Anyone who’s ever experienced Kyrgyzstan’s tourism industry knows that the country isn’t shy about its nomadic heritage. The cross-hatch of a yurt is even the focal point of the country’s bright flag, and the traditional cuisine of fatty meat and mare’s milk is a constant reminder that vegetables just aren’t practical for the wandering life. While true nomadism doesn’t really exist anymore in the region, there are still hundreds of Kyrgyz families who carry the tradition as far as practically possible.
Starting in May, hundreds (or maybe thousands) of families pull up their roots from the villages, towns, and cities they live in and head to the windy, open spaces of the high-mountain pastures. Economically speaking, their purpose is to collectively herd the country’s vast supplies of livestock from pasture to pasture, allowing them to feed on the vitamin-rich grasses and cereals of the “jailoos” throughout the summer. In some regions tourism also plays a part, as many of the yurt camps keep a percentage of their doors open for paying guests.
During production of this video, we traveled with the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative to eight jailoos across three regions. We started in Kara-Shoro National Park, about 2 hours outside of the city of Uzgen. Here, surrounded by picturesque snow-capped mountains, lush pastures and roaring rivers, a tourism-based camp is established. Kyrgyz teenagers come to party for the weekend, while families come to relax, drink tea, and cook shashlik in the great outdoors. We didn’t see any foreigners there, but the infrastructure is certainly present to accommodate self-sufficient tourists and travelers. Our next stop was a sunny pasture outside the city of Talas. Some individuals have been established here for over 40 years, with certainly a much longer tradition going back generations. The main driving route between Bishkek and the southern cities of Jalal-Abad and Osh runs near the camp, and locals earn money by selling fermented mare’s milk and soda by the side of the road. Our third destination was Naryn Province, Kyrgyzstan’s largest political region. Its namesake city, Naryn, is known as the most “Kyrgyz” city in the country, and its landscape is a variegated mix of rocky canyons, green hills, and mountain lakes. The remoteness of many of Naryn’s settlements makes it a fascinating travel destination that’s still off limits to traditional tourists. Here, we found friendly locals who were as interested in us as we were in them–not just as foreigners, but as emissaries from the civilization beyond the horizon of the jailoo.
In the frame of this project, all of these locations have one critical thing in common: children. Lots of children. In Kyrgyzstan, less than 15% of children aged 7 or under receive any kind of organized educational instruction. By bringing schools to the children in the jailoos, the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative is effectively connecting the children of Kyrgyzstan’s villages and towns as well. The first year they had around 30 kindergartens, staffed by local volunteers, parents, and salaried instructors. This year they already have 87, and if the same attendance rates apply across the board, they’re reaching over 2000 kids.
The “Jailoo Kindergartens” project is a dual win for Kyrgyzstan. It allows the nation’s unique traditions to continue to flourish, even when the country’s economy and politics are continually evolving, and it also expands the opportunities of otherwise disconnected youth. The education they provide in the jailoos lays the foundation for success in primary school, and hopefully instills a hunger for learning that goes beyond animal herding. Further, the organization hopes that the kindergartens themselves evolve into cultural centers, providing resources for adults as well, and even tourists. According to Asylbek Zhoodonbekov, coordinator of the project at the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative, the best day will come when the children are grown up and look back on the kindergartens as integral in their own development. Then, he says, “it will be incredibly honoring for us, and a huge joy.”