My two and a half weeks in Kyrgyzstan have just come to an end. It was the most photogenic country of my trip so far. Have a look at the photos I posted on Facebook if you haven’t seen them yet. It was also perhaps the most bizarre.
I’d describe Kyrgyzstan as a kind of ‘surreal Switzerland’. Physically, it has many similar characteristics – spectacular snow capped mountains, beautiful glacial streams and rivers, plunging valleys and alpine vegetation.
However, what Switzerland lacks is Kyrgyzstan’s heady combination of Soviet relics and what many Europeans might think of as medieval customs. The combination is quite fascinating.
Many of you reading may not know anything about Kyrgyzstan (I really didn’t before about a year ago). So to highlight some of the more amusing/ intriguing/ depressing aspects to the country, I’d like to share some quotes which I encountered during my time there (*note some of these have been slightly altered for the purposes of comprehensible prose. As a disclaimer the quotes were just things I heard and are obviously not representative of all Kyrgyzstan or the people within. Go there to find out for yourself! It’s well worth it!)
‘I don’t know why he chose Kazakhstan for Borat. We were very lucky’ young Kyrgyz man met on night out in Bishkek
Indeed it seems that Sacha Baron Cohen may well have chosen the wrong ‘stan’ for his portrayal of Borat. Bizarrely he chose the nationality of the most westernised and developed country in Central Asia for the haphazard misadventures and cultural inappropriateness exhibited by his moustachioed creation. All I spoke to pretty much hated Borat anyway, but there was a distinct feeling that Kyrgyzstan had ‘gotten away with it’ as if one was to objectively pick an unheard of ‘stan’ for bizarre rural parody, Kyrgyz would be a much more logical choice than Kazakh.
Cultural/ way of life
‘Bride kidnapping is now actually illegal. However you only get 2 years in prison if found guilty. Its 11 years if you steal a goat’ – my awesome Kyrgyz couchsurfing host
Depressingly, bride kidnapping is actually still a big problem in the country. At its worst, the custom involves a would be groom and his gang (normally family members) driving along in a car, pulling up alongside an unsuspecting young lady and bundling her into the boot of the vehicle. From there she is driven to the groom’s home where she is met by his family and forced to marry sometimes within a day. There are, of course, variations to this – for more info click here. But in short, the custom still does exist. Making it actually illegal is a first step, but judging by the quote above, perhaps the priorities of lawmakers are a little skewed by modern western standards. Here’s the documentary I saw on it (its 25 mins so you may want to save it for later…)
‘I am Russian. I was born and raised in Bishkek but I am Russian. This isn’t like America where black people and Chinese people are American. Russian people are Russian.’ Russian mountain tour guide
Kyrgyzstan is home to about 10% ethnic Russians – Bishkek higher with over 20%. I was interested as to whether they felt Russian or Kyrgyz. I was quite surprised by this resounding answer I got when asking our Bishkek born tour guide. I wonder at what point white South Africans starting feeling ‘South African’. But if that answer is anything to go by, it seems a while before ethnic Russians will start feeling Kyrgyz. In fact, if current migration patterns continue, there may not be many Russians left at all in Kyrgyzstan soon. Every young Russian I met said how they wanted to live in Russia.
‘I earn less than $200/ month as a doctor. Well that is my official salary.’ My awesome couchsurfing host
Perhaps this type of comment is one of the reasons for the ‘brain drain’ of talent the country is fast experiencing. It goes without saying that the base salary is ridiculously low by European standards for such a vital service, but the really interesting bit for me was the second half of the quote. Apparently doctors rely heavily on their ‘unofficial’ salaries which by and large come in the way of ‘tips’ from their patients. The custom is to tip the doctors if they perform well. If you don’t then ‘perhaps you don’t get such good service next time’.
‘Some believe that if you have sex with a man and you are on top, it’s not gay’ Taxi driver
A perhaps misguided interpretation of homosexuality. I can’t legislate for how widespread this belief is.
Kyrgyzstan and the US
‘Kyrgyzstan is a major threat to US national security’. ‘I believe it should be invaded’. ‘All those countries are dangerous.’ Random American citizens
My couchsurfing host in Osh showed me a great Australian documentary highlighting some stupid things Americans say. Chief provacateur ‘John Howard’ had invented a story that Kyrgyzstan was threatening the US and president Bush had decreed that it should be invaded. He took to the streets to gauge the mood. Here’s the 10 minute vid. Its pretty funny all the way through, but the Kyrgyzstan bit is after 8 mins…
I fly supplies to Afghanistan. Now will you let me get to my strip club? Randy the American
Manas ‘transit centre’ – just outside the capital Bishkek – is actually a key component of the US ‘war on terror’ in nearby Afghanistan. It’s a US airforce base to deliver supplies to support the war effort. It was supposed to have been closed at several points during the last few years, but each time has managed to stay open as US ‘rent’ increases ($200m for the last lease apparently). Obviously it is home to 100s of servicemen, who are often let out on the loose to explore some of Bishkek’s cultural highlights. I met Randy and Troy at a US themed pub.
‘When you go to Tashkent, take a gun and shoot all the Uzbeks’ – taxi driver
Although he said it to me in a jocular manner complete with hand motions and sound effects, there was more than an undercurrent of menace in the words of my taxi driver. Sadly the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks don’t get on – exemplified in 2010 by inter ethnic fighting in and around Osh which claimed the lives of over 200 and left nearly 2000 wounded. Civil war was narrowly avoided. The situation isn’t helped by the unbelievable borders which bring about the statement below.
‘I wouldn’t advise taking the train from Bishkek to Osh. You have to cross 7 borders’. Guesthouse owner, Bishkek
Surely the most bizarre borders imaginable? Apparently they were all part of Stalin’s ‘divide and conquer’ approach of the 1920s which saw the establishment of the ‘quasi independent republics’ of the region. Keen to ensure people were as separated as possible, the borders dissected communities and left many ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz entirely displaced.
During the Soviet era, however, train travel was unaffected by these borders and one could happily travel across the CIS (commonwealth of independent states) uninterrupted. Independence in the mid 90’s changed all this, with visa regulations for each country introduced and a consequent barrage of red tape emerging. For ridiculous reasons like this, it’s now no longer possible to travel the relatively short distance between Bishkek and Tashkent without getting a Kazakh visa. And the train line from Bishkek to Osh, sadly now dissects Kazakhstan and enters and re enters Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan innumerable times (the southern half of the line also closed in 2010 upon research so just as well I didn’t take it!).
‘Would you like some of my fermented horse milk?’ Yurt owner in Song kol
The favourite drink of the Kyrgyz is not coca cola or tango, but instead that well known British favourite – fermented horse milk. Known locally as Kumis. Although it may sound delicious, unfortunately I can report that the taste is far from so. Rosie, who was travelling with me, actually gagged upon trying it. Sorry to the Kyrgyz people, I know you love the stuff, but its just not quite ready for our stomachs just yet.
‘My wedding almost bankrupt me. It costs a lot of money to sacrifice 2 horses ’ Guide in Bishkek
One of the more intriguing traditions of the Kyrgyz is that of sacrificing 2 horses upon getting married. Sadly this is an expensive business. Horses average around $1500 – $2000 a pop; quite a considerable amount when you consider the average wage of a doctor!
‘The reason horses are so expensive in Kyrgyzstan is that they live for up to 100 years.’ Kyrgyz man in minibus on way to rafting trip
Although the chap who told me this spoke excellent English and talked with great eloquence on a range of other topics, I couldn’t help but feel that his life expectancy estimate for a horse was a little optimistic. Upon my subsequent Google research, I found that actually the world record for oldest ever horse is held by a 19th century beast by the name of ‘Old Billy’. He was a mere 62. Average horse lives until 25. Perhaps the Guinness book of world records should take a trip to Kyrgyzstan!
‘My bike is broken. So I’m buying a horse to continue my journey’ Kohe the Japanese adventurer
Kohe was an incredible individual. We met him in a hot spring up a mountain. When we enquired as to what he was up to in Kyrgyzstan he casually replied with the above answer. He needed to get to Kazakhstan. And horse was to be his favoured method of transport!
One of the great things about travel in Kyrgyzstan is that almost everyone you meet is on some sort of epic/ bizarre journey. People cycling from London or Sydney (or similar) are just ten a penny. This is a place where the extraordinary becomes ordinary, and the totally and utterly extraordinary becomes extraordinary. Extending this twisted logic, the other candidates for ‘extraordinary’ were a couple of Dutch brothers who replied ‘we started our journey naked in Lisbon with no money and only 1000 t shirts’ when I asked them what they were doing here.
‘Unfortunately you’ve just missed dead goat polo season. But Talas won the league.’ Lonely planet central asia author who travelled with us for a few days
I was massively disappointed to miss out on watching the dead goat polo – one of the favourite sports in Kyrgyzstan. Its basically a cross between real polo and rugby. The ball is naturally dead goat and you play on horses. The idea is to chuck the dead goat into the goal.
Check out my friend Sophie’s article on it which she posted to the Dromomaniacs website for more info…
‘Kyrgyzstan has the 3rd largest gold reserves in the world. But most of it is inaccessible in the mountains’ JJ the American ex marine who was ‘building the new US embassy’
Following a bit of subsequent research the claim to having the 3rd largest reserves didn’t appear to stack up, but what is certainly beyond doubt is that Kyrgyz gold reserves are large and potentially untapped. The country relies currently on the output from one single gold mine at Kumtor – owned by Canadian firm Centerra.
This has not been without its recent controversy, however. Long chastised for its environmental record Centerra were recently (in May this year) the subject of violent demonstrations against them for not paying enough tax directly to the country. Last year, Kyrgyzstan was forced to abandon gold mining auctions after the proposals were met with more local protest about the prospect of selling off Kyrgyz resources (and disturbing nature) to foreign owned companies.