Horsing Around in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan of Central Asia

Angela Dansby

Following solo visits to Turkmenistan and parts of the Republic of Uzbekistan in June 2019, I traveled with fellow members of the Society of International Business Fellows from the Uzbek capital of Tashkent to the horse country of Kyrgyzstan. There, we began in the quasi-modern capital of Bishkek and ended near prisine Lake Issyk-Kul, where eagles soar, horses run free and snow-capped mountains stretch as far as the eyes can see.  

Tashkent is largely filled with modern and Soviet-era architecture, with a handful of ancient Persian exceptions. While not as much as Bukhara, Samarkand and Shahrisabz, Tashkent also has stunning ancient architecture, namely the Khazrati Imam complex and Chorsu Bazaar. The complex consists of Tillya Sheikh mosque, Abu Bakr Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum, Barak Khan madrasah and Imam al-Bukhari Islamic Institute. The bright colors of the covered market are complemented inside by rows of colorful spices, textiles, fresh produce, dried fruits, and more to captivate the senses. Locals in traditional dress add to the vibrancy of the culture.

Market items are used to make plov, Uzbekistan’s national culinary dish typically including rice, lamb, carrots, raisins, onions and chickpeas. In large volumes, it’s made in a cauldron. SIBF friends and I broke into teams to see who could best follow a chef’s instructions. But he did most of the work for us, running from cauldron to cauldron to add layers of ingredients. Once ready, he put white plates on top of the plov as makeshift lids. Each of three cauldrons had slightly different ingredients but common were rice, a lot of vegetable oil and huge chunks of animal fat. Clearly this dish insulates Uzbeks for the winter! “All You Need is Plov” went through my head to the tune of The Beatles’ classic song as we devoured the delicious dish.

A few of us also got instructions on how to braid hair like traditional Uzbek women but without “zhamalak” hair pieces made of black silk or cotton threads. I volunteered to have my hair braided but its fine texture didn’t show off my stylist’s efforts very well in the absence of zhamalak. But at least my hair was out of the way of plov on that hot, summer night.

The tradition of braiding pigtails in multiple, long strands in Uzbekistan goes back to ancient times when women did not have the right to have loose hair in the presence of men. But they had fun with it and added zhamalak threads 50 centimeters in length, which often end with several beads. Today, this custom is fading and generally only remains in rural areas.

Similarly, Muslim religion faded in Uzbekistan under Russian rule (the Koran was forbidden from homes) and now Uzbeks are often described as “cultural Muslims.” For example, the Hand of Fatima representing five Muslim rules, is a popular decoration used to protect against evil.

Russia’s interest in Uzbekistan in 1876 – along with the United Kingdom – was due to its once leading cotton production. (Today, this industry has shrunk due to lack of water and irrigation. It has been replaced by silk; Uzbekistan is third in global silk production.) Trade between Russia and Uzbekistan has remained significant in the post-Soviet era along with Russian culture (hello, vodka). Uzbeks have long been known as traders.

Kyrgyzstan retains even more USSR influence with a functioning Communist party. No wonder a statue of Vladimir Lenin prominently looms in Bishkek!

The capital also visually speaks of its Soviet past with cement, block-style architecture that’s offset by touches of modernity. Ala-Too Square exemplifies this style, which celebrations, festivals and rallies mask from time to time. The square includes monuments of Kyrgyz heroes like horseback-riding Manas Magnanimous, writer Chyngyz Aitmatov and female politician Kurmanjan Datka. A 45-meter flagpole denotes the heart of the square. Nearby are the Government House, State Historical Museum, Oak Park, Monument of Friendship of Peoples and Open-Air Sculptures Museum. Basically, once you’ve seen Ala-Too Square, you’ve toured Bishkek.

The most remarkable cultural experience I had there was a traditional barbecue. Several Kyrgyz men donning traditional hats stood behind a long row of stone slabs over hot coals turning endless pieces of meat (this is not a country for vegetarians). The cooking process trumped the taste of the food!

Beschbarmak is Kyrgyzstan’s national dish. It typically consists of horse meat (or beef or mutton) cooked in a broth and served over homemade noodles with parsley. It means “five fingers” because nomadic people traditionally eat it with their hands. Beshbarmak may be washed down with fermented mare’s milk called kymyz. It’s slightly alcoholic and thank goodness, as it helps you forget the source. Fresh kymyz is only available May to September, when mares feed their offspring and can be milked. Kymyz is characteristic of Central Asian nomadic culture; it is also consumed in giant, northerly neighbor Kazakhstan as well as Mongolia north of China.

In nomad country, such as around northerly Issyk-Kul, horses are like family members. They are used for everything from transportation and herding sheep to game-playing. Buzkashi is a game where two teams of horseback players try to throw a goat or calf carcass into their respective goal pits. We saw a buzkashi match and it was like a medieval game of field hockey with jockeys. The teams even started with a tug of war to determine who would play offense first!

Issyk-Kul is the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and one of the largest and deepest alpine lakes in the world. Ironically, this “kul” is not cool despite being surrounded by two snow-capped mountain ranges. In fact, Issyk-Kul means “warm lake” because it never freezes. The name also has spiritual significance as it was considered sacred among indigenous people. The lake’s coastline has reddish gravel, making it picturesque with clear blue water and a snowy white horizon. On top is pure air, making Issyk-Kul a popular health resort destination.

SIBF friends and I did a day trip to Chong Ak Suu or Grigoriev Gorge near the northern side of Issyk-Kul, which is lush green with grass and pine forests, dotted with white, brown and black colors of horses. This was where we stumbled upon a Kyrgyz man riding a horse with a giant eagle on his arm (as one does in this area apparently) and got caught in the middle of a flock of sheep being herded by other men on horseback. We also saw nomadic kids racing each other on horses. I felt “sheepish” watching them as I recalled my slow horseback ride at a farm near Bishkek.

The Kyrgyz were nomadic people until the mid-20th century. Today, a certain part of them still practices a semi-nomadic lifestyle, unlike most people globally. Traditional nomadic housing is a yurt, known in Kyrgyz as booz yi. While we didn’t stay in one, we saw some. It’s another way of life, a throwback to the days of caravans on the Silk Route. (Like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan has historical sites along this former route.)

DisoverKyrgyzstan.org boasts that this country is “the land of celestial mountains,” where you can learn about “true nomadic lifestyle and unveil the real spirit of freedom and happiness.” I agree … you can horse around in Kyrgyzstan all you want.

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).