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Published: August 1st 2008
Kymys. Fermented mare's milk. I'd been looking forward to trying it ever since I decided to come to Central Asia, but I guess I'd always had in mind just a small sip, rather than the overflowing bowl Aitbek had just thrust into my hands. I gazed into it uncertainly for a moment, fairly dubious about the tiny pieces of straw and strands of hair bobbing at the surface. But Aitbek just nodded encouragingly, before tipping his own bowl back and slurping it all down in several throaty gulps. Smacking his lips appreciatively, he motioned for me to do the same. And it was
good, surprisingly so! Imagine skim milk that's gone sour, mixed with half-flat lemonade, and you'll have some idea of the refreshing, slightly tangy, vaguely alcoholic taste of good kymys. Sensing my pleasant surprise, as I tipped the rest of my bowl down my throat, Aitbek grinned proudly and slapped me on the back. Another convert to the joys of kymys. =P Kochkor
I'd first met Aitbek and his young family in a shared taxi to Kochkor; a short journey in which we'd quickly exhausted the dozen or so words we knew of each other's language, but continued
trying to communicate anyway, with lots of miming & smiles. In between these exchanges, I'd been looking through the guide-book at accommodation options, and had pretty much resigned myself to hunting down another cheap, dingy Soviet-era hotel once we arrived. (Check out the video I've attached here of an especially bad bathroom at one such hotel. In case the sound's not good, the basic story is this: seeing as the lone shared toilet was filled almost to its seat-less brim with a thick, stinking brown sludge - so thick I honestly doubt a dropped pebble would have sunk through the surface - I'd asked the cleaner if there was another toilet I could use. She'd responded by grabbing a handy straw broom, thrusting it deep into the muck and thrashing around until the level sunk a couple of inches, with a glutinous sucking sounds and a few noxious, oily bubbles. Then she turned to me with a smile and an inviting wave - the toilet was ready for use! =P) Anyway, I'd come down with a bit of a cold after my time up in the mountains, was feeling pretty lousy, and the prospect of another grimy, soulless hotel like
this was slightly depressing. So when Aitbek suddenly asked, on our arrival in Kochkor, if I'd like to spend the night at his family's home, I told him I'd love to. =)
And it ended up being a very enjoyable & refreshing afternoon & evening: looking through picture-books with Bermek (Aitbek's two-year-old daughter; her name means 'pearl') while her parents unpacked, exploring the small town centre with Aitbek (where I sampled my first kymys), enjoying a generous afternoon tea & evening meal (at their typical Kyrgyz table; roughly a foot off the ground, you all sit cross-legged around it on thick shyrdaks
(traditional felt rugs)), admiring photo albums of their wedding & various family events, knocking back a couple of shots of Aitbek's prized bottle of Kyrgyz cognac, and then falling gratefully asleep in the comfortable & very warm bed they'd set up for me.
Aitbek was up even earlier than me the next morning, preparing a small breakfast which we shared at the kitchen table, whispering so as not to wake the others. When we walked back into town soon after, he steadfastly refused to accept anything at all for looking after me so well, just repeating
the Russian word for 'guest', patting me gently on the back and smiling broadly. A very beautiful family, incredibly hospitable! After a very heartfelt thank you, I headed straight to the CBT office, (Kyrgyzstan's excellent Community Based Tourism
initiative), through which I'd arranged a day out in the nearby jailoo
(summer pasture) of Sarala-Saz, and a night spent in a yurt
, (nomad's tent), something I'd been looking forward to for a long time! Sarala-Saz Yurt Camp
I arrived at Sarala-Saz to find a large group setting up a new yurt - a rare chance to see how it all fits together! Basically, a collapsible wooden frame (kerege
) is erected in a cylindrical shape, and then long, curved wooden struts are fitted into a wooden wheel held above the middle of the cylinder, whilst their other ends are tied securely to the collapsible frame, (check out the photos if that sentence is as confusing to you as it sounds to me...). This whole structure is then wrapped in woven grass mats, (very effective at blocking the wind), followed by multi-layered felt (kiyiz
), the outermost layer of which is coated in waterproofing sheep's fat - to keep out the cold & rain. When
the assembled crowd - about a dozen men & women, working very fast together - saw how interested I was, they welcomed me to join in, showing me how to poke the support struts up into the central wheel, (the tyndyk
), and then tie them tightly in place. Very interesting, and a lot of fun; I just hope that that yurt doesn't fall down in the first big storm as a result of my contribution... =P
I'd just started learning the next step in the process when I heard yells of "Michael Jackson?!" coming from behind the older yurt. (This was something I got a lot in Central Asia, pretty much every time I introduced myself. I did my best to laugh along each time, as if it was the very first time I'd heard this hilariously witty rejoinder...) Around the other side of the yurt, I found Nussultan (one of the yurt family's sons) waiting for me, a cheeky grin on his face, along with two saddled horses. Swinging up onto mine - a beautiful bay with the Zorroesque name of Sartoro - I followed Nussultan away from the yurts and up onto the wide, rolling, and very
. Watchful eagles soared high above us as we trotted along, occasionally swooping precipitously down for a closer look, scaring the horses each time their stealthy shadows rippled over the short grass around us.
