Archive for July, 2014

Kyrgyz Culture Part 1: People, Food, Space, Housework

I hope this post isn’t as boring as the title sounds.


Up until a few days ago, “the family” had consisted of Nora, Bec, and occasionally the cousin Siuta.  She’s gone home to be with her parents for a while, but the father just came home from a 10 day trip driving tourists around Kyrgyzstan.  He is a doll.  He clearly thinks I’m adorable and is smitten whenever I use a Kyrgyz word.  We can’t actually hold a conversation because he has as many (or should I say few?) English words as I have Kyrgyz.  His name reminds me of “diction” so I will write it as “Jickshen.” 


I have recently become part of their family.  The very next day, I was informed at breakfast by Jickshen that I am his daughter, told by Nora while we were de-stemming strawberries that I am her newest daughter, and allowed to sit somewhere other than the seat of the guest of honor at dinner.  That last part may sound like a demotion, but it is not.  It means I’m no longer a tourist, but instead am a family member.  While we were washing 11 pounds of strawberries, a Dutch traveler came over.  Nora excitedly said, “this is my dotter!” so he directed his query for soap at me.  I passed it on, in English, to Nora who was right there, and he said, “so you don’t speak Kyrgyz then?”  He was very confused, and I was quite amused.  Jickshen delights in saying, “Salam, McKenna!” to which I respond, “Salam!” and I love the accented way he says my name.  Did I mention he gushes whenever I use a Kyrgyz word?  At lunch the next day he said, “chai ich?” which means “Tea please?”  I politely refused in English and he and Nora taught me to say, “e chip, atam” and they merely translated it as “I am drinking.”  They didn’t tell me I was calling him father, but I figured it out since “atam” is one of my 15 or so vocabulary words I’ve picked up.  His smile lights up when we go through the scripted conversation, “chai ich McKenna?” “E chip, atam.”  Btw daddy, he’s congratulated you on your 5 girl family.


I have started telling other travelers that I am doing a “research project” because that is way easier to comprehend than “traveling in pursuit of a project that will foster personal growth and exploration” which just comes across as totally touchy-feely.   The Watson is hard enough to explain to Americans and sharing it in its entirety is too time-consuming, so I figure a white lie is a great way to keep me sane.  Since I have been masquerading as a cultural anthropologist, I tried to come up with some cultural themes for Kyrgyz people.  Similarly, in light of my new family, I figured I should do a shallow explanation of Kyrgyz culture as I understand it thus far. 




In my journal at the airport in Turkey, I got my first glimpse of Kyrgyz people and I wrote “I think the people at the airport gate are so interesting to look at that they’re beautiful.  I’m interested to see how this view changes.”   My next view was in Bishkek where people were typical Kyrgyz, which is not a real thing.  Some look Russian (aka “white”) and some look like a “stereotypical Asian” with all sorts of beautiful people in between.  Most everyone on the street looked at me, even though there are plenty of tourists on the streets.

Their teeth are sparklingly white, until they have to have one pulled or covered in gold.  I don’t understand it.  So many people are missing teeth next to a mouth full of beautiful ones.  Nora has one gold tooth and Jickshen has at least three that I can see.  People also seem to get gray hairs here very early.  I’ve seen people I know to be in their teens with sneaky gray hairs in their otherwise black locks.  Nora has the high cheekbones I associate with Native Americans and the whole family have round, cheery faces.  Nora’s younger sister (around 32 years old) visited and I could tell she and Jickshen were play-fighting.  I asked what it was about and apparently he was teasing them both about their “big faces.”  The southern region that I went through on my travels to Kizil-Oi is known to have people who still have blue eyes and lighter skin, a leftover from before the Mongolian invasion.  I actually saw three blue-eyed gentleman, but the other ethnic Kyrgyz (as opposed to the nationality Kyrgyz which includes people of Russian descent) have brown eyes.  Nora’s are light like honey or toffee.  As for their skin, Bec is basically a white boy with a tan.  He could pass for Irish as long as you don’t look at his arms and face.  Their eyes don’t have the upper crease that leads people to think Bi is Chinese when he is studying in Turkey.


Older women wear scarves that cover most of their hair (but not entirely) and leave their ears uncovered.  Adinay, the Kyrgyz woman who organized my home stay, made sure to tell me it is “for comfort” rather than strict Muslim beliefs.  I think it is an older custom since younger women are less likely to wear them.  The majority of the country is Muslim and I arrived during Ramadan.  Whereas everyone I encountered in Turkey was fasting, fewer people here do it, perhaps because all the ones I know are farmers.  There is a neighbor that plays the call to prayer but I have never seen anyone pray in the two weeks I’ve been here.  Sleeping in the yurt in the mountains with two Swiss Germans and two guides, we heard LITTLE BOYS SINGING outside of our abode.  I was very confused and got some sleepy response about Ramadan.  The night Jickshen got home, it happened again!  Apparently it is kind of like Halloween except instead of running around in costumes asking for candy, children sing a national song and ask for money.  It has happened a few times, and Bec asks his father for money, goes to the gate, and pays them off.  It’s pretty fun and it only happens once the sun has gone down.  There is one Kyrgyz custom that Bec taught me that I later got laughed at for doing because it is specifically Muslim and they know I am not.  At the end of every meal they wash their hands over their faces and say “Omin” to thank God for the food.  Oh, god, the food.



The tables have plastic table cloths for easy cleaning.  It is set with huge bowls of bread, glasses for napkins, apricot, strawberry and blackcurrant jam (homemade), honey (local), traditional butter, store-bought butter, dishes of sugar, side dishes of vegetables (always tomatoes and cucumbers) and minced ones in a sauce, and at least two large dishes of whatever the main course is.  Tourists are served far too much food from the large dish to their own plate, force-fed tea, and given funny looks if they refuse seconds.  “Five fingers” (so-called because everyone used their fingers to eat out of the same dish) is a traditional meal here that is pretty good even without meat, though at that point it is just pasta and spices.  Meatless plov (which seems to be pronounced “plof”) is rice and carrots but is more delicious than it sounds.  If there are no tourists here, we have the previous night’s dinner for breakfast, but Nora knows that most people are not used to that.  Instead we either get a potato pastry thing or a large bowl of something like oatmeal (which is usually just fed to children).  I cannot remember all of the other foods I’ve had here, but they are all great.  Keep in mind that is coming from an adventuresome traveler who is also not an adventuresome eater.


Several cups of tea are drunk per meal.  They delight in giving you several cups, so they are delivered to you never more than 2/3 full.  If you are served a full bowl of tea, it means that the host wants you to finish your one serving of tea and be on your way.  On the table there is sugar, jam, honey, or some combination to sweeten the tea (and I have seen Kyrgyz drop four sugar cubes in their tea before).  The honey is harvested from this village and there are taste, texture, and color differences between the river honey and the mountain honey (not that I have noticed, but I’m told they exist).  Kyrgyz people believe that it is good for digestion to drink while you are eating, which may explain their zeal in offering, “chai ich?”  Theirs is an aggressive hospitality.


The physical spaces

The houses here are predominantly set up in a courtyard style with buildings or rooms along the outside and green space or gardens in the center.  I heard a tour guide said this is a Soviet holdover, but when I asked Nora’s sister she said it happened this way because they started with a house and then made additions.  Who knows.  The toilets are usually external and set far away from the house except at Nora’s because she caters to tourists; there is a bathroom inside for tourists but they use an outdoor one because it doesn’t require a septic tank.  Most places don’t have running water and the bathroom sinks are outside stand-alone camping sinks with a bucket of water at the top that fills the tap and a bucket in the bottom to catch the run-off.  Here, the kitchen, dining room and bedrooms all seem to be separate spaces though their barn shares a roof with the kitchen and dining room like our tractor shed.  Out the front gate and to the left (after about 10 minutes of walking down the hill) is the river; to the right is the rest of the village, most everybody’s farm land, and the road that goes further up the mountains. 


