Kyrgyzstan – the untamed land of nomads


As the sun dropped behind the imposing Tien Shen range to our west, the mercury plummeted. In less than 30 minutes we went from relaxing out on the pasture in T-shirt and shorts, to tightly wrapping up with a hat, gloves and several warm layers to keep out the mountain chill.

Kyrgyzstan is a land of contrasts – mainly mountainous, the capital Bishkek nestles in one of the few valleys for miles around. While Bishkek was humid and oppresively hot, we found the daytime temperatures in the hills to be ideal for hiking. And what a place to hike! A stunning vista appears around every other corner, and apart from a herd of yak or the odd mountain goat, we didn’t see much in the way of company.

Where we did meet the Kyrgyz people, these encounters were even more memorable than the scenery. Sogan Bai, the eagle hunter; proud old man, previously a big cheese in the local kolhoz (commune) when the country was part of the USSR. My faltering Russian gave our little group a precious insight into how life has changed for the nomadic people during the years of Russian rule and through the transition to independence. Sogan Bai personified the Kyrgyz approach to its clashing predominant cultures of Russia and Islam. He observed many of the Islamic rituals of cleanliness, yet washed it down with a healthy (?) dose of local vodka.

And the shepherdess Nargul at Son Kyul lake, who hosted us for two nights in a yurt (above). She had raised a family in the harshest conditions, and at the same time managed to set up a community tourism project from scratch. A fiercely independent and determined woman, her hospitality was crowned when she produced scones with clotted cream and jam for breakfast one morning. The look of surprise on our faces was a picture!

Kyrgyzstan is very much off the beaten track, and does not have much in the way of western facilities outside of the capital. The roads are rough across most of the country and require a 4×4 to negotiate them. Yet the reward for taking the time to explore this beautiful little country at the tip of the Himalayan range is immense – the people, the solitude, the amazing views will all stay with you long after the smell of mutton has left your clothing (and your hair). Just one word of warning – stay off the mare’s milk (kumys) that you will inevitably be offered.. you’ve been warned!

(Aug 2008)

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