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.
2016: Lorries carried a lot of scrap metal to China for a while, but that flow has ebbed. Still, more goods, especially plastic goods, electronics and clothes fill the lorries thundering across me day and night. There are also some secrets hidden in the containers, but none of them are opened in Naryn, all wait till Bishkek. The strangest thing I carry now are couples or small groups on bikes and motorbikes, in colourful synthetic clothing. They often don’t share a language with the people of Naryn, but they take photographs of everything. My old friends the mice and rats no longer live off the spilt corn of caravans, but lick at discarded ice-cream wrappers.