The yurt is in the central courtyard.  I originally thought it must clearly be for tourists to look at because nobody sleeps in it, but on a rare day off, Nora and Jickshen relaxed in the yurt.  Other Kyrgyz guests have noted that it is a particularly pretty yurt.  I think houses and yurts occupy cognitively similar spaces, more than just both being a living space.  Yurts are pretty plain on the outside and magnificently colored on the inside, and so are their houses.  Rugs cover the ground of yurts so they are separated from the dirt, and houses also have rugs all over.  People clearly like the modern amenities and convenience of living in a house instead (aka there is actually space and at least the possibility of running water) but I think they are nostalgic for their grandparents’ abodes.  Not only are yurts for foreign tourists, but Bidulot said that his family spent a holiday in a yurt when he was a child.  When people live in them now, they do not have to pack their things in to the mountains by horse like a few generations ago, but instead they use vehicles when possible.


House work

They still make pickles, jams, bread (rolls, loaves, borsok), and some of the sweet treats on the table.  This is of course in addition to creating the meals, setting the table, clearing the table, and washing all the dishes by hand from the well water outside.


Washing clothes…  You’d think that would be easy to figure out, right?  Nora thinks I’m an idiot because she had to walk me through the, like, 5 steps involved in doing laundry here.  I’ve fetched water, washed in a machine, rinsed in a bucked, wrung them out, and dried on the line.  If there was no space on the many clothes lines, I put my stuff on the picket fence around a small garden or the larger one that goes around the house.  We filled two pails of hot water from the tourist shower (which at least is still helpful even when the tourists are gone for 8 months out of the year) and a cold bucket from the well.  Nora plugs the washing machine (which is just an agitator, really) in to the yurt.  That made me giggle on the inside that their throw-back architecture is where they plug in the washing machine they got a few months ago.  I wandered away after we put about a third of my clothes in the machine and settled down to write for a half hour or so until they would be ready.  Uh, nope, this is one of those instances in which thinking you know how things work turns out to be bound in my conception of laundry rooms and not laundry-front-porch-of-the-yurts.  Ten minutes later Nora, a bit disgruntled, told me to come help her with my laundry.  Since it is such a simple machine, it only takes a little while to swish the clothes around in the hot water, we then pull them out and rinse them in a big bucket of water, wring them out (she kept trying to teach me the motion but it’s not that I don’t know how, it’s that I’m not good at it) and hang them to dry.  I think she knows from other instances that I’m A) helpful and B) not an idiot.  Hopefully.


Two more things.


There is a hose attached to what I think is a well since it was described as “cold water from the ground” which is always left running.  I thought there must be some deep meaning attached to this that I just didn’t understand like it’s important for farming in their yard, since otherwise it seems wasteful.  I asked Bec why they leave the water running, and he said the tap is broken and won’t shut off.  Kyrgyz tradition?  Nope.  Random acts not worthy of interpretation 1, McKenna 0.


If you want a closer look at Kyrgyz culture and language, watch “Salam New York” with English subtitles.  It’s about a young Kyrgyz man who moves to New York to go to Columbia University without actually speaking much English.  I watched it in Russian and Kyrgyz and think I understand what happened.  It was fun to pick out Kyrgyz words I understand and to listen hard for the English under the dubbing.


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“I’ve been through the Mountains on a Horse with No Name”

I left Kizil-Oi sharing a taxi with 3 soon to be not strangers.  We spent 3.5 hours or so in a vehicle that alternated between sickeningly hot and dangerously dusty as the driver would roll down the windows to cool us off.  I discovered use #1 for a Buff: I kept it around my neck and pulled it over my nose whenever it was too dusty.  Cha ching, it really is useful!  I spoke with one of the fellow taxi riders about horses and it turns out she is a tv producer that nearly worked on a documentary about horses.  We had a great chat and I got her contact info for later.  Once in Kochkar I set up an itinerary of horse riding for two days with a guide and I would get picked up by a driver on the third day.  I walked for 15 minutes from the city center to my home stay and promptly crashed on the bed.  I later figured out that Kochkar is over 5,000 feet above sea level so my energy was zapped by the elevation.  (For comparison, my home base of Chon Kemin is a mere 1,400-2,800 feet up).  After chilling out for a little while, I noticed just how badly I needed a shower after the hot and dusty car ride.  What transpired next I do not think I would call a “shower.”  I was directed to three small rooms, none of which looked like a bathroom.  The host told me to take off my boots and put on some waterproof slippers then left me in a room with a concrete bench, a large metal drum of warm water, a scoop, and a bucket.  I smelled better afterwards, but I was mightily confused and I don’t even know if I was in the right room for washing.  The joys of travel.


The next morning I eagerly walked back to the tourism booth to await the taxi which surprised the woman who works there.  Apparently the taxi was coming to my guest house to pick me up, but I didn’t know that…  I hopped in the car with the same two Swiss German women I’d ridden to town with, and off we went.  The van stopped to pick up two young men (17 and 19) on the side of the road who turned out to be our horse guides.  The older one, Bidulot, was my guide and we got out at the first stop to select our horses; by which I mean hop on horses that had already been saddled and staked out.  I was not asked about my level of experience, height, weight, comfort on a horse, nada.  I was not given a riding lesson.  Bi tied his backpack and my day pack together and strung them behind his saddle (a pack horse, guffaw!).  In virtual silence (except for the internal giggles left over from my dorky joke) we got on our horses and rode into the mountains.  About 10 minutes in Bidulot taught me the magic words: “drrrrr” (rolling the r) means stop and “choo” means go.  It had never even occurred to me that people make other noises than clicking and kissing to ask their horses to move!  I was surprised and it took the better part of two days to train myself to say “choo” to get my unnamed horse to go slightly faster.  Speaking of not having a name, I decided to call him Jules for no particular reason except that he needed a name for the next two days, even if it was only in my own head.


The scenery was fantastic.  If you ever visit Kyrgyzstan, you need to do it by horse.  I wished I had a big muscley Quarter Horse for the uphill (upmountain?) parts but the Kyrgyz horses were fantastic at tiptoeing down the mountain without making us fall to our death – I mean, just mild dismemberment – I mean, surely manageable fate.  But seriously, I was on the sides of mountains for 5 hours each day and I might have worried a bit.  I finally decided that the process of natural selection was working in my favor as I would not be riding a horse descended from clumsy ancestors.  In the beginning we were passing homesteads made up of yurts, trailers, and the occasional animal pen.  I thought the horse sighting was great, but the best was yet to come.  After about three hours of riding, Bidulot and I stopped at an idyllic riverbed for a lunch break.  He tied the horses’ reins together so they wouldn’t wander too far away.  I’ve changed my mind again, that was the prettiest place I have ever been.  We rode for another two hours before ascending to a camp of three yurts and a tent, arriving at exactly the same time as the Swiss Germans and their guide.  We spent the rest of the evening lounging in the yurt, reading, admiring the scenery, and eating with the family (again made up of a woman with children too young to be her own).  One of the other girls cannot eat wheat, which is actually worse than not eating meat in Kyrgyzstan.  They tell her she will get better if she only eats bread because, like a vegetarian, they cannot conceive of a diet without wheat.  She received a stomach massage for her upset organs from the very kind host.  Traditional medicine is still practiced here, particularly in the jailoos (pronounced jai-lows, which means summer pastures).


