Winding our way along the Gulcha River down toward the Fergana Valley, between sips of the kumys we picked up at a yurt camp atop the Taldyk Pass, a simple thought occurred to me: there’s a big difference between a Kyrgyz autonomous county and a Kyrgyz autonomous country.
The former are what exist in China; the latter, of course, is Kyrgyzstan. The difference? For all of Kyrgyzstan’s troubles, there’s freedom here. It’s somehow evident immediately, like a breath of fresh air, perhaps in the more assured, gracious way people conduct themselves–and certainly in the suddenly uncensored selection of music on the airwaves. But this country is also extremely poor, and lacks a government or human resource base with much capacity to change that. Meanwhile, in the Chinese-ruled Kyrgyz counties across the border, new highways, schools, and mining operations bring material benefits to the locals that certain freedoms, by themselves, just don’t. And on our way into Osh, where Kyrgyz-Uzbek ethnic riots in 1991, 2005 and 2010 all left hundreds dead, one is also reminded of one or two other advantages to having a police state in a multiethnic country.
So as we continue our journey out of the tightly-controlled, fast-developing western realms of the modern Chinese state, and into this free, independent–but unstable and deeply impoverished–mountainous little corner of the former Soviet empire, it’s only natural for a car-sick American to wonder, (a) What is this kumys doing to me, and (b) Life, liberty, or the pursuit of (material) happiness–what if instead of getting just getting handed all the above, as in America, we had to make trade-offs, giving up one for another? In other words, would we choose China or Kyrgyzstan?