Stan Number One
Sigh. The “Stans…” a magical and mystical group of five Central Asian nations that most Americans have never even heard of. There’s Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. I’d come to memorize those five names over the past few years (and even their capitals) as my mission to visit every country began to materialize and come closer to completion. I don’t really count Afghanistan and Pakistan in my list of Stans. Sure, they too are indeed “Stans,” but everyone’s pretty familiar with them, at least by name. They’ve been in the news often throughout our lives. But those other five? Absolutely mysterious unless you’ve gone out of your way to study them. Those are the countries I’m affectionately referring to when I say “The Stans.” For reasons I can’t explain, I’d left them till the closer to the end of my country count. It was finally time to see some Stans and I couldn’t be more excited.
The Best Laid Plans (for Stans)
I actually had all five on the books: a crazy, two-week itinerary with one of my best friends. We’d see every Stan and even pop into Mongolia for a day. The trip was super robust, very expensive and ultra complicated…and got blown up almost overnight when the pandemic came. I was crushed.
Fast-forward 19 months later, and three out of the five Stans had finally cracked open for visitors – I figured I’d pop in before they changed their mind. Kyrgyzstan would be my first.
Truth be told I didn’t even know how to pronounce this country correctly until halfway into my stay there.
A Facebook friend replied to one of my videos, correcting me: “It’s ‘Keer-ghee-stan – you keep saying ‘Keer-zig-stan.”
It took me over 40 tries to memorize the spelling as well. But it’s not like I’d had much practice speaking or spelling a country like Kyrgyzstan. But now, with 27 hours of time on the ground here, I’d attempt to get to know this Stan as well I could with the limited time I had here.
Of the three open Stans, Kyrgyzstan was the easiest to visit, with no visa required for Americans. That was a treat and the exact opposite of Stan-sister Turkmenistan, who not only required a visa, but also a booked program from a licensed tour company, a letter of invitation and more. Talk about hoops to jump through. A moot point anyway, since Turkmenistan is currently closed, but my point is, if you’re looking to hit some Stans, currently Kyrgyzstan is the easiest for Americans.
It was my first time flying Aeroflot (from Moscow) and it was a stellar experience. I touched down in Bishkek at 3PM and soon was in the back of an old beater labeled as a taxi, cruising down the highway into town. The windshield was cracked and rear seat belts were non-existent. Mom always worries I might be kidnapped or die in a fiery plane crash while traveling, but the truth is, if I ever get hurt it will probably be in a traffic accident. There wouldn’t be one taxi or YandexGo (Central Asia’s version of Uber) with working seat belts during this entire trip. This is an idiosyncrasy that continues to puzzle me about foreign countries, but we can discuss this another time. I was just excited to be in the my first Stan. My taxi driver knew little English and I was okay with that, too. As long as I arrived safely. We passed fields that glowed under the afternoon sun. I’d manage to arrive between fall rainstorms and I was so grateful for the dry weather. I’d gotten lucky again.
Check-In and Head Out
The Marriott in town was immaculate. I arrived to my room to find a glass full of treats to welcome me. There was not much light left and I was dying to get out and explore, so I threw down my bag, inhaled some treats and soon I was out on the street. My hotel was on Kievskaya Street, right in the middle of the action. The streets were humming. Bishkek was a city that I was able to immediately “catch the vibe” from. I write about this a lot. While there are at least a hundred degrees between loving and hating a city, what’s almost always black and white is a place’s “vibe.” I either feel it or I don’t, and usually I know pretty quick. I most certainly “caught the vibe” here.
You can book a great hotel in Bishkek HERE.
The city was humming with afternoon activity. Lots of people walking, men with tall funny hats that I’ve never seen before, school children coming home from study. I took a photo of an old taxi that I thought was neat – the first of over hundreds of Russian LADAs I’d see in the region of the next few days. The driver opened the door to give me a look as if to question what my deal was: Why was I photographing his car? I clumsily tried to explain I was just a dumb tourist who admired his car. I quickly realized he spoke no English, but before it went any further, a young man in earshot kindly translated my message to him and I received a semi-smile and an “okay” gesture from the old man. Things were happening fast. But all good vibes.
