Drinking kumyz with the Kyrgyz

By Jim Eagles

Modern Kyrgyz nomad camps are dotted across the countryside of Kyrgyzstan. Photo / Jim Eagles
Modern Kyrgyz nomad camps are dotted across the countryside of Kyrgyzstan. Photo / Jim Eagles

In the mountains of Kyrgyzstan the snows have briefly retreated and nomad families are driving their flocks of sheep and yaks up the age-old route to the sweet alpine meadows.

Meanwhile, in the capital of Bishkek, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is addressing the Kyrgyz Parliament and, after the turmoil of the country's fourth revolution in 100 years, the land is once again at peace.

Well, that's what I wrote while I was in Bishkek two weeks ago when everything did seem peaceful.

So peaceful, in fact, that the most interesting sight was Lenin's statue, moved out of the city's main square to make way for a statue of Freedom, only to be re-erected in front of the White House where Parliament meets, arms outstretched as though addressing the current crop of politicians.

"Interesting demotion," commented one of the Australians in our group. "From outside the museum to outside Parliament."

Appropriate, too, I thought, because Bishkek still has the look and feel of a Soviet city and, by all accounts, its politicians still take the Leninist approach to politics.

But, in spite of Lenin's oratory, Parliament was quiet, the presidential palace, which was supposed to have been torched in the recent riots, looked undamaged, and Ala-Too Square, a few weeks previously the focus of the protests which toppled the president, was deserted. There was little sign of the upheaval that had kept my visit to Kyrgyzstan in doubt until the last minute.

But since then there have been ugly ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks and even talk of the Russian Army moving in to keep the peace.

It's an unfortunate way for the world to be reminded of the existence of a fascinating country, which few New Zealanders have visited. Most probably didn't even know it existed until the recent trouble and many still don't know how to pronounce its name.

I went there as part of a pilgrimage along the Silk Road, which took me across China from the ancient capital of Xian to the border city of Kashgar, over the Tian Shan mountains via the Torugart Pass to Kyrgyzstan, and on to Uzbekistan and the fabled cities of Bukara, Khiva and Samarkand.

Kyrgyzstan is not a place I had ever have thought of visiting but, despite its turbulent recent history, it is a beautiful land of vast open spaces where nomads still graze their flocks, rugged mountains which explode with wildflowers in the short summer, a colourful culture which has revived since independence, and friendly people.

Like most of the peoples of Central Asia, the Kyrgyz have always been nomads, their lives governed by the seasons and the need to find pasture for their flocks, ending up roughly in the region which is now Kyrgyzstan after being pushed hither and thither by more powerful Turks, Mongols, Manchus and Russians.

They never really had a country until 1919 when revolution number one brought them under the umbrella of the Soviet Russia, ultimately leading to the creation of a Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic.

Revolution number two, following the break-up of the USSR, saw Kyrgyzstan become the first country in Central Asia to declare itself an independent republic in 1991, with the relatively liberal Askar Akayev continuing as president.

In 2005 the Tulip Revolution - following the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine - overthrew Akayev.

In May this year revolution number four saw the man who replaced him, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ousted in turn.

Now it seems there is unrest in the west of the country, an Uzbek enclave tacked on to Kyrgyzstan by the Soviets in the 1930s, which was also the scene of bloody ethnic clashes in the 1990s, and happens to be Bakiyev's home and powerbase.

But, as we bounced across the country's appalling roads in our bus, there was no sign of any of this.

Instead, because it was spring, the great mountains which circle the country were still capped with snow, the grasslands were blooming, plump marmots and squirrels were frolicking in celebration of the end of their long winter hibernation, and nomads were moving their flocks to their traditional summer grazing spots.

This - not the grey concrete cities like Bishkek - is the real Kyrgyzstan and it is stunning place to visit.

It is a land where the nomad tradition means fences, shelter belts and farm houses are rare, so the spectacular landscapes sweep unimpeded from the grassy valley floors up the bare mountain walls to the tops of the icy peaks.

This extraordinary scenery apparently reaches its most magnificent point at the Ala-Archa National Park, a famous Kyrgyz beauty spot, but unfortunately on the day we visited it was raining and the surrounding mountains were obscured by the clouds.