In case you didn’t know, this is how I feel about cats:


However, my cat detecting skills have reached a dismal low.  At tea someone started pointing behind me to a pile of blankets above my head and saying, “Zoya” which indicated that I had unknowingly been sharing a space with a cat for the previous 20 minutes.  In my defense she was like 3 feet over my head because I was sitting on the ground.  Michael said “I don’t think I would immediately scan for cats in a yurt, had I not heard this story. Now it will be my first yurt instinct.”  I fairly stalked her the rest of my visit and even tried to steal Zoya to my yurt for cuddles.  Unfortunately, she just jumped up on a similar pile of blankets and didn’t hang out with me.  Later she was involved in a skirmish with the grown-up puppy, probably teaching him The Rule.*  Zoya ran up the yurt.  Like it’s normal; like cats chilliin’ on yurts is an everyday thing.  I walked outside and was even more surprised to see a cat ON the yurt than I was to see one IN the yurt.  I giggled; I took photos; the world kept turning.


The Swiss, guides and I slept in yurts and it got very cold.  This is everything I slept in underneath the already massive blanket: tights, trousers, two shirts, winter coat, two pair of socks, and my Buff wrapped around my head.  That was just enough clothing to stay warm.


The next day we all rode out together for Sun Kul, a beautiful mountain lake that is 3,200 meters (over 10,000 feet) high.  We rode and chatted for the next 2.5 hours.  The Swiss asked me a few questions about posture at the beginning, and the boys would pop each other’s horses on the butts as a joke to each other.  Nobody even almost died, though the views were to die for.  The five of us stopped at the top of a mountain where it was very windy but beautiful.  One of the girls called me over to look at a saddle sore which was a good four inches across.  I said, “that’s not good!” and called her guide over to inspect it.  He brushed it off and said there was no problem.  I became very sad and somewhat angry for the poor horse with the open wound.  I did not enjoy the stop.  His rider asked if it hurts him and the guide answered in the negative.  I, in no uncertain terms, told her later that he is full of shit.  In my short two weeks here, I have seen seven horses bobbing their head (a manifestation of boredom when staked out) and one horse on the side of the road with a severely disfigured leg.  Other than that (which is pretty minor considering just how many horses there are in this country) this is the first sign of mistreatment I have witnessed.  I’m still trying to process the differences between babying a horse as I would and merely keeping their bodies in working condition.  The Kyrgyz horse is known for its endurance and this is a cultural anecdote of just that.  We stopped for lunch in view of the Sun Kul, and parted ways.  I suggested they ask to take the horse’s saddle off as soon as they arrived at their destination rather than leaving it on until nightfall; I am still thinking about that nameless gray gelding.


Once we left the house from lunch, the remaining two hours were spent in “maybe small mountains” (which translates to “hills”) with virtually no wind noise.  Unfortunately we traded the howling wind for swarms of mosquitos, but I enjoyed actually being able to talk to Bi.  I pestered him with every question about horses that I could think of.  There are words for horses that separate them by age and gender; he confirmed that it is impolite to share how many horses you have if it is a lot; horses’ ages are not counted in “people years”; he wants to be a businessman who lives on a horse farm when he’s out of university; people teach themselves to ride as children; he (and everyone else I’ve spoken to) says his sisters used to ride, but not anymore; when he was 6, his family moved to a city and sold their horses, which made him sad; last year his family sold all 17 of their horses, and it did not hurt his feelings; horses don’t usually have names when they are part of really big herds; male horses are ridden whereas (mom, quit reading) mares are either breeding or eaten.  This kid clearly feels an attachment to horses that is still quite important even if it is different from my own.  I’ve read that a Kyrgyz proverb states “Only a horse and an agreeable conversation can shorten a long journey,” and it was a fantastic two hours of my “research.”


Something I thought of that made me giggle earlier that day during a 5 hour horse ride through mountain pastures and animal manure: “The hills are alive, with the sound of ewes(ick!)”  I cracked myself up.  But seriously, there were animals everywhere, looking like a squiggley pile of ants on the next mountain over.  By my estimate (assisted by counting small herds) I saw over 700 horses in three days.  Previously I had thought that most of the horses were bays, blacks and grays but I was proven wrong.  I saw dapples, paints, leopard spotted and a gorgeous stallion that looked just like a blanket appaloosa.  I saw a black mare and foal who each had one blue eye.  I saw palominos, buckskins, sorrels, and a horse like my Wrangler with a line down his back and zebra stripes on his legs.  The herds were so independent that I could see basically wild herd behavior.  I learned to pick out the stallion solely based on his actions within the herd.  I got much better at distinguishing horses from cows at a distance, and I came to learn that a mare with 5 or 6 legs is actually hiding a foal behind her.  Similarly, colored lumps on the ground are also foals.


We got to a “tourist yurt camp” which means there were dozens of yurts set up especially for tourists.  Bi and I had tea and bread with our host and some friendly French people.  They then said they would go to the beach and I started to go with them until Bi said it’s time for me to try koumiss.




I have been simultaneously excited for it and dreading it since I got here.  I am never going to eat horse meat, but koumiss is slightly fermented mare’s milk and seems like an acceptable way to consume a horse product, if that makes any sense.  I’ve heard horror stories from travelers who are offered koumiss and must force down part or all of a bowl before dashing away to the toilet.  So there I sat, expecting a nasty foreign drink, when in reality it tastes like slightly sour grape juice and skim milk.  I kinda liked it.  I think there is a bit of fate at work since I have gotten a Watson in the year of the horse, and I’m the rare foreigner who can palate mare’s milk.


After that Bi and I laid down on the floor of the yurt, staring up at the top and talking for ages.  The Kyrgyz flag has a sun that looks like the view of a yurt looking up from the inside (which I can pretend I knew all along, but really Bi was the one that pointed it out.  Doh.)  We were called to the cooking tent for tea and I saw a mother, baby, and grandparents all bustling around.  Well, the 8 month old wasn’t bustling, she was bouncing.  And bouncing; and bouncing; and squeaking.  It was such a cute thing that everyone in the tent was laughing together at baby Adinay.  The grandmother who was holding her and I would laugh at the same times and that made for a fun cross-cultural/linguistic experience.  I later saw her drinking tea from a bottle and squealed in surprise, which was rude but entirely accidental.  Babies drink tea here?!  Gah!  People are drinking horse milk and the baby is drinking tea!  (Bad anthropologist, bad!)


Since I don’t speak Russian or Kyrgyz, I’m not really able to speak to the hosts; just the guides and tourists.  So at dinner I had a rousing conversation with 4 Parisians about horses in Kyrgyzstan, France, and the U.S. which included how they are treated, what the bond is like if you eat a horse (as they also do in parts of France), and if they function as a piece of equipment rather than an emotionally intelligent creature.  The next day I spoke with one of the couples about my plans to visit Paris for a few days on my way to the World Equestrian Games and they offered me a centrally-located place to stay in Paris for free.  I squealed again, which was embarrassing, but not offensive.  That’s certainly exciting.


They went off to a different part of the lake and I waited for my driver, who was an hour late.  Ten minutes in to the drive back to Kochkar I heard a bleat and whipped my head around to the trunk where there was an unseen sheep behind some stuff.  The driver thought this was the most hilarious thing and kept reenacting it throughout the drive.


I got to Kochkar and had an incredibly over-priced taxi to a city near my village.  I got mad at the driver but I was kind of stuck with no language skills and no leverage.  I got the price down $5 from what he originally asked but it was still probably eight times what a local would have paid.  He dropped me off downtown.  I wandered around trying to find a bus.  I asked a nice pregnant lady if she was waiting for a bus to Chon Kemin (“mashutka Chon Kemin?”) and when she said yes, I knew all I had to do was follow her moves.  She got in a taxi; I got in a taxi.  I paid $1 for a half hour taxi to the village (instead of a $3 hour-long bus ride) where Bec picked me up to direct me home.  All in all it was five hours of transportation and a few extra gray hairs, but I did it.


