27 July 2013

Travel in... Kyrgyzstan

Apart from a map of where it is (between China and Kazakhstan), five tips for the Switzerland of Central Asia

The Silk Road - the ancient series of trade routes between China and Europe - passed through Kyrgyzstan
1.  Pack a torch for those trips to the loo (not just at night). Kyrgyzstan is a country of yurts, yaks and yoghurt - all of which combine on the breathtaking high mountain pastures (or jailoo) that are the reason most visitors come to the country. The best way to appreciate the jailoos is to stay in a yurt, a traditional round felt dwelling nomads use while grazing their cattle, sheep and - you guessed it - yaks. The yurts are almost unchanged from their original construction: some may boast a solar-powered light inside, but other than that there are no mod-cons. Toilets are hole-in-the-ground outhouses some distance from the yurt. Outside of the capital, Bishkek, Soviet-era legacy electrical wiring may mean the torch comes in handy in the cities too. 

2. Take a break from being vegetarian. Local cuisine reflects the traditional Kyrgyz nomadic culture: boiled carbs served with carbs, lots of fatty meat and bread. Examples include manti (meat-filled dumplings), beshbarmak (noodles with five types of meat) and shashlyk (grilled kebabs, where one chunk can be pure fat). Food originating from the Uzbek community - like dimlama (boiled meat, potatoes, cabbage and onion) and plov (fried rice) - has vegetables, but meat is still an essential ingredient. If you're invited to a local host's house, often the honoured guest will be given the meat bone to finish off. Refusing such an honour is irredeemably rude. 
A big bowl of plov - everyone digs in

In the summer months, however, the markets are full of delicious in-season fruits like cherries and watermelon. There are also no end of dairy-based products - most have a salty, sour taste. No trip to Kyrgyzstan is complete with trying the slightly alcoholic kymys, fermented mare's milk. Sip it. You have been warned.

3. Bring sunscreen. While it may feel deceptively balmy during the summer months up in the mountains, the sun is strong and you'll need protection while you're out in it enjoying all that trekking. Kyrgyzstan may not have the abundant oil and gas resources of its much larger neighbour to the north, but it does have exceptionally beautiful scenery. This makes it an ideal destination for hiking and horse-trekking in the summer and skiing in the winter. You can do a three day hike from near the capital to the high mountain pasture Lake Song-Kul or go horse-trekking near Lake Issyk-Kul. There's a reason they call it the Switzerland of Central Asia

4. Wear a wedding ring - if you look younger than 24 years old. And that's a Central Asian 24; women here tend to age faster as they take on domestic chores and lots of child-rearing (abortion is the preferred method of birth control). Bride kidnapping is thankfully getting rarer, but most women are expected to be married by 24. Although the Soviets introduced education for women, a woman's lot is still tough. Even in the cities, women are expected to move in with their in-laws and do all the domestic chores for the whole family. A (demonstrably, daily) clean house means she is a good daughter-in-law and she will be expected to prepare and serve feasts and tea for guests to the house. Be prepared for questions about your husband and kids. 
A park in Osh - the second largest city

5. Take a Russian phrasebook, or a friend who speaks Russian and can read cyrillic. The younger, educated generation are learning English, but Kyrgyzstan remains in the Russian sphere of influence (Kyrgyzstan is the only country to host both American and Russian military bases). The country has Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik communities - they'll most likely speak Russian to each other. In the western areas of the country, near the Uzbek border, deadly riots have taken place between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities; it is wise to speak Russian rather than each of those languages to avoid giving offence or be seen to take sides.

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