Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Yurt Living at Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan, September 29, 2014

Once on lowland and looking back at the mountains of Barskoon Canyon, it looked like it was already snowing at the summer home of Jamagul and Myram.  Our last night outside of Bishkek, we stayed in a yurt on the shore of Issyk Kul. We've learned that the only people who now sleep in yurts are tourists. Kyrgyz live in houses.

On the way to way to the mountain guesthouse, we stopped at Fairytale Canyon for a short hike and some photography. The landscape is starkly beautiful with red earth formations. The landscape reminded me of the southwestern United States.

Once we left the mountains, we also hiked a little in another small canyon with more beautiful formations and lavender in bloom.

 This area was just across the road from Issyk Kul so the lake is visible in some of the photos.

For the night we stayed in the Bel Tam Yurt Camp. I admit that it was a very nice luxury to have a hot shower and flush toilets available, but the bedding was far more comfortable at the mountain guesthouse. Sleeping on the floor of a yurt even with a small mattress is just not comfortable.

Another interesting feature of the Kyrgyz landscape is their cemeteries. Kyrgyz are buried in round holes and covered with a mound of dirt. Sometimes iron structures resembling yurts are placed over the mound of dirt. Driving by, it looks like small cities have been erected next to the roadway with views of the mountains and lake.

Near Bishkek is a place that was a stop along the Silk Road. What remains of this 11th-century city is a tower that was used to both look for advancing camel caravans and to watch for invaders. If a caravan was spotted, the look out would light a torch to guide the caravan toward the city. Burana Tower has been renovated, but being here gave us an idea of what the look out would have seen ten centuries ago.

A semi-excavated city surrounds the tower and some archaeological artifacts have been arranged near the tower.

Next stop along the Silk Road for us will be Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Hunting with an Eagle, near Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan: September 29, 2014

After spending the night in a yurt camp on the shores of Issyk Kul, Artiom (our guide) took us to a large clearing to meet a man who practices the nomadic tradition of hunting with an eagle. We met Talgar and his golden eagle, Tumara. Tumara is driven to hunting demonstrations in the back of Talgar's VW Golf. Tumara means "luck" in Kyrgyz, and she is 10 years old. Talgar has had her since she was 1-1/2 months old when stole her from the nest. Before stealing Tumara, he watched the nest for some time to see if the eagle parents were feeding the eaglets with small animals like mice and rabbits or with larger game such as wolf cubs and foxes. Since Tumara's eagle parents were bringing back larger animals for their eaglets, he knew the eaglets would have good hunting genetics.

Tumara is a champion hunter, but Talgar hasn't always been so lucky with the eaglets he has taken from nests. His four prior eaglets were not successful hunters so each one was released to the wild when they reached about 1 year of age.

Talgar said he will release Tumara to the wild when she turns 20 years old. He compared that day to giving his daughter away to marry and leave his home. Talgar and Tumara are very close.

Both Dan and I held Tumara (while she was hooded) briefly, but as she sensed through our pulses that we were not Talgar, she quickly jumped off. We were allowed to pet her and her feathers were quite soft and silky to touch.

Then, Talgar placed a cute, little bunny rabbit in the middle of the clearing. The bunny just sat there unaware of the fateful demonstration that was about to take place.

Talgar carried Tumara up the ridge, commanded her to hunt, and turned her loose.

Just as Tumara was about to score a direct hit, the bunny ran,
 and ran,
 and ran.

The little bunny ran into a thicket of bushes (kind of like Brier Rabbit) evading Tumara. Unfortunately, the bunny could not escape the human hunter and was pulled from its hiding place. Talgar returned the wily rabbit to the clearing, and took Tumara back up to the ridge for a second try at scoring one for the predator.

While I was watching Tumara glide toward the clearing, the bunny was hopping toward me. Suddenly, I realized that the bunny was quite close just as Tumara made the hit. Because I was startled, my photo of Tumara's grab of the bunny is not quite in focus, but you can see Tumara balancing on her tail while her talons grab the bunny.

Tumara looks very proud of her capture of the bunny. She must wait until Talgar reaches her and signals before she can begin to eat her prey. I was relieved that Talgar used his knife to limit the bunny's suffering and speed its demise.

Tumara eats about a pound of meat each day during hunting season. The swallowed meat bunches up in the eagle's chest and slowly works its way into the stomach. Talgar even fed Tumara small bits of bunny to show us how trusting they are of each other.

For the final demonstration, Talgar hooded Tumara and placed her on the hillside while he returned to the clearing. His son removed Tumara's hood, and Talgar held up a bloody bunny foot and whistled. Tumara flew down the hillside and onto Talgar's arm to gnaw on the foot.

With Tumara's bunny breakfast finished, it was time for some oral hygiene. Talgar held up a stone and Tumara rubbed her beak against the stone. This is to keep her beak sharp and shapely.

