The Qishloq went Ayl in Kyrgyzstan recently: three weeks, some 3,000 kilometers by road through all seven of Kyrgyzstan’s provinces.
As you would have noticed from my postings during that time, the purpose was to observe the campaign ahead of parliamentary elections and to gauge the electorate’s attitude toward those elections.
During all of this, I noticed other things about Kyrgyzstan -- how it has changed and is changing.
One of the most pleasant surprises for me was the condition of the roads. The first time I was in Kyrgyzstan was in 1992; there was an airport in Bishkek and one in Osh. Anywhere else I needed to go, I needed to reach by vehicle, so I became familiar with bumpy rides sometimes harrowingly near precipitous drops down the mountainside.
Once, in 1996, I kept track of how much of the approximately 650-kilometer drive from Bishkek to Osh was over asphalt road. More than 400 kilometers was unpaved and I remember all too well driving 25 kilometers an hour, weaving from side to side to avoid potholes in the dirt track. The road from Osh to Batken was in even worse shape.
There is a point to my reminiscences beyond the obvious comparison that the roads are in much better shape now.
Much has been made of China’s growing influence in Central Asia and the roads were a stark example of this. We passed mixed Chinese-Kyrgyz road crews several times on the way from Batken to Kyrgyz villages on the Tajik border. On the other side of the country, we passed several major road construction sites in the mountains on the way to the city of Naryn. Large construction vehicles with Chinese writing on them were at every site.
Of course, the roads are being improved to ship goods from Central Asia to China, but certainly an immediate effect of this is the reduction in travel time needed to get from one city to another in Kyrgyzstan. That has been good news for those shipping products around the country, as well as for travelers.
Kyrgyzstan’s people had a more mixed view of the Chinese workers in Kyrgyzstan, which I'll get to, but I need to go back in time a bit first.
When I was traveling around Central Asia in the 1990s, I do not recall ever meeting anyone from China. The first time I encountered Chinese citizens in Central Asia was in Kara-Suu, Kyrgyzstan, in 2006. They were all merchants at the local bazaar. I heard local merchants did not like them, which I presumed meant they did not like the outside competition. These Chinese merchants were taking business away from the locals.
Now, in Batken and Naryn provinces, the Chinese road companies are a source of employment. I mentioned in the campaign-trail article from Naryn that people in that city seemed to be better off financially than other places I had been in Kyrgyzstan. The 200-kilometer stretch of new road, now nearly complete, leading north from Naryn city certainly helped locals find at least temporary jobs. Batken also seemed much more prosperous now than the last time I spent a night there, which admittedly was in 2000. The new markets, small hotels (there was only one in 2000), traffic signals (there was none in 2000), and even a refurbished airport indicated a new source of income had appeared in the area.
A roadside living area for Chinese construction workers
The first time I saw a Chinese-Kyrgyz road crew, when I was heading toward the Tajik border, I asked my driver, Daniyar, how the two peoples got along, how they spoke to one another. Daniyar is from Batken and knew people working on the road.
“The Chinese use translators,” he said.
Daniyar said Kyrgyz who spoke Chinese were the translators. He said the two peoples did not mix much at work and at the end of the day the Kyrgyz went home and the Chinese went to one of their roadside compounds, several of which we passed while driving.
I had only brief moments to observe the interaction between Kyrgyzstan’s people and the Chinese, usually at restaurants. In Naryn, three Chinese men sat down and simply pointed at dishes on the menu to indicate to the waitress what they wanted. There was no verbal communication between them and the waitress.
In Karakol, at the eastern edge of Lake Issyk-Kul, I was at a cafe and four Chinese men came in and sat down in the corner. They wore suits and had a certain bearing to them. I got the impression they were managers of some project, possibly the Naryn road more than 200 kilometers away. They had a difficult time ordering food.
Waiters and waitresses attempted to communicate in Russian, English, and Kyrgyz without success. The Chinese answered in their language. Both parties grew increasingly frustrated as this futile mixed-language conversation continued.
It seemed strange to me that none of these Chinese businessmen spoke Russian or English. For their part, they gave the impression they were astounded that no one in the cafe spoke Chinese.
They finally managed to order food and beer and sat huddled in their corner, looking unhappy, talking loudly among themselves.
Coincidentally, they were staying at the same hotel I was, so I saw them again at breakfast the next morning. Breakfast was mostly buffet, so they took what they wanted without even looking at anyone else in the restaurant. The waitress had to resort to bringing out an egg as a demonstration before the four understood they were being asked if they wanted eggs with their breakfast.
Once again, everyone -- the Chinese men and the waitress -- looked unhappy.
I was curious. Was it just lack of ability to communicate that was making smiles so hard to come by? So when one of the Chinese men got up from the table to leave I stared at him as he approached so he had to look at me and when he did I said, “Ni hao,” and smiled.
He was surprised, stopped for a brief moment, smiled and replied, “Ni hao.”
I don’t know if that proves inability to communicate is the major factor in the seemingly poor relations between Chinese workers and Kyrgyzstan’s people, but they surely did not seem to get along well.