Friday, September 30, 2011

A weekend in Issyk Kul

So next Monday is a public holiday and M and I had been planning a camping trip for months, quite literally months, only to arrive at this:

Which only means that it is probably a good time to blog and add a few more pictures from our trip to Kyrgyzstan. M and friends decided we should all go for the weekend to Issyk Kul, which is a beautiful (and huge) mountain lake in the East, and the closest thing to a beach vacation for the people of a land-locked country.


Rest stops along the way... people sell fruits, corn cobs and meat inside dough (pasties if you're British, empanadas if you're hispanic)

Lots of mountains everywhere, but as you can see, not many trees grown, only shrubs and bushes.

You can get to Issyk Kul by train from Bishkek, but it takes well over 6 hours vs. 4 in a car.
 (by the way, props to me for such an awesome moving train shot)

Entrance/Exit to the Issyk Kul National Park.

Our humble resort/apartment. It came down to $37 per night, per person and included 3 meals a day...
...Ah, watermelon and water, the basics. Yes there is a bottle of vodka at the top but it wasn't for drinking. M's sister (B) used it for disinfecting the bathroom, no joke! 

A convenience store in town where we did buy vodka for drinking.

Aha! Kumys! Fermented horse milk, sold on the sidewalk, how can you not trust that? The murky choleric looking water next to it is some other fermented-grain drink the locals seemed to enjoy, called maksym.

These were the "changing rooms" at the beach.

This was the lake, and this is what people look like when they are going to swim in it. It was gorgeous, refreshing, delicate, wonderful water to swim in. I really loved it. You cannot see in this picture but there were snowy mountains on the opposite shore.
 A little pop culture: Issyk Kul is a saline lake, not like seawater but it does have a salty tinge. The legend says it came about from the tears of a girl who forever waited for a lover who never came. Eat your heart out Justin Timberlake.

The dining room at the resort had a lot of these raised benches for people to sit on and eat off of a low-rised table. They are called "tapchan" and often seen in establishments with an outdoor eating area. Out of courtesy you must take your shoes off before hoping on.
 Meals were OK, but not amazing. What was amazing is how many people in our party were so deeply indignant about the poor quality of the food that they opted for not eating very much or at all. I think I must have been the only person who finished her full plate at every meal. In my family I was raised not to waste! M's sister on the other hand, ate very little because she did not trust the cleanliness in the kitchen. I think you're getting a pretty good idea by now that B likes things clean :-)

In the resort's defense, the quality of the food was not so terrible that was inedible, c'mon! It may have needed a little salt here, or a little less oil there, but where I'm from people don't usually leave food on their plates!

Ah yes, the drinking, eventually we got to it, or at least the others did. Like every culture, boys like to get raucous and loud. Unlike every culture, they also like to play backgammon.
The boys where taking shots of vodka and cognac, and chasing them with juice. At the beginning of the night there were not chasing at all, but towards the end they'd be drinking 4 times the amount of juice after a shot of liquor. It made me a bit nauseous to watch but it was also viciously hilarious. 

This is a good one! Ladies were going around the beach selling smoked fish. It was so salty yet so delicious! Imagine smoked salmon, but a lot firmer and a lot saltier -or- jerky but a lot softer and a lot saltier. Anyway, deliriously good, it also makes you very thirsty and goes perfectly with beer.

In this one, M pretends to be an Arab prince. Or a bollywood star, either one.

We also played bingo one night, and that is how I learned a whole bunch of numbers in Russian. You see that big pile of money in the middle (= $1.25)? I won all of that!

A spider, or "pauk", there, I just taught you some Russian.

This shot is inside the resort's game room, where they had table tennis, a PS2 (!!!) and a table of Russian billards. The billards table is significantly bigger than the standard western pool table, and in my opinion, made M look like he had been shrunk.

The end! stayed tuned for a grueling weekend in the mountains coming up next! Featuring latrines, yurts and baby donkeys!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How to choose a sheep (and a dinner party)

"Goats and sheep for sale"

On my second day in Bishkek we were given the mission to go and choose a sheep to kill, chop and eat at a party the next day.

As surprising as it may seem, I knew nothing about how to choose a sheep for food (or for anything, for that matter) and neither did M, M's mom, or M's friend. So in the end we just chose (mainly, I think) based on price.

Everyone raved about the meat at the party, and about the left overs the day after, so I reckon we got lucky and chose a good one, (although what is considered "good" or "not good" is still not clear).

