I have it admit it’s a little weird that I saved Bishkek for last. The capital has the biggest airport and it’s usually where people start. Bishkek is a pleasant city in its own right, but let’s face it, it’s not what you come to Kyrgyzstan for. But to be honest, it is kind of nice to be in a big city again.
Beyond the typical Central Asian chaos of bazaars taking over sidewalks (or roads, when there isn’t one) at the edge of the city, Bishkek feels orderly and almost Western. Bus routes and marshrutkas run on a schedule, and there are apps for figuring it out. 4G data in Kyrgyzstan is ridiculously cheap (8GB per week for $1.50), topping up is done by machines found in virtually any corner store or cafeteria, and people here are rabid smartphone users. Malls with international brands urge visitors to check in on social media, cafes serving real coffee do the same. Restaurants offer choice, for once — though sushi/pizza combo restaurants tend to be oddly prolific. Streets are lined with mixed-use residential buildings and shops and department stores.
In a country whose flag features the top of a yurt and whose (non-Lenin) statues all seem to feature people on horses, what better represents the country to visitors than a horse trek with yurt stays?
Joining up temporarily in Kochkor with travellers Jack, Jessica, Charlotte, and Matt, we arranged a three-day trip up to Song-Kul and back. After a two-hour car journey to the middle of nowhere, we met up with our guide, Marat, who set us up with five of his 15 horses.
Southern Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
The World Nomad Games gave me a small taste of the scenery of Issyk-Kul, and with the games over, I was eager to explore it some more. With plenty of tourists bunched together, the day after the closing ceremonies, all heading in the same direction — a bit of a rarity in this part of the world — it was remarkably easy to group up for virtually any activity, whether lakeside or off to a jailoo.
Issyk-Kul is the 10th-largest lake in the world by volume, and the second-largest alpine lake in the world after Peru/Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca. It may not look like much on a map, but its deepest point is 668m — pretty crazy! I had a quick swim between kok boru matches back in Cholpon-Ata, and was itching for a few days by the lake, but with the tail end of summer approaching, I decided to wait a little longer, and do a bit of mountain hiking before the weather got too cold.
The Issyk-Kul region seems markedly less Kyrgyz than the rest of the country (save for internationally-minded Bishkek), with people from Siberia (Russia) and Kazakhstan having a prominent presence, not just as vacationers, but as long-term residents as well. After all, with the only other large body of water in proximity being the Arctic Ocean far to the north, it’s the only bearably swimmable body of water they’ve got! But surprisingly for a place like this, much of the lake shore is underdeveloped, dotted with humble villages, the odd small resort, faded and few tourist shops, and occasional run-down or abandoned settlements.
I can’t emphasise how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to attend the 2nd edition of the World Nomad Games.
Founded by Kyrgyzstan as an Olympics-like showcase of traditional culture and sport with an emphasis on nomadic peoples, Kyrgyzstan hosted the inaugural games in 2014, kicking off a two-year cycle with them hosting again this year — just around the time I happened to be in the area. With some infamously unique sports being played in competition that are otherwise rare or difficult to witness, a cultural festival happening simultaneously, previous experience hosting in the same place, and twice the number of participating countries (40 of them — though mysteriously, Canada’s flag was flying despite no representation), this is most likely the largest event Kyrgyzstan has ever hosted, its biggest chance to showcase itself to the world — still modest for an international event, and yet full of potential, promise, and positivity.
The fact that an event like this comes with cheap accommodation and cheap food already makes it a big draw to people in the know — that is, locals, and other tourists in the country whom I grouped up with. What puts it over the top though, in an incredibly admirable decision that truly sticks to the spirit of celebrating culture, is that all of the events (save the ticketed opening and closing ceremonies) were completely free.
I returned to Kyrgyzstan in a mad dash for the World Nomad Games up in the north of the country, but not without time for a couple of short but worthwhile stopovers: first for Kyrgyzstan’s independence day celebrations in Osh, and then a double-overnight in the walnut-forested hills of Arslanbob.
The change from China to Kyrgyzstan isn’t sudden. Towns become villages become a simple row of houses, then back again in reverse. Kashgar is in a hot lowland; cross the beautiful Irkeshtam Pass demarcating the border, going up and down mountains and valleys, then descend to Osh, also in a hot lowland.
But take that away, and the differences are stark. Chinese is now replaced by Cyrillic script, used for both Kyrgyz and Russian, the two official languages of Kyrgyzstan. (In China, the Arabic alphabet is still used for Kyrgyz.) Various places are named after Joseph Lenin, who is also memorialised in Osh with a giant statue. Houses look like those from the West. Road signs are European-style. There’s no more communist or nationalistic messaging, though some blocky Soviet-era buildings and apartments still stand. Everything seems a lot more humble and rural.
As wonderful as China was, it was constant sensory overload and go-go-go everyday. Osh, on the other hand, seems to be in no rush. The second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan with a population of 300,000, it would be considered something less than a small town in China. There’s no glitzy buildings or giant malls or mass consumerism. Actually, there isn’t too much going on, but it’s a pleasant place to be — especially when waiting for a delayed visa.