Kicking it around Khujand …

Khujand (or Khojand as it is also known and once called Leninabad) is situated in the Fergana Valley, in the north of Tajikistan and is the country’s second largest city. Before the 13th century, it was a grand city built by Komil Khojandi filled with palaces, mosques and citadels until those pesky Mongols destroyed almost all trace of the city. In more recent times, it remains the wealthiest part of the country and escaped the worst of the post-soviet civil war (more about that later).

There is still plenty of interest to see in the city, and we started our day at the Arbob Cultural Palace, showcasing the amazing Tajik artisans work.  Built in the 1950s as the headquarters of the Soviet collective farms it was modelled on the winter gardens of St Petersburg.  The Chairman of the collective at that time was a man called Urukhojaev (sometimes referred to as the Tajik gaint due to his size – 170kg!!) who was a personal friend of Stalin and therefore had no issues with money for funding the build!

The interior was stunning and the paint colours are all natural, dating back to the building’s construction!  Apparently, it has a 100 year guarantee 👍

Probably the most important claim to fame for the building is that it was the site where, in 1992, Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviet Union and where the current Tajik flag was chosen.  It was also the location for the signing of the Peace Agreement in 1997.  For these reasons, it was the perfect place for a history lesson – a more recent history (before we dove back into the ancient history).  I do hope you are sitting comfortably! 😊

Towards the end of Soviet Union, there was a lot of corruption, many people got lazy and unmotivated as everyone got the same salary regards of their work ethics!   “People pretended to work and the Government pretended to pay them!” By this point Russia had also started stock piling goods from all the states to ensure for her own solo future, leaving the people of Tajikistan unprepared to be independent! 

Farhod also explained that  University students were forced to do 70 days work on farms each year, compromising their studies – this was actually still the case until 2009!

Fundamental Islamics saw Tajikistan as an easy place to take control and started giving weapons and funding to create an Islamic state. This lead to a devestating civil war.  The war paralysed the economy, there was no heath care or education and many Tajik’s were starving with little or no food.  This went on for 5 years, during which time, over 60,000 lives were lost and neighbours like Uzbekistan, stopped providing resources such as natural gas.

The northern part of the country (where Khujand is located), avoided the worst of the war as fighters did not want to cross the Fann mountains – given our journey the day before, I understand why as I can’t imagine what a journey it would have been without the modern roads and tunnels.  In the south, in the Pamir ranges, there was severe famine and the Aga Khan foundation provided much aid.

The current President, Emomali Rahmon, who has held that position since 1994 is considered by many outside of the country as a dictator. However within the country he is considered by many as a peace maker as he was instrumental in ending the civil war after negotiating peace with the opposition.  He was even given the title of “Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” – though I am not sure how much he had to do with the gifting of this title 😂.  He was also ‘given’ lifelong immunity from prosecution, veto powers over all state decisions and the ability to be the President for as long as many terms he wants!

It is worth noting that his son, Rustam is the Mayor of Dushanbe and it is rumoured that this is the reason why so much money is being spent in the city. He is still in his 30s but it is expected that he will be succeed his father as president at some point.

We also learnt about the ‘lucky’ number 16 in the Tajik culture.  16th November is Presidents Day celebrating that on the 16th of November, 1991 in the Arbob Palace (where we were sitting), at the 16th session of the Supreme Council of Tajikistan, the constitutional order was put in place.  Apparently, that session lasted 16 days, and the President sat in seat 16, row 16 of the grand auditorium where we sat. 

The President comes from a peasant family and still tries to be a ‘man of the people’ but has not always made ‘friends’ amongst other leaders.  In particular there was a long time distrust and rivalry with the neighbouring Uzbek President (who was also in power since independence).  The animosity escalated to the point that borders were closed and the flow of gas, water and food suppliers were stopped – some called it an ‘undeclared cold war”.

That Uzbek President died in 2018 and the new President allegedly resolved the conflicts diplomatically in 2 days which opened up the border we would shortly be crossing in to Uzbekistan.

On the way out of the building we stopped to admire a large and intricately embroidered carpet, depicting some of the ‘hero’s of socialistic labour from the Soviet famers collective (see above). 

Our next stop was a silk factory which was established in the city in 1932.  After independence it became family owned and the same family continue to run it today.  We were given a tour of the factory and told about the incredible process off turning silk in to the fabrics – a process that can take up to 2 months with 80% of the work being done by hand!  We were all surprised about how much access we had to the factory and we could wander between the machines and the workers to take photos.

Not surprisingly, they had a small shop where they sold some of their wears and those ‘shoppers’ amongst us (and there were a few) went a little crazy 😂 with all the beautiful silks (though I found some of the patterns a little hard on the eye!).

On the way back in to town we stopped at Somoni Park – well known for it’s large Somoni statue (where Lenin once stood) and large fountains (which were not going as they are normally only turned on at night). It is also a favourite spot for visits due to the beautiful mosaics flanking the steps which tell the history of the region.

Back in town, one of the most popular places to visit is the Panchshanbe (Thursday) Bazaar and the nearby Shiekh Massal ad-Din Mosque complex.  The complex is fairly liberal and even some local women were not wearing head covers but we wore our scarfs out of respect as we wandered around the site.  The oldest mausoleum dates back to 1394 but there are also much more modern buildings in the site including one with a beautiful metallic emerald green dome and another much older one with a blue lapis dome. Part of the mosque was still under construction with women doing painstaking hand painting and applying gold leaf.  Our guide knew the ladies so we had to stop for a chat and a photo.

We continued to be ‘popular’ as we walked around with locals coming up to chat and wanting to take photos with us – others just wanting us to take photos of them 😂😂

The best view of the mosque complex is actually from the first floor of the market – apparently is it the largest market in Central Asia.  Built in 1964 it is overly elegant for a market and is very well stocked with dried fruit and nuts (as we have come to expect)!

Our final official stop for the day was the Historial Museum of Sughd Province which is built in to the reconstructed city walls.  It is the national museum of the northern province and has a whole room dedicated to Alexander the Great (356BC – 323BC).  Some fun facts about Alexander: by the age of 30 he had created one of the largest empires in the ancient world; there are apparently 20 cities in the world named after him (Alexandria), and as a young man, he was tutored by Aristotle So he really must have been pretty ‘great’, right? 🤔

In his funeral procession, his hands hung open and empty at his sides – symbolising that although he had conquered half of the world, he still went to the grave with nothing i.e. don’t be greedy!

We were also introduced to a number of other historic Central Asian/Silk Road movers and shakers – some of whom we would hear more of in the coming days:

Spitamenes (370BC-328BC)– a Sogdian warlord who lead the local uprising against Alexander the Great.  Sadly it did not end well as after losing to Alexander’s army (329BC), he was killed by his own wife and his head sent to Alexander as a peace offering.  His daughter then went on to marry one of Alexander’s key generals!

Timur Malik – A Tajik national hero who is known for his defense (though ultimately unsuccessful) of Khujand during attack from the Mongol invasions (1219-1220).  Apparently, the museum is on the site of his fort.

Timur (1336-1405) (also know as Amir Timur, Tamerlane or literally Timur the Lame due to an injury in his 20s) is generally known as a gruesome Turco-Mongol ruler and one of the most powerful rulers of  the 14th century Islamic world!  Despite being responsible for the deaths of 10s of 1000s of people, he is also responsible for building of the beautiful silk road city of Samarkand where he was buried.  It is also worth noting that his great great grandson founded the Mughal dynasty in India, the family responsible for Timurid inspired buildings like the Taj Mahal and Delhi’s Red Fort.

After an morning of information overload, most of the group wanted to go back to the hotel for a relaxing afternoon but I decided to stay in town and join Farhod and Rosemary (another member of the group) visting an orphanage.  Rosemary had brought a large bag of hand knitted baby hats with her and had been giving them out to guides and people we met with small children and she had asked if there was somewhere in the city to drop of some of the little hats.  They were happy to welcome us to the home and the manager took us around and introduced us to some of the staff and children.  The children were excited to receive the hats and chocolates that Farhod had bought and it was lovely to see their smiling faces. 

We also took the opportunity to take the funicular which runs almost a kilometre across the river (back to Somoni Park) where the fountains were now working before wandering through one of the other beautiful parks (which contained some of the original, not restored city walls) filled with a carcophony of myna birds coming in to roost for the evening.

Our final and perhaps most intriguing spot of our ‘exclusive’ tour was to see a large Lenin statue (24 metres high and believed to be the biggest in Central Asia) in a small, nondescript park on the outskirts of town. It had once stood in Somoni Park, where of course Somoni now stands and in fact was only moved in to this new location in 2011!  It was moved overnight and no one knew it was happening and either due to respect to mother Russia or due to a number of still loyal communists (who had protested about its removal) it was decided to move it rather than destroy it (a similar story to other Central Asian cities we had visited so far)! 

By this time the sun was setting and the lighting was lovely in his new setting, a small but beautiful park with stalls playing western music – Rita Ora I think was paying at the time 😂😂.  As we headed back to our lakeside hotel for our last night we were greeted by a large number of beautiful lights again – Tajikistan you’ve done it again 😂😂😂

Touring Tajikistan

We will blame COVID 19 for the last writing hiatus! Working from home does not seem to give me any extra time and certainly does not give me any more motivation, but reliving my wonderful trips from last year is always a great way to reignite my wanderlust – even if I can not go anywhere or really even plan a trip at the moment.

Back to Tajikistan, Penjikent was a bustling little town in the morning with many people out and about in traditional dress doing their morning shopping or drinking tea.  Lots of car horns honking and barrow boys waiting for people in the market. 

Today’s destination was the “Seven Lakes” in the Fann mountains not far from Penjikent. Unfortunately most of the journey was on some pretty bad roads (more about that later) so the journey took most of the day.  We drove out of the town through small communities and into the mountains – nature amazed me again today!

Although some take the opportunity to hike the full distance (and avoid the worst of the roads when travelling by vehicle) we were short on time so drove most of the way, stopping for photo opportunities along the road.

Each lake was a slightly different colour as we climbed higher into the mountains.  Passing by wildlife including a committee of vultures (yes, that is the collective noun for a group of vultures) and goats eating on the side of the rocks.

As we continued to drive further into the mountains and around lake number 4, the roads got narrower and we were all grateful to be having a break for lunch at a local home stay.  The tour company we were travelling with through Tajikistan were working in conjunction with the Government to help local people set up home stays in the region and were teaching them how to manage tourism.  It is a great initiative and was nice to be able to be part of the training. 

Unfortunately, there was a power cut just as we arrived so a cooked lunch turned in to luncheon meat sandwiches followed by hot chips (when they finally got the fire going to cook them lol).  We were supposed to be having “bush legs” – in 1990, President Bush (USA) signed a trade agreement with Gorbachev (USSR) for the delivery of frozen chicken quarters to the USSR who were experiencing food shortages at the time.  These began referred to as “bush legs” and the phrase is still used to this day.

We were all happy to wait as the 13-year-old daughter of the family was glad to have the opportunity to show us the braclets and other things she had made for sale and it meant we had time to walk around the lovely gardens.  As we got to the 5th lake, we were approached by some other ladies who came out to sell their wares so they are clearly getting used to tourists come up in to the mountains.

The road to the 6th lake was nothing like I had seen before – barely wide enough for 1 car as it winds around the edge of the lake with a drop of about 10m into the lake on one side and a sheer cliff side going up on the other side!!  Not too bad until we came across another vehicle coming in the other direction!  At first there was a bit of an argument between the drivers – which our driver appeared to  win as the other vehicle started to reverse to a small area where you could just squeeze 2 cars passed each other right on the edge!!  Sometimes it was better just to close your eyes and hold on! 🤢

Unfortunately by the time we got to the end of the 6th lake we were running late and there was no time to walk up to the 7th lake. I was disappointed as I had been looking forward to the walk after such a long drive.  Instead we drove up to the final lake which was beautiful and we meet a lovely local family out for a walk and made friends with some local wildlife (cows and donkeys)  before walking back down to the 6th lake (obviously taking much less time that walking up!). 👍

We stopped at a small village on the way back down the mountain and walked through it for a short time  – it is always so interesting to see the locals way of life, people going about their everyday business – doing washing things in the river, herding livestock, kids playing in the streets.

Back in town and I decided to take a night off from the group dinner and just watch Netflix and chill with a snickers and a Diet Coke – just what I needed as although group tours are a great way to see as much as possible in a short space of time, spending 16 hours a day with the group can get a bit much!

Next morning I had time to visit the local market before we set off to our next destination. Another great opportunity to see the local people going about their normal morning routines.   Walking around I was often greeted with the Arabic greeting Salaam Alaikum, said with a bow of the head and your right hand in your heart.  It makes sense here as Tajik is a Persian language but the greeting  was also used in the other stans we have already visited but I guess more because of the Muslim connection.

Today was another long driving day – approximately 6-7 hours which started off through the mountains and through another 5km long tunnel – this time built by China (and it was much better than the Iranian built one we had driven through a couple of days before.)   We had a couple of road side stops for toilets and snacks,. First in a small town, where water running off the mountain side was used to keep drinks cool and then another stop on the side of the mountain where small stalls were set up selling local snacks stop – lots of dried apricots, almonds, apricot kernels etc.

If we were lucky enough to have Farhodbek in our vehicle (our Tajik guide), we would be entertained with local stories and fun facts e.g. Tajik weddings used to be huge and last a full week but to keep costs down, the Government took it upon themselves to put a law in place to cut this down to only one wedding party which can last only 3 hours with a maximum of 150 guests! 

Our next stop was in the town of Istaravshan, allegedly founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century.  As far back as the 14th century the city was renown in Central Asia for its artisans and was a regular stop on the Silk Road caravan route.  Even today it is still famous for its blacksmiths and in particular it’s hand-crafted knives.   Another claim to fame is that Alexander the Great (allegedly) married a girl from Istaravshan.

Different crafts were in different neighbourhoods and we visited the blacksmith neighbourhood where they were making knives and sickles etc.

