May 2012: As part of a larger 12-day trip including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, i visited Kyrgyzstan with the goal of getting into its mountainous interior and meeting the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz nomads and to stay with a family in their yurt.

 

My route of travel

Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country, with mountains in excess of 20,000. It is located in central Asia with one of the only democratically elected governments in the region. The people are largely ethnic Kyrgyz and there is a large population of semi-nomadic Kyrgyz that travel with their herd animals living in a yurt during the non-winter months. In winter they live in fixed stone structures. Kyrgyzstan was once part of the Soviet Union and became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union. Like all other ex-Soviet countries in Central Asia, it has battled with Islamic insurgents and tourists have been on occasion targeted. 

During my trip in Central Asia, my goal was to get into the mountains, stay with the nomads and see some of the Silk Road history of Kyrgyzstan. This was my 6-day itinerary:

 

Day 1
Arrive Bishkek from Tashkent in afternoon
Meet Slava/Driver
Bishkek Overnight in Hotel Alpinist

Day 2
Depart early in the morning 250km drive
Night in the yurt with family in the mountains outside of Kochkor village

Day 3
Visit Kirghiz family
Depart to Tash Naryn, Silk Road caravanserai (4 hours driving)
Night in yurt camp

Day 4
Visit Tash Rabat
Hiking in mountains
Yurt camp

Day 5
Return to Bishkek
Visit Kirghiz families in high mountain pastor yurt camps.
Night Bishkek with Slava’s family

Day 6
Transfer to Almaty, Kazakhstan by bus early morning

 

 

Sick as a Dog

I flew to Bishkek from Tashkent arriving in the evening. As soon as I arrived at my hotel, I started to feel sick and I came down with extreme diarrhea, vomiting and chills. It was obvious to me that I was experiencing food sickness likely from the meat kebobs I ate in Tashkent. I was in pretty bad shape all night and at some point, in the middle of the night I was badly dehydrated, and I walked to a nearby convenience store that was still open and purchased water and guzzled it down. Then the next morning, a driver I hired named Slava, came to pick me up and I decided that even though I was sick, could barely walk and had diarrhea, I was not going to waste my trip in a hotel room. So, we drove hours across bumpy roads in his little Lada car with poor suspension and I tried to sleep as much as possible. My first impressions of Kyrgyzstan weren’t the greatest, but I figured this was mostly due to how poor I was feeling. It seems every little village we passed was full of severely intoxicated men stumbling around. But I was impressed with the traditional wool hats that many of the men wore.

It was not an uncommon sight to see drunken men stumbling around during broad day light in Kyrgyzstan. I saw men doing shots of vodka in the convenience store and pretty much doing shots just about everywhere. This guy didn’t quite make it back home.

A fair number of men both young and old wear the traditional wizard hat.

Then we when we arrived at a nomad camp where some nomads were staying in yurts, he introduced me to a family that offered to let us stay with them, but I was in so much pain that I could barely speak to them and the family aware of my situation prepared a mattress on the ground in the middle of the yurt for me to sleep on. it was a surreal experience for the afternoon and through the night, the family went about their business of eating, working in the fields and people would come and go, socialize, eat all around me but I was in a comatose state, delirious and oblivious to my surroundings. I recall hearing laughter, talking and seeing people drinking vodka but i was too tired to participate. Then in the middle of the night, I someone pushing into my stomach and rubbing a traditional medicinal ointment into skin. They removed my shirt and kneaded into my stomach. It was painful and I cringed. The matriarch of the family was trying to help me and rubbing a homemade ointment into my skin. I was defenseless to resist but after 5 minutes of pain she stopped, and I returned to sleep. I awoke again in the morning feeling great. Maybe it was the ointment or maybe not but either way I was renewed and was ready to explore and the family was happy to finally meet me.

Staying with Nomads

I spent the night with a Kirghiz family in their yurt. The family was very hospitable.

I came down with food sickness and this really nice mom trying to help out rubbed some strange ointment on my stomach to try and cure me and I did feel better in the morning.

Slava a Ukrainian was my guide and driver and the mother of the Nomad Family I stayed with. 

Mountains where he nomads lived

Nomad man

Mountains where he nomads lived

More Nomads

I wanted to visit the well-preserved Silk Road era caravanserai in the mountains of Tash Rabat, so our next stop was to drive into the Tien Shien Mountains for 1/f a day. Along the way we passed many nomad camps and I asked to stop at some and just do an impromptu visit. On the first occasion, we pulled over to urinate and I saw a camp in the distance, and I ran ahead of the driver to meet the inhabitants before he could join. I still remember how shocked the family was to emerge from their yurt and see a foreigner standing before them. They greeted me and brought me instantly for tea and snacks. My driver eventually caught up and we all sat inside sharing mares’ milk, an alcoholic drink made from horse milk and vodka.

Mountains where he nomads lived

Another family that I approached and was welcomed as an honored guest with cups of tea and fermented mares milk. I had to try on my awesome Kirghiz hat for this photo.

Another family that I approached and was welcomed as an honored guest with cups of tea and fermented mares milk. I had to try on my awesome Kirghiz hat for this photo.

Proud Kirghiz family of new yurt and boy. The family was so proud of their new yurt that they wanted me to photograph the inside with their son in the photo. I need to figure out a way to send them this photo.

Tash Rabat-Silk Road Caravanserai

Slava and I stayed in a rustic camp in the mountains, and we went and did some very steep hiked together to some high mountain ridges before a thunderstorm rolled in with lightning. Even though Slava was decades older than me I could barely keep up. His many years of high alpine climbing still gave him strength.

These little marmots the size of a fat small dog are almost everywhere in the high alpine pastors.

The next morning, we awoke early to visit the Silk Road caravanserai of Tash Rabat. It was a beautiful, serene structure located in the mountains not far from a small village.  We had it to ourselves until we were about to leave when a few vehicles of school children from local villages showed up and let out an outpouring of village kids to run around the ancient structure to play. Evidently, they were visiting as part of a field trip from school to appreciate their local heritage.

This is an old caravanserai thought to have been built 1000 years ago and used by Silk Road traders as a fort. It’s location in the middle of the mountains at 12,000 feet is the most amazing part of the place as well as the dark and foreboding interior.

Outside of the caravanserai there was nothing but life, the sun was shining, grassy meadows stretched endlessly to the snow capped mountains, and marmots wobbled around between their holes. Inside the caravanserai it was a whole other world. It was dark, cold and the silence was deafening.The slab of raided rock to the right is where the ancient traders slept during the cold mountain nights.

from Tash Rabat, we drove the long way back to Bishkek where I stayed in the home of Slava. His beautiful, well-manicured garden around his home overlooking Bishkek was verdant and colorful with apples and other fruits growing. His wife cooked us a great traditional dinner made from fresh local foods, and we drank plum brandy and watched the lighting storm from his porch and had a great discussion about our adventures. His grandparents came to the Stans during Soviet times like so many other immigrants from around the Soviet Union to try and escape poverty and to seek a better life. Slava has lived his entire life in Kyrgyzstan and had led a fascinating life as a mountaineer and a mining geologist. Slava had some fascinating mountain adventures to share with me and stories of growing up in the Soviet Union. he was an incredible man, and he gave me a gift of a small stone Stalin statue in his garden that I took home and added to my collection of travel artifacts. Slava was a good man and a friend who welcomed me to his country not as a client but as an honored guest and I will miss him. The next morning, he drove me to the Kazakhstan border and dropped me off and I crossed into Kazakhstan in pursuit of a new adventure.

 

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