A Whirlwind Trip to Kyrgyzstan

We land at dawn and drive on quiet roads, the sun splintering across powerful white mountains.  Slipping into Bishkek, street cleaners use tumbleweed brooms to tidy the empty avenues.  The faces I see everywhere elude me - there's something strikingly other about them - strong and broad and, later I would understand, proud.  Clearly, I am somewhere new, I think, with a breezy chill down my arm; somewhere I've never been before.  I feel adventure in that breeze.

It's hard to believe that this capital city of Kyrgyzstan was established 140 years ago - so young! - and only to collect tribute from the caravans of nomadic Kyrgyz tribes passing this way.  So that the people I am seeing are the children's children of nomadic tribes, who at last and not so long ago, put down stakes and stayed.  But their spirits did not.  Perhaps that is what I feel.  Something of the wild.

There's no time for sleep - we've scheduled a day with new artisans.  I'm traveling with my friend Monica and Chris, our guide who knows this wildness well.  After discovering a serious absence of coffee; we gulp down tea and move into the day.

Felt is what we have come for. It's the language of these tribes - once ornamenting their traveling yurts, once warming their floors as rugs.  Felt is made from wool before it is spun or woven, just a wild mass of it which is carded and cleaned, pulled and rolled, washed and shaped with soap and water. . . it is cloth that comes together without a loom - a fibrous kind of thing that bonds with its own and sticks together.  Kind of like a tribe.

The Kyrgyz soul is forged from their natural habitat - the mountains and lakes inhabit them.  When rain comes and our shoes ooze into muddy streets, Nurzhamal laughs and calls it their 'natural dye.'  Their nomadic past shapes the symbols they use, yes, but much more. . . it is alive in the freedom with which they think and dream and work in the world.

What I love about the women I meet is how creatively they are moving this past forward.  One group is recovering traditional clothing as a kind of subversive act, a way of claiming their identity: free, tribal, utterly unique.  Another group is radically stripping away ornamentation to find clean graphic purity; sculptural integrity inspired by nature.  Another group is moving forward in fashion, driving into possibility - all three growing from their common nomadic soul.

Chinara.  Rosa.  Aidai.  Zhanyl.  Jamila.  Ekaterina.  Nurzhamal.  The women who host us spread feasts we do not deserve, but how lovely it is to work hard together designing for hours, and then sit down at table with a mound of home-cooked rice and meat, deep red tomatoes and olives, warm bread, and of course a pot of tea.  How fun to be joined by their children, to be welcomed as family, the hospitality of those who know the road.

We've said good-bye and traveled on to Uzbekistan, where people have long been settled and have a different sensibility.  But there is something of that breeze that finds me each time I think of my new Kyrgyz friends.  Maybe it is the nomadic in me that is stirred by this visit - forever on the quiet road when the sun in new and the day is young and all is possible. Wildness is in it.  And I don't want that self of mine to ever settle down.

All the best,

Susan Hull Walker