It was maybe half an hour till dawn when I woke up. Zamir, our driver, was leaning against the window smoking a cigarette. Tim [Hill] sat on the front seat loading a roll of film into a camera. The dull hue of daybreak hung in the sky. I knocked on the cold glass, opened the door and considered our surroundings. As far as I could see, snow-covered peaks zig-zagged their way across the horizon. The sun rose quickly; “It’s going to be hot,” said Zamir. 

Kyrgyzstan sits in the heart of central Asia. It is one of the least-talked-about countries in the world but what it lacks in notoriety, it makes up for in geography: a quasi-crossroads between Russia, China, Europe and Afghanistan, which since the days of Marco Polo has had vital geopolitical significance. To follow in his footsteps is a wonderful thing; in a country where transportation has been the lifeblood of the economy for more than 2,000 years, it seems fitting to load the car up and get out onto the road.  

A Soviet road marker
A Soviet road marker © Hill and Aubrey
Kyrgyz tourists in the Arslanbob walnut forest
Kyrgyz tourists in the Arslanbob walnut forest © Hill and Aubrey
The Toktogul Reservoir
The Toktogul Reservoir © Hill and Aubrey

We’d arrived in the capital, Bishkek, earlier that morning and immediately embarked on the 12-hour drive to Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, Osh. First we crossed the mountains, or more specifically, passed through them. Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, with 94 per cent of its territory sitting above an altitude of 1,000m. We sat patiently in dark tunnels. The only light came from industrial lamps that glistened off dust kicked up by roadworks and illuminated the way for the herds of sheep, cattle and horses. At this time of year, shepherds move their flocks to high pastures to avoid the searing heat of the lower plains. We waited, competing with animals for space while sitting in the inky light.

As the tunnels gave way to the vast peaks and lakes of the country’s interior, Zamir talked about his country’s nomadic history and its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. During the Soviet era he had been in the army before becoming a teacher, and had learned English from audio cassettes. Huge brutalist monuments announcing the various regions of the country towered over us as motorways made way for rural roads. We stopped for Russian ice lollies and cigarettes while the car was filled up with foul-smelling gas (a cheaper alternative to petrol in this part of the world). We slept when we could, as we trundled past yurts that sat in the basins separating us from the mountains; flecks of white canvas against the bowling-lawn green of the steppe.

Men in traditional Kyrgyz hats in the park in Ash
Men in traditional Kyrgyz hats in the park in Ash © Hill and Aubrey
The fruit and vegetable market in Osh
The fruit and vegetable market in Osh © Hill and Aubrey
The new mosque in Osh
The new mosque in Osh © Hill and Aubrey

We arrived in Osh late and woke early. It felt like the city of the wandering traveller. Continuously inhabited for around 3,000 years, it is one of the oldest cities in central Asia, attracting Kyrgyz traders as well as Uzbeks and Tajiks to buy and sell their goods in the huge bazaar that dominates the centre. Sulaiman-Too, a Muslim pilgrimage site, overlooks it. About halfway up you are encouraged to spend a surreal hour in the local museum. Ernst Stavro Blofeld would be impressed by the building, a feat of Soviet engineering carved into the side of the mountain where you can learn about Kyrgyzstan’s prehistoric past.

We picked our way up the polished steps and admired the view of the city below, making our way past women whispering incantations and performing quiet, shaman-like rituals – ancient practices subtly infused with those of the country’s majority-Muslim population. The early afternoon was spent wandering the bazaar, kitting ourselves out in the local handmade waistcoats and traditional Ak-kalpak hat so popular among Kyrgyz men. We ate wurut – savoury snacks made from salty fermented cow’s milk that are a challenge for the western palate – and drank Soviet cola mixed in front of us by a man in a lab coat as children bought candy floss, paying with ticket stubs for Soviet-era fun-fair rides. 

Toktogul Dam
Toktogul Dam © Hill and Aubrey
A worker in a photo booth by the waterfall at Arslanbob
A worker in a photo booth by the waterfall at Arslanbob © Hill and Aubrey

Video description

A trip across Kyrgyzstan through the lens of photographer duo Hill and Aubrey

© Hill and Aubrey

That evening, we headed for Arslanbob, an Uzbek enclave in the foothills of the Babash Ata mountain range, where livelihoods revolve around the annual harvest of its main attraction: the world’s largest walnut forest. I sank like a stone into a deep wooden cot of eiderdown and woollen blankets in our little guesthouse. When I woke there was a cool humidity in the air and the rustling of leaves outside the window. I opened the curtain to a lush vista of trees waving softly in the breeze. The arid dust of the low country had again been replaced with something from an alpine postcard. I wandered across the courtyard to a table of homemade jams, freshly churned butter, bread and local honey that had been prepared for us. 

In mid-morning we took a jeep into the mountains, and in the heat of the day we hiked past waterfalls and rice fields. Birds darted in and out of the spray as we peered into the mist below. By late afternoon we’d arrived at the forest; I had a strange and sudden feeling of homesickness as we moved quietly under the canopy of trees: we could have been in the New Forest. It was uncanny. Our guide proudly regaled us with local legends of ancient treasure supposedly hidden under the waterfall, how the people of these parts are the apparent descendants of Alexander the Great, and that, remarkably, Winston Churchill is said to have traded weapons for walnut wood to produce the dashboards of Rolls-Royces during the war. 

A traditional Kyrgyz feast served on a platform in the Arslanbob forest
A traditional Kyrgyz feast served on a platform in the Arslanbob forest © Hill and Aubrey
A roadside honey stand near Toktogul
A roadside honey stand near Toktogul © Hill and Aubrey
A Soviet-era road marker
A Soviet-era road marker © Hill and Aubrey

The thick trees eventually opened up into a large clearing where families had gathered for a meal. We sat and watched as children were winched up in giant swings and catapulted, screaming with excitement, into the air. Food was prepared; people sat on cushions in raised huts as the sun began to dip below the horizon. We rested for a while before we had to leave this little Eden and start down the mountain, to get back on the road. 

The next day we stopped to buy honey. A large man perched on a donkey came to investigate, a lady in a purple jumpsuit milked a mare and a curious family holidaying from the capital invited us inside their yurt. Inside the tent a child lay sleeping on a mattress bathed in soft light from the hole in the top. Outside we drank milk, sweet and delicious, with our new friends. 

A Soviet-era workers statue near Karakol
A Soviet-era workers statue near Karakol © Hill and Aubrey
A horse on the road to Bishkek
A horse on the road to Bishkek © Hill and Aubrey
The changing of the guard in Bishkek
The changing of the guard in Bishkek © Hill and Aubrey

We finished our trip in Bishkek, where grid systems and military parades still evoke the faded pomp of the Soviet era. As we entered the capital, the topic of conversation turned to religion, and Zamir said: “My religion is the USSR.” His comment contains a note of irony. This is a country still trying to find a balance between its nomadic heritage, its recent history and its potential as a shining liberal democracy of central Asia – the crucible of access between vying continents. It occurred to me that on the side of a road, you can experience all this in the gentle hospitality of a single family.

Kyrgyzstan has always been a crossroad, cultural and geographical. I thought about our little caravan heading due south. Would this have been so different from the experience of the Venetian merchants that crossed central Asia and sold their wares in the court of Kublai Khan? The modern metropolis, making way for the desert, tents and life of the nomad. I hope not. Marco Polo summed it up nicely. “You will hear it for yourselves, and it will surely fill you with wonder,” he wrote. “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

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