It’s been almost 8 years ago now since my first visit to the fascinating region of Central Asia. Central Asia is essentially the region west of China, but east of the Caspian sea, south of Russia, but north of South Asia. It made a huge impression on me back then, and I was overjoyed when I had the opportunity of going back only a few years later, this time to Kyrgyzstan. At the time a friend of mine was working in Bishkek and I went out to visit him in time for the celebrations of the Persian new year (celebrated all over Central Asia) in March. Kyrgyzstan is different from other countries in the region, but at the same time it is distinctly Central Asian.
In the west, ‘the stans’ are often grouped together as far away countries where not much can be found. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you might recognise the fictional Turmezistan, or maybe you remember Uzmenistan from Expendables 3, or perhaps you’ve heard of Absurdistan? Even the New York Times got confused at one point and referred to a story set in non-existent ‘Kyrzbekistan’. Well, nothing could be further from the truth! ‘Stan’ is simply a Persian suffix meaning ‘place’ or ‘country’, and is found in places where Persian culture has had a significant influence historically. Kyrgyzstan, the land of the Kyrgyz, is one such place and I thought I would share with you five things I love about this fascinating country.
1. The mountains
In many ways Kyrgyzstan is the land of the views. With over 90% of the country being mountainous and more than 1500 meters above sea level it makes for a spectacular road trip. As you drive through valleys, up mountain passes and through the hillsides the landscape changes ever so subtly. From the towering Alp like mountains in view from Bishkek, the mountains shift in colour between different shades of brown, green, beige, blue, yellow and purple, with the occasional patches of white snow.
2. Lake Issyk Kul
The massive Issyk Kul lake is the tenth largest lake in the world and the second largest salt water lake in the world. But more important than that, it’s where the people of Central Asia go to relax on the beach. The name itself means ‘warm lake’ as it never freezes, yet it’s surrounded by the perpetually snowy mountains of the Tien Shan mountain range. The contrast of sandy beaches and high mountains is unusual, and if you’re spending a long time on the beach, you have to beware of getting burned because of the high altitude. I spent a few days by the lake earlier this year, and was amazed at how the water seemed to be a different colour each day; one day deep blue, the next turquoise, the next a dark steel like colour.
3. The food
The food of the Kyrgyz is similar to what you find in other parts of Central Asia; sharing similarities with some Indian food and some Chinese food, and is absolutely delicious. Some of the highlights are:
- Paloo (Plov), a rice dish made with vegetables, lamb and local herbs.
- Manty, large-ish dumplings filled with minced lamb and packed with flavour.
- Lagman, thick noodles served with a vegetable and beef stew (sometimes spicy)
- Tochok or lepyoska, a naan-like bread baked in tandoori ovens (a personal favourite!)
For the brave there is Beshbarmak – noodles with vegetables and horse meat, and why not have it with a cup of mare’s milk?
4. The people
The Kyrgyz people are a warm and friendly people. A nomad people, traditionally living in tribes they are a hospitable people, used to living in community. When you are subject to Kyrgyz hospitality you won’t ever have to go hungry! They have a strong national identity, and as you walk about Bishkek, the capital, it is not unusual to see older men walking around in traditional high felt hats. The Kyrgyz adhere to a relaxed folk version of Islam, but are largely nominal in their observance. There is evidence of Christian presence in the country from as early as the 7th century and many are becoming Christians now. As we travel there, a highlight will be to meet with local Christians and hear their stories.
5. The atmosphere
Central Asia is a place unlike any other I’ve visited. The spectacular mountains; the combination of influences from ancient Persia, China and Russia; the proud but friendly and hospitable locals; the mix of people groups; the rich history of kings, empires, tribes and conquests; the nomadic lifestyle meeting modern life; the gigantic bazaars – all these things can only be found in this part of the world, and they form a unique atmosphere. It’s a part of the world I’d never really heard of until 8 years ago, but which I now can’t stay away from!
Written by: Erik Engberg