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Chui Valley

Chui the name given to the valley and its river, is also the name of this most northerly province that extends well beyond the flat land of the valley itself to cover an area of 18,684km2.This wide valley, the largest in Kyrgyzstan, is one of the few big expanses of flat land in the country. Although in many ways it is atypical of mountainous Kyrgyzstan, this largely agricultural valley contains a number of sites that are intrinsic to the history of the region. It is also one of the most densely populated and fertile regions, with an adequate water supply and fertile soils that produce sugar beet, potatoes, wheat, maize and fruit.

Fertile Chui valley stretches from the Kazakh steppe in the west to the Boom canyon in the east, ranging from 500 to 1,300 metres above sea level. This largest of Kyrgyzstan's valleys supports a population of 770,000. As you head east from Bishkek towards Issyk Kul, it is hard to believe that the picture before you of rural harmony and productivity is largely a Soviet creation. The valley has always been known in Kyrgyzstan as a 'land of milk and honey', surrounded by a ring of fierce, unpredictable mountains. It is said that you can drop camel dung on the earth here and it will grow cheese!

Today, Chui oblast remains the most prosperous and productive region of the country, with poverty levels of 25 per cent, compared with the national average of over 60 per cent. In recent years its economic growth has slowed, sparing the environment from the excessive use of fertilisers.

To a large extent the history of the Chui valley and Issyk Kul is the history of Kyrgyzstan. The first evidence of human settlement in this fertile, well-watered plain dates from the early Stone Age, some 7,000 years ago. In the early Iron Age, nomadic groups known as the Saks lived in the Chui valley region, followed by the Usuns, who flourished until the third century AD. Sixth-century eastern Central Asia was dominated by the western Turkic Khanate, which was based at Suyab on the river Chui, straddling a flourishing branch of the Silk Route.

The Chui valley became a centre of learning in the 10th and 11th centuries when the enormous Karakhanid empire had a thriving capital at Belasagun  Nourished by the Silk Routes, previously half-hearted attempts at sedentarism now solidified into flourishing commercial and cultural centres in the valley.

In the 18th century the valley became the property of the exploitative Kokand khanate, which ruled from the Fergana valley. Little over a century ago only a few small fields were cultivated in the valley and much of the area was marshland, stalked by tigers which are long since extinct.

Russian advancement in the mid-19th century was relentless, and their early actions in the land of the nomads did nothing to win them the favour of the local population. A Cossack General explains:

The worst land was left to the Kirghizes, the best was taken from them and given to the Russian settlers who, instead of cultivating it themselves, found it more profitable and convenient to lease the land to the Kirghizes it had originally belonged to or hire them to work it for pitiful wages.

Robbed of land and livestock, a fierce struggle ensued in the Chui valley and many Kyrgyz fled to the mountains and to China. A Kyrgyz petition to the Tsarist consul in early 1916 read as follows:

Our lands were taken from us on the pretext that we do not serve in the Army, and we were driven to the mountains. But the mountains, covered with forest, turned out be the property of the state. Taxes were imposed on our livestock and yurtas. The land went to the settlers, the mountains to the Treasury, and we were left with nothing.

The new arrivals planted sugar beet, wheat and potatoes and built the square whitewashed houses and fenced-in gardens that still give the region its Russian village feel. In the 1870s and 1880s Dungans and Uighurs arrived at the lake, fleeing suppression in the wake of Muslim uprisings in China's Xinjiang, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. Victor Vitkovich, the Soviet writer, describes the colourful ethnic variety of the pre-collectivised 1920s:

There were Ukrainian villages: cherry gardens ... brightly painted window frames; moist-lipped, lop-eared bullocks drawing long, canvas-covered carls ... There were villages of the Dungan: gay poppies blossomed on the flat roofs, vegetables were grown and the green tips of rice peeped out ... There were Kirghiz villages of... clay-walled houses. Behind were the grey outlines of patched yurtas that in those years were still dear lo the hearts of the nomads of yesterday.

The Soviet era swept all before it. The Chui river was harnessed, along with others, to create the Grand Chui Canal, part of a massive irrigation scheme which watered the region as far as the arid Kazak steppe. Wheat and sugar beet production was boosted. One farmer was heralded 'the magician of Kyrgyz wheat' for evolving a variety that was drought resistant and fast ripening. Melon fields ousted local wildlife and the mykan (quagmire) marshes, home to bitterns and herons, were turned into fields of buckwheat, flax, tobacco, fruit, maize and rice, even subtropical persimmon and fig.

From 1930, Soviet Kirghizia developed sugar beet with a passion, claiming the best yield in the Soviet Union (the sugar factory at Kant just outside Bishkek, is still in operation). They lined their roads with Lombardy poplars and planted mulberry bushes and elm as protection for crops. Local Russians will tell you that there were no horse and donkey carts on the roads during the Soviet era, but these have begun to creep back with the economic hardship brought by independence.

National differences were tidied up but what Victor Vitkovich says of the 1950s is probably still true today. On national holidays:

Ukrainian housewives serve cherry dumplings with sour cream, in the Kirghiz home the family sits down to besh barmak (boiled mutton), while in a Dungan home guests eat Chinese puff cakes. In the evenings you will hear the strains of a concertina in a Russian village, the characteristic muffled notes of a Kyrgyz komuz (two-stringed guitar) and the liquid notes of the Chinese flute.

The population of the valley is generally more mixed than in other parts of Kyrgyzstan, with ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Dungans, Germans and Koreans in addition to native Kyrgyz. The Dungan presence is particularly noticeable in places, with white Muslim caps above Chinese faces, and houses that have roofs topped by small pagoda-like forms. None of the towns of the valley are of special interest, but then - are a few key sites located nearby that are well worth seeking out.

Chui Province -or oblast is home to the capital and the towns of Kant, Tokmok and Kemin to the east of Bishkek and Kara-Balta to the west. Following a brief period (2003-06) when Tokmok was designated as provincial capital, Bishkek has returned to being Chui's administrative centre once more.