“Superstition is the poetry of life.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Perhaps the only reason to buy a Lonely Planet anymore is to learn about a place’s unique traditions and eccentricities — information to be used as an abbreviated visitors’ code of conduct for the Westerner. The widespread don’t shake hands with your left isn’t instinctual, nor is the the uniquely Turkish don’t chew gum at night clause. Kyrgyzstan has a few curious customs of its own; some of which can’t be found in a guidebook, and a few that are, apparently, particularly hard to adopt.
Most of the time we didn’t have to worry about jiving with the locals or their traditions on this trip. Joe, Joel, Lucas, and I were outside in remote mountains the majority of the time. We were alone amongst ourselves, save the omnipresence of horses and perhaps the spying eyes of the imperceptible snow leopard. Only once, mid-trip, in the town of Naryn, did we sleep at a guesthouse, and there was a gaggle of rowdy Russians there who made us more or less invisible. Every other night we were each in the solace of our own tents. Kyrgyzstan is one giant, wide open, fenceless and mostly treeless campsite. Where there aren’t ragged, snow-capped spires sawing across the skyline, there are rolling grasslands full of colorful wildflowers carpeting the protracted glacial river valleys — the perfect place to whistle. I’ve never been much of a whistler… or at least I didn’t realize I was, but it seems that The Andy Griffith Show had a bigger impact on my psyche than I’d care to admit. I found myself unintentionally whistling away every time I walked into a store, yurt, market, or restaurant… even though I’d learned that it was devastatingly rude to do so. Why, you might ask? I have my own theories. Read on.
Expedition Day 5: Keep your bread upright.
On August 1st we pedaled from the bank of Issyk-Köl, a beautiful deep blue body of water, the second largest saline lake in the world. Our initial grind took us from 5,500 to 12,500 feet in just over 50 miles. For the next few days we meandered through a remote corner of the Tian Shan mountains near the Chinese border. Thin air, rugged terrain, and tumultuous weather keeps the population to a minimum in this part of the world, and there certainly aren’t any supermarkets. Prior to leaving the capital, Bishkek, we’d stocked up on an odd selection of prepackaged provisions — five days worth. The labels were all in Cyrillic — Kyrgyz or Russian. Starkly designed packages in red, black, white, and gold reminded me of Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet past. We were forced to guess the ingredients… mystery meat being the only sure bet. Throughout the trip there were instances when the graphics on the packaging didn’t come close to accurately representing its contents. Even so, by day five we were all running precariously low on food. I had already eaten most of mine, and Joe was down to a can of what turned out to be ground fish balls in an oily red sauce. Deep hunger was setting in.
A long, mesmerizing valley descent brought us back to a life-supporting altitude, and we began to notice yurts dotting the hillsides. We’d heard rumors of Kyrgyz generosity and warmth, and it was only a matter of time before we were offered a cup of chai… potent and cheap black tea, liquid hospitality.
I stopped and rested my bike on a rock near a yurt to attempt a few photos. A small boy of two or three years was practicing his skills with a horse whip. Within moments we were invited inside by Chengiz, the man of the yurt. In typical Central Asian decor, there was a disfigured tangle of meat hanging on the wall, its species unrecognizable. A mantle of quintessential Silk Road scent hung in the cold interior, an amalgam of musty dirt and dung smoke, with a hint of exotic spices. Chengiz offered us naan, a large thick disc of bread reminiscent of focaccia pizza. It was served in torn chunks with homemade apricot preserves and small Chinese dishes packed with fresh butter.
Instead of stuffing the bread in my face as hastily as my stomach was telling me to, I tried to show some degree of decorum. I took a couple of bites and set it back on the table, upside-down. I quickly grabbed it and flipped it upright. Bread is considered sacred by many Central Asian people, the result of a rocky Soviet past and widespread famine. It must never be placed on the ground or left upside-down.
Expedition Day 9: Never stand near a lactating horse.
After a long day of pedaling, we stopped to camp in an expansive field at the foot of a canyon. After pitching my tent, I wandered off toward a farm and attempted to capture the portrait of an evasive Taigan — a skinny long-haired sighthound known for their speed and ability to hunt wolves. The Taigan’s human, a little girl of about seven or eight years, smiled sheepishly for the camera. Her two brothers soon joined and motioned for me to visit their home, just a stone’s throw away. I was invited in and served bread, jam, butter, and the requisite kumis — fermented mare’s milk. Mikki, the children’s father, called it, “Schnappes,” as he passed me a hearty serving in a dish. His conniving smile and gestural head tilt imparted that I had to drink it or I was less than a man.
