Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan was a popular holiday destination during the Soviet era. After independence the tourist industry struggled, but in recent years the visitors have started returning, from elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, Russia or Kazakhstan. But they don’t go to Balykchy (‘the fisherman’), a town of 42,000 people at the western end of the lake. Once a major transport hub (it’s the railhead of the line from Bishkek), Balykchy today is a quiet, dusty place. Lenin’s portrait looks over the rooftops; his statue stands, arm outstretched, in front of the town hall. On the other side of town there’s a statue commemorating the contribution of mothers during the Great Patriotic War. A green tank on a podium is a memorial to the men from the town who died in Afghanistan. ‘We will always remember,’ the inscription says. The eternal flame next to it has gone out.
Balykchy has good reason for Soviet nostalgia; the town’s main employer, a steamboat factory, closed shortly after independence. Some old boats are still repaired in the dry dock, but the factory is as derelict as the grain silos, meat packing factories and cement works that surround it. In many respects the town’s problems are those of the whole country. More than twenty years after independence, Kyrgyzstan’s economy remains primarily agricultural, and heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers in Russia. Its energy sector, mired in debt and mismanagement, was recently sold to Gazprom for a dollar.
Xi Jinping’s visit to Bishkek last month underlined Kyrgyzstan’s growing reliance on Chinese investment, not to mention Chinese goods, which account for around three-quarters of the products sold in the country’s bazaars. A proposed rail link between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China could restore Balykchy’s role as a distribution centre, though the plan has been touted for more than a decade, and it isn’t clear where the money would come from.