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A High Time in Kyrgyzstan – Sunday Times travel

It’s jam on arrival in Bishkek. Apricot jam. Strawberry jam. Raspberry jam. Apple jam. Pear jam. Cherry jam. Blackcurrant jam. There’s even something called sea-buckthorn jam (no, I hadn’t, either). This is in addition to a large bowl of porridge, yoghurt, smoked sausage and fried egg, cheese, apples and grapes, pancakes and coffee. This is the Full Kyrgyz Breakfast. Such a homely introduction comes as a surprise in a country better known — to the extent that it is known, which it isn’t, really — for wild, yurt-filled landscapes peopled with moustachioed Genghis Khan lookalikes hunting on horseback with eagles amid the snow-ravaged peaks of Central Asia.

Yet this is only the capital, a small, Sov­iet affair in an obscure corner of a murky part of the world where British travellers are noticeable only by their absence.

While many former Soviet republics have long ditched Lenin, the bald, finger-wagging ideologue remains one of the most common sights in Kyrgyzstan. True, since independence in 1991 he has been demoted from the plinth in the main square that used to bear his name — now renamed Ala-Too, after the crinkly, snow-topped mountains hung up against a pale blue sky to the south of the city — but he hasn’t moved far. Having loomed large in front of the State Historical Museum, he now lurks in a square immediately ­behind it, a stone’s throw from a cosy statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in animated conversation on a park bench. Who said the Soviets were dead and buried? And who guessed that many Kyrgyz earnestly wish they were back?

Bishkek is a tranquil little city of wide boulevards, tree-lined avenues and pleasant parks of oak, maple, silver birch, walnut, pine and fir. There are one or two antiques shops to interest those in search of Soviet memorabilia, and the vibrant Osh Bazaar, with its pretty pyramids of many-coloured spices, but this is not the reason most travellers come to Kyrgyzstan.

This easternmost of the “Stans” is a land of mountains, rising to almost 25,000ft in the far southeast. It’s a place of wide horizons and sun-warmed steppes, crashing rivers and steep-sided valleys, the home of white-tailed eagles, yaks, curly-horned Marco Polo sheep and ibex, and the elusive snow leopard. It is, in other words, an adventurer’s playground, the place to hire a horse and unleash your inner Mongol warlord.

All roads for this line of things lead east to Karakol, a quaint town of crumbling Russian gingerbread houses in the Tien Shan, the Celestial Mountains of Chinese folklore. To get there you must follow the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul (Warm Lake), the world’s second largest alpine lake, an alternately serene and stormy stretch of water. This is the territory once known to both the Mongol world conqueror Genghis Khan, Scourge of God, and his 14th-century reincarnation Tamerlane, Sword of Islam and Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction. Both men ran amok in Central Asia and spilt enough blood — metaphorically speaking — to fill the lake.

After another prodigious, jam-filled breakfast one morning, I have an app­ointment with Almas, a diminutive, ­latter-day Genghis with piercing eyes and a dark smudge of a moustache. Taking advantage of the rising number of visitors to Kyrgyzstan in recent years, Almas has built up a stable of horses. Some are for riding, the mares are kept to make kumis, the mildly alcoholic fermented milk, which is, alas, out of season during my visit.

To an untrained eye, Makiza, the slender, seven-year-old chestnut gelding Almas assigns to me, appears rather too slight an animal to cope with hauling 15st of hapless rider up to 13,000ft. Needless to say, I am completely wrong. Though resolutely unimpressed by affectionate patting and verbal encouragement to keep up a respectable pace, he proves a robust and steady fellow as we climb out of Karakol, past the industrial squalor of Ak-Suu village. Almas is also less than impressed by my reluctance to use the whip with meaning. Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky, the fearless 19th-century Russian explorer during the Great Game (as the rivalry between Britain and Russia there was called), would no doubt have taken a tougher line on his mount. He was convinced, as he wrote in one of his travelogues, that “three things are necessary for the success of long and dangerous journeys in Central Asia — money, a gun and a whip”. Horses for courses, perhaps.

There is a wild splendour to the landscape as we take the rough track up the Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa) valley. The blue-blurred river flows fast over giant, copper-coloured boulders alongside the shocking yellow and rusting orange of silver birch and apricot trees in autumnal decay. A day’s ride takes us steeply up into the mountains, through fir forests to a romantically decrepit wooden cabin presided over by Valentin, a vodka-­quaffing Ukrainian whose parents were deported to Kyrgyzstan by Stalin.

Over the next few days the Kyrgyz weather throws everything it can at us. One day, cerulean skies and gentle zephyrs, the next, swirling snowstorms and blinding white-out. Leaving the shivering horses and Almas behind one morning, I strike out alone towards Ala-Kul Pass, which rises starkly above us. A steep ascent, it is said to command fabulous views over the lake of the same name. The weather has other ideas. A bullying wind whips up and driving snow reduces visibility to a few yards. For a brief moment, the brute face of the final climb is tantalisingly revealed, a near-vertical, dread-inducing ­app­roach to the pass, then the sky darkens again, snow is flying in all directions and everything is lost to sight, forcing an ignominious, scrambling retreat. On a particularly steep and slippery section, I come a cropper, flying into the air and landing expertly on my coccyx. At 41, I no longer bounce. Consolation comes below in the form of a muscle-soothing soak in the guesthouse’s hot spring, followed by a restorative volley of vodka shots with a boisterous party of locals and high tea with pots and pots of fresh jam.

