Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Kyrgyz and their mountains: Three snapshots

94% of Kyrgyzstan is covered in mountains. Their culture, identity and way of life have always been heavily influenced by the mountains. In the last five days we have been lucky enough to see and share in some of the various ways that the Kyrgyz people enjoy their mountains these days.  

Nomadic Kyrgyz family near Toktogul
The first has been recorded on our last blog. We visited a high camp above Toktugul where several Kyrgyz families were staying with their herds of horses, sheep and goats. As well as the family on holiday, we met the extended family who still lives in true nomadic style. When we were there they were about to shift their camp higher still, over the rugged looking range to the south, in search of more new pastures as the snow continued to recede. They looked tough, weather beaten and fit, from the older women to the young children. Their camp was simple but tidy, their tents were of the heaviest canvas, 30 year old Soviet tents they proudly told us. They would pack this, and the various blankets, cooking equipment and kumis fermenter on to their horses, and take them over the untracked, stony ridges into the heart of the mountains for the summer months.

Melis teaches his sons to make meat patties for cooking on the open fire
Our second snapshot was on a sunny Saturday in a lush valley in the mountains next to Bishkek. Our 10km hitchhike from the bus stop to the National Park gate turned into a five hour picnic extravaganza. Our hosts were Melis and Merigil and their three young boys, and they offered us the Kyrgyz hospitality of joining them for lunch. “There will be enough!” they reassured us, and there certainly was! Maybe they pack anticipating the surprise guest! Also on holiday, they came out from Bishkek to picnic at the same spot every day of their holiday week. Many families dotted the shady, well-grassed riverbanks, some feasting in open-fronted tents, others under the trees. They too were drinking the mare’s milk, the children the straight milk, the parents the kumys (fermented mare’s milk). Our hosts work at the Manas University in Bishkek, they have great English and we talked of preschool education, politics, family, organic food and entrepreneurial schemes. They value spending time in the “natural world”, and they are teaching their children to do the same. The boys (3 and 5 yrs) wielded a small axe to chop sticks for the fire, they fanned it with cardboard to keep the embers hot, and they rolled and flattened small balls of mince into patties to cook. It was a very special afternoon, and we felt blessed to share in this young family’s mountain time. 

With Valerie and Yulie in their alpine club hut, Ala Archa
The third snapshot was higher in the mountains behind Bishkek, in the Ala-Archa National Park. Only an hours drive from Bishkek, and a three hour walk in, you are up at the foot of a spectacular glacier, and encircled by numerous steep rocky peaks. No wonder it draws a lot of climbers from Bishkek every weekend! We met Valerie and Yulie, a young Russian Kyrgyz couple from Bishkek, and they offered to show us the route up to a glacial lake and beyond. Their club owned one of a collection of small huts at an alpinists base camp, and they shared some tea with us there. They were acclimatizing to the altitude (3400m) and preparing for some climbs at a later date. They planned to spend most of the weekends of their summer in this alpine camp, and some of the winter too. 

Through the hospitality of the Kyrgyz we were able to share these three varied experiences, and gain insights into these different communities. As citizens of a mountainous country ourselves, it was fascinating to see similarities and differences with our relationship to our mountains as New Zealanders. Also, to see how a traditionally mountain nomad culture has evolved and changed, but has not lost much of its attachment with the land. 


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