Kyrgyzstan 19.11.2019 Joan Pollock
A little history
In the 1st millennium BC the Saka warriors, otherwise known as the Scythians, roamed the vast steppe of the Central Tien Shan mountains on horseback. They brought with them a great knowledge of crafts and art and were renowned for their skills in gold. They also introduced agriculture and animal herding, especially horses. They lived in yurts and moved on to new pastures with their animals as the seasons changed.
Gradually the region was divided into what today we call the Stans, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. There are now over 40 tribes in Central Asia, including the Uyghurs, Tartars, Turkics, Dungans, and Russians.
A number of the Stans were incorporated into the USSR after the October revolution in Russia in 1917. During that time all crafts and cultural activities were suspended. It wasn’t until Kyrgyzstan was given its independence in 1991 that the nomads were once more able to wear their traditional dress and take up their embroidery, carpet-making and many other crafts.
After a 74- year hiatus, it was a generation of grandmothers who had the knowledge to teach young people these skills before they disappeared forever. I was so impressed by the love and care that went into their work that I wanted to share this with like-minded souls who would also appreciate these skills.
With the help of the experts at TransIndus, I created a small-group tour of Kyrgyzstan to learn more about the art of the nomads. Departing in June 2018, we started in the capital, Bishkek, and visited the Museum of Fine Art for its wonderful collection of artefacts going back centuries. The collection of rugs, embroidery, paintings, jewellery and leatherwork is phenomenal.
Travelling through beautiful countryside to Issyk Kol Lake, we visited a small but delightful nomadic museum at Chopan Ata. In Karakul we visited a local Uyghur family where we were given a cooking lesson on their local dishes, sampling the cuisine afterwards.
We continued to the nomad area and were shown the embroidery and weaving crafts still performed outside the yurts, where grandmothers teach their children their ancient skills. We saw a keptakiya - a form of a hat - being arranged on a nomad woman’s head. An impressive 30-metres of material is used to make these hats, which are worn by brides leaving their homes to live with her new husbands. Designs are embroidered on the edges and decorated with precious stones. Keptakiya are useful when travelling if needed to protect injuries, and I’m told can even be used as a shroud.
No visit to this area of Kyrgyzstan is complete without seeing the local eagle hunters perform this very old and important tradition. We watched the eagles being put through their routine and were even given a turn to hold a beautiful golden eagle.
Continuing to Kochksor - the home of Shyrdak carpet-making - we visited a private house where two artisans were fully occupied in the various stages of carpet-making, in between minding their grandchildren. However, the highlight of our trip was a visit to the annual Carpet Festival - the contrasting colours and designs are some of the finest in Asia.
A journey through Kyrgyzstan is not complete without experiencing life in a yurt by the remote Song Kol Lake, with time to relax and absorb nature. Horse riding is possible and there’s an opportunity to sample ‘kumys’ - fermented mare’s milk. The Kyrgyz people consider it a health drink and will travel far to find it.
Finally, we drove through the spectacular scenery of the Ala-too mountain range, back to Bishkek where a visit to Osh bazaar is not to be missed, before our last evening together.
It was the trip of a lifetime and I cannot wait to share it with a new group of like-minded adventurers in 2020!
If you have been inspired by this piece and would like to either join Joan Pollock on a tour through these regions or consider a Tailor-Made Holiday option, take a look at some of our tour options below:
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