Kyrgyzstan: Keeping it Real 2018


Kyrgyzstan flag is symbol of yurt and sun


Neighbourhood in Kochkor

There is something about this country, Kyrgyzstan, that pulls me to it. Maybe it’s the  magnificient mountian scenery or the superlative welcoming people or the nomadic culture or the dedication to the preservation of their heritage. My answer: all of the above.

In 2017, the plan was to arrive in Kyrgyzstan from Kashgar, China over the Torugart Pass but that plan was foiled by the unexpected closure of the border. So in a quick reversal, I took a plane from Urumchi, China to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and explored the north-eastern and western part of Kyrgyzstan. In 2018, I’m back! And, to explore southern Kyrgyzstan and attempt the border crossing to Kashgar. Along the journey, I have had the opportunity to participate in cultural events and Kyrgyz heritage.

I visited Chon (big) Kemin Valley, the valley runs parallel to the border of Kazakhstan between two mountain ranges. There I was invited to participate with women in wrapping a traditional white Kyrgyz female turban, Ak Elechek, made of many layers of a single piece of cloth. The material (silk, wool, or cotton), number of turban layers, and its model depend on the age, social, and marital status of women. The length of the material serves another purpose as well, in case of emergency, the material can be used at births, for wounds, to wrap the deceased, or as a table cloth. In ancient times women would hid their jewellery in the folds for safe keeping.


I returned to visit Guljamal, center in pink headscarf. Last year she taught me how to make felt Kulpak, see Kyrgyzstan Art of Felt

And joined in at Tushoo kesuu ceremony held when a child first starts to walk. The baby’s legs are tied with a black and white lambs wool, symbolizing good and evil. Children of the village compete in races, and the winner gets to cut the rope from the baby’s legs signifying that the baby is ready to walk. 


tushoo kesuu ceremony


Sharing a community lunch

Horseshoe maker and farrier of horses have a special place in the nomadic life style in Kyrgyzstan for centuries. Horses have to be shoed every other month. The farrier makes cleated horseshoes for climbing mountains.

In the village of Koctkor, I met Fatima Ayipova, felt, kurak and saima master. (kurak meaning patchwork and saima meaning embroidery).

Kurak patchwork on first look is a typical pattern used by quilters around the world but in Central Asia small scraps of fabrics are used as talismans that give protective power. In Central Asia people tie scraps of fabric to branches or shrines to ward off evil like scene at Konya Urenchi, Turkmenistan.


From 2017 trip in Turkmenistan, example of using scraps of fabric at shrines

The Kurak patchwork or pieces of fabric take on a protective quality by confusing evil and thus wards off negative consequences. Particularly, repeat triangles hold special power and appear often on a variety of household textiles. Thus patchwork’s ability to protect people from evil gives the craft value.4BE6C4C5-F7D1-4241-B56B-CF0E79D27944

Saima, the Kyrgyz embroidery, is used to decorated caps, bags, clothing  and elaborate wall hangings or tush-kiyiz. Even though the nomads of Kyrgyzstan never maintaining fixed homes, decorated and adorned their dwellings with the same care as settled people.  Saima was used to decorate all wall hangings that were gifts by newly. Married brides to her husband’s household .  Mothers often began these wall hangings when their daughters were babies. Kyrgyz women developed symbols that reflected life on the steppes, plant and animal motifs and sky, sun, and earth motifs.  As sheep hoarding people they had an abundance of wool thread to use as embroidery. In the 19th century and trade with China and Russian Empire velvet and silk were incorporate. But the most common embroidery is wool thread on cotton textile. 249EF379-C28A-4371-AB48-92D52E15AC6D

Before crossing Torugart Pass, a crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China in the Tian Shan mountain range, elevation 3,752 m (12,310 ft). 

Torugart Pass was used since antiquity by caravans but not at the exact point of the modern point.  Russia and China first established entry at the pass in 1881. 

7242BAAE-C44A-4343-BD95-6C506B440C43We spend the night Naryn for the purpose of meeting 8 families of Afghan Pamir Kyrgyz. The week before, I had passed through the Wakhan Corridor in Tajikistan (Afghanistan is across the river, see last post)  so it was a special opportunity to meet these families. 7017CA9B-A66D-42BD-AE86-F763FC3296EE



Fried, multi-layered sugar bread called katama, made for guest

The Pamir Kyrgyz nomads have known many homelands. Fleeing Russian occupation in Kyrgyzstan in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they settled in the Pamir Mountains, spanning eastern Afghanistan and western China. In 1978, fearing the new communist regime in Afghanistan, many Pamir Kyrgyz took refuge in Pakistan and later in eastern Turkey.  In 2017 the Kyrgyz government accepted 33 ethnic Kyrgyz repatriated from the Afghan Pamir. Here is an excerpt from a recent newspaper article:

In fall last year, a group of 33 Kyrgyz nomads from Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan’s far northern province of Badakhshan moved to Kyrgyzstan to attend school. Both adults and children, including a pregnant woman, from the Small and Great Pamirs, which lie at an altitude of over 4,300 meters, waited for months for their passports to come through in Faizabad city in Badakhshan.Once they had received their documents they traveled overland to Tajikistan – many on horseback. This journey to the border town of Eshkashim took them several days. This was in late September last year and after waiting a week at the border they were finally allowed to cross into Tajikistan where they were met by Kyrgyzstan officials. From there they traveled via Murghab Kyrgyz district of Tajikstan’s Gorny Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan before reaching Osh, a town in south Kyrgyzstan. -

The night before I would cross into China was spent in a yurt camp near the 15th century stone caravanerai, Tash Rabat. Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences concluded that Tash Rabat was originally built as a Nestorian monastery in the 10th century.54A37C0B-61A7-464C-A54C-E8CB0863870844F386F1-0B19-4FF2-805F-FFEDE74375AF17FBD532-9941-4651-B424-9F371586B831


Sleeping chambers of royalty, the arrow shows a doorway where royals could secretly escape in case of being attacked

As we ascend the pass , the scenic Lake of Chatyr-Kul appears and no-mans land. 


Micheal, the driver, is Russian Orthodox, a minority in Kyrgyzstan.  The wall of mountains that separate Kyrgyzstan and China

I arrive…10 hours later, in Kashgar, China.


Kyrgyz Afghan Pamir :

For an introduction to Kyrgyzstan’s history and country read last year’s post Kyrgyzstan Keeping It Real.

All Photographs and text are under international copyright laws. No re-use without the written permission of Lesley Lababidi 2023.(all rights reserved, copyright 2023 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

5 thoughts on “Kyrgyzstan: Keeping it Real 2018

  1. Once again I have enjoyed reading your story and looking at all the wonderful pictures you have shared. The head piece was quite something – a walking basket. You look wonderful – I hope you are taking good care, so that I can live vicariously thru your spirit and adventures.

  2. Les, this is fascination at its highest. You bring to us this amazing culture, so unknown to us Westerners. That alone, is a privilege and an honor and I am grateful.
    I love the pictures and the faces. These faces are deeply etched by Life. What do they think of you? Are you a curiosity to them? You must be very uncommon or at least one of a very few travelers that go there ??? I’m sure they are very proud people.
    Thank you for opening a window for us to peek through!

    • Thank you for your comments. I’m much less than a curiosity to them. I just pass by , a traveler that is welcome into their lives. There are rarely questions of me once they know I’m American, It seems to fit into a certain box ( good or bad???) and other than being interested in my age that is about all. I usually show pictures of my family and volunteer information about myself so it isn’t a one way conversation. I find people very open to telling about their culture and life and always inviting me to their homes to share ‘ plov’.

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