Apricots, Aryks but no Arpa – A Day in Batken

When travelling by plane, mind and body don’t get the chance to make a natural transition to the new environment. The transition is very sudden. On the other hand, the transition already starts at the airport, when one joins the group of fellow travellers waiting for the check in.

This morning I made such a transition from Bishkek to Batken, the centre of Kyrgyzstans most south-western region. Waiting with me were rough, migrant labourer looking men, women wearing colourful headscarves and one old Western man with a huge suitcase.

Batken was the first stop on a trip to Tajikistan. Normally I would have preferred to go by land all the way, but I had done the 12 hour car ride to Osh a few times in the last year and didn’t expect to see anything new. I also wanted to try out the plane connection to Batken, which is offered two or three times a week.

When I’m travelling, one aim is to see how places are connected, how the road and the transport are and what natural barriers lie between them. I knew that in Batken there wouldn’t be much to see, but I wanted to have a picture in my head when hearing or reading about the place and I wanted to know how that region is connected to Tajikistan.

After I had taken my seat, a tall Kyrgyz man sat next to me, immediatley shook my hand and introduced himself as Imam. He told me he had been in Bishkek to see off his nephew who had to Johannesburg to study Islamic theology. Before, he had studied the same subject in Cairo for three years. I was a bit surprised that Kyrgyzstanis study Islam in South Africa. Later he told me he had lived in Vladivostok for 15 years but now come back. You can read some more of our conversation here.

After one hour we reached Batken. The land was very barren, dry mountains that seemed to have to plants at all. When the plane prepared to land, Imam tried to show me his house in Batken. The town looked green, many trees and gardens, and it looked even more green in contrast to the yellow and brown hills around it.

The building of Batken airport is very small but modern and freshly renovated. At first two soldiers ushered us into a long room with a conveyor belt and closed the door behind us. A truck then came to put our luggage on the belt and everyone grabbed it. When everyone was standing with their luggage in hand, the door on the other side was opened by a pair of other soldiers.

Taxi drivers offered rides to Isfara in Tajikistan and even to Dushanbe, but they weren’t nearly as aggressive as in Bishkek. The Batken airport is very close to the centre of town so I started walking. I noticed an aryk, a water channel, with a strong current and lots of water. The streets were lined with apricot trees.

After a while I reached rows of container shops and cafes selling shashlick, ice cream and sherbet. I had thought that maybe Batken is getting so few tourists people would start talking to me, but nobody cared much about me.

I had manty in a cafe, went to my guest house and started walking the town in the afternoon sun. Batken is really like a big village. Most houses are courtyards with apricot, walnut trees and vegetables. Cows are grazing on some streets.

In front of many houses drying apricots, Batken’s most famous produce, lay on sheets.

Yet the town has government buildings, a theatre, a cinema, a Lenin statue, a WW2 monument, a monument to the “Batken events” of 1999 and 2000 when the Kyrgyz army fought against bandits coming in from Tajikistan and a surprisingly large number of their soldiers died.

After one hour I felt like I had seen the whole town. I sat in the attraction park, where all the attractions were closed and watched some chickens, some pupils and two police men walking around.

A little later I found the bazaar. The vegetable section was built with unlaquered wood and low hanging bed sheets. Another large part was in a very large hall from concrete plates that looked like it had been a factory or a stable before. On offer were the same things found in every Kyrgyz bazaar: Fresh, delicious vegetables and Chinese clothes, shoes and household wares.

I made my way back to the same cafe, ate some delicious plov, which here is called asch. On my way back to the guest house I entered a shop to buy beer. They didn’t have it. Neither did the next or the next or the next. Only the fifth shop sold alcohol. Half empty vodka bottles and bowls of food stood on the counter. The owner walked around with her baby.

As I sat down at the desk back in my room someone turned on the TV in the courtyard and Wowa Putins passive aggressive voice began talking. As if you to shut him up, a muezzin started the prayer call in the distance shortly after.

I don’t think I ever liked hearing “Allauh Akbar” that much.