IESE, like many European schools has a monthlong break in between the end of classes and graduation. Traditionally, the graduating class all goes to Japan. However, due to COVID, that trip was cancelled and instead, students were left to come up with their own plans. Most students stayed in Spain. However, having already visited all 17 autonomous communities, I decided that this would be a perfect opportunity to take an international trip.
When selecting a country to visit, I used 6 criteria:
- The country had to allow US tourists without a quarantine
- The country could not be on Spain´s quarantine list
- The country could not be severely impacted due to Ramadan
- The country had to be far enough from the US to make it worthwhile to visit now rather than when I live in the US
- The country had to have adventurous activities
- The country should have at least decent weather this time of year
Based on these criteria, I decided that Kyrgyzstan was the optimal choice.
After booking my plane ticket, I tried to find someone to go with me. I posted on Instagram and Facebook and ended up getting a yes from Sonia, a classmate from Portugal. She had never been to Asia before and was up for an adventure.
The next step was to find a tour company or guide to take us around. As I did not speak Russian, I felt that having someone would not only allow us to better optimize our time but also gain better insights into the culture. After scouring the Every Passport Stamp Facebook group, I found a company called Kyrgyz Riders based out of Kochkor. The company specialized in horse trekking. May was considered shoulder season for horse trekking, but this company ran a trip in February. This gave me the confidence to know that I could go in May.
The price quoted for a 6-day trip. The price seemed very fair when compared to my online research. We agreed to pay in cash on arrival.
May 2, 2021: Welcome to Kyrgyzstan
Sonia and I arrived at Bishkek´s Manas International Airport from Istanbul at 2am. Immigration was a breeze. In the baggage claim I purchased my SIM card. For €1.5, I got unlimited data for a week making it the cheapest data I have ever purchased.
Outside of the terminal, we were met by our guide Aman. He was a shorter Kyrgyz man wearing a dark athletic outfit. He is 29, married and has a young daughter born during the pandemic.
Many readers of this blog may ask who the Kyrgyz people are and what do they Kyrgyz people look like. The answer reflects the many outside influences that have shaped Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz people are nomadic. Their origins are in Siberia. Over 3,000 years ago they migrated to what is now called Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, the people of Kyrgyzstan look similar to Mongolians and the nomadic cultures are similar. Kyrgyzstan is still a tribal society. 40 tribes inhabit Kyrgyzstan.
Some of those same nomads then migrated to Turkey, where they eventually settled. The Turkish believe that their people originated in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz language (along with the Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkmen languages) is related to Turkish. Perhaps this explains why Turkish Airlines has so many flights to Central Asia.
For most of history, empires came through Kyrgyzstan but never stayed because the nomadic people had no cities to conquer and no resources to plunder. However, in the late 1800´s, the area became part of the Russian Empire. At this point in history, the Kyrgyz language had never been written down and there were no cities. The Russians codified the language using their Cyrillic script. The Kyrgyz language has a few extra letters, but the casual observer would not be able to recognize this difference.
The Russians also built most of the cities in Kyrgyzstan including Bishkek, the capital, which was founded in 1868.
Kyrgyzstan became an independent country with the collapse of the Soviet Union. With one notable exception in the south, the Soviets did a good job creating these borders, unlike in the Caucasus and near Ukraine. This makes Kyrgyzstan a rare country where an ethic group controls its entire traditional homeland and never had to fight for it.
Kyrgyz people are Muslim. The country of Kyrgyzstan is 86% Muslim, with Russians and other former Soviet peoples comprising the other 14%. Many Kyrgyz people have traditional Islamic names. Despite the official demographics, Kyrgyz people are not very religious. That is for two reasons. First is the nomadic lifestyle which means that there are very few mosques and less power for the religious authorities. The second reason is the Soviet Union, which tried to stamp out all religions. The Soviet influence is evident in Kyrgyzstan via the large quantities of vodka seen in grocery stores and in peoples´ hands.
We got into Aman´s right-side drive car and headed town. Aman explained that many cars in Kyrgyzstan are imported from Japan, which drives on the left side of the road. Other cars are imported mainly from Germany, but those cost 3x more. Despite the strange configuration, the car functioned perfectly well.
After 40 minutes in the car, we reached the center of Bishkek. Aman led us up the stairs of a classic Soviet bloc-style building and to a door. We knocked and an old lady opened. It turned out to be a hostel.
She showed us to our room which had two single beds and a small but noticeable Lenin portrait handing over one of the beds. We went to bed around 3/3:30 am.