The Way of the Nomad

Kyrgyzstan's flag
Asia » Kyrgyzstan » Song Kol
October 15th 2009
Published: October 24th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Here I am, heading into the heartland of the Kyrgyz! I had four days off from my school, and I decided that I would use this precious time to do a simple but not-oft-trodden hike from a village called Kyzart to Lake Song Kol through a couple of valleys. The only downside was that I had to do this 3-day hike by myself because no one else wanted to go, and I'd rather go by myself than not go at all! I did toy with the idea of getting a guide... but, you know.

Naryn Oblast (province) and the Song Kol region is the traditional home of the Kyrgyz people as we know them today (but they originally come from somewhere between Siberia and north-western Mongolia) and so here you can really see the authentic Kyrgyz nomadic way of life. It is this nomadic culture which I find one of the most interesting things about Kyrgyzstan, since it is so far removed from the settlement/cosmopolitan background we are accustomed to in the West. And although their way of life and culture is becoming more sedentary in these modern times and under these modern pressures, many families still adhere to the ideals of their gallavanting ancestors, holding on to their old ways.

The centre of the Kyrgyz nomadic culture is the yurt, which in Kyrgyz is called Боз Yй ("boz uigh", meaning "grey house"). A yurt is like a big tent but slightly more permanent in structure. It can be established and dismantled relatively quickly, but contrary to popular perceptions of "nomadic" people, the Kyrgyz only move their yurts once or twice a year. The yurt itself is made up of an eclectic mix of animal skins and furs, and is very effective in its purpose, being a cool insulator in the fairly hot summers and a warm and water-proof shield in the freezing winters. Inside the yurt is an oven near the front "door" (more like a flap), with a chimney that leads out through a hole in the roof (Тундук, "tunduk"). Outside looking in, the oven is always on the right hand side of the yurt, which is the women's side; men have the left side and is where all the horse-riding tools are kept. EVERYTHING is done with this oven: water is boiled, bread baked, meat cooked, rice steamed, kymyz prepared, and in winter is a heater.

The inside of the yurt is lined, floors and walls, with thick carpets that are very beautiful. They have ornate patterns and bright colours, and all are hand made (from sheep's wool, coloured, then laid into patterns, and then pressed and rolled together to make it stick).

Very different to our brick homes and tiled indoors, yeah! :)

However, the nomadic lifestyle is not easy and they don't have the comforts of modern times like electricity or fridges. But they have clever ways of making do. For example, they have very interesting ways of preserving food in summer without fridges, and have specific methods for specific vegetables. I can't remember all of the different methods, but the one for tomatoes is particularly interesting: they cover each tomato with lots of paper to insulate it, and then keep it in a cool place, and voila! Preserved!

This cool place is an impromptu fridge. The nomads always set up their yurts near streams, brooks, rivers and lakes because of proximity to water sources. This location doubles in making the earth in the immediate environs very cold, given the frosty, high-altitutde mountain waters. A hole is dug near the
Nomads on the PlainsNomads on the PlainsNomads on the Plains

The Kyrgyz family I stayed with.
river, and wooden sticks hung across at intervals, like a rack in a wardrobe. The meat and veges are then places on hooks on the racks and then simply stored there, with the cool earth acting as a fridge... even in summer! The hole is then covered. Ingenious!

The Kyrgyz needed to be nomadic in order to provide their gigantic flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, and of horses with the greenest pastures available. During the summers they would occupy the mountain and hill tops in the jailoos (pastures) where the grass is greenest, and then escape the harsh winters of the higher altitudes to the fresher pastures below. And they really needed to do this, because they have LOTS of animals!!!

So, now you know a little bit about this way of life, time to get stuck into it! :)

The hike was very pleasant! The scenery is very unique, and certainly not lacking in beauty. These are not your jagged peaks, nor towering mountains; but instead are peaceful hills, giant in stature but hills nevertheless, rolling randomly throughout the land one after another. Strangely there are no trees anywhere to be seen
The Brute!The Brute!The Brute!

