In the summer of 2016 David and I found ourselves in the living room of a family home in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. David on a makeshift mattress made of lambs wool blankets on the floor and me, six months pregnant, on a sofa next to him. We had arrived at our bed and breakfast before they were ready for us.
Yes. Why not go to Kyrgyzstan? We went to celebrate our five years of marriage, which have been rather adventurous and taken us to many places. We aim to continue this trend. Bishkek, the capital, is about 5 hours’ flight from Dubai and extremely cheap to go to using Arabian equivalent of Ryan Air, Air Arabia or Fly Dubai. So I booked the flights one day and announced the plan to David. He said: “Ok.”
Kyrgyzstan is one of those Central Asian countries that many people refer to as ‘stans’, because they are confused about whatever countries there are in the enclave between Russia and South Asia. To my mind, Central Asia is a completely overlooked area and has so much to offer: beautiful nature, interesting traditions, delicious food and lots of positive surprises. Sure, the infrastructure is sometimes difficult to manoeuvre, and you can’t always get by in English, so they are not an easy destination. But with a bit of effort and willingness travellers are in for an amazing surprise.
Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Muslim country, but it is also a traditionally nomadic country and that mixed with Soviet heritage and Russian influence makes for fascinating compote. After the collapse of the USSR, they started a big drive towards Kyrgyz identity and have since started to use the Kyrgyz language more, but everyone still mostly uses Russian. However, on our travels outside the city, we encountered rural people, who don’t understand Russian and only speak Kyrgyz, Dungan, Uyghur or another of the many languages present in those areas.
Bishkek, the perfectly planned Soviet capital city
As soon as we landed and stepped into the immigration lounge, the stale air of Sovietness slapped us in the face. The immigration officers all wore wonderfully huge hats, which I am sure double as an umbrella or a sun shade depending on the weather. When it was our turn to present our passports, it became evident that for the next 4 days I would need to dig deep and evoke the Russian I learned at school. We were picked up by Radik in the middle of the night from Bishkek International Airport. Radik is the son of the couple who run the B&B. They first named their establishment Radison, after their son (Radik + son, get it?). They soon got a letter from Radisson (yes, the actual hotel chain), telling them to change this name as the name Radison is already taken (even though it only had one s). Now it is simply called Family Guesthouse and a true family affair it is.
When we arrived, in the middle of the night, the lady of the house Gulsiya and her husband Farid, welcomed us with a pot of tea, jam, bread and sweets. We politely obliged and had our midnight snack while telling them where we came from and what we thought of Donald Trump (it was confusing as at the time we were an Estonian and Zimbabwean and came from Dubai). I was amazed by how quickly my Russian came to me. Although it was very broken and grammatically incorrect.
After a couple of hours in the living room, our room was ready and we moved there to finish our sleep. I was too excited to sleep long and we were up early to go and explore the capital of this Central Asian state. We got up and had breakfast al fresco at a courtyard just outside our room. The breakfast was nostalgic for me: jam, pancakes, cheese, sour cream and litres upon litres of tea. To our slight annoyance, we were joined by tens of bees, who were attracted by the jam.
After breakfast we headed towards Ala-Too Square, which stands at the centre of town, adorned by fountains and surrounded by various government offices. A statue of Manas, the Kyrgyz mythical hero, stands in the centre of the square. Lenin’s statue used to be in his place, but his statue is now banished behind one of the buildings that surround the square.
Bishkek stands at an altitude around 800 metres. This made me feel very dizzy at first, partly due to being pregnant I am sure. So our first day was difficult as we had to stop every 100 metres, because I needed to sit down. We visited many stores and ate many ice-creams as a result of these stops.
We encountered various war statues of heroes of Kyrgyzstan on our walk, sparkling water machines that were ubiquitous throughout the USSR back in the day and which you can find in Estonian history museum now, newspaper kiosks manned by bored babushkas wearing something that reminds me of milkmaid outfit (kittel) and lots of old guys sitting around wearing their kalpak (traditional felt hat) playing chess in circles.
In the evening we visited a restaurant to try some local specialities. We were served kumys (kumõss), which is a drink made by fermenting mare’s milk. It tasted like vodka gone very wrong. Entirely strange and unfamiliar, but loved by the Kyrgyz people, especially the nomads. We also sampled some manty, which are dumplings filled with meat and onions and lagman, which are hand-pulled noodles we were familiar with from China. In Kyrgyzstan they are an Uyghur and Dungan speciality. They were deliciously made and served in a vinegary sauce with peppers and meat (no idea what meat it was). As I was pregnant then, I started to notice everything to do with babies and was pleasantly surprised by the normality of public breastfeeding in Kyrgyzstan. At the restaurant, various families were out with their kids and I saw a lot of boobs, free of prejudice and suckled by happy chubby kids.
Bishkek is a very easy city to maneuver. It was built according to plan, so streets run in parallel to each other and everything follows a logical order, so getting lost is really difficult. Streets have names like Moskovskaya, Kyievskaya, Leninskaya etc. Names you would find in any capital during Soviet times, including Tallinn, but which have now been changed in most former Soviet cities.
Bishkek is not really a city that has endless attractions on offer. For me it was a place of nostalgia, for David a place of curiosity and for most travellers it is a stopover on the way to the rest of the country and rest of the ‘stan’ states. Kyrgyzstan has a very relaxed visa policy, so many travellers find it a convenient place to stop and organize their visas.
