CHUI VALLEY: THE SILK ROAD AND CANNABIS HEARTLAND OF KAZAKHSTAN AND KYRGYZSTAN

CHUI VALLEY

Chui Valley (near Almaty and embracing Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) is a France-size region that straddles the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border and is famous for it cannabis products. The valley's black soil is very fertile and is largely irrigated with water diverted from the Chu River. The region's Agricultural production includes wheat, maize, sugar beets, potatoes, lucerne, and various vegetables and fruits.

According to Sensi Seeds: “The putative birthplace of cannabis, Kazakhstan enjoys a vibrant culture of cultivation and use, as well as abundant wild growth of cannabis. The heartland of cannabis in Kazakhstan is the Chui Valley; in season, locals descend on the plants at night to conduct clandestine harvests, as restrictive laws now prohibit its use...While continuing to crack down on illegal trafficking, Kazakhstani authorities are beginning to consider legitimising the domestic cannabis industry to some extent; recently, a Kazakhstani MP, Dariga Nazarbayeva (who is also the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayeva) called for vast swathes of the Chui Valley to be leased to pharmaceutical companies for medical research and manufacture of drugs.[Source: Sesheta, August 28, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]

Named after the Chu River that flows through it, the Chui Valley is located in north of the Tian-Shan mountains and extends from Boom Gorge in the east to Muyunkum Desert in the west. It has an area of about 32,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles), and borders Kyrgyz Alatau in the south, and Chu-Ili mountains in the north. The warm summer and availability of drinking and irrigation water makes this area one of the most fertile and most densely populated regions of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Major towns and cities there include Bishkek, Kara-Balta, Kant, Kemin, Shopokov, Tokmok, Ivanovka The 2006 World Drug Report estimated that 4,000 square kilometers of cannabis grow wild in the Chui Valley.

According to Sensi Seeds: “It is generally accepted that modern Chui Valley cannabis is a hybrid with Indian and Pakistani heritage; while this input has apparently increased cannabinoid content, the original gene pool has been compromised....Inhabitants of rural Kazakhstan have utilised hemp in traditional weaving and rope-making practices for centuries apparently exist, its use is ubiquitous and socially acceptable, and in areas close to the Chui Valley most people regularly or socially consume it....There are even a handful of Kazakhstani rap groups who regularly make Chui Valley cannabis the focus of their lyrics. Almaty-based film director Jantik released a movie in 2009 called Shu-Chu, a story of four young friends who travel to the Chui Valley from Almaty and become involved in the cannabis industry. Although the film was not particularly well-received, it is an interesting depiction of the cannabis industry and the culture surrounding it.” *-*

Cannabis in the Chui Valley

According to Sensi Seeds: “The heartland of cannabis in Kazakhstan is the Chui Valley that lies between Kazakhstan and its neighbour Kyrgyzstan; it is estimated that up to 400,000 hectares of (mostly wild) cannabis grows there, accounting for around one-third of the available fertile soil and over 10 percent of the total area of the valley — possibly the largest cannabis fields in the world. [Source: Sesheta, August 28, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]

“To the locals, wild cannabis is known as dichka, and while it is relatively mild in potency (THC levels apparently reach around 4 percent) it is well-loved for its clear, pleasant high and lack of hangover-like after-effects. The Kazakhstani portion of the Chui Valley lies in Jambyl region, southeast Kazakhstan; the area is famed for the quality of its cannabis and hashish, which is seen as far superior to that produced elsewhere in the country.*-*

“While there is abundant wild cannabis, there is some degree of human intervention and cultivation. In 1926, local authorities registered the presence of cultivated ‘Indian hemp’ in the valley for the first time; by the 1980s, high-strength varieties from India and Pakistan were thriving, and beginning to dominate. Now it is generally accepted that the wild-type found in Chui Valley is a hybrid between the typical Kazakhstani landrace and the introduced genetics from India and Pakistan. Although the Chui Valley may produce as much as 6,000 tons of cannabis per year, it is thought that on average only around 500 tons are harvested.*-*

“Due to the illegality of cannabis and various difficulties in working the rugged terrain, open cultivation in the valley is not common, and harvesting the wild crop is the preferred tactic for many locals (as well as numerous citizens of nearby countries such as Tajikistan). However, deliberate cultivation of cannabis is becoming increasingly attractive, as the number of unemployed continues to rise in the region. Outside the Chu Valley, it is estimated that around 30,000 hectares of cannabis are cultivated in Taldy-Korgan, as well as smaller quantities in the Almaty, Kyzl-Orda and South Kazakhstan regions.*-*

