Monday, 8 July 2013

The Battle of Talas

Based in Osh in the early 1990's, I needed to inspect factories in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek to see if they could supply the kit I needed for a NGO programme in the central Tien Shan mountains. There was only one route from Osh to Bishkek through the Tien Shan which at that time was difficult even in summer.

With heavy snow on the ground and no local flights operational, the only alternative route was considerably longer. Andijan to Tashkent and then through Kazakhstan via Chimkent and Taraz then back into Kyrgyzstan to Bishkek, effectively circumventing the Tien Shan range.

Fuel was purchased from vendors with glass jars by the side of the road. And then sliding from side to side into banks of deep snow I headed towards the Kazakh border and Chimkent. Away to all sides the snow lay deep and continued to fall.

Soon the snow was blowing horizontally
Back then Chimkent was still a lead smelting centre for the old centrally planned economy. Large clouds of dark brown smoke emitted from huge chimneys offered a distant welcome. One can only imagine what it was like to live there.

Between Chimkent and Taraz a local bus stopped. It was one of those moments captured in time as an old lady alighted and marched off into the deep snow with no destination in sight, The wind chill outside was more suited to a polar explorer.

Off into a polar landscape

The next way point on the journey was Taraz. Nearby in 751 AD the defining battle of Talas was fought between Arabs and the Chinese Tang Dynasty which changed the course of history for Central Asia.

The Abbasid Caliphate won and Chinese influence and Buddhism thereafter faded in Central Asia, with a corresponding rise in the influence of Islam . There is also a belief that Chinese paper makers captured during the battle facilitated the transfer of paper making technology to the Muslim world and later to the West. Until that point the Chinese had kept the manufacture of paper a state secret. 

Then finally I arrived back in Bishkek which is one of the most welcoming cities in Central Asia. Of recent construction, it remains a time capsule of Czarist and Soviet town planning with wide boulevards and a central monument to the Kyrgyz hero Manas.

The Epic of Manas is a poem of over 500,000 lines recalling his leadership of the Kyrgyz around the 16th Century, making it the third longest poem in history (after the Mahabharata and the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar). 

Traditional Kyrgyz storytellers known as the Manaschi, recite the Epic. Those few that can recite the entire Epic from memory are revered as Great Manaschis.