Kyrgyzstan: Where have all the men gone?

A once-nomadic culture that has withstood Mongol hordes and Soviet armies now faces an exodus that could wipe it out
Click to follow

For generations, life in Temir Kanat has stood still. High in the Tian Shen mountains, 1,000 once-nomadic villagers lead the timeless life of the jailoo, the alpine pastures grazed by prized horse herds and stalked by tamed hunting eagles. It is an ancient existence which has withstood a succession of invaders, from the Mongol hordes to the armies of Soviet Russia.

But where Tamerlaine and the Kremlin's imperial commissars failed, there is alarming evidence that poverty and an enforced re-awakening of the wandering instincts of the Kyrgyz people – taking an entire generation of young men out of the countryside to find work abroad – is imperilling centuries of tradition and culture as never before.

With rural unemployment at epidemic levels and the once-booming economies of neighbouring Russia and Kazakhstan sucking in migrant labourers, some 800,000 Kyrgyz, in particular men aged 18 to 35, have simply left. The community of Temir Kanat, where 75 per cent of those of working age have already departed, is bitter testimony to what happens to those left behind.

At this time of year, in temperatures that average about minus 15C and regularly reach minus 40C, the burden of sustaining the village – a strip of tumbledown houses some 200 miles east of the capital, Bishkek, and reached by an icy track that twists through 2,000m mountain passes – falls on its ranks of wizened grandmothers or babushkas and their meagre pensions of barely £25 a month.

As a result, Temir Kanat, whose name translates as Wing of Metal, is a ghost village. So are thousands of places like it. These are places populated almost uniquely by the very old and the very young, where the certainties of an age-old existence defined by livestock and the production of such staples as kumys, a much-loved drink made from fermented mare's milk, appears to be slowly dying out.

Kaken Kyrgyzova, 74, wrapped in the heavy layers of colourful felted wool that villagers wear to keep out the all-pervading cold, said: "My son has left to work in the city. I look after my three grandchildren. It is my duty. My son cannot send money so we survive on my pension of 1,600 som [£23] each month. It is hard. We eat noodles and tea because I can no longer tend the crops. Our fire is heated by animal dung. This is what our lives have become." Sat against a backdrop of intricately patterned traditional felt rugs known as shyrdak which, along with a pile of corn she is looking after for a neighbour, represents her worldly wealth, Kaken co-habits in a single room with neighbours and struggles to send her two granddaughters and grandson to school, each attending on alternate days. Bolsunbek, 13, her ruddy-cheeked grandson, is clear about what he wants to do as soon as he is old enough to earn a living. He said: "I want to join my father as a builder. I will leave here."

The cycle of departure, and debt, is beginning to erode the communal customs that hold together a culture in one of central Asia's least-known countries, where men still hunt with eagles taken as chicks from the nest and trained to live with a human keeper for the rest of their 40-year lives.

It is a measure of the failure of modernity to penetrate Kyrgyz society that the national obsession remains traditional horse games, of which Kok Boru or Grey Wolf is the epitome. Famed for their horsemanship, all year through the Kyrgyz play this visceral form of polo in which the "ball" is a decapitated goat, wrestling over possession of the corpse which must be heaved into a raised earthen platform to score a "goal".

The departure of so many young men, a trend critics of Kyrgyzstan's increasingly autocratic government claim the authorities are happy to accept because it removes the strata of society most likely to lead a political rebellion, means there are diminishing numbers in the jailoo ready to continue such traditions. Already, families have to make up for their absence by paying shepherds to tend animals, including herds of horses kept as much for meat as riding, duties that would have been looked after within the extended clan.

Salamat Omurov, 78, a village elder or akasal (literally, "white beard"), spent his life as a shepherd in the pastures surrounding the village, living in a traditional yurt or felt tent during the summer. Mournfully, he said: "It used to be that the skills of shepherding, hunting and riding were passed on from grandfather to grandson. What child will now spend 40 years in the same place to care for a hunting eagle?"

Kyrgyzstan has been called "the Switzerland of central Asia" because of its unspoilt mountainous terrain that shares borders with Kazakh-stan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. But beyond a preponderance of snowy peaks, including the forbidding Tian Shen mountains that separate the country from China to the east and loom over Temir Kanat, the legendary land of the 40 tribes of the Kyrgyz bears little resemblance to its European alpine counterpart.