After the fact, we met a few people along the way who gave us 2 important tips on choosing a tasty young sheep for mutton.

Feel the skin, make sure it is nice and firm and doesn't have too much give (this suggests the sheep is old and wrinkly).

The most important tip is to count the teeth. Sheep have a set of eight teeth in the lower jaw, but they only grow two a year. So if the sheep has two teeth that protrude over the rest, this means it is one year old. If there are four large teeth, the animal is two years old, and so on until they have grown all eight. Generally you want to choose the youngest possible adult.

After examining the photo of the sheep we chose, we learned it must have been between one and two years.

Another fun fact: the sellers did not sell sheep by the kilo, only by the unit (i.e. per sheep), so there was no way of knowing how much meat you were buying (by the way our sheep cost around $120 and it fed over 25 people).

It is also worth mentioning we were at a private residence looking for sheep, these are people who buy it direct from cattle farms or at the animal market, a few at a time and bring it to their backyard for selling within the city.

So anyway, we chose the fine beast above and put a deposit on it. The next day we cam back to pick up this:

Not all of it, only the one on the left. The one on the right was waiting to be picked up by someone else. Judging by the butt, you can see that our sheep was considerably smaller than the one on the right.

Here you see the head and "chuchuk" which is what you get when you braid the small intestines and stuff them with some of the organs. Not shown is "kielbasa" or "kalbasa" which is a giant sausage made up of who knows what and encased in the large intestine. These are all considered delicacies.

The meat was put in plastic grocery bags and we took it to the restaurant where the party was to be held.

Several dishes came out, one of them was a meat stew with root vegetables and cabbage, my personal favourite (not shown). The next one was called "beshbarmak" or "five fingers" and it consisted of noodles, minced mutton and onions (shown below). The head, tongue and delicacies were also boiled and served (shown to the left of the head).

The legs and anything else attached to a bone was boiled and served separately. Most people put them in doggie bags and took them home (common practice at parties). The stock that came out of boiling the meat was also served.

There were several types of salad at the party, and huge fruit plates. I am proud to say I tried every single thing. I am not proud to say I had to let out not one, but two places on my belt.

The "delicacies", I'm sad to report, smelled and tasted like manure. I have never eaten poo but if I did, I imagine that is what it would taste like. I ate pig intestines once in China, and they did not taste like that, so perhaps the sheep wasn't properly cleaned?

What you got out of the head was mostly skin, not meat. The tongue and the head were ok, once you got over the looks of it, but it wasn't anything to write home about. Beshbarmak was M's favourite, mine was the stew. The lamb stock simply tasted like a very rich stock, aka lamb fat.

On drinking...

At dinner parties people are expected to drink, and a lot. Every 10-20 minutes someone will get up and give a toast (more like a speech, the toasts are rather long). They will toast to any given person, to friendship, to love, peace, you name it, and everyone drinks a round of shots. That's right, people drink shots, not sips. I stuck to wine during this particular evening, and it seems that wine is considered a non-alcoholic drink in comparison to vodka, cognac and whiskey. Why else would the restaurant host send me a complimentary virgin mojito to go with my wine?

Needless to say everyone was having a merry ol' time and looked rather flushed by the end of the evening. So a good party all in all.

On eating...

If you are a guest in Kyrgyzstan, people will try to make you fat. They will likely insist you eat until you either pass out, cry, or throw up. If your plate is empty, it will be full again before you can say "no thank you".  If you say "no thank you" they will think you don't like them, or don't like the food, or that you are sick, or depressed. The last thought through their minds is that you are no longer hungry.

It took me 4 meals to figure out the only way to get of out it is to leave some food on your plate to make your hosts aware that you are properly stuffed. You see, these people don't take no for an answer. Is this strategy wasteful? Yes. Necessary? Also yes.

A Kyrgyz joke....

Kyrgyzstan is the #2 meat consumer in the world.

#1 are the wolves.

The End.

All the photos courtesy of M.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I'm still alive!

We are still in Kyrgyzstan but internet speed is a bit slow here so I've decided to wait until next week when we're back in Sydney to post more about the trip.

In the mean time, enjoy a photo of a cute kitten.

M's mum picked it up from the street, gave him a bath and food, and a warm slipper to sleep in. It was teeny tiny!!! It could easily fit in a shoe. It made the cutest noises and I named him "soul patch".

We only had him for a couple of days before they found a new home for him.