As part of our Frequent Flyer series, we post follow up stories from previously spotlighted travelers. Gemma is a textile designer from Sydney Australia with an affinity for capturing details that ignite the senses on her travels. The impressive list of countries she and her husband have explored include Uzbekistan, Nepal, New Zealand, Malaysia, Portugal, and Ethiopia - which she shared about in her previous feature. Now she's back to shed light on the beauty that exists within the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan and why she thinks other visitors should strongly consider visiting for themselves.
Great to have you back on SP Gemma! What have you been up to since you were last featured?
Thanks Lee! I’ve been busy working the day job which included a quick trip to China and Europe in April. Other than that, it’s been a bit of the same old, same old, but we’re currently organising our next holiday, which is always exciting as it’s always nice to have something look forward to!
How does photography influence the way you experience travel and see the world around you?
Photography definitely opens my eyes to see more than I might usually do. I find that I notice more details and I will stop to take in my surroundings more. I guess it makes me pause and appreciate where I am, compared to my daily routine where I always seem to be in a rush.
What sparked your interest to travel to Kyrgyzstan specifically? How did you plan for it?
My husband Andrew and I travelled to Kyrgyzstan back in 2011 as part of a four month trip travelling along the Silk Road and throughout the Middle East. When I initially started researching the Silk Road and saw photos of Kyrgyzstan there was no way we weren't going to visit - it’s an incredibly beautiful country! It also looked quite different to its neighbour and our destination after, Uzbekistan. There was quite a bit of planning involved for the whole Central Asian region as there can be bit of red tape with visas and so forth. But once we worked all that out it was pretty straight forward and we didn’t really plan anything until we crossed the border from China and made our way to Bishkek. The only parameters we had were to pick up our visas for Uzbekistan by a certain date from their embassy in Bishkek, and leave Kyrgyzstan via the border crossing in the southern town of Osh.
What was your route? Did you work with any tour companies or local organizations to coordinate your travel?
After spending time in western China we crossed the border as part of small truck tour via the Torugut Pass and worked our way up to Bishkek. It was here that we organised the remainder of our time in Kyrgyzstan. Back when we were there, there wasn’t much in the way of tourist infrastructure at all, so we headed to the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism office and organised our trip there. The organisation, is as the name suggests, all about local community based tourism and works by opening up local homes to travellers. It was a really beautiful and unique way to travel throughout the country! As we had to be in the city of Osh by a certain date due to our Uzbek visa restrictions, we used a 4WD and driver to get around, stopping at people’s homes for lunch and then moving on to our next stop where we would have dinner and stay the night in a home too. We made our way down from Bishkek to the felt making town of Kochkor, then to Song Kol lake, where we stayed in yurts for a couple of nights and then on to Kazarman, Jalalabad and Osh, before heading over the border to Uzbekistan.
What were some of your most memorable experiences?
Learning to make felt in Kochkor was pretty memorable! We stopped by a local family’s home for lunch and afterwards were shown how to make felt, which is then used to make a shyrdak (a felt rug). Another memorable experience was staying by Lake Song Kol in a felt yurt. In fact that was a dream come true! We stayed with some herders who had made their way up to the lake for the Summer to graze their livestock. The scenery, with all the horses running around was the perfect setting and something we will never forget.
What foods did you eat? Did you have any favorite/unfavorable culinary experiences?
Mutton, and lots of it! I wouldn’t visit Kyrgyzstan for the food, but in saying that it wasn’t too bad! While we were in western China we ate lot of mutton, so by this stage it was starting to become a little tiresome. However there were also other dishes such as a tomato, cucumber and dill salad which was really nice. The highlight however, definitely was the gorgeous homemade jams with fresh bread at each home stay.
Did you have any expectations or preconceived notions about the cultures you would be exposed to? How did they differ from how the cultures actually were?
I remember thinking it would very Soviet-like, but was extremely surprised at how traditional and nomadic Kyrgyz people are, especially outside of the main towns. It was particularly beautiful driving through the country and seeing traditional yurts dotted on rolling green hills and horses roaming around.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers also interested in visiting Kyrgyzstan?
I would strongly recommend having a look at the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism office and plan your trip around some home stays. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our whole trip as it was such a unique and internist way to travel and experience a country. I’d also recommend doing some day hikes or longer treks. We didn’t have enough time to look into this properly and it is something we really regret and would love to do in the future. Staying by one of the lakes (Song Kol or Karakul) in a yurt is also a definite must
What would you like people to know about your experience within the country that is little known?
It is an incredibly beautiful country (one of the most beautiful I have been to) that has an average height of 3000m and that is 90% mountainous. Everywhere we drove, it was jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
What advice do you have for individuals that would also like to travel to the region, but don’t know where to start?
Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia is an area that needs a bit of research when it comes to visas and paperwork, especially if you are travelling overland. I would highly recommend making sure you understand the entry and exit requirements before you travel to ensure there are no hold-ups or issues. Don’t be put off by it either! Once you get your head around it all, it’s a very straight forward and an extremely rewarding area to travel around!
What would you say is your funniest memory from the trip?
A lot of local people we met had not heard of Australia, so when asked where we were from, they would mistake us for being Austrian and then greet us by saying “Gutentag!”
What’s next for you? Any final words of advice?
Andrew and I are off to Europe at the end of August to celebrate my 30th birthday! We’re both super excited as we haven’t been to Europe together yet, so it’ll be really lovely and romantic. As for advice, Central Asia is an area that not many people think of visiting. However, it is severely underrated and has a lot to offer for any sort of traveller. It’s also not very touristy, so if you want to get off the beaten track and experience something new, it’s the place to go!
Images Courtesy of Gemma Cagnacci