(48) Biskek, Kyrgyzstan: Ready for home + PLUS overview of Central Asia

I don’t have any notes from my last two days in Kyrgyzstan. Almost no photos either.

I had planned my last full day of travels to be my birthday. I stayed in my usual guesthouse in Bishkek the day before after arriving from Tamga, but the night of my birthday I spent at the Hyatt. My high school friend Brad, who used to work in the hospitality/hotels in Moscow, had a friend who worked at the Hyatt, so I got a deal. I enjoyed the white sheets, the fluffy robe, the pool. I wandered town, looking perhaps for a place to get my nails done, but nothing materialized. Kind of an anticlimactic ending for the trip and for my 30th birthday, but I was AOK with that.

All these posts are great an all, but what exactly is Central Asia?

Before I left on my trip, when I told people I was going to Central Asia, I would get responses like:

  • Oh, I loved the food there. (Uh, you’re thinking of South East Asia.)
  • Oh, yeah, China is one of my favourite countries. (Uh, still not quite there).
  • Where?

Central Asia was “put on the map” so to speak thanks (or no thanks) to Borat. And unfortunately, Kyrgyzstan got in the news for political reasons just before I left. But otherwise, Central Asia is one of a few clusters of countries that seem to be fairly unknown in the general North American population. Some others unknown clusters might include the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, etc.) or the Caucases (Azerbaijan, Armenia, etc.).

Central Asia is bordered by Russia to the north, China to the west, Iran and Afghanistan to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the west. The countries are all land-locked countries (Turkmenistan borders the Caspian sea, but there are no outlets to an ocean. And the Aral Sea barely counts as water anymore.) Uzbekistan is actually double land-locked – not only is it land-locked, but all its neighbours are too. (There is only one other country in the world that can say this. Do you know which one?)

It consists of the former soviet states east of the Caspian sea, and south of Russia – Kazakhstan (the largest, and the country I did not visit on this trip), Turkmenistan (the most controlled), Uzbekistan (the most touristed), Tajikistan (the poorest) and Kyrgyzstan (the most Russified). Each has their own ethic history, but the borders between countries don’t even come close to meeting the true ethnic divides. There are Turkmen in Iran, Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, Tajiks in Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyz in Tajikistan. And Russian everywhere.

It’s important to distinguish between ethnicity and citizenship, which didn’t really sink in for me until I hitched a ride with two Russian women in Kyrgyzstan. For some reason I had pictured Russians to be almost visitors here. Here for a while, just haven’t got back to Russia quite yet. I hadn’t considered Russian to be an ethnicity. But Russians have been here for generations. As one of the women said, “Kyrgyzstan is my home. I don’t like Russia. I don’t like all the drunk people.” They are ethnically Russian, but have a Kyrgyz (or Uzbek or Turkmen, etc.) identity otherwise.

Why people travel here

Turkmenistan probably for its wackiness. Turkmenistan seems to always have had a crazy, egotistical president. Posters, statues, newspapers, and books are all about the president. And while the rest of the country is fairly normal and rural, Ashgabat is a very odd, opulent city that has no equal. The gas crater in the middle of the desert is pretty neat too.

Uzbekistan for its Islamic historical architecture. Though I must say Iran has it beat.

Tajikistan for the Pamir highway, desolate and dramatic. The Wakhan Valley is gaining in popularity too. Lots of cyclists.

Kyrgyzstan for Issyk-Kul, the big alpine lake that never freezes, and for horse-trips. And the well-run and established community-based tourism system, which hooks up tourists with homestays, guides, and transportation (horse or machine).

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also attract a fare number of hard-core trekkers and mountaineers.

Geography

Turkmenistan is bordered by a mountain range to the south (along the border with Iran) but otherwise is a flat, dry, scrub covered desert.

Uzbekistan is bordered by small mountains to its east (along the border with parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) but otherwise is a flat, dry, scrub covered desert.

Tajikistan has some low lying and flatter areas in the far north near Uzbekistan and a bit in the central west, but otherwise is dramatic mountain valleys along its border with Uzbekistan and Afghanistan or high plains and mountains in the center and east.

Kyrgyzstan has some low lying areas in the southwest around Osh and Jalal Abad (as part of the Fergana Valley shared with Uzbekistan), but otherwise is a series of mountain ranges divided by sometimes narrow, sometimes broad, valleys.

