Kyrgyzstan is a place that boggles the mind – or, my mind, at least. On one hand, there are whispers of the familiar: tall sandwich loaves which tower over their flat bread brothers; supermarkets which are in fact super, not dingy pantries with ambitious signage; scantily clad beach-lovers soaking up the sun’s blistering rays; and, a generous peppering of European tourists with money to burn. On the other hand, my two-week stay in this curious country left me feeling more removed from home than I’ve felt in a long time. The complete Kyrgyzstan experience was unlike any I’d encountered – in the media, in person or in conversation. But, that’s what made it an adventure.
Let’s start with my sobering introduction to the country at the Torugart Pass border post. While entering Kyrgyzstan in a private vehicle was relatively easy – no visa required, just a modest financial contribution thank you very much – there was a catch. The boys at border control had an eye for young, foreign women.
As one carload of uniformed men rolled up beside me, I was greeted by a bunch of gold-toothed grins and Russian salutations. The driver, who introduced himself as “Supper”, beckoned me to shake his hand. As I reached through the car window, I was practically pulled into the vehicle for a hearty kiss. I suddenly recalled “bride kidnapping” was a thing in this country and wrenched myself away in a state of flustered embarrassment. Oh my!
Unfortunately, my reaction somehow suggested I was keen on a flirt fest. Over the course of the next hour, while my fellow overland travellers and I arranged our travel papers, Mr Cop-A-Feel took post as my horny shadow. Wherever I went he followed and, despite being in a roomful of officials, his hands kept finding their way to my butt or up my skirt. When I realised my discreet slaps weren’t sending a strong enough “eff off” message, I finally plucked up the courage to get my husband involved. Within minutes, we were back in our car with the Big Boss offering his ‘sincerest’ apologies. “He will be punished!” the man claimed. Somehow, I highly doubted it. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to forget the experience and carry on. My travel buddy, Ryan, wasn’t as happy to let things fly without getting a little revenge. Before we left the border post, he snuck into an office and managed to pee in a cupboard. Er – thanks bro.
Within minutes of hitting the road again, I was thankfully distracted by the grand landscape before me. After seven months of overland travel, it appeared Mother Nature was determined to reveal an original work of art each time I entered a new country. No two places turned out to be exactly alike, and Kyrgyzstan’s natural aesthetic was particularly unique. The pastel-coloured plains reached out to the ends of the earth, with not a trace of human existence in sight. The land was so desolate it was spellbinding.
Before long, our team of six spotted an oasis in the distance – Chatyr Kol Lake. We bounced our way across a dry desert of undulating rocks until we reached our liquid nirvana. Like a slate of glass, the lake presented a perfect mirror image of the sky above. Heavily pregnant with reflections of swirling cumulonimbus clouds, it looked as though the weather Gods were conjuring up a storm in their giant cauldron. Lured in by the dramatic scene, our crew wandered up to the shoreline to take a closer look. Before long, we met a beach of brittle weeds, bleached gold by the harsh sun. A family of wild horses seemed to find this hay-like substance rather tasty, as they trotted along the water’s edge in search of the next lip-smacking patch.
We were alone in the wilderness; we were free. There wasn’t a single place we’d rather be. So, we pitched our tents and tucked into an early dinner, while a vermilion sunset provided the evening’s entertainment. As the last pearl of light left the sky, it was time to call it a night. The whistling wind came alive just in time to sing us to sleep with an eerie lullaby, but the reverie didn’t last long. As we drifted into dreamland, an offensive sound rudely stole us from our slumber. It turned out to be a blaring car horn. What the…? As we peeled ourselves away from the warmth of our tents, a few stern men climbed out of their vehicle and not-so-kindly let us know we were trespassing. Apparently this was one of the few places in Kyrgyzstan which required a camping permit.
While we rubbed our groggy eyes back to life, the ‘officials’ kicked off an intense soviet-style inquisition. The lads in our pack fought back with all of the charm and logic they could muster. They offered cash, smiles, vodka shots and promises of an early departure. After hours of painful banter in the freezing wind, the officials finally agreed to let us stay the night…on two conditions. Firstly, we had to be on our merry way by 5am (that’s pre-crack-of-dawn in Kyrgyzstan). Secondly, they wanted to join our slumber party to ensure we didn’t overstay our welcome. Right on schedule, our rat pack awoke to the sweet sound of a screaming car horn at precisely 4:49am. Welcome to a new day in Kyrgyzstan.
