By OH CHIN ENG
Kyrgyzstan? To be honest, when I was told I was going to Kyrgyzstan for a work trip in late July, I drew a blank. I had never heard of that country, much less know how to pronounce it. However, I was excited about going there.
Having spent a week there, I can say with some confidence that it is a country worth visiting, for its exotic people, mountainous scenery, diverse cultures and rich history.
The landlocked country is situated in the middle of Central Asia, bordered by Kazakhstan (to the north), Uzbekistan (west), Tajikistan (south-west) and China (east).
Its stunning natural beauty – more than 80% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, and the snow-covered Tian Shan mountains will brighten up even the greyest cityscapes – has earned it the nickname “the Switzerland of Central Asia”. I felt at peace and relaxed being surrounded by such beautiful scenery.
Kyrgyzstan offers travellers some of the best trekking, biking, mountaineering and horse-riding experiences in the world.
Kyrgyzstan, aka the Kyrgyz Republic, has a continental climate and covers an area of slightly under 200,000sq km.
Its population of about six million people are mostly Kyrgyz and Muslim. And they converse mainly in Kyrgyz and Russian (due to its Soviet Union legacy).
The capital, Bishkek, has a population of about one million and the country is further divided into six administrative sections known as oblasties.
Into the unknown
In Kyrgyzstan, a journey from one place to another takes longer due to its hilly terrain and lack of highways. However, Bishkek is a modern city with wide streets and all the usual amenities.
It is quite slow paced but is by no means an underdeveloped country. On the roads, you can see European and Japanese cars – and, would you believe it, Proton Wiras. The police force uses our Proton, among other makes, as their patrol cars!
Traffic can build up in the city but they have many zebra crossings, not just here but throughout the country. The best thing is that the drivers here are courteous enough to stop and allow pedestrians to cross.
Some popular landmarks in the city are the Victory Monument and Ala-Too Square. The Victory Monument was built to commemorate the victory during World War II and the country’s fallen soldiers. What’s striking are the three curved arcs – representing a yurt, the traditional Kyrgyz tent – with the figure of a woman awaiting the return of her husband and sons from the war, near an ever-burning flame. So poignant. Many a wedding party would stop here to pay their respects.
Ala-Too Square is similar to our Dataran Merdeka, with flagpole but minus the field. It’s the place where the locals hang out and hold many activities and festivals. Good spot for people- watching. Different types of bicycles are available for rental, from morning till late at night.
Getting out of the city, there are no seas to head to. The next best thing is Issyk-Kul Lake, which is the 10th largest lake and the second biggest saline lake in the world. The lake, with a 182km span, is situated at the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. The name Issyk-Kul means “hot lake”, but don’t be fooled, as the waters can be icy cold even in the summer.
The locals believe that the water has healing effects and, during summer, it is a main tourist spot. Ferry services are available to bring visitors to the middle of the lake for a swim. The water is so clear, clean and inviting.
The Kyrgyz and tourists from Russia also throng the Keremet Suu hot spring in Chong-Oruktu village near Issyk-Kul.
There are many other interesting places worth visiting, like the Burana Tower in Tokmok, Ruh Ordo Cultural Centre in Cholpon Ata city, Ala Archa Canyon, Alamedin Gorge, Kegety Gorge, Sary-Chelek Lake, and Sulaiman Mountain.
During my stay, I bumped into some Kiwis: Sonya Clark and her boyfriend Taylor Hughson, both 23-year-old students. They said they chose to holiday in Kyrgyzstan as it is not the usual vacation spot. Also, it’s not so commercialised, and food and accommodation are cheap.
“I hardly see Western or European tourists here. The Kyrgyz are so friendly, warm and beautiful. It’s a very peaceful and stunning country,” said Clark.
Food in Kyrgyzstan is quite an incredible experience. And there are no problems finding halal food.
The staple here is bread, which is usually eaten with vegetables, dairy products and red meats. And to them, drinking tea – green or black – is like drinking water.
Vegetables invariably seem to be a combination of onions, tomato and capsicum sprinkled with olive oil. Forget the chicken; instead, think beef, mutton, buffalo or even horse meat.
It appears that the ingredients used, and the preparation style, are influenced by their nomadic heritage.
Do try the kimiz (horse milk), kuurdak (sautéed meat) and traditional noodles known as beshbarmak, which is similar to spaghetti and contains mixed meats. The term beshbarmak means “five fingers”, because that’s how the dish is eaten – with your fingers. Also try the wheat drink called jarma.
Kyrgyz people seem to enjoy their food so much there is hardly any conversation during a meal. But they do clasp their hands in prayer at the end of it.
Of tents and toilets
One heritage of the country is the nomadic tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. While the majority of Kyrgyz live in houses and apartments, the natives still live in their bozui or yurt – accompanied, of course, by herds of horses, goats and sheep.
Bozui are usually found in rural areas and used by the shepherds. They are portable, designed to be easily dismantled and carried about.
Assembling one takes around two hours, and is done by both men and women; usually the men are in charge of the wooden structures while the women handle the decoration and roofing.
Many bozui are also set up along the highway or in the city as makeshift restaurants to offer visitors a unique dining experience in a traditional house.
Then there are yurt camps like those in Tash Rabat, the “House of Stones” at Bashy, and in Jeti-Oguz (“Seven Bulls”) Valley near the city of Karakol on Issyk-Kul Lake.
Be prepared, however, for their toilets; in some places, they can be primitive.
Before you go
Getting to Kyrgyzstan takes about 10 hours by flight, and may include a transit stop. Malaysians don’t need a visa to visit the country. Do make sure to change your currency to US dollars as the ringgit is hardly accepted.
If you want to experience an exotic locale with beautiful scenery and people, start making your preparations now.
NEXT PAGE: Welcoming Malaysians