Religion

Other than a handful of churches dotted around Central Asia, the religious population is generally Muslim. But the kind of Muslim that can drink vodka and eat pork shashlyk. Islam as a culture, not as a religion perhaps. There is definitely a spectrum of Islam here, and considering I was here for Ramadan and had absolutely no problem getting food at anytime of the day (I don’t think I even saw any closed restaurants), it’s definitely not the same Islam found in Iran. I think I have seen maybe only one or two men praying in public here, while in Iran it would not have been unusual to have to wait to pay for your groceries until the cashier had finished with his namaz. Headscarves here seem to be more for function (i.e. keeping hair out of eyes) than for religious purposes. While there are definitely some more devout muslims here and there, as the Lonely Planet describes, “The Kyrgyz people took as much Islam with them as they could fit in their saddlebags.”

Language

Turkmen, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz are all rooted in Turkish, while Tajik is similar to Farsi (Iran). One Turk I met in Turkmenistan joked that Turkmen is like a really simple, literal version of Turkish. The Turkmen word for “key” is “opener” and the word for “landing” (as in a plane) is “falling to the ground.” Russian is also widely spoken everywhere. Schools before the break up of the USSR were taught in Russian, so most adults speak Russian. Kids are hit and miss.

In Tajikistan it was nice to use some of the Farsi I had learned, and in Kyrgyzstan I put in a good effort to learn Kyrgyz. However, it was hard to actually use the Kyrgyz I knew. Even if I asked, “How much is this?” in Kyrgyz, I would generally get a response in Russian. And while I know a bit of Russian, I don’t know any numbers other than “2” (dva). So after the price is given in Russian, I would have to ask “Kyrgyzski pajalsta” (Kyrgyz please). And hope that the price involved 1-39, 80-89, hundreds or thousands, as I didn’t know 40, 50, 60, 70 or 90 in Kyrgyz. It’s complicated.

Things you will see everywhere in Central Asia

  • Gold teeth (just because you can afford something though, doesn’t mean you should get it)
  • Whitewashed houses with sky blue trim
  • Russian vodka
  • Melon rinds placed thoughtfully rind down
  • Russian vehicles that look old, but are actually new (they haven’t changed the models)
  • In addition to cows, donkeys and sheep, Turkmenistan has a lot of camels, Tajikistan has a lot of yaks, and Kyrgyzstan has a lot of horses.

Music

Russian techno is all the rage, unfortunately. One song I have heard pumping in every country is one called “Alors On Danse”, which I know is French, but I’m pretty sure it’s by a Russian group. Another one is “We Speak No Americano”. I much prefer any traditional music, but it’s hard to come by. Additionally, “artists” such as Justin Bieber are heartthrobs even here. I heard one song in a mall in Kyrgyzstan and though “what is this crappy Ace of Base rip off?” and it turns out is was Lady Gaga.

People in Central Asia are oddly adept at

  • Retrieving the seeds from sunflower shells in two crunches or less
  • Being bi- tri- or even more-lingual (for example, in Khorog, people will generally speak Russian, Tajik, the local Pamiri dialect, and possibly a bit of English)
  • Living and getting things to grow in places you almost can’t find imaginable (deserts, high altitudes, steep mountainsides)
  • Not getting bored by the same few standard dishes available at every cafe (which leads me to…)

Food in Central Asia

If you’ve read the rest of my posts, you’ll know that I lost my appetite for about six weeks, lost some weight, and was sick a lot. So the food definitely wasn’t a highlight. Here’s what was on the menu. Everything is served with tea and bread (which is dipped in the broth and/or the tea and/or yogurt, especially in yurts).

Breakfast

  • Porridge (made with rice or cream of wheat)
  • Fried eggs
  • Fried potatoes

Lunch or dinner

  • Lagman (soup with noodles, chunks of meat, and maybe some vegetables)
  • Shorpa (broth with a chunk of potato, maybe chunks of carrot, and a huge chunk of mutton, which is removed from the broth and savoured after the rest of the soup)
  • Borsht (basically any soup with shredded cabbage, made possibly with shredded carrot, onion, or potato, and often chunks of meat)
  • Plov (oily rice with chunks of meet and maybe some shredded carrot)
  • Manty (moist dumplings stuffed with diced meet and onions
  • Pilmeny (like mini manty in a broth)
  • Shashlyk (skewered meat and fat)
  • Fried potatoes

All meals also involve a little tray with some wafers, biscuits, and wrapped sweets. The wrapped sweets, especially, are hit or really, really bad miss.

If coffee is offered, it’s always of the instant variety.

Back to the “reasons people travel to Central Asia” — food is definitely not one.

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