Balykchi, the Detroit of Kyrgyzstan


In this week’s contribution, Zulaika Esentaeva describes the transformation of her hometown Balykchi – the Detroit of Kyrgyzstan.

In this week’s contribution, Zulaika Esentaeva describes the transformation of her hometown Balykchi – the Detroit of Kyrgyzstan.

I was born in Balykchi, a small town in the Kyrgyz Republic near the lake Issyk-Kul, in 1986. Back then it was called Rybach’e, which means “fishermen’s town” in Russian.

Old boats on the beach near the flour mill.

Today, it’s still a fishermen’s town, it’s just in Kyrgyz (“Balykchi”). One of my first memories as a child is of my dad taking me to the local yacht club. In my memory, the yachts were all white, new, and shiny; the lake was a deep blue and oozed a kind of warmth that lured you in.

When I was a teenager, I went back to the club together with my friends. It was the complete contrary to how I remembered it. Corroding is a word to describe the process to which the boats had succumbed. And corrosion seemed to be engulfing the whole town.

A mother and her daughter walking on the lonely beach.

This industrialized city filled with factories was turning into a gloomy and grey Detroit-like town, losing it citizens, its legacy, its prospects. People have been moving to Bishkek, the capital city, or even further – to Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, and beyond. All my classmates and friends have moved too. I also left. Now there is no one to go back to.

Young men on the railroad. My friends and I did the same on our way to the beach after school.

We often pass by our fishermen’s town in the summer when we go to lake Issyk-Kul, the world’s second largest alpine lake and the most popular holiday destination in the country. Unlike other cities of the Issyk-Kul region, Balykchi is not strong on tourism. It’s just a travel-post along the road to other destinations. From a car window, I see the old cinema theatre, the Lenin monument – untouched, even renovated.

Gold-plated Lenin in the sky near the city hall in the center of Rybach’e.

And my musical school. I see new shops and cafes on the main road that every tourist drives. I feel like the town where I was born, my town, is rising from the ashes. But I also see there’s no going back to ‘the good old times’. To me, that corroding yacht will forever be the symbol of the Soviet Union’s implosion.

Crane at the flour mill.
Images: Zulaika Esentaeva
About the author: Zulaika Esentaeva is presently pursuing a DrPH (Doctor of public health) degree at the City University in New York. She is fond of painting, film photography, kendo, and reading. She resides in Bishkek.

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