What a gal!
on these slopes, giving it a desolate atmosphere. But that strange eerieness is made strange again by the fact that the slopes are nevertheless a dazzling green! Bright bright green, some of the most fertile grass I've ever seen! They gracefully cover the slopes, the many contours of the land reminiscient of a green velvet carpeting the valleys. These are the famous "jailoos" of Kyrgyzstan, the greenest of green summer pastures that stretch endlessly towards the horizon.

These majestic but towering hills of Naryn captivated me in their simplicity and uniqueness. After a few hours walking from Kyzart Pass I hit the Char Archa Valley, a spectacular cut in the jailoos with those loveable snow-capped mountains at the end. The next area was the Kilemche jailoo, which was a wide open space like a crossroads between several jailoos and valleys.

Luckily I had excellent weather for most of the hike. Intermittently dark gloomy clouds would congregate as typical in the mountains, and sometimes unleashed their wet fury on me. But mostly it was bright and clear. Cows grazed blissfully all around, the sun shone, all was good!

And best of all, along the way I met nomads!

Honestly, how ridiculously green is that.
After every few hours walking I would come across a random yurt. This was such a cool feeling, to be lost in these steep green jailoos and suddenly stumble upon this idyllic yurt in the middle of nowhere! What an existence, how carefree! And the nomads were so cool, friendly and welcoming. Every family I came across invited me in for tea and bread, and most importantly kymyz!

Kymyz is the Kyrgyz national drink: fermented mare's milk! Yes, the milk of a female horse is taken, then boiled, yeast is added, and then it is stored in a barrel (near the yurt's oven) and plunged every now and then to stir. (The stick used for plunging is called a "pishpek", from which the capital "Bishkek" derives its name). As if such a concoction was odd enough, it is alcoholic to boot! Yes, alcoholic milk. It has a very peculiar taste, almost like a very sour milk but with an alcoholic kick, and is much thicker, almost like yoghurt. It hardly sounds appetizing, and in fact every single foreigner who has been to Kyrgyzstan hates it.... except my friend "michaelpaddo" (aka The Great White Hype) and myself. For some reason I possessed this unnatural taste for kymyz, which struck other foreigners as crazy, and aroused gleeful smiles from the Kyrgyz. I kept asking for more (dageh kymyz, koiyunguschu!), much to my hosts' pleasure.

Actually, that was one of the things that surprised me most on my hike - just how well I was able to speak Kyrgyz! I was able to hold fairly reasonable conversations with them and make them feel genuinely glad to have me as a guest, rather than compelled... though I didn't understand everything, and no doubt my grammar was poor and pronunciation horrible. At the time of my hike I had been learning Kyrgyz for about 2.5 months, and somehow we got along like a house on fire! The language just clicked for me, and furthermore I practiced my Kyrgyz in and around Bishkek very often, though not always due to my own accord. I was a foreigner, who was not white, and spoke Kyrgyz, so I attracted a lot of attention! The Kyrgyz are not used to foreigners speaking their local language, since all foreigners in their lands have simply imposed their language on them, instead of trying to learn theirs - the most recent being the Russians. So when someone like me, who is very weird for them to start off with, says "Salamatsyzdarbeh!" (Greetings) to them, they are astonished and perplexed, and best of all even more welcoming than normal. The families I met along the way wouldn't even let me leave, so happy they were to speak to me in Kyrgyz! One old eje ("aunty") told me that she was very happy she could actually converse with me and find out who I am, where I come from, what I'm doing in Kyrgyzstan. She had met hikers before, but only gave them tea and bread out of hospitality, she never was able to get to know them. It was this extra element that was the most special part of my hike, and really took travelling to another level; to converse with these remote locals in their obscure, native tongue.

On my 2nd night I stayed with a family in the Kilemche jailoo, on the hill just before Song Kol. I just rocked up to their yurt! They were very welcoming and fed me full with meat, noodles, manty (dumplings), bread, tea, kasha (Kyrgyz traditional breakfast, a white porridge which you
My taxi driverMy taxi driverMy taxi driver

I talked with him for about an hour, in Kyrgyz! :)
mix with sugar and butter) and of course kymyz. Unfortunately I did not try the national dish beshbarmak ("five fingers", meat mixed with noodles with a broth and eaten with hands), but I would be lucky to taste this national dish later in my time in this wonderful country. Though there was plenty of meat around, they had 2 dogs (I ate dog once in Kyrgyzstan... not nice), 40 horses (actually, they eat horse in Kyrgyzstan too, it is a delicacy reserved for special occasions, which I have luckily avoided), 88 cows and 896 sheep! I even helped them herd the sheep at the end of the day!