It began to snow as we neared the mountains, and we were forced to stop at one point, huddling beneath the unperturbed horses until the sun came out again. Soon after this, the trail grew too steep for the horses and we continued on foot, scrambling around the rocks in search of the petroglyphs I'd come to see. Petroglyphs are simple images carved into stone faces, usually associated with prehistoric peoples. Nussultan showed me a great number of them; most depicting long-horned sheep, but also some people, wolves, deer and even a very out-of-place looking "chimpanzee" (?!).
On the ride back, the weather worsened when we were still a few hours out - a deviously cold wind that somehow managed to sneak snow down the backs of necks and into our squinting eyes - and it was a huge relief to finally reach the warm sanctuary of the yurt! Plonking down on a little wooden stool in front of the yurt's glowing stove
- fed entirely by dried manure; surprisingly fragrant - cupping a hot chai between numb hands, chewing on fresh bread covered in amazing homemade apricot jam & thick cream, watching the icy rain pelt furiously but impotently down outside... Bliss. =)
Roughly three-quarters of a yurt's floor is covered in thick, yak-hair carpets, (the rest is stamped bare earth by the door, for bringing things in & out without having to remove your shoes), and after dinner the low table was moved aside so that our beds could be set up on these carpets. The daughter of the family piled up blanket after blanket until each bed was roughly a foot off the ground, completely insulated from the cold, and then a final enveloping duvet was placed on top of that. It looked incredibly inviting after a long, cold day, but I stayed up a while longer - sitting by the steaming stove, occasionally stepping outside to look out over the dark jailoo
and up at the stars - just trying to soak it all in. En Route to the Uzbek Border
I'd have loved to stay there longer, adjusting to the hard-working but simple routine of life
on the jailoo
, but the time I'd set aside for Uzbekistan was fast approaching and I decided I'd have to get moving. Returning to Kochkor early the next morning, (after the best night's sleep I'd had in months), I said my final goodbyes to Aitbek and then hitched a ride back to Bishkek, checking into a hotel so cheap that the sign on the door - advertising its major selling-point - read "Bathroom works". Just barely... =P Interestingly, many of these places - including this one - provide only shared bathrooms, with squat toilets open to the rest of the room, (no stalls or doors). This means that people often walk right past, as you squat there taking care of business, looking in curiously and occasionally stopping to ask where you're from. Needless to say, it's a fairly strange position from which to try and conduct a congenial conversation...
Escaping early the next morning - having first made a leisurely visit to the bathroom to use the toilet and have a chat (as you do =P) - I caught a shared taxi down to Jalal-Abad, (in the south-west, on the Uzbek border). This involved a very tight squeeze into
the back-seat with two enormous women and their long-suffering niece; all of whom seemed to take it in turns to throw up all over each other's shoes throughout the thirteen-hour trip that followed. I didn't really mind though, hanging my head out the window when the smell got a bit much, and thinking back over what had been an excellent start to the trip - violent shepherds & stalwart miners, unforgettable hiking, horny housewives, hospitality in its very purest form, lots of new friends & memorable characters, horse-riding out on the open jailoo
& sleeping in a yurt
, tangy kymys
, sizzling shashlyk
& irresistible laghman
... How could Uzbekistan possibly top all that?!...
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