“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest... in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one's suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”
The country Kyrgyzstan is historically wrought with conflicts and control from larger military and economic powers across Asia, but from this can be seen an impeccable cultural resilience to commanding and corrupt elite. In 850 AD, long before the major military and economic powers of Asia, the Kyrgyz rose to control a vast portion of Central Asia after the defeat of the Uyghur-Khaganate for 200 years. Yet as the 12th century approached, an ominous storm churned in the Mongolian steppe. Ghenghis Khan united the Mongol tribes and shook the Earth itself with the hooves of a thousand horses and the feet of 80,000 men. This unrelenting militant monstrosity swept across the Central Asia landscape, forcing the Kyrgyz to cooperate peacefully to the horde lest they be massacred.
21 years later, the conquest of the King of Kings and his Mongol hoard ended far beyond the miniscule 77,000 square miles the Kyrgyz called home, a sliver of the 8,000,000 he left behind. Several successors battled relentlessly in their greed for greater power, and the Empire bulged to a monstrous 12,000,000 square miles. Yet none would see the relentless rule that Ghengis Khan had once borne. Weakening power brought dissipation of the Empire's unity, and Mongol leaders of the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate, the Oirats, and the Dzungars fought over the land left by their great warlords. It was not until the 1500s that the Kyrgyz regained their freedom from bickering tyrants. However, liberation did not last long. Over the following 300 years, the Kalmyks, Manchus, and Uzbeks exchanged power over the Kyrgyz landscape. And though all of these exchangers of power occurred over a period of 900 years, the worst was yet to come.
In the early 1800s, Peter the Great unified Russia as the first appointed Tzar. The Russians began to fortify their borderlands, especially the Central Asia steppe. Consequently the area of Bishkek was founded, the greatest of these fortifications. But the nomadic Kyrgyz saw no reason to unify under a larger community. There was the land and themselves, and that was all they needed. It was when the Russians started making demands that the Kyrgyz had seen enough. Why would they hand over livestock that they had nurtured themselves on unclaimed land, while the Russian elite staked claims for land and resources from anyone? In protest of this absurdity, the Kyrgyz often slit the throat of every living animal they owned.
In the early 1900s the Kyrgyz witnessed the rise of the Bolsheviks and deep wounds to the Russian army from casualties in World War I. Demands were made for infantry, but the Kyrgyz fled into the mountains of Afghanistan and the steppes of China. This was just another battle of higher powers in lands far away, and another international conflict that only meant pointless involvement. War did not last long in the grand scheme of their troubles, and soon enough the Kyrgyz saw a brighter horizon.
Several areas of the USSR experienced countrywide starvation and economic collapse throughout communist governance, but for Kyrgyzstan this time was one of development and prosperity. A standard literacy language for Kyrgyz was introduced, which significantly increased literacy nationwide. The Kyrgyzstan as a whole gained greater economic power and even saw considerable social development. Recognition broadened as citizens of communist Russia began to praise the beautiful mountains, flowering meadows, and lakeshores of the Kyrgyz countryside among their greatest vacation getaways.
This was nothing new for the Kyrgyz. It was a natural recurrence to have waves of newcomers take advantage of their majestic natural beauties, a simple change of seasons amongst the 1000 years of other stampedes. Their spirits, strengthened by the nomads of old, had become as resilient as the mountains, meadows and lakes. It would be no different when Russians mass immigrated into the republic by the thousands, populating what had once been fortifications of the Russian Empire (primarily Bishkek). Indeed, significant benefit was seen by this development to the Republic's education and economy, but the Kyrgyz way would stand a stone through the seasons, through turns of centuries.
It was during the governance of the USSR that the Kyrgyz began to feel a stronger sense of identity. People began to question the values of the USSR over the idea of succession, of independence from all. And with these thoughts, movements for change began. Political decisions from Gorbachev brought a weakening Soviet grasp over the republic. During this time, the Supreme Soviet of Kyrgyzstan began to favor motives of secession. Yet there are times when even political favor cannot help those people amidst a greater power. Even without the support of many Kyrgyz, over 88% of Kyrgyzstan still favored their comrades in Moscow.
Over the span of Soviet governance, strong economic inequalities came between the north and south of Kyrgyzstan. Yet an ancient flame had been burning long before Soviet days, and the crumbling distribution of wealth in changing times simply refueled a long-stifled resentment between the Kyrgyz in the north and Uzbeks in the south. Political demands were made from both ethnic groups, only causing further rise of temperature. In June of 1991 boiling points were met on a national scale; the Osh Riots began. Terrorizing of property and heartless acts of murder and rape trickled across southern Kyrgyzstan, catching the attention of Gorbachev within two days. Conflict became so intense that the Red Army was called to quench the rage between both ethnic groups that caused the death of 171 people. And though the quarrel seemed transient, embers still burned in the ashes of the aftermath.
Photographer - A. Wooden
Just after the Osh Riots the recently formed Republic of Kyrgyzstan appointed the first President, Askay Akayev. He was a man of early potential for the new parliamentary representative democratic framework. Yet this hope soon faded in the many years to follow, a whole 15 years of rigged re-elections and terrible leadership. By 2005, the Kyrgyz had seen enough injustice. Protestors across Osh and Jalal-Abad stormed the buildings of their leaders amongst collisions with riot police, gunfire, that ended in several deaths. Refusal to negotiate with Akayev eventually pressured the president out of the country, inevitably ending in his resignation and stripping of his title.
