James Willsher was until recently co-publisher of the Times of Central Asia, and has lived in Bishkek.
I become an acquaintance of an Uighur student in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, a decade ago; he pronounces his ethnic nomenclature as Oi-ghur, not Wee–gerr, as news reports do at the time of Uighur riots taking place in western China around the time of the Beijing Olympics.
Eight years later and I am a guest in a restaurant owned by someone who can be described only as an Uighur Alan Sugar, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I am in the process of ruining my tie and shirt with spicy noodles and an array of exotic dishes from his ancestral homeland over the border with China.
The restaurant is the cornerstone of his Uighur business centre premises in the Kyrgyz capital, providing countless jobs and a focus for trade and culture. The world empties its pockets for Chinese herbal remedies, so why not traditional Uighur herbal remedies? A new business venture. The enormous, intricately-decorated tea urn outside is exquisitely alien and resembles nothing I have seen previously, nor since.
Some months later I consider writing a profile feature on this tycoon and his business empire so rooted in Uighur culture and produce, as something rather diverting from the usual reheated news communiques of interchangeable inter-governmental meetings. I am warned off – you don’t wish to offend the Chinese, no? Too much pro-Uighur noise in Central Asia and Beijing may ask, quietly, for repatriations.
Of the diplomats I encounter while working in Central Asia, the Chinese ambassador stands alone as speaking no English whatsoever, upon introducing myself at an evening function. Kyrgyz- and Russian-language pleasantries are met with equally well-meaning eyes, but quizzical and weightily slow silence. I make my apologies, this time in a muttered, poorly-remembered Arabic, and drift away. He remains on his own for a while, until obscured by a churn of buffet-goers.
Try as I might, in the various independent shops and supermarkets there is little of Chinese origin for sale save packet noodles and tea, which you can buy readily enough anywhere in the UK. There isn’t much Central Asian produce for that matter either, excepting Kyrgyz fruit and vegetables, bottled national drinks, and tarmac-strength cigarettes. The rest is overwhelmingly Russian, or Turkish, particularly white goods bearing the adhesive legend MADE IN TURKIYE. The Narodny supermarket chain stocks dozens of products from a single Austrian company, practically the sole European representative and the name of which escapes me, but its distinctively branded packaging is telephone box red.
That said, there are Chinese restaurants. Of course.
Less definite are the outdoor markets, particularly Dordoi, a short taxi ride on the outskirts of Bishkek. A limitless labyrinth of stacked shipping containers and makeshift roofing, in need of town planning rather than mere clipboard organisation. Anything is for sale here, sold on by anyone and carted off by everyone else. The unknowable is recognisable, as Kipling’s Kumharsen Serai from The Man Who Would Be King: ‘…the great four-square sink of humanity…All the nationalities of Central Asia may be found there…You can buy ponies, turquoises, Persian pussy-cats, saddle-bags, fat-tailed sheep and musk in the Kumharsen Serai, and get many strange things for nothing.’ This is where Chinese goods enter one of the biggest and best-connected markets in Central Asia.
So, China is quiet and discreet in Bishkek. Where are the ever-so-public grandstand stadiums, or highways, or port developments, as in Tanzania or Sri Lanka? Perhaps China’s continent-sized power is wielded only in meeting rooms and high-level handshakes, and pondered in the pages of internationally-concerned periodicals.