True story: I visited a country that I didn’t know how to spell until after filling out my customs form. Whoa, that makes me sound ignorant. Did everyone else know there is a “z” in Kyrgyzstan?! I’m just gonna bank on the fact that probably half of Americans have never heard of Kyrgyzstan. 😉
By way of introduction for those that may have actually never heard of Kyrgyzstan, it is a Central Asian country comprised almost entirely of a “massive knot of colliding mountain ranges,” to quote Lonely Planet. These mountains and “their associated scraggy valleys, glaciers, gorges and ice-blue lakes dominate over 90% of the country.” In fact, the national hat is a big tall white thing that is designed to look like a glacier. The Kyrgyz people originated in Siberia though today they appear Asian given the Mongol influence and general assimilation and intermarriage. They are historically nomadic, and hence the yurt (and horse) plays a prominent role in the culture. There is a large Russian influence, what with the Lenin statues, Soviet style buildings, and Cyrillic script (we even learned some of the Cyrillic alphabet –enough to spell my name at least (Snowflake, E, H, H, backwards N…женни)). But the language is Turkic. Manas is the mythical national hero, and the epically long eponymous epic was composed entirely in oral form given the lack of written language among these nomadic folks.
Our welcome to Kyrgyzstan, as alluded to in prior posts, was less than pleasant. After a six and a half hour drive from Tashkent without food or bathroom break and a particularly infuriating and invasive bag check at the Uzbek border, we were in a rush to make our flight as a result of the failure of our Uzbek tour guides to comprehend time. Our true first taste of Kyrgyzstan was (very, very) briefly a pleasant change from our Uzbek farewell. After nearly an hour on the Uzbek side, we dragged our bags across the border. Sweating and incensed, we were greeted by a uniformed border patrolman. I looked at the man and asked, “Am I in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan?” His response, “Kyrgyzstan. Welcome,” was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard. I gave him an exasperated thank you and quickly pushed forth my passport.
The warm fuzzy feelings dissipated quickly as we met our new local guides in Osh, realized the time had indeed changed, and then rushed off in a hurried manner to catch our flight to Bishkek. Having not eaten since an early breakfast, and grown more and more furious as the long day wore on, we realized after we were dropped at the airport that we had no local money and thus no way to obtain those delightful looking M&M’s and Sprites behind the counter. (And OH EM GEE, did those look like the most delicious thing I’ve ever seen after weeks of plov.) From here, it’s a little unclear what happened. What I do know is that I asked the cashier if I could pay her with either Uzbek Sum or US Dollars (which in no way proves that I’m American, but I suppose that could have been the hint). Her answer was no. A few minutes later Alan heard a man near us use the word “Ukraine,” but other than that we could not understand him as he was speaking in Russian (or Kyrgyz, who knows). And then he looked at us with eyes full of misplaced fury and proceeded to spew a diatribe smattered with “American” and angry fist motions. We stood quietly by indicating that we had no idea what he was saying and that we were not inclined to engage in a fight with him, and watched as he garnered the attention of the entire airport terminal to scream and point at us bad, bad Americans. To be the recipient of such undeserved and undiscerning hatred was scary enough. But what really scared me the most was the fact that not a single soul felt the need to provide us with comfort or try to calm this man down. No security guards, no brave passengers made a peep. No one came up to us then or throughout the half an hour we waited to board a flight with this crazy man. No. Instead, we saw a handful of young men walk over and basically high five the guy. Then we waited and got on an airplane with the whole lot of them. Still, no one would make eye contact with us, though they did stare at us. To say we were disgusted would be an understatement. I have no words to accurately describe the way I felt at this point in a long and trying day of travel (the worst I think I’ve ever experienced in my life), but I did feel myself having a newfound sense of compassion for people who’ve ever had to bear the brunt of that kind of senseless hatred.
By the way, what makes it even more scary is that after we’d landed in Bishkek, a sweet woman came up to Linda in the baggage claim area and began to chat with her, but no more than a few minutes went by before Anti-American man came over, said something in Kyrgyz or Russian to this lady and scared her away. She didn’t even say goodbye to Linda.
And I suppose this taught us that with everything going on in Ukraine, it was not an ideal time to travel in an area with lots of Soviets. The reality is we’ve no idea what spurred this man’s outburst, and even if it is related to Ukraine, we don’t know whether he was angry because the U.S. is pushing back against Russia or because the U.S. didn’t do enough to help Ukraine! Of course, there are narrow minded and aggressive people everywhere, and many in the U.S. But it is quite sad.
