Wednesday, December 30, 2009



part 3

The final morning started out bad and got worse.

With Aizada practically on top of me, purring into my right ear, and a puppy that had sought shelter from the cold and wind by nestling up against the yurt, whimpering in my left, I had hardly slept. I tried to move Aizada, but asleep that wisp of a girl felt like she weighed three hundred pounds.

At breakfast, when we were all seated around the plastic tablecloth laid out on the floor of the yurt eating rice porridge and sipping tea, I asked Aizada if it would be all right to ask Kenje my questions – I had consulted with Aizada the day before if it would be okay to ask a few questions and if she would act as my interpreter. It seemed like a good time because, at the moment, Kenje was seated quietly by the teapot.

I asked four questions. How old were you when you got married? (17) How many children do you have? (2) Do you want to have more children? (No). And what do you want for your daughter? (Anything she wanted. If she wanted to go to University that was fine. If she wanted to stay on the jailoo that was fine too. Whatever made Nursia happy.)

When we finished, Claude said to me hostilely, “So aggressive! Why do you ask so many intimate questions?”

That coming from a woman who had been nothing but rude to me for the past two days; who treated me as an interloper who was spoiling her family’s vacation.

My cheeks burning with humiliation, I stammered out a reply, “I don’t think that the questions I asked are inappropriate, not based on the what people have asked me. And not on the information they had offered up to me.”

Claude made it sound like I had asked Kenje how often she and her husband had sex and what kind of birth control they used.

But what if she was right? What if I had been incredibly rude? Was I so caught up in my own panic about getting material to write about that I had been oblivious to any discomfort I may have caused Kenje? Should I have waited until after breakfast? I was conscious that Aizada was not my guide and that after breakfast she would be helping the Frenchies get packed up, and Kenje would have work to do. Later, when we were getting organized to leave, I pulled Aizada aside and asked her to please tell Kenje that I had intended no offense and she assured me that everything was fine. Whether it really was, I’ll never know, but Kenje did not appear to take offense. Claude took upon herself to be offended for her.

When Henri approached me, hoping to clarify what had occurred I was feeling a bit more confident. “Your questions might have been considered inappropriate,” he said.

“I consulted with Aizada before speaking to Kenje. I have only the greatest respect for the Kyrgyz people,” I explained. Why was I justifying myself to this man?

He then broached the subject of my picture taking. “Did you ask their permission to take pictures?”

He was bringing up issues that were really none of his business, but still I continued to defend myself.

“I never photograph intimate situations or photograph someone who doesn’t want to.”

I continued that it was, so far, my experience on the jailoos that the Kyrgyz loved to be photographed and that they wanted people to know about Kyrgyzstan and its people and culture. For good measure, I added, “Other than you (that moment excepted), no one in your family has made me feel comfortable, and Claude especially has been very unfriendly.”

He tried to assure me that that was not their intention and he used the language barrier as a justification. I laughed in his face. All their conversations with their guide had been in English. They had lived in the United States. 

I was anxious to get away from them, but circumstances wouldn’t let me. The trail was on the

 other side of the river, easily crossed on horses but not so easily by backpackers. They and their packs had to be ferried across on horseback. Zulkar had already taken Henri across when Chopo and I rode up. Chopo offered his assistance and I found myself in an awkward position. If I didn’t offer to help because of my poor equestrian skills, would it be misinterpreted as spiteful behavior? I knew I wasn’t capable of handling an additional rider, but maybe I could handle a backpack. 

Aizada tossing two packs that had been tied together over the back of Sherdar like saddlebags was more than I had bargained for. Sherdar bucked and stomped and I thought, “Great! To make matters worse, I’ll dump their stuff in the river.”

I got Sherdar under control and forded the river successfully, but my hand ached from holding tightly onto the bags.

Once everybody and everything was on the other side, Chopo and I were free to get the hell out of there. We made good time and stopped for lunch in the same spot we lunched at two days prior. Chopo had brought some kymyz back with him. He opened the bottle saying, “Kymyz. Kyrgyz national drink.” He took a big swig and sighed with satisfaction.

I picked up a plum saying, “Plum. My favorite fruit,” and taking a bite, I sighed with satisfaction.

As we neared Kochkor, a man called out a greeting to Chopo. I remembered that the man had been in the same spot - squatting among the poplars in front of his house – when we were headed out and had then too called out to Chopo.

I arrived at the guesthouse hot and tired. It would be an hour before there was hot water for a shower so I decided to try to find a felt shop that I had heard about. I didn’t find it, but I did find someone to have tea with.

He called out to me as I walked down Kochkor’s main street. “ Do you speak English?” He sounded English or Australian. I was surprised when he introduced himself as Carlo from Genova.

He owned a tour company and was in Central Asia with two clients who hired him for private tours every year. He had lively pale green eyes and a shaved head and he was nice, and he actually wanted to talk to me.

We continued walking down the main street bustling with people selling fruits and vegetables. We passed taxi drivers hustling up passengers for Bishkek, 250 som, or Naryn, 150 som.  The crowd was a mix of women in polyester dresses and headscarves; men in too big suit coats and kalpaks, the traditional peaked white felt hats; young men in jeans, tee shirts and baseball hats, cell phones pressed to their ears; young women in tight tee shirts embellished with rhinestones and glitter; observant Muslims, bearded and skull capped; and the occasional backpacker, bearded and grungy.

A tiny Kyrgyz man, in a too large blue suit coat, jeans hiked up as far as they could go and a 

kalpak grabbed Carlo’s hand and asked where he was from.  Italy. And her, indicating to me with his thumb. America. He enthusiastically shook my hand, then placing his left hand over our joined right hands, shook my hand some more. Then he shook Carlo’s hand again, and again asked him where he was from. As we took our leave from our new friend Carlo said, “I love meeting Kyrgyz people. They are so kind.”  Sighing, he added, “But it can be a problem when they won’t let you go.”

