Friday, September 14, 2018

The J-Fest: Learning about Kyrgyz Traditions in One Day!

I timed my visit to Jyrgalan to coincide with their second annual Summer Festival. It is mainly held for the villagers to have an opportunity to share their customs and traditions with visitors. 

There is lots of music and dance demonstrations. In a strong alto voice, this young woman recited a small part of the traditional Manas epic.

A group of grandmothers showed the traditional way to lay a baby in its cradle for the first time with singing and ritual. There were also demonstrations of how ala-kiyiz felted carpets are made, opportunities to taste kumiz, (fermented mare’s milk), and a lunch of beshbarmak with plenty of tea available!

A group of grandmothers prepare to demonstrate “cradling the baby.”
I was honored to be invited to help lay down some wool fiber on the ala-kiyiz carpet. 

Down by the river, a couple young man tended this giant samovar so there would be plenty of tea for lunch.

I enjoyed wandering around watching the horsemen warm up for the afternoon activities. They are so comfortable on horseback that it is almost like they are one with the horse—even the very young children.

These men are tugging at a goat carcass…more about that later.

Who will end up with the goat?
Although this young man warmed up with the Kok-Boru 
players, he did not participate in the cut-throat game 
later in the day. But I doubt it will be long before he does.

Lunch was included in our ticket and we lined up to get salad and plates of besbarmak. I sat down to eat next to the roaring river. The name of the dish means “five fingers.” You certainly  use five fingers to eat it because you pick up one of the square noodles and scoop up some of the meat into it and quickly stuff it in your mouth. Usually besbarmak is served as a communal dish and everyone eats from one large dish. I particularly love the thin noodles.

The noodles are steamed, not boiled. And these women cooked quite a few in this giant steamer over an open fire. 

In the afternoon, we got a close-up look at er-enish (horse wrestling).

The grand finale for the festival was a lively game of kok boru—which is similar to polo, but a heavy, headless goat carcass is used instead of a ball and there are no mallets. The goat must be lifted from the ground by the players and carried to the goal. In this game, a small goat was used, but it must have weighed 20 pounds or more. It certainly requires some excellent horsemanship to be able to pick it up off the ground, tuck it under your leg, and race down the field with four other horsemen trying to get it away from you. 

The circles that represent the goals were probably 10 meters across, but it was very difficult for the players to time the dropping of the goat so it landed inside the circle. More often than not, either the carrier shot past the goal to make another attempt, or the forward momentum carried the dropped carcass beyond the goal.

Here is some video from that game. (The announcer mistakenly uses the word "sheep" for "goat." That's okay, sometimes I cannot tell the difference either!)

It was quite an experience to be sitting at the edge of the field. Several times we had to jump up to get out of the way of the players and horses coming right for us.

A couple weeks later I attended one game of the kok boru championships at the 2018 World Nomad Games, but it was not nearly as interesting and exciting as the small event at Jyrgalan. In the Nomad Games stadium, we were so far away from the field, that I could only tell what was happening by watching the giant screens in front of the audience. I did not have to jump out of the path of a horse one time—I might as well have been watching it at home on television.

However, if you are interested, you can see some shots from the Kok-Boru finals in the 2018 World Nomad Games here. You will see that the goat is quite a bit larger and the players more ruthless at this level of the game.

The day ended with dancing for all. The kids sure do like the Macarena!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Simple Yet Useful Samovar

Tea is a huge part of the culture here in Central Asia. Whenever I order tea with a meal, for about 30 SOM (45 US cents), I usually get a huge teapot with close to a liter of hot tea—it is almost like a bottomless pot. And it always stays hot throughout my meal.

Endless supplies of hot water are very important when feeding large groups of people. I had read of samovars in novels. For example, someone in a caravan would ride ahead and “prepare the samovar” for tea. But I really did not know how they worked, or even what they looked like. When Tynch, my host in Karakol, showed me, I was enchanted. Such an ingenious invention! And t
hey are still in regular use here.

In the center of the large kettle of water is a tiny fireplace, complete with chimney! A small fire is built and before long the water surrounding the chimney is boiling. It is easy to top up the water any time. Once the water is hot, the chimney can be removed, and a lid is put on top. Then the samovar can be brought to the dining room—with coals still glowing inside. The water will stay hot for hours.

Tynch told me that whenever there is a big party, the young boys, about ten or eleven years old, are put in charge of the samovars. They chop wood into little pieces, keep the little fires going, and continuously top up the water, all during the party. That is how he learned to use one.

