Saturday, June 15, 2013



(More photos on my facebook page)

My introduction to Kyrgyzstan began with a guidebook named: The living fairytale.

A 7th century visitor to Kyrgyzstan commented on its “tall peaks that reach to the very sky” and warned travelers against being “molested by dragons”.

The dragons have long gone but the peaks remain – as does the sense that you are venturing into a land of mystique and adventure, of untold possibilities and remote, achingly beautiful wilderness.

It’s striking that this land, crossed by centuries of Silk Road travelers, wandered by generations of nomads and the battleground of Jenghis Khan and other warring tribes, remains so little touched by man’s hand.

Truth be told, Mohamed and I knew very little about Kyrgyzstan, or Central Asia for that matter, when we set off for an adventure of sorts with Dad and his wife, Joan.

Friends’ confusion – “do you mean Kurdistan?” – was nearly echoed by the Kyrgyz embassy itself, which seemed surprised and unprepared for tourists from our (Arab) part of the world. Adventure backpackers, maybe, but Egyptians?

When we complained to the tour company arranging the required letter of invitation about the confusing visa procedures at the consulate in Dubai, they made it clear they had “no intention expanding into the Arab market”.

And when the Kyrgyz consular official in Dubai requested more documentation from Mohamed to ensure he was “bona fide” – “Who knows? You might like Kyrgyzstan and decide to stay”, he said with a wink – Mohamed had to remind him that two weeks prior, he didn’t even known such a country existed.

It is, as the fairy tale recounts, largely untouched.

Sandwiched along the historical Silk Road between a bunch of Stans and China, its history is one of invasions – from the Mongols in the 1200s to the Soviets in 1919. The Kyrgyz people owe their survival to the mountainous landscape – 80% of the country is at altitude 1,300m or higher – and their excellent horsemanship.

The people look Mongolian, but in character, are a head-spinning mix of Chinese, Muslim, Turkish and Russian.
The first of the Stans to gain independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has slowly opened up to the outside world. But few people speak English, and outside of the capital Bishkek, it really does feel like a magical movie world.

When we landed at 5am, we headed straight to the northeastern town of Kochkor, first in a taxi that could not reverse, then in a taxi with no brakes (which didn’t fare very well on the winding mountain road).

We organized most of our trip through the innovative and remarkably well-run Community Based Tourism (CBT) offices across the country, which direct tourist income towards local people instead of mega hotel-chains (which in many towns don’t exist anyway).

Through the CBT, we arranged a home stay with a young teacher named “Mokhabat”, which we immediately Arabized, from then on calling her Mohebat, the name of my grandmother.

Like most Kyrgyz people, she was polite, but reserved, preferring to give us our space in her large home, cluttered - like many Egyptian homes - with wall units, carpets and cabinets full of tacky china.

But when we managed to rip her away from her household duties and rosy-cheeked 1-year-old, she told us about going to a Russian school when she was young; quietly learning about Islam from her brother because the Soviets wouldn’t allow it; and the cross-ethnic love between her and her husband, who come from different parts of the diverse country. When Mohamed gave her a Russian-language Qu’ran as a thank you gift, she looked at him speechless, before finally managing to say: “This is very rich present.”

Kochkor’s main selling point for us was its Saturday animal market and its central location as a transit point between the various destinations we wanted to visit. So we didn’t do much in the sleepy town but exchange some dollars for monopoly-like currency and introduce ourselves to Kyrgyz cuisine, which I can only describe as uninspiring.

Essentially, it consists of boiled meat masked in different appearances: boiled meat in dumplings; boiled meat in fried dumplings, boiled meat with noodles, boiled meat in a patty. By the end of the week, I would have killed for anything green. And stay away from the national drink of khymyz, fermented mare’s milk that tasted sour and rotten. After an accidental run-in with shashlyk - grilled lamb skewers - we decided it was the most appealing Kyrgyz dish – though in fact it isn’t even Kyrgyz – and we would spend the next 5 days searching for it unsuccessfully.

From Kochkor, we took a short ride to a one-home village called Isakeev, the starting point of our journey to Terz Too jailoo, an alpine pasture where we would spend the night in what I can most easily describe as an advanced version of a tepee, the tent structure in which rural, nomadic Kyrgyz live: the yurt.

From Isakeev, Dad had promised us a leisurely 2.5-hour hike to the yurt. You all know my Dad, so I won’t say much more.

It was early May and the weather was brisk, but the scenery was spectacular: within a few minutes, we were surrounded on all sides by mountains as far as the eye could see, covered in velvet green, dotted with sheep and cows. We were alone in the mountains. Of course, we weren’t – every now and then we ran into a shepherd and his flock – but we felt the mountains were ours.

Enter the magical horse princess. At first, we were convinced, she could be nothing but a mirage – a vision that our newly-freed imaginations had created, given our fanciful surroundings.

She approached on her stunning white stallion, her dark hair tied back by a silver scarf, sparkling in the sunlight, her slender upper body covered in a yellow blouse; and she controlled her animal masterfully.

She galloped along like a beam of light, and as quickly as she appeared, she was gone.

Such was our experience through the Tien Shan mountain chain – part mystical and part … exhausting.

We started at 1800 metres in elevation and were to rise 400m during the 15km hike.

Two hours into what turned out to be a steeper climb than anticipated, we were all – but Sami – struggling to breathe due to the altitude. As we tried to replenish our energy on snickers bars, we turned to our guide, Cuatbec and Badr, for some sign – in their near-zero English - that we were almost there.

One expects that locals will always be stronger and faster on such hikes; but one also expects a certain degree of compassion on their behalf for the inexperienced Westerners. Badr’s response could only be summarized as friendly mockery, as he conveyed in sign-language that we were, in fact, only half-way.

By the three-quarter mark, Joan, Mohamed and I weren’t sure that we could take another step. Joan later described it as the most physically exhausting experience of her life. Sami became a bit of a loner, keeping his head down and focusing on putting on foot in front of another. We tried to follow his lead, but eventually hailed down a shepherd and asked him to bring us a couple horses.

The appearance in the distance of two white cylindrical structures with arched roofs was a welcome sight, but we arrived at the humble yurts of Altimbek and Kenjaygul, cold and unable to speak out of fatigue.

Just as we arrived, it started to snow. (It was Mohamed's first time seeing snow!)

We were ushered into the yurts, nice and toasty thanks to a small stove fed with cow dung. The strong but humble woman of the house, Kenjaygul, wore a thick red sweater wrap, her cheeks stained nearly the same colour by the inescapable wind and cold. We barely withstood the elements for one day – I couldn’t fathom how they lived here for weeks on end. (In the winter months, they move back to the village, and in the summer, when it gets too hot in the mountains, they pack up the yurt and set it up by the lake).

We sat cross-legged around a low table to a welcome meal and ever flowing tea, before retiring to a nap in their second yurt, in which they host tourists.

From the floor, we stared up at the intertwining network of bent wood, leading to the small circular skylight at the top of the yurt, through which the sun shone onto the reds, yellows and greens of the hand-made felt carpets holding the structure together.

Our overnight in the mountains was movie-like. I was instructed to chop vegetables while Kenjaygul made bread and yogurt from scratch. While I attempted – unsuccessfully – to milk the cows, Mohamed set off on horseback to bring home the 685 sheep Altimbek is responsible for. The shepherd is paid 30 som per head – or a total of $430 per year – to manage the sheep, and makes a little extra by hosting tourists like us – about 20 a season.

Like many others, Altimbek was super excited to find out that Mohamed was Muslim and by the end of the night, as we gathered around the dinner table, just barely lit by a solar-powered lamp, Altimbek held up his hands in prayer as Mohamed recited verses of the Qu’ran with an elegance and ease that they had never heard before and would likely never hear again.

Such was our trip to Kyrgyzstan – poetic moments of human connection; awe-inspiring natural grandeur; and a people who went about their daily business in near isolation from civilization with no idea just how fascinating they are.