We hopped over a filthy arik to a row of yurts selling fish and kymyz. The last yurt was a chaikhana (teahouse). Light streamed in through the tunduk. White lace netting was draped all around. It was like being inside a wedding cake. Our seat was a metal cot covered with a wool blanket. The surly waitress dropped an electrical coil into a glass pitcher to boil the water for our tea. 

To Carlo, everything was “Fantastic!” Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz people, Genova, my plan to write a book, life! Walking back to my guesthouse, he pointed to the silver figure of a man set atop a brick base.

“Who is that?” he asked.

It was a statue of Lenin, depicted grabbing his lapel with his left hand while his right arm was outstretched, the palm of the hand open, like he was addressing an imaginary crowd.

“Fantastic! I have been looking for him all over!” he cried excitedly. “You must take my picture.”

He pulled a camera out of one of the many pockets on his cargo pants. He took out the battery pack and blew on it for half a minute. “They’re almost dead. Let’s hope this works.”

The subject posed below the great man, the photographer aimed and the photo was taken.

“Fantastic!” said Carlo.

Photos: (1) Horses, (2) Chopo checks the saddle, (3) Our Kyrgyz friend

Saturday, December 5, 2009



part 2

I was not alone in the yurt. A French family from Toulouse had arrived a few hours earlier, yet I was to feel more alone during the next two days than if it had just been me and my Kyrgyz hosts. Another French couple that was staying in their own tent joined us for dinner. Even though they all spoke English conversation at dinner was in French. This left out not only me, but the French family’s English speaking guide, Aizada, as well.

After the meal we gathered around two candles set in the center of the yurt while outside the wind whipped around a light snow. It was too dark to read, and not wanting to appear completely withdrawn, I looked on as Aizada and Nursia, each with an ear pod in one ear, listened to French and international music that Claude, the French woman, had on her MP3 player.

I ventured out into the frigid night for a moment. The eyes of the sheep huddled nearby flashed red in the light cast by my headlamp appearing disembodied – their bodies being indistinguishable in the darkness – like the eyes of zombies.

It wasn’t toasty warm in the yurt. There was only the latticework frame, reed matting and thin exterior felt panels between us and the elements. The felt panels needed some attention; there were holes in some spots. The French family had sleeping bags, but for some reason Aidai, the CBT coordinator in Kochkor, told me I needn’t bring mine, there would be plenty of quilts. The mattresses were arranged six across, with mine at one end. I was given two quilts, a jacket to use as a pillow and another jacket to tuck around my feet. I wore a thermal shirt, long underwear and socks to sleep. Cold air blew gently across my face if I turned my head to the left. If I turned my head to the right I was practically rubbing noses with Aizada.

At night in a tent, Ella, herself wedged between two others whom she touched whenever she moved, complained not of the cold, but of the uninvited guests sharing her sleeping bag. Jumping, biting fleas made sleep impossible and she discovered the only effective way to kill them in the dark was to bite them in half. I guess my sleeping arrangement could have been worse.

I dreamt I was having an affair with Henri, the French man, who was quite handsome and by far the nicest member of the family. I was having difficulty finding him in the crowded building where we had arranged to meet. I did run into his daughter who confronted me about the affair. I was shaken out of the dream by a minor earthquake. Until the morning I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t dreamt it too, or that it hadn’t been a stampede of sheep.

“No, it was an earthquake,” confirmed Claude. “I know. I couldn’t fall back to sleep. In 1987, when we were living in Pasadena, there was a 6.5 quake. We slept in our car for a week. I was too terrified to stay in our apartment.”

After breakfast we all, Chopo and I on horseback and the French family and Aizada on foot, headed out to Turk Köl, another lake about an hour and a half walk from our camp. The sun shone and the air was brisk and there were no storm clouds to spoil our fun. The valley floor was lushly green and riddled with small irregular mounds of earth; narrow creeks snaked along the ground to join the river. The grass climbed up the mountains eventually thinning out and giving way to brown, craggy peaks. The mountain panoramas were dazzling in the brilliant light.  

We came to a boulder-strewn escarpment. I was sure that Chopo and I would have to leave the horses behind, but no, we continued up a path that was no wider than the horses’ hooves. I impressed myself by how easily and fearlessly I did it. I am not an experienced rider; I have had lessons but I had never before attempted such a steep, ascent. We reached a spot where a rockslide made the path impassable forcing us to dismount and, at first nudge, then pull the horses over the rocks.

The ground leveled off at the top of the escarpment before it precipitously rose again.  Chopo hobbled the horses and we continued on foot, grabbing rocks or tufts of grass to aid our ascent while a waterfall rushed down on our left.

Turk Köl was a petite version of Köl Ukok, the same turquoise waters, the same steep valley walls. There was even a small beach, but I doubt anyone would swim in the frigid water. Despite the altitude, almost 10,000 feet, and difficult access horses were grazing on the lake’s far shore.

We rested for a bit, basking in the beauty of our surroundings. I pulled a bag of plums from my pack and offered them out. Chopo and Aizada declined, Henri accepted, and the rest of his family did not even acknowledge the offer.

A visit to a glacial lake was suggested. Henri and Claude decided to return to camp but their children, Solange and Jacques, and I continued, not together of course. The route to the lake crossed a field of boulders. It was as if the earth was belching them up there were so many. Careful steps were called for; it was not a place where one would want to twist or sprain an ankle.

The lake was small, the water gray, the wind bitingly cold. The glacier that fed the lake looked like it was nearing the end of its life expectancy. My head was throbbing, my nose was running; I told Chopo that I didn’t have to see anymore. We returned to Turk Köl, and after a brief rest, to our horses and the camp. Descending the escarpment on horseback was more unnerving than ascending, the full weights of me and Sherdar facing down hill, knowing that our fate depended on his hooves and thin ankles.

Nearing the camp I spied a little figure in a pink jacket and baseball cap zipping around on a horse, yipping and yelling to get the sheep moving. It was Nursia; her little legs not reaching the stirrups. She seemed to have been born on a horse, so confident was she.

