Yuri Gagarin’s Holiday

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When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from the first successful manned space flight in 1961 he took a well-deserved holiday. We can only assume that this took place after a considerable debriefing by the Soviet military – it was, after all, a highly significant achievement and overnight he found himself to be the most famous living Russian after Nikita Khrushchev. The place he chose for his vacation – or rather, was chosen for him – was close to a large alpine lake in what was then the Kyrgyz SSR in Central Asia. This was a forbidden zone at the time and so safely well away from the prying eyes of Western journalists.

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Tamga is a small, dusty village close to the southern shore of Lake Issyl-Kul in what is now Kyrgyzstan. Tamga still has its sanatorium, formerly a Soviet military R&R facility, and it was here that Gagarin stayed for a while, strolling the pine-shaded paths, bathing in the lake perhaps, no doubt eating shashlyk and contemplating his short but epoch-making sojourn in space. The camp is still popular with visiting Russians in high summer. While not deliberately nostalgic there is plenty to remind of its Soviet past – statues of military heroes tucked away between the conifers and stirring murals of proletarian power in the Soviet realist style. There is nothing to record Gagarin’s time here, no plaque or monument, but head a dozen or so kilometres up the neighbouring Barskoon Valley, and you will find a bust of the world’s first space traveller on a plinth. It stands beneath a lofty waterfall and Gagarin, of course, is depicted wearing a space helmet. On the road nearby stands another rather more colourful memorial to the cosmonaut, although damaged around the time of Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991 it has since been repaired. Although he belongs to another era, and another country, Gagarin remains a hero to many.

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San-Tash: The Riddleof the Stones

New Image7A large pile of stones in the Karkara valley: in the far northeast of Kyrgyzstan, close to the Kazakhstan border, San-Tash is an enigma. What can this pile alongside one of the ancient Silk Road routes possibly represent? Who placed them here, and why? One popular legend relates that the stones were deposited here by Tamerlane’s troops whilst they were on their way to battle in China. Tamerlane instructed each of his soldiers to bring a stone from Lake Issyk-Kul and leave it here, removing a stone on the way back if they had survived the conflict. But most of the stones are far too large to make this at all believable, and the number far too large – for an army to lose so many men in a battle, or even have this many men at arms to begin with, defies credibility. A more likely theory is that they are the stones left over from the excavation of a large burial mound – the region abounds with large kurgani (tumuli associated with Saka warriors, otherwise known as Scythians) constructed around two millennia ago. Either way, San-Tash (‘counting stones’) is an evocative sight tucked away far up this beautiful valley of horses and horsemen – a veritable piece of super-sized landscape art.

New Image5Strolling around the stones, absorbing the atmosphere and enjoying the heady, herb-tinted breeze, we see a young Kyrgyz women walk determinedly across the jailoo (alpine meadow) towards the other side of the valley. Suddenly she stops and stands motionless as if rooted to the spot by some powerful unseen force. Her arm is raised as if cupping her ear to listen to the wind. Binoculars reveal that the woman is holding a mobile phone in her hand – her purposeful walk to the centre of this wide valley was simply to pick up a signal. The unseen force was Beeline KG.New Image9