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The Fine Art of Kyrgyzstan


There’s something about the ex-Soviet republics that keeps you off balance. The uniformity of Soviet-Style thinking and governance is juxtaposed with a broad stroke of diversity at all levels of society.

Cultural patterns in carpets and fabrics

Native Kyrgyz are an ancient ethnic mix of Mongol, Turk and—to some extent—Persian. Other cultural influences persist with the Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Tajik, Uighur, Tartar, Kazak, Korean and Dungan minority populations. Germans once settled in the northern town of Kant.

Russian is the primary spoken language but since independence in 1991 Kyrgyz have asserted their native language into public policy.  Most Kyrgyz identify as Muslim but since Kyrgyzstan was a latecomer to Islam the level of religious practice is low. Even so, many mosques have been built over the past decade. These, and many other dichotomies, illustrate the complexities of the region.  It all begins to make sense when you consider Kyrgyz is derived from, kyrk kyz, which means ’40 girls’ and goes along with legends of 40 original clan mothers of the region. Even today, clan identity remains strong.

But the dichotomies don’t end with language, ethnic and socio-cultural diversity.  The bland soviet-era architecture common throughout the country stands apart from the beautifully rich landscape that shifts from the Tien Shan “Mountains of Heaven” ranges, to desert flatland and valleys in the south to the awesome Inylcheck Glacier and various rivers and lakes. Lake Issyk-Kul is a huge turquoise lake near the border of Kasakhstan where archeologists have discovered Bronze Age ruins and artifacts. The lake is surrounded by snowcapped mountains and small villages. It is also a popular summertime destination for those wishing to gain relief from hot temperatures at one of the many lakeside resorts and yurt camps.

You don’t get white sliced bread here

Kyrgyzstan is considered to be a so-called, “Hardship Post,” for foreign aid and government workers. For travelers looking for adventure “off the beaten path,” in this post 9/11 era, Kyrgyzstan offers plenty of new experiences—at extremely low prices—once you get past the more expensive airfare to this region. The region presents some of the most striking Mountain views for hikers and trekkers. For those interested in experiencing local life, homestays and yurt accommodations are offered. Guesthouses are opening everywhere and the entire country is virtually one huge campground.

Even though this once major thoroughfare along the ancient Silk Road hosted regular caravans—traveling from China to Europe with porcelain, silk, spices and other goods—it now beckons modern day visitors with a freshness and uniqueness not many are yet seeking out. It is not uncommon for westerners to turn heads in smaller villages simply because not many are seen. After all, Kyrgyzstan broke off from the Soviet Union and gained independence as recently as 1991. Before then westerners were rarely, if ever, allowed to travel here.

Best times to visit—

It’s amazing horses are made of grass

· Late May-October. Temperatures vary according to altitude but are mild in spring and fall. Summers are extremely hot in many parts. Most travelers escape to either the mountains or lakes for relief from the heat in July and August.

Visa—Americans and most other nationalities will need a visa. Full information best from a site such as embassy-worldwide.com.

Getting There—

· NWA flies from Minneapolis to Almaty, Kazakstan via Amsterdam. There is now no need for a Kazakstan visa if you travel directly from the airport to Kyrgyzstan.  Almaty to Bishkek is about a three-hour drive by shared taxi at cheap prices US$15.
· Turkish Airlines, Uzbekistan Airways, Aeroflot, Siberian Airways and British Airways fly to Bishkek via cities such as, Istanbul, Moscow, London, Frankfurt.
· Check other airlines for more opportunities.
· Roundtrip flights from the US range from US$1200 to US$2000
Trip Itineraries—Tour operators abound in Bishkek. They can arrange your forays and hiking excursions to such destinations as, Lake Issyk-Kul, Osh, Naryn, Samarkind and Tashkent [in neighboring Uzbekistan] and many other points of interest. Intrepid travelers can also hire private cars for excursions in the north. Travel to the south is easier and faster by plane from Bishkek to Osh and then a hired driver. You can hire a driver to take you anywhere in Kyrgyzstan very inexpensively and bargaining is expected. Roads are in poor condition so search out 4-door sedans with good tires. Seat belts, if intact, are an added safety bonus.

