Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between the former Republics have been up and down. As a result of this and other considerations, border crossings are fraught with varying degrees of difficulty. Kyrgyzstan is actually one of the most receptive nations. For example, it is the only country we visited that didn't require a visa for US citizens. I also believe this particular border was the only one that was officially "open," although clearly all the others were sufficiently "open" to allow our group to transit. I got very confused by this distinction.

In any event, the crossing from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan was the least eventful of the batch. The only real difficulty was lugging our bags from one side to the other because buses are not allowed to cross the borders. The trip materials made it clear that it was important for travellers to be able to handle their own luggage in uncertain conditions and that was certainly true.

One of the alien customs of Kyrgyzstan is that of "bride kidnapping." If a man's family cannot afford the bride price of a potential mate, the groom simply kidnaps her. The women of his family then try to convince her to agree to the wedding. Usually she does. Often the groom and his intended have an understanding ahead of time, but not always. The darker side of this custom is documented in a PBS video at Frontline World. Jama read the transcript of this program to us as we traveled toward the border. You can imagine that we peppered our local guide with questions about this practice (he had not kidnapped his wife). It is against the law, but since independence it has reappeared. I got the impression that it was not very common. Hope so!

Picture

Narrative

Lenin

Although most statues of Lenin in the various countries we visited had been removed, this one still stands in Bishkek. Formerly it was in a more prominent location, but it is now behind the Kyrgyz State Museum.

We did not visit the museum itself, but the pavement surrounding it was in pretty poor condition. We were warned throughout our trip to watch our steps, and the warning was usually appropriate. The fountains surrounding the museum were not working, but some of the pools still held water.

Kyrgyz State Museum

Military Guard

These guards in front of the museum flank an enormous flagpole holding a correspondingly enormous Kyrgyz flag. The symbolism of the flag was interesting. The center feature is the crown of a traditional yurt and we were told it indicated hospitality and the family.

Manas

This statue of the Kyrgyz national hero Manas now stands where the Lenin statue once stood. Manas is a semi-legendary figure who is said to have united the many tribes of the Kyrgyz people. There is long and perhaps ancient epic poem that describes the life and exploits of Manas. There is apparently some disagreement over the actual age of the poem, but it was presented to us as being over 1000 years old, although much modified over the years. Later in our trip we were able to hear a portion recited.

The label on the statue identifies the hero as "MAHAC," which is the Cyrillic spelling of MANAS. All of the countries we visited were long ruled by Russia and all have used the Russian language as an official language in addition to the local language(s). Additionally they all once used the Cyrillic alphabet to write their local language(s). Since independence the situation has changed. Some, including Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, now use the Latin alphabet, with additional symbols. Others, including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan continue to use the Cyrillic alphabet.

Signs may be in Cyrillic or Latin depending on their age.

Kyrgyzstan landscape

Even though we are in an arid part of the world, there were many rivers, which feed eventually into what is left of the Aral Sea. The rivers have been much depleted by irrigation and the sea is disappearing as a result. This is a current and future ecological disaster, but there doesn't seem to be the political will necessary to bridge the national boundaries and develop a workable regional recovery policy.

The tall poplars seen in the background are widely planted for windbreaks and for building materials.

Tokmok

We visited a small town Tokmok, which was once the site of a Soviet airbase. More recently it has achieved some notoriety as the hometown of the ethnic Chechen brothers who have been identified as the Boston Marathon bombers.

That isn't why we visited, however.

International University of Central Asia

Our goal was the International University of Central Asia, a new small institution headed by an American named John Clark. We toured the facility and were able to chat with some of the staff and students.

The school is subsidized by the Ignite Hope Foundation, which supports education in Central Asia, China and Africa. It has partnerships with educational institutions in Europe and elsewhere.

Burana stream

After visiting the University, we traveled to the site of the ancient city of Balasugan. There is a small museum there and a reconstructed tower originally dating to the 10th or 11th century.

Access to water was one of the prerequisites for settlement along the Silk Road.

Burana Tower

We were told that the Burana Tower, as it is called, was a watchtower – one of many that once existed along the Silk Road. Online resources, however, state that it was originally a minaret.

All agree that it was once much higher. The top was lost in an earthquake in the 15th century, which also destroyed the settlement.

The "crowd" you see here was typical of many of the places we visited. Our group of 24 was often the only tourists. We were almost always the only American tourists.

It is possible to climb up inside the tower, but none of us did. I considered it, but the stairs were steep and time was short.

Bal-bal stones

Also at the site was a collection of balbals, stones associated with kurgans or ancient burial sites. They were not originally at this site; they came from many different places in the valley and are from many different times in the 6th-10th centuries.

Most are clearly male, like the one in the foreground, which has a clear mustache and beard. Others may be female, like the one in the background. Some had specific postures such as holding a cup. We were told what this signified – some kind of ritual – but I cannot remember what it was.

