meIt has been more than a decade since Umar Tashbekov saw his opportunity. His village, Sary-Mogol in Kyrgyzstan, at an altitude of 3,600 meters, is close to Lenin’s Peak, a popular mountain destination for tourists. If they were already hiking there, why not entice them to visit your village as well?
Sary-Mogol is a three-hour drive from the nearest town of Osh, in the southeast of the country. Life here is not easy – short summers and unfavorable growing conditions make it difficult to grow much more than potatoes and barley. The main source of work is the large cattle market in the city. Others find employment as teachers or in the nearby coal mine. Of its population of 5,200, about 500 people have gone to Russia, where companies welcome factory workers.
Clockwise from top left: a view of Lenin’s Peak and Sary Mogol village in southeastern Kyrgyzstan; a girl carries bottles to fetch water in the village; clothing and other goods are sold in a weekly market, while men trade livestock
One advantage of traditional village life, with grandparents, parents and children living together in the same tiny houses, has been the slow spread of Covid-19. Because the houses are already packed, most people gather on the street. That, and general government lock downs, helped keep infection numbers low.
But if there has been a limited impact on health, the impact on livelihoods is profound. In 2019, more than 1,300 tourists passed through Sary-Mogol. This year, they were less than a dozen.
In the last decade, tourism has grown so that almost everyone here is connected to the industry in some way. Income from exports of tourism and travel services, which accounted for almost 6% of GDP in 2018, it has been predicted to almost disappear in 2020. Revenues are projected to fall by as much as 90%.
Tashbekov opened the village’s first guesthouse in 2007 and invited other villagers to work with him. His company, CBT, soon became an “incubator” for the industry: almost everyone who works in tourism has passed through his doors at some point. Soon after, he also opened the first yurt camp in the area, where tourists can stay in 12 traditional Kyrgyz lodgings in the mountain valley. They enjoy the unique feeling of the village: the old Soviet UAZ cars, the old flak tarty sh horse game, traditional craft markets.
Then Tashbekov’s son, Padilla, took over the business. The 31-year-old has been a guide for more than 10 years. He built his own guest house and was in the process of building a new one. He is always reading and researching the Internet, earning his reputation as the “scholar.” His vision has given rise to new ideas to develop the city and the family business. He and his father opened a larger office, which serves as a meeting place for guides, workers, and tourists. He organized ski training with other guides to venture into winter tourism.
In 2015, he had the idea to start the village horse and yak game fair and festival. All the people attend, either as participants or spectators. Ticket sales generate income for the villagers who work at the festival: cooking and selling traditional foods, performing traditional music and dance performances, managing the yurt camp, and competing in the games.
All that momentum has been lost in the wake of the pandemic. Padilla and her family have felt the financial pain. “The tourist season is dead,” he says. “We had to close the office, the yurt camp and the guest houses this year.”
His wife works as a music teacher and lives off her income, with two children to support. “If tourism doesn’t improve, I will have to go to Osh or some other place to look for construction work,” he says. That could bring its own set of challenges – the construction industry could soon be another tough area in which to find work.
The UN development program (UNDP), which this year launched a set of measures to strengthen adventure tourism in Kyrgyzstan, published a survey that found The most affected sectors of the economy in Kyrgyzstan will be commerce and consumer services and construction., each of which can expect a 20% contraction.
Tashbekov’s other son, Ali, 23, started working in the family business at age 13, before going to Osh to study logistics and welding. His training has been helpful during the pandemic. When the flow of visitors to the village ceased, he was able to find work as a mechanic in the mine. But he loved working with tourists, meeting people from all over the world.
“It was a good time,” he says. “Sometimes I didn’t have time to go home. Then [guiding] a tour, I immediately went with other tourists back to the mountains. “
Ali Tashbekov has been working as a welder at the coal mine during the pandemic rather than in his usual role as a mountain guide. His wife Aired Arizona, pictured below, has had to stop working at the family’s guest house.
It was also a healthier job, he says, being outside in nature all day. Now you are concerned about the effects of the quarry gas you breathe regularly. But since his wife worked in the kitchen of the now-closed guesthouse, this is the only income they have. With his father recovering from a broken leg, a mother with Parkinson’s disease requiring costly treatments, a one-year-old and another on the way, the family’s resources are strained.
They are not the only ones feeling the tension in their village.
Minor Almazbek studied languages on the advice of his father, allowing him to teach English at the local school. During the summer, Almazbek also functions as a guide. She got a bank loan a few years ago to build a guest house, which she opened successfully, but in February she got another loan to expand her business. He was expecting a normal summer, but without tourists, now he’s struggling to give it back.
“It has been a difficult year,” he says. “There is not enough work and not enough money.”
BuunTereshkovakova, 58, was also expecting a normal summer. The businesswoman opened a guest house and is an expert in handicrafts, especially the traditional Kyrgyz women’s hat. His new Ethnographic Museum, built by his son in July, is filled with local products and historical artifacts. In the absence of foreign visitors, she is using the space for workshops for other villagers.
BuunTereshkovakova opened the Ethnographic Museum in Sary-Molog in July. Ever since visitors dried up during the pandemic, it has been offering workshops on traditional crafts, such as making doll hair, to people living in the area.
But the villagers here still play volleyball in the gym and participate in horse games, held to celebrate events such as the completion of a new house or the birth of a baby.
Perhaps it is this energy and spirit that makes the town attractive to those who visit it. Two years ago, a Korean engineer had a good horseback riding holiday that funded an initiative to improve water infrastructure so that villagers no longer had to carry water from the river.
Everyone at Sary-Mogol looks forward to sharing their energy and spirit with visitors again.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism