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Group Trip Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan
This trip, which combines Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, offers an impressive variety of impressions. The modern, almost fashionable former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty, is really the exact opposite of the Soviet look-a-like capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek. In general, it can be stated that Kazakhstan breathes development, while Kyrgyzstan seems to be in doubt between progress and traditions.
But there are similarities as well. Everywhere, outside the cities, nature is of a Central Asian beauty. From deserted steppes in Kazakhstan to majestic mountains in Kyrgyzstan. Everywhere, cities included, the people are friendly and sincerely curious about you and your stories. And always, even in the tiniest villages, you can enjoy lovely food. Prepared with love and care by your hosts.
The Kazakh part of this trip is really passing through virgin tourist areas. You could easily consider yourself to be a modern Marco Polo. In Kyrgyzstan, tourism is a bit more developed; but not at all at a level that it can claim to be a touristic hotspot. In other words, you are an innovator, who will be followed by the mass in the coming years. This has to happen as this part of the world has too much to offer.
From 20 July to 6 August 2019 (18 days)
€ 1,795 per person
This price includes:
✓ Accommodation in hotels / bed & breakfasts / yurts on double sharing basis
✓ Lunches / Dinners (except in Almaty and Bishkek)
✓ Entrance to museums
✓ All excursions as indicated in the program
✓ Two days of rafting
✓ All transportation by comfortable (mini) bus
✓ Professional guidance, before and during the trip
✓ Services of an English speaking guide
✓ Visa support (if necessary)
This price does not include:
✓ Flight from Europe to Almaty. Approximate costs € 500
✓ All personal expenses like phone bills, insurances, medical costs, extra luggage etcetera.
✓ Tips to drivers and hotel staff
✓ Visa (if needed)
Maximum 12 persons
This trip will start in Almaty. It is, therefore, important, to be in Almaty on 21 July 2019. It is best to check out UIA (Ukraine), Air Astana or Aeroflot as they normally have the best offers to Central Asia. A good website to compare flights is Skyscanner.
[restab title=”The Trip in Detail”]
Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan – Day by Day
|Day 01: Departure from Home||Day 02: Arrival in Almaty, sightseeing Almaty|
|Day 03: Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake||Day 04: Almaty to Altyn-Emel|
|Day 05: Altyn-Emel||Day 06: Altyn-Emel to Charyn-Chundja|
|Day 07: Charyn-Chundja to Karakol||Day 08: Karakol to Altin Arashan (return)|
|Day 09: Karakol to Joty Oghuz & Bokonbaevo||Day 10: Bokonbaevo to Song Kul|
|Day 11: Song Kul||Day 12: Song Kul to Chon Kemin|
|Day 13: Chon Kemin (rafting)||Day 14: Chon Kemin (rafting)|
|Dag 1y: Chon Kemin to Bishkek||Day 16: Bishkek to Ala Archa (return)|
|Day 17: Bishkek to Almaty
||Day 18: Back Home|
Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan in Detail
Day 01 – Departure from Europe
You can depart from anywhere in Europe (or the USA or elsewhere). There are flights to Kazakhstan, almost always with a stop on the way, from all over the world.
Day 02 – Arrival in Almaty, sightseeing
It is only a short trip from the airport to your hotel in the city centre of Almaty. After check-in you can relax till midday before you will meet your local guide. In the afternoon you will discover the history, culture and architecture of the former Kazakh capital. One of the highlights, without any doubt, is the Ascension Cathedral, the second largest wooden building in the world. You will also visit the Museum of Musical Instruments, and have plenty of time to wander through the city centre. You might be somehow surprised that Almaty has a luxurious, almost mondain, appearance. The locals, as it seems, enjoy themselves, the city and the superb climate. There are terraces all over, where you can pleasantly wine and dine.
For those interested in sport and speed skating, an excursion to the Medeo skating ring might be an extraordinary experience. There were times, not even that long ago, when this skating ring was the fastest on the planet. Nowadays, there are other – indoor – ones that have overtaken Medeo. But it still exists. Just outside the city. Even if you do not care at all about speed skating you very well could still enjoy this excursion. Simply, because the location is nothing but astonishing. Afterwards, you will visit Kok Tebe to enjoy the views over the city. And then, it is all up to you. You can return to your hotel, but you might as well head for a terrace, a cafe or a restaurant.
