By Julian Dierkes
I have been traveling very regularly to Mongolia for over 10 years now. At the same time, I also spend a lot of time in Japan and in Europe, but it is easy to disassociate those latter trips from Mongolia because differences in developmental stage, etc. are so blatant.
But two years ago, I visited Myanmar and couldn’t help but make constant comparisons to Mongolia. In Myanmar, this was more of a question of politics and democratization, and of mining and mining policy. These comparisons culminated in an article in the Nov 23 2014 UB Post: “An Open Letter to Mongolian Political Leadership”, where I concluded that “achieving a prosperous, healthy, democratic and stable Mongolia should be so easy!” Well, it should!
Recently, I visited Kyrgyzstan and thus for the very first time, Central Asia. Here heritage, developmental stage, a focus on mining, cultural similarities, and familiar landscapes make the comparison with Mongolia even more natural.
Here are some impressionistic observations about Kyrgyzstan then:
Bishkek vs. Ulaanbaatar
Both cities have obvious features that mark them as state-socialist creations. Some grand(iose) avenues, wide open, empty squares, monuments with some remaining hints at Soviet iconography. Apartments are of a similar vintage and some of them share similarities in dilapidated looks.
But, there are some very clear differences.
The cityscape of Bishkek includes many, many trees. Even though the weather swings from 22C to near freezing in just a day, the trees still have their leaves, even at the beginning of November. Throughout the centre of the city, there are also several parks.
The Osh Bazaar in Bishkek feels signifincantly safer than the Narantuul or other markets in Ulaanbaatar. It also offers a much greater variety of foodstuffs, including numerous stands with a wide selection of apples, vegetables, spices, dried apricots and nuts, etc.
Bishkek also feels somewhat more diverse than Ulaanbaatar. Not only is it obviously bilingual (Russian and Kyrgyz), but there is a greater varieties of ethnicities and costume, at least to my eye.
Yes, Kyrgyz, just like Mongolians drive like they ride horses, i.e. recklessly and with little regard for lanes, directions or others. Well, that’s putting it a bit too starkly, but still. Bishkek seems a bit more orderly at times, but then drivers seem just as prone to spontaneously adding lanes of traffic as Mongolians are, or at least used to be. In the countryside the passing maneuvers are definitely reckless.
But, the selection of cars is entirely different and in an interesting way suggesting that geography matters. Mongolia is dominated by used cars sourced from Japan and South Korea. While the Hyundai Accent used to be most common, there is now a greater variety of cars with a surprisingly large number of Prius in the mix. In Kyrgyzstan, I see a surprising number of cars from Germany. The 1980s Audi 100 seems extremely common, with a jacked-up suspension for more road clearance, and VW sedans and buses are also common. There is a also a good number of 3-generations-ago Mercedes E-types. Remaining stickers on the cars suggest that they’re actually German. All the mini buses are Mercedes transporters.
The license plates have followed the European example of placing a flag in the left edge of the plate (unlike Russian tags that have the flag on the right). Europe is the first place I saw this with an EU flag with a country code printed on it that replaced the used-to-be-ubiquitous D or F or S stickers for Germany, France, or Sweden, respectively. Mongolia has adopted these as well.
Like many European countries (but also Mongolia and Japan, for example) the license plates also vary by province of issuance, Bishkek is thus dominated (along with Berlin) by B tags. This system is currently being replaced with a number code for the province of issuance like France or Russia, where Bishkek is 01.
My very brief impression of Kyrgyz cuisine was very favourable. Food can be delicious in the Mongolian countryside, primarily due to the freshness and quality of meat and dairy ingredients. But by contrast, Kyrgyz food seemed much more varied with stronger regional (Russian, but also other Central Asian) influences and a much greater variety and use of spices.
The fruit and vegetable selection at the bazaar was quite impressive. The dried apricots, in particular, were delicious. I ate some very nice soups. Alcohol drinking seemed a little bit more restraint and was certainly not very visible in restaurants.
During the time in Kyrgyzstan we had an opportunity to visit the Kumtor Gold mine. It is owned and operated by Canadian Centerra Gold, also involved in the Boroo and Gatsuurt deposits in Selenge.
To reach the mine, we drove for four hours across the Kyrgyz countryside from Bishkek and along Issyk-Kul, the very large lake in the Northeast of Kyrgyzstan.
The drive across the countryside was very different from a similar drive in Mongolia.
At least along this route, Kyrgyzstan is clearly more densely populated than Mongolia. Kyrgyz population density is just under 30/km2 while this figure is closer to 2/km2. This difference shows!
While it is surprising that there is always some human dwelling within sight in Mongolia (partly due to the openness of most of the landscape, but also due to the dispersal of population across most of the territory of Mongolia), in Kyrgyzstan there always seems to be a human settlement in sight with many small towns appearing along the road, and additional dwellings in between these towns.
On the whole drive, we did not see a single ger. We did see a lot of animals, however, mostly cattle, horses and sheep, but very few goats or yaks and only two camels. Because there are many apple and apricot orchards, there are also fences in this part of Kyrgyzstan, unlike most of Mongolia. The road got pretty crowded at dusk when many people were herding animals back to villages and used the road as a transit corridor, it seemed.
Islam is more visible in the countryside than in Bishkek as most small towns seem to have a mosque and a cemetery.