Although they are slowly being replaced in cafes with electric water heaters, the samovars are very useful where there is no electricity.

This giant samovar provided tea water for the Jyrgalan Summer Festival. There was no electricity on the site and all the food was prepared over open fires. Two teenage young men were in charge.

On the marshutka (bus) from Cholpan Ata to Bishkek, we had a rest stop at about the half-way point. There were lots of cafes, each with a collection of fired-up samovars in front—a kind of advertisement promising endless cups of tea!

Jyrgalan…The Phoenix of Kyrgyzstan

Jyrgalan is the most eastern village in Kyrgyzstan. It is in the mountains at about an altitude of 2260 meters (7400 feet). 

As I mentioned in a previous post, Jyrgalan is a community that is developing its tourism potential to attract not only summer trekkers, but also people who enjoy winter activities. 

My day hikes into the nearby mountains took me through landscapes that reminded me of my days hiking in the Colorado Rockies—meadows, clear rushing rivers, and the aroma of pine forest. 

When Kyrgyzstan was still part of the Soviet Union, Jyrgalan was a coal mining town and its economy depended on the mines. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the Russian mine owners pulled out. With no jobs available and their property worthless, the Russians moved away. And, they did something inexplicable, but very common to humans—they burned their homes. The only people left were the ethnic Kyrgyz people, and slowly the village began to die. 

Deserted mine outside Jyrgalan.

Then in 2016, a group of people, with the help of USAID Funds, began Destination Jyrgalan. The assistance they received included tourism and guide training, upgrade of town infrastructure (like plumbing and wi-fi), and renovations of homes into guesthouses. The idea is to provide an atmosphere and attractions that will draw international travelers. 

A sign indicates that USAID funds were used to help renovate my guesthouse.
People built new homes on top of the burned-out foundations the Russians left behind. One guesthouse and the home of the Destination Jyrgalan office, Alakol-Jyrgalan Guest House, has two buildings built atop such foundations—a Phoenix from the ashes! 

One of many house foundations found in Jyrgalan village
Some residents were brought to the United States to attend training conferences. This summer, Nazira, my host at Salamat Guest House, was sent to Pagosa Springs, Colorado for her tourism training. I wondered if that was because of the similar landscape and tourism possibilities. 

As of yet, there are no shops or cafes in Jyrgalan. I am sure that will change someday, but for now everything is provided by your host, including all your meals. If you are going out hiking or horseback riding for the day, she will prepare a box lunch for you. And the food is freshly made and plentiful! Let me tell you from experience, if you are hungry at the end of the day, it is your own fault. 

If I found anything to complain about while in Jrygalan, it would be that there was too much food. I finally had to learn that it is okay to leave some food on your plate, which goes against my upbringing! Even though the Kyrgyz traditionally eat a simple breakfast of tea and bread, and that every other meal is very heavy in meat dishes, the hosts have adopted changes so that eggs are available for breakfast and they are prepared to cater to vegetarians. 

Families are still tied to their livestock—lots of horses, cattle, and sheep. (No pigs—this is a Muslim culture.) They keep their traditions alive. The young people are put on a horse about the time they can walk. A large herd of mares are milked five times a day in the summer. The fat-tail sheep and cattle are taken up to the high jailoos (grazing lands) for the summer. Many people still live in yurts. 

Milking the Mares
Behind my guesthouse, late each afternoon, the mares are moved from the corral, where they are milked, to their evening pasture, accompanied by their foals. Notice the herder is riding bareback! 

It will be a while before Jyrgalan approaches the likes of Pagosa Springs. Frankly, I hope they never become that developed. It is a fine line they walk to hold on to their beauty and traditions, and to find a comfortable economic niche without succumbing to the allure of the almost inevitable over-crowded tourist destination. It will be interesting to revisit in ten years. 

The children wait patiently while
mares are milked. Then they get
a cup of the warm nourishing
And there is certainly hope for the future. Walking through the streets, the visitor encounters lots of children, smiling and yelling “Hello!” “Hello!” wanting you to talk with them. Children mean young families are staying, not moving where jobs are more plentiful. They are finding meaning in this new/old life. I will hold good wishes for this young Phoenix. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

“She’s WHERE??? Where In The World Is THAT??”

This is what I imagine my friends saying when they learned my latest destination, which I did not reveal until I was actually here. 

On the afternoon I arrived in Bishkek, the country’s capital, I posted this photographic clue on my Facebook page. My friend Nan, in Texas was the first to figure it out, “Kyrgyzstan??” she commented back. I guess I thought this little dramatic Facebook quiz would be fun.