It was an amazing demonstration of nomadic tradition. Nomads were hunters and meat eaters. Several times we've been told a joke about nomads and their carnivorous habits. The "joke" is that Kyrgyz people are second only to wolves in the amount of meat consumed per capita.

I am sorry about the bunny.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bride Kidnapping and other Stories in the Mountains of Kyrgyzstan: September 26-28, 2014

With our guide, Artiom, Dan and I left Bishkek to explore the mountains near the south shore of Issyk Kul. We stayed two nights with Jamagul (Friday Flower) and Myram (Celebration). They offer their home to Artiom's guests and hikers that happen by.

Jamagul and Myram are seasonal shepherds. Each spring, they bring the cows from their village up to the mountains. The process is reversed in late September.

The first morning, Dan and I got up about 7 a.m. and were able to watch the rounding up and milking of the cows. Each of these cows now has a calf. The calves are kept in a shed at night, but the cows are allowed to find a comfortable spot in the forest. Before beginning the milking, a calf is placed with its mother to briefly suckle and stimulate the flow of milk. The calf is quickly pulled off the udder and Myram milks the cow. Once the pail is full, the calf can return to its mother's udders. Then they repeat the process of matching a calf to its mother and milking the cow.

While at their mountain home, Myram milks the cows and uses the milk to make dairy products like kajmak (an almost solid cream the consistency of cream cheese). Myram said she prefers living in the mountains and loves her life of milking cows and making dairy products for sale. She said that in the winter, the cows do not give much milk.

One evening at dinner in Myram's tiny kitchen, she told us about how she came to marry Jamagul. She was 19 years old and attending the University in Karakol; Jamagul (whom she only knew by sight) came up to her and explained that her mother wanted him to bring Myram home. Myram thought that sounded strange, but she went with Jamagul and his friends.

Jamagul drove Myram to his parents' house instead. When Myram walked inside, Jamagul's women relatives pounced on Myram and tried to tie a white scarf on her head. With the scarf on her head, Myram began to cry that she wanted to leave. She tried to leave, but Jamagul's grandmother laid down in front of the doorway and said Myram would have to climb over her body to leave. With that, Myram gave up and became Jamagul's wife. After 4 children and over 34 years together, Myram said she's glad Jamagul kidnapped her; she said she has been very happy. 

Jamagul said that it was love at first sight for him. He was 23 and he knew of Myram because they lived in the same village. He thought she was pretty and decided to kidnap her because he was too shy to simply ask her. 

Since not all of these kidnapped bride relationships work as well as that of Myram and Jamagul, several years ago the government made it illegal to kidnap brides in Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, this crime still exists and the kidnapper is rarely prosecuted.

Huge "royal" weddings have become the object of many young people's desires. The arrangements seem almost competitive because each wedding must be bigger and fancier than the one before it. As many as 1,000 guests might be invited which means that many animals must be slaughtered for the feast. Limos are rented and photographers/videographers hired. The bride and groom will wear western wedding clothing during the day of photos, but by the last party, they will be dressed in a Krgyz style like royalty. Who wouldn't want to look like a princess or prince? 

Most marriages are arranged by the parents. The wedding cost is split between the groom's family and the bride's family, but most Kyrgyz are not wealthy. Myram said that her first three children did not have huge weddings and it has been since about 2000 that expensive weddings have become popular. Her 16-year old son has already been telling his parents what he wants for his wedding. In order to "save face" families do keep the wedding competition going. They will sell all their livestock, possessions, borrow money just to "save face." Funerals and birthdays also require extensive feasts and many guests.

We also discussed the pension system in Kyrgyzstan. Myram said that if she had had 5 children, she would have been able to retire at age 50. Since she had only 4 children, she must wait until she is 58 to begin getting her pension. Pensions (presumably for village women and/or unemployed) are also tied to the amount of children they produce. Having 5 or 10 children, gains a progressively larger monthly pension. No children and you're pension is worth less than $20 USD a month.

Because they had a small store on this site when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Kyrgyzstan government gave them the land that the house is on. The surrounding land is leased from the government for grazing.

Jamagul and Myram's house in the mountains does not have running water so they fetch water from a spring next to the river across from the house and the toilet is a squat outhouse, but they are surrounded by the natural beauty of the mountains that rise up around them.

Our bedroom had 3 twin-sized platforms with foam mattresses. Several blankets filled with sheep's wool were piled on top of the foam mattress. I piled more blankets on top and slipped into the middle of the pile. Unlike the Princess and the Pea, I had a very comfortable, warm night floating on top of those mattresses.

