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.