Kirghizia is only one in a series of territories belonging to the Silk Road, the road which caravans have passed, where nations have been mixed, goods, experiences and values exchanged, merging the Far East and the Middle East with the Mediterranean. It is a mountainous and sparsely populated country, so to nature, wildlife and mountain lovers who come more and more often in this region, bed and breakfast services provide only seasonal family camps, scattered through spacious hills, organized in communities. It those camps you get everything: overnight stay beneath thousands of stars, quite sufficient hygiene conditions, food that tastes like nature, guide services in the surrounding area or to a village, exceptional reception, warmth and kindness – which cannot be described.
High on mountain peaks, impressed between China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kirghizia seems to me like an eagle's nest. It seemed to climb to the heights to protect its historical, natural and cultural treasures. Namely, more than 60% of the country is located at altitudes above 5,000 m, and the average altitude is as high as 3,000 m, with the highest peak of Jengish Chokusu of 7.439 m, which is in the chain of the highest peaks of the Tien Shan, which extends over most of Kirghizia, while in the south there is also the very high Pamir. Those heights, with natural conditions that can only be harsh, scarce and sometimes cruel, in order to survive one should be easily adaptable, strong, capable, like an eagle. More than 6 million habitants have settled their homes there, mostly Kyrgyz people (around 75%), while others are Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Russians. They gained their independence from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although the official language is still Russian, the majority of the population speaks Kyrgyz language and Muslims are from the Sunita group.
The capital city is Bishkek, who, with its around one million inhabitants, tries to synchronize different cultural patterns, lifestyles not only of different nations, but above all, the authorities that have been intensively changed. It is assumed that the name "Bishkek" derives from a Kyrgyz word for a churn used for the production of koumiss – a fermented beverage made from mare's milk, such is the airag in Mongolia. Today, it is a very dynamic modern city, with large boulevards, numerous parks and rich street greenery, where you can see and experience the dynamics of cultural change as a result of intensive mixing of cultures. The main square Ala-Too is spacious and very interesting, in which was until recently standing a very high monument with the statue of V. I. Lenin. Today that statue is moved to the nearby smaller square, and on the main is raised the sculpture of freedom – Erkindik. Other smaller towns and villages look very similar to our villages of Vojvodina with sloping streets, beautiful picturesque and preserved low family houses. In Bishkek and smaller cities, as well as on the Issyk-Kul, the biggest lake, that is respected and visited as the sea, there are good, comfortable hotels. There are basics for further development of tourism.
Hospitality in mountain camps
We entered Kirghizia on the Torugart Port border crossing located high in the mountains from the direction of Kashgar in China. It was almost midnight. All day long stay at the first border checkpoint in China, where we needed to get permission to leave China, after all the frustration, freezing, uncertain waiting, ended up in the infinitely warm smile of two drivers and a Kyrgyz guide, of Russian origin, who were waiting for us on the Kyrgyz side all these 12 hours. Nothing could have been warmer and nicer than when they placed us in heated and warm cars, played Tchaikovsky's music quietly and gave us boxes with lunches that awaited us all that day. Frozen and hungry, I opened the box. Inside were placed, as for a small child with lots of love, many lovely things – a sandwich, apple, juice, cake, sweets, chocolates, water… I recollected those tin boxes we carried in small backpacks when we went on field trips, in which we packed bread, cream cheese, sardine box, apple, boiled egg and biscuits. For me it was a sign of attention and love, and Russian language of our guides Jurij and Jevgenij contributed to my brief recollection from the past. After almost two hours of driving, we arrived at the Tash Rabat camp at midnight.
The hosts greeted us with care, with so much warmth that it was immediately written for ever in our memory. In one big yurt – dining room, there were dinner, warm tea, coffee, juices and sweets waiting us. They asked us to at least take a little bit, because they made it with love and waited for us since noon. While scented mountain tea was warming us, we accommodated in cold yurts, as it was only 2°C. Then we got under many blankets and covers, blowing hot air and going to sleep. And then, while it was still dark, I got out of bed and the yurt. I stood and looked. The whole camp sank into the stars. Not up in the sky, but here on the 3.000 m of height, stars seem like they are in our palms, on our heads, in our hair. Magical and unforgettable.
Morning was sunny but cold. I washed my face only with warm water which the hosts poured into small buckets with the tap above the sink, and I took a walk around the area. The sharp, clean, crystal mountain air coincided with the sound of a mountain stream that was cheerfully winding behind the camp. On the grass still wet from a dew, there was a big eagle’s feather. What luck! In the heated yurt-dining room hosts welcomed us with hot barley porridge and various delicacies for breakfast and warming. They offered us handmade items made of wool, leather and feathers, made by their family. It would be sad not to take a souvenir or share some money with them. Still today I like to touch these wonderful gifts.
