Stepping out of my apartment building in southern Bishkek one cold November morning in 2019, I was met with a smell that I immediately recognized as fire. I had grown up in southern California, remembered drought-spawned chaparral blazes that would leap over highways and engulf whole tracts of housing, closing schools for a week at a time as waves of people fled for the safety of the coast. I remembered a red sun, a grey sky, a rain of ash, and above all else the acrid smell that closed around me now.
But scrolling through news site after news site revealed nothing: no warehouse gone up in smoke, no stray spark from an electrical wire. The men and women who walked past me did so unhurriedly, without panic, seeming not to register the scent of the air, the smudgy sky. Still unsure, I crossed the street to the weekend bazaar, which bustled as usual with butchers, fishmongers, vegetable sellers all calmly bagging produce and doling out change. I picked some potatoes from a tarp, some carrots from a cardboard box. When I returned home I realized that the smell was on my clothes, my hair, my skin. In the ensuing hours and days it would come to leak into the apartment itself, and then I stopped noticing it, and life, as it always does, went on.
At various points throughout the winter of 2019–20, the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek topped air quality charts as the city with the worst pollution in the world. Visitors have been warned away, residents discouraged from leaving home without a mask. Photos taken from the slopes that ring the city disclose an eerie sight: no rooftops, no towers, just an all-engulfing lake of smog.
Begun as a mud-walled fort to allow the Uzbek Khanate of Kokand to more easily tax and control traders in this corner of their empire, Bishkek grew in importance after the Russian conquest, first as a Cossack waystation and then, after the Revolution, as the capital of the Kara-Kirghiz Autonomous Oblast in freshly carved-up Turkestan. Under Soviet rule, the newly minted capital earned renown as the greenest city in Central Asia, its parks numerous, its boulevards stately and tree shaded, its botanical gardens meticulously laid out by scientists from across the Eastern Bloc. But after the collapse of the USSR, the city’s population ballooned, increasingly placing public greenery under the axes of developers. Cars, so rare during Soviet times that drives were a treat reserved for wedding parties, became mainstays of daily life, flooding the pedestrian-oriented streets with ten times the number of vehicles they were designed to contain. As the winter chill descends, car exhaust combines with the smoke of coal burnt for heat and lies quiltlike over the city as though pinned in place during long windless stretches. What I was smelling on my first truly cold day in Kyrgyzstan was a reality to which native Bishkekers have been forced to acclimate over the last several years. And I was unprepared for how radically it would rework my experience of the city.
To live beneath this veil of smoke is also to unlive, to feel that life even more than usual is interwoven with its opposite. It is to see the stitches of my routines unpicked one by one as the healthy is transformed into the harmful, the pure into the putrid. Are you exercising? a friend writes to me in a solicitous email. I am not: health officials have announced that Bishkek residents should refrain from any strenuous physical activity that might elevate their breathing rate. One of the city coroners, so I heard, has said that among the bodies of smokers and non-smokers in the Bishkek morgue there is no difference: the same black lungs.
During the worst stretches, it is as though my life has been pared down to a point: the walk to the university, to the market, home. In between, stretches of space that to my imagination now seemed impossibly vast, obstacles separating me from sealed reservoirs of clean air. Perhaps others feel this way as well; perhaps it is for this reason that the rhythms of life in Bishkek’s air crisis are palpable as much online as in the flesh. In Facebook groups, on Twitter, the air becomes an all-encompassing obsession, the beginning and end, it sometimes seems, of every conversation. We watch as pollutant figures tick up and down with the hours and days and weeks, rising and ebbing like the moon-pulled tides. We discern patterns, augur future trends. We trade home fixes like grandmothers swapping recipes for lemon curd or tricks for rubbing out a stain. Would wrapping your scarf around your face help? What about wrapping it twice? We debate which metric to use, which data to trust. The monitoring sites are a language whose grammar I memorize alongside Russian cases and reflexive verbs: red for merely unhealthy, a muddy purple—which Bishkek has been reaching more and more—for hazardous. The numbers and graphs give our subjective experiences the solidity and comfort of the definite, something more concrete and defined than the heavy feeling in our lungs. There is nothing we can do. But at least we can understand.
They call it “the heating season”: the long stretch when the temperatures drop low enough that life without a radiator would be intolerable. For those on Bishkek’s periphery, however, out where the military-straight lines of the center’s streets fracture and fray into dirt roads lined with jerrybuilt housing, the precipitous descent into winter means months spent eking out what warmth can be gotten from burning coal, garbage, rags.
The collapse of collective farms at the end of the Soviet era ushered in a wave of capital-bound migration from the countryside areas most Kyrgyz simply call “The Regions.” Shut out of formal housing, many of these migrants were forced to take up residence in one of the so-called “new builds” that have cropped up around the city, informal settlements that the city largely refuses to grant legal status. Without official recognition, many of these neighborhoods lack access to electricity, health services, running water, the right to vote in municipal elections—and gas. However bad it is, the smog I breathe on my walk to and from the university where I work is nevertheless a pale version of what must be endured by those who must burn coal in their homes in order to survive the winter.
Ask anyone in Bishkek about the pollution and they’ll give you two reasons for it: the cars and the coal. But the conversation usually hits a wall there, with no inquiry into why the city’s poor must resort to burning coal in the first place. It’s hard not to sense here something of the disdain native Bishkekers express for migrants all the time: They don’t speak Russian. They drive like maniacs. They have hulking cars meant to carry sheep. For such people, the pall in the air is but another manifestation of the spiritual contamination inflicted by these newcomers upon the lost capital of their Soviet youth, once so stately, once so fine, whose tea shops and shaded walks they now can visit only in their dreams.
The ladies in the pollution mask ads are all white. They smile, they smoulder, they pout, eyes so intense it is easy to forget that their faces are half hidden. In the capable hands of the mask ad ladies, a utilitarian piece of safety equipment has morphed into something sleeker, softer, a canvas for infinite stylistic variations. There are masks in camo, in gingham, in springtime florals, in every color under the sun; there are masks with printed-on grins and moustaches and cartoonish tendrils of drool. They inhabit a strange universe, these mask ad ladies, wearing award show-ready unsmudgeable make-up and staring out from frames in which nothing at all exists, no worries or cares, no illness, and certainly no smoke.
The idea that we all breathe the same air has become something of a hackneyed staple of appeals for political unity. But around me I see it very clearly: breath is something, increasingly, that you can buy. The optimist’s fond belief that a “we’re all in the same boat” practicality will prevail when it comes to galvanizing around environmental issues is deeply misplaced: safety and comfort—or at least their illusion—will always be available to the highest bidder. In a city like Bishkek, where the environmental crisis is so deeply rooted in governmental rot, perhaps what the mask advertisements sell more than anything else is the opportunity to pretend, even a little bit, that the state around us is functioning. The mask ad ladies do note have to walk past burning trash on the way to the store. They do not have to fill their cars with low-grade smuggled gasoline, and they certainly would never stoop to bribing their way past a smog check. No: theirs is a good world, a clean world, a world which anyone can enter for a price. Walking past a trendy coffee shop one day, I notice that it has begun selling air purifiers, sleek white boxes that promise to sanitize your home once you parked them in the corner of your living room. The ads show interiors speckled with potted plants, hand-woven baskets, furniture rendered in smooth Scandinavian wood. The light is soft, the walls are white, and everything looks pure pure pure. If you bought one, if you turned it on and closed your eyes, would you think you were elsewhere?
The way you feel it: how the air here is not a void but something to be seen and smelt and tasted, an acid sting etching itself into the inside of your mouth on the days when the pollution’s at its worst. The way it comes in like an uninvited guest, its particles insinuating themselves under doors and between the gaps in window insulation to lie upon everything in a fine, filthy dust you could write in with your finger. But there is an important sense in which the pollution we live with in Bishkek becomes a pollution of the heart. It the realization, as I prepare for a visit to my mother in America, that I have not one item of clothing that does not smell of ash. It is in the paranoia with which I regard every lingering cough as a possible symptom of something worse. Above all else it is the numbness of normalcy that settles in before long, the feeling that this is a fixed and immutable part of life here, how things are and always will be, and it is the fight against this feeling, the everyday struggle to remember the fire beneath the smoke.