I was eager to finally explore Central Asia when I heard that some international borders were opening up again after many months in a global pandemic. The capital of Bishkek was my first stopTooltip Text, and I was pleasantly surprised to be met by an immediate and fascinating mix of religions, languages and cultures. I had lived in Russia for several years, have family from Asia, and was working in a Muslim country at the time; however, I’d never encountered elements of all of them at the same time.
A mix of Russian and Kyrgyz, a Turkish language, albeit with a softer timbre, flowed through the busy streets, once in a while punctuated with an “alahumdullallah”. Korean make-up stores and Chinese restaurants were scattered among Gazprom gas stations and ‘aptekas’ on the ground floor of grey, identical, multi-story Soviet apartment buildings. There were no signs of pork, but alcohol was easily found filling entire aisles of the supermarket. Couples exhibited PDA strolling through the parks alongside teenage girls in hijabs. Orthodox onion-domed churches and minarets of mosques that lit up at night rose up into the cityscape, contrasting and complementing each other.
One of the main attractions I knew I’d have to see for myself was the Osh Bazaar, the largest market in town with supposedly everything that a local or foreigner could want. I navigated down the sidewalk from my hostel, occasionally cutting across the back streets where hand-written signs in Cyrillic for banyas, Russian saunas, are nailed to the walls. Amusingly, I noticed that they had just as many cars with steering wheels on the left side as they did on the right. A marshrutka (15-seater passenger van used like public transportation) driver later on explained that Japanese cars were the cheapest in the country, so people just adapted.
I ended up at the side entrance of the market where, by noon, a busy throng of people and buzz of business was already in the air. I quickly realized that somehow, magically, all the locals seemed to just know where all the sections were. Tables were overflowing with hardware, lightbulbs and lamps illuminating rows upon rows of screwdrivers and extension cords. The souvenir area was complete with yurt figures, plenty of al-kalpak (wool hats), and handbags with traditional patterns. Around another corner was a narrower enclosed series of aisles where camouflage clothing, military equipment and Soviet medals adorned every inch of the space.
Finally, after many curious glances from the vendors who weren’t used to seeing females in those rows, I emerged out into the open again where the sunshine hit my face at the same time as the overwhelming smell of fresh fruits and vegetables. Apricots, one of the largest exports for the country, blackberries, and tiny wild strawberries mixed with massive ovular cantaloupe on makeshift tables. I had just reached the bread portion, admiring the hand-twisted circular pieces with seeds decorating the face, when I spotted what I’d been hearing a lot about.
Bishkek Health Foods
The nearby hanger was filled with canvas bags revealing every type of dried bean, grain and sweet that I could imagine. My eyes, though, skipped over the lentils and long grain rice, right to white, chalk-like balls that I knew were kurut. Made from dried sour milk, other travelers had mentioned to me how common it was to see locals nibbling on them, sometimes even dipping them in condensed milk. I also spotted a giant vat of white liquid next to the kurut, which I ventured a guess was their national drink of kymyz- fermented horse milk. Without further ado, I bought some of each, and making sure to have my water bottle ready, took a bite of the kurut. It was exactly as I expected – powdery, extremely sour and hard to swallow without water. I took a minute, then tried a sip of the kymyz, turning quickly so the vendor didn’t see my grimace. According to the locals, the health benefits of horse milk are incomparable. Plus, as a country well-rooted in a nomadic lifestyle, horses were at the center of their traditions.
Heading up a short flight of stairs into the butcher hall, I prepared myself for the final stop. It took a few moments to decipher the cardboard signs in rough cyrillic, trying to ignore the powerful stench of unrefrigerated animal flesh, but I finally found the table I wanted. Slabs of beef, chicken and various organs hung on metal racks and hooks around me, but I was focused on the thick sausage in front of me. Horse meat was considered a delicacy, and the older woman quoted a relatively high price for a smaller portion of a sausage. I ended up just getting a few slices to try, and gnawed on it, reflecting on the irony of finally trying horse meat in a predominantly Muslim country where it is equally forbidden to eat horse as it is to eat pork.
Ala Archa Experience
The next day, I planned to visit Ala Archa National Park, which lay just 30 km from town. Easily reachable by marshrutka, the park was a popular day-trip destination from Bishkek so I headed off to the bus station and found the right one that’d bring me to the next closest town. It cost 25 com (approximately 30 cents), and about half an hour later, I was the last passenger. The driver craned his neck back at me, gesturing in half English-half Russian that Kashka Sul’s terminal station was as far as we could go.
