submit to reddit GoNOMAD Travel
Tags: Features Asia Kyrgyzstan
Beautiful Al Archa gorge is less than an hour by car from the capital. Photos by Michael Cook
Beautiful Al Archa gorge is less than an hour by car from the capital. Photos by Michael Cook

A Yurt-Stay in Kyrgyzstan

The Middle of Nowhere

The jeep bounced along the pitted gravel track, more an idea of a road than an actual road, as we wound our way through the towering hills. Captivated by snow capped peaks in the distance, I hardly noticed as we forsook the road altogether. A minute later our driver stopped in the middle of a sloping pasture. We disembarked.

“There,” Beka pointed, “is the first pass.”

Kyzart Pass is a 3000-meter-high (9,842 ft.) gap in the mountains of central Kyrgyzstan. Beka and I would hike it that day, covering ten mountainous miles before coming to our home for the night.

Herds of cattle and horses and flocks of sheep ignored us as they roamed the brown hills. We hiked alone, but tents could be seen on distant slopes and on the trails that skirted the hills we met shepherds on horseback. Beka stopped to chat and give out cigarettes.

I’d met the 23-year-old Beka the day before. He was my guide on our hike, the ultimate destination of which was Lake Son Kul.

Beka speaks his native Kirghiz as well as Russian, English, Urdu, and Farsi. Like any pair of twenty-something guys we spent much of our time talking about girls.

By early afternoon we’d forded our first stream and home was in sight. The altitude had begun to wear on me and we paused.

I offered Beka my water but he refused. “No, I want kymyz.”

Kymyz, or fermented mare’s milk, is a traditional drink in the mountain pastures, or jailoos.

“Is it that good?” I asked.

The author's CBT guide, Beka, hiking in the mountains surrounding lake Son Kul
The author's CBT guide, Beka, hiking in the mountains surrounding lake Son Kul

“Mm...” Beka licked his lips, “You can’t get it in the towns. They add water to it. It’s not the same. Come on.” Beka stood, motivated by his thirst, “Let’s go.”

Yurt-Stay

We long-jumped the last stream, tossing our bags to each other across the rushing brook before leaping, and hiked the last hill to the yurts above. Two yurts stood alongside a cooking tent near one of the corrals used in the summer season. A small figure in red noticed our approach and ran to spread the news.

By the time we arrived a young shepherd greeted Beka with a hearty hug and invited us into one of the yurts. There we collapsed before the shepherd returned with a jug and two bowls and poured out the kymyz.

Beka had chugged his first bowl before I’d tasted mine. About 3% alcohol, kymyz tastes like a thin, plain yogurt but is far, far more acidic and sour. As I watched Beka pound his second bowl like a frat kid shot-gunning a beer I wondered if I’d be able to finish mine.

How did I get myself into this situation? A week ago I’d been in Baltimore.

The author, his guide, and a shepherd boy at their yurt on the second day of the hike
The author, his guide, and a shepherd boy at their yurt on the second day of the hike
Community Based Tourism

The answer is Community Based Tourism Kyrgyzstan, an organization dedicated to putting tourism money into the local community by making it easy for foreign travelers like myself to find jeep rides, guides like Beka, and shepherd families with whom to stay.

The day before my trip I walked into CBT’s Kochkor office. Within an hour they’d set up a three-day hiking trip for me, including food and yurt-stays The entire arrangement cost less than 200 dollars.

Entertainment in the Hills

Which is how I found myself sitting in the cooking tent with Beka as he played American hip hop on his cell phone for the shepherd and his teenage sister. As we nodded along to Akon, Beka explained that you can get service by climbing to the top of the hills. The shepherds charge their phones using a generator.

Once through Beka’s hip hop repertoire, we followed the Russian hired hand Vassili down to the corral. In the process of expanding the corral he’d come across something strange. There, sitting on a ledge of dirt, was the beautiful backbone and skull of a massive, tusked prehistoric creature.

The shores of lake Son Kul
The shores of lake Son Kul
Higher Still

The next day we hiked over Tall Tree Pass, 3400 meters (11,154 ft.) above sea level, and descended to yurts near the shore of Lake Son Kul where we had lunch and decided to stop.

We spent the rest of the day playing soccer with the shepherd kids and hopping on horses to ride to the shore of the lake. The three-year-old Kirghiz boy on his donkey outpaced me and my horse the entire time. He would turn and mime at me the proper way to ride, it just didn’t help.

Be an Instant Local

Our last day we hiked a few hours to a village of yurts, many of which had joined the CBT organization. CBT started in Kyrgystan in 2000. Originally supported by the Swiss organization Helvetas, the staff at the Kochkor office told me that CBT Kyrgyzstan has been operating independently for three years now.

The shepherds live by their animals, and learn to ride early.
The shepherds live by their animals, and learn to ride early.

CBT offices all over the country can provide any level of service, from simply handing you the address of a nice guest house to arranging every detail of a seven day horseback tour.

