Kyrgyzstan: Simply Another World

By Kristina Khoo-Rhodes

November 2023 U-40
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We were lucky to spot herds of wild yaks in Song Kul Lake.

“BUT WHY KYRGYZSTAN?” my friend asked, puzzled.

“Well… it’s beautiful,” was all I could say. How do I explain to someone who loves the bright lights and fast pace of city life, and whose idea of a perfect holiday involves sipping cocktails by a pool, that I have been dreaming of open wide spaces, lush mountains and wild animal spotting— preferably, with nobody else in sight.

“Barbados is beautiful,” he retorted with a laugh.

After a recent hiking trip to the Brecon Beacons in Wales to see an “unforgettable waterfall”—as described in various hiking guides—I left feeling uninspired. Instead of walking behind a 90ft drop fall that has been claimed to be a hidden natural beauty, it turned out to be an overcrowded hotspot of visitors queuing for the obligatory photo opportunity.

So I proceeded to look up the world map, and my eyes fell on Central Asia, made up of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. As I pulled up Google satellite view, I was immediately drawn to the varying landscape: the sandy deserts, the green plains in the north and soaring mountain ranges in the east and south.

This is it—I decided! The region is new to me, hence, shrouded in mystery. I pitched the idea to my husband, “There’ll be no tourist-traffic! Best of all, it’s nicknamed the Switzerland of Central Asia, with a price tag that’s a quarter of what we would pay for Switzerland!”

Kyrgyzstan, the land of the nomads.

A Cocktail of Views and Senses

Surrounded by giant neighbours such as Russia and China, Kyrgyzstan has had to struggle to keep alive its nomadic identity. When under Russian influence, the Soviet government imposed a sedentary lifestyle, promising prosperity with it, but the Kyrgyz were not ready to give up on nomadism and continued fighting for their culture, language and land until their independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At Bishkek, the capital city, Brutalist Soviet-style architecture stands among more modern structures and imposing statues of Karl Marx and Lenin, against backdrops of snow-capped mountains. Here, we tasted horse meat, Laghman, a Uyghur dish with noodles, meat and vegetables, Kymyz (horse milk), and Kurut, small, pocket-sized balls of hard white cheese made from sour milk or yoghurt. Eaten by the nomads on long journeys, Kurut is intensely salty, which I concluded, tastes good if you take a bite of it followed by a mouthful of bread.

“It’s just like eating strong blue cheese with toast,” I said through mouthfuls, trying to convince my husband… and myself.

Our favourite, however, were the Tandyr naan—yummy flatbreads that are traditionally baked in a tandoor oven and decorated with patterns made with a special bread stamp.

Eager to get out of the busy city, we hired a four-wheel drive—a Renault Duster—which we grew to love despite its short-comings, and drove for five hours south to Grigorievka Gorge, where we experienced a burst of sensory overload. The sight of nomads, including children, riding skilfully on horses while tending to their livestock that roamed freely in the vast expanse of the alpine meadows showed us a completely different way of life.

To say that the landscape of Kyrgyzstan is diverse is an understatement. One moment, we felt like we were in Sweden, the next the Dolomites, Utah or even Mars! It sounds far-fetched, but yes, it is possible to find Martian views in Kyrgyzstan—also known as the Mars Canyon. Its striking rock formations, eroded river valleys and narrow sandstone walls create an unusual red and orange rocky landscape similar to the red planet. It is eerily quiet and still, apart from the occasional movement of a lizard or large hares crossing the dusty road.

We did not see a single person during our hike through Konorchek Canyon.

Another favourite of ours is the massively underrated Konorchek Canyon—a spectacular, desert-like, red rock canyon which very much resembles the Grand Canyon. There, we trekked through a maze of rocks on the bed of a dry river under the blazing hot sun. I could not help but feel like Indiana Jones, grappling on ropes to scale steep rocks and squeezing through the canyon’s narrower spots.

On a hike to see a waterfall in Ala Archa.

