I really don’t want to sound trite writing this post. I don’t want to sound like one of those annoying travelers who visits a new place and says they were changed forever after just a week of travel. No, Kyrgyzstan didn’t change me forever, but it did open my eyes a bit more. I’ve wanted to visit Central Asia for a long time, although if pressed I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s because it just sounds so remote, so far away and so alien. A place where nomads have ruled for centuries and with place names few of us can properly pronounce, so we just call them the Stans. To lump the countries of Central Asia though together in a unified group isn’t fair and it isn’t accurate. Each country in this mysterious region is unique and different with its own history, culture and traditions. Kyrgyzstan certainly is all of this and more, and now that I’ve been home for a few days I thought I’d sit back and think, really think, about my experiences in this remarkable country, what my initial thoughts are and what I think the trip meant to me personally.
So many times I see travel writers fall into the trap of writing to the stereotype. If they visit sub-Saharan Africa they talk about villages and dirt floor huts and if they visit Central Asia they share images and stories of nomads on horses and yurts on forlorn mountains. Sure, these things exist and they are part of the travel experience, but no country exists in a vacuum and no culture should be treated as if it’s an anthropological specimen. I know I hate it when international writers talk about the lack of an American cuisine (we have one thank you) or only visit NYC and Vegas and so it’s something I try to avoid in my own writing. When sharing my experiences in Kyrgyzstan I don’t want to feel like an Imperial visitor, surveying a realm and passing judgment. Yes, I slept in a yurt and yes, I saw more horses than I have in a long time. But I also saw a Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs franchise and folks obsessed with Instagram. In writing about Kyrgyzstan I truly want to share what it’s really like to be there, from the ancient to the modern; a mental exercise that will take me a few weeks to work through.
Food is always an important aspect of the travel experience, but in Kyrgyzstan it seems especially critical. It’s also an aspect of traveling around the country that I didn’t give much regard to before my trip. I didn’t anticipate anything great to be honest. Bland food made from meats I couldn’t identify filled my imagination, but immediately I understood how very wrong I was. Sitting at the crossroads of the great Silk Road, cultures from around the world have shuffled through Kyrgyzstan over the centuries and you better believe they brought with them their own culinary traditions and ingredients. Spices from China, recipes from Iran and traditions from Turkey all form the foodie subtext of what has become a very distinct culinary heritage in Kyrgyzstan. Ultimately those important meals shared with new friends became the backbone of my own travel experience in the country and, as such, will also form as the foundation of how I share the stories from the country.
Before leaving on my trip, Instagram taught me that Kyrgyzstan did indeed have some incredible landscapes to enjoy. But of course, nothing really prepares you for the reality of the experience, which was honestly overwhelming in the best possible sense of the word. Not only is the natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan unexpected and undeniably gorgeous, it’s also incredibly varied. Within a view hours you can admire alpine meadows reminiscent of Austria, desert beauty that looks as if it was plucked from the American Southwest and even lake views that feel more like being on the shores of a great sea. It’s remarkable and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before. The chance to go back and see even more of these natural treasures is perhaps what motivates me the most to return, to explore even more and to see what else is there waiting to be discovered.
Would I Go Back?
I really enjoy visiting new-to-me countries because it allows me to rekindle that spirit of discovery I love so very much. Add into the mix a somewhat remote or unknown destination, and I’m as happy as I can be while traveling. Kyrgyzstan provided me with all of this and more and I now understand why so many people I know have returned many times, to explore more of the country, but also to enjoy that rare feeling of exploration. Now that I’m back home, I realize that even a long (for me) trip of 10 days was nowhere near enough time to really get to know the country. I scratched the proverbial surface, gaining the briefest of insight into what the country is all about. Ultimately though that’s a good thing. It makes me want to return to get to know it better and to see even more of what is truly a beautiful country full of kind and good-hearted people. More than just Kyrgyzstan though, I now have a fierce desire to see more of Central Asia. I want to roam the vast plains of Kazakhstan, admire the colorful architecture of Uzbekistan and to be surprised in some of the most remote spots on the planet. I want to get to know this ancient part of the world not as a voyeur, but as someone who is truly interested. That’s not too common when we travel, but when this spirit of wanderlust takes over it’s undeniable. So yes, I would go back in a heartbeat not to retrace my steps, but to forge new routes and create new memories. To explore even more than I did on my first trip and, most importantly, get to know better the people of Kyrgyzstan who made my first experience in the country so very special.
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.