For someone else’s perspective on the Kyrgyz horse, see


*The Rule, should you not be familiar, is “Cats Rule and Dogs Drool.”

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I basically hitched a ride with the sweet Dutch family to Kizil-Oi (red canyon) where it was purported there would be a “Kyrgyz National Horse Games Festival.”  Jérôme (the 12 year old boy) and I sat in the back of a van and made jokes with each other.  He has only been studying English for 1 year but man he’s good!  He spilled his drink because of the bumpy road and I laughed at him; he later stared fixedly at me when I was drinking, ready to laugh if I spilled my drink.  Someone pointed out a train following the side of the road and apparently in Kyrgyzstan what would take 2 hours by car takes 3 hours by train.  This meant that our van passed a train, giving new meaning to “faster than a speeding train.”  We danced and sang to a club song on the radio and he told his parents they would go to a club for seniors.  I laughed so hard and said, “we call that a smart ass.”  We talked about the size of the graveyards (which take up a city block of space because of the huge mausoleum-type grave markers) and he said it’s the size of “either a small city or a large village.”  We went around a U-shaped bend around a gorge and he supposed that it would have been more expensive to build a bridge.  Wow, kid!  We stopped to look at water and he called it a “reservoir” when I couldn’t even think of that word in English.  We geeked out about Romans and he told me all about Roman saddles (which had two horns in the front to hold on to and no stirrups; the last part I knew already).  At some point I told him he might be a not so annoying younger brother, and he took it as the compliment I meant.


Besides the good company and better price of hitching a ride, there was the added bonus of having a Kyrgyz guide who would tell us about the things we saw on the road.  As we passed a village, Nurjan said that houses are meant to be humble on the outside so that you do not make your neighbors jealous but that they are frequently beautiful on the inside.  At dinner the night before, Nurjan was translating questions to Nora and we remarked that her responses were way longer than his translations.  She then said that what could be said in a few words, in Kyrgyz you use many more.  That was fun to learn, and explains why people actively listen by saying “mmm” or “ah” as someone is speaking.


All of us stopped at Kochkar to look at the bazaar and have lunch ($7 for me, when they are usually $4-5).  When we were getting in the van to leave we met another Dutch couple whose translator/guide, Gorzada, is the daughter of my home stay family in Chon Kemin!  Funny how small the world is.  From Kochgar to Kizil-Oi, we raced the van of Dutch people because we knew they were headed to the same place.  Perhaps they did not know it, but Jérôme and I knew it.  Many times after lunch we stopped to admire the scenery.  Twice we stopped to look at a river going through the mountains and I said, “this is the most beautiful place I have ever been,” “no THIS is the most beautiful place I have ever been!”  There will be breath-taking photos later.  Jérôme has Ratata, a small toy rat that gets his picture taken everywhere.  The driver and guide/translator took Jerome back to retrieve Ratata who had gotten left one scenic view behind, and Rob and Hetty (the delightful parents) and I got some time for grown-up talk that mostly centered on the weird scholarship I have received.  That is a consistent response I get.


They were unbelievably sweet to let me be a part of their family vacation for a day and I enjoyed myself immensely.  (It also helped that I saved over $100 in transportation fees… but I really did have a grand time.)  I think they are now my “Dutch family,” whether they like it or not.  I told Hetty that they would have a free place to stay if their “next exotic vacation” should be to Mississippi.  😛  Too soon, (by which I mean 8 hours later) I arrived at my home-stay.  I got out, paid, the driver and took a photo with Ratata.


When I arrived I met Katya, the host whose English seems to be “Hello, my name is Katya.”  I set down my things in a room with a couch but no bed, but I thought it would surely do.  (I ended sleeping on a pile of bedding on the floor, as did everyone else.  The couch was a diversion!)  I bounced around the several buildings to see the river basically in their backyard.  I didn’t stay long because I was getting eaten alive by flies and midges.  When I had left five minutes before, an old woman was walking away from the main house.  When I got back, I realized she was slowly, painfully, walking to the toilet.  She walked bent at the waist and held her cane for dear life.  I held out my arm to help her and no language barrier could disguise her gratitude.  She stopped often to catch her breath and gestured that her knees hurt badly.  I wished I could carry her, but instead I helped her shuffle down the hill to the outhouse, I waited, and I helped her walk back.  She kissed my hand when she was returned and I gave her a hug.  I think she is the mother of Katya but the children running around are surely not also Katya’s.  I have noticed that people seem to borrow children for the tourist season in order to help around the house, or they are taking care of them because their parents are working.


I went for a beautiful walk down the one road of Kizil-Oi with two Basque people.  When I met them I said, “like, from Spain?” which is apparently like saying to a Scottish person, “so you’re English?”  The only difference is that Basque wishes to be a separate country but is not yet recognized as one.  So, hello foot, meet mouth.  We walked down the road for maybe 20 minutes and turned around to come back.  We got a bit worried that we could not find our house and I said, “great, we must be the only 3 people who can get lost in a town with one road!”  (I later learned there were probably FOUR roads, but we hadn’t seen them yet so the point is moot.)  I had my first dinner here that I had to eat around pieces of meat in my pasta.  A Swiss German woman (Andrea) spoke enough Russian that she was able to tell Katya that I do not eat meat and we had the same ole, “chicken?  Fish?” song and dance.   Later that night Katya found me and was saying something in Russian over and over.  I found Andrea and she translated, “eggs?! What about the eggs?!”  Katya was relieved to hear I can eat something normal, and we had three sunny-side up eggs each over pasta the next morning.


The next day, I asked about the shower and found it is outside and not heated.  After feeling like a wimp compared to most of the adventure travelers here, all it took was a voluntary cold shower to become a “brave girl” again.  To be clear, this came from the Basques and they are not the most adventuresome, but I’ll take what I can get.  The festival was not supposed to start until 11:00 so I walked with the Basques (whose names are difficult and defy the written form).  I learned that “gauchos” from Argentina were originally Basque settlers who called themselves “Gauchore” which meant “night bird.”  When one saw another having a drink in a bar they would recognize each other as “gauchore,” which was later shortened to gaucho.  Fun story!  Also, this is the place that really makes me wish I could upload photos.  The village is surrounded by mountains and has a river going through it.  Sublime.


So the festival itself was on an island not very far into the river, so everybody crossed by car (if they were wimps or had goods to ferry across) or walked over a makeshift bridge of a weird piece of metal.  I milled about and noticed that “Kyrgyz National Horse Games Festival” truly means a festival of national Kyrgyz horse games, and not actually a national festival of Kyrgyz horse games.  See the difference?  It was a festival in a small village and I think that all of the tourists thought it would be a large event primarily for Kyrgyz people, but there were probably 100 tourists and I got the feeling the festival was basically for us.  It began with an “opening ceremony” which consisted of watching my host, Katya, and another woman make the traditional fried bread “borsok” and watching a different woman make the felt goods they are known for.  We then watched several short traditional performances: a woman sang, man played the komuz (like a guitar with 2 horse-hair strings made from apricot wood), a boy played the choor (a clay pipe), and a woman played a mouth harp called timor komuz (links to info and audio are at  After the music were traditional non-horse games: foreigner vs Kyrgyz men tug o’ war, foreigner vs Kyrgyz women tug o’ war (I participated), something like pin the tail on the donkey but with a bucket sitting on a pole, arm wrestling (men and women), and Kyrgyz wrestling just for boys.  Last but certainly not least was Kara Jorgo, their national dance which came about because of the need to exercise their upper bodies when traveling long distances by horse.  Kara Jorgo translates to Black Stallion and there has been a recent revival of interest in the dance in the past few years.  I’m not exactly sure if Kara Jorgo is the name of the dance or the song that is always on the radio but here is a video link that I haven’t gotten to watch but have heard is good (


Everyone was served lunch in yurts and tents.  I had a fabulous lunch made up entirely of the (meatless) side dishes: peanuts, bread, watermelon, dried apricots, cucumbers, and tomatoes.  I was so excited to have a meal of just fruit and veg.


