Twenty years after independence, this small Central Asian state remains one of the poorest among former Soviet Union respublics, struggling to make its way in a complex and sometimes hostile world.
There is something of Arcadia about Kyrgyzstan in the spring. Heading out of the southern city of Osh, you pass apple and apricot orchards, with the road climbing every now and then to cross a spur of the mountains.There are not as many sheep as there were in Soviet times, when Kyrgyzstan was expected to provide winter overcoats for the world’s largest army but there are still plenty. We were heading for the small town of Khaidarkan, home to the only mercury mine in the world which is still exporting its output.
There is international agreement that mercury is such a threat to health and the environment that mining should stop.So Khaidarkan is, understandably, a worried town. You reach it by crossing a pass over 7,000 feet (2,100m) high, then dropping slightly into the small settlement overshadowed by the encircling peaks.
The most prominent features of Khaidarkan are the massive waste tips which stretch along the valley, interspersed with pools of mercury-contaminated muddy water, drank by local cattle.
The pit did not exist until the early 1940s, when Josef Stalin resolved that the Nazis should not get their hands on his mercury mine in Ukraine, and production equipment was sent to distant Kyrgyzstan.
Today the town is quiet. The mine’s employees have not been paid since November, and many have gone north to seek a wage in Kazakhstan or Russia.
There was the shepherd who had just ridden home from a day in the mountains, yet slipped from the saddle and asked us in to share a meal with his family. In the market – the stalls laden with pistachios, cherries and strawberries – there was the elderly lady who explained how she supports her son, a miner.
“I’m 76, but I come here and sell what I can to make sure he can keep going,” she said.