Kyrgyzstan – The ‘Stans Part 4

May 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Crossroad of Asia

Today we continue our offbeat excursions to explore the things to see and do in Central Asia. This week we visit Kyrgyzstan, a rural and mountainous country that will remind you of the gorgeous scenery of New Zealand yet with a very different and distinct nomadic culture. Some actually call it the “Switzerland of Central Asia” due to the fact that it’s a land-locked nation comprised almost wholly by the Tian Shan mountains. You’ll also hear that Kyrgyzstan is the most accessible of the ‘Stans, due to the rather straightforward visa process and availability of direct flights from major airports such as London Heathrow.

Photo credit - noviceromano

Photo credit - noviceromano

The People

The true highlight of this country is actually the people. In the capital of Bishkek there are many Russians, but outside of there you will find people who still live in traditional, nomadic ways. They travel by horse, not by car (probably a wise choice once you see the condition of the roads). By summer they live in yurts and by winters they have sturdier shelters. But despite living in what must be one of the harshest climates in Asia to be a nomadic culture, these are some of the most hospitable people in the world.

The stories of friendliness and warmth are endless, and something you’ll no doubt encounter on any visit here. Be sure to take note of the mingling of cultures; as mentioned, there are many Russians in the capital, but Russian influences can be seen even in the nomadic cultures. The Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim nation but the powerful Kyrgyz vodka that is prevalent in day to day life is obviously a holdover from the days of Russia.

Photo credit - noviceromano

Photo credit - noviceromano

The Scenery

Ok, so if people are the main highlight of Kyrgyzstan, the other thing that you’ll be here to see is the mountain scenery: unspoilt, endless, and awe-inspiring. It’s one of those places where a postcard just doesn’t describe how incredible it looks.

Song Kul Lake takes top marks. It is the second largest lake in the country, and it has the unique feature of being in a flat, hidden valley surrounded by snow capped peaks, hence the tourist draw. Spend your days horseback or walking the terrain covered by wildflowers; by night, before withdrawing to your yurt for the night, look at the stars which seem so close you could reach out and touch one.

Manzhyly, another nomadic outpost, sits on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul and is another good base for hikes and exploring. There’s so many types of trails and sights, you can base yourself in one place yet have so many different experiences. Try to find an old Muslim cemetery; they’re filled with a kluge of sights, from metal yurts to sandstone mausoleums.

A great resource to use for help touring the countryside is Community Based Tourism Kyrgyzstan.

Photo credit - El Tuercas

Photo credit - El Tuercas

The Drink

While the food in Kyrgyzstan is similar to that of the rest of Central Asia, the drink culture has developed a few specialities you will want to check out. As mentioned, vodka is very prevalent, and of course your hosts will offer you as much tea as you can drink. But the drink culture gets far more interesting than that.

For beer lovers, there’s “bozo” which is a bitter made from wheat, not hops. It’s served more like a UK real ale – room temperature and a bit frothy. Come summer you’ll have “jarma”, a refreshing concoction made of fermented barley. If you like your spirits and the vodka is too much for you, sample some “Kyrgyzstan Cognac,” a type of brandy.

And if after all that booze you find you have a sore head the next day, ask for some kumys – fermented mare’s milk. It’s known to have restorative properties, but is definitely an acquired taste, so if you’ve not got a solid stomach then it is probably best to stick to the mineral water.

If You Go

Unless you are a passport holder of one of the former Soviet nations or Japan, you’ll need a visa. Most Europeans and other major English speaking nations can obtain a visa from their embassy or consulate before travel or upon arrival at the airport and do not require registration with local officials upon arrival.

Note that if you enter the country via an unmanned border crossing you may have trouble exiting, so be sure to get your passport stamped.

Kyrgyzstan is a relatively safe country, but women are strongly advised not to travel alone and travel by car in the mountainous regions can be treacherous. The roads are being refurbished throughout the country but conditions are still quite rough.

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About the Author. Andy Hayes. Andy Hayes is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When not crossing the world to have his next Asian travel adventures, he is hitting the walking trails near home. To get in touch or see Andy’s other travelogues, visit his website, Sharing Travel Experiences.

Uzbekistan – Stans Part 3

May 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Crossroad of Asia

The next stop in our tour of the “new” backpacker circuit in Central Asia is Uzbekistan. Landlocked nation with the exception of the bordering Aral Sea, the Uzbek countryside is a series of deserts and dunes. It has a reputation for being unfriendly to foreigners (and perhaps unfriendly to locals too), but there’s still some gems to be unearthed. Let’s explore what Uzbek has to offer.

