Kyrgis.. Kuyrg… Kyrgyzstan what?
I was asking my former coworker the same when he explained me about a Serbian TV show where the host spent a week in the country. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about, but stories about hanging out with locals in a mountain village next to a lake with no electricity sounded way too cool not to do any research about it.
What appeares to be one of the Post-Soviet countries, seems to be known for either absolutely nothing, or it’s annual World Nomad Games. Even if my schedules were not fit to go and see any wrestling on horses (“Er Enish”) or polo with a beheaded goat (“Kok-Boru”), I knew that I had to see the what it’s like around in there. In less than a week from googling the country, I had rushed to arrange flights for a trip in the forgotten region of Central-Asia. Hold your horses, and I’ll explain you why.
First of all, the scenery in the seen pictures was already mind blowing. The whole nomadic culture, yurts and untouched nature with it’s shining blue lakes and astonishing bare mountains reminded me of the image I had about Mongolia. Mountain ranges do cover as much as around 90% of Kyrgyzstan with the highest peak being above 7 400 meters.
Second reason, and pretty much the theme of my whole trip, is obscurity. The lack of any wider information on the country seemed quite fascinating and adventurous. Tourism didn’t seem to have developed too far, but all the blog posts I found, were praising Kyrgyzstan. As someone into less touristic destinations, traveling into such a hidden gem seemed like a must.
Arrival was quite as weird as I expected. The tiny and modest airport of the capital had more armed soldiers than us tourists inside. My passport was stamped in seconds with the widest of smiles anyway. English wasn’t widely spoken at all and their official language; Kyrgyz wasn’t even found on Google Translate. What made things even more interesting, was that the signs everywhere were also written in Cyrillic letters.
Bishkek was definitely nothing too fancy and it’s grayness still a very different kind of a city I’ve been to. Some cafes, restaurants and pubs were scattered along the several kilometres long main road that locals were walking back and forth. And I did actually find some nice restaurants in there. The nightlife was also surprisingly vivid so it was easy to end up going out every night when being around. I remember being a little confused at first but highly enjoyed the whole feeling of being in such a random destination.
As interesting it was to wander in the unknown, it did also make things complicated or even a bit frighting at first. Public transport is undeveloped and information sometimes difficult to be found so not even locals always knew how to get around. Leaving the capital area and planning smaller villages to the route meant totally stepping out of comfort zone when not being sure whether accommodation can even be found. Once again, things did always work out.
Due to limited time and several hiking trails and mountain passes already being blocked by blizzards, I missed several top attractions. I was still able to see a few towns and most importantly; do some short hikes. Nature is seriously the one and only thing to concentrate in Kyrgyzstan, so I was happy to still see some amazingly clear waters and stunning mountains.
Best thing about traveling in Central Asia is the company you can find. There were not many tourists around at all as it was starting to be off-season. But every single traveler I met, was like-minded and just super interesting and inspiring at best. Seemed like all the other Westerners had found their way there after backpacking for at least a year or two. There were also adventurers on their way to the furthermost parts of the continent from Europe. Like the Dutch guy driving from Amsterdam to Malaysia and back. And the insane British guys who were cycling all the way from London to Singapore and further. I even ended up traveling three weeks through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan together with a Chinese Malaysian guy I met when accidentally hitchhiking from the same spot.
Highlight of my time was the village and valley of Jyrgalan close to borders of Kazakhstan and China. The surrounding mountains were phenomenal and the village still so authentic. You could walk around seeing the village life going on and the nomads riding around the mountainside herding their livestock. As a true Finn, I actually decided to travel to this distant part of the country after hearing they had a little yurt camp with a sauna tent in there. Needless to say, it was amazing. Listening to the nearby river flowing and going out to cool down and see the shades of mountains lit by the starry sky was something to remember.
Another exciting point about Jyrgalan was that it appeared to be stuck in time. The town was originally founded for coal mining, but after Soviet Union fell, the bigger scale mining stopped. Nevertheless, you can still find the remains of a few factories and rusty mining equipment lying all around the valley and the mountainside. On a hike with a Kyrgyz guy and an Indian tourist, we ran into the five guys who still run the now private owned mines up in the mountains. We were even invited to join them for lunch as their guests in a trailer so rusty that you could never even imagine anyone still using it. The best experiences are certainly always unplanned.
Foodwise, there seemed to be a few classics like plov and laghman that you could find in every restaurant. I did like the food I was served even though I skipped the horse meat section this time. Vegetarians may have it a little difficult in Kyrgyzstan, since the dishes usually include big amounts and junks of fatty meat. For me it was all delicious. Earlier I used to assume that naturally grown meat is better only for it’s values. Kyrgyzstan is where I found out what kind of a massive difference it really makes to the flavor when the livestock grows free in nature. Their meat produce is so good that it is what the abroad living Kyrgyz people fill their luggage with when visiting their homes.
Surprisingly, there were some decent craft beer bars to be found in Bishkek. Otherwise the drinking section narrows down to mostly insanely cheap vodka (starting from ~1e per bottle) and some local brandy produce. I was happy to find such brands as Finlandia, Koskenkorva and Kyrö Distillery being presented as the high-end choices in most of the bars and restaurants. A supermarket in Bishkek also still remains as the least expected place for me to find Finnish bulk beer up to this date.
They obviously have their own freaky foods and drinks starting from weird, floury sour milk to extremely salty and sour dried cheese balls. I have tried various exotic and disgusting foods in my life, but due to the looks only, I couldn’t even taste the local horse meat sausages that were recommended to me in here. Luckily most of the food was pretty great.
I remember thinking afterwards that if I ever run into any Kyrgyz people in Finland, I will return all the favors done to me by treating that person like a royal. I always got help when needed and had the feeling that if there was no accommodation to be found, I could probably just ask a stranger on the street to host me, like I had read from some other blogs.
The best experience to sum up the culture with, is what happened to me when leaving the nightclub alone at night once in Bishkek. Instead of being kidnapped or mugged in the streets, some young locals came to talk to me and insisted on offering me a beer on the way. I was then taken to a restaurant where I was served traditional food and kept good company for an hour or two before being taken to my hostel with a taxi. They obviously refused to accept any money in return.
Two weeks in Kyrgyzstan offered me not only some of my best seen scenery in life but also a few shortcuts to self-development when having to leave my comfort zone. Unknown is often assimilated to being something scary and dangerous. In this case, reality was quite the contrary.