What does Central Asia taste like?

What does Central Asia taste like?

In a word, delicious!

One of my favourite things about travel is trying all the new unfamiliar foods that one encounters. Here are a few of the delights I discovered while traveling through Kyrgystan and Tajikistan.

Manty – juicy dumplings filled with beef and onions
Fresh bread and fig-like fruits. Bread is always served with every meal and it’s considered bad luck to put it upside down.
Breakfast
Nearly every meal starts with a hot bowl of soup. And bread, of course. The bread is quite robust and it’s very satisfying to tear apart
More spices in one place than I’d even know what to do with them all
A soup featuring beets, cabbage, potato, and sour cream, topped with dill. This reminded me of borscht.
Salad is often served without any dressing but frequently includes generous amounts of herbs, especially dill. Central Asians love dill.
Grilled meat is very popular, either as kabob or as in the quail here, butterflied and grilled over hot coals
Mastava – a filling vegetable soup that features boiled rice, much like congee. Another similar soup is Lagman, which features noodles rather than rice.
Bread is an important part of every meal and you can always find it fresh
Fried fish caught from a high altitude stream
Sweet juicy melon is in season (late September and early October)
Plov (pilaf) is one of the most common dishes. This one features sparse amounts of vegetables and meat, both of which are in short supply high in the mountains
Much like plov but here we have noodles rather than rice
One of the most delicious fruits I’ve ever eaten. Sweet, juicy, and it just falls apart as you bite into it
Tajikistan’s version of KFC
But instead of fried chicken, they serve pizza
And just in case you were feeling homesick craving a Big Mac
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Dead Vehicles on the Pamir Highway

Dead Vehicles on the Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway runs some 1,500 km from Kyrgystan through Tajikistan and the rugged Pamir range of Central Asia. It’s the second highest highway in the world (after the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan). Actually, “highway” is a funny way to describe it. The pavement is frequently broken and riddled with potholes, flash floods cut deep gouges right through the road leaving it unpassable, and, if you’re not careful, you’re likely to plummet hundreds of meters over the unprotected edge of the road. It’s no surprise then that there are so many discarded vehicles on this (in)famous road. Here are just a few that we encountered on our week-long journey.

Bonus photo: this one isn’t from the Pamir Highway, but further west in Tajikistan’s Fann Mountains. Yep, there are plenty of interesting old vehicles to discover there too.

Road trip on the Pamir Highway

Road trip on the Pamir Highway

We’ve just finished a week-long road trip along the famous Pamir Highway that joins Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan. The route has been used for millennia as a part of the Silk Road but the Soviet Union made a big push to turn it into a real road in the 1930s.

We started in Osh and quickly gained elevation. A side trip to Lenin Peak Basecamp took us up to our second yurt camp of the trip and fantastic views. I felt a strong pull to come back and (attempt to) climb this 7000m giant.

The weather was freezing cold as we crossed the border into Tajikistan but the welcome couldn’t have been warmer. “Welcome to Tajikistan, sir” said the border control officer. Just a touch more friendly than China.

Maybe it was because he wanted a ride. After checking our passports, one of the border guards asked us for a ride to the next town. We happily obliged. A few miles later, we came across a broken down truck and offered the driver a ride. Suddenly, we had a pretty full vehicle.

The little towns along the Pamir Highway might seem desolate at first glance but there’s a lot of character if you look beyond the windswept exterior.

There’s something special about high elevation places. Everything is more challenging but each day you wake up feeling stronger. Patience pays off.

Being pretty cheap travelers, we bought a bunch of ramen noodles and vegetables and fruit in Osh. Every day for lunch we found a nice spot along a river (or just sheltered from the wind behind a concrete wall) and cooked up hot soup.

Afterward we wandering around town, observing all the little details that make a place unique.

Sometimes the locals were really happy to see us.

After driving across the broad flat valleys of the high altitude Pamir, we dropped down into the Wakhan Valley. Here, a narrow river separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan – narrow enough you could throw a rock across in places. I was very tempted to wade across and check another country off my list.

Actually, it’s quite practical to legally cross the border here into Afghanistan and this is probably one of the safest places to do so. Personally, I’m more excited to see Kabul.

The Wakhan Valley becomes a deep gorge and narrow canyons cut sharply through the landscape.

In other places the valley is broad and fertile. Autumn is a wonderful time to visit. The fields are in harvest and fall colours brighten the land.

Next we’re heading to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. I can’t wait to see what it’s like!

I sat next to the president of Kyrgyzstan!

I sat next to the president of Kyrgyzstan!
Kyrgyzstan Parliament Building

After visiting the Communist theme park of Bishkek, we caught a flight back to Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan.

Before catching the flight, we went to see the the parliament building, one of the capital’s more impressive sights. We snooped around the parking lot looking at all the expensive cars (in a country where dilapidated Russian Ladas are the norm, anything fancy stands out). That’s when we spotted this suspicious vehicle. Licence plates “101-AA0”? Must be the president’s we quipped.

We booked a flight on Air Manas, the national airline. If you book this well in advance, it’s only about $30 one-way. In the booking process, I noticed that seat selection was extra but that for $5 I could reserve seat 1A. How could I not?

Bishkek airport is small and relaxed for being the largest in the country.

But when I got to the airport and checked in, I’d been moved to the exit row.

The exit row is great and I know that all the seats on this plane are identical, but I’d selected 1A and that’s where I wanted to sit.

It took getting the manager involved and an endless amount of typing into the computer but eventually I received a boarding pass with the magic number 1A.