Now for the horse games!!!  The announcer said that a Kyrgyz saying is “the horses are the wings of the man” which I have read elsewhere.  What a delightful way to start the games.

Oodarysh – horseback wrestling.  You basically try to unhorse your opponent by pulling on a loose belt about their waist.  The horses mostly stand there while their riders get into position and then bolt to try to pull the other rider down.  If the rider ends up on the other horse and not the ground, they still lose.

Tyin Enmei – coin pickup.  The riders gallop in a straight line attempting to pick up coins in the grass from their horse’s back.  The winner had 7 and the least amount picked up was 3.

Kyz Kyymai – chase the girl.  This was my favorite!  A girl rider is given a head start and she runs away.  A boy rider attempts to catch up and give her a kiss.  Next is her turn in which she tries to catch the boy and whip him.  Teehee.  These two women were pretty much the only ones I’ve seen riding a horse the whole time I’ve been here (besides tourists, of course) and they were wearing big floofy dresses and traditional hats.

Ulak Tartysh – “dead goat polo” as an American expat described it.  This is the typically thought of Kyrgyz horse game.  Two teams fight over a headless goat carcass (possibly 65 pounds) and try to throw it in the large well-shaped goal of the opponent.  Each goal took a few minutes to achieve and there were referees that would whistle if the horses went out of bounds.  I expected much sprinting back and forth and daring saves by single goalies, but the reality was a clump of horses that would wander back and forth a few feet before someone broke away to score or the whole clump managed to get close to the goal.  The final score was 11-3 and it lasted around 45 minutes with a half-time break.


It was definitely worth it to see the games.  After the horse games were over, everyone went back to their own guest houses for supper.  Loads of tourists left after the games which means they missed the “campfire and dance time” as it said on the schedule.  Katya made food without meat, just for me.  How sweet.  I went with two Swiss Germans to the dance and we discovered that it was modern American club music.  The Swiss man said “I’m not much of a party tiger.” Apparently he went for a direct translation of a Swiss German phrase without knowing if we have the same idiom in English.  I told him to say “party animal” next time and he said, “well that’s not very specific!”  I personally think that party tiger is too specific, but we agreed to disagree.  I was pulled away by a Kyrgyz man to dance in the center, and we started the party.  The Swiss subtly got the hell out of dodge to go play cards at the house.


At this point it is necessary to explain that I had not been able to find an ATM since I left Bishkek and I was running out of som.  I paid the 500 som entrance fee with a $10 bill (which is equivalent) so that I could have enough money left to stay the night.  I thought of the dance as a perfect opportunity to find someone sharing a taxi out of Kizil-Oi going somewhere more fun than Bishkek.  I found the CBT (Community Based Tourism, the organization that set up the festival) employee and explained my predicament.  She said that she didn’t know of anyone going to Kochgar (which is a jumping off point for Sun Kul, a beautiful mountain lake) but she’d look for someone.  Five or ten minutes later she said “I found some people!”  I was so amazed at her abilities and excited that my bullshit plan had worked that I hugged her.  She’s a Japanese woman that works in rural Kyrgyzstan and she was quite confused by the hug but not put off.  I continued dancing with Gorzada and Katya, who left around 10:00.  Gorzada asked if other people from my home stay were still at the dance and I said no.  She promptly stopped dancing, found Katya, and asked her to walk me home when I was ready.  I had felt so safe in the village, but I think “young woman walking alone in the dark” just isn’t done here.  To be clear, Michael: I would have been fine.  Trust me.  But I walked across the bridge holding my trusty, tiny flashlight and we found a bus that was going to drop off tourists so we didn’t have to walk the 5 minutes to the house.  What a great day.  Oh, and the campfire showed up eventually, making it a true “campfire and dance time.”


Katya and I had walked arm in arm for the short walk from the bridge to the bus.  She was so sweet to me during my day and a half there, despite our inability to say anything remarkable to each other.  We took a photo together the morning I left and she was a bit tickled to see herself on the screen.  She hugged me and told me to have safe travels.  Perhaps she is this wonderful with everyone, but I felt special.  Maybe she appreciated me helping her mother walk around their courtyard, or possibly these really are the sweetest people I have ever met.  Probably both.


Signing off from Kyrgyzstan,


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When in Kyrgyzstan…. You still wash your hands

I have been trying for a day and a half to seek Nora out when she is alone to give her money for my home stay and a book I’ve finished.  It’s pretty handy that everyone takes their shoes off to go inside because that means you can find people based on where they left their shoes.  The downside is this: I have, by necessity, become a socks and sandals kind of person.  I know, I know, it’s a fashion sin.  But it doesn’t make sense to lace up my shoes to walk 10 yards across the courtyard just to take the boots off again once I’m in the kitchen.  But (whinging ahead) my feet get cold without socks or shoes inside.  So the compromise is that I wear socks inside and put on sandals for walking between the rooms, just as most everybody else here does.  Needs must.


Also, scratch what I said before.  I am definitely butchering their names.


I have heard Nora call for “Bigbelot” which sounded like “Bigbot” on the first day.  I spoke with him today and tried to say his name.  He literally grimaced.  He said to call him Becca instead, or Bec.  Bec it is!  He then asked if I wanted to go riding in the evening (is that even a question?) so a few hours before dinner he took 3 horses and tied their reins in a knot to the tail of the horse in front so that they made a chain.  Then he took me to a horse outside of their gate and RIGHT before he put me on, he said “have you ever ridden before?”  Turns out we both started when we were about 4.  So I got on the horse and he has a sound he makes to mean stop which the horse knew but I didn’t.   So after I started wandering away, he went to get the 3 horses, held on to the reins of the front one, asked me to move my foot out of the stirrup, and climbed up behind me!  Later he asked if people ride double in the U.S. and I said mostly just children or people riding with children.  He said it’s the same here.  So we looked a bit out of place probably.


We rode down the road to the river I’d walked to and I didn’t have much trouble finding the way.  Then we got to a cliff with water below.  I said, “where to?” and Bec simply said “down.”  Apparently there was a trail I couldn’t see but the horse could, so I gave him his head and he tiptoed down the miniscule trail.  We got to the water and, seeing no sneakily hidden trails in the pool of water, I again asked where now?  “Forward,” Bec said.  We walked through the water!  I was very surprised, and I don’t yet have Kyrgyz trail vision.  Once we were to a nice place between two forks of the river, he hobbled the three grayish horses we’d brought along and I stayed on the brown horse.  I have never seen how a horse moves when hobbled!  If they want to go farther/faster they kind of hop like a bunny with their front feet.  He said “you may run that way and that way.  Be careful.  Have fun!”  Bec lay down a horse blanket in the shade and settled down for a cigarette.  I was officially on my own on a horse I don’t know in a place I could easily get lost.  So I took his “be careful” to heart and did not “run that way and that way” but walked along the river.  Even though we had crossed a section before, I didn’t know which areas were shallow enough to ford so we kept all six feet on dry land.  I was probably only gone for 15-20 minutes.  As soon as we turned back towards the other horses, mine got excited to be home so I didn’t delay us in getting back.  We spent an hour talking, sharing photos and music like 21st century teenagers.  When we were ready to go back I tried to put the saddle blanket on the horse’s rump as I expected it would go on the horse.  Bec left it for a while but eventually said, “I think it is this way…” as he turned it sideways.  What a doll.

