It was one of those moments in travel when you stop being a tourist and become a tourist attraction. On the way back from a trek in the Kyrgyzstan mountains near Karakol we came upon a large family of Kyrgyz having a picnic.
They had driven up the track as far as they could in their Lada and spread rugs under the trees by the river. They were celebrating a family birthday and instantly beckoned us over.
A whole sheep carcass had been dismembered and barbecued on the spot. We were plied with endless bowls of chay tea and plates of delicious plov. This Persian dish of meat, spices and waxy rice is popular throughout Central Asia and has many variations. This was an especially tasty version.
Our new friends didn’t speak a word of English but it didn’t matter. A few words of Russian go a long way here and they got very excited by our stumbling attempts to speak Kyrgyz – I’ve never been kissed so hard by a woman. These people are overwhelmingly kind, although the fashion for gold teeth makes even the sweetest grandmother look faintly piratical when she smiles.
It was all amazing, the only problem was that they wanted us to stay all day. We were the victims of a Central Asian hospitality ambush. It was the first of many such experiences during our travels in Central Asia, and remains one of the most memorable travel moments of my life.
It is a Central Asian tradition that the hosts must never leave the guests’ chay bowl empty. After more chay, there was round puffy Samarkand bread and divine apricot jam for afters. Noticing my enthusiasm over the jam, my new lady friend fed me several whole spoonfuls of the stuff from a big pot.
A Kyrgyz party must always involve vodka. Their toasts are elaborate, alternately serious and humorous and completely unintelligible. When called upon to reciprocate, I could only come up with inanities such as “Novaya Zelandiya!” After two days of trekking, the alcohol went straight to my head.
Then there was singing. One lady requested Jingle Bells, as the only English song she knew. I managed to get through a couple of verses with her without collapsing in laughter. Clearly they had no idea of the meaning of the song but appreciated our attempts.
Later in the afternoon, having full stomachs and being slightly tipsy, we tried to make our excuses and depart. This was not allowed until we had conducted an extended photo shoot. Every family sub-grouping was captured. They were fascinated by the idea of having photographs of themselves. I had to have my picture taken, posing on someone’s horse, holding a plump-faced baby. That’s travel in Kyrgyzstan for you.
Finally we dragged ourselves away (we had to catch a bus back to Karakol). I think they would have taken us home with them if they could. I will never forget their smiling, inebriated faces as they waved and waved, until we disappeared around a bend in the track.
By Natasha von Geldern
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