 Lunch was waiting for us. Goat ribs. Surprisingly tasty, what little meat there was on the bones. We Westerners did our best to strip the ribs of meat and fat, as our Kyrgyz guides expertly sucked theirs clean. Kyrgyz mothers tell their children that cleaning the bones will bring them a beautiful wife or a handsome husband.

As we ate, Nursia, momentarily off her horse, sat patiently by the teapot, her legs tucked under her and the ever-present smile on her sweet, round face, waiting to refill our teacups.

A change in the weather kept us indoors for part of the afternoon. Thunder, then the rain. Chopo, Aizada, Henri, Solange and Jacques passed the time joyfully playing cards. There was lots of laughing, and groaning when the game did not go the way a player had planned. Claude disappeared into the downy depths of her sleeping bag and I read.

I was reading Turkestan Solo for the third time. I was in Kyrgyzstan, in the mountains, in a yurt, yet my mind was wandering and I was fighting the urge to skip over sections. The book was the basis for my trip and my book and I put it back in my bag and pulled out Flashman and the Redskins instead.

The rain did not last long as is typical of mountain storms. Chopo and I took a ride, heading up river, away from the lake. Chopo told me about a horse game called “Grab the Grass.” A rider, while at a full gallop, bends down and tries to grab a clump of grass out of the ground. Of course, I had to try, minus the galloping part. I immediately encountered two problems: number one, I was not a very good rider and two, every time I bent over my camera swung around and clocked me in the head.

We rode further and further into the valley, we passed the last yurt camp, but still there were grazing animals. I would have loved to ride until I had out-ridden them, but the weather was shifting yet again and we turned back to camp. We rode quickly, the horses’ gait transitioning from a fast walk to a trot. Trotting, especially on lumpy ground, is like driving on a bumpy road in a car with bad suspension. Someone told me that the bounciness of the trot varies from horse to horse, and if that is true then Sherdar had the most jarring trot I’d ever experienced. Dismounting, my left knee almost gave out from under me, telling me that after two days, it had had enough of being bent into a stirrup. I prayed that it would recover enough for the six-hour return journey the next day.

Claude, again buried in her sleeping bag, and I were alone in the yurt. I made a few attempts at conversation. She responded in monosyllables or not at all. I could not understand why this woman was so unfriendly to me. Could she see into my head? Did she know about the dream? Or was she just jealous of all women because she looked more like her husband’s mother than his wife?

And it seemed as if her children were taking their cues from her. Solange, who had been quite chatty when I arrived, sharing with me her opinion of Uzbek guesthouses, had ceased to talk to me. Jacques had never even tried.

The yurt was cold, and it was due to more than just Claude’s iciness. Nursia popped her head in the door, and realizing instantly that the stove had gone out, soon returned bringing her father with her to relight it. Altanbek opened the door of the stove and scooped out some dung that had smothered the flames releasing a plume of acrid smoke. Taking a plastic bottle of Benzene, he shook some into the stove and tossed in a lighted match. His timing was off; he didn’t close the door fast enough. Flames shot out of the stove, knocking him off his feet. He recovered, laughing, and looking at Claude and me, said with a big smile, “Okay! Okay!” 

Photos: (1) Nursia and Aizada, (2) Turk Köl, (3) Nursia on her horse

Saturday, November 7, 2009



Aidai, the Kochkor CBT coordinator, in a matter of hours arranged a three-day horse trek for 

me to Köl Ukok, the Lake in the Chest, leaving at nine the next morning. That was easy.

Showered and well fed I lay in bed listening to the azan. It was the first time I had heard the Muslim call to prayer since I arrived in Kyrgyzstan.

Most Kyrgyz identify themselves as Muslim, but they don’t strictly adhere to the religion’s five pillars. Gulbaira covered her head, but I never saw her or Assambek pray. They will observe Ramadan, which begins September 1st, meaning that they will get up at four in the morning to eat and then do all those chores with no more food until sunset.

Invading Arab armies brought Islam to Central Asia in the 8th century, but it didn’t become the official religion of what is now Kyrgyzstan until the 10th century.    Shamanism, the indigenous religion, continued to be a potent force; Allah was another god in its pantheon. The Kyrgyz adopted some Muslim rituals like circumcision and celebrating the first anniversary of a person’s death, but weddings and funerals proceeded whether there was a mullah there or not and women didn’t veil.

Islam grew more influential in the early 19th century during the rule of the Khanate of Khokand, particularly in the Fergana Valley in the south where there were large numbers of ethnic Uzbeks who were historically more devout. Its influence peaked in the 1920s, just in time for the Communists and their anti-religious policies to drive it underground.

Glasnost allowed Islam to come out of hiding in Kyrgyzstan and the other Central Asian republics, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has flourished once again, but nomads like the Kyrgyz have always worn their religion lightly.  

In the morning I was on my own again. Leaving Kristin, Alina, and my big suitcase behind, I went out to meet a horse.

Two horses were tied to a street sign in front of the CBT office. Tending to them was Cholponbek, or Chopo for short, my guide, a tallish, thin young guy in jeans, a blue windbreaker and slip-on, black, pointy-toed dress shoes.

It was the height of the tourist season and all the English-speaking guides were out with other tourists. We ran through Chopo’s repertoire of English phrases before we were out of Kochkor.  “What is your name?” How old are you?” “I am twenty-one. I have two sisters and one brother.” “My hobby is volleyball. What is your hobby?” The trip could be a quiet one. 

Chopo had a casual riding style. He’d slide his weight to one side of the saddle looking like he was going to slide right out of it, and then slide over to the other side. Sometimes he rotated his hips so that his upper body was facing sideways rather than straight ahead. And his horse pooped all the time. I don’t know if it had a problem or was trying to make me envious.

