Archive for Kyrgyzstan

In which I coax out semi-secret info with the clever use of beer

The next day I woke around 8:30 and expected they would all be off in the fields already, but they were pushing the tractor out of the gate.  I hung around to help carry moxim to the tractor and send them off with well wishes.  Come to find out at breakfast, I am not the first girl to go out in the fields.  Gorzada (Bek’s older sister by 2 years and Alisher’s mother) went one day and came back with blisters all over her hands.  Nora looked at my raw but blister-less hands with approval but giggled good-naturedly at my pain when I said my shoulders were sore.  We all had a good chuckle about that.  I don’t think anyone understood why a girl wanted to do a man’s work for a day.  Nora and Siuta had apparently woken up at 5:00 am in order to get all of the food ready for their picnic lunch, and to start cooking for the myriad tourists who would descend like locusts: they swarm; they eat; they leave.  First there were three Kyrgyz people that came for tea, a ride, and then lunch.  Then there were six people that came for a ride and lunch.  Then there were four tourists with a driver (the same one that took me to Kizil-Oi!) and a translator plus two Swiss girls that showed up out of nowhere.  That’s a total of 17 people to feed tea, lunch and/or dinner.  Nora was running around like a mad woman because the six tourists insisted on eating lunch in the yurt (which is way less convenient since it’s further from the kitchen) and I was actually stressed out trying to help.  I’d carry plates of food out to the yurt and fill up their tea.  I’d run back to the street to check on the French tourists that were getting on the horses.  I sliced apricots and took out the pits, picked the stems off black currants, and smashed the pits open with Siuta to get the edible seed inside (which was a lot of fun as we watched the pits zing away if we hit them at the wrong angle with the stones; I took one to the neck and Siuta screamed).


I taught Bek the word “cousin” once again in reference to Siuta but now he intentionally mispronounces it to “kazan” which in Kyrgyz means a cooking pot.  He thinks it’s hilarious and she frumps around, unhappy with the new nickname.  He also pegged her with a small apple that was growing and she yelped so loudly that I furiously yelled at him in English to pick on somebody his own size.  She appreciated the sentiment even if neither of them understood what I was saying.  Now that we have spent time using rocks (“tash” in Kyrgyz) to smash apricot pits open together, Siuta and I have a playful relationship based on teasing and very short English sentences.  She is only a few inches shorter than me and our hands are, remarkably, the same size.  She struts around when we are walking the same way so as to appear taller, pokes me when I’m not looking, and says “I am woman; you are man” which is the most insulting phrase she can come up with in English and really just makes me giggle.  She’s said it so often the past few days that I looked at her as she stood behind her aunt and saw she was dancing to herself and mouthing the words in an obvious sing-song manner.  It is all in good fun, but that means I have built up a healthy desire to find a way to get back at her.  I recently saw her walking into my part of the house from outside where I knew it was darker, and she had her head down.  I stood still behind the lacy curtains in the doorway until she was right in front of me and lunged forth crying, “BOOOOOO!”  McKenna 1, Kazan 0.  Later that day she called me “super kilin” and when I asked Bek to explain he said, “super.  Like, super.  Do you know Super Man?”  I just got schooled on super heroes by a Kyrgyz Justin Bieber (a nickname which first prompted an irritated “I am NOT Justin Bieber!  I am Kyrgyz!”) and called “super wife” by a 13 year old girl.  So it has come to this!


I think it took three hours to pick off all of the stems of the several kilos of black currants.  Luckily the translator, Darajan, traveling with the two Dutch families decided to sit down and help me for two hours while her charges were off horse riding.  She and I got along very well.  She said she enjoys funny people like me and she wanted me to teach her new English words.  I think we settled on “stem” and “stone” for today (which I said is the England English word for pit; she enjoyed the sentence “I hit the stones with the stones” immensely).  I asked her to teach me how to say “little brother” so that I can call Bek that.  It sounds kind of like “eeny” but I can never get the accent right and there is a super soft sneaky “m” at the end.  As soon as he arrived back from the ride he bumped into my shoulder playfully and I was able to say, “see what I mean?!” to Dara.  She thought it was so funny that she also started calling me kilin.


At dinner, Nora said in Kyrgyz and Dara translated that she wants Bek to marry me.  I pulled out a photo of Chris with pink hair and said that’s the kind of guy I like, but perhaps I’d consider it if Bek was willing to dye his hair pink.  Mercifully he was not present at this dinner.  His uncle and father were also there and they agreed on the match.  The driver also chipped in and said to dump Chris and marry Bek.  I hid my blushing face in my jacket and that caused everyone to laugh uproariously.  I think everyone called me kilin that night but Dara is maybe 90-100 pounds (she later said “40-45 kilos so that’s what I’m going on) and I can’t jab her in the ribs with my elbow the same way I can Bek.  When dinner was over I walked out of the dining room door and glanced to my right to find Jekshen at least five feet in the air.  Knowing jumpy ole McKenna (and “jumpy” is one of Bek’s vocab words for obvious reasons), you will not be surprised, dear reader, to hear that this elicited a shriek and a few stumbling steps away from the madness in the air.  Luckily it wasn’t so funny a sight that Jekshen was in any danger of falling off the ladder.  All is well with the world.


Bek has been saying for ages that we should drink a bottle of beer together so we did split some that night.  I was able to ask questions about horses since we were sitting around with no other obvious task or conversation easily at hand.  For one, I have been burning to know how many horses they have.  If you have a large amount of livestock, it is impolite in Kyrgyz culture to say how many.  People know how much horses/cattle/sheep cost and if you know how many someone has it’s basically like bragging about how much money they make.  This is similar to the idea that houses are meant to be humble on the outside and polished on the inside.  So since day one, I have been asking about their horses, and Bek has been cagey.  When we were in the field they day before, I elicited an accurate yet unspecific “more than 10.”  The night of beer though, I got a specific answer!  I was so proud until a few days later, Nora told some tourists the right number and I was flabbergasted.  I wonder if Bek knows….


Anyway, regardless of how secret the information is, he said that his 10 mares had 5 babies (culun in Kyrgyz) but two of them died.  I said “in America, we would cry about that.”  And he said “really?  Really.  Really?”  It was a situation that he could not compute.  His mares don’t have names and he thinks the two that lost the babies (within the first two weeks or so) were young mothers.  So it’s just a fact of life for him and not an emotional toll.  He said “every year my animals die.”  So I asked if he would cry if Adrenaline died (his personal horse) and he said “oh no!  I will not talk about this.”  It was too painful of an idea to discuss and possibly bad luck since he shot it down so quickly.  It was exactly the kind of conversation I imagined having when I planned this whole Watson thing.  Except I had no idea what he would be saying.  We looked up at the stars and I was excited to see my friend the Big Dipper (aka the only constellation I know) staring back at me, still in the same place even though I’ve traveled so far.


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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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