Shamaldy-Sai settlement by the Naryn River (KYRGYZSTAN)

Most cities in the world developed along rivers, since these play an important role in urban life.  Water is a vital substance not only in the ecological sense, but also in the social sense.  This is especially evident in people’s interactions with rivers, which are the most populated water bodies in the world. When people interact with water, it ceases to be simply a molecule of H2O and takes on other social elements. This page will give you some insights into the life of the Shamaldy-Sai settlement on the Naryn River. The social anthropologist and exhibition coordinator Gulzat Baialieva herself was born and grew up in what is simply known as “poselok Shamaldy-Sai”. 

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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.

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Beginnings 2019, Human, Stories

The Untold Life of Bridges

Jeanne Féaux de la Croix, Deniz Nazarova, Cholpon Zhumanalieva, Aidar Zhumabaev

Archival and Contemporary Photographs

A bridge is a piece of magic. They make things possible that were not possible before. Thinking a bridge assumes that there is something you want to step over, across, not have contact with. They are always placed, and can also be removed, very deliberately. Bridges are like arrows that point in two directions at the same time. But they also need maintenance, and people interact with them in all sorts of ways: trading, marrying, strolling across bridges. The building and destruction of bridges along the Naryn and Syr Darya river has changed human interactions on the river banks dramatically. Every bridge has its own story.

Construction of a hanging bridge not far from the district centre of Toktogul, 1960

Laboriously created, bridges are miracles, taking travellers into a third dimension. Bridges are a piece of freedom from being bound by earth or sea. Soon after its completion, this bridge was submerged by the Toktogul dam reservoir.

Central State Archive of Audio, Film and  Photo-based Documents, Kyrgyzstan.

New bridge across the Naryn at Kazarman/1984/Central State Archive of Audio, Film and  Photo-based Documents Kyrgyzstan
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Alternative, Beginnings 2019, Khujand

Access Denied

Mohira Suyarkulova, Nazik Abylgazieva, Zulya Esentaeva, , Oksana Kapishnikova, Altyn Kapalova, Aidai Maksatbekova, Lia Sozashvili, Olcha Shchetinina


In Khujand Mohira Suyarkulova noticed that on the city beach as well as the ‘wild’ beach of the Kairakkum reservoir (now proudly called the ‘Tajik Sea’), in teahouses and speakeasies on the river bank, among the backgammon players, fishers and swimmers, women’s presence is rare and unusual. The water’s edge is a place where the existing gendered norms of propriety and sexuality are at risk and need to be enforced.

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Alternative, Beginnings 2019

Baiterek, 2019

Aibek Samakov, Zulya Esentaeva, Narynbek Kazybekov, Dinara Kanybek kyzy


Common reed plays an important role in local people’s livelihoods and economy in the Syr Darya Delta. Summer reed is used for forage and is known as pshen in a local dialect. Winter reed is tied into tight bundles and is used for building houses and erecting fences. Winter reed bundles are called pashyn or shom. Many people tend to think of reed as a material of the past. Reed is not appreciated as much as it used to be.

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Human, Kazaly

Construction of the Kazaly hydroelectric complex

This historic footage produced by the Soviet Qazaqstan TV journal shows how Qazaly dam had been built and entered service. This dam is located in the Basqara village of the Qazaly district (Qyzylorda province of Qazaqstan). Qazaly dam entered service in 1970. It is one of the major pieces of hydrological infrastructure in the Syr Darya Delta. Source: Qazaqstan’s Central State Archive of Photo, Video and Audio Documents.

Beginnings 2019, Non-Human

Virtual water

Toma Serban Peiu, Alice Hill


The animation is a representation of water leaving the Aral Sea basin by way of “virtual water” – water used in goods that were exported between 1960 and 2016.  For the animation, we focused on cotton because it is a globally exported product.  So each of the ‘lasers’ in the animation is 1 cubic kilometer of water that leaves the basin as a result of the water taken to grow the cotton that was exported. The idea was to track the water “migration” and to see if human migration rates mimic the pattern

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Beginnings 2019, Ferghana, Human


Adham Ashirov

Traditional water managers in Central Asia used to be called “Mirabs.” The profession of “mirab” has disappeared in its traditional understanding from the Central Asian region. The closest parallel today are municipal workers who perform the duties of “mirabs” these days. Traditionally, “mirabs” controlled the flow of water through irrigation canals and ditches, making sure that crops and green areas/pasture were watered on time. Canals running through the village also cooled down the area during hot summers. Mirabs also monitored the timely cleaning of the irrigation canals and sustainable use of water. Skills for this vocation and position were passed down through generations in some families…

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Human, Shamaldy-Sai

In the flow, 2019

Gulzat Baialieva, Dinara Kanybek kyzy, Oksana Kapishnikova, Aidar Zhumabaev, Deniz Nazarova

Installation, collage

“In the flow” is a cyclic structure, illustrating the various flows circulating between Shamaldy-Sai and Moscow. These two distant places were once linked by ambitious projects of modernization.

The settlement of Shamaldy-Sai was established in 1956 as part of the construction of the Uch-Kurgan Hydroelectric Power Station – the “firstborn” on the Naryn River. Since 1914 this area has attracted hydrologists and engineers. From 1956 Moscow in particular regulated the first flow of labourers who were directed to build the town, plants and Uch-Kurgan hydroelectric station.

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Beginnings 2019, Kazaly, Naryn, Non-Human, Shamaldy-Sai

Aral Sea Stories and the River Naryn

Peter Cusack

The recordings in this exhibition are part of a project entitled “Aral Sea Stories and the River Naryn”. It concerns the disappearance and partial restoration of the Aral Sea in Central Asia since the 1960s. Because The River Naryn is one of the primary sources of water for the Aral Sea it is also vital to the story. My project focusses on the amazing variety of sounds created by the river, the sea, the surrounding environment and the people who live in these areas. It asks the question, “What can we learn of water uses and abuses by listening to their sounds?” and follows the stories and directions suggested.

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