1,000 Birds of Prey

Homes nestled among Ming-Kush's mountains.

Homes nestled among Ming-Kush’s mountains.

Nargiza (my RA) and I recently visited Ming-Kysh (“1,000 Birds of Prey”); high, high in the mountains inside an official radiation zone. Ming-Kysh was built during Soviet times, a centrally-planned city for the workers of a now defunct uranium mine. At the time, it was a full-blown city (by KG standards … at its height it had something like 20,000 residents). It now boasts around 3,000 residents and four open nuclear waste dumps. The architecture is strikingly Russian (wooden houses instead of the usual mud-brick of Kyrgyz villages; multi-story apartment buildings with a particular Soviet utilitarian flare). The only way to ever make a living there was uranium mining; you can’t even farm or herd cattle (the land is too mountainous and radioactive). So even the remaining Kyrgyz residents are trying to get out. We thought it would be interesting to see what kind of problems Courts of Elders deal with in a radioactive ghost town…

Judges of the Court of Elders of Ming Kush at work.

Judges of the Court of Elders of Ming Kush at work.

… but they were pretty mundane, standard KG fare. Domestic violence, neighbors hating on one another, water access. No farming or pasture problems, since there’s no pasture to be had. More interesting (I think) was the residents’ perspectives on the radiation. One interviewee told us their skin doesn’t tan – no matter how long they’re in the sun – as a result of growing up with radiation. [Is this possibly true? I have no idea what effects uranium has apart from causing cancer]. And are there elevated cancer rates? “Of course.” So how do you feel about living here? “I wish the uranium mine would open up again, so we could get our community back.” That stopped me short.

Abandoned dormitories built for workers of Ming Kush's (now defunct) uranium mines.

Abandoned dormitories built for workers of Ming Kush’s (now defunct) uranium mines.

This also gave me pause: “Have some tea.” To which you cannot say no (refusing tea is like slapping someone in the face).

Tea at the ready.

Tea at the ready.

So I of course drank the tea – made of water from a local well – but with a certain sense of dread. Maybe like Spiderman’s radioactive spider bite, I’ll get some super powers out of this (what super powers could tea give? Extra hotness?)

Otherwise, our research has hit a bit of a wall, namely: many of our target interviewees have headed for the hills. Europeans take the two/three summer months to go to the French Riviera; Kyrgyz take that time to go to the jailoo, i.e. the summer mountain pasture. There they watch their catte, live in yurts, and do things like make kymyz (fermented mare’s milk), honey, and jam. My original thought had been to study dispute resolution on these distant pastures, but most people just save their complaints and strife for the fall, when they’re back in the villages and can really go at it. (Jailoo-related complaints often involve lost, stolen, or wolf-eaten cattle. And of course drunkenness).

A Kyrgyz jailoo

A Kyrgyz jailoo

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