Some of the stones had written inscriptions.

There were also petroglyphs that dated from earlier times, but there wasn't time to prowl too much so I didn't see any of them.

Lunchtime

After our time at the Burana tower, we visited a family home for lunch. It wasn't really "en famille" as this family offers such meals to groups of tourists. There was a Japanese group also having lunch.

Regardless, the food was delicious, and after the meal we had a demonstration of traditional Kyrgyz felt-making.

The children welcomed us with smiles and "hellos."

Felt-making

Our local guide translates the discussion of felt-making. The process starts with wool that is dampened and then rolled up in the reed mats shown beside the woman. I don't recall if the wool is dyed before or after being felted.

Piecing felt

This woman has cut out felt to be pieced together in a design. The field is made up of undyed natural wool. After it is stitched to the backing, she adds decorative piping to reinforce the joined edges. The finished result will look similar to this:

Completed pieced felt

Embroidered felt

This design was created by embroidery on a woven background. The designs are traditional.

Wherever we went there was a great resurgence of traditional handicrafts. The Soviets repressed such expressions of tribal identity, but enough knowledge survived, sometimes in secret, that it is being rediscovered.

Krygyz horse games

After lunch we were treated to a demonstration of traditional horse games. These and similar contests can be found throughout the region.

Some of the competitions appeared to be individual contests, but at least one was clearly a team effort. It may be that they all were. Different teams, red and blue, are identified by fabric tied to the horses' bridles.

These folks were local villagers who were happy for the opportunity to come out and play.

Picking up

The first contest involved galloping along a track and picking up a small sack from the ground. When (if) the contestant nabbed the sack, he would throw it into the air.

The success rate was not high!

The picture is hazy because there was a lot of dust being kicked up as the horses galloped down the track.

Horseback wrestling

Next up (or down) was horseback wresting. Contenders from each team pair up and try to unhorse their opponents. Although most of the wrestling is done by the men, occasionally the horses are maneuvered into a position that will increase leverage.

Although it looks like the guy on the black horse is a goner, there were amazing recoveries in some of these contests.

Kok-Boru

In the somewhat infamous game called variously Kok-Boru, Kokpar or Buzkashi, the teams compete over who can pick up a goat carcass, keep control of it, race to the goal and heave the carcass into the goal.

The goat was slaughtered earlier in the day and its head and hoofs were removed.

Rules apparently vary depending on where the game is played.

Kok-Boru scramble

There are no assigned "positions" such as forward and guard, but some individuals seemed better at certain things. The blue team rider on the roan horse was the star of the game.

Here two riders are striving to pick up the carcass, which has to be a minimum weight – about 70-80 pounds!

We were told that this game originated among the nomadic shepherds who were training to snatch up a wolf threatening the sheep and throw it so as to break its back.

Scramble

Once the goat has been obtained, the opposing team tries to grab it away. Team members try to defend the goat carrier. I don't believe that the red team ever made a goal.

Foal

One of the players was riding a mare with a young foal, perhaps five months old. The youngster was gamely keeping up with the action.

At least a couple of the horses were stallions.

Success

The rider on the roan stallion has won the goat and is in the clear on his way to the goal. Once a rider has gotten the carcass, he tucks it under his leg as shown here. I suspect this has two benefits: it makes it harder for opponents to snatch the prize away, and it also makes it easier to carry that weight.

I don't have a picture of the actual goal, but it is a cylinder high enough that the rider has to really heave the heavy carcass into it.

Horse race

The games ended with a straight-ahead horse race.

Victory

Exuberant players showing off.

Several of our fellow travelers knew that I was a horse-lover and asked if I saw anything to be concerned about in these games. Certainly they were rough, but no, I didn't see anything I would classify as abuse. I've seen much more abusive behavior in horseshows here, frankly. The animals seemed on the whole well-cared-for and well trained.

As for the deceased goat.... After the games are over, there is a big barbeque. They say the goat meat is exceptionally tender after being used in one of these games.

Golden Dragon

Because of the scope of our travels we stayed only one night in several of the hotels. The longest we stayed in any one place was in Bukhara, where we stayed three nights. Jim and I are not fond of packing & unpacking & packing & unpacking, etc., but couldn't see another way to see what we wanted to see in the time available.

Of the many hotels some were, of course, more favored than others. The hotel in Kyrgyzstan was one of our favorites. Their breakfast was superb.

Kyrgyzstan Folklore Company That evening at dinner we were treated to a performance by members of the Kyrgyzstan Folklore Company. I wish I could have taken a video of this lovely lady as she played the Jew's Harp. The tune was nice, but the grace of her hands as she played was exceptional.Manaschi

There was also a recitation of the Manas epic mentioned earlier. The young manaschi was almost in a trance as he chanted the poem with accompanying gestures and facial expressions.

The following day we hopped a plane across the mountains to Osh in the Fergana valley.