Balykchi, the Detroit of Kyrgyzstan

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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