As is now common when we stop in small towns, people come up to us wanting to practice their English and it is a nice way to interact with them.  On this stop we met an older gentleman, who, after a brief conversation, revealed a couple of cloth bags over this shoulder and under his arm … in these bags he had quails – fighting quails 🤔🤔.  Apparently, there is a long tradition of quail fighting in the city but I had never heard of it!!  Even Aijan, our guide from Kyrgyz had never seen such a thing. 

As we got back on the road, we were now out of the mountains and back to the wide open plains and it was not too much longer before we arrived in Khujand, our final destination for the day. 

Our hotel in Khujand was right on the water front of the Kayrakkum Reservoir, otherwise known as the ‘Tajik Sea’ as it is the largest body of water they have! It had a real resort feel to it and it was extremely peaceful – I actually felt like I was on holiday for our two nights there 😂 .

Tajikistan … you had me at assalomu alaykum (hello)

After a significant writing hiatus and a move back across the world to New Zealand, I have finally got back in to writing about my trips and have to go way back to September and my wonderful trip to Central Asia … welcome to Stan No. 3 – Tajikistan

  • Currency:  Somoni (TJS)  US$1 = TJS 9.7
  • Language: Tajik, Russian
  • Size: 143,100km2
  • Population:

Accordingly to our guide, ‘a drunk Russian divided up the countries as random shapes” and that’s why the central Asian countries have sure odd shapes – believe it or not??

We arrived in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan to a bit of an immigration queue – people pushing in, immigration offices just up and leaving their desks.  Once through that it was on to the customs area where they were scanning everyone’s bags – unfortunately people were not picking them up fast enough and the bags were backing up on the machine and then falling all over the floor  🤦🏻‍♀️ Finally through the formalities and we met our local guide Farhodbek – or Farhod for short. 

Farhod explained to us that the Tajik language and culture are based on Persian rather than Turkic that we see in the other Central Asian countries and they are very proud of their Persian heritage.

Despite its population of 9 million people, Tajikistan is the smallest of the Central Asia countries by landmass and the capital Dushanbe (interesting Dushanbe means Monday which is the day the bazaar used to be held)  has a population of around 1 million.  It was appointed the capital in 1924 by the Russian Tzar (when it was named Stalinabad), but the area has been settled as far back as 5000BC.

Farhod starting weaving his magic early on in my Tajikistan visit as he had arranged for the Museum of Antiquities to stay open beyond it’s normal closing time just for our group so we were the only people there.  It was a great introduction to the incredible history of the country.  From Alexander the Great, through the Hellenistic period and the land of Bactria (where the two humped Bactrian camels originated from).

The country (or it is probably more accurate to say region) has been ruled by Oxus, Andronovo, Buddists (the museum houses the largest surviving clay Buddha in Central Asia), Nestorian Christains, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Islam.  On top of that it has been part of the Achaemenid Empire, Sasanian Empire, Hephthalite, Empire, Samind Empire, Mongol Empire (and I sure we have all heard of the mighty Genghis Khan who killed all the people in his way, destroying animals and crops so any survivors of his marauding could not survive), Timurid dynasty, Khanate of Bukhara, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union before it finally gained independence in 1991.

It was also in the museum, where we met Somoni (or Ismail Samani) for the first time.  This is the man the money is named after and the same one who stands on large plinths around the country (he has replaced Lenin who once stood on the same plinths) and he is considered the father of the Tajik nation. 

Somoni ruled in the region between 892 – 907 and was the first ruler in the region to embrace Islam.  Science and literature also flourished under his rule.  A local scholar wrote he “was extremely just, and his good qualities were many.  He had pure faith in God (to Him be power and glory) and he was generous to the poor – to name only one of his notable virtues”.

I am not sure quite how to describe out next stop but let me start with wow – the over the top opulence of the Navruz Palace would not have been out of place in Dubai or somewhere similar!!!

The ‘palace’ was privately funded by local business people (at the ‘suggestion’ of the president).  As with the museum, it was closed today but our guide had worked his magic for us to be allowed in.

Each room was more wow then the next – massive ‘tea’ rooms, meeting rooms ending in a mirror room! All made my local artisans in traditional style and colours from natural products. I am not sure I have ever seen anything quite like it and the photos definitely do not do it justice!

The gardens were just as stunning, overlooking the lake and clearly a popular place for wedding photos as there were at least 3 couples getting their photos taken.

We had a quick break in the luxurious Hilton hotel (which had a bomb check of vehicles entering the gates!) before heading out again. Oddly I turned on the TV and ended up watching a Kiwi programme – no idea what it was but it was set in Wellington and had Julian Denison in it!!! How bizarre lol

To end the day we joined locals in a late afternoon stroll around a large park which housed a very tall flag pole – notable because it was the highest flagpole in the world until 2015!!   We then moved into another park where there was live local music and many people and families dancing.  (Apparently Dushanbe has 27 parks so is considered a ‘green’ city.)

As darkness fell, the lights came and again, wow!!  It was almost a little like Las Vegas and the grand National Library looked like a casino!  This city is insane 🥴🥴🥴

Already around the central city, there were a lot of people out for an Sunday evening walk, women in beautiful traditional outfits, walking along wonderful lit boulevards – it is like Christmas all year round it seems and I love it.

After an overwhelming buffet breakfast at the hotel we headed out of the city towards the Fan Mountains , which seemed to start right on the outskirts of the city.  It was Tajikistan’s Independence Day (September 9th) and therefore a public holiday so the streets were quiet and lined with flags.  Large pictures of the president also adorned the city  – oddly they all seemed to be the same photo, photoshopped on different backgrounds – one surrounded by children, one in a poppy field, one in front of one of their large hydro power plants lol

A few random but interesting facts about Tajikistan:

  • Tour guides pay no tax till 2021 to help promote tourism in the country
  • 100% of the countries power is hydro power (and on this day they were opening another huge turbine)
  • In Central Asia, Tajik roads are the best (that may be a matter of opinion)
  • It is illegal to take dirty cars in to the city and you can get fined for doing so! This means the road side on the out skirts of the city is lined with car washes

Tajik’s are very proud of their language, culture and heritage which they managed to keep alive during the Soviet period.  So much so, the wall around a large cement factory we passed on the way out of town was decorated with pictures of famous people and places around the country.  It went on and on and on and was really something quite special.

The roads in the mountains were pretty good and there were lots of snow tunnels, including one that is 5km long and worryingly has a reputation of being one of the world’s most dangerous tunnels (and is also referred as the Tunnel of Death)! Obviously I made it through alive despite the fact that is no drainage or ventilation and the road was full of pot holes!

It was a relief when we arrived at Iskander Kul (Alexander Lake – named after Alexander the Great) as this was definitely not my favourite travel day!!!  The views were amazing views through the mountains but the windy roads, stuck in the back of the small van with no air gave me a terrible headache 😟.

After a small issue at the entrance to the park (as the guard wanted our guide to pay in cash, but his company paid a by bank transfer so much ‘discussion’ was required both on the way in and out!!!) before we were able to head down to the lake. 

