Little known regions

April 3rd, 2017 Sections: Issyk Kul, Soviet Union
Aerial photograph of Diego Garcia : From Wikipedia

Aerial photograph of Diego Garcia : From Wikipedia

One Christmas, when I was in the sixth form at school – that would be in about 1969 or 1970, the senior pupils decided to go Carol Singing – collecting money for charity.

This time, instead of going ‘door-to-door’ in a particular district, or attempting a ‘pub crawl’, we decided it would be fun to pay a surprise visit to the homes of as many of the senior teaching staff as we could.

I don’t think they had been forewarned … and they all took it quite well … even smiling when they opened the door in answer to our knock after the first verse of the first Christmas hymn … grinning as we sang the second and then contributing generously as one of our number held out the collecting box just before we started the third and last song before jumping into a motley collection of cars in order to race off to the next ‘victim’.

Maybe, after we had gone, they raced to the phone and managed to call ahead and forewarn other potential targets … because, as the evening drew on, people seemed less and less surprised to see when they opened the doors … and when we finally appeared at the Headmaster’s house for our final port of call, we were duly invited inside and treated to mince pies and, (if I remember correctly … it was forty odd years ago), some sort of fruit punch.

The Headmaster’s wife, who also taught at the school, started to tell us about their son who was not going to be able to come home that Christmas.  He was serving in the Air Force, and had been posted abroad … to somewhere called Diego Garcia, and she had no idea where it was … all she knew was that it was a small island in the Indian Ocean but she couldn’t even find it on any map.

Those of us studying Geography were given an additional homework assignment – find out all we could about Diego Garcia so that she could put her mind at rest and know something about where her son had spent his festive season.

For the record: This was about the time of the compulsory repatriation to Mauritius of the native island population of the Chagos Archipelago, (of which Diego Garcia is the largest island), in the British Indian Ocean Territories … at the request of the American in 1968, so that they could establish an Air base on the islands … not necessarily one of the highlights of the British Empire.

Even so, there was very little in the news at the time and it was well nigh impossible to find out much about the island at the time.

If I remember correctly, we did actually find it on a map for her … but that was about all

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I came to understand how she felt a few years later when I told my mother that I was going to be moving to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, back in 1995.

Over the years, I have told this story several times – including on a number of Postcards from Bishkek – about when I first told my mother that I was coming to Kyrgyzstan … one day she called me and asked “Where exactly did you say you were going?”, and when I replied “Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan”, she said “That’s what I thought, ” and then practically yelled down the phone at me, “so why can’t I find it in the Atlas?”.  I said that I would find it and show her on my next visit home … and when I made that visit, I understood … she was using an old Atlas which showed Frunze in the Khirghz SSR – one of the constituent republics of the USSR.

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One of the perennial problems that face those of us working in tourism in Kyrgyzstan, is the fact that very few people abroad have much idea of where Kyrgyzstan is – if, that is, they have even heard of it.

I was further reminded of it when I saw an article published by the Kyrgyz office of the Russian news agency, Sputnik, back in January.  The headline ran something like Spying Games – what was it about the Kyrgyz SSR that interested the CIA.

It’s an interesting article and seems to have been prompted by the release by the Agency of masses of documents – over thirteen million pages – from the start of the Second World War (1940) up to and the impending collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

As well as some interesting narrative, they provide links to several documents from the treasure trove – including a ‘secret report‘ of over 300 pages written in 1953 about the Issyk Kul region … (declassified and ‘approved for release’ in 1999).

There seems to have been particular interest in the region as it was (and still is) home to a special torpedo testing base.

It’s a fascinating document in its own right … partly as a result of the cachet it has as a ‘secret document’ – the sort thing that might feature these days on Wikileaks – raising questions about the source of the materials be it from scouring published news reports or the result of what is sometimes called ‘human intelligence’ … but also as an historical document fact that gives us an insight into the (then) current state of knowledge about the region.

The opening ‘foreword’ points out that it was originally “prepared to fulfill the requirements of a specific request”, but because the subject matter referred to a ‘little known area’ it was being ‘republished’ (i.e. given a wider distribution) in its original form.

It begins with a description of the physical geography, the landscape and natural environment, before progressing onto a description of the population, (the ethnic mix, their culture and outlook, and the settlements), the local economy (agriculture, industry, timber and mining of various mineral resources … but, of course, no mention of the Kumtor Gold deposit).  It then widens in scope to look at the ‘hinterland’, including Alamty (in what is now Kazakhstan), and the main towns in the Chui valley to the West.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the document is in the Appendices – which outline the sources used in compiling the report … and their limitations.

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For those interested in Kyrgyzstan … or, for that matter, the early Cold War period, it’s well worth a look.  Although there are some things in the report that are timeless and still relevant today, there are others that are clearly dated and have been superseded over the 64 years since it was written … There is, however, one thing that I suspect remains true:

Back in 1953, (when I was born), Kyrgyzstan was still a little known area … it still was in 1995, (when I originally came here), … and I suspect that it still is as far as the vast majority of the world’s population is concerned.

 

 

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