12 Observations on Kyrgyzstan culture and society
Travelling, couchsurfing and hitchhiking across Kyrgyzstan for one month was one of the most enjoyable experiences of our Long Way Home adventure and during that time we tried our best to observe the culture and society of this contrasting and beautiful country.
Kyrgyzstan is Central Asia’s freest country and is a spell-binding mixture of stunning landscapes and vibrant cities as well as some of the most hospitable people we had met so far. We must highlight, however, that these are just our subjective observations and we would love to hear what you think. Have we misunderstood anything? Do you have any observations to share yourselves?
Kyrgyzstan culture and society
The most identifiable icon of Kyrgyzstan is an abode. The boz-ui, or yurt as we would call it, is such a cultural symbol it is reflected on the Kyrgyzstan flag on which a yellow sun surrounded by 40 rays replicates what you see when you look up from the centre of a yurt. It is at the centre of Kyrgyz home life and the place where the family congregate, they are used as art galleries, final resting places and simply places to lay one’s head after a long day.
The structure is, in essence, a portable round tent covered with skins or felt and was invented by the nomads of the cold steppes of central Asia. The frame is usually constructed from wood, or sometimes metal, around a central wheel and is a lot more homely than you would expect. Inside, rugs called shirdaks are hung from the walls to help with insulation and are stylised with brightly-coloured nature motifs. Put simply, if you have never been inside a yurt it is impossible to understand life in Kyrgyzstan.
The most familiar story to Kyrgyz people is the Homeric epic of Manas. The poem is one of the longest epics in the world, with close to 500 000 lines, and recounts the story of the eponymous hero Manas as well as his descendants and followers. The story is a highly patriotic work as it follows our hero fighting against the Kalmyks and Chinese to preserve Kyrgyz independence in the 9th century.
Perhaps the most interesting feature is the fact that the story wasn’t written down until the 20th century and survived by the oral tradition alone, specifically by so-called manaschis who specialise in dramatic retellings of the tale. Everywhere you go in Kygyzstan it is impossible to miss the statues of this mythical figure astride a great stead, sword in hand, ready to fight the enemies of the country.
Language is an important thing in Kyrgyzstan and helps to define who you are and where you come from. Interestingly, Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country that includes Russian as an official language and its influence is felt especially strongly in the north. Bishkek, the capital, is in practice a Russophone city with a sizable population of the people who speak no Kyrgyz. Government attempts at the Kyrgyzification of public life and education through language has created resentment from the Russian speaking elements of society and has served only to exacerbate the north-south divide of the country…
Generally speaking you can divide Kyrgyzstan in two – the more westernised north and the more traditional, conservative and Islamic south. This separation can be seen everywhere in daily life and makes for interesting viewing for the curious outsider.
In the north greetings are a brief handshake and you’re done. In the south, handshaking is only done with members of your own gender (the opposite gender is usually ignored) and usually with the left hand placed across your heart. Greetings are made in the form of a stream of questions (unanswered) spoken over each other.
Furniture in the north is more what you would expect in the West, kitchen table with chairs, beds etc.. In houses in the south furniture is minimal, food is eaten from a dastarkon (tablecloth) surrounded by sitting mats, beds are made on the floor using mats and bedding.
As a final example is the relationship between the genders. At formal events in the south men and women often occupy different rooms, and boys and girls very rarely have mutual friendships. All of this runs contrary to the more progressive attitudes you will encounter in the north.
Food in Kyrgyzstan is a product of many different regional influences and its nomadic history. The most common meats are mutton and horse cooked with liberal amounts of oil and fat. There is also a long tradition of dairy products with some interesting things to try including the highly sought after kumiz made from fermented mare’s milk as well as other diary drinks sourced from camel and sheep’s milk. Another interesting beverage that divides opinions like no other is Maksim (or similarly Jarmah) which is very popular with the locals and sold on street corners. The taste is something like off wheat but the locals believe it is healthy so worth having a try, I suppose. In the north, the Uighur influenced lagman and Russian staple pelmeni are common while in the south pilaf (plov) rules the roost. The traditional dish is besh-barmak (also a staple in Kazakhstan) which means five fingers as it is eaten with cutlery.