We followed Kochkorskaya Road out of town towards the mountains, passing white-washed houses with light blue trim that were right out of a fairy tale. The wood trim around the windows and along the eaves was cut into patterns of triangles and half circles. In-laid tiles and mirrors or bas-reliefs of traditional Kyrgyz designs, even the hammer and sickle, decorated the sides of some houses. The roofs were hipped or gabled using wood or corrugated steel. For the gables long, narrow slats of wood were arrayed vertically, horizontally and diagonally. Blue and white picket fences enclosed gardens in which grew sunflowers, dahlias, marigolds, cosmos, and apple trees heavy with fruit.

As we got further out of town the houses were set further apart and had been left the natural plaster color, but the trim was still painted light blue. Some had flats roofs and exposed wooden beams reminiscent of the pueblo style popular back home. And then I saw it: hollyhocks against an adobe wall, the clichéd postcard image of New Mexico. 

Leaving the road behind, we headed across wheat fields crisscrossed by gushing ariks. The water had been diverted from the Shamen River whose valley we would ascend to reach Köl Ukok.

The lake is described as alpine, but as the trail climbed up into the mountains, I saw nothing that brought the Alps to mind. The ground was sandy and rocky, dotted with tufts of coarse grass and bushes with sharp leaves and gnarled branches. The only trees were the ones that lined the banks of the river well below us.

The lake can only be reached by horse or on foot, there are no roads, and I felt very far from civilization; only momentarily it turned out, for around a bend appeared another guide returning from the lake with his sole charge and talking on his cell phone.

The trail led us higher and higher; the grass becoming thicker, more carpet-like. Herds of cows and sheep grazed on the green slopes. Flowers appeared. Purple was the most popular color: pale purple asters; clusters of bell-shaped, violet flowers; delicate purple-petaled flowers laced with darker purple veins; fat thistles. A variety of dandelion on a long, thin stem with a cluster of flowers at the top added touches of yellow to the scene. Now it was like the Alps.

We had been riding for almost six hours. I realized too late that my stirrups were too short and my knees were throbbing. We arrived at a rocky hill, the rocks covered with rust colored lichen; on the other side was the lake. The path among the rocks was no more than a few inches wide. I hoped Sherdar, my horse, who had occasionally stumbled during our ascent, wouldn’t stumble now.

From the top of the hill, the turquoise lake spread out before us, much larger than I expected. The near end of the valley was narrow, its sides rising steeply, the path just hanging on. It widened as we approached the far shore where a few yurt camps were set up, their chimneys gaily pumping out grey smoke against the cold. The temperature had dropped dramatically and the sky had issued a threat or two of rain or snow, but hadn’t yet followed through.

Chopo pointed to a yurt far from the lake as the one where we were going to stay. I felt a pang of disappointment; I had come to see the sunrise over the lake. “Try to be like the Central Asians, Liz, just roll with it,” I encouraged myself. “I will find something wonderful about the location.” And in the morning I did. Looking out from the high banks of the shallow river that ran by our yurt to the lake in the near distance was more beautiful than the lake itself.

Altanbek, Kenje, their son Zulkar, twelve, and daughter Nursia, nine, were our hosts. Their camp consisted of a yurt and a canvas tent where the cooking was done and where the family slept when they had guests.

In a week or two they would be leaving this jailoo for one farther down the mountain, and then in October, they would return to their village for the winter.

Yurt is the Turkic word for “dwelling” or “home.” It was the Russians who applied the term specifically to the portable domed structure of the steppe nomads.

In Kyrgyz it is called boz üy meaning “grey house” taken from the color of the felt. So entwined is it with national identity that the tunduk, the wooden circle with six crossed poles that frames the yurt’s smoke hole, is the emblem of the Kyrgyz flag.

The yurt is designed for mobility and easy set up and dismantling. Poplar poles called kanats are bent and attached with leather nails or straps to the kerege, a circular concertina framework of wood. Chiy, woven reed mats, are used to line the kerege, and the exterior of the whole structure is covered with heavy felt rugs held in place by ropes tied to stakes in the ground.

The er jak (left side) is the man’s side of the yurt, where all horse tack and hunting gear is stored. The epche jak (right side) is the woman’s, where the stove and kitchen equipment are set up. Nowadays, many families have separate tents for the kitchen. The juk is opposite the door and all bedding and carpets are kept there, usually stacked atop a brightly decorated chest.

If the family has money, the interior may be decorated with beautiful and colorful appliquéd felt rugs called shyrdaks and with long, narrow, weavings hanging down from the tunduk and tied to the kanats.

Altanbek and Kenge’s yurt was not a deluxe model.

photos: (1) Köl Ukok, (2) A view from the yurt, (3) Zulkar and friend

Wednesday, November 4, 2009



part 2

Another delay. Would our ride ever happen? Dyadushka had to bring the sheep in and needed the horse. As he neared the wagon, I walked down to meet him. My route took me by the stacked dung bricks used as fuel. The smell was overpowering, but not nearly as awful as the smell of the sheep themselves. God, those animals stink! Their fleece was shaggy, clumpy, matted and muddy. To encourage and direct them, Dyadushka, who rode in a pinstriped suit coat, a homburg and soft-soled leather boots slid into plastic sandals, rattled a plastic water bottle with pebbles in it.

With the sheep moved, Kristin and I could finally have our ride. Except that our dreams of each mounting a horse and racing up and down the jailoo together were thwarted by there being only one horse. We had to settle for taking a turn riding the horse up and down a path that skirted the edge of the hills behind the wagon. The Jainakovs had dozens of horses, but it seemed that only one was gentled. A second horse was promised for the next day (it never materialized). 

Having sat around all morning and a good part of the afternoon, I decided to take a hike up into the hills. After walking about twenty minutes I came upon another wagon. The two children sitting out in front waved for me to come over. I was invited inside where I discovered the mother and an older daughter making borsok. There were already large pancakes of dough rolled out and set aside on a sheet on the floor. Unlike the Jainakovs’ wagon, their wagon had a stove set up inside and it was cozy and warm. The sun filtering in through a small window behind the stove mixed with the smoke to cast about a hazy light. Children’s clothes hung from a rope tied between two roof supports. Tacked to one wall was a plastic cloth decorated with bananas, mangos, papayas and melons.