After our adventure in the mountains, we went on to Bokonbaev, a small town with the feel of ski resort, where we spent an afternoon on Issuk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world, at a surface area of 6,200 square kilometres.

We got lost in the red-earth canyon of Skazka – which, according to the guidebook, give visitors no chance “to gather their thoughts and expectations from previously seen wonders of the world.”

At Manjyly-Ata, we drank from the dirty spring water that was meant to heal us from liver problems, infertility, headaches, addiction, gastro-intestinal tract problems, and of course, bring us in harmony with the world.

And throughout, we experimented with foods we could not pronounce, relying on Sami’s basic knowledge of Cyrillic script, and - when we got desperate - simply pointing to photos on the menu and hoping for the best.

Upon return from Kyrgyzstan's towns and villages, the capital Bishkek felt like something of a fraud, its tree-lined boulevards filled with high-heeled trendy women, karaoke shops and 24-hour supermarkets.

It was also much more cosmopolitan, and home to most of the Russians who make up some 10 percent of the population. With their chain-smoking, adventure sports and strip clubs, they present a whole other side to Kyrgyzstan.

While many of them have never been to Russia and own nothing but a Kyrgyz passport, they consider themselves Russian – and barely mingle with the majority of the people in their country. They go to different schools; eat their own food; and have only Russian friends. But while they are a minority, they wield disproportionate influence over the language (Most Kyrgyz speak Russian) and culture (I assume the vodka-filled shisha option is their doing).

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that Kyrgyzstan is well worth a visit, if only to experience “the life-enhancing joy that comes from exploring Kyrgyzstan’s wild places.”

**NOTE: A Kyrgyz friend read this post and was very upset by it. She felt that I had misrepresented her country as a fantastical "wild" place, and neglected to tell the stories of the wonderful people I met there. So let me take a moment to do so.

You'll see on my facebook photos the sophistication of parts of Kyrgyzstan: the beautiful national orchestra concert we attended in Bishkek - complete with akyns (the Kyrgyz version of spoken word); the grand fountains; the sky-high statues. We even got rejected from a club because we weren't appropriately dressed (sorry, we didn't bring dress shoes to hike up the mountain)!

But the best part of Bishkek was meeting two lovely women who cemented the impression we had of the country. Gulya is of Tatar origin (another ethnic group in present-day Russia) but has lived in Kyrgyzstan for years. She runs a bed and breakfast that Mohamed nicknamed "Pension al-Sa3ada" for its joyful atmosphere. Every morning, she scurried from her cramped quarters at the back of the guesthouse to prepare a hearty breakfast of eggs, bread, jam, fresh juice, and cake from her son's new dessert business. She regaled us with stories of the travelers she has hosted over the years (Mohamed was the first Egyptian!) and her family's history of migration from China. When we convinced her to finally step away from her work to join us at the concert, she giggled giddily as we came home around 11pm: "This is the first time in 37 years that I come home later than my husband!"

We found the second woman, Sara, one morning behind the counter of a hectic government office where she was answering a million questions from a million people. We had already spent much of our day trying to figure out how Mohamed should register his visa with police so as to avoid problems when leaving the airport. We had gone from office to office until we finally found Sara, a young Kyrgyz with bleached blond hair, a sparkling smile and perfect English. We immediately clicked and she gave us detailed instructions on what to do, even calling us back at the pension after double-checking with her manager for more details.  After leaving her office, I shyly made my way back inside to ask her if she would like to go out with us at night. She said yes!

The solution to Mohamed's visa problem ended up involving dragging Gulya on a Friday morning to that same office, to essentially sponsor him in her name. Without the two of them, we'd probably be locked up in a detention centre somewhere.  But beyond the help they gave us, they both had such warm hearts and such a keenness to engage with others. As we left the guesthouse at 4am, Gulya handed me a hand-made felt purse as a gift. I hold it dear as a memory of our friendship, which I hope we will maintain for years to come.