Back To Basics

I have to admit that on holidays like these, I catch myself questioning my decisions— why didn’t I just book an all-inclusive holiday which offers the delights of modern toilet facilities—while I groped and hovered precariously over a 5m hole in the ground. There was no toilet seat or water, and the stench was unbearable. But then I recall what I had just seen moments ago— shooting stars; not one, but three!

We stayed with a nomadic family in Song Kul, an alpine lake in northern Naryn province with an altitude of 3,016m above sea level. The generator turns off at 10pm, and with no phone network or any form of technology, time stood still. We learned to observe our surroundings more, taking in the yurts that dot the shores and sitting in silence with the herd of horses during sunset.

The nomadic way of life is simple and children can be seen enjoying themselves on swings.

When night falls and the lights were off, we would walk to the darkest parts of the camp. For the first time in my life, I saw with my naked eye thousands of stars in the Milky Way. We were silent. Under the ink-black sky, with not a speck of light around us, the Milky Way appeared like a cloud of countless stars; some twinkling, others shining brightly. We stood captivated.

Driving through Kyrgyzstan’s high passes, with its towering mountains and valleys.

On days when we went on long hikes that left us covered in a thick layer of dust, we would head to the hot springs and lakes for a dip. The Issyk-Kul Lake, the second largest lake in Central Asia and the seventh deepest in the world, is a hot lake and its waters stay warm even in winter. We swam in the clear waters, surrounded by the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains. At Cholpon-Ata, the beach gets crowded, but we managed to find secluded stony beaches in the south, where we had the whole place to ourselves, bar some local residents and a few friendly goats and donkeys.

An impressive spread of the local food.

Warm People

Most people here spoke the official language Kyrgyz and Russian—both languages my husband and I are unfamiliar with, except for some pleasantries we picked up along the way. But that is the beauty of travelling independently; we had to resort to our new best friend Google Translate, who is not completely reliable. It inaccurately translated menus which resulted in an odd spread of meats and cold soup, and got us dropped off in the middle of nowhere, only for the entire village to come out to help us.

And yet, that is the charm of Kyrgyzstan. It is comfortably old-fashioned, and the warmth of its people best encapsulates it.

Symik, a lovely local hitchhiker to whom we gave a lift during one of our drives, translated this on his phone: “This country is beautiful and we welcome you. May your journey be smooth and happy.”

Perhaps it is the feel-good factor, or we were embracing the Kyrgyz way of life, but we found ourselves wanting to reciprocate after having received so much kindness. On a tough hike in Ala Archa National Park, my husband helped a young, skinny man carry a huge backpack that was at least 40kgs.

An aerial view of Skazka, or better known as Fairytale Canyon, with its rocky landscape, transformed by erosion into amazing sculptures and formations.

While the chap had a nice respite and walked alongside my husband in solidarity uphill, we received surprised stares from both locals and tourists. We only realised later that the man, who did not speak English, was a porter whose job was to carry the load of canned food, pots and pans, warm bedding and mountaineering equipment for hikers to the campsite. For the rest of the hike, my husband offered help to the many other young teenage porters—many of whom looked like they were struggling.

At the end of each day, we relished retreating to our cosy yurts and sharing our meals in a communal tent. We filled our bellies with traditional Kyrgyz food and lots of tea, while reminiscing to each other encounters of wild yaks during hikes or while nursing our tired thighs after hours of horseback riding.

The locals were hospitable and were eager to show us their traditional carpet weaving process.

Interestingly, if someone asked me again—why Kyrgyzstan—I still will not be able to put my answer into words. I am well-travelled, but this country and its sights made me feel alive, wild and free. I have such a cacophony of emotions that cannot be explained entirely, and I won’t even try.

It is clichéd, but Kyrgyzstan is a place that is just waiting to be discovered.

Kristina Khoo-Rhodes

is a former journalist with an interest in new media and social justice. A university lecturer by profession, she is happily married to her English husband, and is always planning for their next spine-chilling adventure. She does not take life too seriously, and occasionally daydreams about living the van life.