A sojourn in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia's 'Switzerland'
TO BE honest, when I was told I was going to Kyrgyzstan for a work trip in late July, I drew a blank - I had never heard of the country before.
But having spent a week there, I can say with some confidence that it is worth visiting for its people, mountainous scenery, diverse cultures and rich history.
The landlocked country is situated in the middle of Central Asia, bordered by Kazakhstan (to the north), Uzbekistan (west), Tajikistan (south-west) and China (east).
Its stunning natural beauty - more than 80 per cent of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, and the snow-covered Tian Shan mountains will brighten up even the greyest cityscapes - has earned it the nickname "the Switzerland of Central Asia".
Kyrgyzstan offers travellers some of the best trekking, biking, mountaineering and horse-riding experiences in the world.
Kyrgyzstan, also known as the Kyrgyz Republic, has a continental climate and covers an area of slightly under 200,000 sq km.
Its population of about six million people are mostly Kyrgyz and Muslim. And they converse mainly in Kyrgyz and Russian (due to its Soviet Union legacy).
The capital, Bishkek, has a population of about one million and the country is further divided into six administrative sections known as oblasties.
INTO THE UNKNOWN
In Kyrgyzstan, a journey from one place to another takes longer due to its hilly terrain and lack of highways. However, Bishkek is a modern city with wide streets and all the usual urban amenities.
Things appear quite slow-paced but Kyrgyzstan is by no means an underdeveloped country. On the roads, you can see European and Japanese cars - and, would you believe it, Proton Wiras. The police force uses Malaysia's Proton, among other makes, as their patrol cars.
Zebra crossings abound not just in the city but throughout the country. The best thing is that drivers are courteous and will stop to allow pedestrians to cross.
Some popular landmarks in the city are the Victory Monument and Ala-Too Square. The Victory Monument was built to commemorate the victory during World War II as well as the country's fallen soldiers. What is striking are the three curved arcs - representing a traditional round and portable Kyrgyz tent - with the figure of a woman awaiting the return of her husband and sons from the war, near an ever-burning flame; very poignant. Many a wedding party would make a stop there to pay their respects.
Ala-Too Square is where the locals hang out and conduct many activities and festivals. Different bicycles are available for rent too, from morning till late at night.
There are no seas to head towards to. The next best thing is Issyk-Kul Lake, which is the 10th largest lake and the second biggest saline lake in the world. The body of water, with a 182km span, is situated at the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. The name Issyk-Kul means "hot lake", but do not be fooled because the water can be icy cold even in the summer.
The locals believe that the lake's water has healing properties and, during summer, it is a major tourist spot. Ferry services are available to bring visitors to the middle of the lake for a swim. Indeed, the water is very clear, clean and inviting.
Another popular destination the Kyrgyz and Russian tourists throng is the Keremet Suu hot spring in Chong-Oruktu village near Issyk-Kul.
Other locales to consider visiting include the Burana Tower in Tokmok. A historical tower, it was built in the 10th century on the site of the former Karakhanid city of Balasagyn.
During my stay, I also realised other reasons why Kyrgyzstan finds favour with some tourists.
I bumped into a couple of 23-year-old students from New Zealand who said they chose to holiday in Kyrgyzstan because it is not a usual vacation spot. Also, it is not very commercialised, and food and accommodation are cheap.
"I hardly see Western or European tourists here. The Kyrgyz are so friendly, warm and beautiful. It's a very peaceful and stunning country," said one of them.
Food in Kyrgyzstan is quite an incredible experience. Finding halal food is not a problem too.
The country's staple is bread, which is usually eaten with vegetables, dairy products and red meats. And to the locals, drinking tea - green or black - is like drinking water.
Vegetables served seem to be a combination of onions, tomatoes and capsicums sprinkled with olive oil. Forget chicken; instead, think beef, mutton, buffalo or even horse meat.
The locals' nomadic heritage appears to figure into the type of ingredients used for their cooking, as well as how food is prepared.
Do try the kimiz (horse milk), kuurdak (sauteed meat) and traditional noodles known as beshbarmak, which is similar to spaghetti and contains a mixture of meats. Beshbarmak means "five fingers", because that is how the dish is eaten - with your fingers. Also, try the wheat drink called jarma.
OF TENTS AND TOILETS
The country's nomadic tradition, which has been passed down from generation to generation, is still very evident.
While the majority of Kyrgyz live in houses and apartments, some natives live in portable round tents, called bozui, accompanied by herds of horses, goats and sheep.
Bozui are usually found in rural areas and used by the shepherds. Being portable, they are designed to be easily dismantled and carried about.
Assembling one takes around two hours, and is done by both men and women; usually the men are in charge of the wooden structures while the women handle decorations and roofing.
Many bozui are also set up along the highway or in the city as makeshift restaurants to offer visitors a unique dining experience in a traditional house.
Then there are bozui camps like those in Tash Rabat, the House of Stones at Bashy and in Jeti-Oguz (Seven Bulls) Valley near the city of Karakol on Issyk-Kul Lake.
Be prepared, however, for their toilets; in some places, they can be very simple.
BEFORE YOU GO
Getting to Kyrgyzstan from Singapore takes about 121/2 hours or more by air and may include transit stops. Do make sure to change your currency to United States dollars.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
This trip was sponsored by the government of the Kyrgyz Republic.