After issues with Akayev settled, President Bakiyev was appointed the following day. Though hope seemed to have come for the Kyrgyz people, they slowly watched as Bakiyev followed in Akayev’s footsteps. Failed reforms were matched by consolidated power. Bakiyev relished his position with incredible political immorality, tipping off political perks to his family and cronies while the economy slumped. With expensive energy prices, the common citizen languished from burdens of a corrupt elite. But even in the event of financial weariness, horrendous political moves reinvigorated deep seeded anger still growing in the Kyrgyz heart.
A burning truck at the gates of the Kyrgyz white house. The driver was just another protestor, just a bit more angry than the others, and tried to drive a car straight through the iron gates. He was sniped and killed on site.
On April 6, 2010 there came the boiling point. A thousand protesters seized government offices in Talas. Encouraged by their comrades, hundreds of Kyrgyz left their doorsteps en route for the White House of Bishkek. Within hours, riot vehicles and military forces were quickly overwhelmed as numbers grew into the thousands. Security forces witnessed trucks slamming into the iron gates of Bakiyev’s complex, though he was not there to greet the lively crowd. Rubber bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas were disregarded and snipers and armed guard moved in. Even with over 40 protesters and security forces killed, the fate was inevitable for the weakly guarded White House. Thousands stormed into offices across the building, tearing the place to pieces.
Even with such serious events occurring in the North, the great clash came in the south where all had once begun in the 90s. Pitiful political control of Osh by Bakiyev brought immense potential for those still fuming from the violence less two decades prior. The threshold shattered in such times of instability and uprising. 8 cold days of brutal attacks between Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and armed guard displaced 500,000 refugees (100,000 fled to Uzbekistan) and anywhere between 426 and over 2000 dead. Bakiyev had not fled the country from the battles blazing, and instead decided to hold a public rally in his hometown on April 15. Gunshots were heard, though it is uncertain whether these were from the people or Bakiyev's personal security. As a result of this clamor, the president fled the country to Kazakhstan, ultimately resigning from his position in the midst of the chaos.
Only a year after this political pandemonium, I stood upon Kyrgyz soil. Each layer told a different story where countless amounts of feet had trembled the Earth in the age of Asian conquests, the era of government reforms, and the decades of political turmoils. And yet, through it all, I would soon bear witness to a culture preserved today. For almost a thousand years, the Kyrgyz way still sprouted among the acres of agriculture and the thousands of meadow flowers.
The open road had taken Dennis and I far from Bishkek towards the shore of the great Lake Yssyk-Köl. The clean air of Bishkek air was quickly outmatched by mountains, meadows and agriculture that greeted us through the darkness of night with an immaculate coastal breeze. So pure was the smell, yet wonderfully seasoned from salt moisture sprays of Yssyk-Köl and the agrestal aroma of freshly cultivated farm fields. Our communal taxi was sound asleep, save the driver and myself. I gazed into the abyss of the Kyrgyz countryside, awake in thought and wonder. My imagination trailed off into the possible visions I would see tomorrow; no multinational agribusiness or manufacturer had tainted this frontier. Even during the Soviet years Yssyk-Köl was commonly used as a nature retreat (for those that could afford to get there or make the time).
We had saved some money by taking a group taxi. Dennis awoke after the first stop for the young lady that had joined us. We bid her farewell and after dropping off an older man, Dennis directed our driver to a small hotel (the only hotel, actually) in the town of Bokonbayevo ("bo-cun-bye-vo"). He had stayed here before, and so had reserved a room ahead of time. What we thought would be a "room" ended up being a small apartment! Two bedrooms, two baths, living room, entry hall (complete with a chandelier), and a balcony stretching the entire length of the top floor... for $5. This victory of accommodation called for celebration, and after buying a beer from the hotel's tiny shop we sat down on our rocking chairs overlooking Bokonbayevo. The journey had not even begun, yet the first hours left us living large!
I exited our front door in the morning for a first view of daylight. My images from the taxi ride came to life: a small town bordered by Yssyk-Köl to the North, open farmland to the East and West, and the Terksey mountain range to the South. Dennis knew this landscape well from several visits, and with a couple suggestions we had made big plans.
I was very hungry that morning, but Dennis had insisted that we first stop by to visit his good friends Ruslan and Talgar. Both were part of the modern lineage of to follow the oldest and arguably most knowledgeable hunter in all of Kyrgyzstan, Sari. Both Ruslan and Talbak had several birds of prey to show to us upon our arrival... after some tea and bread, of course.
This was the beginning of my exposure to Kyrgyz customs, and one that became quite awkward without the acceptance of language barriers. As we entered Ruslan's quaint, two-room home, we met his wife busily preparing tea. After a quick "asalam maleikum," we were immediately directed towards the living room in which a small table was filled with a massive plate of bread. Around this were cups of jam, butter, and sugar. We three men sat and began a discussion of sorts, one I would not be able to understand as Dennis broke into Russian. I patiently waited, wondering for a good while what the talking concerned. Soon enough, I learned from Dennis that he was simply recapping where we had been together, why we were visiting, and where we were going to be in the next few days. On the conversation went, and on I waited for translation. A wonderful distraction presented itself, which was my first encounter with fresh bread and homemade butter in 6 months.
