The Aigul of Kyrgyzstan

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It was early April when one of my third-year Entrepreneurship students, Gulkaiyr, asked to meet with me regarding a trip she wanted to offer to foreigners. This piqued my interest and after exchanging emails about her proposed itinerary, we met in person at the university. Gulkaiyr was interested in creating small niche travel tours/experiences for others in Kyrgyzstan and this proposed tour was first attempt. This tour centered around going to see the famous aigul flowers in the Batken region of southern Kyrgyzstan.

Upon reading her itinerary, I gave her suggestions: provide more details like approximate times, accommodation locations, what exactly is included, etc. – and said I wanted to go on the trip! The only challenge was that flights were required and normally in Kyrgyzstan, a passport was required even for domestic flights. My passport was back in the US getting a Chinese visa slapped in it. With the the trip scheduled for mid-April, there wasn’t much time to sort things out. Knowing I really wanted to go, Gulkaiyr called Bishkek Airport and spoke to officials, getting permission for me to fly as long as I had my US driver’s license and a copy of my passport. Because it’s impossible to book the Bishkek-Batken flight online, she reserved my flight ticket and I paid the travel agency through an electronic kiosk. We were set! This would be my first trip outside of Bishkek to some place other than our majestic lake, Issyk-Kul.

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Our group met mid-morning at the airport south of the city. It was me, Gulkaiyr, Gulkaiyr’s acquaintance and a freelance tour guide, Aziz, and his younger sister. I was in good hands as the guinea pig! Once Gulkaiyr contacted the airport police about me going through security without a passport, we received a police escort through to the gate area. Once on the plane, I settled into the window seat for the hour flight. I quickly realized, after we were airborne, that the cost of my seat was worth every som simply for the spectacular mountain views. Snow-covered mountains for as far as my eyes could see! I almost didn’t want to land.

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The Batken Airport was the tiniest I have ever experienced. It consisted of one room with a very small conveyor belt for checked baggage. The restroom was an outhouse at the front of the airport. We were greeted by a tourism industry contact of Aziz’s, who then walked us into the “city center” of Batken, mainly an intersection and one main street. We checked out a local market, buying loads of dried apricots – a famous treat of the region. Gulkaiyr and Aziz were then determined to find a great place to eat plov, a Central Asian meat and pilaf dish aparently most delicious in Batken. After consulting 4-5 locals, we found a place to devour mouthwatering plov for less than $2 a plate. Compared to Bishkek, everything is cheaper in the regions of Kyrgyzstan.

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Post-lunch, we wandered some of the shops downtown. The unusual number of wedding-related shops piqued my curiosity and my Kyrgyz friends explained that weddings are big business in the villages. Outside of the cities, people are expected to invite minimum 300-400 people to their wedding, taking out huge loans to make this happen. I have been told that there is talk about implementing laws restricting how much money people can spend on these parties as they can bankrupt families and exacerbate Kyrgyzstan’s already poor economic conditions. We went into one wedding dress shop full of beautiful Western-style dresses. The store owners offered to have me try one on but I declined – I think it’s bad luck!

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The rest of our afternoon consisted of checking out a massive red rock statue of Manas (the Kyrgyz people’s mythical hero), hanging out in a local park, and going to take our stuff at our accommodation for the night. We would be staying with Aziz’s contact’s family. We had a large multipurpose room lined with couches, plenty of room for our four “Kyrgyz futons” that we’d lay down later. We spent a few minutes goofing off with the family’s children before getting picked up by our driver. We had opted to venture up to see the famous aigul flowers around sunset that day.

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Now, of course, I had never heard of the aigul before Gulkaiyr told me about them. Outside of Batken Karabulak village, this 1-meter tall flower only blooms along a few very specific mountainsides in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan – for two weeks every April. Interestingly, it does not grow on the sunny side of these mountains.  Some say these flowers look like tulips. They do resemble orange bells with yellow droplets but with 10-12 blossoms per stalk at times, these are much bigger than tulips! Mention the aigul to anyone in Kyrgyzstan and comments about their rarity and beauty will ensue. They are indeed listed in the Red Book of Kyrgyztsan, which details the country’s endangered species.

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As the story goes, ages ago, a wealthy man lived in this part of the country. His daughter, Aigul ended up falling in love, with a fearless warrior, Kozu Ulan. However, they weren’t to have a joyous wedding as Ulan soon died. It is said that Aigul could not bear the grief so she gathered her female friends, went to the top of a cliff, and then jumped off. They say some of the rocks below were covered with Aigul’s blood and later gorgeous flowers bloomed in these exact spots. Hence, these flowers were named Aigul and the rocky region was named Aigul-tash.

We started our mini hike up to see the aigul around 5pm that day. Entrance to see these rare flowers was only 30 soms (<$.50 USD). Along the way, seemingly everything was aigul-themed – benches, lunch areas, etc. It took longer than I expected – about 45 minutes – to get high enough to see the aigul but we were treated to clear, far and wide, views of the valley below. Combined with the setting sun, it was perfect as the tall stalks of the orange and yellow flowers began to come into view.

