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Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan: an overview

sunny 25 °C

I love Kyrgyzstan. We spent over a month there and had an amazing time. Along with Georgia, it is currently sitting in my top two countries on this trip.

The landscape is stunning - immense mountains, immense wide open spaces, gorgeous valleys, clear open skies and see-through rivers. As we were there still in summer, this beautiful landscape was dotted with white yurts, horses and sheep. Many Kyrgyz are shepherds, some even professionally so - looking after many others' animals, and spend the summer months on higher ground living in yurts. It seemed to me a lot like going away camping for the whole of summer, just taking all your herds and flocks with you.

The Arashan Valley

The Arashan Valley

The nomadic lifestyle, Song Kul

The nomadic lifestyle, Song Kul

All the people we met were warm and welcoming. They are happy, proud of their country and genuienly curious of ours and us. It makes for some great conversations and encounters. You learn so much more about a place when people are this way. Our little bit of Russian really went a long way, and we were also lucky to meet an uncanny number of English teachers - all on holiday for the summer.

Classic Kyrgyz village scene

Classic Kyrgyz village scene

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It has a much more open economy than the other 'Stans yet it is still a fairly poor country living a somewhat traditional way of life. You have your shepherds still living the nomadic lifestyle. We stayed in one village where instead of hearing cars outside our window at night, we heard people riding past on horseback. Hiking through forest one time we came across some 'forestry workers', i.e., a couple of older guys with an axe and two kids on horse back dragging a felled log each behind them. I never thought I would see that. Plumbing is still rare and walking around a village at dusk you will see people with various vessels heading to one of the water taps in town.

Kul Ukok

Kul Ukok

Song Kul

Song Kul

It was the perfect combination, we had endless opportunity for independent-good times-exploration. We did lots of hiking. A long, cold but rewarding 6 day hike when we woke up twice to a thin layer of ice coating the inside of the tent's fly. A briefer 3 day hike where we got to hang out on a beach at 3,500m above sea level with a view over a lake towards many glaciers. We had tea with a friendly shepherd and his family - as we were hiking past his yurt he invited us in. We rode horses for 3 days up hills to an alpine lake, staying in shepherds yurts, eating their fresh cream and sleeping under mountains of blankets to keep warm at night (in Kyrgyzstan you are always at a high altitude). We spent several days in the capital Bishkek, a really pleasant leafy city where good coffee is readily available, even flat whites! We even got a history fix with a hike to a remote petroglyph site and a visit to a caravanserai. Every drive was scenic, the inevitable mountain passes spectacular.

Cowboy

Cowboy

Camping at Kul Ukok

Camping at Kul Ukok

Beachside at 3,500m

Beachside at 3,500m

What we found with Kyrgyzstan, as with most of Central Asia, is that it isn't about the blockbuster hits. There is no Machu Picchu, no Serengeti or Mt Everest. It's all about the details, the little things. It works a treat, keeping the hordes of tourists out and delivering in authentic goodness, daily.

As Silk Road as it gets in 2012

As Silk Road as it gets in 2012

Posted by chrisgulik 07:38 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (1)

The animal bazaar

sunny 20 °C

The first taxi that came past us at 6am already had some locals in it, but they stopped anyway. They were going to the same place as us so we jumped in the back. As soon as the car took off we heard knocking coming from the boot. Our eyes flashed frighteningly at each other for a quick moment, before we both realised that it wouldn't be a person locked in the boot, just a few sheep. Sure enough, when we arrived and the boot was opened three sheep were revealed - one black, one white and one caramel. We were at the Karakol Sunday animal bazaar.

Sheep for sale

Sheep for sale

The outdoor market, with a spectacular backdrop of the snow capped Terskey Ala-Too mountains, and beautifully bathed in the early morning light, was in full swing. It was busy. There were several hundred farmers and buyers tightly packed into the market space, with as many animals. Most of the farmers have only one, two or three animals to sell, very rarely more. Every man has on a hat, many a version of the characteristic Kyrgyz felt hat. All serious buyers carry a loop of rope in hand in order to take home their new purchase - no animal comes with rope (used like a leash). Some entrepreneurial women had set up stalls to cater to the early morning needs of the farmers, selling an array of vodka and beer. It is noisy and smelly and its best to watch where you step.

