Talking to myself about foreign policy, US politics, technology, &c.


Cross-posted from Allie and my travel web site,
We checked two critically important boxes off this weekend in our first trip outside of Bishkek. We spent a night in an honest-to-goodness yurt, and partook in the national drink of Kyrgyzstan: Kymmys, AKA fermented mares’ milk.

Allie and I had been getting increasingly desperate to get out of Bishkek, and finally managed it. We took a shared taxi on the three-hour trip to the relatively small town of Kochkor, nestled on the south side of the mountains behind Bishkek.

Shared taxis are one of the clever innovations they’ve come up with in this country poor in both finances and capital. Cars wait in certain well-known spots at the bus station, calling out their destination. Once they’re full, they take off and drive straight there, making such trips possible in a land where almost no one can possibly afford a car. Besides, some of the antediluvian Ladas that they drive around here look like they should have been taken off the road during the Truman administration, and I wouldn’t trust them for a ride across a parking lot, much less this rugged country. Further bearing in mind that in this very rugged country that the roads are in worse shape than the cars, and a decent car and driver seem like a really good idea. The roads are actually bad enough that people frequently drive on the shoulder; it’s in better repair than the asphalt.

We were later than we hoped getting out of town, and coupled with our finances it made our trip options a bit limited. We really lucked out, though, and had a delightful time. A grueling (for chubby me carrying our even tubbier bag) 3 hours through the foothills brought us to the jailoo (pronounced like everyone’s favorite J-Lo) or summer pasture for a Kyrgyz family. As they have since nomads first arrived in Kyrgyzstan, during the swelteringly dry summer flocks and folks take refuge in the still-lush upland pastures. They were in fact shockingly green; it was amazing to see the landscape change as we plodded higher.

Apart from a one-room brick house that was a modern innovation, life continued here as it must have forever. They had a small (!) flock of 500 or so sheep; we were told there were perhaps 5000 in the valley in all. Amazing things, sheep- turn grass and water into meat, clothes, and enough military power to terrorize the world until the 19th century. This not particularly conquest-oriented family also had a herd of cattle and a dozen or so horses, along with two mischievous donkeys whose tasks we never did figure out. Talented at braying at uncouth times in the morning, though. Food was simple, but tasty; flat bread, homemade butter, cream, and cheese from the cows, and for dinner mutton noodle soup. All washed down with oodles of the infamous kymmys.

Foreigners are told in no uncertain terms to take only a small amount of kymmys the first time you drink it; we simply don’t have the enzymes to break it down. This sensible precaution was annihilated by my lack of self-restraint and the pressures of Kyrgyz hospitality, and four bowls filled to the brim later it was time for bed. Happily, I didn’t become violently ill; actually, I developed quite a taste for the stuff. It’s like a yogurt-flavored milk with a smokey tang; really quite delicious. It’s only mildly alcoholic, so you really have to work at it to even get a mild buzz.

Perhaps at some later point I’ll describe what a yurt really is, but suffice it to say that we slept very well despite a loud thunderstorm and the louder donkeys. We would have been pretty cold without our blankets, though, another sign of how high up we made it.

The next morning after wandering a bit on our own, drinking in the magnificent scenery (and one more bowl of kymmys) we headed back down, relieved to see that our ancient car and its even more ancient driver had both survived one more night. He brought us back to Kochkor and from thence we made it to Bishkek in time to indulge in a tasty Indian dinner.

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