Photo credit - upyernoz

Photo credit - upyernoz

The Silk Road

Many wonderful sights can be explored following the route of the former Silk Road as it passes through Uzbekistan and is a good start to exploring the flat and seemingly endless countryside. Khiva is a top stop; formerly a capital city (at the time a kingdom called Khorezm), it’s now a wonderful open-air museum on a city that flourished in riches from the Silk road trade. Check out the East Gate, which was once home to a slave trade market. There’s the Tash Havli palace, with rooms for all of the different suitors and concubines. And of course, the iconic Kalta Minaret, a tower intended to be Central Asia’s tallest minaret. It stands unfinished to this day.

Smarkand is another important Silk Road destination. The gorgeous dome of the Gur Emir building is a must for all photographers (it’s actually a mausoleum), as is the Registan square. From here the gates and pillars feel as authentic and iconic as more famed backdrops, like the Taj Mahal.

Lastly but certainly not least is Bukhara, full of visitor attractions. The Ark, a palace, features a museum on the city’s history and the nearby Zindan is a hot spot to see the Bug Pit, a torture chamber which needs little explanation. But the real star of the show is the Kalyan Minaret, once the tallest building in Central Asia and the oldest monument in Bukhara (built around 1127). The first time it was built, it collapsed due to some mis-engineering, but it was finally erected properly and was spared by Genghis Khan when he destroyed the city in the 1200s.

Photo credit - upyernoz

Photo credit - upyernoz

Tashkent Architecture

The Uzbek capital of Tashkent was destroyed in 1966 after a strong earthquake. Because the city was under strong Soviet control at the time, today the city looks far more Soviet than elsewhere in the region. Everything from traffic signs to monuments and parks have that “look” (hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it). But you simply must take in the Soviet influence on the Tashkent subway. The highlight is the Cosmonaut station but nearly every stop is like a museum.

Photo credit - ideali

Photo credit - ideali

Food and Drinks

I can’t seem to talk about anywhere without talking about the food. But first, let’s mention something that many travelers complain about: getting ripped off. You’ll find many restaurants don’t have menus. This is so they can charge you an unreasonable fee after you’ve already eaten. To avoid this, ask for price information up front if it isn’t available, and be firm in asking for an itemized bill. Challenge it if it contradicts what you were told (though you’ll likely get footed with it anyway).

Manti is a huge Uzbek favorite, no surprise as you’ll find manti in both Turkey as well as the other Central Asian states. It’s a dumpling filled with lamb (and a lot of lamb fat), then steamed. It’s delicious. Somsas are another tasty treat that you’ll find in restaurants or even on the street; they can be filled with potatoes or pumpkin or meat. In summer you’ll see ‘spring’ somsas, which are filled with a special grass that grows in the mountains. If they’re made traditionally they’ll be put into a clay tandoori, which adds to the flavour.

To wash it all down, you’ll have plenty of choice for drink (though be careful with tap water, which is usually to be avoided). Tea is a popular option, and tradition states the tea be poured from the pot to the cup and back three times, then the fourth time it is offered to the guests. Hospitality plays a huge role in Uzbek tradition, so tea cups do not stay empty for long.

Uzbek also has some great wines, believe it or not. Khovrenko Winery is one of the most well known, but there’s several in the country. You can even go to a wine tasting in Bukhara in the west.

If You Go

You’ll of course need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website explains the process and fees in detail. For many, you’ll need a Letter of Invitation, which your travel agent or accommodation can obtain for you. Once you arrive in the country, you’ll need to register your local address, but if you stay at a respectable hotel they’ll handle this for you, but just be sure that it is taken care of.

If you’re flying in, the main entry point is through Tashkent, served by several European and International carriers, as well as Middle-Eastern Airlines such as Turkish Airlines and Uzbekistan Airways. Check out CheapFlights.co.uk for some excellent flight deals heading to Tashkent.

Security and safety is a mixed bag in Uzbekistan. It is technically a police state, which has made it quite safe, but visitors should be alert at all times and use a heavy dose of common sense. Some tips:

• You’re required to carry documentation with you at all times and may be asked to see it by a police officer. Most embassy websites state that it is sufficient to carry copies of your passport (and Uzbek visa!) and leave the originals at the hotel and offer to take the officer there upon request. They won’t usually bother.

• You’ll often be propositioned to check out the “night life” – either by local tour guides or just those on the streets. Trust us, you aren’t interested in what they have to offer, just say no.

• Otherwise, just use common sense for safety. Don’t wear expensive jewellery or carry bags/purses that could be easily stolen. Street crime is just as big of a problem as overall violent crime in the region.


Unearthing Asia is a travel zine focusing on Lifestyle, Culture and Attractions all over Asia. Don’t miss out on the best travel ideas and inspirations in the region of Asia, such as this list of top Vietnamese noodle treats.

About the Author. Andy Hayes. Andy Hayes is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When not crossing the world to have his next Asian travel adventures, he is hitting the walking trails near home. To get in touch or see Andy’s other travelogues, visit his website, Sharing Travel Experiences.