Tour companies you can reach by email include: Ak Sai Travel, aksai@infotel.kg
C.A.T. Corporation, cat@elcat.kg and Ecotour, ecotour@infotel.kg

Places to Stay—There’s accommodation for every budget in Kyrgyzstan.  Choices range from five star and budget hotels to guesthouses and homestays. Yurt camps are popular in summer.

The Capital of Bishkek has a number of hotels: The top range is the five-star Hyatt Hotel US$160-$200 Contact: concierge@hyatt.kg web: http://www.bishkek.hyatt.com/ the four-star Pinara Hotel is the choice of many government, NGO and business travelers. Prices range from US$50-100 Contact: pinara@elcat.kg web: http://www.pinara.com.kg/ and the Silk Road Lodge is another favorite of regular visitors. Prices range US$50-$75 Contact: silkroad@infotel.kg web: http://www.silkroad.com.kg/ Budget travelers appreciate Asia Mountains Guesthouse Prices range US$25-$50 Contact: aljona@mail.elcat.kg web: http://www.asiamountains.co.uk/ and there are also Homestays and lodging in Yurt Camps throughout the country can be booked through local travel agencies. Prices range from US$2.50-$15 a night

Things to Buy—The cultural diversity makes for a shopper’s paradise at bargain prices. The most popular handicraft to buy is the traditional wool felt shyrdak, used for centuries as carpets and wall hangings in yurts and still found in most homes today. Hundreds of other handicrafts made from felt, leather and wood will keep most shoppers busy at the market. It is also possible to purchase carpets imported, at cheaper than US prices, from around Central Asia. Fine artists here are literally “starving artists” in this post-Soviet era. In Bishkek, artists are congregated in two buildings of studio lofts and an art gallery funded by the Swiss Corporation. Paintings are priced between US$50 and US$300.

Food—There’s a common joke told in Kyrgyzstan. Question: Did you know Kyrgyz people are second in the consumption of meat?  Guess who’s first? Answer: Wolves.

This is meat lovers land. The nomadic history is reflected in the dishes that nearly all contain some amount of dairy and mutton. Shashlik is a mutton kebab served with onion and tomato. Laghman is a mutton stew with thick chewy noodles and hot spices. Plov, an Uzbek dish, is rice with vegetables and cubes of mutton.  Other dishes include pastries filled with meat and potatoes.  Summertime produces a vast selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.

When in Kyrgyzstan you’re also among tea-drinkers. More tea [chai] is consumed here than in Britain and, again, the Kyrgyz are proud of it. June and July are Koumys producing months. It’s made from fermented mare’s milk and has a taste that takes time for most foreigners to learn to appreciate. Kefir is also popular as well as Maksym, a thick wheat-based drink. The only way to describe it is as a drink that could be a brown cream-of-wheat non-alcoholic beer.  Vodka, of course, is cheaper than water and the vast selection can overwhelm you. A good beer is Siberski Corona. Good wine is not easy to find.

In Bishkek, numerous restaurants have opened in recent years including: Turkish, Indian and Chinese along with a couple of American-style bistros. Meals range in price from US$1.50 to US$7.

Don’t plan your trip to Kyrgyzstan if what you are looking for is a relaxing day at the beach.  But if you want to travel to a relatively under-explored region of the world that has been at the critical crossroads between east and west in ancient times, this is the perfect destination. You will not be disappointed with the beauty, ethnic and cultural diversity, and hospitality Kyrgyz people are known for. You’ll also be keeping company, as a traveler, with the likes of Marco Polo, Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan.

Karen Louise Boothe is from Minneapolis. She currently lives and works in Kyrgyzstan for the National Democratic Institute. You can reach her at. klboothe@hotmail.com

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