From the view point on the road,  the lake looked an incredible blue – from close up it not quite so blue but still beautiful with all the mountains surrounding it.  The blue tint is because it is feed from glaciers and ice in the mountains surrounding it.  Just a few minutes walk away, there was a spring feed lake (called Snake Lake) which was a completely different colour.  Such a contrast and equally as beautiful.

I managed to get a seat in the front of the vehicle for the next part of the journey and felt much better for it, so much so I managed to take a nap for some of the journey 👍🏻 before we had a toilet stop at a petrol station and sampling one of the local delacacies – a ‘Facebook’ ice cream 👍🏻👍🏻 (it was a local ice cream so no idea if facebook know anything about tit 🤔😂) – it was tasty enough though.

As we continued through the mountains it was really interesting to see the everyday life of the people living in the mountains.  Small towns with road side stalls keeping there drinks cool in the small water falls running down the rocks, people walking their cows or goats closer to town at the end of the day – some with just 1, other small children trying to rangel 2 or 3. Men riding donkeys or women carrying hay on their heads and other people tending to their fields.

Our stop for the night was in a lush valley and in the town of Penjikent – very different to the landscape we had driven through today and in stark contrast to Dushanbe yesterday.  We were staying in what was described as the nicest hotel in town, but being a small town, it was very ‘local’ in style but still comfortable enough.

Keeping it local, we had dinner in a very local spot where we had the most amazing lamb kebabs – thankfully it was actually the first day I was hungry for dinner!  Many of the local diners stopped by and were interested to know about us.  Not sure if they get many tourists there so it was lovely to be able to interact with them – albeit briefly. 👍

Return to Kazakhstan

What a surprisingly country Kyrgyzstan was.  I am not really sure what I expected but I guess it was the barren mountains and camels etc but not the other wonderful landscapes that would not have looked out of place in Switzerland or even New Zealand. The people were warm and welcoming – many cultures and nationalities all living harmoniously together (well at least from my perspective).  The food – well all I can say is boorsuk 😂😂😂 and of course I must give credit to all the other wonderful soups and stews we had and the incredible hospitality.  I am sure I left the country at least a couple of kg heavier than when I entered 🤦🏻‍♀️ .

We started the drive to the Kazakh border on a sealed road and then the final 20km on unsealed road as we got closer to the border, passing (and in some cases driving through) herds of sheep, cattle, horses and passed lush green grassy land as we drove in to the mountains.  Then more sheep, cows, horses, sheep, cows 😂 – there were very few cars on the road, but soooo many animals as it was the start of the autumn migration.

As we climbed into the mist, the temperature dropped and the roads got worse and it was clear we were heading to a border crossing that is not used often – I was so glad I did not pack my big coat in my bag like some others did!

The border crossing in the mountains was bitterly cold and apparently it closes in October as it is then too cold and I was not surprised! We crossed out of Kyrgyzstan and walked 100m or so in what felt like arctic conditions at around 2000 m above sea level to reach the Kazakh side – such a contrast to yesterday’s beautiful weather.

I was the first in the group to go through and the border soldiers took ages over my passport before finally stamping me in and the only customs question was ‘do I have any guns or ammunition’! A quick no and I was back in Kazakhstan. 

Our Kazakh guide Gau was there to meet us and we headed off in on the terrible road in to Kazakhstan (apparently it was under construction and definitely not a road that is used often.) 

Our first stop was in the small town of Kegen for a toilet stop and tea served with fresh pastries with cheese (which were amazing).  The café did not have a toilet so we had to walk through a small local market for a toilet which turned out to be hole in the concrete with rebar across … and better yet, two holes in the same little nook (I do wish I had a photo but sadly I did not have my phone with me)! Not the nicest but toilets have been hit and miss the last few days – with a few road side nature stops thrown in which to be honest are often nicer than the inside stinky options!

We are now in the northern part of the Tian Shan mountains (the same range as we were in in Kyrgyzstan).  These mountains are considered one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, even the name means Celestial or Heavenly Mountains in Chinese. 

It is here that we find the Charyn River, that over time has carved out the colourful and impressive Charyn Canyon – some say the Grand Canyon of Central Asia.  Unfortunately, the weather was against us and we could not take a walk to the bottom of the canyon, but the rain eased up enough for us to walk around the top for a shortly while.  Turns out it had lulled us in to a false sense of security and we got caught out when the heavens opened again so had to set a quick pace back to the van for our ‘picnic’ lunch.

The canyon was incredible and took me completely by surprise (again – I clearly had not done enough research in to where I was going on this trip as so many places took me by surprise lol).   The area was full of rocks with colourful striations, lots of different rock formations (some looking like castles – some of the canyon is known as the Valley of Castles) and we could just spot through the rain a river oasis at the bottom.

From the canyon, we drove through vast plains, where big battles took place during the Kazak – Dzungar (from Mongolia) wars in the 1600-1700s.  A more recent reference is that, along with the canyon, it was also the location for part of the music video for the singer ‘Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s’ song Skin.

By late afternoon we finally arrived in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan with a population of just over 2 million.  It was the capital of the country until 1997 (when it was moved to Astana/Nur-Sultan) but it is often still considered the main city and is the education centre of the country.

The next morning we finally got a sleep in, a little time to recharge before our walking tour around Almaty.  Unfortunately, our guide Gau was sick, so today we had Dimi, a Kazakh of Russian origin.  Despite missing Gau, it was really interesting to get different insights that he had in to the country and its culture.

The city itself was founded in 1850s when a Russian fort was built and nomads were displaced from their territory moved in to the area, but there are remnants of other settlements in the area dating back to 1000-900 BC – in fact one of the Saka Golden Warriors we saw in the museum in Nur-Sultan was found in this area.   Sadly,  most of that early town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1887.

Alma-ata literally translates to ‘Father of Apples’ and it is said that Kazakhstan is the birth place of the apple.  Vast numbers of wild apple trees use to grow around the foothills of the mountains and apples were transported from here along the silk road trading routes and beyond.  (As well as apples, apparently Dutch tulips can trace their origins back to Central Asia and a number of varieties still grow wild today – another reason to return in the spring!)

The greenery of Almaty was in stark contrast to Nur- Sultan and in the centre of the city was the beautiful Panfilov Park.  It was designed by a French architect and has wide walk ways which were originally designed for carriages.

The park has a number of worthwhile sites, starting with the candy coloured Zenkov Cathedral – apparently the tallest wooden Orthodox cathedrals and in fact one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.  Built in 1907, it is considered one of the earliest earthquake proof buildings as it was designed (by the architect Zenkov) with a sand pillow foundation.  That along with the flexibility of the wood and the use of metal staples rather than nails, saw it safely through the 1911 earthquake, though the priests would prefer people to believe it was divine intervention!

Apparently, many religious icons were destroyed during the Soviet period, so false walls had been created inside the church to keep these precious items safe from harm.  We were fortunate that internal restorations had just been completed 2 weeks prior to our visit and got to enjoy the interior in its true gold leafed glory. 

The park gets it name from the Panfilov Hero’s.  28 soliders from Almaty who died (or did they??) fighting the Nazis tanks in the small village near Moscow in 1941.  Their efforts delayed the Nazis march on Moscow sufficiently to allow the soldiers there to prepare for the invasion attempt.  Subsequently the park is also home to a massive and somewhat confronting Soviet war memorial to the Panfilov heros and all the others who fought in the Great Patriotic War (known to most as WWII).