Day 03 – Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake
Almaty is surrounded by mountains, one of the reasons why the inhabitants are always proudly talking about their city. Today you will drive to Bolshoe Almatinskoe Ozero (translated as ‘Big Almaty Lake’). The lake is situated at an altitude of 2,511 metres, but still only 30 kilometres away from the city. If you feel energetic, you could opt for a walk around the lake. It seems to be a realistic goal as its length is only 1.6 kilometres and its width not more than one. Alternatively, you could go for a swim in the, rather cold, water.
On your way back you will visit ‘Hawks Nursery’, a kind of trainings centre for birds of prey. Among others, hawks and eagles are trained for the hunt, a typical Central Asian tradition. In the coming days you will find out more about this. The evening you can spend according to your own wishes and desires.
Day 04 – Almaty to Altyn-Emel
National Park Altyn-Emel is located approximately 200 kilometres northwest of Almaty. This park is yet another example of how splendid the nature is in this country. It really does not require a lot of fantasy to compare this park with the Grand Canyon in the USA. The most striking difference? Here you will be surrounded by emptiness, silence. Most probably you will simply be alone. The most fascinating about this park are the ‘Singing Sands’. Named so, because the sounds this dune produces are very similar to the sounds of an organ. Though only in dry weather. There are actually two dunes, with a length of 4 kilometres and a height of maximum 120 metres. Another specific feature is that the dunes, in spite of everlasting strong winds, do not move. They are exactly at this very place for thousands of years. It is truly a miraculous place.
Day 05 – Altyn-Emel
Today you will drive and walk through Altyn-Emel. It is mainly steppe, the very typical Kazakh landscape, that you will traverse. But a steppe is not without highlights, as you will surely acknowledge by the end of this day. Besshatyr, the Kazakh Stonehenge, is a complex of five royal tombs, most probably dating from Scythian times. And in Tamgaly many old petroglyphs can be found. These rock paintings will tell you the history of this part of Kazakhstan, with Indian, Buddhist and Turkish influences.
Day 06 – Altyn-Emel to Charyn Chundja
There are approximately 300 kilometres between Altyn-Emel and Charyn-Chundja, which could be covered in four hours. But there is no reason to hurry, as the nature in Charyn National Park is inviting you to discover it. So, you will have ample time to walk around. Somewhere in the park you will be offered a picnic. While you will end this day in the hot springs of Chundja. The night you will spend in a modern and fashionable spa resort!
Day 07 – Charyn-Chundja to Karakol (Kyrgyzstan)
Crossing a border in Central-Asia is not quite the same as a European border, as the Central Asian states did not yet sign their version of Schengen. There is always a chance that an over active border guard keeps you busy for an hour or so. Without delay it is a five hours drive before you will reach the Kyrgyz town Karakol. There is a wooden orthodox church here and a mosque made out of stones. For the rest, it is mainly end-of-the-world territory. You might spot differences between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan though.
Day 08 – Karakol to Altin Arashan (reurn trip)
No bus today, but instead a Russian military vehicle. The best way to reach Altin Arashan (Golden Spa) canyon. This is one of the most beautiful canyons in this part of Kyrgyzstan, mainly due to an abundance of Tian-Shar firs. Actually, they are everywhere. Upon arrival, you can bath in a hot spring, have a picnic or simply wander around for hours. At the end of the day, you will be driven back to your hotel in the very same vehicle.
Day 09 – Karakol to Joty Oghuz and Bokonbaevo
Today you will head for the Joty Oghuz Canyon, famous for its red rock formations. One of these is called ‘Seven Bulls’, or Joty Oghuz in Kyrgyz language. These red colours will surely impress you. There are nomads living in this part of Kyrgyzstan, the reason why you occasionally see a yurt. You might be lucky enough to be invited for a glass of Kumis (horse milk) by one of the nomads. Though not necessarily a culinair delight, it would be rude to refuse a toast with a nomad. So try to switch off your taste receptors, smile and enjoy.
