I would like to start this post with a thank you to John Couper, a colleague of mine in Kuwait who I had never actually met in person at the time of this post. John is a professor in the Mass Communication Department at Gulf University of Science and Technology where I teach English in Kuwait. He found my blog via a post I wrote about Kuwait expat life. He volunteered to share his experience as an expat in Kyrgyzstan as a guest blogger, as well as some of this other travel experiences in the future. I am proud to feature his insights, so well-written, and his beautiful photos, in what I hope to be the first of several guest posts by John. I hope you enjoy reading about his unique Kyrgyzstan experience. Kyrgyzstan isn’t on many travelers’ radars, but maybe it should be.
Waking up in a Yurt
Waiting for dawn. Behind still-closed eyes, my senses soaked up this first night in a woolen-felt house. Its circular walls absorb sound, echo it like a whispered lullaby of the rustling of sheepskins above and below me on an earthen floor, always slightly angled. Mixed smells of natural lanolin and smoke filled my nose. Opening my eyes, I first saw the circular “window” at the top of the ceiling, its criss-cross pattern symbolizing the unity of the nation. Then I glanced around the curves and colors of a traditional yurt.
A Harsh Home
Central Asia is a wild, high home of drama. Tucked between China to the east, Russia to the north, and India and Afghanistan to the south, it was the birthplace of horses, apples and apricots, along with proud civilizations that erupted and passed away on the steppes and mountains.
Along its southern edge are the fabulous Tien Shan mountains, stretching from Western China to Turkey… created as India crashed into Eurasia. To the north are Siberia’s ocean of steppes.
Central Asian mountains, mostly too high and dry for trees, never made life easy for human dreams. Fighting long, snowy, dusky winters and scorching summers, even grass struggles to thrive. But people invented ways to make it their home for millennia.
Make a summertime tour to the lower mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and you will occasionally see white bumps in the distance, along creek beds. Marco Polo saw them on his way to “Caravanserai,” like caravan motels. On these summer pastures, called “Jailoo,” families grazed their livestock before history. Herds are the only possible sustenance on this thin and weak soil.
Starting in April, a few families still return to the Jailoo and its ways: grazing hundreds of sheep, cows, jacks, camels. As spring warms the mountains, they move up the slopes, and then, after Midsummer, back down the hill toward the valleys where they spend the winter. Even in the towns, any Kyrgyz home without livestock is still considered just a house.
Once, nomadic life was the only way of life in the region, then the Russian Empire and Soviet Union forced people down into the easily – controlled valleys. Now, townspeople pay families to feed and guard their animals while the grass still grows.
This was always home to warrior empires like Zhingis Khan’s—the end of the tradition. He and his successors swept to and across it, like the horseback armies of earlier empires; the impressive Saka, created spectacular gold work, but had no written language until Islam invaded and took over.
Now, Central Asia focuses on quiet, proud survival. Nothing shows this better than the continuation of the yurt-based Jailoo, which brings together tradition–minded families to celebrate the past probably move into the future.
One Harmless Invader
I arrived in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan in 2004 and hurried to my University. They told me I was one week too early, so I decided on a little adventuring. Early the next morning, I went to the local bus station where I got a jouncy bus ride to a mountain town called Kochkor. Within 24 hours of stepping off the plane, an antique Russian jeep was carrying me to an encampment of yurts and trailers where one family was tending about 600 head of livestock.
I had five days to introduce myself to the region. With supreme luck, it was just before a three day “Olympics” of traditional Kyrgyz sports was taking place. Like all of this culture, it centered on horses. My first night was in a felt Yurt. All of small Kyrgyzstan is within sight of glaciated mountains because it is home to parts of 82 mountain ranges.
The yurt has many names. My host family calls it a “boz ui” (“gray house” in the Turkic Kyrgyz language) or “Gir” in Mongolian, but it really means “home.” Across millions of square miles, its design has slight variations. But the principle is always the same. Willow trees — bought at great expense from riverside traders but used for generations — are used to accordion out “walls”; other, special bent sticks are joined at the top in a “Tunduk” that symbolizes the nation on the Kyrgyz flag. These walls are covered with reeds, covered in wool, and then sewn together. Then everything is covered with swaths of woolen felt.
Felt is possible because sheep’s hair can be worked into a fabric with no weaving technology. This is needed by people who, every two or three weeks, must pack up their house, which usually takes about 90 minutes, and pack its parts onto camels or trailers that move them to fresher grass.
