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Life at the Centre of the New Great Game


Life at the Centre of the New Great Game

Open Central Asia interviews Ian Claytor on life as an expat in Kyrgyzstan and the region’s growing appeal as both a tourist and business destination, with a twist.

Living abroad as an expatriate is always a daunting prospect and a tough decision. Leaving behind family and friends as well as traditions can be difficult. For some, however, this expat lifestyle is very much a reality and Central Asia is no exception. Increasing globalization is driving an increase in diversity and interaction among people across the world. As Central Asia gradually opens its borders, an increasing number of foreigners have made their way and settled in its historical territories.

For others, things end up less planned, as many things do in Central Asia. “It's all an accident,” says Ian Claytor, General Director of the Celestial Mountains Companies. “When I came here back in 1995 it was originally for just one year - and I just sort of stayed.”

There are two companies in the Celestial Mountains’ group: The Celestial Mountains Tour Company and the Celestial Mountains Guest House (Naryn). Both were established in 1997 by three investors, of which Ian is one. The tour company is based in the capital, Bishkek, and was established to offer tours and other services to travellers. The tours cover both Kyrgyzstan and further afield. A hotel in Bishkek and a guesthouse in Naryn have quickly established themselves for their quality, convenience and friendliness, popular with tourists, businessmen, consultants and visiting dignitaries alike.

Ian attributes his arrival in Central Asia to a friend of his, Tony, who worked as a lawyer for a large international firm based in London. Tony was in Moscow on a mission for an international organization at about the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They heard that something was happening in neighboring Kazakhstan. It is a country rich in gold, oil and, at that time, nuclear weapons (which were later transferred to Russia). And so they sent a small delegation to see what was going on. When they got to Almaty, they realised that just 250 kilometers away was Bishkek, the capital of another former Soviet Republic, and maybe it was worth sending someone there as well. Tony was chosen to go.

Instantly Tony loved the place. He is from New Zealand and it reminded him of life back home when he was growing up. Mountains and open spaces, lots of sheep and abundant wildlife, a multi cultural and friendly people with an openness and hospitable tradition. At that time there were very few Westerners that made it to this part of the former Central Asia; access to this part of the Soviet Union was always strictly controlled, and he was feted everywhere he went. He took every opportunity to come back and eventually decided he would like to open his own law firm here as he saw great potential for development.

Ian continues his story, “On his suggestion I came here for a holiday in 1994 and liked the place, but I never thought that I would eventually move here. However, when he asked me to come out and help him to open an office I agreed. I originally came for one year, but things never quite go according to plan and as the year was coming to an end there was still lots to do, so I stayed on to finish the job. I could have gone back home. I had a job waiting for me and staying here meant saying goodbye to that and a career that I had been developing for twenty years. To be honest, however, I was ready for a change and I looked forward to meeting the challenges of starting something new.”

Once the office was up and running the two of them saw a gap in the tourism market, as it was then. Since Soviet times there have always been a lot of visitors from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia to Kyrgyzstan’s famous Lake Issyk Kul. Apart from that there were mountaineering and hunting expeditions, and the occasional Silk Road tour which crossed one of the few land crossing points open for passenger traffic into China. It didn’t take long to realize that maybe there were lots of other Westerners who would welcome the opportunity to visit and explore this little known region. Perhaps they had spent their long vacations when they were students visiting interesting parts of the world and were willing to accept the rigours and hardships of travel. They had time available to simply wander and explore but had little money to spare. Even for those with jobs and responsibilities who had money but limited time having to be “back behind the desk on Monday week”, they still wanted to visit remote and interesting places but needed to make the most of their “two weeks” annual leave. And so they began the tour company, together with another British friend of theirs who was also interested in the potential of the region.

Despite the adventure, living so far from home comforts always leaves one with a few sorely missed items. In response to the question Ian remarks, “That's easy: Marmite and Branston Pickle! On the other hand, back in Britain you can't get Maksim Shoro, so it's a case of: "you win some and you lose some".”