Dinner will be served in Bokonbaevo, where you will also spend the night.
Day 10 – Bokonbaevo to Song Kul
Before departure, you will visit the famous ‘Eagle Hunters’ of Bokonbaevo. Somehow depending on the mood of the eagle and the eagle hunter you will be shown how the hunt is done. Eagle hunters treat their eagles with great care and respect. In order to be in the best shape, once the hunting season starts, they do not allow the eagle to be distracted too much. For them it is of the utmost importance that the eagle will rest in summer. But there are days, that the eagle needs to practice, and it might as well be today. In any case, you will see the eagle on the arm of the hunter. This is for sure.
Then you will head for Song Kul. The second largest lake of the country, at an altitude of more than 3,100 metres. Another brilliant drive awaits you. Nature – has it been said before))) – is simply extraordinary, and today is not an exception. Every summer many nomads are living around Song Kul, as the meadows are green and juicy here. It is a superb place to hike and to be. The evening and night you will spend with the nomads.
Day 11 – Song Kul
Yesterday you already experienced the beauty of the area. And the friendliness of the nomads. Today you will have the chance to find out much more about them. Just by wandering around and shaking hands with them. But even if you don’t feel like doing this, you will learn a lot about the nomadic lifestyle, as they will show you some of their games and sports:
✓ Kok-boru (also know as Ulak Tartish). A popular game where two teams play a sort of polo with the carcass of a goat or calf.
✓ Oodarysh (bring down in Kyrgyz language). A kind of free wrestling. Rules of the game? It is not allowed to break the opponent’s fingers or to poke in his eyes. For the rest, it is simply rough.
✓ Kyz-kuumai (catch the girl). Both a man as a woman are on a horse. While the man tries to catch the woman, the woman tries to chase him away or catch him with her lasso.
After all these nomadic traditions it is logical that you will eat a traditional nomadic dinner. And sleep in a traditional nomadic house, the yurt.
Day 12 – Song Kul to Chon-Kemin
And again you will be surprised how fantastic nature can be. The road from Song Kul to Chon-Kemin passes through a canyon that is, without any exaggeration, stunning and breathtaking. Just as the more than 3,200 metres high Kalmak Asha Pass is. On your way you will also visit Kochkor, a tiny village where families occupy themselves with knitting Kyrgyz carpets. If you wish, you can contribute to the process and knit part of it yourself. You will also visit a small museum, where you will learn about the nomadic history of this part of the country. In Chon-Kemin you will spend the night with a Kyrgyz family.
Day 13 and Day 14 – Chon Kemin (rafting)
Today and tomorrow you will go rafting on the Chon-Kemin river. This means that you will be challenged, as the rivers in Kyrgyzstan are not made for relaxing. Surely, there are quiet parts that will enable you to enjoy the magnificent mountains. But, regularly, you will have to battle with the rapids. These are labelled level 3 and 4, sufficient to please every adrenaline junkie, but at the same time not too extreme. In fact, this whole rafting exercise can be perfectly compared with the landscape and the trip. It is somehow out of your comfort zone. The night you will spend at the river side. In a tent.
Day 15 – Chon Kemin to Bishkek
It is only two hours from Chon Kemin to Bishkek. On the way you will stop at the Burana Tower (a minaret dating from the eleventh century) and the open air museum Balban, where warriors made out of stone are exhibited. After check-in, you will have the whole afternoon to discover Bishkek. Sufficient time to see Pobeda (Victory) Square, Duboviy Park, Central Ala-Too Square, the Historical Museum and the National Theatre. But the highlight of Bishkek is the colourful, noisy and vivid Asian Market. The perfect place to experience the other, crowded, side of Kyrgyzstan.
Day 16 – Bishkek to Ala Archa (return trip)
Ala Archa Gorge is a park, only 45 kilometres from Bishkek, that could only be visited by VIPs in Soviet times. Nowadays, it is a popular destination for anyone who loves nature. The park offers great hiking possibilities, from short and easy to long and strenuous. Your guide knows his way around here and will kindly invite you to participate to discover the park with him. At the end of the day you will be driven back to your hotel in Bishkek.