The stove was no more than a metal cylinder with two doors near the bottom. The lower was for removing the ashes and the upper for feeding in the dung fuel. Set into the opening at the top was a kazan filled with hot oil.

Bending over a low table, the mother and daughter re-rolled the dough and sliced it into small squares. Each pancake yielded about twenty-eight borsok and there were at least ten pancakes. The squares were dumped into the hot oil for no more than thirty seconds. Right out of the kazan borsok is very tasty, soft and warm; several days later it’s better with butter and jam.

Assambek had nine children. Gulbaira was his second wife, and not much older than his oldest child. His first wife had died of a misdiagnosed illness six or seven years ago. He had met Gulbaira, who lived in another village near Döng Alysh, through mutual friends and they had been married five years.

“At first,” Gulbaira said, “his children wanted nothing to do with me. I was not their mother. But little by little, they have come to accept me.” It was obvious that Elmira loved Gulbaira very much. 

Gulbaira had been widowed at forty. She had married her first husband when she was eighteen. Their first child, a girl, died very young. Their second child, a boy, died in infancy. And their third child, another son, was tragically drowned in Issyk Köl when he was eighteen. Her husband died of grief a few months later.

“I am very happy with Assambek. He treats me very well,” Gulbaira said, and patted her husband’s hand.

It had been a long day and we were all tired and ready for bed. Kristin, Alina, and I were to sleep in the eating room. The table was pushed to one end and our beds were laid out for us: first sheepskins, then floral cotton mattresses, and then quilts and pillows.

The light bulb in the larger room had burned out so Dyadushka sat on a low stool holding a pen light that gave a penny’s worth of light for Babushka and Elmira to lay out their bedding by.


“Let’s go ride a horse,” Alina said to me. She actually just meant me. Alina gave lie to the idea that all Kyrgyz are horse people. She didn’t really like to ride and was a bit afraid of horses. She didn’t like dogs much either. To be honest, there wasn’t much to like about the Jainakovs’ dogs; they snarled and barked at everyone and everything.

Swinging myself into the saddle, I announced to Alina and Elmira that I was going to take the horse over the creek and run it across the meadows. No sooner had I crossed the creek than Alina called out to me.

“Babushka wants you to move those cows.” She pointed to a group of five or six cows grazing near the Jainakovs’ horses. “They’re not theirs and need to be moved farther to the right.”

“But I’ve never herded cows before!” I shouted.

“Try, if you can.”

Why not?  If I messed up Elmira could fix it.

In Moscow, desperate to find traveling companions, Ella had lied about her ability, saying she was an experienced rider who could last twelve hours in the saddle if need be when, in truth, her total equestrian experience was thirty minutes. Just days before heading up into the mountains on her two-month trek, her attempt to leap into a saddle ended up with her doing, as she called it, “a slow motion dive” and finding herself lying on the ground. I had a bit more experience than that.

Off I went, encouraging the horse to run with “Cha! Cha! Cha!” and slapping its rump with the whip. The cows didn’t demonstrate the herd mentality I was hoping for. Instead of grouping together as the horse and I circled them, they scattered, not far, but far enough that I had to be constantly maneuvering them back together and in the direction I wanted them to go. I’d get one going and move onto the next, only to have the first cow stop and start munching. Slowly but surely, though, I got those obstinate, trespassing ruminates on their way. I followed them until I saw, sitting on top of a hill, a very large, very tough looking black bull. The cows could make it home on their own.

My job complete, I slapped the horse to a gallop. We flew across the jailoo, scattering sheep and goats, the vast, cloudless, blue sky over our heads, I losing my hat. I thought I could be a cowgirl for a while. When I pulled the horse to a stop at the wagon, Babushka and Alina were waiting for me. Babushka clapped her hands and exclaimed, “Fine job! Stay. I will find you a Kyrgyz husband.”


A farewell meal of delicious steaming bowls of borscht, and of course, some farewell shots of vodka. Dyadushka and Babushka each made a toast and each shot was followed by what I hoped was a once in a lifetime experience: goat fat chasers. No taste, just soft, squishy texture. Yuck!

After two bowls of borscht and two shots of vodka I was ready for a nap. No such luck. Nurbek’s car couldn’t make it up the dirt track to the wagon; we would have to meet him by the river.

“Please,” Babushka said to me as we got ready to leave, “publish your photographs of 

Kyrgyzstan in a magazine or newspaper. Tell everybody about our country.” The Kyrgyz people are very proud of their culture and country.

“I would love to publish them, but unfortunately that’s not my decision to make.”  

After taking some group photos, including some neighbors who had come to check out the foreigners, and heartfelt thank yous to our hosts, we set out with Dyadushka leading the way on horseback. For two kilometers I dragged my suitcase, which had suddenly become so heavy I thought Babushka had hidden herself inside, over grass, mud, stones, carried it over puddles, and then across a creek on a six-inch wide plank.


Nurbek and Aisulu drove us to the school in Döng Alysh where we were supposed to meet teachers and volunteers who had participated in the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Stronger Voices program. Interviewing the participants was the main reason Kristin had come to the village. We had been assured before going to the jailoo that they would be at the school that afternoon, but when we arrived the only person there was the curator of a funny zoological museum located on the second floor of the school. The teachers and volunteers were “on the jailoo.”

Kristin was convinced that Aisulu, who was to have made the arrangements, hadn’t done anything about it. Aizhan, the former principal of the school, had arranged our stay with Aisulu, her best friend. She had moved to Karakol the day after we arrived in Döng Alysh, and Kristin said, and she was probably right considering what happened on the ride back to Kochkor, that once Aizhon was gone, Aisulu felt no obligation to fulfill her friend’s promises.

