Our travels in Kyrgyzstan began at the Irkeshtam pass, the border between China and Kyrgyzstan, where we reached around two in the afternoon after traveling from Kashkar that morning. We hitched lifts with the heavy goods truck drivers to Osh which at the time was estimated to be a ten hour journey. One driver agreed to take Oihana and I for a mere 500 som (about three pounds). We stopped after an hour at a stream to fill a twenty litre water tank and to wash our hands and faces. From the barren brown mountainous dessert of western china we had arrived in the lush green mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The road was extremely poor, untarmaced crumbling track of broken rocks only suitable for heavy trucks. After going up and down many mountain valleys we reached an expansive plateau across which the track ploughed a strait line. From here we saw the sun pierce through the dense rain clouds and illuminate the snowcapped peaks of the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. After four hours on the road we reached the first junction. One road led south to Tajikistan’s Pamir highway, another led north into Kyrgyzstan, another west to the Tajik capital Dushanbe, and behind us the east and china. Evening was approaching fast and so was bad weather. We stopped at a very basic eatery and took tea, eggs and a meat broth with bread, our first taste of Kyrgyz food.
As we climbed back into the cabin at the front of the truck, and the rain hammered down on the windscreen, I realised what a hard life it was for our driver. A former boxer of Uzbek origin, these lonely long distance drives were his means of supporting his children’s education. He spends nine months of the year driving along these treacherous roads with no contact with his family. His name is Abdul. We communicated through mime and pictures scribbled in my notebook, hampered by the shudders of the engine and the appallingly bumpy road. He taught me how to count to twenty in Russian and how to say river, truck and mountain, fairly useful vocabulary in these remote areas. The rain became snow and we ascended to cross a high pass. Soon enough, our conversation reached the limit of what we could manage. We sat and shared the silence and the darkness. I stared at the road while Oihana slept and Abdul drove on through the night. At midnight we stopped and he slept for a while but it was well before dawn when we hit the road again. When the sun’s rays hit the green grass I saw that we had reached gently undulating hills, less hostile than the higher mountains we had crossed at night. More of these valleys were inhabited by yurts and livestock and occasionally disused railway carriages converted into homes (how they came to be in the middle of the Kyrgyz countryside remains a mystery, way beyond the line of what I could communicate with Abdul).
We had an early breakfast of fermented mare’s milk with a crust of dry bread smothered in freshly churned butter at a hut and Abdul proudly explained that i was a juggler from London to the slightly bemused locals. We continued and eventually reached the plains where big farms sprawled into the distance on either side of the road. Abdul turned to me delighted and exclaimed in his thick central Asian accent, ‘tarmac’ His beaming face and glinting gold tooth conveyed to me how important roads are in central Asia. As much as I enjoyed the experience of the juddering, rocky drive, I appreciated the smooth ease of the well maintained road, and how crucial these roads are in the development of a nation such as Kyrgyzstan. We arrived in Osh at one O’clock in the early afternoon and went to eat once united with the gang.
During our first days in Osh we searched for space in which we could rehearse and saw the market and the park. We ended up rehearsing at the back of the city centre estate we lived on. The Osh Guesthouse is a third floor apartment converted into a couple of dormitories. The neighbourhood is home to many Kurds, Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Tajiks and Pakistanis and lively feel. I enjoyed practicing my Urdu with Pakistani students and also met a large proportion of mixed race families. Our practices generally ended up having a sizeable audience of intrigued mothers, curious kids and tough teenage boys.
Our fist show was to a special needs school in the area and went wonderfully. We were all very happy to have made contact with the organisation run by everychild (a UK charity) and we look forward to the possibility of setting up an educational circus project with their kids. Next up was a home for elderly people and orphans who were a lovely audience, a few kilometers outside the centre of town. Compared to our experiences in India, Pakistan and China, Osh was very westernised with very liberal dress codes and night life that we did not have time to explore. However in Kyrgyzstan it is considered to be the conservative south.
Osh‘s main attraction was the climb up to a tiny mosque on Solomon hill. The rocky peak that dominates the town and gave us superb views of the whole area stretching from the flat countryside to the mountain ranges beyond. Except for Steve, whose highlight was the Uzbek circus that performed in the street in the late afternoons.
From Osh we rented a vehicle to take us on to the capital Bishkek where we checked in to the Sabyrbek Guesthouse, an old family home of a legendary Kyrgyz writer, who told the history of Kyrgyz people, which has now been converted into a bed and breakfast. The journey was another beautiful drive over two snowy mountain passes and many a stunning valley. Our landlord advised us that the road was dangerous and so we should pray to Allah. He said we are good people and we will be safe. In Bishkek our work was organised through Central Asia International Consulting, and in particular by a lovely young lady named Aigul. Our first performance was for a group of working children outside the city centre. We were accompanied by a television crew and the appeared on the evening news the following day, a little taste of things to come. The next show was for children in a very deprived part of town. Litter and glass was cleared from the space before we began our performance surrounded by tall blocks of flats.
Before we knew it Aigul had organised a press conference for us and had invited the first minister for social development. This was a tremendous privilege and a helpful slice of publicity for the project. The minister said that we had her full support in returning to Kyrgyzstan to complete our project and this was a great vote of confidence. Sure enough by the end of the week we had a full page colour article with interviews and pictures of our final show in a national newspaper.
We took some time out to enjoy the pleasant parks of Bishkek, played some table tennis and enjoyed the fresh air of the countryside on a day trip to a family home where we had the opportunity to spend the morning playing with children who were celebrating the beginning of their summer holiday.
Our next show was at a centre for young offenders and began with us, in costume as the audience while they performed a medley of songs and dances. It was delightful to watch the children’s performances as well as them watching ours. This show was another sweaty one in the midday heat on concrete but we relished it just like all our other outings. The feeling of appreciation and confidence in our host and growing media interest in our group was building into something special. In our last few days in town the excitement reached a climax with a huge performance in the main square of the city. For this we teamed up with the Bishkek Clowns, a group of circus artistes who are government sponsored and have their own majestic circus building, complete with a big arena. Hundreds of children from a all over Bishkek and its environs were invited, and it was a fantastic morning. We were delighted to be invited to train with the Bishkek circus who were excited and intrigued by our project and impressed by our focus on disadvantaged young people. They also had much to share with us, having a wealth of experience in the field. We also practiced at another studio sharing tricks, ideas and the odd bit of Russian or European technique with a group of young performers who saw our show in the square. So we left Bishkek with a round of heartfelt farewells, hoping to return to nurture the seeds of social circus that have now been planted in Kyrgyzstan.