Cannabis Agriculture in the Chui Valley

According to Sensi Seeds: “In May, the harvest season begins. Individuals and groups come from a wide area, from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as Kazakhstan, and use sickles and scythes to cut the plants at the stalk. Police presence is high in the Chui Valley at this time, as they prepare for Operation Kendir (an annual drive to stamp down on cultivation and trafficking), which begins in June and lasts until October; as a result, the seasonal cannabis pickers utilise various strategies to avoid detection. [Source: Sesheta, August 28, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]

“The plants will often be dried where they are felled, wrapped in plastic and buried in the sand, to be collected once police presence has fallen again in November. The harvesters, who typically remain on-site for several days or even weeks at a time, will often construct makeshift shelters by digging holes in the ground and concealing them with foliage.*-*

“Harvesters may be part of criminal organisations involved in commercial hashish-making and international trafficking, or may simply be cannabis enthusiasts seeking to secure a worthwhile supply without paying the much higher prices commanded outside the valley. Many of the people involved in cannabis harvesting are in extreme poverty — they may arrive independently, seeking to improve their fortunes, or they may be linked with criminal organisations, which require abundant low-cost labour each harvest season. The Chui Valley is not apparently controlled by any single organisation or mafia, and anyone is free to harvest; beyond problems with law enforcement, it does not appear that competition for its resources have led to violence among the various groups that harvest there.*-*

Hashish Production in the Chui Valley

According to Sensi Seeds: “Chui Valley cannabis may be dried and smoked as is, or may be processed into hashish known as ruchnik (which translates to ‘made by hand’) or plastilin (‘plasticine’), made by rubbing the leaves between the hands to collect the resin. The resin is scraped off the fingers, pressed and moulded to form sticky, dense hashish, and packed into matchboxes to be sold. The hashish is renowned for its potency, and has occasionally been known to make it as far as Europe (where it may be mislabelled as Pakistani-made), although the majority is destined for sale in Russia and the Central Asian region. [Source: Sesheta, August 28, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]

“It is widely repeated that at harvest time, an annual ritual takes place in which naked, ritually-washed men ride (also freshly-washed) horses through the cannabis fields, covering themselves in sticky resin which is later scraped off and formed into hashish. It may be that this ritual does occur in areas of particularly abundant growth, but visitors to the Chui Valley have noted that much of the cannabis growth occurs in small patches rather than dense fields, and would yield a poor harvest through this method (although the author also later points out that the crop that year was unusually sparse, perhaps as a result of heavy rains earlier in the season).*-*

“It is estimated that the Chui Valley produces up to 6,000 tons of cannabis and around 40 tons of hashish per annum; the bulk of the harvest is destined for sale either locally or in Russia. In Kazakhstan and the surrounding area, the hashish is typically sold for around €750 per kilogram, although its value may triple or even quadruple if it makes it as far as Europe. It is thought that approximately 97 percent of all cannabis sold in Central Asia originates in Kazakhstan.*-*

Chui Region

Chuy Region or Chui Region is the northernmost region (oblast) in Kyrgyzstan. Covering 20,200 square kilometers (7,800 square miles), it is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Issyk Kul Region to the east, Naryn Region and Jalal-Abad Region to the south and Talas Region to the west.. Its administrative center is Bishkek, but from 2003 to May 2006 it was Tokmok. Its population is 850,000.

The main northwest part of the region is flat, a rarity in Kyrgyzstan. This is the Chui Valley — the valley of the Chu River. The Kyrgyz Alatau mountains form the southern border of the region, and the northern border of Talas Region. There are many hiking and trekking routes accessible from the towns in the valley. The southwestern heel of the region over the Kirgiz Alatau is geographically more like Naryn Region. The northeast panhandle is the Chong Kemin Valley.

Agricultural production includes wheat, maize, sugar beets, potatoes, lucerne, and various vegetables and fruits. There is little industry in the region. During the Soviet period, various agro-processing and other industries were established throughout the province, giving rise to a number of urban centers such as Tokmok, Kant and Kara-Balta.