Hookan Kokobaev was the son of a revered Soviet era biologist, pedagogue and founder of the school, Nukan Kokobaev. Nukan died in the early 1970s, a hero of another age, but his image was everywhere, from a memorial stele at the school’s entrance to a large portrait hanging in a stairwell. The first room of the museum was filled with his diplomas, awards and commemorations; photographs of him with politician and students; even one of his suits was on display in a glass case.

Three poorly lit rooms housed the museum’s collection of scary stuffed goats, sheep, birds, badgers, foxes, wolves and other wildlife indigenous to Kyrgyzstan. There were even a lamb with two heads and one with six legs. What made them so scary were the eyes. In place of glass eyes, which were probably too expensive, eyes had been painted on pieces of orange-ish leather and sewn into the sockets.

The habitats looked like 5th grade art projects and many of the animals had seen better days, yet the pride that Kokobaev the Younger and the villagers took in the museum was touching. It was the only museum of its kind in the area we were told, and children from all over the Kochkor region came there on school trips.

The midwife that Kristin had hoped to talk to had also mysteriously disappeared onto the jailoo. We headed back to Kochkor.

Raised voices speaking in Kyrgyz in the backseat.

“Aisulu wants 1500 som for the ride to Kochkor,” Alina told Kristin.

Kristin balked. “She can’t be serious. We can’t pay that much. I have very little money left.”

Aisulu said something to Alina, who then turned to Kristin. “She says that’s what the taxis charge.”

“That’s three times what we were charged to get here.”

Aisulu repeated the price of 1500 som.

“We just took a taxi here three days ago. I think I can remember how much we paid.” Aisulu didn’t need Alina’s translation to understand that Kristin was not happy. She

was off and running, with Alina trying to keep up.

“You stayed two nights with Dyadushka. Did you pay him for that? Did you give him money for food? Did you?”

“Of course. We gave him the same per day as we gave you.”    

Nurbek didn’t involve himself in the negotiations, trusting Aisulu to look out for their interests. I was glad I was in the front seat and didn’t have to involve myself either. Upon hearing that we had paid Dyadushka, a fair price was suddenly offered and a fragile peace restored. 

Photos: (1) Making borsak, (2) Alina at a comfortable distance from the horses, (3) Checking out the foreigners, (4) Scary stuff

Tuesday, November 3, 2009



A loud crack of thunder. Our hoped for horse ride would have to wait. Kristin and I were anxious to ride, but all afternoon one thing after another had interfered with our plans.

First we had to observe the ritual welcoming of guests to a Kyrgyz home, namely drinking tea. We seated ourselves on cushions around the low table in one of the two rooms of the wagon where the Jainakovs live in the summer as Gulbaira and Elmira, their thirteen-year-old grand daughter, laid out food.

The Kyrgyz practice pastoral nomadism moving between low elevation, winter grazing lands called kyshtoo, and mountain, summer pastures called jailoo.

Nomadism is shrouded in romantic notions of free spiritedness and rootlessness. Ella writes, “The nomad’s life enthrall me. Its restlessness pursues me: it is as much a part of me as of the sailor. All ports and none are home to him, and all arrivings only a new setting forth.” But Kyrgyz nomads aren’t sailors and they aren’t vagabonds. Their society is strict and tradition bound, and their movements are rarely arbitrary. The Kyrgyz didn’t roam from place to place, settling in a spot for a while then abandoning it on a whim. They moved in aul (family groups) between lands that were recognized as belonging to them.

The Russians arrived in the mid 19th century, bringing with them railways, cities, and settlers, which had a devastating effect on the nomadic way of life, much like the effect American westward expansion had on the Native Americans.

Thousands of Slavic and German farmers arrived to establish farms on “unclaimed land” preventing the Kyrgyz from following their herds. By the late 1880s, thirty thousand settlers had arrived in present-day Kyrgyzstan.

Soviet rule was even worse. Stalin’s policy of collectivization (1928-1932) rounded up farmers and herders onto kolkhazi (collective farms). All livestock had to be turned over to the state, the nomadic lifestyle gone. In a destructive and heartbreaking act of resistance Kyrgyz, and Kazakh, herders slaughtered their sheep and horses by the millions. Many Kyrgyz fled to China, which in retrospect wasn’t such a good move.

Since independence some of the old ways have returned.

The traditional jailoo dwelling is the yurt. Having a wagon, though, is considered a step up the economic ladder by the Kyrgyz, but not nearly as exotic to us westerners. The Jainakovs’ wagon was silver with blue trim and made me think of a gypsy caravan. Inside, there was a room for eating and one for sleeping. And like in a yurt, there was little furniture; in the eating room there was the table and a buffet where dishes, glasses, and the vodka were kept. Items like family photos, paper and pens were stored in plastic bags hanging from nails on the walls. In the other, bigger, room was a unit of shelves for cooking pots and teakettles. In the front right corner were the stacks of bedding, pulled out every night and put away every morning.

The Jainakovs had a small, red, Chinese generator powered by a small solar panel. The generator, in turn, powered two fluorescent lights in the wagon and a stereo that was built into the generator itself. A canvas tent that served as the kitchen and storeroom was pitched next to the wagon. There was a sheep enclosure a several yards in front of the wagon and junk, turkeys and chickens lived under the wagon.

By local standards, the Jainakovs were well off, with their wagon, their generator, their hundred plus sheep, cattle and horses and eighteen foals.

The views were spectacular, wide-open grassland giving way to majestic snow-capped mountains in all directions. There was a narrow creek running just below the sheep pen and the grass growing near it was lush and the ground soggy. As the land rose behind the wagon tufts of long, tough grass punctuated the short, coarse grass. The sky was endless.

We ate and waited for the water to boil in the samovar that was set up outside. A stovepipe had been attached to the top and Gulbaira shoved sheep dung through a door at the base of the pipe and lit it. When the water was ready, she filled two thermoses with the boiling water. At the table, she poured a little hot water into a teapot containing loose tealeaves to brew very strong tea. She then poured small amounts of the brew into handle-less cups; a tiny strainer attached to the end of the spout caught any escaping leaves. Finally, she added boiling water to each cup and passed them around. The tea must then be sweetened to the taste of each drinker, and if you are Kyrgyz that means adding sometimes as many as five sugar cubes, or jam, or smetana, or all of the above if you are Alina.