Kyrgyzstan brought one fantastic culinary surprise after the other, and even this simple dish brought equal joy. As I sat in buttery bliss, Dennis chuckled and explained my story and happiness to Ruslan. All the while I loaded on the tea, served in small bowls and heavily sweetened with sugar cubes. I had no control over my portions as Ruslan's wife did all the pouring. As soon as I finished one cup of tea, another was being poured immediately. Never did Ruslan's wife make eye contact with any of us. Never once did she talk amongst our conversation. This brought us to a peculiar parallel; I couldn't speak a word of Russian, so I was equally silent. But this was tradition amongst the Kyrgyz; men would talk and discuss the world around them while the wife ensured our comforts in food and drink. I continued to feel slightly awkward having nothing to contribute. Dennis had prepared me with one word, however, which would end the serving of tea and eating of bread. I was thankful to know it at one point, for the pouring would have never stopped. I held my hand out over the tea bowl: "rakmat, rakmat."
Show and Tell
6 bowls of tea, 8 pieces of bread, and 1 awkward conversation later, I stepped into Ruslan's backyard. He had packed a sizable amount of livestock together in there comfortably, with his most prized possessions waiting for us in the back corner: birds.
The first was a baby raven, whose cries of hunger could be heard all during our conversation indoors. Ruslan had come with a bag of meat. Pale blue eyes examined me from within the wooden cage, all the while cawing for food. Ruslan came and withdrew the bird to offer an afternoon lunch, a bag of meat scraps that immediately silenced his cries.
Dennis and I stood distracted by the raven as Ruslan went to acquire his pride and joy. I heard him approaching from behind me accompanied by the slightest flutter of wings. Another raven? What is the deal with that? Oh, how wrong I was.
Dennis had told me stories and shown pictures of golden eagles several years prior. But nothing, of course, compared to being a few feet from Ruslan's hunting counterpart. The eagle's wingspan was almost 6 feet, sending gusts of wind with every flap as she balanced upon the ultra thick leather glove around Ruslan's hand. Her head was blinded, not for Ruslan's safety as much as ours. While we held her, we should not be seen so as to save ourselves from potential carnage. A terrified/angered/frustrated eagle whose beak could carve through flesh like butter is not my cup of tea.
The moment came faster than I thought as Ruslan approached me with his gloved hand. Dennis had prepped me for the experience. I turned so as to have my back against his chest. We aligned our arms, and with one quick movement, I slipped into the leather glove as Ruslan slipped out.
Though I seem comfortable holding the bird in one hand, I'm actually engaging every single muscle in my body to keep from collapsing.
An animal that could take down wolves and deer was perched on my arm. I had seen videos for each respective prey falling victim to these talons that pierced hide, skin, and throat with ease. She wobbled back and forth to counteract my trembling arm. I could barely hold the weight of her magnificence! I failed to keep steady several times, and her wings immediately burst full-wide to keep balance. Dennis managed to snap a couple pictures during this short time span. Immediately after, I engaged both arms for stability.
I stood for as long as I could bear the burning of my forearm. This was the biggest bird I had ever seen in my life. Indeed, the golden eagle is one of the biggest of its genus. I experienced that first hand with her flapping wings, which could have reached nearly as far as my extended opposite arm.
A beautiful moment came shortly after I handed her back to Ruslan. He removed her headpiece. Once blinded eyes glared quickly in several directions, possibly to ensure the absence of threat. Ruslan stood steadfast, his arm only moving as she settled comfortably upon the leather glove. Her feathers shined a countless shade of gold and brown in blended radiance, with all predatory senses alert in chance of unseen danger.
It was the first time I had ever experienced such a connection. Even though she could surely fly off any day and survive, she knew that in the company of her hunting partner, food would be tracked and caught in greater certainty. And though it wasn't quite symbiotic mutualism, the bond between these two lives was powerful enough to match such consented reliance.
In his long months of cultural study and immersion, Dennis had found more than just those seeking to develop their skills of their ancient ancestors. He had met the master of them all. Sari, a man who has studied Kyrgyz hunting practices since he was a child, currently served as one of the most valued preservers of this culture. Dennis had become so well affiliated with Sari and his family that he was once given the privilege to celebrate the wise man's 81st birthday (read more here: Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3 (WARNING, not for the faint of heart or animal lovers) ). His home was far from the paved roads of Bokonbayevo, yet I would soon learn he couldn't have chosen a better spot to be along the shore of Yssyk-Köl.
Conversation was minimal during our time with Sari. In fact, since he only knew Kyrgyz, both Dennis and I were out of luck this time for saying pretty much anything. Dennis had prepared for this, bringing several pictures he had taken of Sari and his family on his previous visit. This gift giving would only span a short 10 minute period, involving the muttering of several Kyrgyz phrases and words that could only be met with nodding heads. Then, the silence. Tea and bread was served en masse. Family came and went from the table. The eternal 45 minutes left me observing every single inch of Sari's home from that particular position, that which would give me a dissertation's worth of writing to digress upon. It was a challenge, but connected to a deeper root of my observatory power: when you run out of things to look at, the patterns within them are infinite.
