The land of Kyrgyz actually started hundreds of kilometers to the south, far from the Bor Dobo pass and the road to Sari Tash. The dusty unpaved road goes past sad-looking villages, while a handful of boz üy tents, or Yurts, dot the dull green slopes of the surrounding mountains, a constant reminder that we are no longer in the Tajik lands of Iran, but well into the Turanian domain.
The delicate-faced Kyrgyz man in the back seat gazes into the distance with his pale brown eyes, his hands occasionally slipping down his felt hat and his thinly-bearded chin as we pass by a crumbling nomad graveyard. A silent prayer escapes his lips. In a familiar Soviet mixture of divide, conquer and Marxist social theory, the prominently Kyrgyz territory of the Eastern Pamir was conjoined with the Tajik SSR in 1924 during the national delimitation process that carved new-born soviet nations out of the existing overlapping blend of political, religious, tribal, regional, and local identities.
Many waters have flowed down the slopes of the Tian Shan since the Kyrgyz left their ancestral pastures between the Baikal and the Altai, and claimed the land west of the Horrible Taklamakan desert and east of the fertile lands of the Fergana valley. The land which we presently know as Kyrgyzstan, a lacework of mountains and dry Lands, lush pastures and arid hills, has always been a trans-civilizational crossroad, defining borders not only between steppe and sown, nomadic and sedentary, but also between spheres of influence, marking the borders between the Sinic world to the east, and the predominantly Iranian world of Central Asia.
This notion is true despite the fact that until circa the first millennia AD, the oasis city states around the Tarim basin were occupied mainly by Iranian people, since the flourishing of these geographically-secluded settlements was made possible only in direct association with the Chinese civilization to the east. The growing volume of trade flowing through the Tarim bottleneck under the Han Dynasty and westwards to the realm of the Parthian empire eventually enabled cities such as Kucha, Kashgar, and Turpan to accumulate not only material wealth but also to develop as centers of culture and learning and to become an important Buddhist stronghold in central Asia.
From the very early stages of Eurasian trade networks, this inter-civilizational buffer zone had come under the control of several nomadic superpowers.
The Kushans (Chinese: Yue zhi 月氏), the Hephthalites, Göktürks, the Uyghur Khaganate, and others, had all profited from the inflow of goods as middlemen, taxers, as armed escort and mercenaries and, in times of need, as simple looters and bandits. These nomadic entities had immense influence on the actual existence of these networks, which are very sensitive in nature to geopolitical changes. A wise trader or a Caravan leader would have thought twice before setting out to the perilous frontiers outside the cities, before knowing to a certain degree that the road is safe from marauding horsemen, as road safety and stability is the core of any trade network.
And the nomadic states were all but stable. Based on fragile networks of loyalty and tribal identities, as well as on varied and sometimes contradicting patterns of succession, these empires were prone to constant internal warfare and fragmentation. The question of whether you should defend and tax a passing camel train or simply rob it while enslaving half its men, was as much a question of politics as it was of economics, which usually had no real distinction in the world of the steppe.
It was through this exact pattern that the Kyrgyz came to inherit the lands that now bear their name. Originally nomads of Siberian stock, dwelling in the Yenisei valley, the Kyrgyz are described in the Chinese Tang dynasty chronicles as having blue or green eyes and red hair, insinuating a possible link to non-Turkic lineage.
Coming under the powerful Uyghur Khaganate’s sovereignty 758 AD, the Kyrgyz eventually overran their former masters, sacking the Uyghur capital of the Orkhon valley in the year of 840 AD. The new Kyrgyz khanate’s expansion brought its tribes west of their original homeland, eventually settling around their current location after they submitted to the great Mongols starting from the 13th century, a process that ended around the 15th century.
Traveling around Kyrgyzstan’s mountain pastures, known as Jai loo, gives a sense of how much – despite decades of Soviet economic control, collectivization, and the influence of modernity – the Kyrgyz are still loyal to their nomadic past. It is true that there are almost no more pure nomads in Kyrgyzstan as is the case in other parts of Eurasia, and most of the herding families keep permanent housing beside their traditional yurt, only heading up the mountains during summertime to give their livestock a chance to fatten up.
Despite that, the Kyrgyz seem to be very proud of their nomadic heritage, a legacy that gives them a sense of common unity in front of other ethnic groups, especially the sedentary Uzbeks who dwell in the agricultural low lands of the Fergana valley.
A stroll through the peaceful side streets and Bazars of Osh, Jalal Abad, and Uzgen will give neither hint nor clue regarding the bloody events of the 1990 and 2010 ethnic violence, when Kyrgyz and Uzbek clashed on the streets, ending with hundreds of casualties, and severe damage to property.
The source of hostility lies in the prominent Uzbek position in the economy of the Fergana region, especially in relation to the mostly newly-immigrated Kyrgyz population, which suffered from lack of proper housing and employment.
The process of Soviet nation building, as well as the later post-soviet one, also gave its back-wind to the process, when the newly-formed republics hurried to find national founding fathers to replace the fathers of Socialism decorating the city squares. The towering statues of the legendary Manas, the hero of the national Kyrgyz epic composition carrying his name, can be seen in almost every town around the different Kyrgyz Oblasts, giving a reminder of an old- young nation, still struggling to find its place and identity in the troubled waters of central Asian politics.