After enjoying a cup or two of tea, out came the shot glasses and a bottle of vodka.* Only two shots were required today. Before the first shot, our host made a toast of welcome. For the second shot, Kristin or I was asked to make the toast. Kristin succumbed to a bout of shyness, so the task fell to me. I acquitted myself most admirably, considering that speaking off the cuff is not one of my strengths.

“Thank you for your hospitality. You have a beautiful country and a beautiful jailoo. We are very happy and honored to be here.”

Having dispensed with the welcoming ritual, we were sure that it was time for our ride. But no, the mares had to be milked, one of four milkings a day. It is a chore that requires strong legs and good balance. As a mare is taller than a cow and her udders don’t hang very low, stools are worthless. Gulbaira had to go down on one knee, holding the bucket on the other, as she milked. Raw mares’ milk, called saalmal, is whiter than white and has forty percent more lactose than cow’s milk. To make kymyz from saalmal, pour the milk into a wooden or plastic vat and add yeast. Using a paddle, called a pishpek, stir or churn the liquid. Fermentation can occur in as little as a few hours. In the past, saalmal was placed in horse-hide containers and strapped to saddles, the motion of the horses doing the work. 

After milking the mares, Gulbaira had to milk the cows, and separate the milk with a manual separator.

To separate milk, she heated it up in a kazan, a large cast iron cauldron that is the most important piece of cooking equipment in the Central Asian kitchen. When it was warm, she scooped out a medium-sized pot’s worth and poured it into the separator, covering the bowl of the separator with a piece of cheesecloth. Then the cranking began. Around and around the handle went as the milk started to stream out one spout into a bucket and the thick cream came out of a second into a metal bowl. Kristin, Alina and I took a turn at the crank but with arms unaccustomed to the task, we had to give up after several minutes. The cream was left to set, appearing later on the table, looking like a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It would be spread on bread and cookies or dropped into cups of tea.

That’s another thing about nomadism that isn’t very romantic: the division of labor is precise. The men tend to the livestock and the women do everything else. Besides milking the cows and horses and separating the milk, women see to the children, prepare the meals, cure the hides, make the felt, and, in the past, made the clothes and bedding. For every ten chores that Gulbaira and Elmira performed, Assambak did one.

Gulbaira was fifty years old, though I would have guessed her to be much older. It was not because she had lots of wrinkles; I know women who are younger and have more wrinkles. It was her body, which was quite shapeless, and she moved slowly. She had the aura of an older person. She was frumpy, but then her life did not allow her time to worry about clothes, make-up and working out at the gym.

She had been ill recently and still had not completely recovered. She had had a kidney stone removed. She showed it to me, carefully unwrapping the cheesecloth to reveal a stone the size of a walnut in its shell. 

Gulbaira and Assambek, whom we affectionately called Babushka and Dyadushka (Grandma and Grandpa), were lucky to have Elmira with them. She loved her grandparents and the jailoo and was always ready to help. And there was always something to do: penning and un-penning the sheep, moving the cows and sheep from one grazing spot to another, milking the mares and cows, moving and tying up the colts, feeding the chickens, churning butter. With all that hard work that started early in the morning and lasted until dark, it was no wonder that so many young people wanted to move to the city. But not Elmira, who, on or off a horse, was all over the place, up and down the hills. Not at all like most American children I know. She never said she was too tired, or she would do it later, or that she didn’t want to. She was the first one out in the morning and the last one in at night.

* I had to channel my inner frat boy on this trip to be able to drink as much vodka as I drank on this trip. Drinking vodka is part of the culture, a legacy of the Russians, and to abstain was to cut myself off from some really great experiences

Photos: (1)View from the Jainakovs' wagon, (2) The wagon, (3) Gulbaira at the samovar, (4) Assambek and his grandson

Thursday, October 29, 2009



The driver raced the taxi along the unevenly paved road, coming right up to the bumper of a car before passing it into oncoming traffic. He raced past the totaled automobiles mounted on concrete pedestals by the side of the road, heedless of the warning they offered.

His speed and recklessness would have been scary on a fine day and that day it was raining hard. Heavy, gray clouds hung over the brown, bare, rocky walls as we plunged into the winding Chuy River Canyon. Kristin, saucer-eyed and white knuckled, begged him to slow down.

We arrived at the Wishing Tree just as there was a break in the storm. The story goes that long ago a group of travelers had been walking for many hours high up in the canyon and were very thirsty. At this spot they stumbled upon a spring and to mark the spot for others, tied a piece of cloth to a nearby tree. As the years passed the tree assumed the power to grant wishes, especially those of women who want to get pregnant. That was not the wish I made, however, when I tied my piece of fabric to the tree.

In Kochkor, we found another taxi to take us the rest of the way to the village of Döng Alysh where we would stay with a local family, the Jainakovs.

That afternoon the house was the most popular place in town. Nurbek and Aisulu Jainakov were celebrating the birth of their son seven months earlier and all afternoon well-wishers were coming and going into the yurt that was set up in the yard. According to Alina, the arrival of a child is not celebrated until months after the birth but not for superstitious or religious reasons. It is to give the mother time to recover, not out of for concern for her health but because she is the one who will be doing all the cooking.

The house was new, but had no indoor plumbing. We headed directly for the outhouse located beyond the walled yard and across two ariks (not the drinking water supply, we hoped). Alina shivered and looked around at the mud and the outhouse and declared, “I hate village life.”

We deposited our shoes at the front door of the house and were ushered into the living room, where on a long low table was a feast of borsok (Kyrgyz fried bread), cookies, raisins, candied peanuts, homemade jams, fresh butter, smetana (sour cream) tomatoes, cucumbers and tea; staples of the Kyrgyz diet.