Sitting next to the very first window, I could see everyone walk up the boarding ramp and enter the plane. We all arrived crammed onto big buses.

Then a VIP bus pulled up and four very well dressed men emerged, purposefully strode up the ramp, and sat themselves in the remaining first row seats. Sitting next to me, seat 1B, was a large imposing man, the best dressed of the bunch.

I watched with fascination as every passenger entering the plane noticed him with surprise, stuck out their hand, and exchanged a hearty handshake. This must be someone important.

After everyone took their seats this gentleman started flipping through his phone. I couldn’t help but snoop. He was reading the national website and what did I see but an article with his own face staring back at him.

Turns out it was the president of Kyrgystan! I’m not usually one to intrude on someone else’s privacy but I really should have gotten a photo together. In what other country do you get to sit next to the president (and he’s the one stuck in the middle seat!) for just $5?

Bishkek, City of Communist Monuments

Bishkek, City of Communist Monuments

I never used to be a big enthusiast of monuments, preferring the serenity of green spaces and clean mountain air. There’s something about Communist pride and the grandeur of that era, though, that makes me love exploring the endless epitaphs of Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.

Victory Monument, commemorating WWII
Nice day for a wedding

Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union and nearly everyone speaks Russian. Not everyone knows why there is a monument that looks suspiciously like a UFO right in the middle of the city, however.

Every city and town we’ve visited in Kyrgyzstan is proud to have a statue of Lenin prominently on display. It’s always the largest statue by far.

Here in Bishkek, you get those socialist philosophers, Marx and Engels, too.

Marx and Engels chat about Socialism

In front of the parliament building, there are two guards whose job is to convince you they are, in fact, also statues.

I feel an itch coming on

We’ve spent the last week in the mountains and pastures of rural Kyrgyzstan where there are cows and horses everywhere. Well, you see them, in monument form, in the city too.

We’ve really enjoyed our short stay in Bishkek but the mountains are calling and we must go.

Local buses move everyone around with surprising efficiency

Sleeping in a Yurt in Kyrgyzstan

Sleeping in a Yurt in Kyrgyzstan

From the village of Arslanbob we took a series of shared taxis to the high altitude lake, Song Kul. The landscape of Kyrgyzstan is striking. Very arid, desert-like, yet with snow covered-peaks in the distance. This would be our chance to get up some of those peaks.

Song Kul is used as a summer pasture by shepherds who bring their cows and sheep to the lake for the abundance of rich grass. From June to September it teems with life.

The best part of visiting this unique spot is that many of the herders welcome guests to stay with them in their yurts.

I’ve never slept in a yurt before and was surprised how comfortable it is. Almost as soon as we arrived, a big thunderstorm blew in, pelting us with rain and hail. Inside the yurt it was warm and dry. The herder’s son even came and lit a fire in a little stove for us. This was a mistake. Burning cow dung stinks horribly and I soon left the yurt, happy to stay outside in the cold air.

Another big windstorm arrived in the middle of the night, coating the whole world in white. We awoke to a splendid sunny day, perfect for heading up one of the nearby peaks.

Even after a big storm, the sun is intense. It didn’t take long for the snow to melt off the lower slopes, or perhaps it was the growing wind that blasted it away.

Back down by the lake, we encountered some of the local characters.

It’s always sad to see an animal with an injury or sickness but despite his sore looking eye, these dogs seemed to love life and were full of energy.

Song Kul is one of those rare beautiful places where you can roam free among the hills all day then come back down for a wonderful meal with an inviting family. In their yurt.

Hiking in Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan

Hiking in Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan

After a few days exploring hot and busy Osh, we caught a local bus heading up into the mountains. We’d picked the village of Arslanbob mostly because it was easy to get to and promised some nice scenery.

Our pretty homestay

In many small towns in Kyrgyzstan, there is a network of homestays and guesthouses called Community Based Tourism (CBT). It’s a bit of a tour agent but also a great resource. The local CBT office connected us with a school teacher with a room to spare. It’s always surprising when you meet someone who knows about your home country (at least when you’re from Canada). As soon as I mentioned I’m from Calgary, he exclamed “Calgary Flames! Montreal Canadians! Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Hull!!” Turns out hockey had a huge following in Kyrgyzstan during the USSR vs Canada heyday of the sport. What a fun way to connect across cultures

We did a few day hikes up through the walnut forest and into the hills where sheep and cattle graze. Walnuts are a major crop here but spring was cold and the harvest is late this year. Instead, they’re still working on unearthing all the potatoes. A really nice family saw us walking by and invited us for tea and melon. What a nice surprise! We chatted and joked in the little English and Russian we shared.

Day hikes are great but we really wanted to spend a night up in the mountains. Arslanbob is at 1500m elevation and the peaks are over 4000m, so it’s a big climb just to get started. We hired a 4×4 taxi to take us to the end of the road, where we’d already walked from town the day before.

Once you get up high, the views are great. The walnut forests give way to grassy pastures and then to true alpine scenery.

There are cows and horses everywhere and you can easily follow the paths they’ve carved out across the hillsides over countless years.

We set up camp in a broad flat grassy pasture that’s all but hidden from the town and trails below. You have no idea that such an picturesque area is there until you’re right in it.

We relaxed in the warm afternoon sun and watched as the evening light descended on the valley, so did hundreds of cows. Some wandered up to our tent looking curious, or perhaps confused. They’ve probably never seen a tent before. Charles was afraid they’d try to eat it! Luckily, we didn’t end up as a bovine snack and spent a wonderful night in the rarified alpine air under a million stars.