Off the Beaten Path in Kyrgysztan: A Conversation with Laine Strutton
Tell us about yourself! What do you do when you’re not traveling the world? Where do you live? What made you decide to go to Kyrgyzstan?
I am every bit the modern nomad. I am a PhD currently living in Seoul, and have found that teaching, writing, and research are excellent reasons to trot the globe. I have been fortunate enough to spend time in over 1/4 of the world’s countries (only 140 left to go). When I am abroad, I have great experiences joining local sports teams, running routes through new areas, and doing anything physically active to get engaged. My next major trip is through East Asia to visit places pertinent to WWII history.
How long did you go to Kyrgyzstan? How did you spend your time?
I spent an eventful two months in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as a consultant for a non-profit organization that does cross-border conflict resolution workshops. After office hours, I took Russian language and belly dancing classes in the evenings (both for about $2 USD per hour). Because Kyrgyzstan is an outdoor mecca, I spent the weekends exploring mountainous areas outside the capital. I regularly hiked in the Ala-Archa Nature Reserve and went horseback riding. Each Sunday I went shopping at the Dordoy Bazaar, one of the largest outdoor markets in Central Asia and a major consumer trading hub for nearby countries. It was a joy to get lost among its endless routes of stalls and squat on my haunches to grab a quick lunch of plov rice.
What were your most memorable experiences? What were the biggest disappointments?
The most incredible trip I took within Kyrgyzstan was to do a locally-arranged yurt stay in a community on the shores of Lake Issy-Kul. Lake Issy-Kul is the second largest saline lake in the world, and despite being surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it remains somewhat warm all year. While we were swimming, a herder came by with about 50 sheep and pointed out his herding route along the mountain range. Our host, Bakeet, served us traditional Kyrgyz food from vegetables he had grown himself and yogurt he made with his own cow’s milk. Bakeet’s friend came by with horses for us, and we were able to tour the nearby farms on horseback as the neighbors greeted us warmly. Each night, we hiked at sunset and later made bonfires to stay warm. Because we were so far from any light pollution, the brightness of the stars was superb.
One of my more disappointing experiences was visiting a public bath house. The bath house tradition is deeply entrenched in Kyrgyz culture because the winters are so harsh and hot water at home is not always easy to get, and I was encouraged by a local friend to visit one. I was anticipating a busy place filled with women chatting energetically with each other, which has been my experience at such places in other countries. Instead, the main one in Bishkek was almost empty, had a very small sauna, and desperately needed a renovation. One of the “spa treatments” is to get flogged by birch tree branches to stimulate blood flow and improve your health, but the branch vendors were gone when I went. It was a good reminder of why travelers should avoid expectations and simply enjoy new experiences for what they are.
What do you wish you knew before you went?
Public transportation is comparably challenging because there is such a low population density (livestock outnumber people three to one). Bus schedules are unreliable because they often depend on the bus actually filling up, and there can be great distances between destinations outside of Bishkek. I had to use a Russian dictionary to ask for directions, more than I anticipated, and it is often more efficient to hire a private taxi than to try to navigate public transportation. I don’t regret traveling off the beaten path though, because that created some of my most memorable experiences.
Any favorite restaurants/hotels/hostels/sites you’d like to recommend? Tell us what made them great!
The food is very hearty and features mutton and beef often. I enjoyed top notch Georgian food at Mimino Georgian Restaurant, and the ultimate stop for authentic and affordable Kyrgyz food is Cafe Faiza. Many restaurants serve dishes that are a blend of local, Chinese, and Russian flavors. Due to the Middle Eastern influence, it is also common for menus to offer an after-meal shisha, or waterpipe, in various flavors.
One of the most pleasant meals I had there was actually at the golf course in Bishkek, which has a restaurant. You can sit on the outdoor patio as you eat, surrounded by the looming mountains that extend from the Tian Shan range. We enjoyed watching young boys from nearby farms collect the golf balls that had been hit outside of the range, and then sell them back to the players. It was entrepreneurship at its finest.
For any hotel or hostel needs, I would encourage visitors to take advantage of the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) program that Kyrgyzstan has in place. It connects travelers with local families who can offer home-cooked meals, ride services, and accommodations, including yurt stays like the one I did. It helps local people benefit directly from the small but growing tourism industry.
Is there anything that women specifically should know before they travel to your destination?
I think due to the Islamic influence, it would be very unusual for a man to approach a woman he didn’t know. The few times men attempted to talk to me on their own, it was ultimately to sell me something. However, when I initiated the contact first, I ended having rich conversations about culture, politics, and the economy, from which I learned an immense amount.