The momument shows 15 soliders, one for each of the member states of the Soviet Union and if you look closely you can see the different ethnicities and nationalities in their faces and clothes.  They also make up the shape of the USSR (which takes a little imagination to see). 

In total, over 1.2m Kazakh soldiers fought in war and at least half did not return home.

Next up was a visit to the Green Market filled with stalls piled high with fruit (dried and fresh) and nuts, milk and meat products, honey and pollen (which you stuck a honey covered stick in to and that ate it) and much much more. 

I was the only one who wanted to try anything so Dimi, and I headed in to the stalls to try camel milk (a little fermented and like natural drinking yogurt but much better than horse milk), really tasty dried milk product with or without honey, then on to meat – horse, caribou (imported from Russia) and camel (not common) – mostly cured so like salami and pretty tasty.

Following on with the Russian theme of the day, we had a Russian lunch in a restaurant decorated like a house from Tsarist Russia – salads, Shchi Soup (basically a Russian style cabbage soup), peppers stuffed with meat, little dumplings and ‘famous’ Almaty apple for dessert.  All in all pretty tasty. 

Finally, after lunch we had some free time – the only downside of trips like this is that there is so much to see and do in such a short space of time each day is packed full!  Because of that, I probably did not make the most of the free time but I enjoyed an iced coffee and a nanna nap 😂!

That said, I did brave the short walk to the big modern mall and despite all the traffic lights and clearly marked crossing, crossing the busy roads still seems to be somewhat risky!  This probably goes back to something our guide told us in the market where there was a sign saying no photos – he said, in this country signs don’t really mean anything 🤔🤔🤔😂 good to know!

After a refreshing break we took the gondola/cable car to Kok tobe (blue or green mountains) for a beautiful view over city as the sun started to set.  It seemed a popular location for locals with its small stalls and fun fair atmosphere.  The weirdest thing was a life size statue of the Beatles!!  Apparently they were/are very popular in Kazakhstan – who knew???

We finished off our last day in Kazakhstan by visiting the Palace of the Republic  (once the Lenin Palace of Culture), built in 1992 as a large meeting and concert venue. It looked particularly pretty with the setting sun reflecting in its glass façade and having yet another lovely dinner listening to a band playing modern music on traditional instruments (Sean Mendez seemed to be a big favourite 😂😂)

An interesting point worth noting is that Kazakhstan is currently in the process of changing its alphabet from the Russia-like Cyrillic to the English-like Latin alphabet.  The change was announced in 2017 with a 7-year plan introduced to have the transfer complete by 2025.  Some say this change was to help people drop any remnants of their Russian culture and reaffirms that Russia is no longer a partner.

This is not the first time a language change has been forced upon the Kazakhs (and others in the area) as most of the Central Asian Turkic states used Arab script for over 1000 years before being invaded by the Russians.  In fact, communist Russian introduced a Latin alphabet for the Turkic language initially, before switching to Cyrillic in the 1940s!  The language changes helped disassociated people with their cultural roots as they could no longer read the literature from that time.  Of course, another alphabet change means history is going to repeat itself as now all the literature is in Cyrillic!

As of this year, this new written language is to be taught in kindergartens and primary schools and only time will tell how successful it is.  Interesting, Uzbekistan started to implemented the same change in 1993 but even today, although young Uzbek’s grew up reading books in Latin script, most publications are still in Cyrillic.  The attempt to switch in Turkmenistan has also stalled!

All things Kyrgyz 101

Our day in the yurt camp was one of my favourites, with the quiet simplicity of life in the mountains.  But with such a busy schedule we had to head off the next morning.  Thankfully we had time to walk down towards the lake in the crisp mountain morning air before getting in the vans and getting back on the dusty road to travel the 290 km from Song Kul to Issyk Kul – the second largest alpine lake in the world (after Lake Titicaca).

Before setting off, we of course had to have a huge breakfast, this time with delicious Rice porridge (more like rice pudding to me) and all the breads again!  And of course tea.

How to poor a cup of tea – when pouring tea for someone, you should only fill the cup halfway as a sign of respect.  A half-filled cup means the host wants you to stay longer and have more. If get given a full cup, it means they want you to drink your tea and go … once I learnt this, I was always asking for a cup of tea with ‘no respect’ so I could get a full one lol.

How to make felt – We stopped in the same village as the day before for lunch and this time to also visit the ladies cooperative to see how their felt matting is made.   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people lost their jobs, so a group of women created this felt making cooperative which now has 200 women in it.  Felt is important in the Kyrgyz culture as it is used not only for clothing (in particular hats) but also for the walls of yurt and mats for floors. 

Unbeknown to us, this was an audience participation stop and we were not just shown how they make the felt, but we had to join in.  We started by making a pattern with fresh (and pretty dirty) wool – the wool was piled high and in the end it was probably about 10cm high.  Next step was to roll it in reed mat and add boiling water and soap and wash it numerous times.  Then the fun part started which involved us all taking turns ‘dancing’ on the reed mat, compressing the wool within it – it was lots of fun and the whole the family joined in 😂.  During this process, the lanolin in the wool becomes like glue and sticks all the wool together and we ended up with a flat piece of ‘felt’ with some sort of pattern on it!!  Not sure we would make much money from it but it was a fun way to learn about the process.

How to spot a camel – This is easy, just look out the window of your vehicle lol!! Our next (and unplanned) stop was a very exciting one for me, we had spotted some camels on the side of the road.  They were Bactrian (or two humped) camels, the first I had ever seen.  Bactrian camels are native to the steppes of Central Asia, exactly where we were seeing them and they are can withstand the incredible range of their habitat from -40C in the winter to 40C in the summer! What an incredible animal and I was so happy to have seen them in the wild (even though they probably were a domesticated herd grazing).

How to make a yurt – Next up was a visit to a Yurt master.  Yurts have been the main habitation for Central Asia nomads for thousands of years and even today are used by nomadic farmers during the summer months (like those we stayed with the day before).  They are easy to assemble and dismantle and are strategically designed for good air circulation, heating and cooling and wind resistance. 

Our Yurt master was a 3rd generation Yurt maker and apparently 90% of the village he lives in are involved in yurt building even today. A good yurt takes around 2 months to make just the wood part (which is what he does) and he makes 5-6 per year (to order only). Incredibly, a well-made  yurt can last over 100 years!!!   Sadly, many of the yurts you see today are Chinese made with metal/plastic frames rather than these wonderful local wooden hand crafted ones.

Interestingly there is symbolism in each part of the yurt as the yurt is considered more than just a house.  The wooden circle at the top of the yurt is called a tunduk and it symbolises 4 seasons, each of 3 months – this is such important symbol in the Kyrgyz culture (as it is in the other nomad cultures) you also see it reflected in the Kyrgyz flag. 

