For anyone who has traveled or hopes to travel to this lesser known corner of Central Asia’s ancient Silk Road, Roaming Kyrgzstan’s cover photo captures some of the magic that lies within this mountain nation’s truly majestic and rugged landscapes. 

roaming-kyrgyzstanRoaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track
by Jessica Jacobson (Senegal 1997)
IUniverse,Inc.,
November 2008
216 pages
$17.95

Reviewed by Catherine Varchaver (PC Staff, Kyrgyzstan 1995-97)

For anyone who has traveled or hopes to travel to this lesser known corner of Central Asia’s ancient Silk Road, Roaming Kyrgzstan’s cover photo captures some of the magic that lies within this mountain nation’s truly majestic and rugged landscapes.

Turning past the seductive cover, the reader encounters something not unlike Kyrgyzstan’s cities and towns-a richness of content and culture hidden beneath a distractingly unsophisticated and even off-putting presentation. Kyrgyzstan’s natural topography ranges from exotic to breath-taking, but the Soviet influence on local architecture erased a good bit of the visible, traditional charm in the populated areas.  Soviet style concrete block architecture is a turn off, but if you can get past that, there is a world worth getting to know behind the cinder block facades.

One of the downsides of self-publishing is the lack of professional editing and formatting. For those of us who are visually sensitive, the ’80’s typewriter style headings in this guide, all underlined, with indented informational paragraphs detract from the short but reasonably informative travel guide listings organized by regions. The photos inside are poor quality and the one map too small to be useful.

That said, Jessica Jacobson’s experience living in Kyrgyzstan gives life to this guide as she reveals a true familiarity with the facets of life and a people as only a former Peace Corps Volunteer can.  As the back cover bio tells us, Jacobson is fluent in Russian and spent two and a half years doing some undisclosed work in Kyrgyzstan. She clearly soaked up the cross-cultural plenty in this former Soviet nation where you see Russian men at bus stops squatting alongside ethnic Kyrgyz (or Kazak, Uzbek, Uigur, Tatar); and Kyrgyz shepherd families pouring small bowls of hot tea from Russian samovars outside traditional wool yurts. While city-dwellers may be modernizing in many ways, Kyrgyz country folk still drink fermented mare’s milk and live beneath snow-capped mountains in the north; while in the south, you find camels instead of horses and desert heat at the edges of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan instead of lush greenery or snow.

To her credit, Jacobson raises her travel guide to a higher level with 12 journal-like vignettes strewn throughout that detail a variety of encounters and cultural observations.  She paints a colorful picture of life in this complex, multi-ethnic country and manages to infuse her narratives with historical and personal detail.  The final result is interesting but only up to a point. The writing is ultimately uneven and conjures little in the way of emotion or socio-political ah-hah’s.

Coming from an author who was a Peace Corps Volunteer (Senegal ‘97), I expected more of a chatty, this-is-what-you-can-expect-if-you-visit narrative style.  The fact that Jacobson is fluent in Russian means that she’s never had the experience of traveling in Kyrgyzstan without being able to communicate with most locals. Maybe that’s why this guide doesn’t focus much on how to deal with communication issues you might encounter, especially once you leave the capital, Bishkek.

And for anyone who truly wants to experience the beauty and mystical mountain energies of this faraway Silk Road squiggle on the map, there is one mystifying omission. While it appears that Roaming Kyrgyzstan’s basic information and listing of places to stay, restaurants, and travel services are reasonably comprehensive, Shepherd’s Way Trekking (www.kyrgyztrek.com) is not included.  This superb horseback trekking service creates a unique tourist experience.  Run by a former English teacher, Ishen, also the son of a traditional Kyrgyz falcon hunter (like the one on the book’s cover), and his wife, Gulmira,  Shepherd’s Way offers over a dozen one- to 12-day full-service horseback trips that attract travelers from around the globe to explore the wonders of the Tien Shan or Mountains of Heaven.

So… Roaming Kyrgyzstan might be a guide worth tucking into a large suitcase for some side reading, but don’t forget to make sure you’ve put that Lonely Planet Guide in your carry-on bag.

Catherine Varchavecvarchaver1spent several years on Peace Corps staff working as a desk officer, trainer and Associate Peace Corps Director for Education at Headquarters and overseas.  For the last ten years, she has worked in private practice, Body and Soul Nutrition, blending Eastern meets Western approaches to health.  Catherine’s blog on this website is Health: Holistically Speaking.