Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Kyrgyzstan: Have the Mountains Fallen? Two Journeys of Loss and Redemption in the Cold War

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As interest in Central Asia grows, more books are appearing in English about the region.

One of my summer break titles was Jeffrey B. Lilley's excellent book Have the Mountains Fallen? examining the lives of two Kyrgyz writers.

Azamat Altay fled to the West and was charged as a traitor in his homeland of Kyrgyzstan in Soviet Central Asia.

Chingiz Aitmatov became a hero of Kyrgyzstan, propelled by family loss to write novels about the everyday lives of his fellow citizens.

While both came from small villages in the beautiful mountainous countryside, they found themselves caught on opposite sides of the Cold War struggle between world superpowers.

Altay became the voice of democracy on Radio Liberty, broadcasting back into his shuttered homeland, while Aitmatov rose through the ranks of Soviet society, a quiet rebel whose prose masked ugly truths about Soviet communism.

Yet just as they seemed to be pulled apart by the divisions of the Cold War, they found their lives intersecting in compelling ways, joined by a common mission to save their people.

Have the Mountains Fallen? traces the lives of these two men as they confronted the full threat and legacy of the Soviet empire. Through narratives of loss, love, and longing for a homeland forever changed, a clearer picture emerges of the struggle for freedom inside the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva wrote: "It is impossible to understand today's Central Asia without knowing Kyrgyzstan, and impossible to understand Kyrgyzstan without reading this book. This is an insightful story of the terrible challenges that faced two courageous men and their dedication to preserving their nation, even 'when the mountains fall.' It is a thought-provoking book about the long journey of the Kyrgyz people to independence".

Here is an excellent interview with the author,  Jeffrey Lilley, on Voices on Central Asia's website. Order your copy through the major online bookstores.

Related posts:
Central Asia in Art: From Soviet Orientalism to the New Republics
Jamilia: A Kyrgyz Love Story by Chingiz Aitmatov
Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums 
Kyrgyzstan: The Herzen Museum - Forgotten Art in a Forgotten Corner of Central Asia 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Kyrgyzstan Instagram Star Comes of Age and Flies the Nest

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Eldana Satybaldieva from her Instagram account
By the time she settled down in a cafĂ© in one of Almaty’s most popular malls, blue-haired Kyrgyz Internet sensation Eldana Satybaldieva was wincing in pain.

Satybaldieva, better known by her Instagram moniker Eldana Foureyes, had just been crushed in a long, unsolicited embrace initiated by an excited teenage fan. The admirer was euphoric after securing one of the most sought-after-selfies in a city that Satybaldieva recently adopted as her home.

Satybaldieva, an offline introvert, looked visibly shaken. But these are regular occurrences in Kazakhstan’s largest city. In her hometown Bishkek, "people kind of got used to me".

"There is more work here, more projects, just more everything," she told Eurasianet, explaining her move across the border.

In the age of distraction, Satybaldieva’s geeky, just-for fun videos have transformed her from an androgynous, uncool school-leaver into a highly marketable youth icon.

Despite having to start over when her Instagram account was hacked and wiped clean three years ago, she has now amassed close to a million followers on the platform, the bulk of them from Kazakhstan.

Pepsi, Nokia and a Kazakh electronics firm are among those that have tapped into her popularity in the five years since she began making the videos. Average fees for adverts range from $500 to $1,000, while the Pepsi ad brought her "enough to go out drinking for a year," she said in one recent interview with Kazakh media.

In the space of half an hour at the Dostyk Plaza, a Eurasianet correspondent watched Satybaldieva accept four selfie requests before making a flustered dash for the exit, laden with supermarket shopping.

"I don’t know. I am just an idiot. But people love idiots," Satybaldieva reasoned.

From "Stern Kyrgyz" to sexed-up Elya

While the vlogger uses "idiot" – in its Russian feminine form idiotka – repeatedly as a self-descriptor, many of the clips that have brought her fame are suffused with comic genius.

