Why community-based tourism helps bring Kyrgyzstan’s culture to life

Travel writer Julia Hammond had no idea what to expect when she travelled to Kyrgyzstan earlier this year. What she experienced was far better than she’d dared imagine.

In this internet-led, social media-fuelled age, there are few surprises when it comes to travel. A quick trawl of Instagram or a lightning-fast Google search throws up thousands of images. The days of going to the library or bookshop for a guide book are increasingly too slow for an impatient audience who need answers now. 

Enjoying the scenery
I’d checked the internet myself, of course, when I began planning my trip to Kyrgyzstan, which is just to the west of China. Breathtaking images of Song Kol lake framed by snow-capped mountains and horseback rides through the pretty Chong-Kemin valley made it to the shortlist. Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road television series filled in the gaps. 

My insistence on including the UNESCO-listed caravanserai of Tash Rabat met with an incredulous response from the tour operator I asked to put together my ambitious itinerary:
“But it’s so far, are you sure you want to drive all that way?” 

I did. If it was good enough for Joanna, it was good enough for me. (I should add, it proved to be the highlight of the trip.) I snapped away, recreating the shots that I’d seen online and added a few of my own, scribbling endlessly in my notebook. 

The weather was just perfect, and each scene looked more appealing than the last, with blue skies and spring flowers adding a splash of colour. Even the marmots played ball, scampering across roadside meadows to add what photographers might term “foreground interest”. And honestly, if that had been it, I’d have been quite content. 

Cooking food with the locals
But thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s community-based tourism set-up, which encourages local people to package up typical activities for a tourist market, I was more than happy. The country didn’t just satisfy: it made me excited.

You see, what I enjoyed most about this Central Asian nation was the Kyrgyz people’s determination to share rather than show off their culture. 

In Karakol, a boorsok cookery demonstration was scheduled for me. I arrived at the guest house as the sun sank behind the mountains. Outside, a cast iron pan balanced on top of a log fire. Using sign language and smiles, the owner showed me how to make these deliciously salty fried dough parcels. Before long I was cooking up a storm. There were broad grins all round when the results I dished up were crisp and golden and oh so tasty. 

A couple of days later in Kochkor, the little old lady who taught me her method of felting beamed from ear to ear when I showed her my own craft project from home. The techniques couldn’t have been more different. As she scrubbed away at her fibres with soap and water, my method seemed woefully lazy. But we shared a common love of crafting, and that made us equally delighted. 

Authentic and unspoilt
Things became a bit more challenging when animals were involved. It would have been all too easy to have been held to my unwitting purchase of the cow in the animal bazaar, one place where a smile and a nod might not be such a good idea. And I’ll know, next time, that when the eagle hunter asks if I want him to bring out the rabbit, he’s being literal. 

There was no denying, however, that when it came to skill and tradition, what I was seeing was real, with a no-holds-barred, inclusive approach. It was confronting, but at the same time, compelling.

I knew I’d stumbled upon something very special. Sure, Kyrgyzstan’s a stunner, but it’s also a country that hasn’t yet felt the need to sanitise and repackage its cultural heritage for a foreign audience. I saw a genuine joy in sharing a way of life just the way it was, and my travel experience was all the richer for it. 

They say, on the internet, that Central Asian hospitality is legendary, and they’re not wrong. I’m already planning a return visit.

How I planned my trip
[Editor’s note: the author travelled independently, and this is not a promotional piece. I simply asked Julia how you too could plan a trip like this. Here’s what she told me:]

I started with this jeep tour offered by Advantour and then customised it to fit my dates and needs. They will make any package bespoke, so you can say to them, like I did, that you’d like a felt workshop, a bread making class, or an eagle hunter demonstration, etc., and they will add those in. They were very efficient and helpful, and I would recommend them as a company. Plus this wasn’t a press trip, so I can say that without bias!

Travel insurance
Our Go2 Travel Insurance product is most appropriate for trips to Kyrgyzstan, since it offers cover for countries outside of Europe.