After descending to Karakol, there is time to visit the astonishing site of San Tash (Counting Stones), where legend has it that, ahead of a military campaign in the east in the late 14th century, Tamerlane ordered every one of his soldiers to deposit a stone in a pile. On their return, each soldier was required to remove a stone. Each boulder in the vast cairn that remains is a monument to one man’s death. Other ancient voices echo in the catacombs of Svetly Mys, a charming, poplar-lined hamlet that has the unique distinction of being the possible burial place of St Matthew on the one hand, and the origin of the Black Death on the other: an apocryphal apocalypse, if you like.

A final, monumental breakfast awaits. Among the piles of bread and fruit, cheese and meat, once again there is enough jam to defeat a Mongol army. Apart from the hospitality of its people, as boundless as its steppes and mountains, this, surely, is the essence of Kyrgyzstan. As the late, great writer and war hero Paddy Leigh Fermor once said of a particularly glowing review of one of his books: “It’s jam all the way through.”

Justin Marozzi travelled as a guest of Steppes Travel (01285 880980, For packages, see over


In the late 19th century, the high passes and ancient cities of Central Asia were the exotic setting for the Great Game between Russia and Britain, with dashing officers and explorers such as Nikolai Mik­hailovich Przhevalsky and Alexander “Bukhara” Burnes competing for influence on behalf of their country’s respective empires. There is no better or more gripping introduction to this period of history than Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, published in 1990. Today’s visitor to Central Asia no longer runs the very real risk of having his or her throat slit or head lopped off by some maniacal ruler, yet the Stans, as they are known, offer the adventurous and historically minded traveller mesmerising possibilities.


For those in search of magnificent monuments, it is hard to beat Uzbekistan, home to the cities of Samarkand, Buk­hara and Khiva. Samarkand, Tamerlane’s blue-domed imperial capital, made a profound impression on George Curzon, the Tory MP and future viceroy of India, in 1888. “The Registan of Samarkand was originally, and is still even in its ruin, the ­noblest public square in the world,” he wrote. “I know of nothing in the East ­approaching it in mas­sive simplicity and grandeur; and nothing in Europe… which can even aspire to enter the competition.” Then there’s Buk­hara, my favourite, a med­ieval warren of mosques, madrasahs and minarets, still ponds, or hauzes, and teahouses. Khiva, a World Heritage Site and home to an open-air museum, is an extraordinary city, ­albeit too glitzily restored for some tastes.

Desert explorers will thrill to the wide spaces of Turkmenistan, plaything of the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov from 1990-2006, a place of pilgrimage and pre-Islamic mysticism, home to the Karakum Desert and the Silk Road city of Merv, which has a cameo role in A Thousand and One Nights.

While Kyrgyzstan has the Tien Shan mountains, Tajikistan boasts the marginally higher Pamirs. Few road trips can compete with the Pamir Highway for roof- of-the-world exhilaration. The Wakhan Valley, which Tajikistan shares with Afghan­istan, is a wilderness scattered with Buddhist ruins and Silk Road fortresses within sight of the mighty Hindu Kush.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan, one of the world’s largest countries, combines the modern, limousine-filled cities of Almaty and Astana with endless steppes and horse-riding opportunities galore.

For all these countries, make sure your rucksack contains Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia, a plangent memoir of Central Asia in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.


For much of the region, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are the best times to travel. July and August are very hot and dry in Uzbekistan, but are the ideal time to visit mountainous Kyrgyzstan before temperatures plummet. Winters (December to February) can be extremely cold.


Kyrgyzstan, the most straightforward country to visit, does not require a visa for a stay of 60 days. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan both require visas. Turkmenistan requires a visa and a letter of invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tajikistan requires a visa and a GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permit if going through the Pamirs.


Travel in Central Asia inevitably involves expeditions to remote, sometimes inhos­pitable places that are often far from ­creature comforts and modern hospitals. Security, however, is generally excellent. As a rule, terrorism is less of a threat than theft and pickpocketing. The latest advice on all countries is available from the ­Foreign Office (, which tends to err on the side of caution. Your biggest risk may be falling off a horse.


For western visitors, at least, not to mention local dissidents, activists and opposition figures, human rights in Central Asia are not what they could be. Uzbekistan, whose grey-faced President Islam Karimov has clung grimly to power since 1990, is surely governed by the region’s most unpleasant regime, with a penchant for boiling dissidents to death. Torture and forced child labour are endemic. As Human Rights Watch succinctly puts it: “Uzbekistan’s human-rights record
remains appalling.” Kyrgyzstan also has a recent record of torture.


The Stans are a region where — depending on your Russian-language skills and willingness to rough it — you may find it sensible to travel with a specialist tour operator rather than go it alone. Steppes recommends a package, but also advises that “independent travel is a possibility in all Stans except Turkmenistan, where a guide must be provided. Some travellers prefer to do their own sightseeing in towns such as Bukhara, Samarkand, Bishkek, Almaty, Astana and Dushanbe, where it is quite easy to do so independently”. Some visitors may strike a compromise, using a tour operator to plan the bare bones of a visit and improvising on the ground as the fancy takes them.