When I got back I thought we’d go back to the house.  Bec said something in English I didn’t quite understand so I tentatively said sure.  He told me to get off the horse and even helped me down; one day I’ll have to tell him how much bigger my horses are than his.  He took the blanket off which goes on top of the saddle.  He hobbled the brown horse, lay down the second blanket, and we talked for probably about an hour and a half, mostly looking at photos on his phone.  My favorite thing he said was “I look at the mountains and think I am looking at a picture.”  We were supposed to be back at 8:00 for dinner but I looked at my watch at 8:20 and he said, “10 more minutes!”  Then we collected our horse, whose saddle had slipped upside down on his belly, and put his bridle back on.  We collected the halters from the other three horses and rode back to the house.  I said we could leave the horse by the river and walk back but Bec didn’t want to and had to do it after dinner.  I think he didn’t want the pampered American to have to walk back…  Even though I had walked it earlier that day.  On the ride up I learned that the brown horse’s name used by be Mouse (in Kyrgyz) because he could run very quick but a tour guide one time told Bec that is a lame name so now Mouse is… ADRENALINE!  He was such a calm, dead-broke horse and his name is Adrenaline.  It is the same word in Russian but pronounced like Ah-dreen-a-LEEN.  He said one of the other horses has a human name and giggled.  I told him about the cats names and he thought “Yaya” was hilarious.  We then saw a pretty mama cat and one fluffy yellow kitten.  Bec said he wanted one.  I might have planted the seed but Bec jumped off the horse and ran off to catch the kitten (unsuccessfully) which involved too many sudden movements and yells.  I’ll have to coach him before his next attempt.  I took my foot out of the stirrup expecting he would get back up the same way but instead he took a step back and flung his body up on the horse.  I have to say, that was more surprising than the time I didn’t even know he was getting on the horse.


I asked Bec about the dog from the night before and didn’t get much more info, but he was amused that I had been frightened of the X-L canine.  Since we were so late for dinner, the other tourists (including a Dutch family of 3) had already eaten.  I smelled like horse and hadn’t washed my hands in hours but I thought “when in Rome…” and began to take my boots off at the kitchen.  Bec said, “uh, Mac, wash our hands first?”  Doh.  My bad.  We washed our hands at an outdoor sink and then came in to the kitchen.  Bec and I sat down and he said to yell the word for food (which I have promptly forgotten) on the count of three but I was horrified at the bad manners.  I am a guest in the house!  Well, instead of eating with the tourists I am eating with the family (mwahahaha for acceptance!) but it still seems rude.  He said “it’s ok, it’s ok!” so we did three different times.  Once they delivered the food, we then yelled “chai!” to the other room since we didn’t have tea yet and it is improper to serve yourself.  To solidify my place in the family, and possibly to beg forgiveness for the rude shenanigans Bec convinced me to take part in, I asked if I could help clean up from dinner.   Nora said “tomorrow” which I think is a GREAT sign.  Then when we walked to the house from the kitchen, the dog barked, I squeaked and Bec laughed.  What a grand day.


“Tomorrow,” I did manage to help set the table without messing it up too much. Nora rearranged much of what I put down, but at least I carried it to the table…  Baby steps.


Yours truly,

Mecca/Mog/Fleet Feet


P.S.  I got to a place with internet today after the horse festival.  Once my brain stops hurting from all the new information, I’ll write about it.

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Please, More Tea, Please

I am sitting in front of a yurt right now.  “How did I get here?” I wonder.  It’s still amazing to me that this journey has worked out.  But seriously, you are probably wondering how I got here.


I met two very friendly Czechs on the flight from Turkey to Bishkek.  They had enough English that we could share pictures of our homes and talk about why we are each going to Kyrgyzstan.  They are in a group of eight who are going hiking for two weeks.  I was worried about the Kyrgyz border control so I glommed onto their group.  Some of us made it on to the first bus that took us to the airport exit, and we waited 10 minutes for the rest to make it from the second busload.  We exchanged emails (mostly so I could send them photos of a possum and raccoon, which was part of a very complicated and not entirely understood conversation from the plane) and I had no trouble going through.  By that I mean the border person let me through, yippee!  But then it took me a few minutes to FIND the exit.  I found the people whose company organized my tour, Ryan and Beth after only 5 minutes of looking.  By that I mean it was 5 minutes of “ohmigodohmigod where are they what if they aren’t here and I don’t have any way to call them what do I do whatdoIdowhatdoIdo?!” but I survived.  I recognized them from a photograph on their website and they asked if my flight was early.  I told them I ws under the impression it was 45 minutes late, and apparently I was an hour off in guessing the time zone.  I’m glad that worked out and that I’d waited with the Czechs or I would have been freaking out for longer.  They drove me to the hostel from the airport which was both safer and much more expensive than taking a taxi at 4 a.m.  They are now permanent residents of Kyrgyzstan and had lots of advice for me which I eagerly absorbed.  After they dropped me off at the hostel near the city center, I slept.


In the morning (which was actually afternoon…) I had breakfast with two Germans and a Saudi.  They were having an engaging conversation about traveling through this part of Asia (I’m in Asia!  I keep forgetting) and I would chime in with similar anecdotes.  (Sidenote: Did you know there are backpackers in Kyrgyzstan?  All the people I have talked to are going through the Stan’s, China, Russia, Iran, India, etc.  I have felt like such a worrier in comparison to all those badasses.)  The Germans, Anna and Andy, liked me enough that I was allowed to follow them around Bishkek.  They waked confidently without maps and I had no idea it was their first day sightseeing.  We went to the (very Soviet-looking) Parliament building, a long/narrow park, a Russian church (where I had to put a scarf over my hair), and a children’s theme park.  After they had beers at a café, we walked back together.


I spent the afternoon on the internet and getting ready for the next step of my adventure.  Several hours later, Anna, Andy, Bendir (the Saudi) and I had dinner at a Turkish restaurant.  Luckily, Anna speaks Russian so I didn’t have to pantomime “no meat?”  We continued our cross-cultural discussion and they walked me back to the hostel before finding a place to watch The Game.  (Germany beat Argentina, which made for happy Germans.)


Bishkek was not my city.  It was hot (which in itself is not a deal-breaker) and sweaty post-Soviet city with crumbling sidewalks (if any), canal-like street gutters that require long legs/small bridges/bravery to cross, and business conducted in Russian (not Kyrgyz).  I was on too high alert to feel comfortable though no one ever walked close to me on the streets or looked at me sideways.  I should have felt safer than I did in Turkey (where, don’t forget, someone tried to run me over) but I had too many nerves.  It doesn’t help that I am unable to read or even pronounce any of the street signs.  I find it to be intriguing on a post-conflict level and there is an anthropologist at the hostel studying Kyrgyz identity in that context.  But the city itself has poor infrastructure (such as a random, square-shaped hole in the sidewalk that could be dangerous at night) and has lots of pollution.  I was eager to move to the countryside of my host family in Chong Kemin.


I spent the whole next day in settling my affairs.  It would be boring to explain and boring to read.  But I did make friends with the two Spaniards sharing the hostel dorm room with me.  When I was trying to pack up all of my stuff that night (remember the aforementioned dismay and effort required to squish everything back into its proper place) I had a lovely conversation with Patricia in Spanish.  We both feel the same way about packing up, we both have tried a series of bags to help everything stay in its proper place, and we both amusingly feel like failures for our inability to make it work.  She and her husband are also traveling for a year, and we each shared stories about losing a pair of underwear only to find it hiding somewhere in the bag.  On an entirely different note, I have acquired another way to explain my name to Spanish speakers.  McKenna in Spanish sounds like a band from the 80’s called “Mecano.”  Googling to find pictures is worth the effort.  She delayed me in my quest for sleep for at least an hour but it was time well spent.