Further afield: lake Issyk-Kul
We started our trip to the lake early morning and were driven by Radik. We were joined by his 8-year old son Samir, who was lovely. Sadly his mother had left the family and gone to work at a resort in Turkey. A harsh reality for many families is that one or both of their parents have to leave to find better employment and children are often raised by grandparents or single parents. Radik has done an amazing job raising his son. The little boy warmed up to us quickly and soon started to practice his English while I practiced my Russian – a perfect balance.
As we drove out of town, Radik explained to us that the road we were driving on was part of the original Silk Road. You can only imagine our excitement as Xi’an, where we lived in China, is considered to be the start of Silk Road. To now see another part of this ancient trade route was mind-blowing. Sure, it looked like any old street, but the thought of it was incredible. And it is evident all across Kyrgyzstan in their mixed nomadic, Arabic, Chinese culture, architecture, even food, clothing and traditions. They also have a long tradition of silk carpet making and their traditional pottery is adorned with patterns I automatically associate with Silk Road. One of the main cities on Silk Road – Samarkand – in Uzbekistan is not that far away.
We were headed for a holiday town called Cholpon-Ata, one of the many access points to the lake. We passed tens of watermelon sellers who sold the goods out of the backs of their old Ladas, which seem to still be going strong. The watermelon stands were soon replaced with miles upon miles of orchards by the side of the road. We stopped at one of the apple stalls and bought 2 kg of apples from a young girl, who smiled shyly at us when I addressed her in Russian. Radik explained to us that she probably doesn’t speak Russian and proceeded to talk to her in Kyrgyz. The apples were delicious. In about 20 minutes the orchards were replaced by corn fields and the apple stalls replaced with people cooking corn on the cob by the side of the road. Of course, we had to stop and buy some mealies. Again, it was sold to us by a young girl. She handed us the corn and with it some salt inside a plastic bag. It was mega delicious! Radik explained that most of these children working in the farms do not go to school and get married very early. A standard third world issue. When I was doing my MA, I wrote a research paper of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. What happens sounds rather gruesome, but it is not as straightforward as it sounds. When a boy likes a girl, he would go with his mates and snatch her, usually from the street or from her home. He would proceed to take her into his family’s home and a wedding would be held pretty much immediately. The boy’s mother will tie a white scarf on her head, indicating that she is now married. The girl is expected to fight back with all her might, but to finally succumb. Returning back home once she’s been kidnapped is frowned upon as she is now ‘damaged goods’. Shocking, I know.
Sometimes, it is all a theatrical act as the boy and girl have already decided to get married. Sometimes, the kidnapping is done to get away from paying the bride price. Sometimes, especially in rural areas, the kidnapping is real and the girl has no idea it is going to happen. In all cases, she will normally accept her fate.
According to historians, this is not a tradition, but something that surfaced post-independence from the USSR as a means to cut wedding costs and to instill Kyrgyz tradition as opposed to Soviet or Russian ones. Bride kidnapping is illegal, but the law is not enforced.
Also on the side of the roads and on the hills we saw many yurts and herds of horses. A horse is almost like deity in the Kyrgyz culture. They are kept as working animals, but also as sources of meat, milk and skin and of course used for transportation by the nomadic families.Along the mountains and scenes of nomad life were pockets of dilapidated villages that were formed around factories in Soviet times and that would have been full of life back in the day. They now stand nearly abandoned, worn out and are real eyesores.
Issyk-Kul is the second largest saline lake in the world, after Caspian Sea. The name translates into ‘warm lake’ in Kyrgyz as it never freezes even though it’s surrounded by snow-capped Tian Shan mountain range. The lake used to be a location for USSR underwater missile testing and according to rumours told to us by some locals, the Kyrgyz government has given Russian armed forces permission to test their torpedoes in an undisclosed location on the lake.
Contrary to its name, the lake was far from warm. Despite that, the beach was filled with holidaymakers, many of whom had come from Russia. I must say the views all around were breathtaking with snow-capped mountain peaks reflected in the turquoise lake water. A lovely contrast to a view that reminded me of Switzerland was an old boombox blasting Boney M at full volume, corpulent older ladies sunbathing themselves with their husbands wearing the tiniest trunks and little girls going round the beach selling dried fish. It was like a scene from a cartoon. It was amazing. A little further afield there was a camel with a young boy no older than 10 taking holidaymakers for joyrides and lots of Ladas were parked by the road surrounded by restaurants promising the best shaslyk in Central Asia.
We visited a bizarre museum by the lake, which introduced different religions and Kyrgyz history, but also had a statue of the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbajev for some reason. It felt like many places did in China: lots of money has been spent on something that looks magnificent from far away, but has no substance on a closer look.
After a very quick dip into the lake we headed for a restaurant and found one that was non-descript but served the best shaslyk I have ever had in my life.We got back to town and fell asleep after a cup of tea with the family at the sound of a thunderstorm.
Osh bazar is one of the biggest markets in Asia. You can buy anything there. When I say anything, I mean anything. We saw shops selling horse-riding seats, computer parts and push-up bras made in China. We really wanted to buy some local hats called kalpak. We were very successful and got 3 of them. My nose also took us to a bread stall, where the lovely ladies exalted ‘Pribaltika’ in excitement when they found out I was from Estonia. After our trip to the market we sat down at a restaurant and finally tried some of the national dish called beshbarmak. It is basically noodles with horsemeat. Like all food in my life, it was lovely. With that we had some beetroot and herring salad ‘fur coat’, beer and dumplings, again all ubiquitous throughout the post-Soviet space.
All in all I would say Kyrgyzstan and its people are amazing and it is a place well worth visiting. It is ideal for nature and culture lovers. You will also find some amazing history there and you will find the most hospitable people I have ever met on our travels thus far.
пока for now!