Fortunately, you can get most things in Central Asia so it is no longer a question of material things for most people, although it might need a certain amount of flexibility and adaptation. Many of the major Western brands are now easily obtainable in the shops and supermarkets, making the transition into Central Asian life all the more easy. And if not, then the local markets are sure to have something suitable for use, with a little imagination. Also, whereas once news was difficult to get hold of, the technological revolution means that this is no longer difficult with satellite TV and the internet.

Central Asia is undoubtedly a fast-changing part of the world. Ian mentions some of the greatest changes. One of these is the amount of traffic: “Now you have to great care with your “kerb drill” if you don’t want end up “falling under a bus,” he jokes. He also cites an ever increasing array of restaurants and cafes, leaving visitors spoilt for choice, be it local or international food. The other thing that is striking is the amount of new construction. Modern shops and restaurants, leisure facilities such as cinemas and a skating rink, apartment blocks and hotels continue to spring up. There are still some building sites where the carcass of an unfinished building has stood idle for several years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there are a lot of new buildings, most of them demonstrate interesting architectural features. All of these are signs of a developing economy, as is the ever improving range of goods available in the shops. Add to this a growing number of tourists, businessmen and also the personnel serving at the US air-force base at Manas airport just outside Bishkek and the country is a lively place.

“Some things, however, haven’t changed that much,” Ian mentions, “For example, the main statue of Lenin may have been moved from Bishkek’s central square, (Ala Too Square), but he didn’t move that far, just round to the other side of the Historical Museum.” You can still Lenin in many places around Central Asia. The Soviet Union, which he brought into existence and presided over in its early years, ruled the country for seventy years and has had a marked impact on the country. Its influence is still evident in many aspects of life in Kyrgyzstan.

One of the great success stories in Kyrgyzstan has been its Community based tourism (CBT) programme. The idea arose from a desire to help the local rural communities improve their standard of living by offering a way of diversifying and finding alternative sources of income. The concept was developed mainly through the Swiss Development agency Helvetas, who helped establish local groups. Other donors also used the model and the number of groups has grown over the years so that there is now a wide network covering most of the country – and in some areas they offer the only available facilities for tourists. These groups offer accommodation, local guides and interpreters, transport and other services.

This is by no means the focus of Kyrgyz tourism though. Kyrgyz tourism has, for a long time, centered mainly around Lake Issyk Kul – with most of the visitors to the country coming from neighboring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the Siberian regions of Russia to relax on the lakeside beaches, swim in the salty water, take advantage of the facilities of the various health resorts and so on. That was true in the Soviet days, and it is still true today. So much so that there are many new developments up by the lake to offer modern facilities that will help Issyk Kul compete with other destinations vying for the same business, such as Thailand and Turkey.

If the vast majority of tourists visiting the country head for Issyk Kul, then another thrust of Kyrgyz tourism is the Adventure Market: mountaineering, trekking, horse riding, rafting and so forth. A third sector of the country’s tourism can be stylized as “travels along the Great Silk Road”. Kyrgyzstan is a transit country between the ancient cities of Uzbekistan, (such as Samarkand, Khiva, and Bukhara), and China, representing the “mysterious orient”, with two main land border crossings, Torugart and Irkeshtam.

And what of the country’s memorable sights?

“Hmmm … that’s difficult. There are so many possibilities. Perhaps my first sight of the Tash Rabat caravanserai hidden away in a remote mountain valley? Or maybe standing at the roadside at 10 o’clock trying to decide which was worse, the vodka being thrust into my left hand or the horsemeat sausage, (a traditional Kyrgyz delicacy - which was 90% fat), being thrust into my right hand by my Krgyz host and looking for a place to dispose of them both without upsetting or offending her. Against my better judgment, I consumed both ...”

Stranger things have happened though. Even a bright red London Routemaster bus was once spotted driving along a Bishkek street with the destination board displaying “Westminster”. “I wanted to flag it down and point out that it was heading in the wrong direction – East rather than West!”

Even though Central Asia can be an odd mixture of the sublime and the nonsensical, the logical and the irrational and the awe-inspiring and frustrating all at the same time, there is a certain special magic that is always kept back for anyone who wishes to give it a try. And Ian’s advice to would-be visitors is sound: “Don't take anything for granted. Life is full of surprises, few things are ever simple and straight forward and it best to be prepared for the fact that you might have to "roll with it".”

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