How to train an eagle – Eagle hunting is an age-old Kyrgyz tradition (as it is in other the other countries of Central Asia) and is a popular sport in the World Nomad Games (in which our eagle hunter had come 3rd last year!).  Many nomadic traditions were almost wiped out during the Soviet era, but there has been a resurgence of interest since independence.  Training hunting eagles is a skill that is typically passed on from generation to generation and is now more for tourism and rather than hunting for necessity like their ancestors did.   

The Golden Eagles are taken them from nest at 2 months old and are trained for 20 years, after which they are returned back in to the mountains where they live as wild birds up to an age of about 50 years.  During their time in captivity, the hunters and their birds create a strong bonds which was obvious to see during their demonstration. There are only about 50 eagle hunters left in Kyrgyzstan and love it or hate it, it is part of the unique cultural heritage of the Kyrgyz people.   

Of course, the eagle hunters not only expect their birds to hunt but are also great shots with a bow and arrow too!  As I learnt that day, I am NOT!!!

As we finally reached Issyk Kul lake, we were treated to a lovely sunset and we ended our action packed day in another yurt camp.   These yurts were definitely more designed for tourists and were beautiful (apparently made by the master yurt master we had met earlier in the day) and we even had our own toilet and shower. Despite the step up in luxury from the night before, I think I slept better in the peace of the mountains rather than at this camp which was situated by the road !!

How to have an impressive lake – It is important to note at this point that Issyk Kul is no ordinary lake.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, not only is it the second largest alpine lake, it is also the second largest saline lake in the world (though the saline level is very low compared to sea level) and the tenth largest lake in the world (by volume)!  Issyk Kul basically means ‘warm lake’ and although it is often surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it never actually freezes. 

It is also a favourite summer holiday destination for Krygyz people and during Soviet times was a ‘popular’ location for Sanatoriums.  These have now been replaced with resorts and holiday homes, particularly on the northern shores of the lake.

How to have impressive rock formations – As we headed around the shore of the lake the following morning, our first stop was the ‘Fairy Tale Canyon’.  Here rocks full of iron and magnesium have been carved over the years by wind and rain to form various formations with colourful striations ranging through various shades of yellow, orange and red. People flock to the ‘Rainbow mountain’ in Peru, maybe this is the next big thing lol

Next stop was the Jeti-Ögüz Rocks, better known as the Broken Heart and Seven Bull rock formation, we had left the Central Asian steppes well behind us and at 2,000m above sea level, we could have been in Switzerland as the area was so green compared to Song Kul.  Formations have been ‘carved’ out of red sandstone cliffs and tower over the village that was once a high altitude training ground for Russian cosmonauts and Soviet athletes and was apparently the site of the first meeting between Presidents Akaev and Yeltzin in 1991. The rocks themselves are famous in the country and feature in numerous poems and paintings.

There are many legends about the rocks but the one our guide Rifat told us one about a beautiful lady who died of a broken heart after her two potential suitors killed each other fighting over her!!  So not a happy legend then!   Others talk about the two potential suitors killing seven bulls, one each day and on the last day killing the lady! Not sure any of them have a happy ending.

Our final stop here was a small stall selling honey and honey products (which unsurprisingly was surrounded by bees!).  We sampled some of the honey before buying some ‘mead’ to share for dinner.

How to set a table like a Kyrgyz – I have previously mentioned the insane amount of food that we were being served at each meal.  But it is the way a table is set that shows an important culture etiquette and our lunch in the town of Karakol was a perfect example of this.

Standard hosting etiquette in Kyrgyzstan is to ensure the table is full before your guests even sit down and our tables on most days are full of salads, breads, nuts and raisins, dried fruit, sweets, biscuits, fruits etc.  Then the actual meal (often 2-3 courses) is served!  It is very disrespectful if this is not done! 

Our lunch in Karakol was at the home of a Uighur (or Uyghur) family.  Uigurs are a minority Turkic ethnic group who can be found all over Central and East Asia and are considered native of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region of  China.   It was a nice surprise to hear that the family was actually the aunt and grandmother of Rifat (our guide).

His grandmother had handmade the wonderful dumplings which were served with soup and stew and potatoes.  Apparently they often make the dumplings to sell in the town.  Dessert was apples picked straight off the trees in their garden. 

I love learning about the local people I meet on my travels and was really interested to learn that despite being from Kyrgyzstan (with roots in Azerbaijan and China) our guide and his immediate family live just over the border in Kazakhstan!  Of course, when his parents settled there, there were no borders!! They are lucky that there is still freedom of movement across the borders that now exist, not like other times in history where people have been stuck after borders change overnight such as in East Berlin when the wall went up!

How to visit Karakol – Karakol (once know as Przhevalsk after the Russian explorer Przhevalsky) is Kyrgzstan’s 4th largest city despite having a population of only 70,000 (approximately) and sits on the shores of Issyk Kul.  Given its proximity to China (which is only 150kms away) it is ethnically diverse with Uighurs (as mentioned above), Dungans (Chinese muslims who fled persecution in China in the 1800’s), Uzbeks, Russians (it once housed a large Soviet military base) and of course Kyrgyz people and this diversity is reflected in the architecture of the town.

First stop is the beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox Church built in 1895 (replacing a stone one that was destroyed in an earthquake).  During Soviet times, when religion was forbidden, the church was used as a school, a sports hall, a theatre, offices during the war and even a coal store.  After independence in 1992 it was returned to the church.

Next stop is the Dungan mosque – which is like no other mosque I have ever seen as it is built in very much Chinese style, having been designed by a famous Chinese architect and sponsored by a rich Dungan.  In fact it looks more like a Chinese Buddist temple with dragons on the corners.  The mosque was completed in 1910 and is built with NO nails, using only interlocking pieces of wood and was undamaged by a large earthquake in 1911!!  

It is worth noting, that Islam here is much more relaxed than in other places.  Many followers are relatively new to it as a religion as of course if was not allowed in Soviet times.  Rifat told us it is ok if you don’t pray 5 times a day if you are working (God knows you are busy) and women often don’t wear head covers of any kind.  Despite that, women are given long hooded robes to wear before entering the mosque compound.

Following the lake around, you can drive down the long tree lined ‘highways’ to reach the Przhevalsky (or Prjevalski) Museum which is set in a beautiful park like gardens.   If you are lucky (like us) you may pass the filming of a local tv show 🤔🤔 with traditional singing and dancing.

I must admit I was not filled with enthusiasm to visit a museum after such a busy day, but my interest peaked when I discovered that this was a museum dedicated to a man after whom the Przewalski’s Horse was named after!   I have no idea why these horses fascinate me, but I must have learnt about them at school and they can now only be found in the wild in Mongolia. (perhaps a trip for another time).  They are considered the only true wild horse in the world today as they have never been domesticated.

Przhevalsky was a Russian explorer who died of typhoid in Karakol in 1888. He was one of the first people to detail studies of geography, flora and fauna of Central Asia and he mapped many of the paths through the mountain ranges.  When he died he was on the eve of his 5th expedition, but apparently he ‘won’ the money for his first expedition in a card game.

How to stay on a Kyrgyz farm – 30km north of Karakol is the village of Tepke and it here we found are home for our last night in Kyrgyzstan – Reina Kench Guesthouse.

