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

This blog post has been moved to my new site, Cathleen's Odyssey:

Jyrgalan…The Phoenix of Kyrgyzstan

This blog post has been moved to my new site, Cathleen's Odyssey:

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: