It’s still dark as we leave the town that time forgot. Plumes of smoke rise from chimneys atop rows of faded blue wooden houses. Remnants of an era when Min-Kush was the crown jewel of the Soviet Union’s nuclear programme. It’s a place once so shrouded in secrecy that it didn’t appear on maps. Today, the all-but-abandoned mining town seems destined to disappear from the atlas entirely.
Our taxi stops to collect one more passenger. The diminutive man, bundled up in a fur-lined leather jacket and brown ushanka-hat, climbs aboard clutching a battered suitcase; his blotchy red nose hinting at one of his preferred pastimes. “Hello!” he says, beaming and surveying us with interest.
We trundle down the winding track towards the bottom of the valley, flanked on either side by vivid orange slopes — a splash of colour amid the grey. Mounds of coal stain patches of earth. In one field, a shipwrecked van, long since deserted by its captain, is being swallowed by the earth. Makeshift fences fashioned from scavenged junk — broken ladders, speaker cases and scrap metal — block off tranches of land from outsiders. Everything here is a throwback to 1953, the year of the town’s birth.
My mind drifts to the previous day when we stumbled upon a defunct pen factory. Crumbling blue concrete walls and floor coated with a crust of bird droppings, the skeleton space dotted with mysterious mint-green machinery, chipped and rusting. At one end of the warehouse, three uniformed workers grin down at me from a Soviet mural.
“Why did you come to Min-Kush?” asks the new passenger.
“To see another side of Kyrgyzstan,” I offer.
Our conversation meanders, like the road on which we’re travelling. Murza is a theatre musician in a nearby town. “There’s no work here any more,” he laments. During the area’s heyday, people were on waiting lists to work in its mines and factories. This was the promised land, salaries were often double those of elsewhere in the region.
I ask why alcohol is prevalent in this majority-Muslim country; whether it’s due to the Soviet influence. “No, it’s not only this; we always had our own alcohol,” Murza smiles, as if he knows a secret that we don’t. “We have bozo! I can take you to try some.”
At the next town, we follow Murza through a gate into a compound of three one-story houses. A lady peeps out from behind one of the doors and, after a few words from Murza, emerges with a recycled bottle and three chintzy bowls.
Surrounded by an assortment of chairs, discarded shoes and a line of washing destined never to dry, we perch on stools and sip our bozo. Thick and fizzy yellow liquid coats my mouth, sliding down my throat, warming me from the inside. Snow starts to fall, my fingers are getting numb and the image of Min-Kush is etched on my mind like a coal stain.