Tuesday, November 24, 2009

At-Bashy

As exciting as it was to get to Kyrgyzstan, the initial excitement was greatly surpassed by the excitement of finally seeing the At-Bashy Range. From Bishkek, it takes about 6-10 hours to get there by shared taxi, which is the most practical form of travel.

Leaving the smog of Bishkek last week, I was finally given my first real view of the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, starting with the Kyrgyz Ala-Too Range, just south of the capital. Mountains cover 80-97% of the country depending on which source you consult. But what a unique landscape! Badlands give way to towering red cliffs and mountain range after mountain range of snow capped peaks.

The At-Bashy Range sits just north of the Chinese border. Running east-west they loom above a large high steppe valley which holds the town of At-Bashy and the Torugart Pass "highway", which is the only road linking central and eastern Kyrgyzstan with China. The road condition varies from potholed pavement to horrendous single-lane washboard gravel. The dusty town of At-Bashy sits just a few kilometers off the highway at 2370 meters (7800 feet). Lonely Planet describes it as a frontier town at the very far end of populated Kyrgyzstan, but it must be taken with a grain of salt as it still is in the guidebook. The ethnicity of people in this region are almost entirelyKyrgyz and they are quite proud of this fact. The population is around 14,000 according to a government official I spoke with. However this is difficult to say because of the semi nomadic nature of many of the residents. More than half of the population leaves in the summer to tend to livestock in high summer pastures called jailoos. From spring into fall, families live in yurts and move to follow the best grasses to graze their sheep, cows, yaks and horses. In the winter, most people return to At-Bashy and several smaller villages scattered throughout the valley and unemployment is extremely high in the winter. There are some permanent jobs with the government and schools, but wealth is based on livestock and cash. From my questioning it seemed that average salaries were about $20 US a month. The first important thing to note is that not many people are going hungry. Food security is decent, given the fact that many people grow and slaughter their own food. This is not to say that there are not nutrition issues. The other interesting thing is the high emphasis placed on looks. All the people in Kyrgyzstan, from the capital of Bishkek to the tiny town of At-Bashy, take great pride in their appearance. Daily dress is suits for men and fur and high-heels for women. My rubber mud boots have not been winning many fashion fans here.