Eventually, another member of the family entered to beckon us for food. We sat together for, yet another, hearty carb-based meal (plus a little fish), and were righteously full within a short while. Keep in mind, we had just sat down for bread and tea only 5 minutes before and once again two hours before that. The cuisine was, of course, completely layered with the silence of language gaps. Dennis and I allowed our stomachs to register just how much we had consumed before taking a walk outside to tour Sari's yard.
The Taigan: another traditional hunting partner of the Kyrgyz
Baby turkies! :)
Big booty sheep! :P
On his birthday, Sari had ventured out to a bird trap he had set a few days prior. He was surprised to find this extremely rare breed of falcon, one which is known to have superior visibility when compared to most other hunting birds around.
Most of the land surrounding Sari's village was barren, reminding me of the rolling hills and jagged mountain spires of Ladakh. Just like that barren mountain valley, life also flourished here at the source of water.
I was immediately taken aback by how many similar shades of blue this low altitude salt water lake had with Pongong in the Himalaya. It mirrored the sky the farther one looked out into its depths. I was standing on holy ground, revered by the Kyrgyz as their second most sacred site in the country. This was their Ganges, a place for the devout to wash away their tainted past and begin anew. And the view to go with that purification! Mountains on a distant northern shore. I couldn't even believe a place like this existed outside of the stampede of tourism that had trampled the shores of so many other lakes across the world. Even in India, 15,000 feet in the air, little glacial lakes like Pongong had been overrun in peak tourist seasons. Setting these thoughts aside, I simply basked in the awe of my isolation. Nothing but the wind, the light clap of chopping waves, the warmth of the sun, and the nourishing silence of nature existed. The mountains... the lake... the world couldn't help but surprise me with the greatness of life itself.
Dennis and I returned to say our farewell to Sari and his family, which was unexpectedly combined with bread and tea. I had not prepared for this by monitoring my eating at the lunch beforehand, so by the time we bid Sari farewell, my body was weighed down a good 5 kilograms in carbs. Sari muttered some things to us in Kyrgyz, which we gladly accepted in poor comprehension. Our taxi rolled off and away from his small village. Dennis told me the village had been there for hundreds of years, long before the days of Bokonbayevo. Sari was getting old, and with no future plans to return to Kyrgyzstan, that may have been the last time I would ever see him. I had connected with a part of an ancient lineage, where each generation had surely mastered the ancient Kyrgyz hunting skills. With that thought, I felt nothing but gratitude.
Ala-Archa, one of the many breathtaking valleys of Kyrgyzstan. Photographer - Palmer Keen
Dennis and I had one last adventure to finish. This, in fact, would be my last great adventure in Asia, as my departure was only a short 3 days away. We couldn't have picked a better activity for this occasion: a horseback ride out and into the mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan. I had ridden plenty of scooters and motorcycles back in the subcontinent, but this was a moment I had been waiting to experience: a real journey out and away from any form of civilization. Even in India, Ladakh had been scattered with small towns and military bases. This was the beauty of Kyrgyzstan: so much land was untouched by the developed world. Out there in the open, all that might be seen was a lone family herding cattle or sheep over miles of green grass. These massive hills or lush valleys collided with the jagged base of snow-capped mountains. Almost all of Kyrgyzstan's western region is covered by similar landscapes (Dennis' brother Palmer visited Ala-Archa, shown above), and we wished that for ourselves.
Joki and Asylbek were our humble guides, and met us early in the morning at the home of a local friend of Dennis. Unfortunately, we were not in for a wild ride up the mountain, as our horses were packed down quite heavily for the feast of a meal both of our guides had prepared for that evening. We left in a slow walk, strolling past the few dirt roads that made up residential Bokonbayevo. Within less than a half hour, we were out in the surrounding farm fields.
A local cattle driver
We made it into the hills within the hour, yet so did the low elevation clouds we had seen in the distant not long before. For a short while, we walked through a thick mist. As we gained altitude however, the fog cleared to reveal a coming storm at a higher altitude. The temperature began to drop. Joki and Asylbek thought it best that we set up camp for now and see what the weather was like in the morning. Walking in high altitudes through snow was not the nicest move to pull on our hardworking companions carrying us. Joki and Asylbek tethered the horses and Dennis and I took time to set up the tent. Yet, as soon as all was set and done and the water was boiling for a soup dinner, both Dennis and I predicted what came next.
You bet! Vodka. No occasion of any sort, whether it be mountaineering, horseback riding, or a family dinner, was without it. Our serving sizes were limited to the size of a cup of tea. Wonderful! I had no problem with this, as I knew that I was finally in a country of good liquor. Even the cheapest of vodka in Kyrgyzstan was smoother than some of the finer varieties I had tasted back at home. And no matter what I wanted to do, it was custom that the liquor kept pouring until the bottle was gone.
A pose on a rock was then a balancing act!
Soon enough, we were all nicely drunk and craving the meal ahead. Meat, cheese, soup and (don't forget it!) fresh bread were all served in no time. A short while after, the clouds rolled in. Snow slowly floated down upon our tents. This was the trigger for nothing but... more vodka! Within the hour, Dennis, Joki, Asylbek, and I had put down a bottle (or two?). We were warm and nicely filled. Dennis had borrowed his brother's Jews harp for the journey, and when Joki found a hidden talent in himself, the concert flowed long into the afternoon and evening. We sat huddled in our two man tent twanging away for several hours, while Dennis chatted to both Joki and Asylbek in Russian about his and my goings on. As darkness fell over the mountains and hills around us, we all decided to get an early rest for the day ahead. Whether we went farther or not, I went to sleep with a smile. These were great times. I was huddled in a tent, talking amongst the locals with food and drink. It reminded me of times with Fazal, with Min Min, with Thin Thin, with Sari. No matter how long or short our conversations or moments together had been, were some of the best I ever had in Asia. It's when you really feel that you've found a deeper connection with a strange land when you can say you befriended a local. Whatever happened tomorrow would all be added plus, even for a journey that had just begun.
