Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Balasagun (八剌沙衮)

The Barana Tower is probably the most famous historical relic of Tokmok, at what was  Balasagun, at the foot of Tian Shan.

Balasagun was once the capital of the Turkic Kara-Khanid Khanate (疏勒國, 黑汗國, 喀喇汗國), around 1100 AD. And later the Kara-Kithai (喀喇契丹), also known as Western Liao (西遼), around 1200 AD.  It is no surprise that Turkey has strong interest in Kyrgyzstan. 

The climb up and down the stairs can be challenging.  But it is worth it. 

At the top of the tower, one can see flocks of cows, green fields, …, and in the distance, some of the snow-capped mountains of Tian Shan. 

There are many petroglyphs - carved tomb stones - near the tower.  Most of them are carved with human figures (hence “stone grandfathers”) holding wine glasses.  Not quite sure what the wine glasses signify. 

Today the place is popular for wedding photographs.  The wine glasses may seem peculiarly fitting from this point of view.  

Over the past 2,000 years, many people have passed through these crossroads to elsewhere.  Some have conquered and since perished.  Some have stayed.  Today different ethnic groups are here, and I understand sometimes there are conflicts.  I pray there people will respect each other and find ways to live with each other.  Nationalism can be useful in helping people come together, to fight imperialism and colonialism, to beat off oppressors.  But more is needed now, when we have to live with each other. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Size is relative

At the mountain camp in a valley slightly up a branch of the Tian Shan, we met a “mountain man” who takes care of the camp.  

It was said that he once lived in Tokmok.  Tokmok is a city with roughly 50,000 people.  Over there, I have not seen a building with more than 10 storeys. Even the bus terminal looks pretty empty.  But the mountain man found it too “crowded” and moved back up the mountain.  

Many young people in Tokmok would like to move to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.  Bishkek has ~800,000 inhabitants.  The tallest building in Bishkek has 18 storeys, and it does have several Soviet-style governmental buildings.  The streets do look more crowded than Tokmok.  Many of the adults we met in Tokmok found Bishkek too crowded and prefer to stay in Tokmok.   

This is what Argyle Street looks like today.

I suspect all of them would probably find Hong Kong too crowded.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Kyrgyz Shangri-la

Much of Kyrgyzstan is covered by the rugged Tian Shan.  

Hidden in the valleys, however, are real life Shangri-la’s.  

Where you find horses and cattle wandering.

Sheep grazing. 

Child cowgirling.

Mother donkey with child.  

Yurts by the side of streams. 

Mutton sizzling. 

You just wouldn’t want to leave.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Big Data Culture

Google announced in 2004 that it intended to digitise all the world’s books. They haven’t finished yet but have already done millions of books.  From this humongous dataset, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel created a shadow dataset containing a record for each word and phrase in those books.  Each record consists of a list of numbers, showing how frequently that particular n-gram appeared in books, year after year.  Based on this dataset, they can analyse computationally many fascinating issues in language, culture and history.  

For example, they plot the use of the term “天安门” in books written in simplified Chinese characters used in Mainland China, and the term “Tiananmen” in books written in English.  In 1976, China’s ruling Gang of Four cracked down on protests and public mourning in Tiananmen Square, which was spurred by the death of venerated premier Zhou Enlai. The 1976 incident leaves a huge fingerprint in the Chinese ngram record, with a massive spike in mentions of 天安门.  But it hardly registered in the English books.  In 1989, another massive protest in Tiananmen Square was violently cleared.  It received massive attention in English books.  But it generated a much smaller spike in the Chinese books, which soon returned to the pre-1989 levels.  While in the English speaking world, the interest has barely abated. Each of us can draw our own conclusions as to whether it is due to censorship or some other reason.  

Google has made a similar dataset available, on the web site Google books Ngram Viewer.  From there, for example, one can compare the appearances of the terms: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Peking, over the past 200 years.  In the 1930s and early 1940s, Shanghai was receiving a a lot of attention, but went into relatively obscurity since 1949, when the Communists take over.  But since the 1990s, it is rising again.  Peking has its own ups and downs; but since the 1990s, it is increasingly called Beijing.  As for Hong Kong, the interest has been rising and rising.  Now we can study language, culture and history digitally, or computationally.  

We have already plans to use such techniques in our own work.  Thank you, Aiden and Michel.  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

(Some) Schools of Kyrgyzstan

We went to Kyrgyzstan to see whether we can do something with the schools over here.  One of our contacts is the Mercy Charitable Christian Foundation (MCCF).  They run several schools, orphanages and a small university.  

