Celebrating Kyrgyzstan Independence Day!
I landed in Bishkek on the 30th August, ready to experience the uniqueness of the World Nomad Games, held in Cholpon Ata, a beautiful lakeside location outside the capital, every two years.
Before the games began though, there was also the small matter of celebrating Kyrgyzstan’s Independence Day, a celebration which takes place every year on the 31st August.
I headed to Ala-Too Square, next to the Presidential Palace – The White House – to see what was going down on the streets of Bishkek for the 27th anniversary of the country’s breakaway from the old Soviet Union.
31st August, Kyrgyzstan Independence Day
The 31st of August 1991 is the date when the Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union, to form the Kyrgyz Republic.
As the vast empire of the Soviet Union began to unravel in the early 1990s, by mid-1991 it became clear to the Central Asian Republics that their future lay outside the union and outside of communism, regardless of if they wanted to remain a Soviet Republic or not.
The Kyrgyz people were the first in the region to declare their independence and the surrounding republics followed suit not long after, some more reluctantly than others. Kyrgyzstan declared its independence one day after Azerbaijan, but by the end of August 1991, many other republics had already severed ties with Moscow, including Georgia in May and Ukraine a week earlier. Decades of Soviet rule were overturned in one moment, but with ethnic divides and a troubled economy, it would be decades still before Kyrgyzstan could really begin to find its feet in the world.
Three years later Kyrgyzstan signed its new constitution, but since then there have been two revolutions, a popular uprising in 2005 and another in 2010. Both times the Presidents were forced to flee, to Russia and then to Belarus.
Now more than ever, as they host the World Nomad Games for the third time and as Kyrgyzstan looks set to become one of Central Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, the country has every reason to celebrate.
The celebrations were scheduled to be held at the Ala-Too Square in central Bishkek. This was the scene of the 2005 Tulip Revolution which overthrew the then president. Today, it’s the site of the national museum – which seems to be closed indefinitely for repairs – and the statue of Erkindik which represents freedom for the Kyrgyz people.
Interestingly though, the legacy of communism has been preserved somewhat – not only in Kyrgyz bureaucracy and the enormous lines of marching soldiers and policemen in Bishkek – but in the form of a statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself, that veritable hero of the Soviet Union.
I’ve only ever seen one statue of Lenin in my travels across the former Soviet Union, and that was in the strange city of Tiraspol in the breakaway territory of Transnistria that seems to cling on in perpetuity to the forlorn hopes and dreams of communism on the edge of eastern Europe.
And as everywhere in the former Soviet Union, there was, of course, a huge memorial to World War II, and the struggle against Nazism in the west that even remote Kyrgyzstan played an enduring role in. Some ties with the past can never be ignored.
Soldiers, Police and Giant Flags
In the square and nearby parks, I saw line after line of Kyrgyz police and soldiers keeping things in order. Independence Day is a national holiday, and the city was busy and the sun was out. If this was England, and the sun was out, I’d expect the drinks and the drunks to be spilling out onto the streets, but in Kyrgyzstan, everything was incredibly civilized in the city centre.
There was local food for sale, local drinks – including the bitter, sour, fermented milk the local love for some peculiar reason I will never, ever understand – and plov was being cooked up in huge vats.
In the square, the soldiers marched in with a giant flag, while young Kyrgyz’s were performing traditional dance routines for the crowd.
The President himself gave a rousing speech to the gathered crowd – not that I could tell you what he said – and was greeted with jubilant cheers and rounds of applause.
Then, the President left. And so did a lot of the locals. Leaving me bemused, as there was a still an hour left to go. The crowd shrank, but then the music began for the next hour.
Kyrgyz Pop and Fireworks
Around the city, there were more events being held in the parks and squares. Traditional yurts were set up and there were cultural performances. There was singing, dancing and accordion playing, while many people were in traditional dress.
There was even a sporting exhibition, which was mostly, it seemed, a display of chess, rather than any of the distinctive nomadic sports I was hoping to see…
The real fun though started in the evening, when the Kyrgyz pop concert began. Back at Ala-Too Square, a huge crowd of people had formed to watch the finest Kyrgyz singers from across the land on the big stage,
In a strange tribute to the quality and quantity of Kyrgyz pop singers, each performer only ever seemed to sing one song before replaced by yet another performer. This though is a tradition that stretches back to the nomad days when a singing bowl would be passed around the yurt, and each guest would sing one song before passing it on again.
The evening ended as fireworks lit up the sky around the square.
Then the real parties in Bishkek began.
Interested in seeing Kyrgyzstan’s Independence Day celebrations next year? Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know, but of course, things may be different year after year in Kyrgyzstan…
- The celebrations are held in Ala-Too Square in central Bishkek. There was no parade as such, but the streets were closed off for the day for performances on the stage.
- The dancing, singing and flag-waving began at 10 am in the square and carried on until 12 pm.
- From 7 pm onward, there was a Kyrgyz pop concert, with an endless cycle of local musicians.
- Throughout the day, across the city, there are many more events held, including in the Hippodrome.
- Every five years, there is a military parade through Bishkek. The last was held in 2016.
- In all honesty, it’s not worth visiting just for Independence Day, but it is more than worth visiting when the World Nomad Games are on, as Kyrgyzstan seems to put ALL of its resources, time and money into a completely epic opening ceremony for this unique event, which is held every two years.
Location of Ala-Too Square in Bishkek:
All Words and Photos Richard Collett