We also had a warm welcome, reception and escort in the other mountain camp, located on the plateau, on the cost of the large Song Kol Lake. This high-level mountain lake (3.000 m), is the second largest lake, of 270 square metres, it is covered with ice during a half of the year, and is rich reservoir of drinking water. In this uninhabited part, to which we came slowly with a crouching earthy road, having overcome 33 serpentines embedded in the beautiful alpine tundra, there are no permanent inhabitants, only nomads-cattle keepers and more and more tourists who come and stay here at temporary camps in the period from the end of May to the end of September. In one such camp, with 22 yurts placed in the circle, we stayed overnight. The experience of calm and reflection of the colors of the sundown, and then the sunrise in crystal fresh and clean air is refreshing, and escort of the hosts, who according to their old custom went out on the road with white scarves in their hands and waved to us until they could no longer see us – is really unforgettable.
Harsh nature and warm people
We have travelled for three days through the highland region of Xinjiang. Nature was generous here, not in the fertility of the land, but in forms and colors. The whole area is protected as a natural good. The mountain ranges are very dynamic, with every possible colour that creative nature could place together like cookies, cakes, wafers. The valleys are narrow with streams that have no name, because water flows from the high surrounding snow peaks and changes the direction according to the current conditions. Tundra and steppe pastures are scarce in the late summer time, with dried grass and bushes, and very picturesque yellow-red tones.
We have travelled in the direction of Naryn, the capital of this region. On the surrounding slopes, it was still possible to see the settlements of the nomads who are staying with their horses and herds until the first snow, collecting their yurts, herds of sheep, goats and cows and packing cheese, wool – products that were collected, processed and made during the summer. We stopped to talk to three nomad families. Without a guide, we could not understand them, because they do not speak any other language except the Kirghiz. Where we found the younger ones who were finishing school we could talk in Russian. They were very glad to show us their habitat, modestly equipped yurts – one served as a dormitory, while in the other there was a kitchen, dining room, living room and everything else. They say that is enough for a whole family. In front of one yurt we were welcomed by a grandmother, her granddaughter and her friend. While grandmother was making cheese, the girls were skillfully riding a small mountain horse, and younger ones went to visit herds on nearby pastures. During winter, while they stay in villages and town, young nomads go to school, and older ones live peaceful but, deep life, preserving traditional hospitality, kindness, simplicity and ability to live modestly in poor conditions.
Kirghizia’s tourism in development
Another strong impression I brought from Kirghizia is the concern for sustainable development and the involvement of the local population in providing services to increasingly frequent travelers. In each settlement we passed, the hosts took us to some of the places where we used the services of the local population and had the opportunity to talk to them and to socialize with them. Every lunch we had in another family’s house, in other town. One host always knew at least Russian, if not English. A delicious home-made food, a story, the offer of local products - teas, jam, juices or wood items, such as small musical instruments or woolen garments, was very unobtrusive and very attractive. In one of the villages we visited a place where about 200 women, self-organize to sell their own handicrafts from silk, wool, leather, many of which are artistic. In this way, the tourism offer includes many not only young people, but also elderly and women.
Some tourists may have to say that Kirghizia has nothing to show. But it is not like that. It has its own history, culture, events and nature. But turbulent events and undeveloped tourism are visible. For now, they have best offered nature, handicrafts and hospitality to people. Culture, museums and historical sites are still waiting for their turn. It was, for example, a little sad and empty on the Cholpon Ata – spacious archaeological site on 42 ha from the period of the 2000 year BC to 4th century. The entire site was protected by UNESCO as part of the overall protection of the Central Asian and Himalayan areas. However, at that site, as if the stories, myths, facts and interpretations remained buried under huge stones scattered over the vastness. It remains to be explored, interpreted, and protected, since visitors remain without a story, without insight, left to their own imagination while, wandering between stone pieces, they explore for themselves.
These couple of days spent in Kirghizia completed my puzzle of the Silk Road. And that is not all. Kirghizia, like Uyghur part of the China, Mongolia, Algeria, Sardinia or some other regions with undeveloped tourism, confirmed my already existing belief that this underdevelopment of tourism gives some strength, gives us the opportunity to get to know the still uncontrollable life, culture, habits, customs. It gives the opportunity to really try food that, besides the original taste, also carries the warmth of the hosts, to step into the world of local population, without being an invader and disturbing their lives. Kirghizia is definitely a destination for travellers who love visiting what has not yet been discovered.
Article was published in the magazine Turistički Svet, issue number 90.