Unlocking Treasures in Central Asia
Different from flying butterflies in your stomach but “almost” an equally pleasant feeling embraces you when you are telling people that you are going on holidays. You get excited and dreamy at the same time. Usually, the very first question people tend asking you - “Where are you going to?”. This spring everyone found my answer rather surprising –Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. I must admit that curious people’s reaction had sparked my eagerness to take on this adventure even more. I thought it is going to be raw and nothing compared to what I had seen before. I proved to be right.
text and photos by AISTE ZALAITE
In the age of social media when every special corner is being photographed “at least” thousands of times, I can only give you this piece of advice to hurry up and visit Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before these two magnificent countries will be discovered as worth-visiting destinations. Currently, they still do not understand what a secret gem they are. On our way to one of the most impressive places - Charyn Canyon, which is compared to the Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan, we realized that not only our driver but also the locals don’t know how to actually reach it. Our driver claimed that he was there 20 years ago but now navigation is not helping him to find this stunning landmark. We were driving for 5 hours instead of 2 hours. And every time we stopped to ask for the directions, people were trying to help, however, they were always pointing to the wrong direction. After many stops and driving with a local escort we finally noticed a sign pointing that after several kilometres we will reach our destination. It was just a little bit surprising that the sign was almost faded and an arrow was showing…, well, to nowhere. It was just a vast steppe without a road or a glimpse of grand anything. A sign is a sign so we followed this bearably seen pathway. After 15 minutes of the bumpy ride, it was like we smashed into the grandness of it. The canyon was silently waiting for everyone without any billboards or buses full of tourists. Overall, there is a huge difference between Kazakhstan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s understanding of tourism. Kazakhstani are proud people but in most cases, they believe that there isn’t much to see in their country, so they are not putting any effort to promote it at all. While Kyrgyzstan being a far less wealthy neighbour tries to stimulate its economy through tourism and, thus, you can see many old ladies easily listing their home on booking.com as well as promoting local tourist attractions.
If you are wondering about our comfy accommodation, forget this - we had many more important things to care about. Our 10-day trip was packed with all 4 seasons (hey, global warming!) - wind, rain, snow or everything in one day. You could never be sure how the day will turn out, hence the only really helpful thing was layering of clothes. Shorts on top of the leggings, t-shirt, sweater, jacket and a raincoat - everything was worn at the same time. One day we woke up in a mountain village and found 20 cm of fresh snow on our car. My sneakers were not suitable for this kind of instant change that simply had happened overnight. I was too cool to care about it though... This dose of quite unexpected snow in late spring had only prepared me for the next natural force – the wind. Previously mentioned Charyn Canyon turned out to be the windiest place on Earth. After jumping out of the car, I understood that people were not lying when saying that this wind can blow a child away so one should hold the little ones tight! Climbing onto the red sandstones looked a little bit like the iconic Matrica’s moves or dancing in a wind with a hope to avoid a slip (this is where there should be an ad for the high-quality hiking boots!).
On the road
If you deem your stomach being not suitable for crazy Central Asian driving, don’t step your foot into the car. Cities are pretty fine but as we didn’t spend a lot of time there, driving outside of them every time felt like 50/50 chance of having an accident. Even though they are driving on the right side, many don’t see a problem of having a steering wheel on the left side of the car, what makes it quite entertaining when a left turn has to be made. Or imagine going towards a roundabout and then realising that your driver is not slowing down but, in fact, rushing into a bunch of cars that are waiting for their turn to enter a roundabout. The simple rule applies here – if you are flying into a roundabout, probably everyone will stop and let you drive first. At least, I hoped that these rules apply when we were sliding and other cars were hitting the brakes. The car is the ‘it’ asset for most Central Asian people, however, they are so tempted to push it to the limits every time they enter the streets.
Probably, I could write the whole article about food in Central Asia. And this is not because it was so unusual (except couple things I tried) but because the simple “fact” that food is one of the easiest ways to get to know the local culture. Hospitality has indeed very strong roots in Central Asia, so we were usually overwhelmed with the amount of food each time we had a meal. I mean, it is a norm for each person at a table to have its own BOWL of jam. During those 10 days, every meal was finished with jam and Boorsok - little fried pieces of dough. Probably, I shouldn’t complain about this! Even though almost all fruits and vegetables are coming from Uzbekistan and are incredibly delicious, it is not that common for the locals to eat a huge variety of them. Their diet mostly consists of meat, noodles, dumplings, and all kinds of bread. If you are wondering about special dishes - horse meat it is. It actually didn’t have any disgusting smell and tasted like beef but I would lie if I said that it didn’t make a difference when eating it. FYI, there are special breeds of horses, which are grown for the food industry. Therefore, you will not get to eat the horse you just saw yesterday in the field. Last note –simply forget coffee. Almost nobody is drinking it and it is a challenge to find a coffee shop even in a bigger city. Tea will become your go-to drink or you can always try Kymys–fermented mare’s milk if you will dare to swallow it in the first place.
During our trip at least 5 times the same thought crossed my mind: “What would we do if our car broke down?”. We were just completely alone in the middle of nowhere surrounded only by snow and afraid of an avalanche or sometimes driving through an infinite steppe without a sight of any other creature. But we couldn‘t stop being in awe as the landscape was constantly changing. Red, grey, yellow – you name it, multicoloured mountains were waiting for us just in a couple of hours drive in Kyrgyzstan. I wish my eyes could have photographed every single minute of this journey, as it was truly magnificent. As a boring European, I could say I saw so much untapped potential and unused resources in these countries. Staying with locals and talking to them gave us valuable insights into the regional problems. On the other hand, as long as it is not touched by the masses, it feels such a special and sacred land. Many places we visited aren’t protected from the impact of people, yet and might just simply disappear in the upcoming decades. Every person who enters the national parks can feel the rocks easily falling apart but still the possibility of going anywhere you want without any restrictions is so welcoming and liberating. After a couple of weeks, I was no longer looking for signs, I was rather looking for creative alternatives. It was not only an adventure, it was also like a game too. Thus, the best piece of advice I could give you is to invest into a pair of high-quality hiking boots, book a flight, and they will take you to the place that will measure your levels of adventure, as well as will reveal what you actually are longing for in your everyday life.
Here comes a list of my top things-to-do in Central Asia:
- Kolsai lakes hike (Kazakhstan);
- Charyn Canyon (Kazakhstan);
- Border crossing from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan through the mountains;
- Stay by Issyk-Kul lake (Kyrgyzstan);
- Red rocks at Jeti Oguz (Kyrgyzstan);
- Night in a yurt camp (Kyrgyzstan).