The next day I woke up, packed up, and walked to Ryan’s office.  I went across the street and pulled out all of the money that my bank allowed me to have at once (that’s a long/boring/angry story).  Eventually met up with the driver, Nurtilek, who took me to a mall to get the SIM card hooked up with my phone (this was more complicated, but is also a long/boring story).  He and I walked around the mall for an hour; I saw “Huckleberry Finn” for sale in Russian; I accidentally told a lady I was going to put cucumbers in my pastry and she was horrified.  We eventually discovered that my phone is permanently locked to AT&T as well as U.S. so I would need to get a “modem” (aircard basically) for internet and cheap cell phone for texting and calling.  That accomplished, we left the smelly city of Bishkek.


I napped in the backseat for the first hour.  When I woke up I was surrounded by mountains, green grass, and a small river like I’d been transported to a movie set (and my new Facebook profile picture is from the same area).  When I was leaving Bishkek I asked Ryan if the driver had the address.  He’d smiled and said, “addresses don’t really work where you’re going.  Nurtilek has the phone number.”  When we were in the general area, he called and we met the 19 year old son I’d heard about.  When I asked his name he said something that sounded like “Bigbot.”  I have been too afraid to offend him by saying his name so for at least a day he is “the boy” in my mind and blog post.


I got to the house and dropped my stuff off in my own room and went to lunch/snack.  Within 40 minutes of being here I’d been scolded for walking inside with my shoes on, fed 2.5 cups of tea (“please, more tea, please” they say), questioned about my strange dietary habits, asked if I was married, and petted a horse.  All standard things here.  The mom (Nora) made conversation by saying, “you don’t eat meat?  What about chicken?”  The confusion about vegetarianism is something I have experienced before so I tried to point out that in America there are these weirder things called vegans (sorry vegans….).  I sat with Nora, her son and his girl cousin at the snack.  I don’t mind that they force tea down your throat all day because I don’t know where there is a store to buy anything to drink.  You aren’t allowed to get the tea (“chai” in Kyrgyz) yourself.  She also made me sit at the head of the table because I am a guest.  During the meal I was putting jam on bread and everyone at the table giggled.  The mom (Nora) brought me a spoon instead of a knife.  It’s pretty much a liquid so it makes sense.  Two faux pas (shoes and jam) down and many to go!  There was “a friend of my husband” who ate lunch with us.  He said he lives in a tent in the mountains with his horses and he invited me to visit some time (though he speaks no English).  I gave Nora the presents I had brought which were a post card of Square Books and a calendar of horses and she was confused.  In my rush to bring flat gifts, I picked utterly useless ones.  But Nora said she would hang the calendar on the wall under a gorgeous poster of horses grazing by a lake a few mountains over.


In the past, I have pitied those who have names that are difficult for English speakers.  Their names contain foreign sounds, too many syllables, or just cannot be retained for more than 5 minutes.  Today, I finally realized I have one of those names.  Anna and Andy called me “Mac” because McKenna was too difficult (even for people who have lived in the United States) to say or remember.  I had suggested I go by a nickname to Nora and she said “How about Maria?”  I quickly told her to call me Mac to retain some similarity to my real name.  It sounds more like “Moc” or “Mog” so I’m having trouble realizing she’s talking to me, but I’ll learn my new name soon enough.  It’ll do, especially considering the fact that I am probably butchering their names.


At the end of the meal they bring their hands up to the face, drag them down as if washing and say “omin.”  As far as I know it is just a Kyrgyz thing.  After we ate we stood around outside near the horse the boy was saddling.  I got to meet the horse who has a Russian name, and then explore some of the area.  There are rugs everywhere, including hung on the walls.  In the building, and there are many, they keep the doors open and have lacy curtains that hang down in the doorway to keep the flies out.  It’s actually really pleasant.  Bishkek was hot as hell but this is nearly perfect outside around 70 or 75 degrees Fahrenheit.  It gets chilly as it gets dark.  I can’t wait to post photos once I have better internet.


I got to MOVE IN to my room.  It was very exciting.  I pulled everything out of my bag.  The woman came by and saw all of said items strewn about the room.  She said “Dinner around 8…” and wandered away.  I excitedly continued packing my stuff into different parts of the room (mostly under the bed).  It is very satisfying.  I also got to finish a book.  Heaven.


Dinner was a traditional dish called “five fingers” for everyone else, and the same thing for me just without the meat.  After dinner, I walked towards the barn just to look.  I saw a big big dog.  He saw me at exactly the same time.  I turned around as he barked once.  Refer to me now as McKenna “Fleet Feet” Raney.  I tell the boy, whose name I eventually will get better at, and he says not to go outside at night because of the dog.  Aye aye, captain.


The next morning is spent waking up for breakfast, napping after breakfast, trying to convince myself to wake up, and sleeping some more.  Clearly I needed the rest since I am usually a bad napper.  I had lunch with a new French family, their driver, translator, Nora, and the girl cousin, (about 14 years old by my guess).  I felt like an old hand because I warned the French to use the spoon for the jam and I translated Nora’s garbled “how long have you been in Kyrgyzstan?” (which the day before sounded like “mumble mumble you been Christian?” to which I responded “Yes!” thinking an a-religious response of any kind would be incorrect and not knowing that, no matter what you say to the wrong question, it is inherently an incorrect answer).  The boy took them out riding and I read books just for fun, how fancy!  Feeling like I should do something productive, I took a journal outside.  Along with the “shoes off in the house” rule there is also an unspoken taboo against sitting on the ground.  Instead, people squat.  They must have a cultural conception that the ground is dirty.  I have only sat on the floor in my room where no one can see me.  I am glad I have not goofed up on that yet.  Since I wanted to journal outside and I wasn’t certain if the steps counted as “the ground,” I found a low bench in front of the yurt and journaled.  Below is an excerpt about the yurt that is really long.  Feel free to skip it if it’s not your thing.  After that I walked to the river and read a book.

“The yurt is magnificent on the inside.  There are visible wood supports that criss-cross over woven rugs and colored straw mats, and it is impossible to see where they curve to create the perfect circle of the yurt’s walls.  Everything is color.  In front of the walls hang rugs, bags, ribbons, tassels, velvet cloaks, a traditional white hat, and a large embroidered piece depicting two cranes with gold SPARKLES.  All of the wooden beams are painted red (except one: a replacement or intentional? The anthropologist in me wants to know) and all are secured with leather straps.  The floor is poured concrete with rugs covering nearly every inch.  Wooden tables with table cloths are stacked along one edge (no corners here) to create space, and I have moved inside to sit on a wooden chair with patterned cushions.  Ten blankets are piled at least four feet off the ground opposite the tables.  Eleven pillows are set under the crane piece behind a rug of brown sheep’s wool which has a bright red border.  A sturdy, modern double door frames the space and is left open, except at night (when the X-L dog roams).  Under the opening in the roof is a single light bulb.  This space has exactly enough light and is cool enough for comfort.  The intricacy of the design, the ubiquity of color (no opportunity is missed to bring some to any element inside), and the way it feels like a home all astound me.  I can see their attempts in the house to create a space which is similar in feeling to this, with rugs everywhere and embroidered art on the walls.  The more I look, the more I see.  I’m so glad I did not experience a yurt on a tour with a photo opportunity at the end.  I realized the straw mats in the walls are not painted, but are covered in colored wool to form a pattern.  The rugs are not put down haphazardly but are semicircles that overlap in the middle.  The criss-cross walls create an opportunity for subtle storage and I see a camo bucket hat, a large cord of rope, and a scarf tucked away.  I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to spend so much time in this space.”

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Liftoff: in Which I Almost Lost a Foot and Acquired the Name of a Holy City

I’ll warn you, this post will mostly be interesting to people who really really like me and perhaps those who I’ve met recently.  I’m too jetlagged to be funny and nothing earth-shattering happened in transit or in Turkey.