Day 17 – Bishkek to Almaty
After your last Kyrgyz breakfast you will head for Almaty, the city where it all started. Including formalities at the border the trip will last approximately four to five hours. Once in Almaty you can explore the city on your own. There is still plenty to see and to do, if you feel the need to discover more. Alternatively, you could simply head for a sunny terrace and a cold Kazakh beer.
Day 18 – Back Home
Today you will leave by plane from Almaty and fly back home.
Tourism in Kazachstan and Kyrgyzstan is really something that is only just starting. Except for the two big cities Almaty and Bishkek, and to a lesser extent Karakol, there are hardly hotels. Instead you will find yourself back in guest houses and homestays. Perhaps the biggest plus of this is that you will almost automatically get to know the locals and be integrated into their life. Especially because the families are all very hospitable and they all know how to cook well. Naturally, all the places where you will stay are clean and comfortable.
Below you will find an overview of the hotels that we are offering during this trip. All these hotels are subject to availability. In case they are full you will be offered a similar alternative.
|Almaty: Golden Palace||Karakol: Hotel Karagat||Alty-Emel|
|Charyn-Chundja||Bokonbaevo and Song Kul||Bishkek: My Hotel|
[restab title=”Practical Information”]
Kyrgyzstan has the most liberal requirements in Central Asia. Visa-free travel (both at land borders and at the airport) has gone into effect on July 27th 2012, giving 60-day free travel for the following 44 countries:
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vatican, United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Hungary, Germany, Netherlands, Greece, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Canada, South Korea, Kuwait, Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, United Arab Emirates, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, United States of America, Finland, France, Croatia, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Sweden, Estonia, Qatar, Brunei, Bahrain, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cuba, Georgia, Moldova, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia (up to 30 days), Mongolia (up to 90 days), North Korea, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine (up to 90 days), Vietnam (30 days).
If you still need one, beware that a Kyrgyz visa is date-specific, meaning entry and exit date are written on them; you cannot enter before the entry date or leave after the expiry date.
Kazakhstan has the so called ‘No-Visa Pilot Program’ which allows citizens of the following countries to visit Kazakhstan without a visa:
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, the United Arab Emirates, and the USA. The citizens of the above mentioned countries may enter the territory of the country with all types of valid passports for a stay for up to 30 days.
The citizens of Hong Kong SAR can enter Kazakhstan without a visa for up to 14 days.
Citizens from one of the visa exempt countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Uzbekistan) can stay up to 90 days..
All other foreign citizens will need to obtain an entry visa to Kazakhstan.
Health & Safety
There is a risk of malaria from June to November in Kyrgyzstan, mainly in the areas bordering Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but most cases are in areas rarely frequented by tourists and a generous amount of bug spray should be sufficient to ward off the disease. Visitors are recommended to drink bottled water only. Medical care and medical supplies are limited and it may be difficult to find someone who speaks English. Comprehensive medical insurance is advised, which should include air evacuation.
It is not advisable to display wealth, take unofficial taxis or public transport, or walk in unlit areas at night. There is a low threat of terrorist activity particularly in the south west. The political situation is tense due in part to continuing high levels of corruption and crime, and all demonstrations should be avoided. Tensions also exist over recognition of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek borders. While major cities such as Bishkek and the Issyk-Kul region are fairly stable, it is advised that the situation could deteriorate rapidly in any area of the country. Avalanches and mudslides in mountainous areas are common in the spring with the snow melt, and this leads to frequent road closures and disruption to transport.
Kazakhstan is a country where the population has a long history of balanced, harmonious, multi-ethnic social interaction, where both guests and locals are treated with respect during everyday life. Visitors will experience hospitality and warmth. However, your personal safety may vary from very safe to relatively unsafe depending on the location, time of the day, circumstances, and your personal behavior.
Generally, Kazakh cities are safe during the day, but certain parts of major cities should be avoided at night to reduce risk. Going out at night should not present a significant risk though.
