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Kyrgyzstan
The town that time forgot
Min Kush, in central Kyrgyzstan, is a town full of abandoned places. Once a crown jewel of the Soviet Union’s nuclear programme, thanks to its uranium deposits, today it's a crumbling ruin. Our digital postcards capture a couple of winter days spent in this melancholy town.
Orange hills surrounding the town of Min Kush, Kyrgyzstan

The light is still dim as we leave the town that time forgot and the only signs of life are the plumes of smoke rising from the chimneys of the weather-beaten, blue houses. Remnants of an era when Min Kush was a crown jewel of the Soviet Union’s nuclear programme. This was a place so hushed in secrecy that for a long time it didn’t appear on maps and you needed a permit to enter. Nowadays it’s at risk of slipping off the atlas into oblivion, and no one cares if you visit or not.

 

 

Our taxi trundles along the snow-dusted streets and we stop to pick up one more passenger. A diminutive man, bundled up against the elements in a fur-lined leather jacket, climbs aboard clutching a battered suitcase. A brown Ushanka-hat swaddles his head and the red blotches on his nose hint at one of his pastimes.

 

 

“Hello!” he exclaims. Beaming and surveying us with interest. We nod and smile in response. The car continues down the winding track towards the bottom of the valley, flanked on either side by vivid orange slopes, a splash of colour in a resolutely grey place.

 

 

We pass fields stained black by patches of coal, an element in abundance in Min Kush. On another plot of land; a ship wrecked van, long since abandoned by its captain, is being swallowed by the earth beneath.

Locals have fashioned makeshift fences from scavenged junk to block off these tranches of land from outsiders, they’re composed of broken ladders, speaker cases and scrap metal.

 

 

Everything here is repurposed, everything is like a throwback to 1953, the year of the town’s birth.

My mind drifts to the previous day, when we stumbled upon a defunct pen factory; crumbling blue concrete walls and floor coated in a thick crust of bird droppings that crunches under foot. The vast open space is dotted with mysterious, mint-green machinery that’s chipped and rusting.

 

 

At one end of the warehouse, a Soviet mural still hangs and three uniformed workers grin down at me, looking proud and happy.

 

 

Min Kush is full of abandoned places like the pen factory. Offices with sun-bleached, peeling wallpaper scattered full of official-looking papers and derelict homes repurposed to house four-legged residents. It feels like time in Min Kush stood still while the rest of the world kept turning.

 

 

“Why did you come to Min Kush?” the new passenger asks, interrupting my thoughts. “To see another side of Kyrgyzstan,” I offer.

 

A Min Kush resident.

 

Our conversation meanders, like the road on which we’re travelling and we discover that Murza is a theatre musician in a nearby town, not in Min Kush, “there is no work here anymore,” he laments. During its heyday people were on waiting lists to work in its mines and factories. This was the promised land, where salaries were often double that of elsewhere in the region.

 

 

Uranium mining, it turns out, is a lucrative business and it was from this land that the Soviets extracted the uranium for their first atomic bombs.

Talk turns to why alcohol is still prevalent in this majority Muslim country. We suggest it was the Russian influence. “No, it’s not just this. We have our own alcohol.” Murza smiles, as if he knows a secret that we don’t. “We have bozo! I can take you to try some.”

 

Murza, a musician from Min Kush.

 

Bozo, he explains, is a fermented drink usually made from millet or corn, boiled up and strained through a cloth. People drink it warm or cold and it’s most popular in the winter. In fact, people across Central Asia consume variations of this low-alcohol drink.

 

 

We arrive at Chaek, another town, and follow Murza along an alleyway to an inconspicuous, black, metal gate with a handwritten sign in Kyrgyz taped on it. Concealed behind is a compound of three, one-story houses, surrounding a large pile of coal. A lady appears at the door to one of the houses and Murza chats to her.

 

 

Within seconds the woman reemerges from the house clutching a recycled bottle full of pale-yellow liquid and three chintzy bowls.

Amidst an assortment of odd chairs, abandoned shoes and a laundry-line of washing never destined to dry, Murza pours the thick, glossy, corn-based liquid into the bowls. I perch on a stool and sip my bozo; it’s smooth, fizzy and tangy, coating my mouth as it slides down my throat and warms me from the inside out.

As the snow starts to fall my fingers are getting numb and the image of Min-Kush is etched on my mind like a coal stain.

 

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