Kyrgyzstan - Through A Lens

by BTM

Wed, 25 July 2018

Kyrgyzstan - Through A Lens

Intrepid traveller and photographer Sawsan Taher shares thoughts and pictures from her latest trip to a former Soviet republic that’s brimming with amazing scenery and friendly people.

Kyrgyzstan was one of several routes for the old Silk Road through the Tianshan and the Pamir-Altai Mountains. The Kyrgyz are a Turkic-Mongol people who live primarily in the mountainous regions of Central Asia, where their traditional livelihood was that of pastoral nomadism. In 1991, Kyrgyzstan declared independence from Moscow and the people have changed tremendously since then. Although the country has been modernised to an extent, their culture is still greatly influenced by their nomadic heritage and agricultural livelihood. 

My journey began once I had moved from the capital, Bishkek, towards Chon Kemin Valley. Travelling through, one cannot help but be captivated by its natural beauty and magnificent landscapes. To this day, the Kyrgyz are still a semi-nomadic people and maintain a co-dependent relationship with their horses. Since the country is 90 per cent mountainous, horses are essential as a means of transportation. They are also utilised for various tasks such as sports, games and shepherding. Horse meat is a staple protein eaten commonly throughout the country along with kymyz, a traditional Kyrgyz drink made from horse’s milk. 



For two days, I stayed in a guesthouse in Karool-Dobo village and then later with a hospitable Kyrgyz family who opened their doors to visitors a few years ago. To truly immerse yourself within a new culture, one must communicate with locals. Living with a Kyrgyz family was an invaluable experience and I was fortunate enough to gain a broader perspective on their culture. 

While there, I attended a buzkashi match. The word literally means “goat grabbing” and buzkashi is the national sport of Kyrgyzstan. It’s similar to a game of polo; however, rather than playing with sticks and a ball, they use the carcass of a goat to drag and throw. A horse may be trained for up to five years before playing its first game.

Another unique and entertaining sport I witnessed was kyz kummai which translates to “girl chasing”. It usually starts with a young man on horseback who waits at the starting line. A young woman, also mounted, starts her horse galloping behind him. When she passes, the young man may start his horse galloping. The two race towards a finish line and if the man is able to catch up before the finish line, he may reach out to the woman and steal a kiss, which constitutes victory. However, if the woman reaches the finish line first, she turns around and chases the man and, if in range, she may beat him with her whip!



After my taste of national sport, I was keen for a taste of traditional food. A short visit to Tegirmenti village was arranged for me to meet a family who are well known for baking the traditional Kyrgyzstani bread. The smell and taste of freshly baked bread was an unforgettable treat for my palate. 

In Karool-Dobo village, I spent some time with a housewife, Boroson, in her backyard while she was milking the cows. Her agrarian roots were evident in her methodical way of taking care of the cattle and her daily schedule. She starts early in the morning and finishes all her work by sunset. Albeit their simple lifestyle sounds idyllic during spring and summer, the people do face harsh winters.

While I was taking photos for Boroson, a few little girls approached me timidly but then with youthful exuberance. I assume they had heard from others that a stranger had come to their village and handed out sweets. Staring at me pensively at first, the moment I spoke the language of children and handed them candy, a broad devilish grin played upon their faces and they asked for their photos to be taken. 



All around me, I couldn’t help but notice the unique headpieces of the men and women. Every stitch was etched with heritage and tradition. The classical garb of the Kyrgyz men and women has remained unchanged for 700 years. Headdresses, sitting tight on the head and completely covering the hair, are an indispensable attribute of married women. They are decorated with various ornaments and coloured threads. A turban of white material called an elechek is worn over the hat and it used to be unacceptable to venture outside without it. The most popular cap worn by Kyrgyz men everywhere is the kalpak, a traditional white felt hat with an upturned brim.

