The East is famous for their hospitality and treatment of guests, but what does this look like from country to country? In Kyrgyzstan, people that excel at hospitality are the nomads that live scattered about in the Tien Shan and Pamir-Alai Mountains that blanket the country. Travel guides in Kyrgyzstan may mention some of the customs of Kyrgyz people, but let’s take a more in depth look than your Kyrgyzstan travel guides may give you.
VISITING A YURT
There are a lot of customs and courtesies related to hospitality in Kyrgyzstan. Hospitality is a highly valued aspect of Kyrgyz culture and you will clearly see this on display when you spend time with nomads in their yurts. First of all, when you first enter a nomadic family’s yurt, Kyrgyz custom is to take your shoes off and then you will be directed to a seat at their table. The seat directly opposite the door of the yurt is the seat of greatest honor. The head of the household, oldest person there, or you may be given that seat, but it simply depends. Just do not assume a place without someone prompting you to sit there.
DRINK, DRINK! EAT, EAT!
Once you have been seated, you will see that most of Kyrgyzstan’s customs and traditions related to hospitality revolve around food and drink. More specifically, serving you so much tea and kymyz that you feel like you might float out of the top of the yurt as you look at a massive pile of meat, likely freshly butchered, sitting on the table.
Kymyz & Tea
If a guest or neighbor is simply passing through and stops in for a quick visit, kymyz (fermented mare’s milk) is often served as a sign of hospitality. In fact, to not drink any kymyz could be considered an offense to some. If you are dinner/party/overnight guests of a nomadic family and sit down to eat a meal together, black tea will be served constantly throughout the meal either by the hostess or by a daughter of the hostess. When you are finished with the tea in your bowl, simply hand the tea bowl to the person serving and they will refill it.
As a point of interest, Kyrgyzstan customs and courtesies vary from place to place regarding the serving of beverages. In general, nomads in northern Kyrgyzstan will fill your kymyz or tea bowl to the brim to show that they are generous and have plenty to give you to drink. In the south, your bowl might only be filled halfway each time it is served to you. This means the host must be much more attentive to your needs and constantly refill you bowl; this is another one of Kyrgyzstan’s customs that is meant to show that you are a respected guest.
Regarding food, Kyrgyz nomads will insist that you eat as much food as humanly possible and then some! Again, this is a common custom of Kyrgyzstan nomads because they want to make sure their guests are taken care of and well fed. If you are fortunate enough to be invited to a party or holiday celebration with nomads, expect to eat freshly butchered lamb! Kyrgyzstan customs and traditions dictate that the most honored guests are served first and given the best cuts of meat. At the end of the celebration, all the guests are given copious amounts of food to take home with them.
If you are traveling around Kyrgyzstan and stay the night in a yurt, your host will lay out heavily padded, warm sleeping mats and layers of blankets for you. You are not expected to help in any way. When you are the guest of a nomadic family, your host will not let you do anything to help. They simply take care of everything for you so you can have an enjoyable, relaxing stay.
TO SUM UP
Basically, Kyrgyz custom is to treat guests like kings when visiting. They feed you, pour tea into you, and make sure you are as comfortable as possible during your stay. Since travelers often seek out authentic cultural experiences while vacationing, the tourism sector in Kyrgyzstan has expanded to include a larger amount of available yurt stays with nomads. If you are interested in a yurt stay, be it long or short, simply talk to a travel agency about what you would like to do and they can set you up.
Photos by Vlad Ushakov