Naryn the Glorious, Naryn the Deadly, Naryn our Future Wealth?

The mountains of Kyrgyzstan are often described as a ‘water tower’ for the agricultural oases of Central Asia.  But while cutting through the valley for several hundred kilometres, the topographic relief of the Naryn allows for little direct use of the river for irrigation or extracting drinking water.  The Naryn has dug out a steep bed in an otherwise quite level valley, often between forbidding cliffs and escarpments. Sometimes, you can hardly see the river hiding in its steep river bed – as on the picture below.

The Naryn valley in Naryn oblast itself is not a parched area: it is rather the high altitude setting at over 2000 m that provokes concern, with its long snow-bound winters and short growing season between May and September. Life in this valley is treated as particularly harsh: the administrative rubric ‘high mountain district’ allows residents to retire earlier here, and to pay for electricity at a reduced rate.

Although there is plenty of historical evidence of a variety of peoples settling here, and vigorous trade across the passes to China, Naryn oblast is often considered both ‘backward’ and stereotypically ‘pure’ (taza) Kyrgyz. Certainly mobile livestock herding, with a seasonal range up to 200 km (by contemporary standards, very far), is the backbone of the economy.

As everywhere in Central Asia, families try to place someone in a stable salaried job, or earning money abroad. People also supplement herding with small kitchen gardens and fields: potatoes are an important crops, especially for poorer households with few heads of livestock. Although Naryn is known as an area of pastoralism, in fact there are remains of irrigation from as early as the 10th century.

Fights between local biis over irrigation are so important that they may be remembered for a hundred years. Today, the policy of agreeing on water distribution through Water User Associations is not always popular. Many farmers feel they are an unnecessary and expensive level of bureaucracy.

If people describe their home province Naryn, they usually mention the high mountains – here in the background of Naryn town bazaar here, as a storm approaches. People value the high altitude lake sand pastures like Song Köl, that are said to provide extraordinarily healthy and delicious yellow butter and fat meat.

The Naryn river itself is rarely mentioned as something beautiful or valuable. Sometimes people exclaim proudly that ‘water is our gold’ and make indignant remarks about this fat and strong current being wasted – without a dam. Most Naryn residents would welcome transforming the Naryn into a series of reservoirs: the winter is harsh and they suffer many blackouts. However, the proposed Russian-Kyrgyz venture Verxne Narynskii Kaskad HPP has stalled amid accusations of mismanagement since 2016. We know the Tian Shan glaciers are melting fast because of climate change: would new dams really provide cheap electricity for a reasonable time? Will they be constructed with the high safety standards needed in an active seismic zone?

Plans of future dam. Source:


The Naryn and Syr Darya bridges we have now are not spectacular. They are not celebrated like the San Francisco Golden Gate or other famous bridges. These roads over rivers are mostly treated like  background infrastructure. And yet, a big fish monster is said to lurk under the main bridge in Naryn town. Right next to the road bridge,  a foot-bridge has been cobbled together with boards and girders slung across the wild Naryn waters below. Ladies with bags of shopping pick their way across what local people call a ‘devil’s bridge’. 

Bridges make people independent of the river, they assure a crossing. Bridges are so important that they are often named after the decision-maker or sponsor who initiated their building. Though bridges are also often damaged by high water and debris: people say the river ‘eats’ roads and land. How many failed crossings there were, how many lost souls and cattle and bags of corn, before a bridge was built? 

This remote bridge across the river Ak Sai in Naryn province has been heavily damaged for several years: now locals are cut off from an important hot spring mazar (healing site).

An Imagined Bridge Biography

1840: It is spring. The steeply wooded valleys along the Naryn ring with the sound of axes as men in boots and chapans fell 40 m high Tian Shan firs. They drag them to bank of the river and strip them of their bark. The huge trunks dry as the sun wheels into autumn and winter. When the ice has grown strong on the Naryn, the men return to harness the huge logs up to horses, and drag them 20 km downriver to where the At Bashy valley leads up to the Torugart pass. Here, where the Naryn is at it’s very narrowest, they raise the logs across the escarpment, one by one, creating a new path across the water. 