The guest house was on a farm which spans approximately 300 hectares where they raise horses (for racing), merino mix sheep, angus beef and yaks in the higher areas.  The owner of the farm was once the head of Agronomics during soviet times and upon independence, people were given small pieces of land.  On his land there were no trees and no water but with his expert know how, he planted every tree and built every building and purchased (or rented) the surrounding lands to build what they have today. 

As well as the farm, the family now run a successful guest house and help other local farmers make the most of their land.  The guest house side of the business is helped by having his children work at 5 star hotels in Kyrgyzstan and beyond to learn the business of 5 star service before returning home to the family business.  And they have learnt well, dinner in particular was amazing with the star of the meal being Angus beef straight off the farm, washed down with our mead purchased earlier in the day.

They gave us a demonstration of their horses and how they train them and we had a opportunity to wander around the farm – I must be honest, the view from the main guest house area could have been in New Zealand, it was so lush and green with the mountains in the distance.

How to make boorsuks – The last and most important lesson on Kyrgyz culture was the making of my kryptonite – boorsuks!  Those fried puffy dough balls I love! We helped roll out the dough made of flour, water, oil, yeast, salt and sugar (nothing special there), cut and cook them where they puff up into the beautiful golden squares of joy (this is of course where the magic happens lol).  The final step in the process is to eat them hot with a selection of different homemade Jams – goosebury, raspberry, apricot.  Of course, I ate way too many just before dinner but what a wonderful way to spend our last night in Kyrgyzstan.

Nomad life …

This morning we set off to drive 400km – we were in two vans so had plenty of room as we headed down the ‘Chinese’ road (all money invested from China and actually goes to China I believe).  Of course the great thing about this is the road was pretty good quality. 

We stopped at a small road side market – a definite indication that we are in the middle of melon season (water and other), lots of peppers and amazing looking tomatoes and fresh local bread. 

Our first official stop for the day was at Burana tower.  The tower is a 24m high stump of what was a huge brick minaret and is all that remains of the ancient cityof Balasagun.  Balasagun was founded by the Sogdians (an ancient Irainan civilization that one ruled parts of present day Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). It thrived between the 10-14th century and was closely associated with the Silk Road.  What you can see today is part of a 1970’s Russian reconstruction.

Some say the city was abandoned after a plague and the top of the minaret (once 40m tall) collapsed during an earthquake in the 15th century.  In it’s prime, it was the main economic centre of the Chuy Valley and this was seen in it’s developed structures – including water pipes, piping water from the nearby Tien Shan mountains, parts of which can now be seen in the small museum on site.

You could go up the tower but I (or my ankle) decided the steep narrow dark staircase was not worth the trouble and I was quite satisfied with the views from the top of the small mound.

Near the tower there is a field of ancient balbals.  Balbals are gravestones used by the nomadic Turkic tribes who used to roam the area.  Some are people (those holding a wine glass are thought to be a representation of the Nestorians, a group of early Christians), others are more like the headstones we would expect with text on them.  Some were carved by the greatest stone carvers of their time and some are incredibly well preserved.  As well as being gravestones, it is also thought that the stones were used to depict places of residence of the nomadic Turks of Tien Shan.

As we continued on our way we passed a field laid out for a game that is part of the World Nomad Games – a very important sporting event in the area.  The game is called Kok boru (Grey Wolf in English) as the games origin was the need for the nomads to chase wolf packs (whilst on horseback) to keep them away from their livestock.  The riders have to lift a running wolf from the ground and throw it to each other whilst the other team fight to get it from the riders!  Today the game is played with a dead goat but it still shows the strength and horseman skills of the brave riders.

Toilet stops while travelling are always interesting as you never know what you are going to find.  Our next stop provided us with relatively clean and modern toilets but with a sign that I found highly amusing 😂.  The oddest part about this is that it wasn’t even a western toilet – it was a squat toilet 🤔.

It was at this stop I was also introduced to Kurut – rather stinky, sour, salty chalk like yoghurt/cheese balls.  You can probably guess from my description that I was not a fan but they are very popular in the region.  They last for months and months and be can mixed with water to make a drink like we had the day before in Bishkek.

Our route in to the Tien Shan mountains took us through vast barren landscapes, dotted with green oasese (apparently this is the plural of oasis) along the banks of the river and reservoir (although it was almost empty as it is the end of summer) and we had lunch in a guest house in the small village of Kochkor which was surrounded by lots of apple covered trees. 

The further into the mountains we went, the worst the roads became and we continued to wind up to the highest pass at 3446m.  As we finally reached Song Kul, we turned on to an unpaved road  which quickly turned in to a dirt track.  We passed people making hay, grazing sheep and horses, yaks hanging out on the side of the road.  Oh, and don’t forget the stunning views. 

After driving 12 kms along the lake, we finally reached our Yurt camp at 3100m above sea level.  Song Kul is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and is surrounded by summer grazing grounds for the now semi nomadic people of the area.  They stay in the area with their livestock from the beginning of June till September 15th (if the weather allows).   

We quickly dropped off our bags in our allocated yurts before walking a short distance to visit a local nomad yurt.  As there are no trees at this altitude so they pack down cow manure in to bricks to use as fuel in their fires.  Apparently, it is slow burning and kepts the heat well.  We then tried fermented horse milk – like fermented fizzy very sour milk but it was not as bad as it sounds and definitely not as bad as the kurut (oh but they make that too and that is what is in the hanging bag in the photo below).

As the sun was about to set, three of us joined a local in a sunset horse ride.  It was lovely and peaceful and the sunset over the lake was beautiful.  I love these peaceful moments – time to unwind and take in the incredible world around you.

Back at the yurts and we barely had time to wash our hands before it was time for dinner – sitting cross legged on the floor (not ideal for some of the older members of the group) again, there was way too much food!!  4 different kinds of bread, soup, main with meat and potatoes, wonderful home made pulled noddles and sweets.   Unfortunately some of the group was suffering – from the altitude and/or maybe stomach issues so the numbers were not so many to enjoy the huge spread.

After dinner it was a rush to get ready for bed before the power went off at 9pm! 

Time for a little Yurt etiquette  … firstly shoes must always be taken off when entering the yurt (also important in most Kyrgyzstan homes).  You should bow your head and your right hand on your heart as you enter as a sign of respect.  This is made easy when the door frame is purposely made low 😂.  The most important/ elders sit straight ahead as you enter and then males one side and women on the other in declining order of importance.  So much to remember for upcoming parts of the trip! 

Welcome to Stan No. 2 – Kyrgyzstan

After only one very busy day in Kazakhstan, we head to the airport at 5am with a packed breakfast from the hotel for our flight to Bishkek – the capital of Kyrgyzstan.  (Never fear though, we would be returning to Kazakhstan in a few days time.

Nur-Sultan airport was modern and efficient (for some reason I did not expect such efficiency from Kazakhstan, or Central Asia for that matter!) It was also really quiet, so everything went very smoothly and we were soon on board the Air Astana flight to ‘Stan’ number 2.

