Kurmanjan Datka Festival

Horse Games at Kurmanjan Datka Festival

About a month ago I had the opportunity to attend the Kurmanjan Datka Festival in Southern Kyrgyzstan (Alai). Kurmanjan Datka is a famous woman in Kyrgyzstan known for her initial resistance to the Russians when they tried to annex the region, although the Russians eventually annexed Alai in 1876. She and her family were involved in many other major historical events in the region and she is considered by many Kyrgyz as the ‘mother of the nation’.

This festival was special because it marked the 200th anniversary of her birth and was attended by thousands of people. Several hundred yurts were erected by individuals and organizations on the grounds of the festival to celebrate the event. The festival included traditional food, horse games, musical performances, and speeches.

The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) also erected a hospitality yurt; Alai is one of the regions where AKF and MSDSP are most active.


The local staff from MSDSP in Alai did a fantastic job of setting up the yurt and hosting the guests.

Inside the Yurt

We enjoyed bread, tea, fruit, salad, yoghurt, and lamb.

Here are a few pictures from around the festival grounds…

Yurt City

Hitching a ride

Checking things out

Trying some local hats

Horse race!

And to celebrate this special event, we were served the head of the lamb!

Kel-Tor Lake

Back in late August (yes, I’m a little behind on my blogging) I went on a hike, along with a few friends, with the Trekkers Union of Kyrgyzstan to Lake Kel-Tor. It was a beautiful day for hiking. The route to the lake followed a river up a gorge that eventually led to Lake Kel-Tor; it’s a high alpine lake that takes on a brilliant blue colour due to the rock sediment that flows into it from the surrounding peaks.

The start of the hike begins in a flat valley and gets steeper as the route approaches the lake.

A Kyrgyz yurt in the valley

There are some very fascinating features throughout the hike including natural springs, waterfalls, and a portion of the river that flows underground.

Although the brilliant blue lake is the main attraction, I was fascinated by the part of the river that flows underground. As I made the ascent up the gorge, the river suddenly stopped flowing and emerged from the ground as a giant spring! The picture below shows this natural phenomenon.

Looking down the gorge at the river emerging from the ground.

The rocks and sand underground act as a natural filter and the water emerges as perfectly clear and clean water suitable for drinking. It was perfect for refilling my water bottle. After stopping here for a drink and some pictures, we continued our ascent towards the lake. We finally arrived at our destination hot, hungry, and sweaty.

Lake Kel-Tor

I immediately took care of my hunger with the lunch I had packed and then it was time to cool off in the lake; I lasted for less than a minute! It is freezing cold glacial melt but it still felt great.

After resting in the warm sun and taking some pictures of the stunning scenery it was time to hike out of the gorge and head back to Bishkek. Once we got back to Bishkek we capped the day off with some Duck shashlyk and a cold beverage at Derevashka! If you are ever in Bishkek, this is the best place in town for Duck.

A few more pictures from the hike…

Alpine flowers

Looking down the valley


Considering that it is Canadian Thanksgiving, I decided to blog about food! I won’t be enjoying a a turkey dinner this weekend; I even e-mailed the Canadian consulate this week to see if they were hosting anything for Canadians living here for the holiday. It turns out they aren’t, but they promised that they would be holding a celebration in early November and that I was welcome to attend! Better late than never I guess. Although I don’t get to enjoy turkey dinner with my family for the holiday, I am enjoying some of the Central Asian food that I have tried so far in Kyrgyzstan. I have even experimented with making Borsch; technically it’s a Ukrainian/Russian dish but it’s also popular here in Kyrgyzstan as many of the ingredients are grown locally. After enjoying it many times for lunch at one of my favourite lunch places, I decided that it wouldn’t be so hard to make. So I set out one Saturday with a good friend from Bishkek and bought all the ingredients. I followed this recipe if anyone else is interested. However, I made a few minor modifications to make it a bit spicier.

After a couple hours of boiling the meat in onions and garlic and chopping the veggies, it was time to put it all together and see if my friends approved.