The country is ranked in the United Nations' poverty index below Equatorial Guinea and Guyana. Its per capita GDP of $951 for its population of 5,200,000 is comparable to Haiti or Chad. But between 2004 and 2008, about 800,000 Kyrgyz men, and increasingly women, scratched together the $100 to $500 required to make the journey from Kyrgyzstan's agricultural hinterland to work in often wretched conditions on building sites, tobacco farms and sweatshops from St Petersburg to Siberia.

With up to 90 per cent of migrants working illegally in their host country, the true figure could be higher. Although at least 80,000 have returned because of the downturn, most remain abroad, either unwilling or unable to return. The exodus of the most economically active tranche of the population means Kyrgyzstan is now probably the third most remittance-reliant nation, said to be after the Philippines and Nepal. The annual sum sent home by the country's diaspora rose from $481m in 2004 to $1.2bn in 2008, accounting for 27 per cent of GDP. Put another way, a third of Kyrgyz households are reliant on money earned outside the country. Women such as Kaken, who have become the guardians of fading tradition, see hardly any of this money. The British charity Help Age International, set up by Help the Aged and Age Concern, has conducted studies on their problems, amid evidence that remittances make up less than 5 per cent of the income of the "ultra-poor" in places much like Temir Kanat or the nearby town of Bokonbaevo.

Eppu Mikkonen-Jeanneret, the regional representative for the charity, said: "There is a perception that migration works for developing countries because of the money that is sent home. The problem in Kyrgyzstan is that it is not reaching those who need it most. "In the towns and villages, we have households of the old and the young where a very modest income often cannot even meet the basic needs of food, heating and providing education for the children. Particularly in winter, we see households going into debt."

There is much talk of a hardening of attitudes among the haves and have nots of a newly stratified society where the certainties of the Soviet era are viewed with yearning. The custom of koshumcha and raja, whereby each member of a community pays a contribution between £2.80 and £7 to each wedding and funeral, has become a means of social isolation. Those failing to pay, often the elderly, can end up being shunned. Batyrkanova Zarylkau, 73, said: "Life in this community is extremely changed. People were equal. They looked after each other. Then all that stopped. Now there are some very poor and some very rich. Nobody wants to help each other because if you have something in your hands, you will be respected by others. If you have nothing, you will have a lot of troubles. That is why we send our children away, even if we lose them. There is nothing here for them. Those who remain have no jobs. Instead, they sit around and drink and play cards."

Attempts to counteract the corrosive effects of migration are at a fledgling stage. The government last month added an extra 200 som (£2.80) to pensions to help offset a proposed tripling in electricity prices, and 400 per cent rise in electricity costs. There are plans to increase tourism to bolster what remains an agrarian economy. But the elders of Temir Kanat and the surrounding area are resigned to the ebbs and flows of global capitalism and seek merely to survive.

Rosa Konobyava, 70, a Russian Tartar who cares of her four grandchildren and has not heard from her two sons in Kazakhstan since they left six months ago, said: "I love them. I can hug them and kiss them. They bring only good things. But our way of life has changed and we are losing things that were once certain. There is an old Russian proverb, 'Old age is not happiness and youth is not life'. There are many who feel that way."

Kyrgyzstan: The facts

* Independent since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has a population of 5.2 million and is home to a number of ethnicities including Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Russians.

* The country has a per capita GDP of $951, and the United Nations' poverty index ranks it as poorer than Equatorial Guinea and Guyana.

* In 2008, $1.2bn (£741m, or 27% of GDP) was sent home by Kyrgyz working abroad – an increase of $719m (£444m) from 2004.

* Agriculture accounts for a large proportion of Kyrgyzstan's economy, and there are 4.25 million sheep in the country according to the government – which earlier this week announced that each sheep would receive its own passport in a move intended to limit disease.

* In 2005 the "Tulip Revolution" brought about the downfall of President Askar Akayev, who had been in power since 1990. He was succeeded by the current President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

* The country loses 2.57 people per 1,000 of population every year due to emigration.