BY MUHAMMAD IDREES
Off the beaten tourist path, Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty and rich culture are worth a visit.
During my summer break, I decided to visit the southern part of Kyrgyzstan. After staying three nights in Osh, the following morning I moved toward Jalalabad — the capital city of Jalalabad region located in the southwest of the Kyrgyz republic. It is an ancient, beautiful, calm and clean city. In the past, traders and merchants would pass through it along the Silk Road. It is the third largest city in Kyrgyzstan with a population of about 100,000. The main ethnic groups are Kyrgyz and Uzbek, but there are also Uyghurs, Turks, Tajiks, Tatars, Dungans and others.
The city was attractive at first sight. I walked along the main road and entered the bazaar, taking photos of shops and shopkeepers. Compared to the capital Bishkek, which presents a Western look, many women wore traditional dress and elderly men had Kyrgyz kalpaks on their heads. Unlike other tourists with their maps and guide books and their experience in traveling, I was worried where I would stay because I did not have any information about the city. I just heard its name and thought it would be interesting place to visit, and I was right.
I went into a nearby cafe and ordered laghman (local dish made of noodles, potatoes, carrots, onion, coriander, meat and spices) with green tea. I was just thinking about finding accommodation when two female tourists passed by the cafe. I rushed outside, said hello and asked if they would help me in finding a place to stay. The response was friendly. They told me they had just arrived in Jalalabad and were staying overnight and the next morning were moving onto Osh.
The three of us entered the cafe where I had left my luggage. I poured some green tea in their cups. They told me about community-based tourism (CBT) that provided affordable accommodation all over Kyrgyzstan. It benefits both tourists and the local communities — travelers get cheaper and safer accommodation and the locals make money. That was the first time I heard about this setup.
While leaving the cafe, the waitress asked me where I was from. When I answered Afghanistan, she asked, “Gashish est?” (Do you have hashish?). I was embarrassed by the question. I replied, “Nyet” (No) and then added, “Ya student” (I am a student).
She stared at me for a while and seemed disappointed with my answer. I didn’t know if she really wanted hashish or was checking if I was in the drug business. Later my friends told me that hashish and heroin were in high demand because of limited availability and high prices. Some people also have links with the police, identifying those selling drugs and informing on them. I was disappointed because it was the third time I found myself associated with hashish, fighting or guns. Since my arrival in Kyrgyzstan, despite my limited interaction with people, often the first thing they thought of when they heard I was from Afghanistan was drugs, war and weapons.
Saskia and Eline were from the Netherlands and they were teaching at a school there. They were friends and colleagues and, like many other tourists, were attracted by the natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan. They had the phone numbers of the CBT office in Jalalabad, and they called and told them we were standing at the entrance of bazaar. After a couple of minutes, the CBT’s representative came and took us to their house. It was about a five-minute drive from the main bazaar. On the way, I saw children and adults wearing white caps, rushing to the mosque for prayer.
Like many other houses, it was a one-storey building with a small garden with flowers, a vegetable garden and trees. Grapevines were arranged as a ceiling with the help of metallic rod in the garage, and the unripe grapes were hanging over our heads. The house had two parts for the guests and the family. It belonged to an Uzbek family, and an elderly lady showed us our rooms. They were clean and the attached bathrooms had clean towels and new soaps. We were asked if we had taken our meal or if we wanted food. As we wanted to explore the city, eating out was a better idea. Saskia said that first we should visit Ayoub’s Spring.
THE SPRING OF AYOUB
The Spring of Ayoub is located on a hill with many small trees all around. There is a legend related to the spring that connects it to Prophet Ayoub (Job). It is believed that Prophet Ayoub was cured of disease and became younger after he bathed in its waters.
Prophet Ayoub was famous for his patience. He was rich and generous and he would always feed and clothe the needy ones. He was blessed with many children, fields and pastures and cattle, and held a respectable place among his people. He was obedient to God and was always busy worshipping.
One day, Satan was looking for an opportunity so he started whispering among people that Prophet Ayoub had been blessed by God, but if God took all those blessing from him, he would no longer worship his God. God also wanted to test his prophet and show to Satan and the people that Ayoub was among his obedient prophets and would worship him even if he took away all those blessings.
Now it was time for the test. All of his children and his cattle were killed and lands destroyed. In his life he faced many disasters. He was expelled from the village for being evil and unfortunate. Ayoub and his wife Rahima went hungry, sick and homeless. During these difficult times, only Rahima stayed by his side. After a long, tough life, God accepted his prayers and sent down an angel from the sky. The angel asked Ayoub to hit his foot on the ground. When he did so, cold fresh water emerged from the ground and Ayoub was asked to wash in it so all his wounds would be healed. He was successful in the test and God bestowed upon him all his blessings again; his children were brought back to life.
Nowadays, local people and tourists come to Ayoub Spring to cover their their bodies with mud and take a sunbath for an hour or more. After, they clean themselves with muddy water and finally take a shower in the mountain water. It is believed these activities are beneficial for skin and other diseases.
After entering, I saw girls and women collecting salty water from the mountains coming down like a narrow stream. A little ahead was a small cafe with tables and chairs in an open area, along with traditional wooden tapchans covered with rugs and mattresses where families were eating and relaxing.
Kyrgyzstan’s snowy mountains, green pastures, beautiful lakes and rivers, and unique culture attract tourists from different parts of the world, yet there is still not enough information about the country. When I decided to go there for my studies, many of my friends and colleagues hadn’t even heard its name. Kyrgyzstan’s religious places — mosques, sacred caves, stones, springs and lakes — are scattered throughout the country, attracting people hoping for a cure to physical and spiritual illnesses, infertility and to provide hope for wealth, wisdom and good fortune. Perhaps, one day, these visitors can help spread the story of Kyrgyzstan’s rich cultural heritage that is well worth the trip.