Keep your passport (or a certified copy of your passport and visa) with you at all times. While the situation improved lately, police might still try and extort money from foreigners, especially on trains and long-distance buses. Unless the officers involved are drunk, it is possible to avoid paying them by pretending not to understand, or by claiming poverty.
Excessive consumption of alcohol and visiting a nightclub will always present a higher risk, especially if you go out alone. It is advisable to go out as a group, or even better, with locals. Late at night, people speaking foreign languages may receive extra attention from local police, who have been known to falsely accuse a person with petty crimes, make an arrest, and attempt to obtain a KZT 1,000-5,000 cash payment ‘fine’.
Carrying expensive phones, watches, and jewelry; or otherwise demonstrating wealth in public may result in closer attention from pickpockets and potential criminals. Outside Almaty and Astana, this should be avoided.
Kazakh people have more pride than most westerners would expect. Therefore, insulting or negative comments about Kazakhstan or local Kazakhstani people will often result in arguments and possible threats of physical violence. It is not recommended to get into an argument with locals, as Kazakhstan is a nation where physical power is part of the local culture.
Siberian winds bring freezing temperatures and snow in Kyrgyzstan from November to February, with ferocious cold in the mountains. Climate in winter is not too appealing with minimum temperatures reaching –24ºC. Throughout the country springtime buds appear in April and May, though nights can still be below freezing. Mid-May to mid-June is pleasant, though many mountain passes will still be snowed in. From the end of June through to mid-August most afternoons will reach 32ºC or higher, with a maximum of 40ºC in Fergana Valley towns such as Jalal-Abad; mountain valleys are considerably cooler. Like most of the region, Bishkek gets most of its rainfall in spring and early summer. Of course in the mountains the ‘warm’ season is shorter. The best time to visit is July to September, although camping and trekking are pleasant from early June through mid-October. Overall, the republic is best for scenery and weather in September, with occasional freezing nights in October.
Like the rest of Central Asia, Kazakhstan has hot summers and very cold winters. During the hottest months, July and August, average daily maximums reach the high 20°Cs in Almaty and Astana. During the tourist low-season months of November to March, frosty mornings are typical in Almaty and temperatures there typically remain below freezing for much of December, January and February. The ground is snow-covered for an average 111 days a year. In sub-Siberian Astana there is frost from October to April, with temperatures lurking between -10°C and -20°C from December to February. Annual precipitation ranges from less than 100mm a year in the deserts to 1500mm in the Altay Mountains. You can travel any time of year with the right preparation and logistics, but the most comfortable months are May to September. July, August and September are best for trekking in the south-eastern and eastern mountains.
Costs & Money
The costs per day in Kyrgyzstan are lower than in Kazakhstan. However despite probably being among the cheapest countries in the region getting to places can be an issue with public/shared transport only running to major towns. Getting more into the wilderness or anywhere while being in a hurry will need hiring your own transport and that will be expensive.
The Kyrgyz som is divided into 100 tiyin. Notes come in 1000, 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, five and one som denominations. Banks and licensed moneychanger booths (marked obmen balyot) exchange US dollars provided the notes are unblemished in near-mint condition and, if possible, post 2001. There are ATMs in Bishkek, Jalal-Abad and Osh that dispense both US dollars and som. Travellers cheques can be cashed in these places and in Karakol (3% commission). You will find that higher-priced items are generally priced in US dollars, although a few businesses in the hospitality industry fix their prices in euros. There is no black market for currency transactions.
Kazakhstan is not a cheap country mainly because of years of high inflation and the lack of cheap accommodation. There are plenty of ATMs in major cities and USD and EURO cash change at every turn.
Books about Central Asia
There is a wealth of writing on Central Asia and the Silk Road. The list below is far from complete, but on the other hand, if you would read all of them before travelling to Central Asia, you can consider yourself to be well prepared.
The Great Game – Peter Hopkirk
Probably the most popular book on Central Asia, and rightly so, this is the ultimate Great Game book. Reads like a spy novel, only that it actually all happened. A similar, equally gripping book by the same author is Setting the East Ablaze, about the Bolsheviks plot to bring communism to India through Central Asia. Be aware though that the author is British, and he does a good job of painting the Brits as heroes, while other nations get to fill the role of villains.