I have a shape now, a span across the water. I settle into my new bed, my logs adjust to their rope moorings, and start to bleach in the sun. The river below me shifts as the ice starts to crack in spring. As summer comes, swallows nest under my arms and the Naryn cools my belly. Mice and rats scuttle along my beams at night, seeking out crumbs from the humans that cross me, grain leaking from the sacks of pack animals. Now, the caravans of camels no longer need to detour 50 km downstream to where the river widens into tugay forest, at the ford by the Kurtka Kokand fortress. 

Urging their terrified animals on, the caravans pass over me. If animals panic, and this happens often with sheep, yak or horses, they fall into the broiling waters of the Naryn below. As they say, this is ‘( ‘bloody water’-kanduu suu)’: once it grabs you, it never gives you up. My logs weather in the sun, and crack in the harsh winters, but the local bii makes sure I am repaired well each spring, so that he can continue to control and take tribute on the trade from Kashgar.

1869: A new kind of people arrive. They wear uniform, speak a different language. The route becomes busy and uneasy with soldiers and warriors rushing to and from, for the first time I am heavily guarded day and night. The soldiers build log barracks on the bank. One of the men in uniform starts to tread my beams carefully, measuring, recording with his assistant. Then one winter day, they start dismantling me. They rebuild, this time with reinforcements propping the planks and wooden railings. I feel refreshed, I like my new face. Now, I can carry heavy carts. 

The soldier’s’ barracks are gradually surrounded by small dwellings, and a shifting population of yurts that sell produce and skills to the military station. There are regular messengers passing over me, always busy, and the most powerful men in the region come to confer with the commandant of this place, which is now called ‘Naryn’.

1916: The pace of traffic changes, I can feel much anger and fear among the people hurrying across me. Some of them are wounded, many groups of familiese have all their belongings with them, they are trying to flee across the mountain range to China. Some are arrested at the checkpoint, some find dangerous but also more secret ways of passing the river.

Soon new men arrive at the barracks, wearing new uniforms: people no longer have to pay for passing over my back, but there is still a checkpoint. There is a new excitement, but also uncertainty in the air, and some of the old leaders no longer tread my planks. 

1960: I have been here for over a hundred years. But now, the men who come to measure me and my Naryn bed do not rebuild me in wood. They bring steel girders and large slabs of concrete, they span the river with a concrete arch. There is a walkway alongside the vehicle track, a gas pipe and electricity lines are laid alongside me. I am no longer so nimble, so easy to repair as the log planks of a century. But I still have a health check every year, for I am secure access to the Chinese border. Lorries pass over me, carrying sheep and wool, butter and milk out of Naryn. The same lorries come back over the passes with shoes and soap, books for the growing schools and new people to inhabit the khrushchevki flats now on both sides of my banks. 

There are more children now, they like to fish on the banks next to me, but their parents are outraged and warn them off the water, when they find out. At night, I sometimes feel unhappy people climb the banisters, and launch themselves into the wild water beneath me. 


Dinner in Naryn in the Year 2350

Zulya Esentaeva, Jeanne Féaux de la Croix, Dinara Kanybek Kyzy, Aidai Maksatbekova, Deniz Nazarova,

Installation (recreated photo)

It is the year 2548. Archaeology professor Zulya Esentaeva, Dr. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix, Dr. Aidai Maksatbekova, Dr. Deniz Nazarova and Dr. Dinara Kanybek Kyzy have made a sensational find from the plastic century in ancient Naryn.

According to the researchers’ analysis, the find dates to 2350 AD. and consists of a dinner plate with the remains of plastic food. The untouched food  was left behind suddenly  in the home for unknown reasons. This find dates from a transitional period, when an environmentalist outlook became popular among the upper classes and they started to invest in surgery to modify their stomach, allowing them to digest plastic accumulated in their surroundings over the last century.

At the time, a counter-movement insisted it was a human right to eat carbohydrates and protein.. However, by the year 2400 everyone had the opportunity of surgically modifying their stomach to digest plastic.