Kyrgyzstan is predominantly made up of ethnic Kyrgyz. The largest minority groups are Russian (in the north) and Uzbek (in the south). You can also find Ugyhur, Dungan, Tadjik, Kazak, Korean and Chinese. There are more sheep than Kyrgyz people. Kyrgyzstan is officially Islamic, however it is the most relaxed of the Central Asian Islamic nations. Kyrgyzstan was the last country in the region to be converted to Islam due to its inaccessible mountain terrain and nomadic culture. Kyrgyz also have strong ties with nature as a result of Shamanistic beliefs which pre-date Islam.
Dress in Kyrgyzstan is very relaxed. Bishkek is cosmopolitan and you can see mini-skirts and high heels on the same corner as religious head scarfs – or even on the same person! Villages are a little more traditional and thus conservative, mostly trousers (dresses for women) and long sleeves or t-shirts, but shorts are also fine. It is worth noting that lycra is not generally appreciated!
Predominant languages are Kyrgyz and Russian. Kyrgyz is a Turkic based language. Most Kyrgyz speak Kyrgyz and Russian, but Russians only speak Russian. Basic English is spoken in towns and occasionally in villages.
Kyrgyzstan used to be part of the Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed, in the early nineties there was a power vacuum, and so cultural identities and social relationships were challenged. The older generations who grew up in the USSR have shared experiences and similar mentality, though the younger generations have less in common. For the most part Kyrgyz and Russians mutually tolerate each other. The south of Kyrgyzstan is poorer and has a large Uzbek population, the north is richer with more Russian influence, so there is generally some tension. The government is corrupt and in general not trusted, nor respected. Same goes for Police. Generally there are many different cultures living together in Central Asia, and tolerance is good but in recent years there has been a rise in Kyrgyz nationalism. A large provoker of this is the majority Canadian owned KUMTOR mine. In Bishkek there is a wealthier upper class – mostly politicians and businessmen, there is also a visibly growing middle class, though the rest of the country is rural and poor. National identity is firmly centred around a mythical figure called ‘MANAS.’ All folklore heroics are attributed to this one, ‘Ghengis Khan’ type character who united the 40 warring tribes to create the current nation. The Manas histories are said to have unfolded in Talas.
Dos and don’ts
Always take shoes off inside someone’s home – be that a house or yurt. Males should shake hands with other males when you meet. Women don’t shake hands. It’s polite to greet nomads when passing in the mountains, especially if camping nearby. It is often required to sit and drink tea or fermented mares milk. In towns avoid police and drunks. Don’t give random gifts to poor locals – it creates misconceptions and encourages begging. If you’re not sure about something hang back and watch others first, or ask.
This expedition will cover a variety of terrain from rocky and uneven trails below the snow line. Above the snow line expect snow, ice and often steep, exposed terrain which may be glaciated. The team won’t be covering vast distances each day, but the expedition will be made more challenging by the altitude.
The weather will be in the high teens/early twenties during the day, even at altitude, but on occasion can reach 30 degrees. It will drop down quickly at night and will be below freezing on occasions. The wind will likely pick up in the afternoon and be pretty strong during the evening. Rain is rare but above 3000m there can be squalls at any time of year.
Manas international airport is located outside of the city – team members are responsible for their own transfers between the airport and the accommodation at the start and end of the expedition. Transfers are available by bus or taxi depending on your arrival time. Depending on the final team size, 6WD vehicles or minibuses will be used to transport the team between Bishkek and Talas. From Talas 6WD may be used to arrive at base camp, where the rest of the expedition will be on foot with pack animal support.
The team will stay in comfortable homestays and guesthouses in Talas village and Bishkek. Rooms will be on a twin-share basis and the hotel where you will meet your expedition leader will be able to store any luggage which isn’t required for the expedition, any extra nights outside of the Secret Compass itinerary can be booked directly with the hotel. Whilst on the mountain, the team will be camping in technical mountain tents provided by Secret Compass.
All of your food will be sourced in country. In Bishkek and other urban areas it is often bread and kebab, or noodle/rice based dishes, with simple meat and vegetables. Lamb is the mainstay of Kyrgyz cuisine. Fruit and vegetables in summer are abundant and good quality. Dried fruit and nuts, and different melons are common. We will have a cook attached for the mountain section who will make up our meals. They will be basic but filling and provide all the energy you need. Dietary requirements can usually be catered for but should be discussed with Secret Compass in advance. It is recommended that you bring a favourite snack or cereal bar for each expedition day as a morale boost.
Secret Compass will have up to two Secret Compass leaders depending on the team size, who will guide the expedition with the assistance of a local trained mountain guide. The leaders will have experience of leading groups in remote and mountainous locations.
Secret Compass staff will be carrying at least two methods of communication, usually a Satellite Phone and a DeLorme two-way communication device. These will be used for regular updates to head office and for emergencies.
Unfortunately, routine communication between team members and family/friends is not possible – please reassure them that no news is good news! If there is an emergency and someone needs to contact a team member, they can contact Secret Compass’s Operations Room on +44207 096 8428 who will endeavour to pass a message on within 24hours.
Your mobile roaming will work in Bishkek and perhaps Tamga village, you are unlikely to get signal whilst in the mountains.