Living like a Nomad with Eagle Hunters in Magical Kyrgyzstan
SETTING THE SCENE
I would be lying if I told you I must have misspelt Kyrgyzstan (FINALLY) countless times! But in the end it was all so worth it! As a fanatic of history and especially unique cultures, Kyrgyzstan (pronounced Key-Rig-Izz-Stan) fascinated me! Think yurt (nomadic dwellings), birds that hunt jackals, a massive lake lined by endless fruit trees, and expansive green fields with snow capped mountains as far as the eye can see! And that my friends is just one of the 7 distinct regions of this incredible country. So join me on this mini tour of one of the most beautiful and magical lands in Central Asia, as I tried to Live like a nomad with the Eagle Hunters of Magical Kyrgyzstan (yes I finally got it right!!).
COVID TESTING: None were required for Kyrgyzstan.
FLIGHTS: For this trip I decided to fly on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, where I used the time to see friends and get some clothes tailored (look out for that awesome Reel/Short)! Then I headed straight to Bishkek, the capital. It was the most direct and reliable way to travel to the region. To be honest I think I will always rely on Turkish Airlines to hit up all the destinations in Asia and even Africa in some cases. Great airline even in Economy!
ACCOMMODATIONS: For this trip I only booked the first night in the capital since I had only an aspirational idea of where I wanted to go on this trip but needed to get on the ground to really work out the details and see how I can explore the more unique parts of the region outside the capital. Ultimately I stayed in a hotel, a guesthouse and finally a yurt on Lake Issyk-kul…it was awesome! This approach may not be for the faint of heart or the Type As out there, but somehow it worked out. Read more to find out how it all came together!
CAR RENTAL: So I had planned to rent a car from Bishkek and drive around the region. But it turned out to be a herculean task! Why? 1) the cost of a car in high season is crazy, 2) issues with insurance, speed traps, dangerous road conditions, 3) lack of language capabilities (unless you know Russian) to help with navigating or if anything happens to the car. So while I rented a car, I ended up returning it and getting a local driver/guide/friend with his own car who was my go to guy to make the trip happen.
I had only a few days in Kyrgyzstan and had to leave a lot of amazing places on the table but my main desire for the few days was to really witness the nomadic life that the Kyrgyz people have led for over a thousand years. If I had more time I would have done more trekking near Karakol, gone to see Sol-kul lake, driven to Osh and seen the region in the south, and that is just some of the many things you can do there.
Day 1: Bishkek (Prelude to an Adventure)
After landing in the capital Bishkek, I went directly to my hotel at Navat Hotel (its reasonable, clean, very well located, great service and an excellent breakfast) and got a little sleep since I had been on two red-eyes to get to the capital. I then decided to tour around mostly by foot since Bishkek is quite small (remember the whole country is 6.5 million people). I went to the war memorial,
the new Turkish Mosque, walked around Ala-too square,
parliament, and Panliva park, saw the main shopping areas but that was about it. My main goal that day was to finalize the trip, which required a rental car. The receptionist, Arzybek, who became a friend (this is becoming a common occurrence as I also seem to befriend receptionists as you will see later in Tashkent, Uzbekistan lol). He was finally able to find me a car but like I said I ended up giving it back.
So plot twist, through a friend I was able to have a meeting with some of the members of the Department of Tourism under the Ministry of Culture. It was there I met Beksultan, who became my guide, transporter, and friend. What luck! We agreed that instead of me paying a rental car, I would pay him the funds and cover his food and accommodations for the days we were together. And it REALLY worked out!
Our first mini-trip was to the Ala Archa national park, which is close to the capital. We went hiking up there and got a sense of how mountainous and beautiful the country really is.
We also passed by numerous yurts everywhere. The main mode of accommodation for the nomadic people of the country, since it provides a mobile yet durable means of living in the great outdoors. On the way back we picked up Arzybek and went together to Supra, which was created by the founder of Shoro (a fermented yogurt drink that takes some getting used to and you see it EVERYWHERE being sold in three thermostats colored red, brown and blue) and a celebrity in the country.
