Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Rustic and homely, albeit perhaps a little frayed at the edges, the village of Jyrgalan brings to mind a parallel universe Switzerland where life has just gone a little feral. Enjoy this report from Kyrgyzstan by hidden europe author Laurence Mitchell.

article summary —

Take the road east from Karakol and soon after passing through the township of Novovoznesenovka, a place that takes longer to pronounce its name than it does to drive through, you arrive at a split in the road. At the junction stand two monuments. To the right is a Soviet-era memorial to the Great Patriotic War (from 1941 to 1945); it bears a red star aloft a green-painted pole.

This might be anywhere in the former USSR, or even elsewhere in parts of eastern Europe, but its neighbour to the left reminds us that we are far from Minsk or Belgrade. Here, behind a wrought-iron fence, stands a memorial to a local Kyrgyz hero.

A pyramidal stone base supports an insignia depicting the tools of the warrior trade — sword and bow quiver — while a crescent moon perches at the top. Although this might seem like a clash of cultures, faith and ethnicity — Soviet and Kyrgyz, communism and Islam — the two monuments coexist happily enough. This far-flung outpost of the Soviet Union was always far enough away from Moscow for certain liberties to be taken, and the Kyrgyz predilection for a liberal, syncretic interpretation of Islam was usually sufficient to not pose any sort of ideological threat to party hegemony.

Also at the junction is a road sign in Kyrgyz and English that points out the options that lie beyond. Right leads to Enilchek Peak, 106 kilometres distant; left is to Jyrgalan, just 29 kilometres further on. Both directions offer roads less travelled, so no Robert Frost-style dilemmas here, but it is Jyrgalan that is our chosen destination.

The Valley of Joy

An hour later, another sign announces our arrival in the village: “Welcome to Jyrgalan Valley.” Beside this, an older Cyrillic sign bears a cross-hammer mining logo: Шахта Жыргалан (Shakhta Jyrgalan). Shakhta (‘mine’) was what it had said on the minibus destination plate and, despite recent changes, mining is still what most locals tend to associate with the village, the name of which in Kyrgyz translates to something akin to ‘valley of joy’.

For decades in the last century, the coal mine in Jyrgalan was the main source of income for the village but its fortunes suffered after the collapse of the Soviet state in 1991. After Kyrgyz independence there were no longer subsidies for failing industries such as this and as a consequence many villagers, young men especially, left to find work in cities like the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek or even Moscow.

This is just an excerpt. The full text of this article is not yet available to members with online access to hidden europe. Of course you can also read the full article in the print edition of hidden europe 56.


Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 56.