A man, staggering slightly and holding a baby boy, entered the room.

“I’m sorry. A bit drunk. Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Pointing to the baby and then to himself he said, “Same nose, same mouth, same eyes, same, same.” I assumed the man was Nurbek, who we hadn’t yet met and that the baby was his son. I could only hope that the boy’s mother was Aisulu, or in his inebriated state he was being extremely indiscreet.

 “All you’ll see is dirt,” groused Alina.  The rain had finally let up and the sky had begun to clear and I had just announced to her and Kristin that I was going out to explore. I left the two of them dozing on the couches and headed out accompanied by the Jainakovs’ oldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Gulima.

As we passed the house two doors away a drunken granny grabbed me and kissed me so fervently on each cheek that I thought her next kiss would be on my lips. She had obviously spent the day celebrating. She dragged me inside and asked me to take a photo of the group gathered around the plate- and food-strewn table. One of her daughters put on my hat and sashayed around the room while the granny stuffed my pockets with candy.

A stream meandered along the village’s main road, which was pot-holed in the parts that still were paved. Horses were preferred over cars as the mode of transport.

The pitched-roofed houses of either plastered adobe or raw brick were set far apart, each with a large walled or fenced in yard, and backed onto open meadows. The spaces under the roofs were open so that foodstuffs and hay could be stored there. In preparation for autumn and winter feeding, hay was already being piled up in the yards of many of the houses. At least outwardly little had changed in the nearly eighty years since Ella’s trip; her description of houses was the same. 

A group of children swarmed around me, mugging for my camera and pushing each other out of the way to be in the center of the picture.

When Gulima and I returned to her parents’ house I was invited into the yurt. Only Aisulu and two or three other guests were present, but the table bore the remains of a feast. My arrival signaled the partying to begin anew. Fresh tea was brewed, the sugar dishes were refilled, borsok was scooped from a large plastic bag and dumped on the table, grapes were laid out, cookies and candy were brought in on a three-tiered dish. And then came the vodka. All eyes were on me as I threw back my first shot. Big smiles and a few claps followed my slamming the empty shot glass down on the table. I was encouraged to eat a few grapes to cut the fire in my throat, but there was no fire, it had gone down smoothly. ”Huh, it must not be very strong,” I foolishly told myself. A few minutes later two other people arrived and another shot was called for.

This was fun. “What’s that?” I asked pointing to a bowl filled with a white liquid. “Is it kymyz?”. Kymyz is fermented mare’s milk and a staple of the Turkic-Mongol diet.

Aisulu nodded, and before I knew it a cup of it was set in front of me. I was only going to take a sip, but it was good. It tickled my tongue and had a smoky flavor.* I took sip after sip drinking more of it than I should have considering I was not finished with the vodka.

Nurbek’s parents, Gulbaira and Assambek Jainakov, arrived and another round of shots was poured. “Adin, dva, tre!” and down the hatch. It began to dawn on me that every time a guest arrived shots were poured. How many shots had I had? Three? Four? The yurt was starting to spin. I had to get out of there, and before any more guests showed up.

I awoke very early to clear, lavender skies and a full moon hanging over the snow-dusted mountains. I had not slept well. I had been fighting a cold since I got off the train and during the night a grapefruit-sized lump in my throat had kept me awake for a few hours. I prayed that I wouldn’t get really sick. The last thing I wanted was to be lying in my sleeping bag on some strangers’ floor, moaning for my mother. (Coincidentally, Ella had developed a bad cold when she got to Bishkek. She also had lice.)

I didn’t want to leave my sleeping bag, but I could put off a trip to the outhouse no longer. It was the middle of August and the sun was rising in the sky, but it was chilly. I was wearing a parka and long underwear and I was still cold.

Aisulu was hustling a cow out of the yard like she was pushing a lazy child out to play, prodding it to get a move on with whacks on its hindquarters as the cow dawdled along.

I quickly washed my face in a sink set up on the front stoop. It was a porcelain basin set in a metal stand with a mirror and a small tank on top for the water, icy water at that hour. I dashed back into the house and into my sleeping bag. I lay there hoping either to fall asleep or for Alina and Kristin to stir.

Voices out in the hall.

“We are being discussed,” Alina said sleepily. “When we will go out to the jailoo.” We had been invited to spend a few days at Assambek and Gulbira’s summer pasture. It was decided that we would leave at ten.

We were drinking tea when Aisulu bounced excitedly into the room.

“Come, come,” she said to me, indicating that I should follow her outside.

In the yard was a freshly slaughtered sheep and knowing that I liked to take pictures, Aisulu thought I would like to photograph the butchering process.

It was a group effort. The sheep had already been stripped of its skin and two men were cutting up the meat and bones while a couple of other men looked on. A neighbor woman washed the stomach and heart in a metal bowl of bloody water. When the butchering was complete, the head was cut off the hide and placed on a large stone. Nurbek held a lit match to a blowtorch. The torch emitted a pathetic flame and went out. A second attempt had the same result. He banged the fuel can around a bit then lit a third match. Flames engulfed the head. Within minutes the skin was charred black and the ears were burned off. 

I wandered out back to where a group of women was washing the intestines in the arik. While one woman poured water into a length of intestine another pushed the water through. Others stretched and stretched again long sections then knotted them by dexterously pulling one loop through another.

Ten o’clock came and went without us leaving. When we were served some food it was clear to 

us that we would not be leaving at eleven either. The battered Russian military jeep would not leave for the jailoo until almost noon. In Central Asia it is useless to be in a hurry to get anywhere, or to get frustrated with changes and amendments to one’s itinerary. Plans are fluid, not fixed. 

* Like any alcohol, the flavor of kymyz depends on how it is made and some tastes better than others, or, rather the taste is particularized. For me, this would the best kymyz of the trip.

Photos: (1) Dinner, (2) Local boys, (3) Everybody jump!, (4) Little Bear, (5) Kristin and I