Sal’s Travelogue #7 -High Up North

July 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Exotic South East

Following Viantiane’s urban landscape, our writer Sal heads towards Vang Vieng, a mountain village up north famed for its wild late night partying. Come night fall, the village transformed into a wild hub of nightlife and blaring music.

We arrived at dusk to a mountainside village that welcomed us with its calm afterglow of evening lights. The mountains loomed over the village, while the setting sun painted the sky in a surreal mix of lilac and lavender. Valerie and I had finally reached the mountain village of Vang Vieng, a welcoming hideout in stark contrast to Vientiane’s urban landscape.

vang-vieng-1

Finding a room was a little trickier this time round, especially with prices adjusted to capitalise on the droves of tourists arriving every day. After a bit of walking, we settled at the Nanthaphone Guesthouse, which let rooms at 40,000 a night. It was late, and there was no word from Antoine, who decided to cycle all the way from Vientiane. After dropping a message off via one of the internet kiosks in the village, we decided to hit the bars with our new friends from Israel, whom we had met on the bus ride into town. I was a little worried about our cyclist friend, but Valerie seemed to share no such concern, so we brushed that matter aside and set out to find a good watering hole to spend the evening.

vang-vieng-4

Come nightfall, we bore witness to the town’s transformation from humble village into a wild hub of nightlife and blaring music. We settled at the Rock Bar, which interestingly enough, played a large collection of international hits that were deposited over time by patrons from far and wide. “Sabaidee!” yelled a voice, hearty and boisterous, while we made our way through the bar’s courtyard and straight to the counter. Apart from the empty dance floor and many unfilled straw booths and platforms, the first thing that caught my eye was a large jar that contained a murky liquid, and what seemed to be a preserved cobra and centipede. Out of nowhere, the owner of the Rock Bar, Lae, had already began pouring four shots for us right out of that very same jar!

vang-vieng-3

“You first time come here, my friend, free drink,” explained Lae, as we braced our guts to take our first shot of the night. Rancid, poisonous and horrid. Even these words somehow failed to fully describe the taste of our first drink.

As if the drink wasn’t enough to widen our eyes, a quick glance through the Rock Bar’s menu served to remind me of how many have touted these parts as Asia’s very own Wild, Wild West. Apart from various unorthodox combinations of alcohol, it was apparently common practice to blend narcotics along with staple drinks like beer, vodka and whiskey. My companions seemed none the more surprised than I was, and it was clear that everyone was in for a long night and plenty of fun to go with it.

vang-vieng-2

While the bar started to fill with a crowd, many conversations were had, with casual mentions of the many attractions that comprised Vang Vieng. Apart from mountain treks and cave exploring, tubing was all the rage with anyone paying a visit to the town.

At one point of the night, the sweet smell of fried desserts led us away from the Rock Bar. Perhaps the sudden craving for banana pancakes was a timely one, for no sooner had we placed our order that we noticed a familiar red bicycle zip past us, with Antoine in hot pursuit of the Rock Bar.

Fate, as it seemed, had a funny way of placing good desserts with good timing. Getting Antoine settled in was a seamless affair, and just as soon as we had finished our desserts, we were back at the Rock Bar, reliving the splendorous electricity that the night was so charged with.

“You got ipod?” Lae asked.

All he wanted was for the music I had to be played on the bar’s speakers – yet all I wanted past that point, was to flee from the bar. Perhaps it was the wiring, or it might have been the brand-less, run down compo Lae was using to churn out his tracks – but what I do know is removing the input cable from his speakers was about to set me back by 4,000,000 kip (500 USD), or so he claimed.

I didn’t know what to believe. There I was, high as a kite, and at the same time, trying to regain control of the situation. The next hour or so of my life was spent trying to reason with two or three of Lae’s friends, who did a pretty good job of putting me on the spot. Though they were threatening to bring the matter up to the authorities, perhaps it was grateful irony that none were subscribing to violence as a solution.

With the only two ATM’s down in the village, and no way to leave the bar without handing them my passport as collateral, I didn’t know whether to laugh or fume at something I had said earlier on – this was going to be a long night indeed.

Sal’s Travelogue:
#1: Solo#2: Saigon Green#3: Detours#4: All Road Leads North#5: Saibadee Pakse#6: Far Yet Familiar

About the Author. Sal S-S. A writer by profession, a free spirit by nature – Sal believes that his life’s one purpose is to see it all, learn it all and do it all. Currently based as a freelance copywriter in Singapore, it is for life’s many unknowns and uncertainties that he sets his sights beyond borders and into new discoveries. Living and working for the journey itself and nothing less, it is with pen in hand and passion at heart that he contributes to Unearthing Asia.