We awoke to find the hills above us frosted over with a heavy blanket of snow. Due to the potential risk of injury to our horses, we decided to back off of the rest of our 3 day trip. We packed up all our things and headed back down towards town. Yet, as we came down from the highlands, I had one last request. I wanted to ride full speed on my horse. I wanted to fly through the open valley and feel the wind on my face as I did in Jaisalmer. My ironclad steed was now living and wild, and memories of galloping through the Greek hills came swarming into my mind. Dennis had Joki and Asylbek load up our packs on their horses so as to lighten our load. Joki said that the horses were a bit temperamental, but I felt foolishly confident in my ability to handle any situation. 3 months of horseback riding experience under my belt? No problem!
In one fell swoop, Dennis whipped the rear of his horse and he exploded off into the meadow. I didn't even have a chance to command, for my horse followed suit in a race to catch his friend. In complete ill control of the galloping horses, we clutched to the reins with our lives. Rocks and ditches were everywhere, but the horses evaded in deft precision. As terrifying as it was, Dennis and I couldn't help but shout, whoop, yell, shudder, and laugh at the fiasco in which we had placed ourselves. Off we rode in a large circle across the valley, eventually gaining hold of our balance and flying alongside each other for a short while. This was, by far, the single greatest feeling I had felt in my trip across Asia. And it couldn't have come at a better time: right at the end! This was what it meant to live, to feel both the risk and exhilaration of life all at once, to be slightly in control and slightly out of control of the moment ahead, and (better yet) to see it all flying by at the speed of a galloping horse.
We returned to Joki and Asylbek and found them laughing so hard they almost fell of their horses. We had been a circus act throughout the trip, making them laugh all throughout the previous day of drinking and finishing off the trip with a clumsily performed gallop across their local valley.
Upon reaching Bokonbayevo, Asylbek invited us over for some more adventures on his family's apple orchard and yet another dinner. Besh parmak. This combination of boiled pork and noodles was an old tradition of the Kyrgyz that was only served for special occasions, so we felt honored to be offered such a meal of greasy noodle delight. We had quite a while until dinner, so we decided to go on a walk out through the orchard towards the shores of Yssyk-Köl.
I reached the fence and immediately bounded over its rickety foundation. There I gazed, my vision ending at a grey horizon. The apple orchard was rich with the life of Spring but chilled by the sun blotted from a coming storm, an avalanche across the holy sapphire saltwater. The winds whispered to the trees, unsettling the weakly connected petals of a thousand flowers. Shimmering white shed from every tree, a bright fluttering snowfall across my eyes. And as fast as they pummeled forth, so did clouds begin to clear. There, on Issyk Kul's northern shore stood the frosted spires of Kungey Ala Too towering into the sky. No words or sound of awe were needed. I simply stood, and gazed.
(MUTE SOUND ON THIS VIDEO)
I slowly wandered behind Dennis and the guides. I had found a moment worth wishing that time was still. How could life get any better? And with that thought, my longing of infinite India had broken past those borders. It was the world itself that was infinite! In seeking the truthful, resourceful, life-changing path through any country, I took with me the infinite possibilities for incredible experiences! I thought back to the taxi ride just a few days prior and realized I had simply limited myself with one simple thought. Why did I question the possibilities at Yssyk-Köl's shores, the possibilities in all of Kyrgyzstan? Why did I set a limit upon any country, when they are all a boundless ocean of infinite beauty so long as my mind to believes so?
It was this great truth that I had sought across the tens of thousands of miles of India, in the bustling streets of Bangkok, in the rising sun beyond the thousands of temples in Burma. Finally, my mind's eye was open wide to life's river delta of wondrous extravagance. And all along the way so much scented, glimmered, and resonated. These beautiful gifts of ancient times, modern humanity, and nature simply waited for anyone willing to seek their splendor, to those who would broaden their minds to the possibility of what had been and what could be. And though observation of inconceivable pain, unbalanced prosperity, rampant pollution, and continual suffering sometimes left me enshrouded, it was these moments where I surfaced; adrift, yet amongst the sea of life. And what was next, waiting in the horizon of a setting or rising sun, beckoning my endeavored mind?
"In the end, what is right? What should be the standard for distinguishing between right and wrong? I have to believe that it is love for our fellow human beings, a love that wishes all who have been born on this planet happiness and freedom. No ideology or national structure is more important than this. And it is when people love that they become true heroes."
- Chingiz Aitmatov (after his father was discovered in a mass grave. Aitmatov's father lay with 138 other bodies, all victims to Joseph Stalin's regime) READ MORE about Aitmatov
Sayakbai Karalayev, one of the few chon manaschi ("Great" Manaschi), sang the entire Epic of Manas before his passing.
It is said that it took 6 months.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
There once was a time where elaborate tales were told by word of mouth. Those renowned include Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, and Mahabharata. However, another is easily forgotten or unknown amongst the great epics that demands respect as ancient and beautiful oral ingenuity.