The population is considerably more heterogeneous than that of the other regions of the country, with many ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Dungans, Koreans, Germans, etc. According to the 2009 Census, the ethnic composition (de jure population) of Chuy Region was: Ethnic group, percentage of Chuy Region population 1) Kyrgyzs 59.1 percent; 2) Russians: 20.8 percent; 3) Dungans: 6.2 percent; 4) Uygurs: 1.9 percent; 5) Uzbeks: 1.8 percent; 6) Kazakhs: 1.6 percent; 7) Turks: 1.4 percent; 8) Ukrainians: 1.4 percent; 9) Azerbaijanis: 1.3 percent; 10) Tatars: 0.8 percent; 11) Germans: 0.7 percent; 12) Kurds: 0.6 percent; 13) Koreans: 0.5 percent; 14) Tajiks: 0.3 percent; 15) Lesgins: 0.3 percent; 16) Dargins: 0.2 percent; 17) Karachays: 0.2 percent; 18) Chechens: 0.2 percent; 19) other groups: 5,801: 0.7 percent.

Sights in the Chui Region

Kel-Tor Gorge (90 kilometers from Bishkek.) is an offshoot of the Kegety Gorge, with a river of the same name and amazing landscape. At the end of the gorge, a small lake characterized by its turquoise color, is the main attraction. The gorge is rich in spruce forests, herbs (sage, St. John's wort, thyme) and varieties of berries (mountain ash, honeysuckle, wild rose, barberry).

Kegety Gorge (75 kilometers from of Bishkek) is located on the northern slope of Kyrgyz Alatau, and has rich flora. Tall grasslands, barberry, rowan, wild rose, and fir forests largely contribute to the beauty of the gorge. The Kegety river, which flows through the gorge, has many tributaries. The largest of them is the the Kel-Tor river (the right tributary) which flows down through a smaller gorge with beautiful landscape. The main source of the Kel-Tor river flows through moraine passes under the ground and breaks out roaring at a certain point in a forested area. Natural and climatic features of the Kegety Gorge are favorable for hiking and trekking, as well as picnics.

Chong-Kemin is an amazingly beautiful valley called between Kungey Alatau and Ile Alatau ranges that stretches more than 100 kilometers from east to west. The river in the valley is also called Chong Kemin and it flows into the Chu river where the Boom Gorge starts. It is a well known destination among white water rafting and kayaking enthusiasts. The valley covers the territory of the Chong-Kemin State Nature Park. The park is the habitat of animals such as alpine ibex, argalis, martens, ermines, rock partridges, snow leopards, deer, Turkestan lynxex, golden eagles, saker falcons, and bearded vultures. In the park, there is also the mausoleum of Shabdan Baatyr, a Kyrgyz historic figure who took active role in accession of Kyrgyz people to the Russian Empire in the 19th century.

Boom Gorge (112 kilometers from Bishkek) and is a natural gateway connecting the Issyk-Kul basin with Chui valley. The length of the gorge is 22 kilometers. The sector of the Chu river in the Boom gorge has long been a very attractive destination for enthusiasts of rafting and kayaking.

Silk Road and the Chui Valley

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Upper Chui Valley Silk Road Sites of the Navikat, Suyab and Balasagyn are located along the important branch of the Silk Road, which basically was functioning in the early and late Middle Ages (from A.D. 6th century - beginning of 8th centuries) and served sub-regions of Semirechie, Issyk Kul, and southern Kazakhstan. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

“The main towns of the valley, Navikat (today Krasnaya Rechka), Suyab (Ak Beshim) and Balasagyn (Burana), were founded during the 6th century AD, later developing significantly and becoming unique centres of symbiosis between Indian, Chinese, Sogdian and Turkic cultures, as well as a connecting link between these civilizations thanks to their positions on the Northern Silk Roads. Peoples from India, Sogd, Syria, Persia, China and the northern steppes settled in the towns, each bringing with them their own religious and cultural traditions. Navikat, and the other towns of the Chui Valley, are mentioned in records left by the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, who visited the area in around 620 AD.

“Under the Western Turkic and Turgesh Khanates of 560-760 AD, the segment of the Chui Valley situated between Bishkek and Lake Issyk-Kul (40km east of Bishkek) became one of the main political, economic and military centres in Eurasia, connected with Byzantium and China by the Northern Silk Roads. Archaeological excavations carried out in the Chui Valley between 1940 and 2000 discovered towns and monumental constructions dating from the 5th to 12th centuries that reflected the cultural and artistic traditions of many countries and peoples, from Byzantium in the west to India in the south and China in the east.

