“She’s WHERE??? Where in the world is THAT??”

This is what I imagine my friends saying when they learned my latest destination, which I did not reveal until I was actually here.

On the afternoon I arrived in Bishkek, the country’s capital, I posted this photographic clue on my Facebook page. My friend Nan, in Texas was the first to figure it out, “Kyrgyzstan??” she commented back. I guess I thought this little dramatic Facebook quiz would be fun.

I did it to draw attention to the fact that most of us don’t know much about Central Asia. We learned a little bit about Marco Polo way back in sixth grade, but that is about all the attention our American education provided about the countries of the Silk Road. (And, back when I was in the sixth grade, Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union.) I confess, before last Christmas, I did not even know there was a country named Krygyzstan. So where is it? Care to take a stab? Here’s a map of this side of the world:

Scroll down to the bottom of the post for the answer.

I got quite a few queries, “Kyrgyzstan??? Is that safe?”  “How did you find out about Kyrgyzstan?” “What made you choose to go there?”

And the answers:

Yes, it is safe. In fact, believe it or not, our US State Department (which errs WAY beyond the side of caution!) considers it safer to visit Kyrgyzstan than India.

I first heard about Kyrgyzstan last December from a blog post my travel insurance sent out, “5 Reasons Kyrgyzstan is the Ultimate Nomads Destination.”

“Well,” I thought, “it MUST be safe if my travel insurance company is recommending it!”

After a year of travel in Europe, I was looking for an exotic destination—something to test my narrow comfort zone. I had thought about Nepal because the trekking is incredible. But, Nepal is overrun by tourists, which is a red light for me. So, the World Nomads article came at just the right time. I started my research. With each travel blog I read, the closer I came to deciding to visit. For months, though, I vacillated: I was scared; I was intrigued; What if people weren’t very friendly; Is it really a good place for an older solo woman? Is it REALLY safe? (This last concern came, I am sure, from my American-instilled prejudice and fears: surely any country with a name ending in “-stan” cannot be a place you would want to visit for fun.)

Finally, on July 3 I bought my ticket. Unless I wanted to lose over $400, I was committed to flying out of Tallinn, Estonia on July 26.

You don’t need a visa before arrival in Kyrgyzstan if you hold a passport from one of these countries.

However, I was still delightfully surprised on arrival that the visa stamp was so perfunctory. The immigration officer did not ask me a single question! (That sure beat the grilling I got from Irish immigration last December!)

I have now been here three weeks and I cannot fathom why I had any reservations about visiting. It is easy to get around, the food is amazing, the people are friendly and inviting, and accommodations are comfortable. I have felt completely safe wherever I have walked—even down the highway out of town after sunset.

The colorful Osh Market. Look at all that dried fruit and nuts. Custom trail mix anyone?

I stayed two days in Bishkek to shake off the effects of my overnight flight. On my first morning I was easily able to walk to the fantastic Osh market. You can read more about that here. My ability to just take off and walk the city streets by myself was a far cry from my first day of fear in Peru four years ago. When you keep pushing at those comfort-zone walls, they crumble down surprisingly easily.

The marshrutka (mini-bus) to Karakol was hot and crowded and the trip lasted six hours, but despite the discomfort, I found myself sitting still for two hours solid in an almost meditative state just trying to get myself to believe that I was really here.

Kyrgyzstan is working very hard to build its tourism infrastructure. I was pleased to see that our own government is helping via USAID (Agency for International Development). Our US dollars are funding projects to help locals develop guest houses, trekking opportunities, and cultural experiences to encourage more visitors. This helps build local economies, meaning more jobs so people don’t have to emigrate to make ends meet. When we, as tourists, visit and learn more about other cultures, we become more tolerant and understanding: people in other cultures are different—and THAT’S OK! I feel that, especially in the United States, we have become so very insular that we too often forget that.

Guest house in Jyrgalan that was renovated with the assistance of USAid.

 

Sharing food: Altynai, my host in Karakol, prepared Oromo, a traditional Kyrgyz dish.

Promoting tourism is an easy avenue to peace. Also, since these programs encourage the people in Kyrgyzstan to share their cultural heritage—food, skills, way of life, and beliefs—that heritage is more likely to survive the infiltration of modern society. And it becomes possible for the traditional ways to live alongside and intertwined with the modern. While traveling, I often feel apologetic for what a bully the US has become around the globe; but seeing our tax dollars used in peaceful and helpful ways brings hope to my heart.

So…I plan to stay in Kyrgyzstan for almost the entire two months that my visa allows. Stay tuned…by the time I leave, I hope to entice you to visit here someday, too!

Here are a few teaser images just to whet your appetite.
WARNING: Lots of food photos—I have been trying lots of new tastes here!

And here is where Kyrgyzstan is:

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