Exploring Kyrgyzstan: Alay

There were a few storied bits of Kyrgyz culture that I clung to in the months before coming here: drinking fermented horse milk (check), the half-million word epic poem about a man named Manas, and a game I’ve heard described as “sheep carcass rugby.” This weekend, I saw that game, called kok-boru, in action.

It did not disappoint.

lenin peak

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Just a Sutki in Osh

Сутки, or sutki, is a Russian word meaning a twenty-four hour period. A day, or the amount of time I spent in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city situated in the southwest of the country. I was a bit self-conscious about my travel situation when I spoke with my fellow hostel-dwellers; most of them had been in Osh for a week, waiting for the border with China to open, and were taking upwards of a year to travel slowly and see the world. Despite feeling a bit judged for my speedy travels through the country, I was able to get some great advice from these people about what to see in Osh with my limited schedule.

I woke early, and after a breakfast of a cold hotdog and a hard-boiled egg I set out to climb Suleyman Too. The mountain is named after the Muslim prophet and Biblical king Solomon. It is a site of pilgrimage, as Solomon’s grave is marked there and the prophet Muhammad once prayed there. In order to reach this place, I kept my eyes on the mountain as I crossed an unstable bridge across the river and while navigating the small side streets of Osh. Finally, I reached the Water Gates and began my climb up. At the top, I peeked inside the tiny house where Babur, the founder of the Mogul empire, once lived in the 1500s. The walk around the mountain is interesting; at some points, the path is clearly marked and railings guide the visitor along steep rocks. At other points, the road is nearly invisible and it seems impossible to traverse. I made my way all around, though, passing by small caves where pilgrims lit candles and offered prayers for healing.

In all, I spent three hours walking around Suleyman Too – exploring the graveyard at the bottom of the hill, peeking inside caves, and wandering through a strangely-placed museum dedicated to the religious and cultural history of the city. Afterwards, I ate a slow lunch of plov, bread, and tea at a cafe in the bazaar before wandering to a park that housed the world’s only three story yurt. There, I snuck photographs of tapestries and busts of Osh royalty until I fell over a pile of blankets and scurried out of the yurt in embarrassment. The owner of an ice cream cafe spoke to me for a while about the rarity of seeing Americans in this part of the world, and how exciting it was to meet a Russian-speaking American. He introduced me to his friend as the “baby brother of Jackie Chan.” The guy did have an impressive high kick, I guess.

While I’m happy to have seen the city, I’m also touched by how many people shaped my experience in such a short period of time. After disembarking the plane at 9pm, I was lost and unsure of how to get downtown. I wandered into a cafe, where a woman took notice of me and marched out to the taxi hub with me. In a mix of Kyrgyz and Russian, she talked to her cab driver friend and a police officer and demanded I pay no more than 300 som (about six dollars) to get to my hostel. “No funny business!” she warned. I was taken safely to my hostel, where I met a fascinating crew of travelers – the Dutch guy who quit his tech job to travel the world; the Japanese woman who is working her way from her homeland to Europe by land; the British couple who live in a commune; the old French Canadian man and Malaysian guy working together to find a taxi to Uzbekistan. We talked with Dana, one of the hostel owners, until the middle of the night about religion, the existence and nature of God, marriage, the “Harry Met Sally Doctrine” (that men and women cannot be friends), and Central Asian politics. I randomly saw a girl who I went to university with, and we all were excited in disbelief at how small the world is.

I only spent a day in Osh, but it was a full one indeed.

green river
domik babura
how's this thing work
candles magic
bees in the trap

Heading to Kyrgyzstan

Tomorrow I leave Alanya for a week-long journey to Kyrgyzstan. I’ll meet my lovely friend and former troll-mate Rebecca in Bishkek, the capital. We’ll romp around before splitting ways, after which I’ve got a whole list of things I want to see and do – climb mountains, meet Central Asian feminists, eat my weight in local food – and I can’t wait to share pictures and stories.

In case you’re wondering about Kyrgyzstan:

Kyrgyzstan/the Kyrgyz Republic/Кыргызия is a small Central Asian country – it’s nestled between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China. Ninety percent of the country is mountain, so hopefully I’ll hike up a big hill or two. Mom, grandma: there have been some issues with revolution and ethnic conflict in the past, but Kyrgyzstan is the most liberal of Central Asia’s authoritarian neighbors and probably the safest place I could be in the region. I promise to be careful.

I’m most excited to speak Russian again (it’s widely spoken, especially in Bishkek); to explore the similarities between Kyrgyz and Turkish languages (though I’ve heard Kyrgyz has been flooded with Russian vocab); eat beş barmak, literally translating to “five fingers,” and plov; and maybe even hang out in a yurt.

Tien Shan valley near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Osh / Ош (Kyrgyzstan) – Bus Station
Photos via Suresh Krishna and Daniel Zollinger.