“The town of Krasnaya Rechka (Navikat) has long been one of the most important of all the urban settlements in the Chui Valley and in the Tien-Shan region. Archaeological excavations in and around the town have revealed a Zoroastrian fire altar and grave site in the western suburbs, Nestorian Christian votive stones in the citadel and two Buddhist temples south of the town walls. Blend of Turkic, Indian, Sogdian and Chinese cultures can be seen in the materials used in both the religious and civil buildings, constituting a fascinating expression of regional cultural dialogue. Among the early mediaeval Buddhist buildings that have been excavated in the Chui Valley, the second Buddhist temple of Navikat (Krasnaya Rechka) is the only one that has been well preserved.” A 12-meter high statue of Buddha in nirvana, made of molded clay, was found during archaeological excavations in parts of Nevaket, the medieval city Krasnorechensk. The statue was later delivered to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Ak-Beshim

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Ak-Beshim was one of the most important cities in Chui valley. Its remnants are located south of the Chui river and south of present day city of Tokmak, 50 kilometers to the East of Bishkek. According to Chinese and Arab-Persian sources the town is identified as well-known Suyab Town. The city displayed 3 areas. The Shakhristan was nearly rectangular, surrounded by massive walls and measured 35 ha. The southwest corner was marked by the citadel. In the east was a suburb, the rabad area with less massive walls, covering 60ha. An even wider area to the south and the west was protected by a minor wall. To the north the city was bordered by a side branch of the Chui. City walls and buildings were earthen constructions. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

“In 1953-54 archaeologist L.R. Kizlasov excavated several structures. Of these structures almost nothing is left above ground. Two of these excavated structures were Buddhist Temple 1 (B1), situated at 200m south-southwest of the citadel, and a second Buddhist temple 400m east of B1 and a castle.

“The Christian Church with necropolis of 8th centuries AD was excavated in the east of Shakhristan. It is one of the most ancient Christian constructions in Central Asia. The archeological and architectural analysis allows proving that there was a considerable influence of the Asian style (X-shaped plan, domed roof) in its architecture, i.e. open yard instead of a nave, pakhsa was used as a building material, and etc. In the South-Eastern corner of Shakhristan, Complex of Christian Churches of Х-ХI centuries was excavated in 1996-1998. This complex is located in 10-15 meters far from outer wall and consists of four (?) churches with cross - shaped bema and large hall or court yard in front of them. There are some utilities and living rooms in the North and West.”

Balasagun

Balasagun (12 kilometers southeast of Tokmok near the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border) was an ancient city founded by Soghdians, a people of Iranian origin, in the early centuries A.D, and remained in their hands until the 11th century. Situated in the Chuy Valley between Bishkek and Issyk-Kul Lake, it was the capital of the Kara-Khanid Khanate from the 10th century until it was taken by the Kara-Khitan Khanate in 1134. It was then captured by the Mongols in 1218. The Mongols called it Gobalik ("pretty city").

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Balasagun is one of the largest medieval cities in Chui valley in Kyrgyzstan. Established in the 10th century on the site of an older settlement. Along with Kashgar, Balasagun was one of the capitals of the Eastern Khanate after the Karakhanid state split up. It was saved from destruction by Genghis Khan's Mongols, and was renamed Gobalik (= «good city») in the 13th century, but the city lost its importance and had disappeared by the 15th century. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

Under the Kara-Khanid Khanate in the 9th century, Balasagun soon supplanted Suyab as the main political and economical centre of the Chuy Valley but its prosperity declined after the Mongol conquest. The poet Yusuf Has Hajib, known for writing the Kutadgu Bilig, is thought to have been born in Balasagun in the 11th century. The city also had a sizable Nestorian Christian population. A Nestorian graveyard was still in use in the 14th century. Since the 14th century, Balasagun has been a village with a lot of ruins.

The medieval town of Balasagun was the capital of the western wing of the Karakhanid Empire for a long time. It was a cultural, academic and spiritual centre in the enormous territory of the Eurasian continent. Prominent figures such as Iusup Balasaguni, Mahmud Kashgari and others lived and worked here; it was where the famous medieval poet Yusuf Balasaguni wrote his encyclopaedic work “Kutadgu Bilik” (“The Book of Moral Edification,” also . home to author of the poem Kudatgu Bilig (Beneficial Knowledge).

Balasagun was a significant economic, political and cultural medieval centre on the Great Silk Road. Archaeological excavations carried out here have lasted at least a decade. Much has been uncovered over this time: a palace complex with a square and eastern bath house, water-carrying and sewerage systems, residential and agricultural buildings and centres of craftsmanship, where ceramic crockery and tools have been discovered. A unique archaeological find of more than 500 bronze coins was made here.

