Yesterday as we drove from Naryn, Kyrgyzstan over the 3,752 metre Toruguart Pass into the Xingjiang province of China we bid farewell to Kyrgyzstan and in fact Central Asia. Thus as has been my tradition with the previous countries, this post is dedicated to our ten observations from Kyrgyzstan.
As I have said previously, when making observations about Turkey and Uzbekistan, these are merely my observations, drawn from a very short stay in a complex country, where I didn’t speak the language and only visited a handful of places. So needless to say they are not definitive.
1. Mountains – even a blind man couldn’t miss the mountains in Kyrgyzstan. They are spectacularly beautiful and a very welcome wake up jolt to our lazy flat-London leg muscles.
2. Russian influence – unlike Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan has retained many of the hallmarks of its Russian occupation. They Kyrgyz still use the Cyrillic alphabet (thankfully Elizabeth taught herself this so we could read things) and seem rather partial to lashings of vodka, which is scarily comparable in price to bottled water, is available in abundance. You could also be forgiven for thinking the USSR was still in existence given the number of Lenin statues and busts that litter the towns and cities.
3. Less obvious state control – unlike Uzbekistan, policemen were not a sight on every street corner, our accommodation each night did not need to be registered with the government and the internet appeared to be unfiltered and uncensored. That being said President Bakiev is figuratively omnipresent – peering out of the myriad billboards on the roadsides an in towns and villages.
4. Community Based Tourism (CBT) – CBT is a nationwide network of community based tourism projects that marry westerners with local Kyrgyz families and communities. The scheme, whilst a little on the pricey side when compared with other options, is an excellent one and enables local people to continue to live their traditional (in some cases nomadic) lives whilst capitalising on the tourist dollar.
5. Beers with straws – ladies drink beer with a straw in Kyrgyzstan, something Elizabeth found simply too strange to comprehend.
6. Limited historic built environment – unlike the grand structures and monuments we encountered in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan had relatively few historical building or sights. I can only assume this is due to the fact that the Kyrgyz people were nomadic for much longer after the Uzbeks .
7. German cars – like used Japanese cars in New Zealand, it seems all of Germany’s used cars end up in Krygyzstan. Every second car it seems is an Audi 100 and there are also plenty of BMWs and VWs too.
8. Fabulous felt – from shyrdak rugs, the ak kalpak hats, to the covering of their yurts, the Kyrgyz people sure do know their felt. We were so impressed in fact that we bought ourselves a rug that we are currently trying to send home.
9. Young population – it seems everybody in Kyrgyzstan is young! There are kids everywhere and rarely do you see an aksakal (which directly translates to white beard). According to the UN children and teenagers (age 0-15) comprised 38.1 percent of the population in 1999 (National Statistical Committee 1999).
10. Cemeteries – It seemed that on the outskirts of every town there was a cemetery. Though don’t imagine some modest affair, they were often times massive, housing enormous tomb like monuments with sandblasted images of the deceased staring out at you. Interestingly many people performed a subtle Muslim blessing that looked as though they were washing their face when we travelled past a cemetery in a bus of shared taxi.
So with this post we have completed our tales of Central Asia. The region has been difficult travelling in many ways, with the fairly ordinary food and the fact that we forgot out Russian phrasebook being the two standout items. Both the countries we visited, though incredibly old in history, still feel like they are finding their feet after their Russian occupation. Though, if the pride and the determination of the people are anything to go by, this will change. The sights we have seen and the experiences gathered will be with us for a long time yet.
Posting this I am sitting using Wi-Fi (something that was for us non-existent in Central Asia) in Kashgar having just last night having potentially the best meal of our trip so far. The marvels and quirks of China lay ahead of us, so best get out amongst them.
All of the Kyrgyzstan images can be seen here.