Classic Kyrgyz style

Classic Kyrgyz style

The bazaar is divided into different sections for the different animals. You walk first into the sheep section, the loudest and most chaotic. Also the most stubborn of all the animals, but then I would be too if I had a rope tied around my throat and was being dragged along. With animal fat being such a staple of the diet throughout Central Asia there are plenty of fat tailed sheep to be seen, and there are some big booties! The cow and horse sections are more sedate and orderly with most of the animals being tied up to wooden poles. But keeping things interesting and unusual to us city slickers, there is the the odd potential buyer taking a horse for a test drive. Finally there is the pig section. We nearly walked through it thinking it was the car market, but get a little closer and you notice all the boots are open and full of piglets. Being a predominately Muslim country, who don't eat pigs, this section is almost deserted and all the farmers here are Russians.

A fine specimen of a fat tailed sheep, mmmm mmmm

A fine specimen of a fat tailed sheep, mmmm mmmm

Piglets in the back of a Lada

Piglets in the back of a Lada

Trades are swift, a few prods of the animal, perhaps a lift of a fat tail, a little negotiating and the money changes hands. The owner's rope is untied from the animal, the buyer ties up and walks off. And with this pattern, slowly the bazaar empties.

It was a unique experience and a wonderful insight into the life of the small scale farmers who make up a large percentage of the Kyrgyz economy and population.

The horse section

The horse section

Posted by chrisgulik 20:21 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (1)

Making hay while the sunshines

Literally!

sunny 25 °C

Well I am way behind on this blogging business. I have so much to say, because we have been doing so many great things, and that of course in turn gets in the way of writing this. But. We are now in China, and have some mega train journeys ahead of us, currently on a 36 hour one, and its the perfect opportunity to catch up. Terrible blog practice I am sure, a lull and then an overload, but its just the way it is. So... to Kyrgyzstan!

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All over Central Asia we had been seeing the same comic sight of donkeys and old Soviet trucks totally overloaded with hay. There was dry grass fields all around us. So in our first few days in Kyrgyzstan when the opportunity arose to go hay making with a local family for the day, we were in.

The setting is beautiful Arslanbob, a village at the tip of a steep valley with mountains behind and steep hills on either side. We climbed West up one side of the valley up onto a plateau and through fields of dry grass and sunflowers until we reached the family group, of about 16, we would spend the day with. It seemed all the women of the extended family between 15 and 45 were there, boys under 16 and Dad/Uncle whose particular piece of land it was. I was curious what the men were doing while the ladies laboured away in the fields, but I was reassured that the men of working age were at another family member's piece of land scything the grass ready for the ladies the next day, just like they had been here the day before.

Beautiful fertile fields in Arslanbob

Beautiful fertile fields in Arslanbob

We arrived just in time for breakfast, cooked on-site in a cauldron over a fire by one of the ladies, and shared from a central plate while we all sat on blankets. Then to work. The ladies all had a sickle and in a line, worked their way up the hill using the sickle to pull together a large bunch of dried cut grass. This was laid on top of a piece of string and the boys followed up behind to tie the bundle up and heap them together. It was hard work, but with plenty of opportunity to stand around and chat, fortunately a few in the family spoke English so we got more of an insight into life in this village.

Family at work

Family at work

Sickle in hand

Sickle in hand

Lunch was shared in a similar fashion to breakfast, a hearty plov - rice with a few veg. Once all the hay was bundled the hardest part was to begin, dragging all the heaps down to the bottom of the field (which was pretty hilly and steep) so that it could all be brought together into one massive pile. Some of the boys fashioned a sleigh to carry as many bundles as possible, I joined up with one of the ladies to share the burden of each load. And one super strong girl threw each bundle, by pitchfork, up to Uncle to form an absolutely enormous pile of hay.

Building the pile of hay

Building the pile of hay

After some watermelon to celebrate the job done all 16 of us piled into Uncle's old UAZ jeep, with a hay bale for a back seat, several people completely hanging out the window, but Dan, the second oldest man, ceremoniously given the front passenger seat. We bumped down a rocky road, into the sunset and through the fields of sunflowers back to town.

In Uncle's UAZ jeep

In Uncle's UAZ jeep

It was hard work, about 10 hours of labour, and we were exhausted. But this group were back out tomorrow to do it all again on another piece of family land. Some of the ladies were teachers, one a doctor, most of the girls students, and this is what they did every day for at least a month during the summer months. A real family team effort, and really hard work. These people are super hardy and incredibly welcoming. They politely didn't mention how crazy they thought we were for volunteering to work with them for a day!

Posted by chrisgulik 21:32 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (1)

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