Make sure you also try boorsok, a tasty Central Asian dessert!
Krygyzstan was our first experience in Central Asia of being able to walk the streets without a stern dictator staring out at us from posters. It felt freer, which made a nice change from the authoritarian regimes around it and Kyrgyzstan was the only country that we didn’t need to organise a visa for beforehand which was also a timely boost.
That is not to say politics is a corruption-free zone and it was only in 2010 that the first free and fair elections were held. However, it is remarkable that given no Kyrgyz land existed before the idea of Kyrgyzstan was fostered under Soviet rule, that it runs as well as it does. Broadly speaking, Kyrgyzstan is a democratic country with a Parliament that functions separately from the President. A huge hearty well done to Central Asia’s freest country!
Kyrgyzstan, as alluded to before, is far from an homogenous country and cultural divisions do exist within the country. The largest ethnic group are the Kyrgyz (70%) but there are sizable Russian (9%) and Uzbek (14.5%) groups in the north and south respectively. The ethnic tensions between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are especially notable around the city of Osh. As recently as 2010 ethnic conflicts between the two communities left 46 people dead and 637 injured; and hostility towards the Uzbek minority is evident around the country. The decision of Stalin to carve up the countries of Central Asia with ethnic groups stuck in foreign lands continues to have negative impacts to this day.
A sheerly subjective view, but one we both share, is about the beauty of Kyrgyz women. We were not the only people to think so as other travellers came to the same conclusion independently, but for some reason the country seems to have more than its fair share of lookers. Women are slim, tall and have an unusual, yet striking, mixture of Chinese and Turkic features that were only complemented by the fashion style. If I was a single male looking for love I would head to Kyrgyzstan.
From beauty to fashion. The most striking thing about clothing in Kyrgyzstan are the felt hats worn by all manner of men in the country. Ak-kalpak are light coloured conical hats embroidered with patterns of contrasting colours and lets face it, they are the business! Older men also tend to wear high collared tunic shirts with a ‘ton‘ (a type of sheepskin coat) or a ‘chapan‘ (a coat adorned with intricate threading) over the top. Kyrgyz boots are also an integral part of the look, with high tops and narrow, slightly upturned ends. A great look!
Women traditionally wear a velvet dress or a long tunic (konyok) with matching wide trousers, both pieces adorned with hand-made embroidered floral motifs. ‘Chyptama‘, another popular women’s garment, is a sleeveless velvet jacket embroidered with black colour patterns. The most popular colours for women’s clothing are purple and black.
If Kyrgyzstan were an animal it would definitely be a horse. Horses are omnipresent and everywhere you go in the country, somewhere close by will be one these magnificent beasts. We have been in cars kicked by horses, we have seen horses in the hills and on the roads and just about everybody outside the capital seems to be able to ride one. Children can seemingly ride a horse before they can read a single word and much of the local economy appears to rely on the breeding and keeping of them. National sports, such as the polo/rugby game of Ulak Tartysh and Jumby Atmai where horse-backed competitors try to shoot a piece of string holding a metal bar, just serve to highlight the importance of equestrian activities in the country.
Being the youngest son in Kyrgyzstan is a thankless task. It is his responsibility to take care of the parents in their old age and he is forever tied to the house. He can simply never leave. If he gets married the wife will move in with him and take over the duties of the mother-in-law continuing the cycle for the next generation. Imagine having ambitions to see the world but knowing that they can never become reality. As a reward, the youngest son inherits the house and livestock when the parents pass away but there is a social expectation to share it with other brothers if there is the need. Talk about getting the short end of the stick.
Finally a word about the amazing hospitality of people in Kyrgyzstan. As soon as we crossed the border and tried to find somewhere to camp we encountered our first taste of it. We were welcomed into a home, fed and given the only private space in the house in which to sleep. They asked for no money and simply being hospitable to strangers was reward in itself. This pattern was to repeat itself throughout the country, people organising us places to stay, feeding us and generally being wonderful, kind human beings. We have been very lucky so far on our trip to meet some amazingly nice people and the Kyrgyz were right up there with the best!
Have you been to Kyrgyzstan? What were your impressions of this fascinating country? Which part of the article did you find the most surprising?
written by: Jon