Getting Oriented in Kyrgyzstan

The goat-thing in front of me was perfect. And I was worried that I’m a bad traveler. For starters, I confess that I wasn’t 100% sure of how to pronounce Kyrgyzstan when I boarded my flight to it. How hard is that G? I was also still half-relying on my phone to autocomplete the spelling. “Tomorrow I fly to Kyr…” Tap.

My 1st photo in Kyrgyzstan, not even knowing if it was in Russian or Kyrgyz

After two and a half months of familiar languages, I was now adrift in a world of impenetrable syllables and Cyrillic script. Menus were intricate artworks of swirls and spikes, like crop circles made typeface, and even after I gave in and installed a translator, I kept getting distracted from making menu choices by the peculiar poetry wriggling around my screen.

So after a few semi-competent days in Bishkek, I was happy when my 6-day mountain trek began. Day 1 was a ride out of the capitol, with two stops along the way. The trouble began immediately. Stop one was Burana Tower, the lone remnant of a city founded in the 9th century. Rising like a giant IKEA dowel out of the flat landscape, bands of intricately patterned brickwork reached eighty feet into the air. But my brain kept catching on something.

Thousand year old…bricks? Surely no bricks could last so long in such a weatherworn land. That’s fine, restoration is part of any ancient site, maybe they just did a really good job in 1975. But a nearly immaculate tower rising as the lone remnant of an entire city made me wonder where the line is between restoration and replication. Was I being too cynical?

Stop two was a field of petroglyphs, and the goat-thing that made me worry. A slightly visible path led a loop among the stones, and all the carvings seemed to face the visitor. Convenient. And they were unexpectedly, even inexplicably sharp. I checked the scant signage, and nowhere was a date mentioned. Was this a field of petroglyphs…from 2015?

What is the nature of tourism? What are the requirements and purposes? Is it to see old stuff? How old/big/famous does something have to be before it’s worthwhile? What does “authentic” even mean? Surely culture is even more potent today than in a notion of antiquity.

Next was lunch. My driver’s English was minimal, but I got that he loved this restaurant and was particularly excited about the pelmeni. Two orders of pelmeni please. We settled into a companionable silence, watching the families eat and selfie, the teenage waiters agonizingly aware of each other, and the kids playing the same playground games I did at their age, while their elders lingered over coffee and quiet.

Burana Tower was something unexpected and striking, regardless of when the bricks were cast. The petroglyphs were an interesting reflection of someone’s vision of goats and the play of stone with seasons, regardless of timing. This lunch cabana wasn’t old, historically important, or unique, and yet I was immersed in an experience worth appreciating. I had liked Kyrgyzstan from the moment we landed within sight of that mountain wall, and it’s not a visitor’s place to complain, criticize, or judge what they find. Maybe Kyrgyzstan was pushing a little hard to create variety in its tourist brochure, maybe I am just spoiled, and definitely it doesn’t matter either way.

We hadn’t even reached the mountains yet, and I was well pleased with my 6 day trek. Then I learned an important detail. This had not been day one. It was day zero. My tour hadn’t even started yet and I was already satisfied with it. That right there is a good start.

The view from on top of Burana Tower