Great restaurant that felt authentic with some great food. Look I had to do it, I tried horse meat and noodles and honestly it did not taste bad at all (I do admit I was hungry but still). I think I’m one and done with it because I still felt pretty guilty.
During dinner we finalized the plan for our travel for the next three days. Here was the Plan: Drive from Bishkek to Karakol along the northern side of Issyk-kul lake, stopping by little villages and points of interest along the way. Then go to Jeti-oguz to see the red rock formations, see the famed eagle hunters, do some hiking and finally rest in our yurt camp. The final day we would go hiking, then slowly make our way back to Bishkek since my flight was at 730PM that night (flying to Dushanbe via Almaty for a 14 hour layover — since Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had a border feud and decided to cut air travel between the neighboring countries).
Day 2: Northern Issyk-kul Lake & Karakol
We left early in the morning and started our way to Karakol from Bishkek. The drive was scheduled for about 5 hours. But we slowly realized it was going to take a lot more than that time driving. As we drove we saw hundreds of vendors selling amazing fruit right from the foothills of the mountains and groves surrounding the lake. And it was cheap, I’m talking about a full bucket of raspberries for like $5. They had apricots, apples, nectaries, peaches, currants, every berry imaginable and on and on!
We then made a pit stop at a hot springs at, which was nice. Thankfully the weather was temperate (unlike its neighborhoods to the south and west) so the hot springs and nice stop to relax and chill before continuing to a national cultural village.
This cultural village has it all, statutes, eagles, houses of worship, historical lineages etc. (Personally, I am never a fan of cultural villages. They are the same fake, with too much packed in just to make the hordes of tourists happy they are seeing an “authentic” side of the country). That said they did a good job here showcasing the different aspects of the country, including its nomadic side, which is what I was most interested in.
We finally got to Karakol, and had a nice traditional meal, where we also listened to some local music. I then stopped by the Dungan mosque, which was created by the Chinese muslims that have been strongly represented for hundreds of years in the area. The colorful mosque was built without a single nail, which I always found fascinating! We then called it a night in a local guest house.
Day 3: The Eagle Hunter
As usual, we woke up early and made our way to Jeti Oguz. We saw the beautiful red rocks of the 7 horns, which must be amazing at sunrise (we missed that but it still looked very impressive).
We then went to Barksoon, to do some hiking and see the two waterfalls there. Such a beautiful and serene mountain area about 40+ mins from the main circular lake road.
I would recommend it if you don’t plan to go into the interior to do some more hard core hiking. If you do love hiking then you need to go to Altyn Arashan and do the 15+ km hike into the mountains to see the lakes. I was worried frankly about altitude sickness and we just didn’t have the time to fit it in.
We finally got to the highlight of the day, and frankly the trip. Beksultan organized a demonstration with the Eagle Hunters so I can learn about their way of life and see the golden eagles in action. And it was AMAZING!!!! The hunter explained that the eagles used for hunting are all female (how badass is that!), between ages 1-15 years old, they can soar to 3,000+ meters, they hunt jackals, foxes and other rodents eating them literally whole. During the demonstration, the hunter had the eagle perched about half a kilometer away and then tied a stuffed jackal to a string. He then dragged the jackal with a string on the back of his horse on the plain and the hunter’s helper on the mountain released the eagle. It soared high and then BAM, it struck down and grabbed the jackal by its throat and body! Absolutely CRAZY!!
I was then given the privilege to ride a horse, wearing traditional clothes, with the eagle perched on my arm looking like a total boss (the eagle that is)!
After trotting around a bit (I’m not much of a horse rider) we got to do some archery with a traditional bow and arrow (now that I liked!). It’s incredible to learn about these traditions that the hunters still employ not just for show but for subsistence as a way of life pass from one generations to the next. The tradition, which takes time, practice and a symbiotic love for the eagle and hunter alike, is simply fascinated. Really an incredible part of the nomadic culture of the Kyrgyz people.
We left the local mountain side and headed to the Feel Nomad Yurt village along the southern shore of the lake. But before we went there we did stop for a quick swim, which was actually refreshing (I usually hate cold water). The lake is slightly saline and only fills up through underground water drainage. A truly remarkable must see lake up close and personal.
