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A three-story yurt in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second largest city - photos by David Rich
A three-story yurt in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second largest city - photos by David Rich

Kyrgyzstan: The Vanguard of Western Permissiveness

Sex and drugs and rock and roll aren’t normally associated with Islamic countries, but Central Asia, aka The 'Stans, are the vanguard for an Islamic imitation of Western permissiveness.

The Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek offers examples on every street, with such as Playboy on sale at magazine kiosks, readily understandable though written in Russian Cyrillic.

Possession of Playboy in practically neighboring Afghanistan or Pakistan would be a near-capital offense. But Islam in the 'Stans was mellowed by the practical fact that very little theology can fit in the saddlebags of a Central Asian nomad.

Almost needless to say, few local women wear scarves or veils, except at the gaudily advertised strip clubs where ladies reportedly shed filmy garments with verve and abandon. Being too cheap to pay a cover charge or buy obligatory drinks I’ve no means of firsthand knowledge.

But drink, particularly Russian vodka served with any excuse or no excuse at all, are displayed in all supermarkets and corner grocery stores, taking up more space than fruit, veg and meat combined.

Saucy Damsels

Ladies not trapped in tatty cabarets trod the streets attired similar to those in any Western capital, wearing anything and everything from micro-mini-skirts and skimpy tops with bare midriffs to painted-on jeans and the ubiquitous baggy housedress.

A spice seller
A spice seller in Kyrgyzstan

In most Middle Eastern countries these saucy damsels would be stoned on the spot, including those in baggy housedresses. This is, notwithstanding the tawdriness, the hopeful future of world Islam, which is to say, female liberty to do as she wishes, or whatever it takes to bag a guy with money.

The traditional Central Asian means of advertising female pulchritude would be found loco in Western society: front teeth plated with glistening gold, embellished by fancy hair ribbons habitually worn from earliest school days. But this may be a vast improvement over the former era where a woman’s value depended on the number and reputation of the family horses.

However, one hoary tradition, though outlawed in 1991, remains: kidnapping a prospective bride by bundling her into a waiting car or unsuspecting taxi. The great advantage is the money saved on the typically lavish Kyrgyz wedding and woman’s bride price, or dowry; taxis remain relatively inexpensive though formally married brides, as in all countries, do not.

Vacationers sunbathe standing up on the beach at Issyk Kul.
Vacationers sunbathe standing up on the beach at Issyk Kul.
Issyk Kul

Beside ritualized kidnapping Kyrgyzstan’s highlights are its colliding mountain ranges bedecked with glaciers, craggy gorges and ice-blue lakes, covering the vast majority, in fact 90%, of the country.

The world’s second largest alpine lake (after Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia) dominates the eastern half of Kyrgyzstan: Issyk Kul, 180 kilometers (110 miles) by 80 kilometers (50 miles), means warm lake. It never freezes due to salinity, extreme depth and thermal activity, on the nigh-tropical shores of which vacationers sunbathe standing up. Both the Lake and the sunbathing locals are a sight to evince marvel.

Lake Issyk Kul is sandwiched between the towering Tian Shan Mountains, offering perhaps the most scenic short treks in Central Asia.

An eagle in Grigorievka
An eagle in Grigorievka

My first trek commenced on the lake from Grigorievka to a fluorescent gem of an altitudinous lake near the Kazakhstan border, looping back through high alpine valleys past hunters using golden eagles to bag prey ranging from rabbits to the occasional wolf.

Alas, I missed the kok boru, an all-out brawl with horsemen in high felt hats aggressively disputing their respective rights to a headless nanny-goat, considered similar to croquet with a dead sheep; out of season upon my arrival.

I also missed the Kyz-kumay (kiss-the-girl), where the lady equestrian is given a head start and if her suitor fails to catch her she’s duty bound to chase and whip the failed young man, also known as young love.

These athletic contests are played on high mountain meadows that stretch to the horizon above sprawling Issyk Kul Lake, the center for Scythian civilization founded by Tamarlane (aka Timur).

A horse trader at the market in Osh
A horse trader at the market in Osh

The Lake served as the army’s summer headquarters, also providing sanctuary for disparate elements ranging from Christian monks and Genghis Khan to a top secret base testing Soviet torpedoes. Sunbathers standing upright on the lakeshore may have provided tempting targets.

Frozen Tutus

My guide on one high mountain meadow trek professed to have matched vodka shots with Boris Yeltsin on that very meadow, but then everyone in the former Soviet Union apparently had legitimate grounds for similar claims, albeit different days and different meadows.

We trekked from lowland red rock country on the south side of the lake up to yurt stays high in the icy pointy peaks. Yurt stays may sound romantic but insulated they’re not, which means many a tutu has been frozen while suffering the romance of a yurt.

The salad lady
The salad lady at a market in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan’s most famous yurt is a three-story affair, now a museum in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city billed as older than Rome. Osh was founded in the fifth century B.C.E. by either Suleiman, after which the city’s most famous promontory is named Solomon’s Throne, an alliteration I fail to understand, or by Alexander the Great, rapidly becoming a hub on the original Silk Road.

Whether either of these claims is true, Osh indisputably hosts, and has hosted almost forever, Central Asia’s largest and most vibrant market bazaar. This jam-packed market stretches over a mile (2 kilometers) on either side of the Ak-Buur River, a colorful jostling cacophony of friendly Kyrgyzs, all happy to assist the odd foreigners seeking illusive romance, pharmaceuticals, or rock and roll CDs in Central Asia’s largest marketplace.

A US plane at Bishek Airport
A US plane at Bishek Airport
When you go to Kyrgyzstan:

Bishkek’s Manas International Airport shares space with the United States Air Force; its massive cargo planes, providing support for the war in Afghanistan, dwarf commercial aircraft on every runway.

Flights to Bishkek are easily found through Istanbul or Moscow for about $1000 round trip from anywhere in Europe, best buys on Air Arabia; add $500 for flights originating in North America.

The biggest surprise in Central Asia isn’t the crumbling cities and infrastructure but the excellent restaurants and reasonably priced food of extremely high quality complemented by inexpensive draft beer.

For example, when in Karakol on the east end of Issyk Kul Lake don’t miss fabulous Fakir Café with exotic and inexpensive dishes ranging from Greek salads to complicated concoctions of beef on a sizzling platter, or any of the three Chinese restaurants (Khuadali, Shanghai or Kontinental) in Bishkek immediately south of Victory Square.

However, hotels are pricey in all Kyrgyz cities, with the exception of the nameless guesthouse practically opposite of the station where buses from Bishkek arrive in Cholpon Ata on the middle north of Lake Issyk Kul, run by friendly Nargiza at 107 Soviet Street.

 

David Rich

David Rich has been an international traveler, writer, and photographer for the last 16 years, living in 140 countries to date. He is a full-time international traveler, an occupation he finds far preferable to his former professions of law professor and trial lawyer, from which he says he’s now "mostly recovered."

 

 

Read David Rich's stories about the 'Stans:

Turkmenistan: Tinhorn Tyranny

Uzbekistan: Police State Jewel

Tajikistan: Following the Ancient Silk Road

Beyond Borat: Discovering the Real Kazakhstan

Kyrgyzstan: The Vanguard of Western Permissiveness

Pakistan's Karakorams: Mounains to the Max

 

Read more GoNOMAD stories About Kyrgyzstan

 

 

A boatman in Kashmir Visit our David Rich Page with links to all his stories

 

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