Blog Post

Through the Mountain Pass

I’m sitting in a shared taxi en route to Talas, the region to the west of Bishkek. The sun is descending and night is falling. The inside of the taxi is dark – the only light coming from the small screen hanging from the roof playing Russian pop music videos. All I can see outside is a small sliver of road through the cracked windshield. I’m sitting between two passengers. To my left is a 31 year-old Kyrgyz man named Erkin. To my right is a 64 year-old Russian woman named Valentina. Each of these individuals has a story unknown to me.

Traveling through the mountain pass to the Talas region

I speak with Erkin first. He’s from a small village in Talas, coincidentally, the same village I’ll be staying in for a few days. We talk about Kyrgyzstan and he begins to tell me about his life. He lived in Moscow for 5 years. I asked him what kind of work he did and he replied, “very difficult work.” It is not uncommon for Kyrgyz people to migrate to other countries, most often to Russia, to find work so they can support their families back in Kyrgyzstan. The work they find is often difficult and physically strenuous. He changes the subject and begins to tell me of his family. His mother was a music teacher, specializing in the komuz, a traditional Kyrgyz instrument, however she recently passed away. He told me that she played the komuz very well and taught a few foreigners how to play it as well. I asked him if he knew how to play. He said he only knew the basics.

Valentina is on the other side of me and seems to be asleep. I put my headphones in and close my eyes. A few minutes later Valentina nudges me, offering me a piece of currant-flavored candy. I gratefully accept – it’s going to be a long taxi ride. I use this offering as an opportunity to strike up a conversation to learn more about her and her life. My Russian language skills are not as strong as my Kyrgyz language skills, but, luckily, she realizes this and patiently explains to me that, first of all, she is not Russian.

The story of how her and her family came to live in Talas is one that dates back hundreds of years. Between 1762 and 1763 Catherine the Great published a manifesto inviting non-Jewish Europeans to immigrate and become Russian citizens and farm Russian land, while maintaining their language and culture. Germans began to emigrate to Russia, including Valentina’s family. They were given free land and amenities needed to adjust to life in Russia, but when the war started, Valentina explained that those who had moved from Germany became oppressed. They were expelled from their autonomous republic in the Saratov region and sent to work in mining areas in the Siberian region. Valentina’s family was sent to Altai; she said it is very cold there, with winter lasting 8 months. After the war, Germans who had migrated to Russia in the mid-1700s were granted the freedom to move to any place in the Soviet Union and most of them started to migrate to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Over time, the German population spread out through the Talas region of Kyrgyzstan.

“They were able to preserve their cultural values and traditions by organizing meetings with other German communities in Kyrgyzstan. Nowadays, parents teach their children German songs and dances, and celebrate national German holidays together. At the same time, we actively take part in Talas social life. The administration often sends invitations to our community to participate in various events. For example, we cook and present German national food at cultural fairs. We also try to teach the German language for free for all students, both of German origin and other ethnicities, who want to visit Germany in the future,” explained Valentina.

A few hours later, Erkin and Valentina ask the taxi to stop and both get out, stretching their legs. Erkin and I shake hands, exchanging pleasantries. Valentina grabs me for a hug, thanking me for the conversation and wishing me good fortune. I smile and wish her the same. They walk off in separate directions. I get back in the taxi, feeling grateful for moments such as these – three unknown travelers in a taxi sharing their stories in the glow of Russian pop music videos.

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