Not enough jobs, not enough money’: Can this Kyrgyz town survive without tourists? A photo essay

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In this remote region of Central Asia, life was hard before tourism gave fresh hope. Covid-19 then hit and the visitors kept coming.

Through Karen Cirillo

It’s been more than a decade since Umar Tashbekov saw his chance. His village of Sary-Mogol in Kyrgyzstan sits near Lenin’s Peak, a popular tourist mountain destination, at an elevation of 3,600 meters.

Why not attract them to his village if they are already hiking there?
A three-hour drive from the nearest town, Osh, in the southeast of the country, is Sary-Mogol.

It is not easy to survive here – short summers and unfavorable growing conditions make it hard to grow a lot more than potatoes and barley. The major cattle market in town is the primary source of employment. Others find jobs as teachers or in a coal mine nearby. Of the 5,200 inhabitants, about 500 have emigrated to Russia, where factory workers are accepted by companies.

From the top left in the clockwise direction: a view of Lenin Peak and the village of Sary Mogol in southeastern Kyrgyzstan; a girl carrying water bottles in the village; clothes and other products being sold on a weekly market while men are trading livestock
The slow spread of Covid-19 is one gain of traditional village life, where grandparents, parents, and children live in the same small houses.

People prefer to meet in the streets because the houses are already crowded. This has helped keep infection rates down, along with general government lockdowns.

Tulpar Kul Lake in the Mountains of Chon Alay.
But the effect on livelihoods is serious, even if the impact on health is minimal.

More than 1,300 tourists have passed through Sary-Mogol in 2019. There were less than a hundred this year.

Tourism has expanded over the past decade to the point that almost everyone here is in some way linked to the industry.

In 2020, revenue from exports of tourism and travel services, which accounted for almost 6% of GDP in 2018, is expected to almost vanish.

It is projected that sales will drop by as much as 90%.

Left: The Yurt Camp near Tulpar Kel Lake is signposted.

Right: In a field near the village, the Yaks wander.
In 2007, Tashbekov opened the first guesthouse in the village, inviting other villagers to work with him. His company, CBT, soon became a “incubator” for the industry – at some point, almost everyone who works in tourism walked through its doors.

Soon after, he also opened the region’s first yurt camp, where tourists can stay in 12 traditional Kyrgyz lodgings in the mountain valley. They love the village’s unique feel – the old Soviet Uaz vehicles, the ancient Ulak-Tartysh horse game, the popular handicraft markets.

In the village of Taldy-Suu, near Sary-Mogol, Ulak-Tartysh is a popular sport.
Then the company was taken over by Tashbekov’s uncle, Abdilla. For over 10 years, the 31-year-old has been working as a tour guide. He designed a guesthouse of his own and is in the process of constructing a new one. He is always on the Internet reading and learning, which has given him the reputation of being “industrious.” His foresight has contributed to new ideas for the growth of the city and the family business. He opened a larger office with his father, serving as a meeting place for guides, employees and visitors. To get into winter tourism, he arranged ski training with other guides.

He had the concept of launching the village’s horse and yak games festival and fair in 2015. Either as participants or observers, the entire village participates. For the villagers working at the festival, ticket sales raise revenue – cooking and selling traditional food, performing traditional music and dance displays, maintaining the yurt camp, and participating in the sports.

In Sary-Mogol, Abdilla and his family have lunch at home.

For more than 10 years, Abdilla has been a tour guide. He built his own guest house for visitors and initiated the village’s Horse and Yak Games Festival and Fair.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, all this momentum has been lost.

The economic pain has been felt by Abdilla and his family. “The tourist season is dead,” he says. “We had to close the office, the yurt camp and the guesthouses this year.”
His wife works as a music teacher, and they live on their income, with two children to support. “If tourism doesn’t improve, I will have to go to Osh or some other place to look for work in construction,” he says. That could bring its own set of challenges: The construction sector could soon become another sw

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