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Eldana Satybaldieva as "the stern Kyrgyz" from her Instagram account

Popular early shorts included the adventures of "the stern Kyrgyz" – Satybaldieva sporting a traditional Kyrgyz hat, the kalpak, and a powerful frown – and a hilarious visit to a hygiene-challenged public toilet.

Satybaldieva’s mother featured in several clips as a rule-imposing matriarch before the account began racking up thousands of subscribers and she ruled out future appearances. Since then, Eldana’s act has taken on new personas whose popularity threaten to eclipse the original geek next door.

"Ernest" (Eldana with a drawn-on mustache) is a smooth-talking loser whose skits are always accompanied by the opening riff from Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On.

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Eldana Satybaldieva's alter ego Ernest - from her Instagram account

"Elya" is sexed-up and scandalous in a satin gown, and the heroine of a music video released in August that was viewed over 800,000 times in three months.

"I want, want it all, and what I want I get," Satybaldieva sings in Tokalochka, a light-hearted take on the life of a tokal – the typically younger lover of a rich Central Asian man.

"Trips to Bali, new iPhone, my sugar daddy is a prosecutor," goes another verse. The irony of the lyric, which Satybaldieva says she did not write, is that the star’s own father, Elmurza Satybaldiev, served as Kyrgyzstan’s general prosecutor from 2007 to 2009.

Satybaldiev even served six years in jail on charges related to fatal state violence against protesters during the April 2010 revolution. He has continued to maintain his innocence since his release in 2016.

No politics, please, I'm Eldana

But if Tokalochka is part Freudian rebellion, Satybaldieva hides it well, and speaks of her parents in only the most glowing terms. She mostly worries her videos – expletive-laden as well as endearing – might bring them embarrassment. She recalls the time her father gently raised the topic of her online swearing at the dinner table as "among the worst days of my life".

Another source of discomfort for Satybaldieva is the notion that fame should bring with it new social responsibilities.

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Eldana Satybaldieva with her mother, from her Instagram account

Last year, she was widely criticized by feminists for appearing in a bride-kidnapping-themed advert for a Bishkek construction firm. Playing the victim of a crime that is rampant in Kyrgyzstan she initially resists the forced marriage. When she sees the kidnappers’ lavishly furnished flat, however, she has a change of heart.

Even her friend and enthusiastic supporter Bektour Iskender, founder of the media portal, called the clip  "gross". Satybaldieva, however, remains ambivalent. "I never said I supported bride-kidnapping. I don’t". The advert was clearly a joke, and one "suited to [Kyrgyz] mentality" she said.

A series of longer videos on her YouTube channel hint at a more reflective Eldana. In one called "Hate" she explains how she worked through her profound dislike of a high-performing Chinese classmate while taking a shower. Another, 17 things that I learned in 2017, verges on motivational speaking.

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Eldana Satybaldieva from her Instagram account

These efforts have plenty to offer young people "even if the delivery is sometimes crude," said Karlygash Kabatova, founder of, a website focused on sex education and other youth-centric issues. 

Kabatova also noted that over time, negative comments under Satybaldieva’s content have steadily diminished, signaling a broader acceptance of her quirky act. In an online space characterized by polemic trolling, this is surprising, Kabatova said.

Satybaldieva’s status as reluctant role model was on show in 2016 at a TEDx event broadcast by Kyrgyz state television. Clearly wracked by nerves, she was loudly applauded by a young studio audience at every turn.  "Hi Mama, I’m finally on the box", Satybaldieva joked at one point.

The theme of that talk – the vast potential for self-expression that the Internet offers – seems more relevant in Kyrgyzstan than ever before.

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Eldana Satybaldieva from her Instagram account

In September another previously unknown young woman from Kyrgyzstan, Zere Asylbek released an explosive song speaking out against gender discrimination. The clip went viral, earning her an international media spotlight as well as death threats from anonymous patriarchs that accused her of shaming Kyrgyzstan.

Satybaldieva calls Zere "very cool" but reiterates that she is not ready to champion weightier causes. "I just try to show people that if you want to do something, you can". she said. "It doesn't matter whether it is a dumb blog or anything else".

This article, written by Chris Rickleton, was originally published on Eurasianet, 7 January 2019.