To state the obvious, we were a little uneasy after this. Top it off with the fact that Bishkek, the capital city and our first Kyrgyz destination, has a more extensive list of travel warnings than most places we choose to visit. It probably didn’t help that our hotel had metal detectors at the entrance and hotel staff checked the underside of our van for bombs before letting us pull in (though only some of the time, so that’s comforting…). I kind of feel like we spent the first three days trying to convince our guide that it only takes one person to ruin an experience and/or cause injury (be it emotional or physical) and that we do not believe that all Kyrgyz people are bad. She spent three days trying to convince us that Kyrgyz people are nice. Most of them are, really. And I’m the first to admit there are bad apples in every barrel, but I think we were justified in our decision to skip Victory Day celebrations, the nationalist holiday celebrating the Soviet Union’s WWII victory where lots of Russian-heritage Kyrgyz people might be drunk and hanging out in large crowds.
Bishkek was much more modern and Western than the cities we’d seen in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. (Though as with most places, Kyrgyzstan is more traditional in the villages, and in the city people dress in skimpier, more Western styled clothing, etc.) While Kyrgyzstan is the poorest of the three (they have no oil or gas, and the main sources of income are hydro-power, some gold mining and some farming and cattle breeding), the streets were somehow filled with luxury cars (BMW, Lexus, we even spotted a Tesla). Fun fact: the Kyrgyz drive on the right, but many cars have steering wheels on the right, since they just import cars from wherever they are cheapest! (And if you’re wondering if this causes accidents, let’s just say that our van sideswiped a parked vehicle our first night in town). And the western influence was far more palpable here. For instance, we used our credit card!!! At multiple places! And there were grocery stores with bar code scanners. And they, too, accepted credit cards!
A large part of what attracts tourists to Kyrgyzstan is the natural beauty, and that allure is apparent right from the get go. Bishkek is dubbed a green city, and it does seem that way (I mean, check out the view from our hotel room) but one of the biggest selling points in our opinion is the access to nearby mountains like at Ala Archa National Park. You can even ski just a short drive from Bishkek!
A relatively short drive (maybe 45 minutes) took us to Ala Archa National Park for our first up-close enjoyment of Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty. We were thrilled to stretch our legs for a bit and get in a little exercise (read: start walking off all that lamb!). The views were quite stunning from the start, as we began hiking up a trail through a canyon with views of a rushing and rocky river and rugged snow-capped mountains on either side. Alan and Ron felt the area reminded them a bit of the landscape in Switzerland or New Zealand.
It was remote feeling, and we bumped into fewer than five other people our entire time on the trails (though, to be fair, there were a number of young Kyrgyz people picnicking and drinking closer to the base of the trail).
The wildflowers were pretty beautiful, as well.
We stopped a little ways up for a picnic lunch, and enjoyed some bread, cheese, fruit and nuts (purchased on credit card!!!).
Alan, Aiperi and I carried on in search of the waterfall (which turned out to be more of a trickle), but we were treated with some awesome animal sightings. Marmots! Such fat and furry and awkward movers, I love these guys.
And later we came upon a large group of mountain goats. It is pretty spectacular to watch these things move. I startled one on the trail when I turned a bend, and we stood their, jaws agape, as it bounded down to the river, across, and back up the other side with such speed and agility it was hard to believe it really happened. Sadly, no snow leopard sightings.
Also a quick and easy day trip from Bishkek is the Issyk Ata Gorge and Sanitarium. This visit happened to coincide with Victory Day so we did have a quick police check on the way to confirm that our driver was sober (glad to see this care taken to prevent drunk driving, but a wee bit nervous that this is necessary at 9am). The area is lovely and we couldn’t even make it there without a few stops to admire the stunning poppy studded fields and green hills backed by Kyrgyzstan’s craggy mountainous landscape.
Issyk Ata is sort of like a wellness retreat. This is the closest thing I could compare it to in America. There is a “hospital” on site, but its services are more holistic than surgical. There are springs from which people drink the water, and from what we could tell the main attraction is one large hot spring in a concrete pool where locals come to swim. (In fact, it was almost all locals, I’m not sure we saw any other foreign tourists.) There are also some old Buddhist carvings, and as per usual, some really cute little kids.
Though we all came wearing our “special costumes,” as Aiperi called them, Linda and I opted to observe while Alan and Ron checked out the pool for themselves. I found it amusing that it was treated like a community pool, with kids running around and playing as if it was a regular, cool pool rather than a giant hot tub.