Manas, the holy grail of Kyrgyz storytelling, totals 500,553 lines. 20 times longer than both the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, it describes the life and lineage of the nomadic Kyrgyz' greatest hero, Manas. For centuries preceding his rise to power, the Kyrgyz were pushed and scattered about central Asia from momentous battles with their arch-enemies: Kalmyks, Manchus, and Kïtai (Chinese). Manas would end this age of struggle, born "straight on his feet! / In his right hand, khan Manas / Came out holding a clot of black blood..." It was these initial moments of his life that prophesied his destiny as the quintessential hero to the Kyrgyz. And so, the epic wraps the Kyrgyz' longing for a hero into the birth, life, and legacy of their greatest leader, Khan Manas.
Now over 1000 years old, Manas has grown to become one of the greatest symbols of Kyrgyz national identity. Memorization of any such tale would seem ludicrous today, and finding a person who can tell you ancient Uruk, Greek, Algo-Saxon, or Hindu epics from memory is rare or nonexistent. Yet the life and legacy of Manas has and always will be told within the Kyrgyz culture by heart. So is the role of the manaschï (once called the jomokchu), the men (and some women) who memorize the Epic of Manas.
This monumental task is unique to other Kyrgyz storytelling. Wavers, cries, shouts, bellows, and hums resonate through every verse and transform the epic into a beautiful emotional song, interconnected with smashing fists, waving hands, pointing fingers, and many other mighty gestures. There is no single form of dictation and today there exist over 60 versions. It is not common to find a manaschï that knows the story in its supposed entirety. However, there are some chon manaschï ("great" manaschï) that have claimed to hold strong spiritual connection to Manas himself. Sayakbai Karalayev (considered the "Homer of the twentieth century") claimed that he encountered a Bakai (a direct adviser to Manas himself) in a dream. This Bakai gave Sayakbai the gift and wisdom to sing the epic. Years of endless practice and learning brought Sayakbai to the level of chon manaschï. As his life began to wane, Sayakbai found reason in vocally recording the entire epic of Manas for all to hear. He is the only person to ever record a complete version, and doing so supposedly took 6 months.
Today, several new and inspired manaschï have emerged in their passion to connect with their country's ancient roots. Even some chon manaschï still live to tell those aspiring the ancient knowledge of their great national hero, Manas.
Kyrgyz culture, though revolving significantly around the epic of Manas, is far more extensive. I looked forward to experiencing a drastic change from India as I stepped off Air Astana and into Bishkek Airport. Two whole weeks to go here in Kyrgyzstan, and the moment of arrival was already a culture shock and a half.
Customs was pristine, yet the dull white wash walls and marble floor rang an ominous echo with every step. The room was occupied only by four men bearing massive military hats. All were grunting and mumbling to each other in conversation, some staring me down in a glare occasionally. I had been forewarned of this behavior towards tourists, especially Americans. I tread lightly and respectfully to avoid misconception and approached the visa booth to find it deserted. Of the 6 people on the inbound flight, only 2 others required registration besides me. A man knocked on the opaque window of the booth only to be met with the same utter silence. He waited momentarily and knocked again. All of the sudden, the window flew open. A man had been there the whole time. Apparently, he had been sleeping as he yawned and began to devour a late night snack. Without looking at any of us, he held his hand out. "Papers," he said, and continued to eat. The man first in line handed everything over, as well as 80 US dollars.
Shit. I was hoping that an ATM would be available upon my arrival, but I was wrong. There was nothing here except for the booth, one bench, and a phone. I had no paper money except tattered rupees, all of which were meaningless to the Kyrgyz Visa processing booth. There was nothing I could have done to prepare myself for this because India does not allow withdraws of any other currency except their own, even at the airport. I took a deep breath and waited for both the men to have their visas processed. I was one lucky man who happened to be in the presence of a very friendly Japanese tourist. He had brought hundreds of US dollars with him from home. We vowed to visit an ATM after my Visa was processed.
He paused for a moment on my passport to inspect the long wavy hair in my photo. "America?" I acknowledged politely, and followed by joking ever so slightly on how different I looked. He snorted, and chuckled for a brief moment. Phew, at least I'm on this guy's good side... within a moments time he smacked a sticker in my passport, and I was done. I tried to thank him but the opaque door was already snapping shut. ...well, at least he doesn't hate me. I approached the customs desk and without a moments delay, the guard slammed a stamp on my visa. I was in.
Rounding the corner, I made a withdraw from the ATM. To my surprise, the exchange rate was exactly the same to rupees. Awesome, this place is super cheap too! Always good news to the weary traveler. My Japanese friend and I broke even and chatted for a moment outside the airport. As the conversation collided with language barriers, I took a long, deep breath.
I was in a state of nirvana. Besides the small parking lot, I was surrounded my massive trees. A slight drizzle coated Bishkek that evening, and so my nose was met with the finest aroma; oxygen, moisture, and pine. This was going to be an unforgettable part of my trip through Asia, for there was nothing more that I missed than a freshly wet evergreen forest. I stepped out and away from the shelter of the airport awning, face first into the darkness above, until a silver Mercedes pulled up. Out stepped Dennis.
