Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track by Jessica Jacobson



Should good fortune ever lead me to the distant Asian land of Kyrgyzstan, I hope I'll remember to bring along Jessica Jacobson's compact (yet encyclopedic) travel guide/narrative, Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond The Tourist Track.

Kyrgyzstan's boundaries, a former republic of the U.S.S.R., except for China to its west, are bordered by other hard-to-spell-right "Stans": Tajikistan, to the south & southeast, separating Kyrgyzstan from both Afghanistan & Pakistan; Uzbekistan, to the east; and finally, Kazakhstan, to the north.

Politically, Kyrgyzstan is somewhat of a minor mess, though relatively stable at the moment (minor compared to nations in its proximity) and Jacobson assures the reader she always felt safe and no crimes against the author were reported -- and she lived in Kyrgyzstan for two-and-a-half years.

Geographically, Kyrgyzstan is mostly mountainous. The average elevation of the country lies over 3,000 feet. Peaks regularly rise higher than any in the Andes and almost as high as the highest Himalayan summits. Rivers galore. Lots of lakes, including the nation's largest, Issyk-Kul, which means "hot lake" in Kyrgyz. It's the ninth largest lake, volume-wise, in the world, surrounded by snowcapped mountains, and even at an elevation of 5,275 feet, no part of the lake ever freezes. I would have liked to have seen a picture of Lake Issyk-Kul in the book (minor complaint), but my California-centric-minds-eye imagines something sublime like the non-developed parts of Lake Tahoe.

I'm convinced of several vitally important international-travel-points after reading this great guide:

a) I'll never get Lost in Kyrgyzstan (and if I do it's undoubtedly my fault and not Jacobson's);

b) I'll always know, no matter which of the eleven area regions comprising Kyrgyzstan I venture into (Chui Region, Tokmok Area, Jalal-Abad Region, to name a few) where to Lodge,

c) Dine; d), Dance; e) Dry clean & laundry; f), obtain Internet access,

g), Shop (and where to grab good deals on the cell phone I'll probably need since the one I might mistakenly have brought from home thinking it would work halfway-around-the-globe certainly won't work here in Kyrgyzstan),

e) experience genuine (and not touristy) Kyrgyz Culture in the capital city of Bishkek, home to more than a million people and the most parks of any Central Asian city; Kyrgyz Culture such as the shamanistic, Islamic adaptation of the vernal equinox rite of "Nooruz,"

f) Drink (including which rowdy locales are American expatriate "meat markets" to avoid, or -- not to avoid -- should one while traveling abroad in Kyrgyzstan feel that particular type of need arise),

g) Ski; h) Hike; i) Mountaineer; j) Work out; k) 4-By-It; l) Boat; m) White water raft,

n) "Marshrutkis" (mini-bus) companies to call, down to the very best "marshrutkis" driver's names and cell phone numbers (Jacobson apparently preferred two dependable drivers who both went by the same name of Almaz -- you'll have to buy the book if you want their cell phone numbers though),

o) find reputable Currency Exchange Establishments (consider that should the establishment hand back to you a slew of small bills, that's a sure sign you might be getting gypped, so do be careful!),

p) how to avoid committing such potentially embarassing Cultural Faux Pas such as throwing away stale moldy old bread inside a Kyrgyz's house, rather than outside their house, for the animals to eat (that's a major offense & will get you kicked out of that house in a hurry!), and learning never (never!) to reject a Kyrgyz's offer of bread (just take a nibble even if you're not hungry), because your "no-thanks"-slapped-on-American-smile would still be considered rude).

What I especially enjoyed in Roaming Kyrgyzstan were the personal anecdotes from Jacobson interspersed as colorful vignettes of native knowledge throughout the text. Jacobson, after all, has a lot of native knowledge of Kyrgyzstan to bestow, having lived almost three years of her life there. The story about her Krygyz friend, a store owner named Zhenya, selling supposed Christian Dior and Chanel perfume to a man looking to buy something nice for his wife and telling him the perfume was imported from Poland (and not China, where it was really from, because Krygyz avoid like the plague purchasing Chinese products due to perceived and perhaps real poor quality issues) and him buying her story; for, after all, how was he, the naive customer, supposed to know what Chanel perfume looks like -- that it doesn't come in plastic bottles -- having never seen Chanel perfume packaging before? Several anecdotes such as these were memorably amusing and heartwarming.

Few may ever find themselves setting foot in Kyrgyzstan, though the lucky few who do find themselves there, will be better prepared, better educated, and more apt to confidently trek through both the Kyrgyz culture and the diverse, oftentimes imposing, though invariably beautiful geographic terrain, if they're already familiar with Jessica Jacobson's wonderful, enlightening travel guide, Roaming Krygyzstan: Beyond The Tourist Track.