So, leaving your home for a year is a bit of a big deal.  I wasn’t expecting it would be so hard, but it was.  I had an uneventful (if mildly traumatic) departure from 81 CR 231.  My mom cheered me up in the ride to Memphis by showing me an article about 50 cities to visit, and I was proud to discover I have visited 12.  On the plane to Chicago I met a fella named Jack (hello Jack!) and we had a mutually beneficial 1.5 hour relationship.  You see, he does not like to fly, and I was quite melancholy about departing, so we chatted the whole flight.  It was a great reminder that there are fantastic people waiting for me in the next year that I just haven’t met yet.  Thanks, Jack, for being an angel.


Getting off the plane, I met a devil-Imean-businessman who was going to be on the flight to London with me.  While I am grateful that he helped me find the gate and took me in to the British Airways lounge, he also said I would always be a pawn in life because I don’t have enough money and power to see “how the world really works.”  When telling him about my travel plans, he said “It’s girls like you that go missing” and asked me if I had an exit plan for Turkey since it was incredibly unsafe for anyone to go to.  I frantically messaged Melissa if there was anything I hadn’t heard of and she assured me there was nothing crazy that had come across her desk.  I’ll let you form your own opinions of this man based on those anecdotes, but keep in mind there were many other similar offenses.  Needless to say, at the first polite opportunity, I bolted.


I made it to London, then while napping on the flight to Istanbul I had the unsettling feeling that I was moving further and further away from my home.  I met a native who sweetly gave me her phone number in case I ran into trouble in Turkey or Kyrgyzstan.  She was a great boon to my opinion that people can be good.  Anyway, I was then able to benefit from Turkish bureaucracy!  I had printed my Turkish visa to avoid doing it jetlagged at the airport, but the only document I received was the receipt.  Apparently there is a second, vastly more important piece of paper (the ACTUAL visa) which I lacked entirely.  The border personnel asked me for it, I explained I didn’t have it, he asked the guy next to him what to do, huffed, and promptly stamped my passport without the visa.  😉


I figured out and navigated 22 stops and 1 change between the metro and tram (which took about an hour).  I was wearing a t shirt, long pants and sturdy boots.  Many of the women were wearing a hijab (head covering) which was a new experience since I have never been to a Muslim country.  It is also Ramadan so people fast all day and the restaurants are full of people starting around 8:30 when the sun goes down.  There are friendly feral cats and dogs EVERYWHERE.

Kitten in a bottle

As I am a country girl, I am always particularly careful crossing the street anywhere in the world.  I sometimes have a similar style to a jackrabbit, darting across the road.  On this particular day, I watched what everyone else was doing in order to choose the safest manner of street-crossing.  Just like all the natives, I was crossing between two taxis stopped at a light when the one in front rapidly backed up!  I slammed my hand on the back of the car just as it stopped.  A Turkish man who was on the sidewalk trotted up in order to yell at the driver.  Rather than thanking him for his good civilian actions, I scooted away from the scene of the almost-crime and made it to the hostel.


The rest of the night passed in settling in to the room, having a perfect shower, and meeting people to travel with later.  I strategically stayed awake for two reasons: 1) it is an absolutely terrible idea to try to sleep in a 10-bed hostel at 6 in the evening; 2) if I went to bed, I would miss out on socializing and getting to know people with whom to explore the next day.  Oh, the cleverness of me.  Eight of us went out to dinner and I got a vegetarian sandcastle of rice (it looked like a pail of rice had been turned upside down).  I finally, happily, contentedly went to sleep after a 33 hour day.


I had breakfast with a Bostonite named Brooke (hi Brooke!) and we went to the Hagia Sophia mosque together.  She was a lovely sightseeing buddy.  She had other plans for the rest of the afternoon since she only had one day in Istanbul, but lucky for me, I had made a friend named Lewis (hi Lewis!) the night before.  We went to Princes Island with two other Aussies, Beck and Alice.  The islands are known for their (not total but noticeable) lack of motor vehicles.  We traveled to Heybeliada first and rented bikes for 5 Turkish Lire each ($2.5) for two hours.  After an unanticipated workout through the city, we arrived at the beach which a restauranteur recommended.  We payed 7.5 TL to be at the beach, changed into our suits, and studied the water.


It had a massive amount of seaweed.


It had dozens of jellyfish.


It had condoms.


We decided not to swim.  We biked to the next beach and decided that the restauranteur must be in cahoots with the owners of the beach since the next one was much nicer.  Since we had paid already to swim at a dirty beach, we didn’t swim at the nice one either.  Lewis had asked to put his travel book in my backpack, then later his camera, his shorts (since he was in swim trunks), and his wallet.  He started calling me mom, and I told him I’d charge him rent for space in my bag.  (He paid for my bike so it worked out).  We hopped on the ferry to the next island and took an hour long carriage ride of the island.  The road first went through a residential area and it was fun to see what the houses were like, then we saw the stables where all of the horses were kept.  The driver stopped to purchase cigarettes in the middle of the ride.  Besides that, the phaeton ride was incredibly pleasant because of the breeze, good company, and consistent clip clop of hooves.  I got to sit in the driver’s seat and get my picture taken at the end.  That alone would have been well worth the $10.  🙂  I was grinning like an idiot.

Grinning like a monkey

All of us decided it was time to return to Istanbul as it was getting late and we were getting hungry.  I managed to fall asleep on the ferry ride back and woke up even happier than before.  Lewis and I grabbed another friend from the night before and the five of us went out to dinner at a restaurant where you eat on cushions on the floor.  Lewis, rascal that he is, had decided to call me Mac, Mick, and Macca some time in the past day of our friendship.  He introduced me to our very friendly waiter as Macca and the man turned to me shocked, and said, “Mecca?”  Thanks, Lewis, for convincing a probably Muslim man that Americans are dumb enough to name their kids Mecca.  I’m forever in your debt.


My last day in Istanbul was shortened by the excessive amount of time it took me to pack (I will not say here; contact me if you want to hear the damage) as well as the latest shuttle I could take to the airport.  Lewis and I went to the Topkapi Palace and wandered through the ornate rooms of the Ottoman Empire’s wealthiest (sidenote: there is the “Spoonmaker’s Diamond” so called because it was traded for 3 spoons, kwhich is 86 carats).  We strolled, chatted, and photographed our way through the grounds.  Disappointingly, I only found one depiction of a horse in the whole palace, and it was in a no-photos room.  Sigh.  We parted ways as Lewis went to see the harem and I went to the archaeology museum.  I returned to the hostel in enough time to make sure my bags would fit on my person without bursting.


The shuttle picked me up at 3:15 for an 8:15 flight.  It was meant to take two hours to get to the airport because of traffic, but there was a car with (no joke) at least 15 police vehicles and police on every bridge we passed under to protect it.  We made it to the airport in one hour, and I went through the only airport I have ever been to which requires you go through security TWICE to get to your plane.


Fortunately, I did not need Burshin’s phone number and the businessman was wrong about the danger of Istanbul.  I have mentally apologized to the city of Istanbul and the country of Turkey because I was only able to spend two days there, which is not nearly enough.  In my short time here, I have been reminded of the joy of traveling and meeting new people (thanks Jack and Lewis) and gotten adjusted to being 7 time zones away from home.  I had my first, and certainly not last, experience of being the only American in a group for a whole day.  As I head out to Kyrgyzstan, I look forward to entering a new country/continent, meeting a new group of people, and having more horses to look at.


I’ll close with a quote from a book I’m reading (“Tales of a Female Nomad,” I recommend it):

“During the last two months I have discovered parts of me I didn’t know were there: the part that can embrace strangers and enrich my life through knowing them, the part that enjoys making independent decisions, and the part that adores living spontaneously.”

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