I expected this, and luckily, I’d read that hitchhiking was the easiest way to get around the country. It was almost so common, in fact, that a traveler I’d met with a rented car for her month-long stay in Kyrgyzstan told me about how two separate times she’d picked up local hitchhikers. Using body language and gestures to communicate, they redirected her to a point where she thought they’d jump out of the car. Instead, much to her surprise, they picked up a number of friends and family members, and then continued on to give her directions to their final destination.
I hopped off the marshrutka and started walking down the road towards the park entrance about 3km away. I didn’t have to wait long before a car pulled up with three young men, beckoning for me to jump in. They were gardeners, heading to work on one of the nearby homes right outside the entrance to the park, and flashed toothy grins when I waved good-bye at the gate.
From there, I passed through the pedestrian entrance and began the 13 km walk to the beginning of the main trails. Keeping an ear to the road behind me, in case cars came by, I also knew it was late morning so most picnickers from Bishkek would already have been in town. This time, it was about a 20-minute walk on the paved, windy road before I heard the roar of an engine behind me. A truck with a father and his young son looked out the open window at me, and I climbed in, giving an out-of-breath “spasiba bolshoi”.
The scenery, by this point, had changed drastically, as we entered further into the park and the mountain peaks became more visible. The roar of the river below was audible from the road, and occasional jagged rocks stuck out of the sweeping green fields. At a fork in the road, the driver pointed down the second path, indicating that they were going one way and I should continue down the other.
After a less-than-graceful descent from the truck, I followed the sound of the water down and followed it to eventually see many local families who were beyond prepared for their picnics. Most of the groups consisted of multiple families together, ranging in 8 to 15 people in a cluster of blankets and cushions for the ground. Behind and around them would be huge grills, bags of potato chips, shelled peanuts, meat on skewers, bell peppers and an assortment of drinks and plastic utensils. By the river, in several strategic positions, there were rocks arranged in formations to create the best shelter for making a fire and those sites had obviously been reused over and over. As I hiked around the park, taking care to skip around the horse and cow manure in the paths, I alternated between keeping my distance and trying to climb higher for the view and staying lower by the water where I received many friendly waves and head nods. One family even sent their young daughter, after seeing me sitting alone and writing in my journal alongside the river bank, to offer me a sandwich from their surplus of food.
Eid al-Adha in Bishkek
That evening, after a long, hot afternoon of hitchhiking back to Bishkek, I just wanted an easy and relaxed dinner. It had completely slipped my mind that it was Eid al-Adha, one of the largest holidays for Muslims and many businesses and restaurants were closed. After about 20 minutes of walking and innumerous “Closed for Eid” signs, I came across one which looked open and had people by the entrance. As I excitedly took the stairs up to the entrance, the people turned around and said that they were closed for the holiday.
Dejected, I asked the family – the restaurant’s owners, apparently – for any recommendations of open places, since by that point, I was famished and ready to eat anything. The man asked if I knew of a place with a name that was unfamiliar to me, and his wife, busy herding their four children out the door, came out from behind him. “Why don’t you just come with us? We’re already 8 people, you’d just be one more. Anyway, we pre-booked it and I don’t think they cater to just individual customers”
Before I knew what I was agreeing to, I was squeezed into the back of their sedan with five other people, and their youngest child in the trunk. Two of the teenage children walked to the restaurant, and we met up inside the restaurant which turned out to be a hot pot place still testing out its menu before opening to the public. We were the only customers in the entire place, and two boiling soup bases were ready and waiting for us on individual stoves in the middle of the table. Around them was a colorful assortment that made my stomach grumble with hunger; small plates of crab cakes (made from fish), fish balls (made from soy), rice noodles, chicken and beef thinly sliced, cabbage with seasoning, mushroom, circular tofu slices, green beans, and shrimp were arranged carefully next to juice and iced tea.
As they took turns cooking, going back and forth between dipping the foods into the red hot soup or the regular soup base, the adults peppered me with questions about the U.S. They didn’t see many foreigners in Afghanistan where they worked as consultants in Kabul, and had much more conservative lives than they would in Kyrgyzstan. However, they had to go where the job opportunities were. Their children were home-schooled, and the whole family was visiting their relatives, who were the owners of the restaurant. The teenagers sniggered at my accent trying to pronounce some key Russian phrases, but I didn’t mind, with the smells of the spicy soup wafting through the room and the sounds of laughter in the air as we celebrated Eid Al-Adha together.
Written by: Annie Elle
Annie is originally from Los Angeles although she’s worked and lived abroad for the last 10 years. Currently living in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, she’s traveled to over 100 countries and enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and volleyball when she can.
Follow Annie on: Instagram: instagram.com/chennanigans01