  • Currency:  Kyrgyz Som (US$1 = 70 KGS)
  • Language: Kyrgyz, Russian
  • Size: 199,900 sq km
  • Population: 6 million

Bishkek airport was far less modern but no less efficient and I was out with my bag in no time. Oddly immigration asked no questions – not how long we’ll be here or where we are staying (lucky as I am already in group tour mode and my brain has completely switched off as someone else just tells me where to be and when 🥴).

At the airport we were met by our local guide Rifat before driving into the city.  Kyrgyzstan (or maybe just Bishkek seems much greener that Nur Sultan, with fields of crops including corn and watermelon’s lining the road. We could see the mountains  through the haze in the distant. (Apparently much of the ‘haze’ was from farmers burning stubble in fields.)  The country is actually 93% mountains and proudly has Issyk Kul (Issyk Kul literally translates to Warm Lake), the second highest Alpine lake (after Titicaca), the 7th deepest lake, the 10th largest lake and the second largest saline lake (after the Caspian ‘sea’ – more about this in a later blog if I remember).  What a record holder lol and one we will visit in a couple of day’s time.

The hotel we were staying at was celebrating it’s 5 anniversary so we were greeted with  sparkling wine and nibbles (actually fairly substantial nibbles) which was nice way to start our time here. 

One of the things I find most interesting about the region (and this rang true throughout the trip) was the huge range of people we meet.  As I mentioned previously, Aijan, the co-founder of Kalpak Travel who was travelling with us was from Kyrgyzstan, but had a very nomadic heritage and was very Asian in appearance.  On the other hand our local guide, Rifat, had roots in Azerbaijan and his grandparents from one side were forced to move to what is now Kyrgyzstan during soviet times.  Another way the countries and people interact in the post-soviet era is that Rifat actually lives about 25km away from Bishkek … in Kazakhstan!!  His family had lived there before the countries borders were created and just continued to live there, but he can cross the border each day for work!

We started our time in Bishkek with a walking tour around the city, which in stark contrast to the glitz of Nur-Sultan, seemed to have many more Soviet era buildings and wide tree lines avenues.  Our first stop being outside the ‘Palace of Sports’ to admire the statue of national hero Baatyr Kaba Uulu Kozhomkul.  Now, I am sure we have all seen plenty of statues of men riding horses, but have you ever seen one of a man carrying a horse???

Kozhomkul was born in 1889 and lived until 1955 and it is said that he was 2.3 metres tall and weighed 164kg!  He exceled at sports, but became ‘infamous’ because of a legend which tells of him carrying his horse through snow!  He is revered by the Kyrgyz people and symbolises ‘power, ambition and humanism’. 

We walked past the very Soviet looking University of Mining and past the Philharmonic Hall which is surrounded by beautiful fountains and flowers gardens.  Another theme through the trip is the beautiful public gardens, even down to hanging baskets lining roads.  When you look closely at the detail, many of the buildings still show the Soviet star and/or hammer and sickle in their architecture. 

Of course, as with the other ‘stans’ I will visit on this trip, Kyrgyzstan has a more recent history filled with Russians – Tsars, Bolsheviks and Soviets and even today, they have a good relationship with Russia.   In fact, many of the older generation still believe life under Soviet rule was better – a time when everyone had jobs, food, health care and a good education.  

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which many thought could never happen, meant the loss of most of those things for many. Most of the factories closed from one day to the next as they lost their markets and what were once free ‘borders’, suddenly were closed resulting in many people losing their jobs.  Our guide Aijan’s parents were well educated chemist and engineer but neither could get jobs after independence. Still today her mother believes life under Soviet rule was much better.  (To me, one of the best parts of travelling is having opportunities to speak to local people and get to learn about their life and it is such a privilege that there are so many people who are willing to share their stories with me.)    

This nostalgia also means that they have kept their Lenin statues – he has been moved to less prominent locations but if you look around the city you can find him as tall and proud as ever.  (Of course Stalin is not remembered with such fondness so does not remain!)

Today the Kyrgyz flag flies proudly over the Soviet buildings, bright red (a legacy to Soviet times) with a sun with 40 sunbeams (representing the 40 tribes).  In middle of the sun is a tunduc – I will talk more about this important symbol in the nomad cultures later but it is basically the ‘window to sky of yurt’.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Kyrgyzstan has had a troubled political history with what really must be a record breaking 22 prime ministers and 5 presidents!  There was also much corruption resulting in coups and revolutions in 2005 and 2010.  Apparently, there are tunnels under the Parliament buildings which president/s used to escape to the airport! 

There is a beautiful monument to those who died for freedom during both revolutions which symbols people pushing the darkness away.  Records show over 2,000 lost their lives in the 2010 revolution alone and 400,000 displaced (mostly due to ethnic tensions during the revolution).

These days, 80% of the population are Sunni Muslims (though not so many are practicing) who are a legacy of the first Muslims that came to the region in the 8th century. 

Let’s take a break from history to discuss something almost as important – food!!  Lol It’s only day two and I am already addicted to borsok (same as the Baursak in Kazakhstan).  They became know as my kryptonite as I lost all power (will power that is) when they were on the table, normally in very large bowls filled with them!!   

Another similarity between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was the language.  Both are languages of Turkic origins and even today are similar – this made it a little easier on those of us who could not speak either language or Russian!!  In Kazak, thank you is Рақмет, pronounced raqmet and in Kyrgyz it is рахмат, pronounced rahmat – certainly similar to make it easy enough to remember.

We also sampled some traditional road side drinks, sold from big barrels on street corners – one was cows milk with sparkling water, tasted similar to sour yogurt, one was a mix of grain and corn and the last was a mixture of bread and yeast which smelt a little like beer.  None were that great 🥴 but I am always up to give things a try.

As we walked around the city we could see the snow capped mountains in the back ground – forming part of the Tian Shan (the Celestial Mountains).  Apparently, they are home of over 50 glaciers and some of the best skiing in the country.  Sadly, it was a little cloudy to see them clearly but we would be in them soon enough.

To break up the Soviets buildings, Bishkek has some beautiful tree lined avenues and parks filled with mature trees.  One of the large ones is also filled with statues of Kyrgyz royalty and legend. 

The final stop on another long day of sightseeing was at Victory Square, in memory for those who died in the Great Patriotic War (more commonly known in the west as World War II).  Every man over 20 had to go to war for mother Russia, who fought against the Nazis on the Eastern front.  Of course, as in the west, may of these did not come return.  The Bishkek monument is in the shape of a yurt with a female figure (either mother or wife) in the centre.

Of course the day would not be complete without more food – there is definitely no shortage of food! This evening we had a cultural show during dinner with traditional singing, instruments and dancing.  The performers wore beautiful costumes and the music was unique.  One of the instruments had strings made of horse hair and a body made of camel skin – they definitely use all the horse!

Again, I ate way too many borsoks 🤦🏻‍♀️, seriously I will be a dough ball by the time I get back to England 🥴.  To add to this, there was lots of fried meat, peppers and our first taste of plov, a fried rice dish we see again throughout the region and I will talk more about in a later blog. 

First impressions are that Kyrgyzstan has a fairly similar culture and ornamentation to Kazakhstan and I can not wait to explore more.