I did it to draw attention to the fact that most of us don’t know much about Central Asia. We learned a little bit about Marco Polo way back in sixth grade, but that is about all the attention our American education provided about the countries of the Silk Road. (And, back when I was in sixth grade, Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union.) I confess, before last Christmas, I did not even know there was a country named Krygyzstan. So where is it? Care to take a stab? Here’s a map of this side of the world: 

(Scroll down to the bottom of the post for the answer.)

I got quite a few queries, “Kyrgyzstan??? Is that safe?” “How did you find out about Kyrgyzstan?” “What made you choose to go there?”

And the answers:

Yes, it is safe. In fact, believe it or not, our US State Department (which errs WAY beyond the side of caution!) considers it safer to visit Kyrgyzstan than India.

I first heard about Kyrgyzstan last December from a blog post my travel insurance sent out, “5 Reasons Kyrgyzstan is the Ultimate Nomads Destination.”

“Well,” I thought, “it MUST be safe if my travel insurance company is recommending it!”

After a year of travel in Europe, I was looking for an exotic destination—something to test my narrow comfort zone. I had thought about Nepal because the trekking is incredible. But, Nepal is overrun by tourists, which is a red light for me. So, the World Nomads article came at just the right time. I started my research. With each travel blog I read, the closer I came to deciding to visit. For months, though, I vacillated: I was scared; I was intrigued; What if people weren’t very friendly; Is it really a good place for an older solo woman? Is it REALLY safe? (This last concern came, I am sure, from my American-instilled prejudice and fears: surely any country with a name ending in “-stan” cannot be a place you would want to visit for fun.)

Finally, on July 3 I bought my ticket. Unless I wanted to lose over $400, I was committed to flying out of Tallinn, Estonia on July 26.

You don’t need a visa before arrival in Kyrgyzstan if you hold a passport from one of these countries.

However, I was still delightfully surprised on arrival that the visa stamp was so perfunctory. The immigration officer did not ask me a single question! (That sure beat the grilling I got from Irish immigration last December!)

I have now been here three weeks and I cannot fathom why I had any reservations about visiting. It is easy to get around, the food is amazing, the people are friendly and inviting, and accommodations are comfortable. I have felt completely safe wherever I have walked—even down the highway out of town after sunset.

The colorful Osh Market. Look at
 all that dried fruit and nuts.
Custom trail mix anyone? 
I stayed two days in Bishkek to shake off the effects of my overnight flight. On my first morning I was easily able to walk to the fantastic Osh market. You can read more about that here

My ability to just take off and walk the city streets by myself was a far cry from my first day of fear in Peru four years ago. When you keep pushing at those comfort-zone walls, they crumble down surprisingly easily.

The marshrutka (mini-bus) to Karakol was hot and crowded and the trip lasted six hours, but despite the discomfort, I found myself sitting still for two hours solid in an almost meditative state just trying to get myself to believe that I was really here. 

Kyrgyzstan is working very hard to build its tourism infrastructure. I was pleased to see that our own government is helping via USAID (Agency for International Development). Our US dollars are funding projects to help locals develop guest houses, trekking opportunities, and cultural experiences to encourage more visitors. This helps build local economies, meaning more jobs so people don’t have to emigrate to make ends meet. When we, as tourists, visit and learn more about other cultures, we become more tolerant and understanding: people in other cultures are different—and THAT’S OK! I feel that, especially in the United States, we have become so very insular that we too often forget that. 

Guest house in Jyrgalan that was renovated with the assistance of USAid. 
Sharing food: Altynai, my host in Karakol,
prepared Oromo, a traditional Kyrgyz dish.
Promoting tourism is an easy avenue to peace. Also, since these programs encourage the people in Kyrgyzstan to share their cultural heritage—food, skills, way of life, and beliefs—that heritage is more likely to survive the infiltration of modern society. And it becomes possible for the traditional ways to live alongside and intertwined with the modern. While traveling, I often feel apologetic for what a bully the US has become around the globe; but seeing our tax dollars used in peaceful and helpful ways brings hope to my heart. 

So…I plan to stay in Kyrgyzstan for almost the entire two months that my visa allows. Stay tuned…by the time I leave, I hope to entice you to visit here someday, too!

Here are a few teaser images just to whet your appetite. WARNING: Lots of food photos
—I have been trying lots of new tastes here! 

And here is where Kyrgyzstan is: