KYRGYZSTAN

Riding the Silk Road up to the sky

by Russell Working

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Throughout the former Soviet Union, the architectural barbarities of communist civilization have inflicted a dreadful sameness on disparate lands and peoples.

Where nomads once pitched circular felt yurts, where Muslim horsemen galloped in to capture their brides, modern cities stand, made of grayish brick or slabs of cracked concrete. In every village square, a Lenin on a pedestal strides forward, arm extended, as if to shake hands with someone much taller.

My driver, an ethnic Russian named Alan, promised a glimpse of the real Kyrgyzstan. We would stop in a yurt and quaff a traditional drink of mare’s milk.

Sure enough, 90 minutes out of the city of Bishkek, capital of this beautiful, mountainous Central Asian nation, once crossed by Silk Road caravans and newly discovered by hikers, climbers and adventurers, our 23-year-old Mercedes sedan pulled off by a line of cafes located in yurts, some decorated with ram’s skulls.

It appeared we were expected. Barbecue men beckoned us with skewers of meat. Women in headscarves called our attention to tables selling gum, grapes, bottled beer, candy bars, breath mints, felt hats and cardboard tubes of potato chips rattled to dust on the sea-and-rail journey from America.

As we got out of the car, the yurt owners argued over our business. One dispute grew particularly heated. Two young women with long hair and dark Asian eyes shouted at each other, and a catfight ensued with hair-pulling, eye-clawing, kicking and spitting abuse.

As more and more travelers discover Kyrgyzstan, the government has woken up to the value of tourism. The president named 2001 the Year of Tourism. Almost alone among the former Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan makes visiting easy. Ten years after the fall of communism, Russia still treats travelers as an inconvenience at best and at worst a threat. Getting a visa can involve endless red tape.

Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, has jettisoned its Soviet-era visa requirements, and tourists can obtain a visa upon arrival in the airport for a fee of $60.

After decades of Soviet stagnation, Kyrgyzstan is beginning to appreciate the benefits of tourism, said Jigitov Akbar, a spokesman for the state tourism agency. “For instance, if you go to the resorts on Issyk Kul, on the beach every five minutes, you will see people selling beer and dried fish, trying to make some money,” he said. “But I think that’s good.”

The two-tier pricing for hotels remains. In the of Bishkek, my Russian girlfriend Nonna, her son Sergei and I skipped the Dostuk Hotel when we learned we would have to pay $90 (50 percent higher than the domestic rate) for a room because I am a foreigner. (Somehow Russians don’t get stuck with the exorbitant rates that other foreigners pay.)

The employees of the Semetei Hotel actually steered us away from their establishment and toward a clean, pleasant private apartment for $15 a night.

Bishkek is a leafy city with a pleasant abundance of outdoor cafes and smoking shish-kebab grills, but the sights are few: a squalid market, an old Russian Orthodox church and a modern mosque. Most visitors won’t stay here for long: The city sprawls in the foothills of the Kyrgyz Alatau mountain range, and Issyk Kul is nearby.

Issyk Kul is a cobalt-blue alpine lake lined with shabby Soviet-era resorts, newly built mosques and villages where men wear pointed felt hats. It is one of the nation’s prime attractions. One American I know rented a boat and spent a month on the lake, and an acquaintance rented an entire lakefront Soviet-era Pioneer Camp and held his wedding there last summer.

We drove around the entire lake during our stay, and found the south side wilder and less spoiled (but also with fewer lodging places).

Some 93 percent of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, and the Tian Shan range on the border with China is among the highest in the world, rising to 7,439 meters at the peak of Jengish Chokusu. The lake itself is often just a starting-point for those heading deep into the Tian Shan for backpacking and heli-skiing (even in August). At 4,200 meters, high above the timberline, you find a bleakly beautiful land of brown hills, glaciers, waterfalls and alpine lakes.

As our altitude increased, my chest felt the lack of oxygen, and a Russian journalist with us suffered severe altitude sickness. (Nonna, a former ballerina, felt no effects whatsoever.) Anyone with even moderately high blood pressure should consult a doctor before heading to the highlands to ski or horseback ride.

Even at lower elevations, Kyrgyzstan holds surprises. Every few kilometers on a Kyrgyz road you pass a city of the dead, with miniature buildings, strange structures made of mud and brick: facades of houses that look like Spanish mission churches, tiny domed mosques topped with Islamic crescents, the steel frames of yurts surmounted with stars. Painted on some of the facades are the faces of men in turbans.

In Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic past, cemeteries were built of mud brick, said Tynara Shaildaeva, an ethnic Kyrgyz mining industry executive I spoke with. The dead lived there, the nomads believed, and kept an eye on their descendents. When the structures eroded, the spirits were freed from their duty to watch over their children. Now that the Kyrgyz are largely settled in cities and villages, they build their graveyards out of real brick. Somehow, now that they themselves stay put in a town near the graveyard, the survivors felt the need to keep their ancestors in permanent houses also.

Back at the yurt cafe, we sat at a table and ordered chilled mare’s milk. It was sour, like kefir, and a little buttery. There is a reason people drink mare’s milk in this mountain region, I was told.

“At high altitudes, colts die if they get too fat,” our friend Shaildaeva explained. “The nomads have to stop them from drinking too much milk. So they drink it themselves.”

The cafe owners watched us with beaming faces. We won. I gulped down the mare’s milk and we stepped out into the blinding sun.

Peace had returned to this village of yurts. One of the former combatants had a scratch under her eye. She smiled at me and hefted a melon. “Want some watermelon?” she said. I declined. Luckily, no further combat ensued.