The Turks in World History – Carter Vaughn Findley
Factual history that manages to excite? In 230 pages, Findley manages to present the complete history of the Turkic people from their appearance in the Central Asian steppes up to the victory of Erdogan in Turkey. Essential reading that ties together the whole area in a way no other history has managed, through the prism of the Turkic people who now rule Central Asia and Asia Minor.
Religions of the Silk Road – Richard Foltz
Concise and very well-written, this books takes you on a journey through time, explaining why Central Asia was (and is) one of the most multicultural places on Earth. Fascinating all the way, from Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism to Buddhism and Islam.
Central Asia in World History – Peter Golden
The best general introduction to the area’s history. Not an exhaustive, all-you-need-to-know-and-more history, but a readable broad overview that will explain a lot without confusing.
Eastern Approaches – Fitzroy MacLean
If you like your history more exciting, try Eastern Approaches. One of the best action books ever written, MacLean relates his adventures as a spy in Central Asia, complete with incredible Rambo-behind-enemy-lines style commando raids and high-level political negotiations.
The Silk Road in World History – Xinru Liu
Everything you always wanted to know about the Silk Road, this is the benchmark book on this chapter of the history of the region. For a different take on the same material, two other books you can check out are The Silk Road: a New History, and Life along the Silk Road.
The Empire of the Steppes – Ren Grousset
Pretty dry (it’s from the 30′s) but it remains the classic work on the steppe empires of old and its nomadic rulers. Contains what is probably still the best portrait of Ghenghis Khan.
Journeys on the Silk Road – Joyce Morgan & Conrad Walters
The story of Aurel Stein and the archaeological treasures buried in the desert of Xinjiang. Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road covers similar terrain, but focuses more on the race for treasure and the devious tricks Western nations played to get their hands on the spoils, while Journeys looks more at Stein in particular and the historical treasures themselves. Both are good books, depends whose style you prefer.
Turkestan Solo – Ella Maillart
One of the most adventurous women of all time, Swiss Olympian Ella Maillart’s escapades put many of today’s adventurers to shame. Turkestan Solo, her equestrian adventure through Soviet Central Asia in the 1930′s, lets you travel back in time while keeping the adrenaline pumping.
The Way of the World – Nicholas Bouvier
One of the best books to come out of the travel writing genre of ‘young Westerner goes to far off land looking for adventure, finds himself instead’. Insightful, and just beautifully written. Recommended to every 18-year old looking to get inspired.
Shadow of the Silk road – Colin Thubron
Colin Thubron uses beautiful, poetic prose to sketch his overland journey from China to Turkey. He records some interesting meetings and generally interweaves the narrative with a lot of history. He gets very poetic and pondering at times, though. More focused on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is his 1994 book The Lost Heart of Asia.
The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron
The classic. Byron, eccentric British scholar with a ridiculous knowledge of architecture, visits the Middle East, Persia and Afghanistan and remarks on its people and buildings.
Silk road to Ruin – Ted Rall
A different kind of travelogue, contemporary and heavily drenched in acrid sarcasm. Cartoonist Ted Rall travels Central Asia and mocks everything that comes his way.
Great Games, Local Rules – Alexander Cooley
The most recent and up to date overview of Central Asia’s regimes and their stance towards each other and the bigger powers surrounding them: China, Russia, and the USA. Written by a recognized expert on the matter, this is the one to get for an informed view of present-day politics in the region.
The new Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Birth of Nations – Olivier Roy
This one is quite a heavy read, tracking the political history and the birth of the Central Asian nations after the Communist collapse. In a similar vein is Eric McClinchey’s Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia.
The Oil and the Glory – Steve LeVine
The number one book on the nasty business of oil politics around the Caspian Sea. Great read by a seasoned journalist who knows the players and was there when it all took place. Another good book on the same topic is Lutz Klevemann’s The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia.