Balasagun Archaeological Area in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

The Burana archaeological zone is located at the edge of Tokmok, The western end of the ancient city is six kilometers from the present-day village of Balasagun. The zone includes the Burana Tower and a field of stone petroglyphs, the bal-bals. Parts of the archaeological zone extend into Kazakhstan in the Shuskii region of Zhambyl Province, three kilometers south-east of the village of Aktobe on both sides of the River Aksu.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: There were major archaeological surveys of the site in the 1920s, 1950s and 1970s. The archaeologists discovered that the town had a complicated layout covering some 25-30 square kilometers. There were ruins of a central fortress, some handicraft shops, bazaars, four religious buildings, domestic dwellings, a bathhouse, a plot of arable land and a water main (pipes delivering water from a nearby canyon). Two circles of walls surrounded the town. Although the Karakhanids, practiced Islam, they were tolerant of other religions and there are many examples of early Christian (Nestorian) inscriptions. Burana museum and Kyrgyz state historical museum has some Nestorian grave stones. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

Balasagun comprises two shakhristan settled areas (1 and 2 ), a citadel and city outskirts. Shakhristan 1 is rectangular in form (380 x 250 meters) and 6-7 meters tall. The citadel is situated in the central area, is square in shape with sides of 100 meters, and 10 meters tall. Shakhristan 2 is sized 300 x 250m and is 3-6m tall. The city’s outskirts are surrounded by long embankments: the first embankment is 17 kilometers in length and the second is 25 kilometers. Four semicircular embankments are attached to the second embankment on the east and west sides. [Source: visitkazakhstan.kz]

Shakhristan 1 is rectangular in form (380 x 250m) and 6-7m tall. The citadel is situated in the central area, is square in shape with sides of 100m, and 10m tall. Shakhristan 2 is sized 300 x 250m and is 3-6m tall. The city’s outskirts are surrounded by long embankments: the first embankment is 17 kilometers in length and the second is 25 kilometers. Four semicircular embankments are attached to the second embankment on the east and west sides.

Burana Tower

Burana Tower (in the Balasagun area, 10 kilometers south of Tokmok, 80 kilometers from Bishkek) is an 11th century monument painstakingly restored by the Soviets. It looks like a squat minaret and sits next to an ancient Scythian archeological a mound which became part of an 11th century Songdian fortress. There is a mall a small museum, with artifacts excavated at the sites, and a cluster of balbals (stone grave markers).

Situated about halfway between Bishkek and Issyk Kul, Burana Tower was once part of a mosque. The minaret was built in the first half of the 11th century. The mosque was built and later completely destroyed. The minaret was damaged by earthquakes over the centuries and partially ruined by an earthquake in the 15th century. Today, the tower stands at about 24 meters (79 feet). When it was first built it topped 46 meters (138 feet). What you see today is mainly the result of a major renovation carried out in the 1970s.

A Kyrgyz legend on the origins of the tower goes: Once there was a powerful khan who had a beautiful daughter, Monara, whom he loved very much and wanted to protect against the affections of local djigits — young men. One day the khan summoned all the fortune tellers and clairvoyants in the region and demanded that they tell the girl's future. All of them foretold a happy life for the girl — except one. This aksakal declared, "I can only say the truth even though you may execute me for it. Your daughter's fate is a sad one. She hardly reaches her sixteenth birthday when a poisonous black spider bites her and she dies immediately." The Khan was angry, but he could not ignore the prediction. So he built a tall tower and the fortune teller was incarcerated in a small room at the bottom and his daughter was placed in isolation in another room at the top of the tower. [Source: advantour]

The girl grew up in the tower, looking out over the valley through the four windows in the cupola which looked out to the compass points – North, South, East and West. Servants brought her food and drink, delivering it in a basket after by climbing a ladder placed against the outside of the tower. They were inspected from head to toe to make sure that their clothes, the food, nor the plates, hid a spider.

On the day of her sixteenth birthday, the khan was so happy that the old man's prediction had proved false. He decided to congratulate the girl on her "special day" and went to her room carrying a bunch of vines. Congratulating her with a kiss, he presented her with the fruit, which she accepted and then, inexplicably, collapsed and died. Dumbfounded the Khan inspected his gift ... and there was a black spider. The khan was grief stricken and sobbed so loudly that the tower shook and the top part fell down, creating the ruin that we see today.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kyrgyzstan Tourism website, Kyrgyzstan government websites, Wikitravel, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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