Travels in Kyrgyzstan
Land of Grazing Herds and Unbridled Hospitality
Article and photos by Lies Ouwerkerk
Senior Contributing Editor
With luggage and camping equipment firmly tightened on top and kitchen utensils and supplies stuffed in boxes under the seats inside, the old Russian army truck with which we will follow the Silk Route through Kyrgyzstan is ready to take off. The crew, a friendly English speaking guide and her three colleagues, two drivers, and a cook who only speak Kyrgyz and Russian, occupy the driver’s cabin, while the rest of the expedition members have the rather basic, tight, and springless seats in the truck itself. Contact with the cabin can be made by pushing a button in case we need an emergency stop.
Only independent since 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure and public services are clearly still in their infancy: bad road conditions in the mountains (which cover 90 percent of the country), no regular connections nor proper means of transportation, no hotels and reliable power supply outside the major cities. The lack of any modern amenities is quickly forgotten, though, as the immense natural, unspoiled beauty of the country soon has us glued to our windows. The mountain ranges with their snow-capped peaks, glaciers, and lakes are as breathtaking as the pristine forests and vast alpine meadows, where herds of sheep, yaks, and horses graze under the watch of a lone shepherd and his dogs. Here and there, small encampments of traditional yurts or graveyards add some contrast to the huge, scarcely populated plateaus.
At lunchtime, the cook conjures up a delicious buffet of salads, breads, cheeses, and fruits along the roadside. At night, the truck ploughs through barren land to reach a lake, river, or mountain stream close to which camp is set up. The small tents that our Kyrgyz travel company provides are easily put up at night and dismantled again the next morning, and their sleeping bags are adequate enough for the already cold October nights. But, who really cares when the scenery is magnificent and tasty dinners like besh barmak (lamb and noodles) or plov (rice and meat) are accompanied by plenty of local vodka, a glowing campfire, and melancholic Russian songs?
One day, when it has been raining for hours on end, we reach a little village by the time dusk sets in. The truck pulls up at one of the biggest dwellings to ask for lodging for the night, and the family goes into action. Two rooms are vacated; mattresses, sheets, and blankets are pulled from a big armoire; and after providing us with tea and home-made bread, they all disappear discretely to give space to our cook with her own kitchen utensils and provisions. Of course, everything is pretty basic: eating and sleeping on the floor, washing with ice-cold water from a bucket outside, and squatting amidst livestock next to the farm because at night the out-house is just too far out in the soggy field. But the kindness and hospitality of our hosts is so heart-warming that this outweighs the little inconveniences. The neighbors we meet the next day offer us kumyz, fermented mare’s milk, as well as a yoghurt-like concoction called ayran. They invite us into their modest brick houses, where we speak the language of gestures. Later, shepherds lend us their horses to ride on stony mountain paths.
No trip through the Kyrgyz Republic is complete without spending a night in a traditional yurta, a big grey colored tent with a dome-shaped roof and walls and floors covered with carpets of felt and fur. The Kyrgyz were traditionally nomads and would migrate seasonally with their livestock, households, and yurts to greener pastures and milder temperatures. Nowadays, many mountain-dwelling families still live in these movable dwellings during the summer so that their horses, goats, and sheep can graze in the vast alpine valleys, close to water sources. We have a taste of this nomadic life during our last and coldest night in Kyrgyzstan, on our way to Kashgar, China. We stop at a camp of yurts about 100 kilometers from the snow- covered Torugart Pass, which is next to the famous Tash Rabat Caravanserai (a 15th-century stopping post built into a mountain slope at an altitude of 3,300 meters for the Silk Road trading caravans, monks, and other travelers to protect them from snow storms and robbers).
Yurta in Kyrgyzstan.
By lifting an ornamented curtain covering the doorway, we have access to a warm and cozy space inside. Richly elaborated covers, blankets, and pillows in brilliant colors, all woven and embroidered by local women, are piled up against the felt walls. Seated on thick carpets on the floor, we warm ourselves at the iron stove in the center. A stove pipe funnels the smoke out through a wooden hole in the top of the yurt, the tunduk (now represented on the national flag out of respect for their nomadic culture) can easily be opened and closed with long lassos that are attached to each corner. Dozing off after a rich meal and a nightcap, we sleep well under the many covers in the crisp high mountain air.
The next morning we have to leave at the crack of dawn, in still freezing temperatures, to reach the Chinese frontier before closing time. As we bid farewell to our crew in the green army truck and set foot on the other side of the border, we already miss the Kyrgyz land and its people, despite the alluring prospect of a comfortable hotel bed and a hot shower in a few hours down the road.
For More Info
Kyrgyz Sustainable Travel Companies
The Kyrgyz companies listed below are committed to sustainable tourism and offer programs in one, more, or all of these activities: tours in off-road vehicles, trekking, mountaineering, camping, horse-back riding, camel trekking, (mountain) biking, hunting/fishing, white-water rafting, kayaking, heli-skiing, helicopter flights, botanical tours, caving, bird-watching, yurt tours, cultural tours, entomological tours, and textile and felt tours.
Where to Stay Upon Arrival in Bishkek
Asia Mountains, 1a Lineinaya St.; 694075.
Dostuk, 429 b Frunze St.; 284251.
Silk Road Lodge, 229 Abdumomunova St.; 661129.
Hyatt Hotel, 191 Sovetskaya St.; 661234.
Family-run accommodations ($10-$20 p.p.), apartments ($30 - $40 p.d.), or yurts ($7 - $15 p.p.) can be arranged through travel companies.
Where to Eat in Bishkek
Dasmia (Asian), 2 Gorky St.; 530649.
Bombay (Indian), 110 Chuy Prospektisi; 625115.
Yusa (Turkish), 14 Logvinenko St.; 623837.
Four Seasons (European), 116a Tynystanov St.; 621548.
Cyclone (European), 136 Chuy Prospektisi; 212866.
Lies Ouwerkerk resides in Montreal, Quebec. She is a columnist for The Sherbrooke Record and works as a freelance writer and photographer for outdoors and travel magazines.