Related posts:

Kyrgyz Space Program: Creating the First Kyrgyz Satellite Ever & It Will be Built by Girls
Kyrgyzstan: Social Entrepreneur Finds Foothold in Tien Shan Foothills
Kyrgyz Woman Singer Remakes Poem Traditionally Sung By Men
All-Woman Brewery Brings Craft Beer to Kyrgyzstan

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Termez, Uzbekistan: Ancient Buddhist Mural Sheds Light on Early Buddhist Diaspora

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Detail of Buddhist mural discovered at Kara Tepe, near Termez
Experts say that a strikingly vivid colored mural found in southern Uzbekistan, dated to the second or third century of the Christian Era (CE), provides an interesting glimpse into the spread and the development of early Buddhism along the ancient Silk Road.

The mural was discovered in 2016 in a stone room located two meters underground next to a pagoda, at the Kara Tepe archeological site in a suburb of Termez.

It  was found during an archeological dig by a team of local researchers from the Uzbek Academy of Sciences and researchers from Rissho University—one of Japan's oldest universities located in Tokyo. (Rissho University was originally founded in 1580 as a learning center for young monks of the Nichiren School of Mahayana Buddhism)

Images of the mural have recently been released to the public with consent of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences Fine Arts Institute.

The wall painting, which measures one meter in width and one meter in length, features a number of figures in bright hues of red and blue. According to Haruki Yasuda, art history professor of art history at Rissho University’s Faculty of Buddhist Studies, the mural might have been part of a larger work that once depicted the life of the Buddha.

The city of Termez, also the hottest point in Uzbekistan, is located close to the border of Afghanistan and to the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, the site where the Bamiyan Buddha statues stood before they were destroyed by Taliban forces in 2001. It was once located on a crossroads of civilizations on the Silk Road, much like the archeological site of Dunhuang in Gansu Province, China, known for its murals.

In addition to the Buddhist mural (the first one of its kind to be found at the Kara Tepe site), other important finds have been made at the site, including Greek- and Roman-style figures and a statue of the head of a Garuda, a large legendary bird in India. The dates of these artifacts are also thought to range between the second and third centuries CE.

According to Akira Miyaji, professor emeritus of Nagoya University and expert on Buddhist art in Central Asia, the diversity of the art styles present at the site are reflected in the mural, which combines techniques of both Eastern- and Western-style paintings, making it a significant find that exemplifies the cross-cultural influences in early Buddhist art.

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Detail of Buddhist mural discovered at Kara Tepe, near Termez
"Depicting faces at an angle, along with shading and highlighting to create the impression of depth and solidity, are art techniques from Greece and Rome," Miyaji noted.

"The flexible brushing and coloring style is a characteristic of art older than the Bamiyan Buddhist murals. [In addition] there are also strong influences from the Hellenistic painting tradition, along with elements from India and Persia." (The Asahi Shimbun)

Haruki Yasuda also emphasized the importance of the find, describing it as a "precious discovery that offers an insight into how Buddhism changed (under influences from different cultures)". (The Asahi Shimbun)

While Buddhism is said to have been originated in India around the fifth century BCE, it travelled in a clockwise direction through Northwest Asia, before reaching, China, Korea, and Japan, approximately 1,000 years later.

In recent years, significant findings have started to unearth some of the early Buddhist diaspora in Northwest Asia, most notably in present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now also Uzbekistan.

While at present, less than one percent of the Uzbek population practices Buddhism according to the Uzbek government, parts of present day Uzbekistan used to be part of the Kushan Empire (30–375 CE), which, despite the lack of written records, was a key player between Augustan Rome and Imperial China that facilitated the spread of Buddhist missionaries, merchants, and scriptures along the overland Silk Roads from Central Asia into East Asia.

This article was originally published by Buddhist Door in December 2018.

Uzbek Journeys can arrange individual tours to Termez before or after your Uzbek tour.

Related posts: Buddhist Sites of Termez, Uzbekistan
Early Christianity in Central Asia
Samarkand: Traces of King David 

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Detail of Buddhist mural discovered at Kara Tepe, near Termez, Uzbekistan