My favorite part of dealing with CBT was the friendly flexibility. When the lack of an ATM in the village meant I couldn’t do the horseback tour I wanted, Beka and I planned a hiking trip.

CBT can fit tours to your schedule, and if you ever want to stop and spend some time playing soccer at your lunch yurt and maybe stay the night instead of traveling on, as Beka and I did, that’s a possibility too.

The Key to Kyrgyzstan
Vasili the shepherd and the prehistoric beast he unearthed
Vasili the shepherd and the prehistoric beast he unearthed

As my attempts to get back to the capital without CBT’s help later demonstrated to me (an epic and frustrating trip worthy of its own article) Kyrgyzstan can be a hard place to travel. Taxi cab drivers are often mercenary, signs, if they exist, are in Cyrillic, and no one and nothing is ever on time.

The country is full of natural beauty and friendly people, however. Nowhere in the western world can you find such mountains and lakes together with a culture so unfamiliar but inviting. With a little help, a trip to Kyrgyzstan can be amazingly rewarding.

Community Based Tourism can provide that help, giving tourists an amazing local experience while they support the local community they’ve come to enjoy.

 
Michael Cook

 

Michael Lee Cook is a freelancer and fiction writer from Baltimore, Maryland. He loves his city but travels throughout the U.S. and the world whenever possible. More of his writing can be found at LiteratureIsNotDead.com.

 
Information

kyrgyzstan.orexca.com
(Oriental Express Central Asia)

Visas:

A single entry visa is $70 and easy to get from the Kirghiz embassy. Processing usually takes two weeks.

Flights:

Flights from the United States generally go through Moscow or London and end in the capital, Bishkek. Long layovers are common since Bishkek isn’t a frequent destination, so get a transit visa for Russia unless you want to spend ten hours in the dreary Sheremetyevo airport as I did.

Hotels:

I stayed in the Bishkek Alton. The Alton is centrally located (#30 Manas Road, telephone: 66-64-12) and relatively inexpensive. The staff is friendly but speaks almost no English. Fancier, more western hotels offer pick-up from the airport and other services, but charge more western prices as well.

Young people gather at the fountain in the center of Bishkek's amusement park, located just behind their White House.
Where to eat:

The hub of the expat community in Bishkek is Cafe Metro at 148a Chui Road, about a block from the Philharmonic. A good place to find people who know how to deal with Kyrgyzstan’s quirks.

When to go:

Tourism only exists May through October, as snow limits travel the rest of the year. Check ahead on the availability of English speaking guides at the beginning and end of the season as many are students and may be in class.

Day Trip:

Al Archa Gorge is less than an hour from Bishkek and stunningly beautiful. A taxi will agree to take you there and can probably be convinced to wait to pick you up, all for about 800 som. There’s an entrance fee (30 som per person when I was there) to enter the park. One dollar equals 35 som.

Guide books:

Lonely Planet’s Central Asia guidebook is excellent and fairly up to date. Also consider getting a Russian phrase book, one that will help you translate the signs, which are all in Cyrillic. I used Lonely Planet’s version for that as well.

 

Read more about Krygyztan

Kyrgyzstan

A Yurt-Stay in Kyrgyzstan By Michael Cook The Middle of Nowhere The jeep bounced along
. Kyrgyzstan, April, 2010: Reflections on a Revolution By Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare My
Kyrgyzstan: The Vanguard of Western Permissiveness By David Rich Sex and drugs and rock and roll
A Ascot and Nick on horses in Kyrgyzstan. Nick Wharton photos. Searching For Song-kul - A Horse
A rider seizes the carcass of a goat in a Dead Goat Polo match in Ashu, Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Sophie
Riders gather before the start of a Dead Goat Polo match in Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Sophie
on image to return to Sophie Ibbotson's article about Dead Goat Polo. Read more about Kyrgyzstan
Ibbotson. Click on photo to return to Sophie Ibbotson's story about the revolution in Kyrgyzstan.
Riot police in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, April 7, 2010 Photo by Sophie Ibbotson. Click
A rider seizes the carcass of a goat in a Dead Goat Polo match in Ashu, Kyrgyzstan. Photo
Milking a mare for its milk in Kyrgyzstan. photos by Dina Bennett. KyrgyzstanAs
through Osh, Kyrgyzstan, south to Sary Tash where the Pamirs slash a curtain of ice across the entire
) Iran(15) Israel(5) Japan(32) Jordan(21) Kazakhstan(4) Kyrgyzstan(12) Laos(17) Lebanon(6

 

New Travel Articles
Follow GoNOMAD.com Travel's board Destination Guides on Pinterest.
 
 
 


Subscribe to GoNOMAD's monthly enewsletter for all of our new travel articlesGet our free monthly travel newsletter
and help support sustainable and responsible tourism.
No spam, no selling
your email, we promise!

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter!

Call Now: 855-784-1659 csa-03 300x250-04

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...