Lonely Planet Writer

A haunting glimpse of Kyrgyzstan’s abandoned Soviet towns

Deep in the mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan, close to the border with China, lies Engilchek (Inylcheck), a former industrial mining town that was once part of the Soviet Union. Nearly 30 years after the breakup of the socialist state, the town remains, with empty factories and a selection of forgotten buildings. Photographer Thijs Broekkamp travelled there as part of a project on Central Asia, documenting all that was left behind.

Inylcheck deep in the mountains, close to China and requires a permit
Engilchek (Inylcheck) requires a special permit to visit. Image by Thijs Broekkamp

“I got the feeling that people just dropped everything and left in an instant. Notebooks, payslips, newspapers and worker’s hats were lying around. Even plates and cutlery and cooking utensils in one of the construction shacks were still on the table and in the cupboards, as if any moment somebody could walk in and make a cup of coffee. I could just imagine the workers having a break in the room, when somebody walks in and announces the Soviet Union has ceased to exist,” Thijs told Lonely Planet Travel News.

Photographer Thijs Broekkamp saw rooms in factories that were abandoned, with objects still sitting undisturbed.
Photographer Thijs Broekkamp saw rooms in factories that were abandoned, with objects still sitting undisturbed. Image by Thijs Broekkamp

The shoot was part of a wider project focused on Central Asia, which saw Thijs visiting countries that included Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. With a special interest in locations that were central to the former Soviet Union, he also visited the town of Ming Kush in the west of Kyrgyzstan, one of the largest uranium producers during its existence.

People still call Engilchek and Ming Kush home. Approximately 20 families live in the former, while the latter saw a population fall from 20,000 to 2000, and Thijs was conscious of approaching the project in a respectful way. The photographer said that he was struck by how warm and inviting people were wherever he went. “What made this trip unique were the people and the fact that in many places I really felt like a traveller and not a tourist. The incredible hospitality of the people was mind-blowing. Their authenticity, sincerity, friendliness and curiosity has absolutely made a lasting impact on me. People are incredibly social and often I found myself (positively) weary at the end of the day, just from talking to everyone, getting invited everywhere and have curious eyes pointed at you all the time.”

Inylcheck has a few families living there
Some local children in Engilchek pose for a portrait. Thijs said that the people he met were incredibly friendly and accommodating. Image by Thijs Broekkamp

Thijs also said that the aim of the project was to showcase a different image of the countries that he visited. He also studied both the positive and negative effects tourism can have, meeting with local tourism organisation to learn about their views of sustainable and community-based tourism while protecting natural resources. “That was the other theme of the project, how your travels can positively or negatively influence the local population and their environment,” he said.

Ming Kush was one of the largest uranium producers of the Soviet Union. Image by Thijs Broekkamp

Thijs plans to return to Central Asia, specifically Tajikistan, to spend more time in smaller areas to work on a documentary and photo reportage about life there.

Ming Kush a grand house, sign of the wealth in those days
An abandoned house in Ming Kush. Image by Thijs Broekkamp

More of his photography is available at his official website.