Photography & Words:
Olympia Campbell

Bishkek in early December is thick with fumes that mute the sun’s rays to a permanent dusk. “It smells like home here” says Narhulan, who grew up across the border in Kazakhstan. On the day we arrive, Bishkek has the third worst air pollution of any city in the world – a product of the coal fired heating systems. Despite average winter temperatures of -15 centigrade, the buildings are kept so warm you find yourself sweating.  

Kyrgyzstan was created, as a nation state, in the late 20th century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prior, Kyrgyzstan was a land of nomadic horse-riding clans, its history passed down vocally through Manas – the Kyrgyz traditional epic poem, and a stopover on the Silk Road. Under the Soviets the population was settled, and towns, apartment blocks, factories and parks sprung up, much of them having since fallen into disrepair. But the worn facades belie cosy cafés that serve avocado toast and have instagrammable interiors suggesting influences of a Wes Anderson mood board.
By Issy-Kul Lake, the sun is shining, there is no snow, and the sky is clear. The lake stretches into the distance for miles, surrounded by mountains on one side and dry flat pastureland on the other. The village is quintessentially Kyrgyz with most people raising livestock or working in government jobs like teaching. During the winter there isn’t much work to do so no one gets up before 10 and it’s rude to call on people after 4, when they are busy with the returning herds. Our days with the villagers are relaxed and involve trying everyone’s bread and drinking tea. People are, for the most part, welcoming, occasionally suspicious, or otherwise bored by us. Passing my teacup back to one host she passes it on to her granddaughter “here, take a sip out of the same cup, then you might be successful like her”.
Nomads are not famous for their food having never developed the types of cuisine that come with settled agriculture. Many of the more delicious dishes are of Uighur, Dungan, or other Turkik origins and meals are rotating versions of picky bits. Tables are decorated with homemade raspberry and sea buckthorn jams in cut glass goblets, hunks of fresh bread, carrot salads, and miscellaneous bits of offal. In the city, Central Asian dishes plov and beshbarmak are the main events at a large authentic restaurant where a man sits playing a komuz – a kind of traditional Kyrgyz lute. His playlist includes the game of thrones theme tune, Boney M’s Rasputin, and jingle bells. Later on, grilled meats arrive in a cloud of smoke from a bed of dry ice. 
The Soviet sign marking the collective farm still stands at the entrance to the village, along with old street signs with hammer and sickles. There is a degree of nostalgia for the Soviet era, for the investment, for the state sponsored summer camps, for the new buildings and parks. There is a feeling that life was easier or simpler back then.  At the same time, there is a strong sense of and pride in a Kyrgyz national identity. People are political and knowledgeable in a way that many, who take freedom and democracy for granted, are not. They are aware of the struggle of nation-building in a new country that is both economically dependent on China and Russia, and at the cultural mercy of globalisation. “Who is the most famous person in the world?” I ask. “Manas” a man replies, proud of his country’s hero. Later on I get a Jennifer Lopez, an Angelina Jolie, a Messi, and – even –  a Margaret Thatcher.
People in the village are getting richer through business and wage labour abroad including, at least in this village, men working on mushroom farms in Colchester and women making small felt animals for Muji. Money is spent visibly, like everywhere else, on redecorating, putting in bathrooms, and building new kitchens. But while fancy Anglo-American interior designers charge their clients large sums to emulate the rustic charm of a 90’s soviet stove and doily curtain, the taste among prosperous Kyrgyz villagers is for chandeliers, sparkling wallpaper and feature ceilings of white doves and palm trees. 
Female education, and education in general, is high and women are assertive and respected. Yet gender roles are strict and there is a stark division between the men’s world and the women’s world. We are shooed away from watching boys play football and from the smoking and drinking that takes place on the village paths. If a man enters a room he will walk down a row of people, shake hands with a man, respectfully place his hands behind his back if he passes a young or married woman, and then shake hands with the next man. 
Women always move to their husbands’ home at marriage separating them from the people they grew up with. When I ask a girl in her early twenties who her best friends in the village are she struggles to think of a single one, them having all since married and moved away. Often women name their mother-in-law or the wives of their husbands’ brothers. Since marriage by bride kidnapping has stopped, a practice that involved, well, what it says on the tin – kidnapping a woman – there has been a rise in love marriages. But people are also quick to remind me that many bride kidnappings resulted in loving relationships. The only scepticism some parents have about this change is that now people can be ‘too picky’ and too many young people are still unmarried into their late twenties, something that, given my own singledom, I have to agree with. 
Perhaps the most striking thing about Kyrgyzstan is its vastness. Plains and pasture and mountains expand out around you and in winter all of it seems dead. But cows still graze on the dry grass and in Spring the whole stretch will turn green and verdant. There is a feeling that history has passed through here, on horseback, and has watched the great men of the world trade, change, and go to war. Yet the landscape has remained the same. The cheerfulness and simplicity of life stands in contrast to the immensity of its setting and Kyrgyzstan is beautiful in its expansiveness.
Photographer: Olympia Campbell