Everyday Life in Central Asia – Jeff Sahadeo
A series of essays grouped around topics such as community, gender, the nation state and religion, giving a good insight into contemporary life in the region. This all has little to do with politics, but at the same time, the book is really revealing in showing what people are thinking, making it a unique read all the same.
There is a clear division between the nomadic and the settled people of Central Asia and this is reflected in the kind of music performed. The city populations are primarily made up of Uzbeks and Tajiks and their music belongs to the urban classical and professional tradition. Kazakhs, Turkmen and Kyrgyz, however, are of nomadic origin and their music follows the rural or folk traditions which have a closer connection to a pre-Islamic animist and shamanist culture. Related to this is the art of the bard or bakshy – another branch of the widespread Turkic asik tradition. In these societies which are still close to their nomadic origins, the bakshy is also a shaman-acting as healer, magician and moraliser. All three countries have traditions of sung epics performed by the bakshy. The group Ashkhabad from Turkmenistan has recorded its own particular brand of wedding music. Their music draws on the song-epics and folk traditions and is adapted somewhat for western audiences and through their own Western classical training.
Food & Drinks
Although Central Asia is not a region where you can enjoy haute cuisine at every corner, it surely has its appetizing moments. Surrounding those moments, you will primarily find a nomadic carnivore’s dream or a vegetarian’s nightmare. It is said that nomads eat whatever is near. Traditionally, this meant a horse or a sheep. Not much has changed. That mindset seems to have been adapted to today’s modern table with a twist of lingering Soviet influence. From the port of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan to the eastern fringes of the Torugart Pass in Kyrgyzstan, you will never be far from any of these Central Asian food staples mentioned below.
Uzbek in origin. Think rice pilaf with fried julienned carrots, red pepper, caraway seeds, and chunks of meat. Plov is so ubiquitous throughout the region that self-described local connoisseurs can discern differences that are imperceptible to foreigners. For sure, there must be regular ‘Who cooks the best plov competitions’.
A satisfying dish composed of a tomato-based broth, pulled noodles, tomatoes, onions, peppers and chunks of meat.
It sounds dangerously like a samosa (Indian pocket stuffed with potatoes, vegetables and sometimes meat), but don’t be fooled. Unfortunately, the stuffing in the Central Asian version is the result of a sheep doing a swan dive into a meat grinder. The most satisfying aspect of a somsa is the way in which it is folded and slapped on the inside of a cylindrical tandoor-like clay oven. If you are fortunate enough, you might find a somsa with a tolerable meat-fat ratio, or perhaps you will find yourself thanking the food gods for cheese somsas at the Zelyony Bazaar in Almaty, Kazkahstan.
Shashlik (or Shashlyk)
Skewered meat (usually mutton) roasted over hot coals. This seems to be the overwhelming favorite of most locals – no rice, bread or vegetables to distract from the main event, the meat. The quality, fat content and elasticity of shashlik on offer, varies widely and frighteningly throughout Central Asia. To avoid the looming threat of an oil slick on the roof of your mouth, you must consume it quickly while it is piping hot.
Dumpling pockets stuffed with various proportions of meat, fat and onion. The speed with which mutton fat congeals and collects on the roof of one’s mouth after eating one of these is epic.
Boiled mutton on the bone with a root vegetable stew of potatoes, carrots, and turnips.
One of the most pleasant remaining influences from Mother Russia (actually Ukraine) on the Central Asian table.
Think Russian ravioli, stuffed with ground meat. The emphasis is on ground, so that any mystery bits of meat are crushed beyond recognition. Usually served in a broth or sided with sour cream. A safe bet, unless you are a vegetarian.
Called corek in Turkmenistan and known as nan (or non) almost everywhere else, Central Asian flatbread is often Frisbee-shaped. When fresh it is fantastic, probably among the best bread in the world. But it also seems to be designed for longevity to outlast a long desert trek. The shape and consistency is determined by the region and a simple design is often imprinted on the top of the bread to denote where it came from.
Dried Fruits and Nuts
Stepping back from the world of prepared foods, one thing Central Asia does incredibly well is dried fruits and nuts. All markets from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan have aisles of dried apricots, raisins, pistachios, and every other type of dried fruit and nut imaginable.
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