My next destination was Tepke village in the Issyk-Kul Region to visit a musical institute. Kyrgyz music is most famous for how evocative it is of nature and life in the mountains. Many parents encourage their children to learn using their national instrument, the komuz, which is an ancient fretless stringed instrument used in Central Asian music. It is generally made from a single piece of wood and has three strings traditionally made out of gut, but often from fishing line in modern times. In the most common tunings the middle string is the highest in pitch.

I headed on to another amazing village, Jyrgalan, which truly has a rustic feel; brick and timber houses are scattered around with wooden barns appearing every now and then. Cows, horses and goats wander from paddock to paddock while young kids play on the dirt roads around the village. While discovering the area, I asked a man if I could take his photo. He invited us into his house. His wife, Sultanat, started preparing the dining table and, in no time, there was a variety of fresh jam, bread and butter, all homemade, laid out, not forgetting a fresh cup of the famous Kyrgyz chai. It was easy to communicate through our guide and I felt so welcomed into their home.



The guesthouse I stayed at was in the middle of a farm in a valley surrounded by mountains and run by the hospitable owners Emil and her husband. While I was enjoying the magnificent view from my window, I saw a man milking a horse. Although I had heard of this, I was still shocked to see it. The Kyrgyz food culture relies heavily on meat. Rice with meat was a dish I was offered for breakfast in Jyrgalan but I could not eat it early in the morning though generally I loved Kyrgyz cuisine. 

The next morning, we visited the coal mine which is still operating in Jyrgalan. The village was established in 1964 to support mining during the Soviet period.

In the afternoon, I was walking in the neighborhood when I saw a little boy playing near a door. I spoke to him and gave him a sweet. When his aunt saw me, I thought she was going to reprimand me for giving him chocolate, but, in fact, with a lovely smile, she said “Rahmat” which means thank you.  She insisted I enter their house, and the entire family came to greet me. They were having a barbecue and invited me to join them. Honestly, I was worried about eating and asked if it was sheep or cow meat. The mother said “Halal”; I knew they were Muslim but I also knew that some families eat horse! They brought onions and shisleek and their tea. I sat with them in their garden and enjoyed the barbecue.

I was astounded as to how generous and kind the Kyrgyz people are — opening their door to a stranger and sharing their food and life with them. 

The daughter-in-law of the family, Gulmira, could speak English and was translating. They asked me many questions and wanted to know more about me. 
Before returning to Bishkek, my last destination was Bokonbayevo which is well known for hunting with eagles and crafts such as making shyrdaks (rugs) and other felt products. 
Talgar the ‘Eagle Man’ explained that hunting with the golden eagle is an ancient tradition that dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The capture, training and keeping of eagles is a highly ritualised activity, and the Kyrgyz are experts. Training eagles takes a lot of time — three to four years. It must be done by just one person and requires constant daily attention. Most of the birds, which can have a life expectancy of 40 years, are caught young, hooded and placed in a cage. The eagles are trained to be able to distinguish human voices and obey only that of their master. When the eagle is almost adult, the trainer shows it the hides and furs of the animals it is to hunt. Training continues until the birds become expert in killing their prey.

Later in the afternoon, I visited the Altyn Oimok NGO (Golden Thimble). This Kyrgyz crafts workshop produces shyrdaks and other traditional felt handicrafts. It employs more than 30 rural women and seeks to educate the next generation in traditional production. It was exciting to learn about the entire felt-making process from pulling the wool to dyeing it, then crafting the designs. These products are as rich in colour as they are in design and overall beauty, and each rug or textile reflects a living history of the country, the family and its creator. The Kyrgyz use felt handicrafts to adorn themselves and their homes with the spirit and history of their land. I left the workshop with a beautiful, handmade Kyrgyz felt souvenir.

Overall, I found the Kyrgyz people to be very polite and generous; their golden smiles radiated warmth and kindness. From their impeccable hospitality to their delicious cuisine and rich culture, my trip was truly an unforgettable experience and, most importantly, widened my perspective and restored my faith in the kindness of other people.