Mountains, Magic, and Money in Kyrgyzstan

Out of all the beautiful countries in my itinerary, I was most excited to visit Kyrgyzstan, and it’s more than lived up to expectations. Kyrgyzstan is covered in mountain ranges and full to bursting with glistening alpine lakes, snow-capped peaks, and spectacular fields of wildflowers carpeting the hillsides in the summer pasturelands. Even better, it has a well-developed system of community based tourism. Many towns and villages have CBT offices, where staff can arrange homestays with local families for accommodation and organize excursions to Kyrgyzstan’s most beautiful corners with the help of local guides. In many non-Western countries, the tourism businesses that cater to Westerners are run by foreigners or wealthy urban companies. This can prevent tourist dollars from reaching the local economy and benefiting rural communities. Thankfully, Kyrgyzstan has a well-developed system that has helped to prevent this foreign commodification of the country’s treasures. It’s a hiker and ecotourist paradise.

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Grandma-grandbaby duo at a homestay in Kochkor, arranged through the CBT office.

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A child plays outside his family’s yurt. Pastoralist families construct these mobile homes to move throughout the mountains in the warmer months, letting livestock graze on the rich summer grasses.

Kyrgyzstan is a Central Asian nation with a beautiful combination of traditional nomadic culture, Islamic faith, and a mix of Russian, Asian, and Middle Eastern influences. My biggest surprise was that because it is a Turkic language, I can almost understand Kyrgyz. It sounds a bit like Turkish in a blender, and I’ve had many strangled conversations with friendly Kyrgyz people on buses, street corners, and in homestays. The children sitting behind me in a shared taxi gleefully taught the words for all the body parts while poking my face; a man sitting next to me in a marshrutka taught me the Cyrillic alphabet. I also got a detailed description of my imminent bride-napping from the man sitting next to me in another shared taxi, who spent the first part of the journey miming putting a ring over my finger and a scarf on my head (the traditional marking of marriage for bride-napped women who acquiesce to their captors). He spent the rest of the ride giving me candy and buying me corn on the cob from roadside stalls. This all would have been a bit funnier if bride napping wasn’t still a very real truth for many Kyrgyz women.

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A plate of the national dish beshbarmak, which means “five fingers,” since it’s traditionally eaten with the hands. It’s made up of broth, noodles, and horse meat. This plate included at least two kinds of intestines.

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Enjoying bowls of kumis, fermented mare’s milk. It tastes a bit like yogurt and a bit like lawn clippings, but overall I enjoyed it!

Horses are very important in Kyrgyz culture, and children in rural communities begin riding almost as soon as they can walk. A friendly Kyrgyz man taught me how to milk a horse! He explained that male horses are for riding, since female horses struggle to carry heavy loads over the high mountain passes, and female horses are for breeding and milking. Although Islam forbids eating horses, in Kyrgyzstan cultural tradition has won out. A new friend told me that with the advent of more convenient modes of transport like cars and motorbikes, they find it “very hard” not to eat horses all the time — the primary motivation for holding back is gone! 

Unfortunately, I’ve also suffered some money troubles here in Kyrgyzstan. An ATM at the Bishkek airport devoured my debit card almost as soon as I landed. Thankfully it gave me money first, but I wished I’d withdrawn a little more to begin with. I had great faith in my bank. When I was studying abroad in Botswana, they shipped a new debit card to me in about 2 days. However, Central Asia proved a trickier subject. I made a break for the mountains immediately on arrival, and after several breathtaking days of backpacking in Karakol, I was confident my new card would be waiting for me at my hostel when I returned to Bishkek. Sadly, my confidence was misplaced.

A 3-day trek near Karakol to Ala-Kul lake and the Altyn Arashan hot springs included stunning mountain scenery, an unending day of frigid rain, and the breathless climb over 13,000ft. Ala-Kul pass.

My cash supply dwindling and my panic mounting, I resorted to plan B…and C and D. I had a back-up debit card that had stopped working in my very first week of traveling, despite repeated calls to the (different) bank pleading with them to unlock it. I had even visited a brick-and-mortar branch of the bank in Berlin to see if they could do anything. One last 30-minute phone call later (thank goodness for free Skype calling), and no dice. Not only did they refuse to unlock the card, they refused to send me a new one at all. The only silver lining I can imagine to my struggles with this bank is the vindictive satisfaction I’m going to get when I transfer all my money and close my account with them as soon as I get back to the U.S.

I had a stash of USD for emergencies, and I figured this qualified, so I went to a bank to exchange it. They only accepted about half the bills – apparently the rest were too dirty? Old? Ripped? Unclear. Kyrgyzstan is inexpensive, so this would have been more than enough to tide me through until the debit card arrived. The problem was that virtually all my interviews were slated to take place in Osh and the Ferghana Valley region beginning on Thursday, and the card was set to arrive in Bishkek on Friday. Osh is an 11-hour drive from Bishkek. I was much less confident that my stash of USD could tide me through until the very end of my time in Kyrgyzstan, which was when I planned to return to Bishkek.

My next attempt was a Western Union. Using only a routing number instead of a card, transferring money through Western Union takes 4-6 business days, but I was out of alternatives. Thankfully Osh had a single Western Union agent, albeit one with an expired domain name that suggested various pregnancy screening options when I searched it. After much cajoling I convinced my hostel in Bishkek to exchange the rest of my dirty? Old? Ripped? USD for som and begged them to save my debit card for me, if and when it finally arrived.

To add icing on the cake, a man grabbed my purse as I was walking through the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek on my way back from the bank. That purse was full of all the money I had to my name at the time; the dirty? Old? Ripped? Remaining USD and the dwindling som supply. Thankfully, this one at least ended with a W. Three years of rugby training and pure desperation kicked in, and I ran the man down and tackled him. He was so surprised he didn’t put up much of a fight and gave my purse right back.

With that, I set off for Osh.

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I’m convinced you can buy anything and everything at Osh Bazaar, the largest market in Central Asia.

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This mountain pup was the most perfect creature I have ever met

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Skazka, or “Fairytale,” Canyon seems like something out of the American Southwest, except that it looks out over the enormous Issy-Kul lake. Kyrgyzstan is farther from the ocean than any other nation on earth, so Issy-Kul serves as a stand-in. Its shores are lined with beaches full of Kyrgyz and Russian sun seekers. 

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Song-Kul lake at 10,000 feet

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The inside of a yurt, spread for a feast in a typical display of Kyrgyz hospitality. The Kyrgyz language isn’t the only thing that reminds me of Turkey; the pushy insistence from hosts to eat until I feel sick is also familiar.

 

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3 thoughts on “Mountains, Magic, and Money in Kyrgyzstan

Add yours

  1. So enjoy your adventures and learning of other parts of the world. Yes, this does sound a little like Turkey, which having traveled there can relate to your comments. I admire your spunk tackling that purse snatcher. The variety of food for which I am not accustomed would leave me hungry but when hungry you go with the local food. On to the next country with an anticipation of more interesting customs, food and personal encounters. Deanna here in Virginia looking to view the world in a more honest eye with you.

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  2. Your photos are incredible and despite the currency issues, it seems like a fabulous visit to Kyrgyzstan. So glad you got the purse back and very much hoping you are able to get by financially until you get the new ATM card. It is obvious you will be able to get by mentally, spiritually and physically! You are fearless! We missed you so much at the reunion and would have loved to hear these stories first hand!

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