Luckily, I think it turned out pretty well. Everyone had seconds and the bowls were empty at the end of the meal.

To top it all off, my friends brought Tiramisu for dessert!

I also made an extra pot, so I ate Borsch for the next 5 days. Let’s just say that I won’t be making Borsch again for a little while!

I realize that I haven’t blogged for a while, but I’ll be doing my best to catch up throughout the week. There will be more on food (something a little more ‘exotic’) and a great festival that I attended in Southern Kyrgyzstan…

A Call to Action

In search of pasture

I realize that this blog is about Kyrgyzstan and the activities that I am involved in here, but I feel that the current famine in East Africa is something that needs immediate attention! Therefore, I am dedicating this blog post to the crisis in the region, and I hope that in some small way I can help the situation by drawing attention to the crisis and also discussing some actions that can be taken to help. Personally, I have witnessed a previous drought in the region and I have seen how devastating the effects are on communities. However, this situation is much worse.

The crisis is affecting over 10 million people in Somalia, Southern Ethiopia, and Northern Kenya. Nearly 400,000 people are living in the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya as a result of the crisis. Apart from the obvious lack of moisture, there are a variety of factors contributing to this crisis that make it extremely challenging to address: High food prices coupled with high fuel costs make it prohibitively expensive for people to purchase imported food; Lack of a functional government in much of Somalia complicates efforts to distribute food aid; and lack of adequate infrastructure in much of the region makes it difficult for people to travel long distances to get assistance.

Obviously, long-term solutions are needed in the region to improve infrastructure and make it more food secure. However, right now millions of people are struggling to survive and are in need of immediate assistance. A co-ordinated response from the international community is essential to minimize the impact of this crisis.

I urge anyone reading this blog to learn more about the situation and do your part however you see fit. This may involve raising the issue with politicians, drawing more attention to it in the media, or donating to an aid agency. I am sure there are also plenty of other actions that can be taken to help.

For people living in Canada, the Canadian government is matching donations dollar for dollar for individuals donating to several organizations that are involved in providing relief in the region. The government is matching donations until September 16. Two organizations that I personally recommend are the Humanitarian Coalition, a coalition of several Canadian development organizations, and the Red Cross. However, there are also several other Canadian organizations that qualify for matching donations.


Mountain Adventures

Jailoo Kindergarten

As promised I have some great mountain pictures from my field visit in Chon-Alai in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Chon-Alai is a very mountainous and remote region of Kyrgyzstan and also one of the areas where MSDSP focuses much of its programming. I had a chance to see many of MSDSP’s projects in the area including school rehabilitation, vegetable gardens, farmer field schools, and veterinary services for livestock.

One of the highlights of my trip was the Jailoo Kindergarten, pictured above. This is a unique program that allows mobile kindergartens/mini-libraries to be set up in Yurts. Yurts are the buildings in the background of the picture used by pastoralists when they take their livestock to high mountain pastures (Jailoos) in the summer for grazing; the Jailoo that I visited was at an elevation of 3300m (11,000ft). Before the establishment of Jailoo kindergartens, young children would be taken out of school in their villages to travel to the Jailoo with their family in the summer. When the children returned to school in the fall they would be far behind the other students in their learning and development. Jailoo kindergartens have had a tremendous impact on improving early childhood development in pastoral communities in the region.

A few morning exercises

Going inside for a lesson

After observing the lesson we were invited into another yurt for tea, bread, cream, and yak yoghurt (it is actually very tasty!).

The yak yoghurt is the lighter coloured liquid

Apart from the Jailoo kindergarten, the rest of the projects I visited were in villages in the mountain valleys. A lot of the projects are intended to increase fruit and vegetable production to help families diversify their diets and provide better nutrition, in addition to diversifying income for farmers and helping the region rely less on imported vegetables from China. New methods are being experimented with to try and grow different fruits at high elevations. Here is a pilot orchard with apple and pear trees; the trees were just planted this season and should bear fruit in three years.

Fruit trees intermixed with potato plants

The farmer kept very precise maps of his plants.

Map legend

This is a farmer field school. The purpose of this project is to experiment with different potato seeds from different parts of Kyrgyzstan as well as other parts of the world to see which ones are the most adaptable and productive in this climate. We also got to taste test some of the potatoes at the end of our visit!

Farmer field school manager showing us a diseased potato plant

I also visited a couple of kitchen garden projects. These projects are designed to increase production of cabbage, carrots, beet root, berries, and other vegetables on small family plots.

Cabbage patch

Overall, I found the field visit fascinating and it was great to meet the people that are part of these projects. The only downside was getting sick one night from drinking fermented mare’s milk (kumiss), but that’s a story better shared in person when it can be accompanied by actions!

Here are a few more pics until next time.

The picturesque village of Daroot-Korgon


Taking a break on a mountain pass (and yes that is a Saint Mary's University shirt)

Battle of the Stans!

Uzbekistan played Kyrgyzstan in the second leg of world cup qualifying this past week in Bishkek. Uzbekistan beat Kyrgyzstan 4-0 in the first leg in Tashkent so Kyrgyzstan needed to win 5-0 to move forward in qualifying. However, Uzbekistan was too much for Kyrgyzstan from the start. Throughout the game Uzbekistan outplayed Kyrgyzstan and spent much of the game exploiting Kyrgyzstan’s shaky defence. It was a great night for a game though despite Kyrgyzstan’s 3-0 loss.

It was warm and sunny and the crowd was solidly behind their national team.

After the game I went to a colleague’s place for a drink and a bite to eat. The view from his balcony was very impressive (see below).

I received my O card this week. The O card is used to register foreigners working in the country. Interestingly, the photographer that took my picture for the card photoshopped me into a suit and also trimmed my hair. I guess my actual shirt and hair just wouldn’t cut it.

This week I am in Osh to see some of the projects of MSDSP and meet some of the staff that work in the office. I will be travelling a lot in Alai and Chong Alai districts. Both of these districts are in the mountains and many of MSDSP’s activities take place in this part of the country. I will be taking a lot of pictures and hopefully have them up on the blog by the end of the week.

In my last post I had a picture of the statue of liberty in Bishkek’s main square. That was actually one of the last pictures taken of that statue as it has been taken down and will be replaced by a new statue by August 30! You can read more about it here.

And last but not least, a fellow fellow named Guy from Tajikistan came to stay with me in Bishkek for a couple of days to sort out some visa issues. It was great to see another fellow and hear some entertaining stories about his time in Tajikistan. Hopefully he’ll start a blog and share some of his stories (that’s right Guy, I just called you out!)

Azeem, me, and Guy

A Week in Bishkek

Main square in Bishkek with Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy of Azeem.

One week in Bishkek and things are going very smoothly. My colleagues at AKF (Kg) have been very accommodating and given me a lot of help working out logistical things like visas, bank accounts, internet etc. I have spent most of the week getting up to speed on the major projects of MSDSP and reviewing and giving feedback on some donor proposals.

The only real downer this week was getting hold of some bad food (I think it was the cheap cheeseburgers), but once I got a hold of some Ciproflaxacin (most of you seasoned travelers will be familiar with this stuff) I was fine. My Russian phrasebook came in very handy when I went to the pharmacy!

I am hoping to get out soon on a trek with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan. They guide treks all over the country in the summer and charge very reasonable rates. Anyone interested in trekking in Kyrgyzstan on a budget should definitely check it out. I will also likely be traveling to some projects in the mountains of Southern Kyrgyzstan next weekend. Until I get some mountain pics from my travels, here are a few of Bishkek.

A park near my apartment

Having coffee and doing a little work at Coffee 135: the neighbourhood coffee shop

Coffee 135

The picture below is a typical street in Bishkek. Apparently they paint the bottom of the trees white to repel some sort of insect. The canals carry runoff water from the mountains to a main reservoir that serves as Bishkek’s main water supply.

A little reminder of the soviet era