The Yurt Cafe

By Jheri St. James

Not only is the spelling of the name Kyrgyzstan complicated (don’t forget the middle z!), the collection of this country’s soil has been complex too. We have spent the last few weeks trying to sort out the names and affiliations of all the players over the past four years, and whether or not we still have contact with them. At this writing, the answers have all become yes, but it’s taken some real detective work.

This collection began in 2006 with Roger Clapp recommending Elizabeth Lundeen as a possible collector for our project. Roger was with the Community Action for Health Project there, and Elizabeth was working for the Swiss Red Cross. In 2007 Elizabeth wrote about the issue of import/export permissions from Kyrgyz Ministers of Geology. By now Roger was in Vermont. (That was the year Gary wrote, “I have less than 40 to go—one of which is Kyrgyzstan. At this writing in 2010 we need only one more country—North Korea.)

In 2008 Gary wrote to Aida Richardson as a member of Sister Cities. Simultaneously, Marat Djanbaev of Sister Cities in Kyrgyzstan wrote offering to volunteer as a result of a referral from another active member of Sister Cities between Colorado and Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. The Aida Richardson thread became blurred over time, but we recently reconnected with her too. Marat finally did collect soil for us in 2008. Here is his picture.

“Today I visited suburb of Bishkek where I collected soil for your project. Particularly, I collected soil from Memorial with rich history which is called ‘Father’s Grave.’ The Memorial for victims of Stalin and Soviet repressions in 1937 is a memory for our Kyrgyz fathers. Actually, Stalin and KBG killed more than 120 people who was elite of our nation and their fault was that they only discussed national identification, heritage and possible independence from Soviet Union.”

The Ata Beitt memorial complex honors all victims of the Stalinist repressions. The Museum of Ata Beiit houses personal belongings of the killed and archive documents, as well as a memorial plaque along the right side of the museum with names of all victims of the repressions from 1937-1938. Built by the Kyrgyz writer Chingis Aitmatov, his father and a number of other prominent Kyrgyz men were executed here in the 1930's and the place was kept secret for almost six decades. Only a single person, a shepherd, saw the execution and was too scared to reveal it to anyone. He only revealed this fact to his daughter when he was on his deathbed. She went to the authorities in 1995, a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed and Kyrgyz republic became independent. This memorial is the result of the revelation of that secret.

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The Kyrgyz Republic is one of six independent Turkic states, together with Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Landlocked and mountainous, Kyrgyzstan is bordered by Kazakhstan north, Uzbekistan west, Tajikistan southwest and People’s Republic of China east. Capital and biggest city is Bishkek. “Kyrgyz” is believed to have come from the Rukic word for “forty” in reference to the 40 clans of Manas, a legendary hero who united these clans against the Uyghers who dominated much of Central Asia, Mongolia and parts of Russia and China (9th century AD). By extension, Kyrgyz is also thought to mean ‘unconquerable’ or ‘undefeatable.’ Other definitions include “red”, the “south country” and “40 girls.” The 40-ray sun on the flag is a reference to that magical number and the graphic “X” in the sun’s center depicts the wooden crown of a yurt, a portable dwelling traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.

The history of this nation echoes the history of most countries on our great Mother Earth in one regard: warfare. Centuries of warfare; people killing each other for real estate holdings, basically, using political opinions and other arguments as excuses for slaughter. Wikipedia states that “Kyrgyzstan is among the 20 countries in the world with the highest perceived level of corruption: the 2008 Corruption Perception Index for Kyrgyzstan is 1.8 on a scale of 0 (most corrupt) to 10 (least corrupt).” This history goes back to the 6th century B.C. Turks, Arabs, Mongols, Chinese, Muslim, Iranians and Russians have contributed genes to the present-day Kyrgyz dna. Violence, injury and death continue to this day and added to the complexity of this soil sample:

“We have to recognize that she (Elizabeth Lundeen, collector) and virtually everyone else over there are working to achieve remarkable results under adverse conditions. These are not 9 to 5 type jobs. You’re sort of ‘on’ all the time. So for her to carve some time out to figure out what this is all about, get the soil and get it in the hands of DHL doesn’t sound like a big deal, but over there everything can quickly develop into a series of new challenges. . . DHL informed her that since it was soil that was being exported, it had to be certified by the national Dept of Geology. We need to recognize that the single largest private employer in Kyrgyzstan is a gold mining operation. So what seems bizarre and ridiculous from the outside, could seem a likely case of gold ore smuggling on the inside. . . Regardless of justification, red tape is going to restrict the type of initiative that you are leading. While I applaud the vision and audacity of your project, I think you need to accept responsibility for the challenges it entails. People like Elizabeth Lundeen are willing to lend a hand, but extracting permits from suspicious bureaucrats in unrelated ministries can not only eat up countless hours, it can actually place them in jeopardy of losing their positions.” (From Roger Clapp, written as Elizabeth’s collection efforts fizzled out.)

Along the Silk Road in this country lies Issyk Kul Lake, which some historians believe was the point of origin for the Black Death that swept through Europe and Asia during the early and mid-14th century. This is the second largest lake in the world, after Titicaca. The highestpeaks are in the Kakshaal-Too range, forming the Chinese border. Jengish Chokusu peak at 24,406 ft. is considered by geologists to be the northernmost peak over 22,966 ft. in the world.

Tian Shan Mountains

Orchard near Issyk Kul

American University of Central Asia

The population of Kyrgyzstan is 80% Muslim, 17% Russian Orthodox and 3% other. The influence of Islam is spreading with various attempts to decrimininalize polygamy and to arrange for officials to travel on the pilgrimage to Mecca under tax-free arrangements. Other faiths include Russian and Ukranian Orthodox versions of Christianity with small communities of Lutherans, Anabaptists and Roman Catholics. A few animistic traditions survive, as do influences from Buddhism, such as the tying of prayer flags onto sacred trees.

Has anyone ever said “Father Earth?” Our planet is always perceived as female. Kyrgyzstan’s iconic yurt is a singularly female architectural structure, being rounded and directly on the soil. Governments and corporations struggle to seize gold from under ground, but the real treasure is the earth itself, the stage upon which mankind continues to live and die. These beautiful ladies offering sweets could symbolize the spirit of our Great Mother—generous, lovely and fecund. Let us savor all her blessings. Thanks to all the many many people who contributed time, energy and caring to bring the soil of Kyrgyzstan—unconquerable, undefeatable, the red south country, home to 40 girls—to our project.

A Yurt Café in Kyrgyzstan


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