… is how you say hello in Kyrgyz. Kyrgyzstan, that little country landlocked between Russia, China and its other Central Asian sisters had for a while caught my attention with its mysterious culture, a mixed heritage of the old Soviet Union, Asia and the Middle East that I wanted to discover. A lifestyle of living on horseback, breathtaking landscapes and outdoor activities you won’t only find in Switzerland or New Zealand, the World Nomad Games 2018, man, but also a completely unknown cuisine – which is always super exciting for a foodie like me – what’s not to like, right?
In August 2018 I flew from New Delhi to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, where I was hoping to experience something new, something different from South East Asia where I’d been living for the past 2 years. A first trip to Mongolia in 2016 left me wanting to sample more of that nomadic life. I wanted to sleep in a yurt again, to go horseback riding in the steppe again, to discover a new and fascinating culture that can’t be described, but above all, I wanted to discover a corner of the world that I didn’t know at all and that hadn’t been too tainted by mass tourism … yet! And it so happened that the fantastic World Nomad Games 2018 were taking place in Kyrgyzstan in August, and there was no way I was missing that unique event. Man, that was the best choice I’d made in a long time – that, and changing my plans to include Uzbekistan.
Today I want to take a moment to reflect on those 3 exceptional weeks I spent in Kyrgyzstan and share with you why Central Asia delivered on sooo many levels. The gift I gave myself was to set off to Kyrgyzstan with no expectations or plans besides attending the WNG and doing some volunteering at Apple Hostel – another brilliant experience – for 10 days or so. I chose to start at Apple Hostel and it couldn’t have been a better choice. New to Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan, I got to meet so many other pool addicts, amateur photographers, foodies, hikers and creative travelers like myself and through discussions and organized events such as quiz night, mannequin challenge night or pub crawl night, I learned more about the country that I was yet to visit while at the same time helping out at the hostel. Here’s what I jotted down while traveling around Kyrgyzstan, and nothing beats on-the-spot, heartfelt notes. From Bishkek to Cholpon Ata, to Issyk-Kul Lake and Naryn, to Osh in a nutshell.
– Kyrgyzstan is very hot during the day, and freezing cold at night. Bright blue sky all the time, so much sun, blinding sunsets, and stunning starry skies. It rained once in 3 weeks. Gorgeous mountain scenery straight out of a relief map, and eagles flying freely in the bright blue sky.
– Cholpon-Ata is a lake town where cars slow down at zebra crossings and gesture for you to cross. So much politeness it’s overwhelming.
– In a country where goats, cows, horses, shepherds on foot or on horseback, cars and mashrutkas all share the same few roads, a « you first, no I insist you first » kind of politeness is surprisingly common. No high beam flashing at each other, no falling asleep on the horn, drivers using their blinkers accurately… what madness is this?
– The World Nomad Games could use a bit of organization. When and where is the free shuttle to the hippodrome? Where can we get a schedule for each sport? Where the hell is the eagle hunting? And can Kyrchin get anymore dusty? My contact lenses no likee.
– At the World Nomad Games, you can never get enough kok!
– If you don’t like dill or mutton, you better skip Kyrgyzstan altogether or find a way to dill with it (Cowyn this one’s for you).
– Apple Hostel is like a big family, from Bishkek to Cholpon Ata to Osh where, on day 24, I ran into some travelers I met on day 1. I remember hugging new friends in the street in Cholpon-Ata, drinking cheap beer with samsa, lagman or plov to end a day at the World Nomad Games. And I remember Aigul’s last hugs when I left Cholpon-Ata – was she a bit emotional or was I?
– Pool tables are not easy to come by in Bishkek, but get an international team of poolsters and head to 111 for a good time (“that’s what she said”). But you’re not allowed to speak English. Or French. As per Ring of Fire rules.
– In Kyrgyzstan you shall learn to play Dobble and Shithead, you shall listen to Russian hit tubes from the 90’ies, you shall eat a lot of taters, and drink gallons of chai.
– Traveling with Jake and Cowyn means saying lots of puns, singing the Beatles, avoiding obnoxious English lawyers, and losing things – like flare jeans, or a power bank – and then finding them again – except for the jeans. You may get sick, hallucinate, take turns feeling shitty and get sick again. Feel free to rush out of the yurt and throw up, Sheldon the cat will eat it. You should definitely go swim in Issyk Kul Lake, the second largest mountain lake in the world. Go on Cowyn, it’s not that cold.
– Every time you sit down in a yurt or in a building in Kyrgyzstan, the chai master will offer you tea. Say yes as often as you can. Drink when you can, sleep when you can, message when you can.
– In Apple Hostel Bishkek, one doesn’t just do a regular quiz with all the hostel guests. One does a super intimate 3-people quiz. Kyrgyz chocolate for everyone for everyone is the winner. Also, do a mannequin challenge.
– In Kochkor, we staid at Mira Guesthouse and met the cheerful Mira. Mira laughs and smiles a lot, and will not be disappointed if you can’t eat plov because you’re sick.
– In Naryn, Jake, Cowyn and I had roasted chicken and mash and made a feast out of it with a fellow traveler met at the guesthouse that evening. Big up for the guesthouse owner who let us use her kitchen to cook that evening.
– Be a petroleum genius – bring chapstick!
– II Alessandro mentions Ugly Coyote, be aware that shots and few memories might be involved. If Kyle and Nathan suggest going to Metro Bar, know that barrels of beer are a good option.
– On my last day in Kyrgyzstan, I played table tennis with 2 young Kyrgyz guys in a park in Osh. I found it refreshing that young people there play ping pong or chess on a Sunday afternoon in a park while three old men watch from a bench, a walking cane in hand. Sure, selfies, live-streaming and bunny ears exist in Kyrgyzstan as well but today I saw none of that. It was a walk at the bazaar, some fruit shopping, cotton candy, cheap lemonade, and an international, multicultural game of table tennis that I won, this goes without saying. Well, not really. But I wasn’t bad!
I think the World Nomade Games 2018 lacked a wee bit of organization and could’ve done with a schedule or two of each sport. Like, what was that wrestling sport we watched as the cube (Martia Arts Center) with that grandpa who used to be a coach? That’s right, we’re fluent in Kyrgyz and had a great time when Grandpa contested the game.
I really enjoyed staying at Apple Hostel Bishkek, Cholpon-Ata and Osh, and I had a great time playing Dobble with Aigul’s sister and pizza night with the other travelers. Saying goodbye to so many new friends was not appreciated. But that’s also where I met Liane again, after meeting her in South Korea. That’s what traveling is all about, peeps! And that’s where I found out that Uzbekistan was a lot more welcoming than I’d thought and decided to add it to my trip. BEST. IDEA. EVER.
I have a special thought for the many great peeps I met there and again later, Jake and Cowyn, Aigul, Nafan (no, it’s still not Nathan), Kyle, Bad Turkey, Chris, Louiela, Cai, Michael, Alessandro, Felix, Liane, and those I forgot who made that trip unique and unforgettable.