I was loving these reunions with friends exponentially more as my trip progressed. Dennis Keen, a good high school/UCSC friend from Manhattan Beach and a fellow traveler during my time in Goa, had been living in Kyrgyzstan for 8 months prior to my arrival. Throughout this time, he had been studying everything about eagle hunting in central Asia and Kyrgyz culture. I highly recommend that you take time to read his exceptional blog on all of this. Dennis' stories and information are one of a kind:
We hopped in the Mercedes and Dennis began to converse in fluent Russian to our driver explaining where I had come from and what I was doing in Kyrgyzstan. This kicked me into my overwhelming excitement mode. Dennis and I began to babble on about everything at once: what we'd been doing since Goa, the wild differences I was already experiencing, where the driver was from, what he thought of Americans, what I thought of vodka, and so on. We both decided to help out my Japanese friend get a ride to his own hotel as well, for without Dennis's superb translation ability the traveler would have easily been wearied. And it wasn't just a matter of conversation and comprehension, it was a matter of respect that Dennis brought that quickly changed people's potentially judgmental behavior towards our presence. Within 15 minutes we found the hotel, bid farewell to our fellow traveler, sped away into the night towards Dennis' humble abode.
Our arrival at the apartment brought wonderful surprise. I had completely forgotten that Dennis' brother, Palmer, was also living in Kyrgyzstan teaching English. After getting settled, we all decided to hit the local diner walking distance away for a first experience into the delicious, meat-laden cuisine of Kyrgyzstan. Boy, was I stoked. I had been eating spicy, fatty, sketchy food with only the choice of vegetarian, mutton, or chicken for the past 5 months, and finally I was sitting down to a simple, greasy platter of meat. Don't get me wrong, I loved every Indian meal I ate, even if it did make me sick. But my body was jonesing for simplicity of fresh bread, sharp cheese, and juicy beef.
We stepped into the diner with grumbling stomachs. As we sat down, a waitress immediately served a pot of tea, sugar, and bread. Blessing #1, received. I devoured the bread as soon as Dennis vouched it complementary and he called the waitress for our order soon after. "Devushka," he called with no avail (the word for woman. This is strangely used to call a waitress as well. It would be the same correlation for a man if the scenario came about). "DEVUSHKA!" he called, in which the waitress slightly addressed his presence yet did not approach. We waited another good while in the empty diner and eventually that same grumpy waitress approached our table, took our order, and disappeared as soon as she arrived.
This meal would end up being one of the top three in all of my excursion through Kyrgyzstan; meat, cheese, tomato; no peppers, no spices of any sort; wholesome, greasy, savory blandness. The meal was gone almost immediately after our grumpy waitress presented it. My stomach and mind were at peace after a wild 2 days return from Leh to Delhi, Delhi to Almaty, Almaty to Bishkek, which involved a 5 hour traffic jam to the airport from 907 Mukherjee Nagar and an 8 hour delay in the Almaty (Kazakhstan) airport. Just another day spending 20 hours traveling from one country to the other...
As Dennis, Palmer and I all exchanged stories about the past few months, a beautiful young Kyrgyz woman peeped her head over the booth wall. Her elegant hand slid into sight soon after, with a small shred of napkin attached. It dropped into Dennis' lap. "Call me :)" it said, with a phone number provided. We all looked at each other, and the conversation happened without words. We knew what Dennis was thinking; why add the complication of a phone call when he could just sit down with the elegant devushka right now?
And from that moment forward, I knew. Dennis, fluent in Russian, was one fine commodity for any lady of Kyrgyzstan. All he had to do was summon his slavic tongue and they were throwing him napkin shreds with phone numbers and other absurdly obvious attraction. Palmer was close behind with his brotherly connection to work with. Dennis' date, Aiday, had a friend on the other side of the table that was already making moves on Palmer. I watched from the end of the table as each woman scanned them up and down, lightly lashing their luscious eyes in an obvious, suggestive manner. DAMN Dennis! TOO easy! Not a couple minutes later, all 5 of us were back at the apartment drinking vodka, and by the end of the night Dennis and Palmer went to bed with both Kyrgyz devushka. Though I had expectations for what what would happen next, the two were keen on being fine gentlemen instead. As the wee hours of the evening drew on we all began to dose off. The devushka were first, sinking into the arms with a sigh of comfort and happiness. It was a night well spent in good company, and they'd leave it at that. But as we all sank to sleep, a smile stuck to my face for the ladies men of Bishkek.
Daytime in Bishkek brought a whole new zest to the city that once looked barren and bland in the dark. My initial ecstatic reaction to the greenery of Bishkek calmed as I found each and every inch of sidewalk lined with massive evergreens. I inhaled a smooth, fresh breath of air with every step. Even sidewalk canals were pristine and absent of sewage! Dennis corrected me on this appraisal, explaining that these canals channeled rainwater out of the city streets. Better yet, all the trees adjacent received rainwater from holes in the canal walls, a simple yet innovative move on the Kyrgyz to immediately reuse rainwater and benefit urban flora. I fell deeper in love with Bishkek at every street corner; auto traffic moved to the order of street lights; no horns were honked, no driving lane was ignored. And all the while, a steady flow of people both anti-social and anti-inquisitive bustled by on the sidewalk, completely ignoring my existence. The acoustic peace of mind warmed my body in a tranquil bliss as the afternoon sun shimmered through the leafy parasol above. I didn't care where we went, so long as this nurturing natural radiance did not leave me behind.