Funnily enough, my fellow travellers and I were still smiling at this point. We’d finally found a country which offered unexpected challenges. Not only did things seem to work differently in Kyrgyzstan, very few locals spoke English. As we fumbled our way through countless episodes of Charades, the language barrier turned out to be quite entertaining. But, that was just the beginning of all the fun.
The experience of finding our first yurt camp was nothing short of magical. Nestled in a valley of bald, gargantuan mountains, the set up was delightfully quaint while the backyard was simply epic. Home to a hearty menu of hiking tracks plus a 15th Century caravanserai known as Tash Rabat, the local area begged to be explored. So I chucked on my hiking boots and went on a grand tour. After wheezing my way up a mountain, I sat on its slope and watched birds of prey chase fat-bottomed marmots below. Having a moment to bask in the glory of nature - with the sun shining down on my face, the wind dancing around my body, and a mountain resting beneath my feet - was pure bliss.
As the heat took hold of the day, it was time to head back to camp and freshen up. The yurts cuddled a freshwater stream, so crisp it washed away months of travel fatigue along with the grime. Just when I thought this place couldn’t get any better, I discovered a makeshift sauna waiting to inject warmth back into my body. And then there was the food.
When my travel buddies and I climbed into the main yurt for a late breakfast, our eyes practically popped out of our heads. What lay before us was a lavish spread fit for a gluttonous king: sheaths of Edam cheese, chunky slices of salami, walnuts with dried berries on the side, fried eggs, fluffy bread, chocolate spread, homemade jams, condensed milk spread, coffee, hot chocolate and platters piled with more sweets than a candy store. It was everything we’d been craving for months, and our crew responded accordingly – we stuffed ourselves!
To top things off, we were served the most divine morsel my mouth had ever met. It was like a fluffy American pancake had married a Krispy Kreme donut and given birth to a beautiful food baby. The moment I took a bite of this mysterious delight, the dough dissipated in my mouth like sweet, buttery air. Where had this been all of my life?! As we sat in our ornately decorated yurt gorging on edible heaven, we decided it was a good idea to stay for a while.
The next morning, it was time to leave the land of luxury and head towards one of Kyrgyzstan’s more rustic, albeit authentic, yurt stays. Offering a front row seat to the rough ‘n’ tough lifestyle of the local nomadic people, the campsites around Song Kol Lake turned out to be unlike any other in the country. Plus, their backdrop was magnificent.
Each day, I lost myself to the rolling hills until it was just me and the universe. My fellow female traveller, Gigi, chose to explore the epic prairies on horseback – no guide in tow. Our group always seemed to reunite during sunset, as the sky exploded with fluorescent firebombs of colour. Song-Kol and its lip of snow-capped mountains transformed into something truly special under the sun’s goodbye glow.
Before long, the waft of rich stew danced through the air and lured us into the dining yurt for dinner. During mealtimes, we were always joined by a merry group of travellers (generally young European couples) who liked to chew the fat. Beyond good company, each feast was served with a side of chunky bread, homemade jam and generous cups of clotted cream. So it seemed the Kyrgyz people were immune to heart attacks!
During the day we got to watch the local villagers prep the key ingredient for our stews. Once an unlucky goat had been plucked from the heard, the butchering, skinning, meat stripping, organ removing and viscera cleaning processes were all performed in full view. I felt sorry for the lady who had to squeeze poop out of the goat’s intestines – ick!
While it was all a bit gruesome to watch, I didn’t reach my discomfort limit until a game of Buzkashi (“goat dragging”) kicked off. This popular Central Asian sport looked similar polo but the ball happened to be a decapitated animal. I was quietly horrified when a man proceeded to hack away at a goat’s throat in front of a crowd of curious onlookers. While I tried to bite my tongue in the name of cultural respect, the match itself was more than I could handle. Once the players mounted their horses and started throwing the animal’s body around like a disposable plaything, I had to walk away. The lack of humanity and dignity really got to me. While I understood the sport was steeped in history, it seemed way too barbaric for 2015.