And it was fall. Fall, beautiful fall – a season I don’t get to see much of in California. But here in Bishkek Autumn was in full effect, as I passed parks and paths full of trees of red, brown and golden leaves. I had slipped into a state of euphoria as I floated on.
On my walk through a pedestrian underpass I walked by little shops and individuals peddling household goods, flowers, popcorn and more. Kids attempted sliding down the ramps used to push bicycles up the steps. Kyrgyzstan was all they knew, I was sure. They would most likely spend their whole lives here – were they aware that part, if not most of the world didn’t even know their nation existed?
As I approached Kyrgyz National Philharmonic, I was indeed impressed with the buildings, statues and monuments, yet it was the people of the Stans that had me the most intrigued. I’ve never seen faces like this before. The Stans are where Europe collides into Asia and it was apparent that DNA knows no borders. It’s not like “White” people stop at the line, and on the other side live (for lack of better words) “Chinese” looking people. What you have is a blending of the two continents’ people and faces and features that I’ve never seen before. Beautiful really, and just so different. And unlike the Chinese or any other fill-in-the-blank ethnic group with strong migrations to the United States, I can’t say I know anyone from a “Stan.” I grew up with so many immigrants all around me: Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Armenians, etc…but a Kyrgyz? Not even one. So this was all new to me. And I loved every bit. I tried not to stare but couldn’t resist. I wish I had a pass to just take close-up photographs of strangers.
Check out my buddy Ric Gazarian‘s “Faces of Kyrgyzstan” page HERE – he captured some awesome, up-close shots of some of the beautiful people of the region.
I walked through a park and into a carnival, enjoying a ride on the Ferris wheel before marching on. I stopped to get a look at a giant bag of (what I thought were) treats for sale by two youngsters. Looked like some kind of cookie. I’ve never said no to a cookie. Thankfully I only took a small nibble and was able to abort the mission immediately. What had I just put in my mouth? Upon inquiry, this was kurut – which is fermented and dried horse milk. It was awful.
If I was only going to be in Kyrgyzstan for 24 hours, I wanted to make sure I had at least one traditional meal and the dried horse milk popsicle did not count. It was over to a restaurant called Navat, which served traditional, regional plates. I had a plate of dumplings (manti), a cold pasta dish (ash-lampfu) and hot pasta dish (lagman). All of it was fantastic and the atmosphere was wonderful, but suddenly the day caught up to me and I felt incredibly sleepy (and even a little sick). I hoped it wasn’t the horse milk kicking in. I rushed to get the check, then hightailed it back to the hotel to pass out. All the travel had finally caught up to me.
Next Day’s Function
Feeling like new the next morning, I spent the day walking the city. The morning was uneventful, yet pleasant. I walked through parks and squares, looked at grandiose state buildings and stopped for coffee along the way. The sun was shining and I barely needed the sweater I was wearing. The perfect day.
The Spice is Right
Eventually I made it to Osh Bazaar, the city’s main market. This indoor/outdoor bazaar had everything, from food to clothes to hardware and was intertwined next to, around, underneath and inside the surrounding buildings. It was an interesting setup. Advertisements rang out over loudspeakers in native Kyrgyz while the locals sold and bought goods. I tried to get a few photos of the people up close, but was denied when I asked permission. I managed to only come away with a handful of covert shots. I wish I had carte blanche license to take close ups. I saw so many beautiful people whose visions I could only try and capture with my eyes. Did I mention Russian is the official language here? (Spoken along with Kyrgyz).
Odds n Ends
I couldn’t help stopping into a Nathan’s for a hot dog. There was not even a McDonald’s or Starbucks in Kyrgyzstan, but gosh darn it, a Nathan’s Famous franchise had managed to sprout here. These things fascinate me – I had to Google it to see if it was even authentic or a pirated version. It was real!
I loved Bishkek. I know that Kyrgyzstan has a lot to offer outside the capital, including stunning nature – but this trip and schedule only allowed for a day and I was okay with that. I left still reeling that I’d lucked out with such divine weather. Good food, clean city, pleasant people, beautiful faces. Stan one was a success. See you in Uzbekistan next.
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