At one point, we ended up in Dubovy Park. As the sun shined down on the three of us through the clear blue sky, a strange visual caught my attention. A shower of white dots filled the sky, the park, and my face. How? I caught a particle in my hand only to find that it was a seed, covered in some sort of fuzz. An allergic hell hole or a white wonderland? "Yeah, if you have allergies in Bishkek at this time of the year, you're screwed," Dennis said. Thankfully I did not apply, and the floating pollen scattered across our visual like a peaceful daytime snowfall.
Near the end of our walk, we encountered a structure that could only remind me of an alien spaceship. After explaining that the building was used for entertainment events, Dennis remembered that the circus was in town. Freaking, glorious. We inquired inside the spaceship to find that many tickets were still available, for 2$ each. Score.
The most peculiar event I experienced in Bishkek (besides the circus, which you'll soon hear all about) involved the celebration of Victory Day, or the day that the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis. But hey, what better excuse than to roll out the infantry... and tanks! And why not move this mass of military power all over the city while they're at it!
Good ol' Lenin, greeting the Kyrgyz military.
No need to think about possible damages of a multi-ton tank on the road! Just let the machine leave massive tracks dug straight into hardened concrete! (I soon found out later that while the tank was being reloaded off the street, it was accidentally dropped off the lift vehicle and flipped over. I hope it isn't their best tank!)
It was getting late and we all had dinner on our minds as the soldiers marched on and into their luxurious charter buses to be transported back to base. Dennis provided some choices. "Well, there's this great Chinese restaurant, or we can get some sausages over at this spot near my place. And there's also a burger spot." ...burger...
My mouth salivated at the word. "Burgers," I demanded. I hadn't eaten a burger in 5 months, and though I suspected to have the chance in Kyrgyzstan, this city made that a reality. After a short marshrutka ride back to the apartment and a quick clean up, we were out on the streets again in pursuit of a freshly charbroiled cheeseburger. BB Burger was my hole-in-the-wall of "salivation," and the largest man I saw in my entire 6 months in Asia bestowed me this moment of glory. Even though the place was about half the size of an earthquake bin, the man still took up the entire kitchen. And he wasn't alone. Two of his big buddies were sitting in 2 of the 5 counter chairs available. I assumed they had both packed down multiple cheeseburgers at some point before my arrival. My shock at their collective monstrosity, however, ended abruptly as the patty hit the charbroil. My eyes never left the char. I'm actually going to experience America, right now. FOR $1.50! No way. I couldn't even believe it was happening until the aroma hit my nose. Those few minutes seemed like an eternity as my craving for its juicy awesomeness devoured what patience I had left to wait for glory. Then, the moment came. I wish I had a picture of my face when I took the first bite, but it was something like this:
I never felt such scrumptious euphoria from any single meal in my life. The savory, charbroiled beef patty was cooked to perfection, melting in my mouth with every bite. I entered a state of silent trance, losing connection with time through every bite. Long done with their own meal, Dennis and Palmer sat and observed. When the moment was over and not a single crumb was left, there was only one thing I could say. "Wow. I want another one." Dennis translated my immeasurable thankfulness to the chef, describing where I had come from and how long it had been since I last ate a burger. The massive man smiled and acknowledged my state of bliss as he handed my second cheeseburger over. We left, and within 100 feet from the door my to-go had disappeared. Of the 5 days I was in Bishkek, I went to BB Burger 6 times.
During the day, Dennis made plans for us to visit a local banya. Left behind from the Soviet days, these are communal same-sex spas where, for a very cheap price ($8), a group of friends (men only at this location) can relax in a sauna. For Palmer, Dennis, and I, we went big and reserved their largest spa. This included a private bathroom (equally putrid to the India poop holes), a massive bath (equally clean and large as a small American pool), a lounge room (complete with a table for 20, a fireplace, and stained glass windows), a three-tiered sauna... and a really nasty bedroom (old leopard-print sheets on the bed gave the right suggestion). And what did we add to the equation? The only thing left besides ourselves: Vodka! A bottle and 5 steam sessions later, the three of us were happily cleansed, intoxicated again, and on our way out. A wild night it was at bars and nightclubs, but all its insanity could never compare to the absurdity that following day. (READ MORE about the Banya in Kyrgyzstan at Dennis' Blog!)
A Central Asian Circus
It had all the aspects of what I expected to see at a Ringling Brothers Barnem and Bailey; multitalented people that performed comical, impressive, death-defying stunts, acts with animals that were anything but safe and controlled... and a finale speech from big-name Kyrgyz politicians. Words cannot describe the obscurity of several things I witnessed during the performance, as I was both dumbfounded and speechless for its entirety. I'll leave both videos and photos for your interpretation. I think you'll understand what I mean after viewing the media below.
Yep... make sure you show a political presence... especially if you get to see the circus at the same time!
Later that evening, Dennis and I packed to prepare for greater portion of our trip. This would be the last of my wild adventures through magnificent Asia. As the taxi drove off and into the great green pastures east of Bishkek, I began to ponder India. 3 days in Kyrgyzstan left me feeling the subcontinent as a distant past; so wildly different was India! So boundless were its landscapes of mountains, lakes, plains, jungles, cities, and people. But it was that wild, untamed infinity that my gratitude lay. When, I thought, would I ever feel that again?