With the prospect of a 9 hour mountainous marshrutka ride, full to the brim with people and no air-con and perhaps no guarantee of a seat, we opted to fly south instead. Flying is surprisingly cheap which makes it even harder to resist. Ever since we arrived in Kyrgyzstan, we had heard great things about the south, so we certainly could not miss it.
Besides the temperature, the main difference between the North and South if, of course, the people. And with this comes a difference in culture. The Northern side, being closer to Russia, naturally has more of a Russian influence. Therefore it is not uncommon to see white faces and blonde hair; Kirsty was almost a bit disappointed by the lack attention! The South on-the-other-hand has a noticeably different vibe and type of person. There are more visible practicing Muslims in the South, which is the country’s number one religion. Women are much more covered, and often people would greet John as they walked past, thinking he was Muslim due to his beard, which has become fairly wild by this point!
There is also a more ‘Asian’ vibe here, particularly with reference to the food and the way people eat, but also in the decor of the homes and the designs of the crockery and cutlery. For example, for a meal we would sit at a low table on the floor, drink ‘chai’ (tea) from small, ornate bowls and at times eat with chopsticks.
The main difference however came from the simple fact that there is a high proportion of Uzbeks living in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Which is not so peculiar when you consider that 24 years ago Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet block, and besides the different names between the countries, no physical border existed. So when the borders returned after independence, many Uzbeks found their homes now resided in a foreign country. Thus Uzbeks and their culture continue to be prominent in the South, thereby providing the most distinct difference with the North.
It is also much more rural and less visited down South. One place we visited was a remote town called Arslanbob. This quaint and scenic town hosts the largest natural walnut forest in the world. It is also situated at the bottom of a majestic mountain, flowing with fresh springs that pass through the town from all directions. The roaring sound of the distant waterfalls is complimented by the peaceful light trickle of the constant streams that pass by outside every home. This is a great retreat for anyone who wants to step away from the chaotic commotion of city life. Proud villagers told us stories of travellers who stopped in Arslanbob for several days, not leaving their rooms and simply sleeping to the soft sound of the stream.
What gives this place a more remote feel is the lack of technology that exists here. Homes do not have computers or internet, at most you may
see a family eating dinner in front of an old box style T.V. Entertainment comes from other things. The older men sit inside tea houses, gossiping, whilst children play in the streets or by the streams. We found some young girls who were fantastic with the skipping rope and passed it over to us to see our ‘skills’. It is safe to say we were embarrassingly poor, to their amusement. Meanwhile their brothers and their friends sped by on their plastic car and bikes. To our surprise they all asked for their pictures to be taken. It seems that they don’t often get foreign faces around and used the opportunity to show off.
Whilst we were in Arslanbob we stayed with two families who have lived in the town their whole life. The father of one of the families was an old man who taught English at the local school and therefore we were able to communicate fairly well, a rarity in this area. He used to be the town councillor and explained to us the political situation in Kyrgyzstan. At the time of our arrival it was election day. He highlighted the vast differences between the democratic system of Kyrgyzstan and the particularly undemocratic systems of the surrounding countries, namely Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. All of which, particularly Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have a quite authoritarian regime under the guise of a democratic one. Many people were proud of their democratic system, particularly the young people who seemed fairly engaged.
One particular problem we was having down South was unfortunately the poor food and lack of hygiene. The food often tasted like old sheep or horse. The meat stalls would have flies and wasps all over the meat and we were also greeted by a freshly cut horse head on the floor. It was enough to turn us vegetarian for the rest of the trip. Unfortunately Kyrgs do not do vegetarian, and even if there was no meat in the dish served, you could still taste it. Even the fried egg somehow smelt of death!
We spent most of our time in Kyrgyzstan relaxing and just embracing the culture shock. We returned to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city, before flying to our next destination; India! (read why on our about page). Various minibus rides with no A/C, stifling heat, crying babies and numerous people getting sick were all part of the journey! Hungry for veggies and colourful streets we can’t help but be excited to leave for our next destination. Kyrgyzstan, however, was a country we loved and recommend. With its fantastic scenery and mix of cultures it has been a real highlight to our trip. We have great memories here and already have plans to return in the future (during the summer this time!) for more nomadic experiences!
Have you ever been to Southern Kyrgyzstan? Please tell your experience! Comment below, like and share. For more photos visit our Flickr page.