Now, how about this Kyrgyzstan? Where is it exactly?
For the basics about the Kyrgyz Republic, go ahead and follow this link, Kyrgyzstan Wikipedia article. Like we’ve told students in the past, that’s a good place to start.
Now, while all those facts are interesting, they don’t tell the complete story. A question probably nearer to home is, ‘So, what’s it like there, what are the folks like who live there? Is it (gulp) dangerous?’
As you may imagine, that last one tends to weigh on foreign visitors’ minds, so let’s deal with that first. Actually, we’d say no, it’s not very dangerous. It could be a lot of Westerners hear ‘something-stan’ and basically don’t hear much else after that, because they’re suddenly too busy fretting over the last bit of bad news in another part of Asia to really stop and ask themselves exactly where this place is. Putting it another way, take this example: an American who lives in Colorado probably isn’t going to cancel his family’s vacation to Florida simply because he heard on the news there was a problem in New York City, about 1,200 miles away. Yet, if something, admittedly terrible, were to happen in, say, Pakistan, around 1,500 miles, give or take, from where we live in Kyrgyzstan, how many folks suddenly imagine all of Central Asia is a war zone? That’s simply not the case. We have lived here now for going on two years, we’ve traveled to various parts of this beautiful country, and about the most dangerous thing we’ve personally seen here yet for a visitor is Bishkek’s traffic. A little old-fashioned ‘horse sense’ goes a lot farther than living in fear, in our book.
Reflections at Song Kol lake.
So, then, what’s it like here? Here are some personal observations, admittedly subjective, based on living here, learning the language and talking with folks, both in the capital city and in various villages out in the countryside.
Maybe one of the biggest impressions a Westerner gets here is this country is a land of contrasts. For example, pretty much every village we’ve seen here, even if it was really remote, has electricity, probably in most every home. However, a great many of those village homes also have outhouses, and fetch water in buckets from a hand pump located on the street. Getting around here offers plenty of options: city streets are paved, mostly, but the vehicles are a curious mixture, such as new Lexus 4×4’s and old Soviet Lada cars that mostly run on a wing and a prayer. In the villages, cars share the roads with sheep flocks, the occasional donkey cart, and the omnipresent horses so near and dear to the Kyrgyz. Contrasting attire seems like the norm in this somewhat conservative culture: business suits and kalpaks (traditional Kyrgyz felt hats) are common sights in Bishkek. The contrasts continue even to things like shopping: there are Western-style supermarkets, but most folks get their groceries – what they don’t grow themselves, that is – either in little ‘Mom-and-Pop’ shops built in converted shipping containers, or at the various bazaars, which probably haven’t changed much in form or function since Marco Polo wound his way to Kublai Khan’s court.
Talking about cars and bazaars, though, doesn’t answer the question of what it’s like to get to know people around here. Our experiences have been repeatedly positive – once folks get over their surprise at finding Americans who speak Kyrgyz, the usual response is a great big grin and a sudden stream of friendly conversation on an amazingly wide variety of topics, and maybe even an invitation to dinner from someone who’d been a complete stranger ten minutes ago. The friendliness and thoughtfulness can catch a visitor unawares. Maybe a short story will illustrate what I mean a little better.
My boys and I had gone with some friends to visit in a village in mountainous southeast Kyrgyzstan. We were staying with the parents of a friend’s friend there, and went out walking down the street to see some of the village. We hadn’t got even 100 yards, when a man yelled at us – our friend’s uncle, it turned out – and beckoned us to follow him. We dutifully did, winding our way along garden paths between the village houses while Uncle waved cheerfully to the neighbors and told them who we were. When we got to our destination, which was Uncle’s home, I found a horse saddled and waiting, it so happened, for me. Upon asking, Uncle told me that his nephew told him I’d been chafing somewhat at living in the big city, Bishkek, and wishing I could spend more time in the saddle, which was true. So, without telling me or asking for a dime, he’d borrowed his neighbor’s horse, and offered me what turned out to be a most welcome ‘breath of fresh air,’ apparently because he thought it would be a nice thing to do. Of course, I thanked him, but I suspect my ear-to-ear smile as we rode around and talked with each other for the rest of the morning thanked him even more.
The road back from Song Kol lake to Kochkor.
In a country as beautiful with a culture as rich as Kyrgyzstan, it would be easy to go on and on, about the magnificent alpine vistas that never cease to astound, about crystalline – in winter, literally! – lakes and picturesque valleys, or about endlessly fascinating traditions from bowhunting to yurt crafting that aren’t the stuff of dusty tomes, they’re alive and breathing! Perhaps, though, the best thing to say is, ‘Come see for yourself,’ and we here at Taigan Expeditions are looking forward to greeting you with ‘Kondaissingar!’ – which literally translates to ‘Howdy!’