Cocktail hour concluded with a milking demonstration. With my eye in the viewfinder I lowered my stance and shifted ever so slightly to the right. Mikki frenetically waved me back in a horrified language barrier induced silence. Was it the camera or where I was pointing it… I wasn’t sure, but it was clear that I was doing something wrong. Evidently, horses just don’t like strangers anywhere near them whilst being milked. Yes, that’s right. They milk horses in Kyrgyzstan.
Mare’s milk is important to the people of the Central Asian steppe. It provides modest nutritional benefits and is believed, by some, to help in the treatment of several chronic illnesses, including tuberculosis and anemia. More importantly, the milk holds significant value for the role it plays in the rituals and traditions of the people. Genghis Khan sprinkled mare’s milk on the ground as a way to honor a mountain for protecting him. Today kumis is an essential element of any rite or celebration. In fact, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, is even named after the paddle used to churn the stuff.
Expedition Day 13: Toss around the ol’ dead sheep.
After a serpentine climb through the mountains we arrived at Song Köl. This glassy alpine lake lies at an altitude of approximately 3,000 meters, and its surroundings are inhabited by nomadic shepherds during the summer months. There is a modest tourist presence in the area in the form of yurt camps. Fortunately, where there are tourists, there’s bound to be food and alcohol. That night we made camp with eight liters of Hawe beer in tow. Seemed like a good idea at the time, and the plastic bottles pretty much leapt off the shelf and into our arms at the local yurt store.
The next morning we pedaled away from the lake’s shore and back into the mountains. Along the way we stumbled across a pick-up game of Kok-Boru, also known as goat Polo. As is the case with the version of Polo that most of us are more accustomed to, Kok-Boru is a team sport that is played on horseback. However, instead of a wooden or plastic ball, opposing teams attempt to score by driving the carcass of a goat down the field and into the opposing team’s goal. Interesting to say the least, but the game is incredibly popular throughout Central Asia. It keeps crowds on the edge of their seats… kind of like a good game our own American football — or ‘pigskin’ as the old adage says. You say ‘tə-mā-tō’ and I say ‘tə-mä-tō’.
Expedition Day 19: After meal prayer.
Moving at a pretty good clip I heard shouts from the grassy slope down and to my right. It seemed to be a family picnic, and they looked pretty insistent that we join them. We rode up, shook hands and were immediately showered with bread, sweets, and, eventually, a turkey stew that cooked in a large black cauldron over a wood fire. After 15 or 20 minutes of gestural small talk and laughter it started to rain. We scrambled to get up and help them transport all of the dishes, baskets, and leftovers back up the hill to their vehicle. I realized there was a pause in the action as the grandmother — a glassy eyed wise woman of about 90 — was leading a prayer. We stopped and payed respect. Later I learned that at the end of a meal, a quick prayer may be said. This is done to honor family ancestors. Hands are held out, palms up, and then everyone at the table covers their face in unison while saying a few words.
Expedition Day 20: Damnit, don’t whistle.
Our last heroic day of riding was indeed one of the best. The night before we camped right off the doubletrack at the foot of the breathtaking Kagedi Pass. The magical evening glow gave way to a night of more sleet and wet snow, but we awoke to sunshine. The riding was epic. Part way through the descent we stopped to chat with Masta, a shepherd standing at the roadside with a long cane and a furry dappled sheep hide draped at his waist. He invited us in for chai and proceeded to roll a cigarette from a scrap of what looked like the funny pages. The tea was strong and the charades lively. As entertainment, he demonstrated his veteran jujitsu skills on Lucas. Joel decided to partake in a funny paper cigarette. Masta assured us it was tobacco. I drifted in thought at some point during the experience. I realized I’d whistled a few bars as I walked into the room. Damnit, “why!?” I thought to myself.
The general superstition is that if a guest whistles indoors, poverty will befall that particular household or business or, more literally, as explained… money will fly out the window. I am not a superstitious person, so I am 99% sure that I didn’t leave a wake of misfortune in this small Central Asian country. But why did I keep subconsciously breaking etiquette?
I considered that we weren’t actually indoors much during the trip. Kyrgyzstan is a country long on open spaces and short on permanent structures, so traveling by bike kept us out in it, no matter the weather. For three weeks, the four of us camped every night, ate outside and only darkened doorways at the occasional store or yurt when invited. All in all we may have only gone indoors once or twice per week, for very brief periods of time. The open landscapes, mountains and fields became my comfort zone.
I realized that the transition from the outdoors to an interior space can be a traumatic one. I was “nervous whistling”, something akin to “nervous laughter”, I guess. Since being back in the States I’ve recognized that conditioned air can be more distressing than headwind, sleet, intense sun at high altitude, and frigid cold combined. All big trips involve some level of reverse culture shock. For this one, the adjustment has involved getting reacquainted with interior spaces. For several days after returning home I caught myself whistling indoors. After a couple of weeks passed — and thankfully for my friends’ and family’s bank accounts — I noticed that the habit had faded away.
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