“Women Move Mountains” interview series
Zhyldyz Asanakunova entrepreneur in the tourism sector, Issyk Kul Biosphere Reserve in Kyrgyzstan
From gender roles to local economies, to science and policy, find out about how women are making a difference in better understanding and protecting mountains.
Today we hear about ethno-tourism, eco-tourism and what mountain communities can teach us about their living heritage from Zhyldyz Asanakunova at the Issyk Kul Biosphere Reserve in Kyrgyzstan.
Zhyldyz Asanakunova is an entrepreneur in the tourism sector living in Issyk Kul Biosphere Reserve in Kyrgyzstan. She is also an expert on traditional felt art and intangible heritage, and advises protected sites, such as biosphere reserves or UNESCO Global Geoparks.
She is the founder of the Almaluu and Feel Nomad yurt camps, chairwoman of the Ethno-tourist Destination “South Coast of Issyk Kul” and director of the Felt-Art Studio Craft Organization.
Issyk Kul – the “warm lake” that never freezes – is emblematic of Kyrgyzstan and a highly significant ecological site, designated both a Ramsar site and UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Surrounded by mountains, this massive lake – 180 km long, 60 km wide, 660 m deep – covers 3% of Kyrgyzstan. It is ancient, at 25 million years old, and “endorheic”, meaning it has no outflow. It takes 330 years to renew its water through evaporation and precipitation.
As a local, what does Issyk Kul represent for you? Does the community feel they are part of a biosphere reserve?
Issyk Kul is an irreplaceable, unique, inspiring source of energy for me, with a mysterious history and natural wealth to which we do not know all the secrets, treasures and legacies.
Indeed, the community is very involved in the biosphere reserve. Our team at the southern shore of Issyk Kul are the founders of the Baiboosun Mini-Reserve. They are owners of the UNESCO certificate of quality in handicraft. We all want to preserve the value of the human and natural resource of Issyk Kul.
What are ethno-tourism and eco-tourism?
The priority of ethno-tourism is not economic, but to train more people in traditional knowledge. It is how we preserve our culture, by applying it in everyday life. We make traditional products that are part of our national identity. We wear them and give them to relatives and friends. It is also a way to inspire and motivate young people to become good masters and stay in the territory.
For eco-tourism, I cooperate with scientific institutes of geology, biology and water resources of the National Academy of Sciences in the Kyrgyz Republic. I gathered information on geological, natural, cultural heritage and biodiversity.
I will always share the history of the formation of the Earth, Lake Issyk Kul and Terskey Ala Too, about glaciers, snow leopards, the climate… The story of national riches of Kyrgyzstan, like Lake Issyk Kul – to be thought of as an Indigenous resident – should be told not only to travellers, but also to the local community.
What can you tell us about felt art and how you got started?
I live in a rural area. In 1992, after the collapse of the USSR, there was no work, but we had wool and some tools for processing the wool by hand. Our mother-in-law was our mentor and she taught us how to make felt using traditional techniques. For colour, we use natural dyes from onion peelings, and nut and apple tree leaves.
One day, Claire Smith, the world-famous photographer and president of Aid to Artisans USA, came to meet with us. She said: “You should not live in poverty and without work. The felt products that you make are unique and can be sold on the international market!”
Later on, Dinara Ilimbekovna Chochunbayeva created an NGO to fund and support talent called the Central Asian Association for the Support of Artisans. We became good artisans, with knowledge of design, and we studied international standards.
Since then, we have been making a living from handicrafts. Bloggers from the NKN have visited exhibitions and art fairs all over the world. The quality of life of all Central Asian artisans has improved.
What do you do as an entrepreneur in the tourism sector?
We visited many countries to present and sell our work at exhibitions. But when the pandemic started, the exhibitions had to stop, and many masters migrated or went back home.
So, I started thinking about how to offer courses and master classes on traditional knowledge for locals and tourists so that they would understand and become more conscious of the production process of our handmade products using natural materials.
I organised presentations for our local tour operators. They watched our master classes on traditional knowledge and began to propose them as part of their tourist packages on their websites. For example, now many tour operators book master classes in advance on the installation of a yurt, which is called “Юрта–Шоу” (Yurt Show).
What can we learn from women living in the mountains around Issyk Kul?
Our women are warriors who protect our natural heritage from prospectors and mining companies. A lot of women understand the importance of a healthy ecosystem and biodiversity. Our guarantee for the prosperous life of local people depends on this concept and on education.
What advice would you give to young girls and women who wish to become entrepreneurs like you?
I always give the same advice – not only to women and girls but to everyone – to become an entrepreneur without leaving the Homeland for migration. There is a saying that the path of the universe will start from the village. I have been working and living in the village all my life, but I always try to make sustainable world practices for our site, the Ethno-tourist Destination “South Coast of Issyk Kul”.
Last year, Kyrgyzstan was at the initiative of declaring 2022 as International Year of Sustainable Mountain Development. What can we learn from Kyrgyzstan?
Yes, there are government programmes in each region and we cooperate with government agencies. For example, I am working with environmental youth organisations on the Green Economy. We planted 11 hectares of coniferous trees.
Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous and nomadic country. Mountain people are good-natured. Nature is generous and rich, and that makes such mentally rich people.
But unlike Europeans, nomads use more felt traditional products in everyday life and eat a lot of meat!
What can we learn from mountain communities about sustainability?
Sustainable development for humankind means living in harmony with nature, with complex careful relationships, and conscious approaches to people and the ecosystem.
On top of the biosphere reserve and Ramsar site, we are working on the status for Teskey Geopark to become a member of the network of UNESCO Global Geoparks. We have nominated a dossier as a national Geopark, for which we have been working for two years, and we have implemented several projects on geo-heritage.
We tell everyone about the uniqueness and history of the UNESCO programmes, it is by obtaining these designations from UNESCO that we will preserve biodiversity, and our natural, geological and cultural heritage.