But it was still a beautiful place full of gushing mountains streams, pine forests alive with birds and the odd cheeky squirrel, and meadows glowing with wildflowers.

The plan had been to have a picnic at the park but the weather ruled that out so instead we had a feast in the lodge, with a few shots of vodka to warm things up.

Our entertainment was provided by a quartet from the national folk orchestra, Kambarkan. The musicians wore the colourful Kyrgyz national costumes and played an amazing array of instruments including the komuz, a three-stringed lute; the Timur komuz, a mouth-harp; the choor, a flute;the chopo noor, a clay ocarina; and the deyereh, a small skin drum.

The music was beautiful and stirring, especially one song which powerfully evoked the rhythm of nomads riding their horses across the great plains, and the sounds produced by the mouth-harp, in particular, were extraordinary.

Since the establishment of an independent Kygyzstan there has been a conscious effort to revive such Kyrgyz traditions after the decades when the Soviets tried to stamp out any nationalistic symbols.

We saw another example of that revival at the village of Kochkor where the Aiypov family practises the traditional art of felting.

Daughter Fatima demonstrated the techniques used to transform raw black wool into a thick fluffy square. At her invitation a couple of women in our group used some coloured wools to create a picture of a camel following a star.

The wool was then rolled up inside a reed mat, soaked with water, and we all took turns jumping on top to compress it. When I was called up I actually did a bit of a dance on top of the mat and, next minute Fatima and sister Lilya jumped up to join me because, it seems, that is the traditional way to squeeze the felt ... though probably more gracefully.

When the mat was unrolled our layers of wool had been transformed into a thick layer of felt with a funny little picture on top.

The Aiypovs also maintain a small museum with some amazing examples of felting and embroidery, plus a winter coat made from five wolf skins which weighed a ton but looked magnificent.

The nomadic tradition also appears to be reviving now the Soviet insistence on collective farming has ended.

Driving across the country we passed numerous nomad camps, usually consisting of a few horses and a couple of the traditional white yurts made of thick layers of felt, but these days often including modern tents, motorbikes and cars.

We watched at one while two men, one on a motor bike and the other on a horse, but both wearing the distinctive tall, pointed, white Kyrgyz hats, rounded up a large herd of the black mountain sheep.

"They are corralling them for the night," said Ramil, our Tartar guide. "This area is infested with wolves." At another a small herd of horses had been brought together for milking, and when we stopped to look the family invited us to have a drink of the fermented mare's milk.

In some places, especially on lake edges or river banks, there were clusters of yurts which often turned out to have been erected for the tourists Kyrgyzstan is working hard to attract. I slept in one in the town of Naryn and, although it was bitterly cold outside, the felt proved excellent insulation and I slept well. And my head was kept cosy with a Kyrgyz hat.

There are, of course, some examples of Kyrgyz culture in cities like Bishkek. For instance, the top floor of the National Museum, previously a shrine to Lenin, is now used to display a fine collection of traditional implements, clothes and ornaments.

But the Soviet era does hang heavily over the city. The second floor of the museum is still dedicated to the Russian Revolution, with countless heroic portrayals of Lenin, at least one of Stalin and I think I even saw a picture of Trotsky. The ground floor had an exhibition about the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for World War II) In the park alongside the museum Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sit amiably chatting about their authorship of The Communist Manifesto. And round the back Lenin is on his pedestal telling the Kyrgyz Parliament what to do.

On the day I was there, however, no one seemed to be listening to Lenin. I think all the Kyrkyz were out in the countryside, breathing the fresh mountain air, watching their flocks graze contentedly and enjoying a bowl or two of kumyz.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines operates 12 times per week between Auckland and Singapore and then onward to 62 destinations in 34 countries, including Malaysia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Korea.

Getting around: World Expeditions operates its Silk Road to Samarkand via Kashgar expedition in April, May, August and September. Ring 0800 350 354 for further details.

Jim Eagles went to Kyrgyzstan with help from Singapore Airlines and World Expeditions.

- NZ Herald

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