CULTURE AND TRADITIONS

The yurt, known as the bozuy, holds a tender place in Kyrgyzstan hearts and shepherds still set up yurts in the mountains in summer to graze their herds; in towns the bozuy is erected in back gardens for celebrations. Remaining essentially the same for thousands of years, the superbly portable yurt can be erected swiftly and dismantled in an hour.

A framework of poplar poles is fixed with rawhide straps and lined by a mat of women reeds (chiy), then covered with layers of felt. Inside, space is allocated according to tradition: the left hand side for the man’s horse and hunting gear and the right hand side for the woman’s domestic utensils. At the back lie folded blankets and mattresses; the higher pile, the wealthier family.

Hospitality is an integral part of Kyrgyz culture and nomadic tradition. The Kyrgyz have saying – “a guest is sent from God” – and visitors are often overwhelmed by generosity. Food is lavished upon guests; tea is served with homemade jams and cream, toasts are raised with cup of kumyz (fermented mare’s milk); laghman priveds a heartwarming mutton stewl and the dish of honour is the elaborately prepared besh-barmak (‘five fingers’).

Kyrgyz women welcoming guests at the yurt

The vibrantly coloured handicrafts which entice visitors today have been tailor-made for nomadic life for thousands of years and use the available natural resources, mainly wool and leather. Richly embroidered woven straps tied to the yurt frame add strength and beauty while the brightly coloured shyrdaks (carpets) lining the floors and walls provide warmth and decoration.

Made of thick felt, traditional shyrdaks have been handmade in Central Asia for more then 2000 years and their stylized motifs once held symbolic meaning. They’re still found in every home, as are ala-kiyiz (carpets of pressed felt) and tush-kiyiz (panels lovingly embroided for a daughter for her marriage). Artisans are breathing fresh life into the traditional crafts with exciting new designs.

Another great Central Asian tradition alive in Kyrgyzstan today is the bazaar: piles of melons sit alongside neatly stacked ak-kalpaks (Kyrgyz felt hats); shepherds expertly assess sheep rumps for fat; and stallions in homemade halters snort and stamp. Whether in Osh’s great trading centre or Karakol’s livestock market, they throb to a centuries-old rhythm of trade, transporting visitors back to a bygone era.

Three Kyrgyz yurts at jailoo pasture camp

The Manas Epic is Kyrgyzstan’s most important cultural treasure and one of the world’s greatest oral poems. With half a million lines of verse, it is 20 times longer than Homer’s Oddyssey and The Iliad combined. To the Kyrgyz, who regard it as their sacred ancient history, it goes to the heart of their spiritual identity and is a symbol of their nationalism and culture.

Dating back 1000 years, it has been passed down through manaschi, story-tellers called to their proffesion in a dream. The epic, a collection of myths, folklore and legends about the warrior-hero Manas and his successors, reflects Kyrygzstan’s nomadic past, beset by enemies and constant battles. Its theme of the struggle for freedom still resonates powerfully with the Kyrgyz today.

The three-part epic begins with Manas, a leader of enormous bravery and power who unites the Kyrgyz people against foreign enemies, ushering in an area of justice, fraternity and unity. After he is mortally wounded in the battle, the second part follows the adventures of his wife, the wise Kanykei, and son Semetei, while the third part tells of his courageous grandson Seitek.

The mountainous region of Talas, in the west of Kyrgyzstan, is believed to be his homeland and is the site of his mausoleum, considered a holy place, and the Manas Ordo complex and museum, which was built for 1000th anniversary celebrations in 1995 and draws thousands of visitors each year.