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Kyrgyzstan – Look for the Exraordinary

Kyrgyzstan – Look for the Exraordinary
(by Jean-Luc Wenger)



In the 18th century Samuel Johnson uttered the immortal and oft-quoted line: ‘If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. After six years of working and living in the heart of London's exclusive St James's Place, I decided to leave the banking industry and the city that seems to be invaded by pigeons. Although I had to be first taught how to spell Kyrgyzstan correctly, I realised quite soon that there is something special about this country. All I initially knew was that yaks live in this area, an animal that can knock down a spruce tree with its head, carry loads of more than 100kg and can sustain in inhospitable lands above snowline!

Following my resignation from my role as Marketing Director, comments like ‘wish I had the courage to jump of the cliff into the abyss’, ‘you crazy, crazy man – you just keep shocking me’ or ‘do you have life insurance for that part of the world?’ confirmed that other people had not heard much about Kyrgyzstan either and considered my move as courageous if not stupid! But all these reactions rather encouraged me and I committed to a one-year assignment to support and consult a local printing company that I have met through a fund manager. I was eager to familiarise and adjust to a new culture and to consider the possibility to set-up and run my own business.

With my limited knowledge of the Russian and Kyrgyz language, it was quite an adventure to get around Bishkek in the beginning. As I did not know how to get a marshrutka to a halt, I frequently hoped for a passenger to get off at the same time. But detours were unavoidable! One day I had to buy meat without knowing the terms beef, pork and lamb. The butcher was well prepared for this type of customer and started to moo and use his fingers as horns as if he had been a victim of the ‘mad cow’ disease!

Kyrgyz people appreciate it if one makes an effort to speak their language. Given the fact that I had to practise the same sentences again and again, I could not think of any better way than to explore the city by taxi and to bore every driver with the same story. Usually the conversations came to an abrupt end when I finished my monologue! After the fourth or fifth ride, some drivers showed sympathy for my stammering and smiled at me (probably due to the fact that I paid them too much!). It did not take long until I knew a driver in every important corner and they all greeted me from afar.

The friendliness and hospitality of locals is indeed overwhelming! On a sunny day I enjoyed a walk around Bishkek’s Central Square and passed the Kyrgyz Drama Theatre. A student approached me and offered to provide a tour around the auditorium. When I asked him about the next ‘official’ performance and that I would be interested to see it, he went on stage and provided a private pre-view of his next role!

Travelling around Kyrgyzstan is quite an experience and numerous natural treasures are waiting to be discovered and explored. I have never been in a country where one can go for a horse ride for a whole day without crossing a single tarmac road. Also, when I went skiing in Karakol, I was pleasantly surprised that ‘queuing’ is non-existent. Back in November, I had the chance to attend the Chabysh Festival where local games were played including Kyz Kuumai (horseman to kiss a horsewoman at full gallop), Kurosh (wrestling on horse-back) and Tyiyn Enmei (rider tries to pick up a small ball from the ground at full gallop). A real spectacle!

Although the Kyrgyz cuisine is unlikely to achieve international renown, it offers something for every taste. Among my favourite local dishes are: Laghman (mutton stew, noddles, vegetables), Plov (rice, meat, shredded carrots), Shashlik (kebab, onions), Manti (steamed dumplings) and Borsh (cabbage soup). Locals do not mind eating above dishes three times a day. In fact, a local’ stomach can deal with honey on cucumber and raw onions for breakfast!

I could probably write a book about the first few months in this unusual and fascinating country. Whether I will stay long-term is still to be decided. But independently of that and despite the political and economical challenges that the country is facing, the Kyrgyz culture and society provides a variety of interesting insights and is worth exploring. Nowadays Samuel Johnson might reconsider his statement along the lines of: "If a man is tired of London, a more extraordinary experience is awaiting”.

Discovery Central Asia #23

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