produce. I always pictured that region as so arid that people subsist mostly on meat. Good to learn that they have fertile valleys. Looking forward to your next installment!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Julie, I’ve caught the Central Asia bug! It’s an incredible place, can’t stop getting there… And if Turkish Airlines had a decent frequent flier programme that allows partial miles redemption, I’d be there even more often.
      The fruit & veggies were a surprise to me too, but they do get even better in Dušanbe, Tajikistan. When I returned home and visited my local supermarket (a particularly posh one, Waitrose) I had a moment of acute sadness at the sight of 15 bubble-wrapped raspberries for £2.50. A bucket of them in Dušanbe was the equivalent of 1 euro or 85p. And they gave you the bucket.


  3. Fantastic journey and telling!


  4. The reason I didn’t leave a comment to this extraordinary post is because I thought of googling your name to see what all – books, articles, who knows – you have written. It might be that I see into the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Ahahahah well, bar a few utterly unimportant academic articles back in the day – which mightn’t even still be on Elsevier – I’m afraid I haven’t published anything… but who knows, maybe in the future?! Thanks Manja!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: On the market. | Are we there yet?

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