One more special memory of hike was the horse riding! By the end of my hike, though three days long, I was rather fresh, mainly thanks to the fact that along the way many nomads gave me horse rides between places! It drastically cut my walking time, and once saved me from walking for too long in the rain. When ferrying me inbetween jailoos they would ride shotgun and carry my bag, with me holding on at the back. And when just hanging about they would let me ride their horses with them, which was sooo cool! I had never ridden a horse before, and I didn't really know what I was doing at first (getting on was particularly embarrassing) but I was ok by the end, and could soon gallop for short distances. One nomad called his horse "Ferrari" and would make "room room" sounds when riding! The horses were also helpful when crossing rivers, it's so easy on a horse, and so hard on foot!

I know from experience, because I had to cross the river winding through the Char Archa valley one morning. And I'm really glad I camped that night and crossed in the morning, because it was fast flowing and fairly deep, and I'd hate to think of what it would be like were it afternoon and faster and deeper! Worst of all, it was FREAKING FREEZING. Off came the shoes and socks, and in I waded. I almost fell in, stumbling over some of the rocks at the bottom, while my balance kept being tested by the rush of the rapids, but managed to make it to the end! Then I found a suitable rock on the other side, and just sat there in the sun for 30min drying my feet by holding them with my hands!

Eventually I arrived over the last hills and saw a sweeping Song Kol in all its splendour. The light blue of the water sparkled brightly in the mountain sunlight, encircled by beautiful mountains and lush greenery! I intended to stay one more night in yurt around Song Kol, but managed to hitch-hike back that very day. Song Kol is quite remote and way off-track from local traffic, and given that the offer was from a car that really was a solid testament to Soviet machinery, I grabbed the opportunity! !

My ride was a huge green jeep/truck, made with a complete disregard for aerodynamics, being simply a big square block of metal. Those Commies didn't make things look nice, but they built them tough. Tough like that Soviet mentality. This brute of a vechile was well over 30 years old, but she was still going strong! Though with several problems. The worst was the fact that the passenger side door - my door! - didn't shut properly, so I had to hold the door shut the entire journey, to ensure that it didn't open suddenly, with me falling out and tumbling down the cliffs to my doom!!! I am not joking. Other problems: the radiator was broken so we stopped to often to cool the car (thankfully cold mountain water is abundant), the alignment was shot, the engine (which was inside the car) leaked meaning that the car was filled with poisonous gases, the windows were broken and couldn't be opened so those poisonous gases were stuck inside, the engine was well out of form and kept stuttering, and to top it all off: the steering wheel shaft was held together with bright blue tape.

Somehow I made it alive back to Bishkek, giving me more time to spend living in this beautiful, unique and quirky country!

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


Hiking to Song KolHiking to Song Kol
Hiking to Song Kol

The family's son gave me a free lift to the top of the last hills on the way to Song Kol! He carried my bag on his little donkey, and I walked behind! :)
The LadaThe Lada
The Lada

The symbol of the Communist struggle.
The River I CrossedThe River I Crossed
The River I Crossed

It looks small in the photo, but trust me, it wasn't.

27th October 2009

wow, i never knew that kyrgyzstan was so green! it looks like the microsoft windows desktop! :P really cool pics man and awesome that you managed to interact so much with the locals! the Great White Hype will no doubt be happy to hear that you enjoyed kymyz! :)
27th October 2009

haha cheers joelo
but maybe its the microsoft windows desktop that looks like kyrgyzstan...? :)
31st October 2009

I can only assume that I too would love it. Also the river looks small, very small and shallow!
11th November 2010

Hey man, thanks for an awesome insight on Kyrgyz lifestyle. Photographs are breathtaking.

Tot: 0.204s; Tpl: 0.036s; cc: 15; qc: 30; dbt: 0.0503s; 30; m:apollo w:www (; sld: 3; ; mem: 6.7mb