Ak-Bata School (School of Blessing) is a private school in Tokmok, with 200+ students from grade 1 to 11.  It teaches mainly in Russian, the official language of business in Kyrgyzstan.  That is despite the fact that 70+% of the population in Kyrgyzstan are Kyrgyz, who are mostly Muslims, while only 6% of the population are Russian.  The school seems to be quite good.  Even many Muslims send their children here, despite having to pay a fee, when the public schools are free.  

The School in Kemin has 30+ children with mental or physical disabilities.  It is in Kemin, at the eastern end of the valley near the foot of the mountains, in an area where the population is 90% Kyrgyz. 

The school at Ivanovka Village, with 200+ students, serves mainly the Dungan people in Ivanovaka, mid way between Bishkek and Tokmok.  The Dungan are believed to be part of the Hui Muslim people in China in the Qing Dynasty.  They moved here due to war in the 1800s.   

The Yrayim School in Djarbashy teaches only in the Kyrgyz language.  It is situated at the foothills of the mountains, south west of Tokmok, with 50+ students.  

International University of Central Asia is in Tokmok, with 200+ students in 7 disciplines, including information technology, linguistics, business, law, economics, pedagogy (kindergarten education) and international relations.  Here we found that some of the students speak German.  During the Second World War, many German prisoners  of war captured by the Soviet Red Army were settled here.  

On the west side of Bishkek, there is another group of schools.  The School in Belovodsk has 200+ students. 

The School in Kara-Balta has another 200+ students.  Again, many Muslims send their children here even though this is a Christian School.  The children of the Kara-Balta Children Home also attend this school.  

The Children Home in Kara-Balta takes in orphans and social orphans, whose parents cannot take care of them.  The children are very well taken care of.  They also operate a community centre in the public park, set up in an old container.  

We are planning to set up computer laboratories and science projects, with appropriate computer-based equipment for hands-on projects, in some of the schools and perhaps community center.  We may invite some IUCA students to work with our students to serve the students in some of these schools and communities.  A lot more planning needs to be done.  This is just the beginning.  

One of the many things that struck me during this short exploration of Kyrgyzstan is the ethnic diversity.  In less than a week, we have met Russians, Kyrgyz, Germans, Dungans, … and perhaps others that we did not recognize. I have also learned how the Kyrgyz used the Russian alphabet to create the written Kyrgyz language.  This is where history, linguistics, geography and much more come alive. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Tokmok is a small city roughly an hour east of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.  This was the site of 碎葉城, one of the capitals of the Western Turkic Khanate 西突厥汗國 (581-659 AD). When 西突厥 was destroyed by the Tang Dynasty 唐朝, it became Tang territory and was at one point the site of 安西都護府.   

In the 1700s, it was again overrun by the Qing Dynasty 清朝.  Soon afterwards, it was ceded to the Russians.   In the era of the USSR, there was an important airforce base here, just to the right of my running route.   Now it is just empty space.  

I was told that when the Soviets left, they took all the equipment, and the experienced technicians with them.  That dealt a big blow to the local industrial strength.  This statue of an airplane at the city centre is a visible reminder of the USSR era. 

Nearby is a popular shopping mall.  

Today is the birthday of the girl in the skirt.  She speaks English very well.  Some of the others can also speak a few words.  They seem to be celebrating her birthday by hanging out at the mall. 

There are few prospects for young people here in the city.  Many have left to find jobs elsewhere. 


Monday, August 17, 2015

Service-Learning in Kyrgyzstan?

We are here in Kyrgyzstan to explore opportunities of service-learning.  Our initial contact is a charitable foundation operating a number of schools and a small university.  We started by visiting School of Blessing in Tokmok.  

It has ~250 students, from grade 1 to 11.  It seems to be quite well run.  The campus is spacious and well kept.  Most graduates attend university.  

Kemin Disable School is in the small town of Kemin, more than half an hour east of Tokmok.  It is also well run, with a small number of mildly handicapped children.  They learn handicrafts, wood work, cooking, etc.  

Kemin is at the eastern end of the valley to the north of Tian Shan (天山). This is the western part of the same Tian Shan that runs east-west in the middle of Xinjiang. 

In the next few days, we will visit other schools, and hopefully also meet with other organizations, before deciding what to do when we take the students here in summer 2016.