By this stage, I was ready to visit one of Kyrgyzstan’s more modern tourist destinations – Issy Kol Lake. The biggest “water feature” in the country, Issy Kol was positively heaving with Russian and domestic vacationers making the most of their summer. We’d heard the northern shoreline was particularly popular, so we decided to explore the humble south first. Shortly after hitting the lake’s perimeter, we stumbled across our dream campsite – a tiny, sun-kissed beach with a light dusting of travellers for company. It was idyllic.
Within minutes of collapsing into in our camping chairs and cracking open a cold one, a group of rotund Russians appeared in teeny-tiny togs. Releasing a string of jovial, drunken slurs, they implored us to check out their makeshift sauna. It’s practically impossible to say no to Russians (especially when they’ve been drinking vodka), so Ben and Ryan took one for the team and climbed into their steaming tent. Inside, strangers sat sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder, as a constant stream of water was poured over red-hot coals. The heat was so intense, their eyes were even perspiring!
As is customary after a Russian sauna session, there was a mass exodus from the tent for everyone to race into the icy lake to cool off. This wicked ritual was repeated three times until everyone turned tomato red. To complete the ceremony, a particularly sloshed participant brought out his Kalashnikov rifle and invited Ryan to have a play. As two gunshots pierced through the lake, dozy sun-bakers screamed as if they’d woken up to a nightmare. Once they realised the commotion was coming from a bunch of Russian holidaymakers, they went straight back to their tan session.
The next day, it was time to enter the popular resort town of Cholpon-Ata. We quickly discovered most men (locals and Russian tourists) carried two shot glasses plus a cheap bottle of spirits with them at all times. While these vodka veterans were able to down the stuff like water, the effect it had on our novice bodies ranged from intense to wildly extreme. After a night of merriment at Sambuca Restaurant, I was the only woman left standing. While my husband’s stomach unleashed itself on the restaurant entrance gate, our mate’s bile made it to the flowerbed at Apple Hostel.
When Ben finally stumbled into our room at 2am, he looked ashen faced and completely terrified. He was convinced he’d spent the last hour being illegally smuggled over the Uzbekistan border by a taxi driver. The next morning, our drinking buddy told us he’d walked Ben home. Not only had my husband lost his memory…and his iPhone…and his watch, it appeared he’d lost his marbles, too. Needless to say, Ben decided not to touch vodka again. Well, at least for a while.
By the time we reached Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s uber modern capital, the party vibe was turning up a notch. Our visit happened to coincide with Independence Day, the biggest celebration of the year. With Kyrgyzstan attaining sovereignty in 1991 (after the break up of the Soviet Union), there was still a real buzz associated with this relatively recent event. The entire city centre was turned into a pedestrian zone, with the main public square offering hours of family-friendly entertainment. But the most highly anticipated event of the day was the Buzkashi marathon at the Hippodrome. By late morning, the field’s perimeter was thick with thousands of Kyrgyz men, all jumping out of their skin with excitement. Once the stadium started to overflow, the audience climbed roofs, trees, sharp ledges and each other to get the perfect view. It was quite a spectacle.
As day turned into night, the city centre stole the limelight. It suddenly transformed into ‘sideshow alley‘ with thousands of loved up teens and young families wandering the action-packed streets, ice creams in hand. Our group kicked off the night at the main stage, where Kyrgyz pop stars were belting out lyrics we couldn’t understand. Ryan sifted his way through the mosh pit and managed to score a bottle of vodka. I can’t tell you what happened next, as it included a number of – er – colourful acts, which will forever haunt those involved. Public urination and nudity were just the beginning.
Once Kyrgyzstan’s big day was over and our time in this wild country drew to a close, I mulled over the curious events and unique cultural experiences I’d encountered in two weeks. While many of these moments challenged me and threw me outside of my comfort zone, I still came out the other side having loved the ride. Kyrgyzstan was one hell of an introduction to Central Asia!
'Happiness Hunter' Sophee Southall is the writer, photographer and social media addict behind the travel blog Sophee Smiles - 'Explore. Experiment. Find your Happy Place.'
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