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Kyrgyzstan

Click on the image to go to the Kyrgyzstan photo gallery

We travelled through Kyrgyzstan in the autumn of 2003, and immediately fell in love with this country. Below is a compilation of the e-mails we wrote. If you want to read about our impressions of Kyrgyzstan in Dutch, then click here. If you don't want to read about Kyrgyzstan at all but just want a have a visual impression of the country, than go directly to the photo gallery.

Kyrgyzstan - don't be ashamed if you've never heard of it (here's a map)- is a small mountainous state in Central Asia, enclosed by China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. We used to know little about this country, but since our journey to Central Asia in the autumn of 2003, the name of Kyrgyzstan brings about unforgettable memories of desolate hills,herds of horses, friendly, rough people with equally rough eating habits, sheep being stacked in Lada car trunks, and saddle pains.

Flanked by such miscellaneous neighbours, Kyrgyzstan cannot easily be fit in one category. In many ways, Kyrgyzstan is a fascinating mix of influences from different regions. Originally, it was mainly inhabited by loose nomad tribes that had their roots in present-day Siberia. But when Kyrgyzstan became part of the Soviet Union in 1936, industry, agriculture and mining were introduced, although little gain was obtained with that,since the country largely consists of mountains. For that reason, Kyrgyzstan has managed to keep a relatively strong national identity, in spite of its occupation.

By now, 12.5 years after Kyrgyzstan has officially (and quite abruptly) become independent, many people more or less seem to be thrown back to their previous way of living. Most Russians have left, the social security, industry, and educational systems have largely collapsed, and money is sparse: a free market economy will not easily develop under such circumstances. Thus, in Kyrgyzstan, people primarily try to make their own plain living. Many people keep cattle - mainly sheep - and have their cattle graze in the jailoos (mountain pastures) during the summer. In these months, shepherds and their families live in yurts: large, round tents made of felt and sheep skins. Besides shepherds, you see many taxi drivers (although they usually see you first, unfortunately), and everywhere, especially in the cities, you come across people who try to get an income by selling some small stuff - a bottle of lemonade, a few cigarettes, some candies, or bottles of used motor oil.

Kyrgyzstan is not very accustomed to tourists yet, and therefore it is a pleasant country to visit. You don't get beleaguered, and people are relaxed and welcoming. A small detail is that barely anyone speaks English: practically only Kyrgyz (a language related to Turkish) and, in most cases, Russian is spoken. So for Wouter and me, starting a conversation with local people was a real challenge every time we tried. But equipped with our Communication Kit © (consisting of a Russian phrase pocket, half a page of Kyrgyz words, a German-Russian dictionary, and a Point It booklet), some English words (pronounced by Wouter with a Russian accent and stressed with cartoonesque sounds and intriguing gestures), a lot of smiling, and occasionally some brilliant finding of me, like "Frambushki" (meaning: we would like to have some red lemonade), we managed get around quite well. Problems arose only when they started to reply. Mostly, we could do nothing but smile vaguely then. Fortunately, smiling is universal.

Our journey started in Bishkek, the capital: a green city with relatively rich inhabitants, among which were quite somewhat Russians, although in the outer districts, many people have to live from their garden and a few sheep. After some days of wandering over the bazars, and even celebrating Kyrgyz Independence Day, we left for Karakol, a small city in the eastern part of Kyrgyzstan, at the base of the Tian Shan mountain range. From there, we made a 4-day trekking through the mountains.

The mountains are quite varied: we encountered red sand stone cliffs, wide, lovely green valleys, colourful volcanic stone peaks, and endless desolate hill landscapes, covered with yellowish grass. In the background, the wild, white summits of the Tien Shan were always visible (which, by the way, Wouter wants to explore on his skis as soon as possible). We hardly met any people, except for a few shepherds, but all the more horses and cows. Huge numbers of horses and cows. They stare at you with curious eyes, and then mostly walk away shyly, although after long wavering, they eventually agree with you snuffling with your hand at their nose and sometimes they even snuffled back. That first night, we camped very idyllically in a beautiful and wide river valley, in the sole company of a herd of horses.


part 2 >