The guesthouse, in Barskoon Canyon, is at about 2700 meters which is just below the tree line of 2900. The first morning, we drove beyond the pass of 3819 meters/12529 feet to almost 4000 meters/13123 feet  and did some very short hikes to see the scenery. Unfortunately, after spending several hours at that elevation, I began feeling the symptoms of high-altitude sickness (headache, nausea, extreme fatigue). We drove back to the guesthouse where I fell into a deep sleep for several hours.

Our last morning at the guesthouse, we again got up at 7:00 am, but the cows had already been milked and breakfast was made. They were beginning to pack up their personal possessions to make the move down to the village before winter weather came. Just a few days before we arrived, Jamagul was picking currants and slipped on the rocks. Unfortunately, he fractured his left forearm which meant that he was not able help much in preparation of the move. They are planning to pack up and move the herd down to the village the day after we leave. Jamagul will drive the car, packed with their possessions, down to the village. Myram and another woman will drive the 30 cows and calves down the road to the village. She said it will take about 6 hours. The road is quite good because of the gold mine that operates on a mountain top, but that also means that she and the cows will be competing for road space with huge trucks hauling supplies and fuel up and rocks and dirt down the mountain.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: September 25, 2014

Last Thursday, I showed up at 10:00 am for my appointment at the Uzbekistan Embassy. Some arbitrary order of appearance put me last so I had to wait 2-1/2 hours on the street until my turn. I left, pleasantly surprised, with Uzbek Visas pasted into our passports.

My second week in Bishkek is done. During the day, I have been exploring on foot. Sometimes high-school girls hoping to practice their English stop me to chat. They often tell me that it is their dream to go to the USA. Without Dan to keep me amused during the day, I have had to depend on myself to stay amused.

Here are some photos of restaurant signs that have caught my eye.

 The now closed Oki Doki (ОКИ ДОКИ) Cafe

I have scoured most every street in the Bishkek downtown area trawling for shops selling traditional arts. There are some very good shops here, but at this point, I'm feeling satiated. We are at the stage in life when we should be down sizing not accumulating.

I have watched the changing of the guard at the flag in front of the History Museum. The two soldiers in the glass cases look like toy soldiers from a distance.

The changing happens every hour from sunrise to sunset.

I visited the History Museum skipping the permanent Lenin adoration installation to go directly to the ethnographic floor with its lovely textiles. I also explored the Museum of Contemporary Art and saw a drawing of an award winning chandelier called the "Wedding Veil" designed for the Wedding Palace.

I wanted to see this chandelier, so I found the Wedding Palace AKA Temple of Love. During the soviet years, marriage within a religious establishment was not allowed so this Wedding Palace was built. This is a state-run Temple of Love for marriages. Marriages are a big deal here. The street in front of the Wedding Palace is lined with all makes and permutations of stretch limos.

A carpeted staircase and round entrance reminiscent of a Tunnel of Love amusement park ride, leads to one of the rooms in which marriages are performed. The room with the stained-glass window is where the "wedding veil" chandelier hangs. Unfortunately, only a few of the light bulbs were on when I was there. I think for the best view, one must be laying in the center of the floor under the chandelier, but that area was off limits to everyone except the bride and groom. When I arrived, a marriage had just ended. Guests descend from side staircases while the bride, groom, best man/woman, and parents descend down the central staircase. Photos and videos document every step, every second of the day. The groom is wearing the traditional Kyrgyz felt wool hat.

After the photos at the bottom of the stairs, the couple released doves outside as they left the Wedding Palace. The next thing that happened was that the groom's friends grabbed him and tossed him into the air 4 times. To continue the photo session, the bridal party will visit many of the monuments and parks in Bishkek with photo documentary at each stop.

At the WWII monument (in the shape of a yurt), the couples will be photographed laying flowers at the eternal flame. They will sip champagne, release more doves, and pose.

The long day will end with a fabulous dinner and party.

The weather has continued to be comfortably warm. These two ladies were enjoying a chat in the sun. They are sitting in front of Parliament and the memorials to those who died in the 2010 revolution.

I've also spent some of my very free time working on photographs and playing with filters. I took this one last weekend. It is of a mosque under construction. When finished, it will be the largest mosque in Central Asia replacing the current largest Central Asia mosque that is in Kazakhstan. This one is being funded by the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs and is being built in the shape of Istanbul's Hagia Sofia. The expected completion date is 2015. 

In 2012, Kyrgyzstan banned casinos and slot machines citing the social issues caused by gambling. They closed them without regard to casino employees who would suddenly become unemployed. The effect of this ban was to reduce revenue to the state and drive all gambling operators underground--like our alcohol prohibition. This is a former casino now in a derelict condition.

Today, is Dan's last day of work. Tomorrow, we are going on a hiking trip near Issyk-Kul. We will return to Bishkek on September 29 just in time to repack for our Uzbek vacation.