There were also hoards of Kyrgyz people picnicking and hanging out in yurt-like cabanas on the grassy hills nearby. We quickly learned how popular this pastime is for the locals. It seems that whenever there is a holiday, a birthday, a cause for celebration, or just free time, friends and families gather with food and drinks at the nearest outdoor space for a good old fashioned picnic. Now that’s a national pastime I can get behind. The horse slaughter wedding ritual? I’m still on the fence about that one.
We escaped any Victory Day related drama save for a drunk old man picnicking (on vodka) at Issyk Ata who asked Aiperi where we’re from in a tone we cautiously viewed as angry. Thankfully, by now we had instructed Aiperi to let anyone know we were from Canada. I don’t know if he was on to us, or had just never heard of Canada, because his response was, “America? [drunk Kyrgyz mumbling]…America?”And by skipping the festivities we actually made it back to our hotel in time to discover we had a perfect view of the fireworks from our balcony.
The food options were also more plentiful in Bishkek, and included more western style options (still no McDonald’s or Starbucks though). Our guide, Aiperi, impressed us with her restaurant selections and we feasted on some glorious non-meat-and-potato dishes (even sushi!) for a few days before heading to the more rural areas where we would again overdose on lamb. I even joined Aiperi on the dance floor at one of the restaurants that had a bit of a clubby vibe to it. Kyrgyz girls can move those hips!
Unlike its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan does not require a visa for US citizens. In fact, we didn’t even fill out a customs form to enter the country. And they never collected our passports at a hotel! You could travel independently here, but it would be fairly difficult. If you speak Russian then it’s probably not as hard, and Turkish would help a bit, too. 1 USD = 52 Kyrgystani Som (KGS).
We visited in mid-May, which is before the peak season. Combining Kyrgyzstan with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan made it hard to time each perfectly, because later in the season those other countries will be scorching. The downside to visiting this early is that certain higher altitude yurt camps, treks, roads to lakes, etc. are either not accessible, or not reliably accessible such that you can make plans assuming access. The upside is it was never too hot, nor crowded. Perhaps you could do a Central Asia trip at the end of summer and time it to arrive after the sauna in certain places and before the snow in others…but I’m not sure.
Bishkek is somewhat more modern feeling than we expected. Credit cards are accepted at many establishments (generally only Visa, though). There are plenty of 24-hour supermarkets. We were still reeling somewhat from our Osh airport experience and the various travel advice warnings, so I wouldn’t say we relished our time here or saw that much of the city. Seems to us that a lot of the appeal anyway is the gorgeous surrounding mountains, which you can visit at places like Ala Archa National Park.
We bought our first SIM card in Central Asia, choosing Megacom. The purchase required a passport (one for the two of us) and the cards cost only 80 KGS each with I think 45 KGS of credit on them.
Transportation: We flew into Bishkek from Osh on a Pegasus (Turkish airline) flight. The drive from the airport to Ak Keme Hotel was maybe 20-30 minutes. We always had a car with driver. Our guide and many national travel advisory sites recommend against walking around much at night. They also recommend using only radio-dispatch taxis.
Accommodation: We stayed at Ak Keme Hotel. It was passable, at best. It is a large building and in the summer the pool would be open. The A/C did not work in either of our rooms. Breakfast was mediocre. In a city alleged to be not so safe, the rooms had no deadbolt or chain and no peephole. The security guy at the property entrance once used the long mirror to look for bombs under the car, and there is a metal detector at the building entrance. Another large, generally devoid of character hotel. Our guide pointed out the Jannat Regency (and called it five-star), which was near many nice-looking restaurants but maybe a little outside the city center?
Food: The food here was far more varied, and generally better, than what we found in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. We enjoyed each of our dinners at Tubeteika, Barashek, and Arzu. The menus were extensive and the alcohol generally cheap (like $4 for a JW Black). All accepted Visa.
Activities: We did not do that much in the city. We made two day trips. The first was to Ala Archa National Park. The park entrance is ~30km from Bishkek, and the road ends 12km beyond here. That is where you’ll find a lodge (seasonal?) and some well-marked hiking trails. The second was to Issyk Ata hot springs (farther from Bishkek, maybe a two hour drive) where we paid 60 KGS each for 45 minutes of access to the hot spring filled pool. Beware the scalding water pouring out of the pipe! The bare bones cafe served some tasty lagman.
May 7-10, 2014 (Wednesday-Saturday)