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It’s been just over 2 weeks since we came back from Kyrgyzstan.
Enough time to have done 7 loads of washing, to thoroughly rinse out the dust and grime from the cities.
Enough time to have answered the question ‘How was your trip’ and come up with a few sentences to satisfy work colleagues over the coffee machine.
Enough time to have packed away the guide-book and started to trawl and edit through hundreds of photos.
But I haven’t yet adjusted back to reality after Kyrgyzstan. I want to share what Kyrgyzstan is really like, and why you should travel there, because it is truly incredible.
Y’know those travel adventures that change you? The trips that aren’t necessarily fun every single minute, but the experiences you have stay with you long after the return flight is over. The kind of trip that changes your perspective and helps you grow as a person.
Our recent 2 week camping trip around Kyrgyzstan was one of those trips.
I still don’t quite have the right words for it – which is a bit frustrating when you write about travel for a living tbh – and want to gush about the experience to everyone who asks what Kyrgyzstan is really like.
The answer is…the country is beautiful, a true paradise of mountains, lakes, rolling steppes and pastures for horses, hidden hot springs, epic gorges and the worlds second largest alpine lake.
But it’s also hazily covered in dust, grime and pollution in the cities, where they all drive 1980’s German cars & lorries that belch black smoke across an already grimy cityscape. There are city squares and monuments to communist heroes that dominate even the smallest villages, in their mustachioed glory.
Kyrgyzstan is an interesting mix of crowded-Asian emerging bustling city and former Soviet-era outpost. A place where the apartment buildings are flimsily built commission housing, with a solid dose of depressing grey and concrete. But once you are in the mountains, out where their traditional nomadic culture thrives, it’s nothing but picturesque Yurts and family farming. The living embodiment of tranquil life, unchanged for centuries.
But all of that doesn’t capture the spirit of the country – I’ve never been to a place where the people were so joyfully, unrestrainedly happy to see travellers from other countries.
Kyrgyzstan is only very, very, young in terms of tourism, with people only now starting to return to their hiking trails and stunning mountains after the unrest in 2010. As a consequence of this slowly burgeoning tourism, there’s none of the competitive greed and competition for tourist dollars that you would find in other emerging travel destinations.
The Kyrgyz nomadic culture is by its nature open and welcoming – traditionally a Kyrgyz family would welcome travellers into their homes and feed them, not to make money, but because life upon the Silk Road was dependant upon these traditions of hospitality. There was no expectation of payment for being welcomed into a home, hospitality was given freely and happily. A guest in your household was honoured – a gift.
How this will change if tourism continues to develop in the region is a difficult question, but for now, on our trip, it was absolutely unforgettable to see the joy and welcoming smiles we had from every single person we waved and smiled at.
Didn’t matter if we were in a market, on our truck, early morning, busy traffic…if you wave or smile at a local in Kyrgyzstan you will receive a face splitting smile and friendly wave back, and if you are near their home they will invite you in for chai. It’s just that happy and friendly – despite the painfully evident wealth gap between their simple lifestyles and us whitey privileged tourists tramping through their country.
So Kyrgyzstan was beautiful, uplifting and an experience that I think will stay with me for long after this short two-week visit.
But the trip itself was challenging. We opted to take an overland camping tour, which in theory is a grand adventure, following the hippie trail path forged in the 1970’s.
The reality was, that by Day 4 I was pretty sure Stefan was about to get on a plane and return to Vienna.
We were camping at altitudes of 2,600m in tents that were absolutely not designed for that. We spent hours on the truck (enjoying the scenery admittedly) to reach a tourist site, only to be given less than an hour to explore the site itself before getting back on the truck.
On the cold nights spent camping in the mountains we had very little sleep, which on its own would have been manageable, but paired with the overlanding trip providing very little in the way of local experiences and knowledge during the day, it became hard to justify why we were putting ourselves through this.
The most disappointing element of the trip though, was that we had very minimal local experiences and interactions. All the meals provided were western style, cooked by us.
We had only 3 nights out of 15 that were homestays to give us a chance to meet and interact with the very friendly local families. We made the best of it, at any opportunity exploring the local markets, chatting with our activity providers and miming a lot to waiters and restaurant owners. But frankly, I expected more from the overlanding company.
At times I felt like a 1930’s British tourists doing a tour of the colonies – separated from the reality of the country we were visiting, sitting in our bubble of privilege in the high truck, waving to the locals like land-invading benefactors.
It was weird man.
It was definitely the most challenging trip of our relationship – as we battled fatigue, filth, drop toilets, missed expectations, lost luggage, a drone crashing into a mountainside and some personality clashes with others in our group.
We learned a hell of a lot about ourselves, our travel style, our limits and our expectations.
So, in time I’ll be sharing those stories with you guys, but just now, as the experience is still washing over us, I don’t quite have the words to describe the wonder of Kyrgyzstan.
All I can say is – you should go. And go now.
While it’s still young and relatively undiscovered.
While the prices are low, and the people are unbelievably kind and welcoming.
While the country is still that little bit wild for it to be a true adventure.
Visit in 2018 for the World Nomad games. Visit in winter for the incredible off-piste skiing opportunities. Visit in early summer for the mare’s milk wine Kumys and sight of pure green horse pastures dotted with real yurts and herds of goats.
It might be tough, and it might not be anything like what you expect…but you might just have one of the most unforgettable trips of your life.
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