The Feel Nomad Yurt camp required a hard drive through the Ak-Sai Canyon river bed to get to it, but I am very glad we chose this one (there are many yurts all along the lake). Our yurt was as close as possible to the real deal minus an indoor heating stove. No nails were used to make the yurt or iron, only fabric, glue, wood and love. And it was super comfortable. The yurt was a short walk to the lake, which was beautiful at sunset and again at sunrise. And the stars were also out in full force. Loved every minute of it; so relaxing and a great way to disconnect from reality.
Day 4: Ak-Sai Canyon and a Cup of Tea & Jam
I woke early and excited on my last day. After seeing the sunrise on the beach, and doing a short run on coastline, we went for a hike in Ak-Sai canyon. Even though the country is known for its snow capped mountains, I have to say this arid looking, sand/mud canyon that constantly morphes with each rainfall, was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen, and I have seen a lot, especially in America. I was so pumped about the canyon, I ran along the ridges and down into the riverbed (albeit very slippery) and out onto the lake, WOW!!
A village driver picked us up from the camp (since Beksultan did not feel comfortable driving on the rugged terrain in his sedan) and drove us back to Beks’s car. But not before inviting us in for tea. So nice! And that is where I discovered the beauty of putting home made jam into the tea. OMG, it tasted sooo real, fresh without sugar. I LOVED IT! And breaking bread with the family was such an endearing and humbling experience (three generations of the family lived under one roof).
Our last stop was the Burana tower about an hour from Bishkek. The tower (or minaret) was said to have been built by a khan who was told that his daughter would die by a spider bite on her 16th birthday. To protect her it is said, he put her in the tower, monitoring what she ate and who she interacted with. On her 16th birthday, the Khan gave her a basket of fruit and failed to see that it had a poisonous spider lurking in it, which yes, spoiler alert, bit her and she died. The End! Anyhoo, the minaret is the oldest example of its kind and if you dare to climb up the super narrow stairway you can get a very commanding view of the whole countryside nearby. You can also see the Bal-Bals stones made by nomadic Turkish tribes dating all the way back to the 6th century. Definitely worth the stop.
Before heading to the airport, we stopped by Navat restaurant, a chain in the area known for some more delicious Krygyz food like Manti, Plov etc.
The nomadic traditions of the Kyrgyz people are imbued in the culture. The family oriented nature of the people, kindness, loyalty, commitment to traditions is something I will never forget. And of course, why wouldn’t they be nomadic, I mean with the nature they have, different seasons (harsh winters and relatively hot summers) it makes sense that they have been able to make the best use of the nature that has been given to them. I am fortunate to have visited the country, met some awesome people, and got a little taste of the rich nomadic culture that makes this incredible country so unique.
Before heading to the airport, we stopped by Navat restaurant, a chain in the area known for some more delicious Krygyz food like Manti, Plov etc.
ALTERNATIVES TO RENTING A CAR: Look I was fortunate I met Beks and avoided having to rent a car on my own. In this case, I personally asked his boss if she would let him go for a few days so we can see the country together. After all, they worked in promoting tourism and I am a tourist, with the goal of shedding light on her beautiful nation. It worked! Also giving the funds for the rental to Beks was a win-win, he got some cash, I got a very safe and personalized tour of the country, and I did it knowing that I would much rather pay him then some company gauging me on a car rental with all the attendant risks. So don’t be afraid to suggest that to a local you trust.
FIND A UNIVERSAL SHOE: To reduce the space and weight in my luggage for the trip, I wanted to find a shoe I could use to walk long distances, hike mountains (so they needed traction), and could run on trails and on the road. After searching for a while I fell on the Altra Timps 3, which are lightweight, have great traction, and are comfortable enough for long walks through the city. Point is, find that shoe if you can so that you can minimize the added weight and items in your luggage.
If you are still reading this blog, then I hope you found it useful as you plan your trip to Kyrgyzstan. And hopefully it means you are interested to read more! In that case, may I recommend the [TAJIKISTAN BLOG] Blog, which is the next installment of the Central Asia blogs created on my trip to the region!
~ Stay Curious. And I look forward to seeing you on my next Final50 Journey! ~