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: 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Preparing Borsok with Altynai

My temporary "home," Happy Nomads
Yurt Camp, Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
I am fortunate enough to find myself as a guest at arguably the best guesthouse in Karakol, Happy Nomads Yurt Camp.

When traveling in a long-term/nomadic style, it is important to step out of traveling mode for a bit and relax. I enjoy traveling mode, but I also relish those times when I can step back and just make myself at home for a week…or month. I can work on knitting and design ideas, update my Facebook and blog posts (like I am doing now), meet the locals, and enjoy the new foods and how to prepare them. Also, slowing down is just about the only way to make lasting friendships. This is all very difficult when you are moving every few days.

A couple months ago, I started looking for a place to rest myself for a couple of weeks once I arrived in Kyrgyzstan. My research kept bringing me back to Happy Nomads with its lovely garden and cozy yurts. The research paid off…I am now ensconced for three weeks in a comfortable temporary home.

And speaking of food preparation. Here at Happy Nomads, when my host, Tynch learned that I wanted to learn how to bake Kyrgyz bread, he asked his wife, Altynai if she would like to teach a workshop in her kitchen. She agreed and offered to show us how to make borsok as well as mai tockoch (the decorative, almost donut-shaped bread seen in all the markets here.) Amy, another guest from the UK joined us.

For this post, I am going to concentrate on the preparation of the Borsok, thin diamonds of dough that puff up when fried—very similar to the New Mexican sopapillas. Borsok holds an integral place in Kyrgyz culture and it is found by the thousands at any celebration. It also serves an important role during the year of grieving after a loved one dies and is used to honor and feed the souls of the dead.

When we arrived, Altynai had prepared her table with a bowls of flour and other ingredients. To the borsok bowl, she added yeast and sugar, then then milk/butter mixture. She then added the salted water a little at time as she mixed the dough with her hands. We did not really knead the dough much…just mixed it until the bowl was clean. Then she lets the dough rise/rest in a warm area. It will not rise very much. (The recipe is at the bottom of this post.)

She then divided it into six balls and we rolled each one out on a floured surface until it was about ¼-inch thick. Then we cut the rounds with criss/cross strokes to make diamonds.

Heat the oil over medium heat. Altynai was a master at getting the oil just the right temperature—and she was cooking on a wood stove!! 

Add the borsok a few at a time, turning them in the oil for about 1 minute until the are evenly browned. Remove and cool just enough so you don’t burn yourself!

Here is the last step: Consume the borsok with tea and a variety of Altynai’s homemade jams and Jyrgalan Valley honey until you have thoroughly spoiled your dinner!

Borsok Ingredients:

About 3 cups (325 grams)  flour 
(hold out about 1/2 cup for flouring the table later)
2 teaspoon (5 grams) dry yeast
About 1 tablespoon (15 grams) sugar
½ cup (120 ml) warmed milk mixed with ¼ cup (55 gm) melted butter
Warm water, salted