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The aigul were far more beautiful than I could have ever imagined and I felt privileged to be let in on a “little secret” of Kyrgyzstan. We took countless photos with the marvelous spring evening backdrop. At one point, I found myself sitting in the midst of aigul, surrounded by the flowers every which way but making sure I didn’t damage them. I was surprised at how few of the aigul were along the mountainside but them remembered then within the next few years, they would close the area to rehabilitate the aigul’s growing landscape. Around 7:30pm, we reluctantly made our way down the mountain, exclaiming how ace our aigul viewing experience had been.  On the way down, we came across a group of babushki (elderly women), who delighted in hearing that I was American and promptly handed us a bunch of apples to enjoy on the way home.

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Breakfast the next morning constituted my first time having a traditional Kyrgyz breakfast. Several types of homemade jams and jellies and dried fruits were spread out across the table., positioned for us to sit on the floor. Additionally, a lot of lepyoshki littered the table. This round, traditional bread can be found everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our hosts refused to let us pay for our accommodation due to our connection. They graciously bid us farewell and though Aziz and his sister had to head back to Bishkek suddenly, Gulkaiyr and I set off in a taxi to Kadamjay, where she is from, to see her family.

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Honestly, there is no way to go to a Kyrgyz home and not be met with food, so yes, we did have a second breakfast upon arrival in Kadamjay. Gulkaiyr’s parents were incredibly welcoming, and since they couldn’t speak English, she and her 17-year-old brother translated for me. I still remember sitting at the floor table in their living room and enjoying her mother’s delectable stew. Gulkaiyr hadn’t been home in months. Hence, this weekend was a grand occasion. Her little brother, Bai, grabbed her as soon as we entered, refusing to let go of her legs.

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Following breakfast, I piled into the hired car with Gulkaiyr, her parents, both of her brothers, and her uncle. We drove a few hours to this hidden waterfall/water spout in the mountains. To this day, no one can figure out where exactly this huge rush of water comes from. There was a large complex there to accommodate seasonal visitors and I was told that it was also popular among the Soviets and Russian tourists back in the day. We enjoyed a pleasant stroll along the nearby stream and explored yurts that could be reserved for lunch there. It was heartwarming to be included as part of their family just like that. I currently have a waterfall magnet, given to me by their family, on my fridge.

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Our day of adventure wasn’t over yet. We stopped at a local amusement area and park for Bai to revel in all the little things kids do. Gulkaiyr’s uncle kindly bought us all cotton candy, which made me smile because I really couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten it! We then went to a restaurant, where I first thought we’d have dinner, but then Gulkaiyr explained that this place was famous for its ice cream. A few minutes later, we were all digging into the ice cream brought out. Sugar rush! We rounded out the day with dinner at a riverside Uzbek restaurant owned by one of Gulkaiyr’s father’s friends. We had a private room there and ate mountains of local plov. Full disclosure: I LOVE plov so no complaints here! It was pretty entertaining to see Gulkaiyr’s father and his buddies joking around.

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The next day, the last one of our trip, came with a few excursions. Gulkaiyr, her brothers, and mother took me to a popular swimming spot in the mountains. It was nestled in between even more breathtaking scenery, serving as a place to cool off during the hot summer. I walked around the deserted pool, quietly imagining hundreds of people eating lunch, laughing, and jumping into the water in the busy season. It was still nice to have the retreat to ourselves. They also took me to a local shrine with pure, clean mountain water. They were smart and remembered to bring a bottle to take some home!

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The last event in Kadamjay was to a christening party. Round tables were set up in the party hall, where it seemed like at least half the town was.  Every table was covered with so much food that you couldn’t even see the table. I got a kick out of the babushki who kept passing me more food to try. The same thing would have happened back in the US, or in most countries for that matter! At the back of the room, there were piles and piles of lepyoshki bread and other food. This food had been brought by all the guests and was subsequently just being redistributed to all of the tables. Later, we left with bags of food, too! The event itself was full of members of the extended family and friends coming to the front to make announcements and grant well-wishes to the parents and the child. At times, I couldn’t understand what was going on but found it interesting, nonetheless. Unfortunately, we had to dip out a bit early to make the journey to Osh, where we’d be flying out to later that night. Gulkaiyr’s father arranged spots for us in a share taxi and sent her 17-year-old brother with us just to make sure we’d be OK.

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As we arrived in Osh, we were met by one of Gulkaiyr’s older sisters and her two adorable young children. As you do in Osh, we went to Kyrgyzstan’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the sacred mountain of Sulaiman-Too. Again, the views were impressive and I could see how spread out Osh was. Dinner was next! Before I left on this trip, several of my coworkers insisted that I had to eat manti (a type of dumpling) in Osh as they were different from manti around the rest of the country. Gulkaiyr’s sister had a taxi driver find a suitable restaurant and we were not disappointed. We devoured plates and plates of these smaller dumplings after the long day.

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Our flight from Osh back to Bishkek wasn’t until 1am so we still had a little time left to explore. The family took me to these colorful murals lining the road leading into Osh. The mosaics were detailed and thought-provoking, telling some of the legends of Kyrgyz nomads. Soon after a break there, we grabbed some snacks for the trip back and taxi-ed to the airport.

Boy, it was a whirlwind of a trip – full of unexpected experiences! Frankly, my expectation was only to see the aigul. Everything else was bonus! Such a pleasure to be hosted by Gulkaiyr, her family, and her friends. They made my time down in Batken, Kadamjay, and Osh beyond memorable and an utter privilege and of course, there were some tears upon saying goodbye to them. Now I’m curious to see the next trip Gulkaiyr crafts!

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