Kyrgyzstan: Exploring central Asia’s hidden gem that transports you back in time

In Kyrgyzstan, the way of life has long been determined by horses. They were so central that the rhythms of each year were determined not by the schedule of planting and harvesting, but by passage through grazing routes traversed by bands of nomadic Kyrgyz in search of fresh grass.

Also Read :  Year after my father’s death, I’m still getting to know him; seems his time with Pranksters wasn’t so merry

Wandering villages marked the passage of time as snow descended and then receded on the mountains that frame this land in the heart of Central Asia.

Even now, when the capital, Bishtak, is as much a jumble of multi-story malls, neon signs, and concrete office buildings as any other city in Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors, the enduring emotional bond between a Kyrgyz and horses remains strong.

Also Read :  Pakistan's newly-appointed ambassador to UAE initiates Cepa talks - News

Fermented mare’s milk, called kumis, remains a popular drink. Riding ability is still a particularly valued personal attribute. And even everyday language is littered with references to the historical relationship between humans and their horses.

Also Read :  Swiss police violently disperse anti-Iran protest at embassy

It is therefore not surprising that the best way to explore the country is still on horseback.

Horsemen riding in a line on the way to Song Kol lake, Kyrgyzstan

(Getty Images)

Much of the country and its steppes are sparsely traversed by roads, meaning adventure seekers can spend days on long journeys that take them through towering mountains, past crystal clear alpine lakes and over miles of rolling hills.

My drive passed through part of the Kyrgyz mountain range, one of 158 mountain ranges bisecting this nation of six million Turkish speakers. With the Pamir Mountains to the south and the Tian Shen Mountains to the west, the Kyrgyz Mountains are among the highest in the country, the peaks of its mountains are snow-capped even in the summer heat.

As we set off our horses sauntered through the early morning sun while the light cast the leaves of the forest around us in a kaleidoscope of green, there was no sound save the occasional birdsong. The air was dry and clean; the trees that spread like a blanket over the foothills of the mountain range in front of us.

It was one of those places and one of those moments when the modern world, so often filled with self-righteous frenzy and the parroting cacophony that goes with it, recedes not just physically but mentally.

There is only you, your horse and nature. Slowly but inevitably you too fall into its ancient rhythm with every step; a rhythm that has characterized this place since the first people arrived here on horseback as their tribes gradually moved west from Siberia and the Altai before and during the time of Genghis Khan.

Kyrgyzstan only existed on the map in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, but its culture existed for centuries before that. Now it’s one of the easiest to experience in Central Asia, as the country has consciously sought to avoid much of the labyrinthine and bureaucratic entry requirements that can hamper access to its neighbors.

The country has geared up to welcome visitors. UK passport holders can easily obtain a visa on arrival with no prior organization required. When Covid struck, it was one of the first nations in the world to drop quarantine requirements for tourists, instead setting up a network of mobile PCR testers to treat every visitor. It is therefore the perfect entry point to experience Central Asia.

My visit began in Osh, a city just below the Pamir Mountains that in Soviet times marked the end of the highway that served as the main trade route between Russia and Central Asia and has been a trading post since Silk Road times.

This mercantile spirit can be seen at the city’s Jayma Bazaar, one of the largest in the region, which draws vendors from countries as far afield as China, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to sell their wares from the overturned shipping containers that house many of its stalls are accommodated.

It is a place where people have come from far and wide to trade and barter for 2,000 years. Even today, its corridors house stalls full of spices and passageways lined with blacksmiths beating iron into spades or other utensils, as has been the case for centuries.

You could spend hours in its labyrinthine arrangement. In a moment you’re surrounded by rows of polyester Premier League football shirts or the flashing lights of imported Chinese toys towering over tables.

Next, you’ll be transported back in time, to a world where berries and herbs fill giant bowls from which the shopper can scoop their purchases with well-worn wooden scoops. Animal carcasses the size of car doors hang from metal hooks, blood dripping onto the cobblestones below.

My time in Kyrgyzstan ended in the capital, Bishkak, hundreds of miles to the north, where the stark Soviet architecture of its communist past blends with the twinkling lights of the newer metropolis now thriving alongside it.

Government offices in Bishkek city center

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Here you can dine at five-star Chinese restaurants as elegant – and expensive – as any you can find in Shanghai, or watch the youngsters dance to bands in American-style bars serving elaborate cocktails with sparklers are served protruding from the glasses.

But what made Kyrgyzstan special and such a welcome place to visit is what I haven’t seen in any of these cities, pleasant as they were.

Rather, it is what lies outside the urban areas. There, the sight of people is often a rarity and the landscape is a carpet of rugged mountains that drop steeply and barren into seemingly endless grass-covered steppes.

At Issyk-Kul, one of the world’s largest lakes, surrounded by the Tian Shan Mountains, I sweated in an insulated wooden banya that stood on the edge of the shore while our attendant poured lake water onto the hot coals to close the sauna fill before he dove into the icy embrace of the lake.

Tolpur Lake in Kyrgyzstan

(Getty Images)

Also on Mount Suleimen Too near Osh, I climbed its craggy sides to climb into the caves that descend deep into its interior. These have been sacred since man knew them and I saw where sacrifices were made in the past and the sacred stones that women still visit today because they believe it can increase their fertility.

At Baktu-Dolonotu, I watched as native horsemen from the surrounding region gathered to take part in a game of Kok-Boru, or as it is colloquially known as “Headless Goat Polo”, in which two teams mounted around the carcass of a vying goat into the opponent’s goal.

This is a game in which the carcass, its head and legs are removed and the incisions are sewn up to prevent the entrails from falling out, in which two teams compete. The rules strictly forbid the use of knives or firearms, but few other rules seem to apply.

It remains extremely violent as the action appears to involve players driving the sides of their mounts against their opponents in confused scrums before suddenly, and to be honest, utterly mysterious, the carcass suddenly breaks loose and a lone rider emerges from the Frenzy appears to gallop on it full throttle to throw it into the well that served as the opponent’s gate.

The game is so popular not only in Kyrgyzstan but in many Central Asian countries that it has its own world championship – the biennial World Nomad Games – when teams from across Central Asia compete in kok-boru and other traditional sports like falconry , wrestling and archery.

The last three were in Kyrgyzstan, but the next one will be in Iznik, Turkey, starting at the end of September this year. Up to 100 countries are expected to be represented and more than 3,000 participants in all disciplines are planned.

Kyrgyz mountain landscape with a white yurt decorated with a red ornament

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Near Suusamir I saw the landscape more peacefully, broken only by the white dots of small clusters of yurts, each housing a family, while the villages moved like their ancestors along the pasture trails.

In one of these, the floor was carpeted when a fire at its center belched out plumes of smoke that rose from the chimney hole cut in the center of its canvas roof.

I ate gok cuchvara, dumplings stuffed with a locally grown vegetable that tastes like spinach, and giant samsas stuffed with lamb and onions and topped with sesame seeds to warn the unwary that it’s flavored with chili.

I ate a horse, for the Kyrgyz view the animal not just as a mount but as a meal, and no special event can be celebrated without one being killed and cooked. The meat was served with bowls of pickled salads, kidney beans and cabbage and washed down with kumis mare’s milk, which was slightly sour but refreshing and still warm from the milking.

At night, free from any light pollution around us, the stars in the steppe were always full and close.

Visit Kyrgyzstan now. It’s just a one-way flight from Istanbul and the government’s commitment to tourist development means it won’t remain empty for long.

But for now it remains as it was: a place where you can feel the rhythm of life as it once was and can still be. Remember what it’s like while you still can.