Saturday, August 6, 2016

A taste of Kyrgyzstan

Osh, our first taste of Kyrgyzstan
We tried to get to the border early, as we’d read accounts of chaos, pushing and shoving, cramped tiny rooms and hours-long waiting. But when we arrived in Dostyk at the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border we wondered if we weren’t at a different place entirely.

We quickly passed through the first checkpoint, then entered an almost empty room. There was only one group ahead of us, an Uzbek family. When a border official saw us, hard to miss with our giant packs, he told us to fill out the exit form, then come visit him.

He asked a range of usual questions, all with a smiling, friendly demeanour. He asked if we visited the Burj al Arab in Dubai.

‘We’re teachers!’ Flounder exclaimed, ‘not businessmen. Just having tea, chay, with biscuits costs $100!’

He seemed shocked by the price, and we later heard him telling his colleagues about the outrageous chay in Dubai.

The entry and exit form. Note it's only in Cyrillic

We x-rayed our bags and a couple of border officials looked through them cursorily, asking me questions and about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, asking me to turn on my laptop, but hardly looking at it. In contrast, we met a traveller who, upon entering Uzbekistan from the Tajikistan border, had photos deleted from her phone—photos of her in a bikini and photos of her friends, a gay couple—and had her laptop searched for illicit pornography.

But our border officials quickly told us to repack our bags, and smiled and waved to us as we crossed into Kyrgyzstan.

If I was looking for a signpost that we were in a different country, I found it in Osh, the second-biggest city in Kyrgyzstan, just three kilometres from the border. Along with the low, square or round skullcaps worn by many Uzbek men, we suddenly saw dramatically tall, felt-embroidered caps worn by Kyrgyz men.

‘It’s like a 10-gallon hat,’ Flounder remarked, referencing the cowboy hats that also add about a foot in height to the wearer.

The money was different (no more black market) and would be easier to access here, there were more people of Mongol decent, but still, Osh felt much like Uzbekistan had.

The hospitality, so much a part of our time in Uzbekistan, continued in Osh.

When we couldn’t find our guesthouse, a young mother and her two children tried to help us. She found a shop where we could buy a sim card (about $0.50) and called the guesthouse owner to get the exact directions.

When we later wanted to add data to that sim, we asked in a DHL office (after walking in search of the phone company for over an hour), and Ulugbek, who worked there, insisted on driving us to the phone shop in the official DHL car.

Our sweet ride

I wish you could have seen the pure joy on Flounder’s face when we were able to buy 8 GB of data for about $1.50. He was so excited and became even more so when he discovered just how fast the 4G was.

‘I’m basically a cyborg,’ he explained as I chuckled at his reaction. He didn’t look up though as he said it, too busy researching the forgotten racist Disney movie Song of the South.

We were on our way to the rambling Osh bazaar, built largely of shipping containers and straddling the central Ak Buura river. I like bazaars (stay tuned for my post about the joys of bargaining) and the Osh bazaar is a good one—bustling and frequented, the undisputed commercial heart of the city.

The sprawling Osh bazaar

When you’re shopping in a new country, I recommend learning the numbers. Every time I bargained using Kyrgyz numbers instead of the more-often-used-by-tourists Russian, the sellers would smile and tell their neighbours of the strange woman who spoke Kyrgyz, and those neighbours would smile in turn.

I bought some dried apricots, eyed the pistachios and other mounds of nuts. We passed by clothing stalls, candy shops, fresh fruit and vegetables. I turned away from the butcher shop with the dismembered cow head sitting in front, staring straight ahead with lifeless eyes. I talked Flounder out of buying rope from the hardware vendors. (‘But you should always travel with rope! I don’t know why I didn’t pack any,’ said my grownup boy scout.)

We passed fabric stalls, saw a few spools of ikat, but nothing like the selection and quality in Fergana and Margilon in Uzbekistan.

And while we walked, crossing the river, under shaded stalls, past aromatic spices and rusted shipping containers now filled with sundries, a soft, calming voice was broadcast over each speaker. It was a woman’s voice, almost a whisper, speaking in Kyrgyz and then in Russian on a never-ending, soothing loop. I couldn’t catch the meaning, but heard lots of numbers—25, 10, 80. Was it exchange rates? Exam results? Current market prices?

Walking through the bazaar

I don’t know and probably never will. Travel is full of mysteries and sometimes the mundane can seem sublime. The soothing number whisperer is a mystery, but something sublime also happened in the Osh market. To explain it, I’ll need to back up a bit.

I’m vegan. By all accounts, Central Asia is not an easy place to be vegan as meat is in every famous dish from the region and eaten at every meal, with the occasional exception of breakfast. In addition to serving meat-heavy dishes, the area is also well known for yogurt, ayran, fermented mare’s milk, and dried yogurt balls, eaten as snack. Now, after having travelled for more than three weeks in the region, I can confirm this account. Being vegan here is difficult. At many restaurants the only thing I can eat is what should now be coined Sarah’s Salad—a fresh mix of cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. Delightful and very tasty, it nonetheless gets old after eating it every day for lunch and dinner. If I’m lucky a restaurant might also serve french fries, a welcome source of starch and fat in an otherwise lean diet. I supplement with nuts, but have still lost a few kilos so far.

The Sarah Salad

It is dispiriting, for one who loves food as I do, to not be able to eat any street food, to eat essentially the same thing at every meal, to barely be able to engage with the enormous cultural richness of eating and mealtimes.

So when I found a dumpling (manty) in the Osh bazaar, a manty that somehow, miraculously did not contain meat, was not even flavoured with meat juices, I was overjoyed. (Something akin to Flounder’s 8 GB-of-fast-data joy.) It was ravioli-like, stuffed with thin shreds of potato and topped with paprika and raw onions, and I ate manty after manty, revelling in the unusual sensation of full-to-bursting. The feeling was sublime.

We were leaving the next morning for Arslanbob and entering the mountains so much at the heart of Kyrgyzstan, and I wondered, my belly gloriously stuffed, what other sublimities awaited us on our travels.


  1. I'm really impressed Sarah! This is so well written and kept me engaged.

    1. Thanks so much! It's a joy to create the blog and an even greater joy to get this kind of feedback!


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