By Juno Kim
This was my first time visiting Central Asia.
I’ve been hearing a lot of stories because Stephen lived and traveled there extensively, but I never had a chance to visit until now. Kyrgyzstan, the name I can finally spell without a typo after 12 days in the country, is a small landlocked country bordering China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz Republic is a great introductory country to the region that broke a lot of my misconceptions. Here are the reasons why.
Alpine landscape in Jumgal
Horses galloping across the vast desert was the first image I had for Kyrgyzstan or any other ‘-stans’ for that matter. The first misconception broke big time soon after I arrived. For ten days, we traveled through some high mountains, beautiful meadows covered in various flowers, alpine landscapes, many lakes, glacial valleys, and yes, desert-like plains. There is so much natural diversity that I didn’t know.
A Kyrgyz woman serving kumis
Did you know there are more than 80 ethnic groups living in Kyrgyzstan? When I arrived, I was kind of surprised to see so many Caucasians in Bishkek. As a person from a homogenous culture, I needed some time to adjust to the fact that many ethnic groups can co-exist. The Kyrgyz are the largest group and there are Russians, Uzbeks (living in West and South), Dungans, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and more. It’s easy to find foods and products of all these different cultures.
Naturally, diverse languages are spoken in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz language is spoken to most Kyrgyz, but Russian is also used as an official language. The Kyrgyz language was written in Arabic characters until the influence of the Soviet Union. The Cyrillic script has been used since 1941. The most population are native or second language Kyrgyz and Russian speakers. Uzbek is the third most popular language, especially in west and south.
Yurts in the mountains are quite comfortable to sleep!
Historically, Kyrgyz people have been nomadic and semi-nomadic herders, living in yurts and tending horses, sheep, and yaks. Sleeping in the ‘yurt camps’ and meeting the nomad family has been the highlight of our trip in Kyrgyzstan. Seeing women milking the horses and drinking kumis (fermented mare’s milk), sharing meals and drinking tea with them, peeking into the life of real nomads was truly fascinating. I also have a new fascination for yurts. Who knew yurts were this comfortable for sleeping? There are a lot of interesting facts and figures related to making yurts which we learned at the end of the trip. Now I want to have one in my front yard wherever I go, becoming a modern nomad!
Dairy, bread, jam, and repeat
Staple foods of nomadic families
How’s the food in Kyrgyzstan, you asked? Let me show you the scene. Walking into a yurt, there was a beautiful low table set up for tea. In the center, there’s a bread bowl accompanying small bowls of two different types of jam, sugar, candy, and kaymak (cream). And then a pot of tea comes. That’s the start of any meal. Then we’re served the main dish, usually made with rice, meat, pasta, or Manti (dumpling). Dairy, bread, and meat are just basic components of their cuisine. If someone says they don’t eat dairy, Kyrgyz are stunned, thinking ‘If you don’t eat dairy, what do you eat?’. I’ve never eaten this much bread, jam, and dairy in this short amount of time in my life. But I have to say, their homemade bread at some yurts was so good I couldn’t stop.
Now is the time to visit
This is the prime time to come to Kyrgyzstan. The country has been receiving tourists for a long time, especially as a part of the so-called “Five Stans” travels. But in every season there are different things to do and more places to go after being developed by the effort of the tourism board and many independent travel companies. Kyrgyzstan was only popular for serious alpine climbers in the past but now there are things to do for a wide range of travelers like various types of hiking, horseback riding, camping, fishing, 4×4 off roading, and so on. It’s time for you to come and discover yourself what the Kyrgyz Republic has to offer.
#Disclaimer: This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.
Juno Kim, a happiness-seeking storyteller. Photographer, writer, and trained mechanical engineer.