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February 9, 2011

1995 was a magical year for Kyrgyzstan. UNESCO officially declared it “The Year of Manas,” the national epic (longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined! they like to say) that tells of its eponymous hero and his efforts to unite the forty Kyrgyz tribes. The ability to tell this tale is a gift that is said to be given from above, for the men who recite it, called Manaschi, are able to ‘rap’ thousands of lines from memory, or from somewhere beyond – they say that it comes to them like divine inspiration. The epic is a bedrock of Kyrgyz culture. It is an ancient document, an encyclopedia, they say, of the Kyrgyz way of life. It is at the center of the Kyrgyz soul.

So when a world body took the center of their soul and gave it international recognition, the Kyrgyz went a little crazy. Manas classes became required in school, statues of the horseback hero went up everywhere, and in Talas, the guy’s apparent birthplace, a grand complex was built near his mausoleum and the party of the millennium was planned. The world’s first three-story yurt was thrown up in haste; leaders from all over the world were invited. Bill Clinton was rumored to have RSVP’d, but he never showed up. In the end, hundreds of dancers reenacted the epic in front of thousands of people, and for one day, Talas felt like the center of Kyrgyzstan. For one year, Kyrgyzstan felt like the center of the world.

The capital city didn’t miss out on all the fun, though. Fifteen minutes south of Bishkek, squeezed between the foothills of the Ala-Too Mountains and the suburbs of the nouveau riche, something called Manas Village was built, financed by a government happy to spend their soms in devotion to their glorious past. In the densely formal style of the Soviets, it was officially called a “Historical-Ethnographic Complex.” What it really was remained a mystery. Some have called it a shrine to Manas; others, a crumbling tourist trap. The most attention it ever got was in that one beautiful year, when school children came to dance in its courtyards and Manaschi were brought in by the busload to tell their tales to the press and the president. When the flurry of fun was over, the place was left to rot, and it was nearly forgotten.

I wanted to see what remained. I wanted to know if Manas would approve of his Village. I wanted to know what a Historical-Ethnographic Complex was, anyways. So I headed there with my friend Peri one windy afternoon, taking a marshrutka to the mountains. Before the road climbed up into the foothills, we saw it out the window, or at least something suspicious. A concrete tower rose up out of nowhere; colorful sculptures hid behind trees. This must be it, we thought, and asked the driver to stop.

A row of colorful flags fluttered in the breeze. Stone arches stood in a line, topped with stylized helmets, the headgear of the warriors of Manas. A red placard declared this the “Historian-Ethnographic Manastyn Aiyly.” Perhaps inscrutable signs were put up to add to the mystery. There was a ticket window, where they asked for a fifty-som admission fee – not much more than a dollar. We chatted up the woman behind the glass. She looked bored. There was nobody here – there rarely was. Peri was ashamed to be with an American and told her I was from Denmark. We told her we were getting married – the only visitors these days are mostly wedding parties – and we exchanged our winter coats as a vow. The cashier was named Nargiza. She smiled easily. “Do you want to get married with us?” we asked her. She said she was already engaged. Amused by our antics, she agreed to show us around, and we’d even get to see a special yurt, she said, if she could sneak the key by her supervisor.

Manas Village was not a village at all, we saw upon our entrance, but a menagerie of functionless concrete forms, abstract symbols ripped from the life of Manas. “See that?” Nargiza said, pointing to a stampede of acutely-angled sculptures across the courtyard. “Those are Manas’s horses.” At the entrance was a metallic raptor atop a giant column – “That’s Manas’s bird.” You could climb some stairs to a top of a wall, but once up there was nothing to do. Everything was built for the symbolism; everything was built for the tour guide to point at. The wall was capped by pink cones, topped with tassels – these were hats that had belonged to Manas’ wives. The whole park was simply Manas’ possessions, transformed into abstracted monuments. There was nothing to actually do – you could climb some stairs to the top of the horses, or climb some more stairs to touch the hats, but then what? It was nicer, I guess, if you thought of it as an art piece you could move around in.

In pictures I had seen, the place was a lifeless gray, nothing more than its concrete. In August, apparently, it had received a facelift, and now it was a psychedelic rainbow. But even with an injection of color, the Village felt sad. The pointless plazas seemed even more pointless without people to fill them, and the rusting Soviet hotel that stood next door made the whole scene seem like it was stuck in a bygone era and had nothing left to offer. Outside of Bishkek’s heat island, the atmosphere was frigid, and all the concrete didn’t warm anything up a bit. Manas Village would not be a happy place to live.

Despite our drab surroundings, we tried to make the most of good company. Nargiza asked me about Copenhagen; I pointed to different icons and asked “Wuzzat?” The one sign of life was a stand of trees spread throughout the main courtyard. They were coated in giant red buds. Nargiza told us they were vinegar trees. Did Manas like vinegar? I asked. No, she said, they just look nice. At the top of some bright red stairs, covered in slowly-melting slush, were three big yurts: the palace, you could say, of Manas. Nargiza had secured the key and she let us inside. The middle yurt was a kitchen of sorts, with a big kazan (a kind of Kyrgyz wok). The yurt on the left was the men’s yurt, so I told Peri  and our guide to scram. They went over to the women’s yurt, the one on the right, where there was a curtain for hiding a bride-to-be. My winter-coat wife stuck her head out from behind it and looked cute, and for a moment I wished for a real wedding.

Outside, Nargiza pointed to the big tower that we had seen from the street.  Manas’ warriors would use this, she said, to survey the surrounding countryside. I wanted to say that nomads probably didn’t have concrete towers but I kept the smartypants comments to myself. She had a key for the tower, too, and let us climb up to see the view. On one side, the mountains stood tall looking beautiful, and on the other suburbia stretched to the horizon. New houses for the New Kyrgyz looked oddly shabby, but it was the best they could do. Everything was shipped in from China. Down below us, the concrete playground lay barren like a ghost town. The wind atop the tower was fierce, so we went down to fill its void.

There wasn’t much more to see, really, so we thanked our guide and went. To me, the place left me feeling cold. To others, though, Manas Village resonated with meaning. Manas was a source of pride for the Kyrgyz, a hero from a time past. I had seen his kind resurrected elsewhere: Genghis Khan loomed over everything in Mongolia; Tamerlane was the Uzbek’s version. In an uncertain world, these heroes reminded people that once, they were great. So for some, this place was not a barren void – it was a gift given to the Kyrgyz people to remind them of their greatness.  It was a shrine to the past, but also to what lies ahead. In a piece I read online, one bride at Manas Village explained why she came. If we come, she said, “the spirit of our ancestors, and the spirit of the great Manas, will be supporting us in our future life.” May the spirits of the past protect us, she was saying, and may the glory of those times leak into the future.

The Past


The Future


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Palmer permalink
    February 10, 2011 12:52 am

    Couldn’t Nargizia hear your American accent?


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