Can a Small Mountain Village in Kyrgyzstan Become a Global Tourist Destination? This Guy Thinks So
You may have heard of Kyrgyzstan, a central Asian nation bordering a handful of other countries with names ending in similar combinations of letters, but there’s a pretty good chance you’d have a hard time picturing in your head where you might find it on a map. If that’s so, just do this for me: picture China as a rooster with its head facing far off to the northeast, then travel westward in your mind until you get to the rooster’s tail feather all the way on the other side. That tail feather is Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked country boasting more than its fair share of mountainous terrain.
Now that we’ve got your head in the game, at least in geospatial terms, why is it, exactly, that I would want to point you in this direction? What on god’s green earth is in Kyrgyzstan? Well, there are cities you could potentially visit — Bishkek, the capital, and Osh, the country’s oldest city, for example — but to capture the true feel of Kyrgyzstan, you’d probably be better off taking a hike. Two-thirds of the country’s population lives in rural areas (compare that to the U.S., where just 20 percent of the population can say the same), so to head off the proverbial “beaten track” almost loses its meaning here (almost).
Even though a majority of the people live in the countryside, there are still undoubtedly places you can go to get lost. Before you venture off into the great unknown, however, there is one Kyrgyzstani (or Kyrgyz) that really wants you to visit his village nestled in the Terskey Alatau range of the Tian Shan mountains. Emil Ibakov has been living in Jyrgalan, a former coal mining hub throughout a good chunk of the 20th century, for the last few years. While a minimal amount of mining does still occur, Emil says Jyrgalan was forever changed with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In “My Dear Kyrgyztsan” — a short film by Alex Pritz and Noam Argov, which began its tour of the film festival circuit in January — Emil describes that period of time in the village’s life in pretty bleak terms. “Those were horrible years,” he says, in his native Kyrgyz, “and it just kept getting worse and worse.” In the time since, many people have left the village, seeking out economic opportunities elsewhere. These days, the population sits somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 people, and Emil has made it his mission to get as many tourists as he can to come out and meet some of them.
According to Emil, who you might think of as Jyrgalan’s self-appointed minister of tourism, a decade ago just about no one visited the remote village tucked away in Kyrgyzstan’s easternmost tip. Through the use of social media, however, Emil spread the word: this was a place people had to see. They came in small groups at first, maybe 10, 11, 12 people at a time, but then came a major milestone: Jyrgalan’s biggest fan (and others) helped attract around 500 people over the course of the winter of 2017-’18.
While Emil has had a lot to do with Jyrgalan’s mini tourism boom, he hasn’t done it alone, of course. Back in 2016, he, his wife, Gulmira Primova, and five other families formed what they call the Jyrgalan Destination Management Organization. The nonprofit prioritizes tourism that benefits the entire community and employs the principles of ecotourism to protect and sustain the local environment. In partnership with USAID — the United States Agency for International Development — the DMO has overseen hospitality and event management trainings, hosted the first interregional avalanche safety conference since the fall of the U.S.S.R., and constructed a playground in the village, among other things.
Operating as Destination Jrygalan, everything the DMO does is in support of boosting the village’s economic prosperity, via the tourism industry. From the outside looking in, it seems to be moving in a very positive direction. But I suppose it helps when you’ve got crystal-clear alpine lakes ringed by snow-capped mountain peaks; miles of marked trails suitable for trekking, horseback riding, and mountain biking; and knowledgeable local guides ready to give you a hand, should you need it.
If you want to find out more about visiting Jyrgalan, watching “My Dear Kyrgyzstan” is a good place to start. Once you’ve checked that off the list, just head on over to jyrgalan.com.