Life in a Symbol
Yurts come in three main sizes. Small and medium sizes can be carried by one Bactrian camel, while the extra-large version, reserved for the most important leaders and the largest families, must be split between two camels. The Soviets, determined to destroy the ancient tradition of independence, killed the camels, so now yurts are moved in trailers pulled behind patched-up Soviet tractors.
I have seen and enjoyed proto-yurts produced commercially in other countries, but they can hardly compare to the original. If well made and maintained, the felt lasts at least five years, even exposed to the worst elements of a mountain environment. The precious wooden infrastructure is handed down across generations.
Designed to laugh off the lashing wins of open mountain slopes, the yurt door always faces South, usually protected by a rolled-up piece of heavy felt that serves as a door.
The inside of the yurt could not be simpler, nor richer with meaning.
At the back, facing the door, dowry chests are filled with objects crafted during long winters by girls who hope, years later, to attract high-status husbands. On top of these chests, felt blankets are carefully arranged, covered by the white and black skins of sheep. Most of this bedding-wealth is spread out in the evening: two or three sheepskins on the ground for a mattress, then a wool-ticking comforter, then another skin or two to keep in heat.
The main source of warmth is sun-dried sheep dung, burned in a small, portable stove with a stovepipe angled to the outside. A flap over the tunku is pulled open or shut by ropes that trail down to the sides, for example, to keep in heat at night or to allow smoke to escape during the day.
It seems to be literally impossible to enter a yurt without finding a small, spry woman leaping in from somewhere to serve the bread, butter, sour cream, and other specialties they make every day. Tea and jam are prized and always plentiful, although stretching the budget of a family that has to survive on, at most, 75 or 100 dollars a month.
The real warmth in a yurt is its earnest hospitality, which comes naturally in a culture where visitors were once rare and revered. In the distant past, such guests were always treated royally, sitting in a special location next to the head of the household at the back of the yard. On the left side is a special area for the women and male relatives, on the right side is reserved for children. As a foreigner who spoke some Kyrgyz, and would stay for days instead of hours, I got special treatment. When I returned there 5 years later they remembered my stay.
Only meat and dairy can be produced locally, so bread and noodles, are very welcome. Every visitor should bring a bag of fruit, staving off vitamin deficiency much as iodized salt fights the goiter that afflicts many women.
Felt—Protection for Life
Kyrgyz friends who grew up all repeat that their least-favorite activity was making felt. On a special mat, felt is laid out – either in one color or with pre-colored walls to make pictures – then hot water is applied and three women roll the mat to compress the felt fibers. They then lean on their forearms to press and stress the fibers to form a mat, which is then given to the children, still in the tube, to kick and stomp on and generally abuse the felt fibers to create a long-lasting fabric. Traders always visited this central outpost of the Silk Road between China and Europe, selling cloth, noodles, metal trade goods, etc.
My first trip to the Jailoo was in August, the warmest part of the year, but the nights were frosty and the days sunny but chilly. I knew it would be cold, and still had to wear every piece of clothing to keep warm. The felt walls and ceilings are literally a life-saver as well as a symbol of comfort and heritage.
Riding and Drinking
As a lifelong horseback rider, one late afternoon I was invited to accompany one young man to gather the scattered livestock and return them to a simple corral. The men used vigilance and ancient rifles to protect their prized animals from wolves who, intelligently but worryingly, know a sheep supermarket when they see one.
By far, the most important drink is called “kumiss”. This is made by milking mares– always annoyed at having to leave the grass and freedom of the slopes—two to four times every day. Their milk is put into an ancient wooden churn, whose residue provides bacteria that turn the milk alcoholic in about five days.
The level of alcohol is like beer, but kumiss is the ultimate Central Asian health drink. Most people swear that, whatever your health problem or disease, it will be washed away by the benefits of a kumiss diet over three weeks or a month. Few foreigners like this drink, which tastes like vodka in thin yogurt, but I came to enjoy it. Tastier is “Shubat”, the fermented milk of camels, which is more expensive because camels are rare now.
I visited the Jailoos of central Kyrgyzstan several times during my eight years in the region. This is more mountain experience than most locals ever have. My Kazakh wife, Naila, for example, has never spent one night in a yurt or one day in a jailoo.
Something about its embroidered quiet, folded only by wind, and skies with stars instead of pollution, invites reflection. Every aspect of the jailoo experience is dense with meaning, triggering thoughts about priorities, affluence, identity, and culture.
I hope that, one day, you have the chance to ride up a stony hillside to an encampment of a few yurts, to look across this endless, awesome expanse of mountains, grasslands, and glaciers, and realize how breathtaking and breath-giving this ignored part of the world can be.