Kyrgyzstan – The Tale of Manas

by Apr 10, 2018Central Asia, Kyrgystan, Off the grid, Overland, Photos, Reflections, Silk road, Stories

We have been almost three months in Kyrgyzstan all together. But we still didn’t fell in love with the country, like so many other travellers did. The nature is beautiful and mountains are everywhere: 90% of the country is above 1.500 meter. But the culture is a little rough: it is not always easy to get into contact with people. And our first bad experience while wild camping doesn’t help (link). Why does it feel so different here than in the neighbouring countries? In the typical small provincial town of Kochkor in the North of Kyrgyzstan, we meet Samat. He joins us to the bazar and asks where we are sleeping. “Over there, in front of the bank? Not a good place: you might get unwanted visitors in the night…” he tells us. There we go again.. we know what he means: drunk people. The Kyrgyz love their vodka but it is not a good match. Samat doesn’t hesitate: he invites us to his house. Real Kyrgyz hospitality. That evening  he shares the epic story of their national hero Manas with us. A true insight into Kyrgyz origins and culture!

Kyrgyz hospitality

Samat opens the gate and our bus just fits through it: we are safely parked on the premises of the house of Samat and his grandmother. The guarding dog in the back doesn’t seem to agree with us being here. Luckily he is on a leash. Samat’s Babushka (grandmother) opens the door. She is a tall and strong woman, but the years are taking its toll on her. She looks at us as if we are coming from another planet. Samat explains her in a loud voice who we are. “Welcome”, she says in Russian. A few moments later we are joining them on the afternoon tea. Babushka wants to know everything. Even with her 85 years on the clock, she is a very sharp woman. She has been a politician for over 35 years. “Everybody in the area knows her!”, Samat says proudly. “Well, at least the older people.” Both Samat and his grandmother are proud of the Kyrgyz culture. “I want to show you three very special books. It is the story of Manas: the hero of the Kyrgyz people”, Samat says. We have seen the statues of Manas everywhere: even the smallest town has at least one bronze statue of this hero. Manas on a horse, Manas carrying a horse on his shoulders, Manas going to battle. But we don’t actually know much about him.

Once upon a time…

More than 1.000 year ago a great hero

was born:

“When your Manas came out [from the womb]
He landed straight on his feet!
In his right hand, khan Manas
Came out holding a clot of black blood . . .”


A legend for sure. He became a strong leader, always on his horse. He battled many armies – and won all of them in the most mysterious ways – and he knew how to conquer the most beautiful women. Every Kyrgyz knows the story of Manas. And a few honored people, the Manashi, know how to recite and chant them by heart. On festive events, they come together and young and old listen to the Manashi. The heroic tales are intertwined with facts about Kyrgyz customs and habits, their traditional food and their relation with nature. The stories were shared from generation to generation and are a living encyclopedia of Kyrgyz culture. We learn that Kyrgyz actually means 40, and that the Kyrgyz people consisted of 40 tribes. Manas reunited all of them and brought them back to their native land in the Thian Shan Mountains. That is where they still live today and where we are right now.

Because of their nomadic nature, people where always on the move. Being on the move makes also that your territory is constantly changing. That’s why the Kyrgyz people were involved in a lot of battles. Up till quite recently the Kyrgyz didn’t have a written language, no architecture, no sculptures. They expressed themselves by sharing stories. We are stunned when we realize that up till the Soviet occupation in the 1920’s, most of the Kyrgyz people were living in yurts and their current “modern” capital Bishkek wasn’t little more than a fort! (They only (forcefully) abandoned their wild nomadic lifestyle very recently.)

Vivid traditions

This is probably also the reason why the traditions and mentality of the Kyrgyz people is still very much present their modern day culture. Although most of Kyrgyz people are living in houses today, in summer many farmers go back to their roots and live in yurts for a few months. They roam around and bring their livestock to the best grasslands. Their favourite game is Kokboru: an ancient game for brave men. We had the chance to see this wild horse game where the competitors are fighting over the carcass of a dead goat. Supposedly they eat the goat after the game! And even the conquering of women is still close to the 1.000-year-old customs of Manas: in traditional villages kidnapping a young woman to make her your bride is (unfortunately) still a practice. And like Manas, Kyrgyz men love to ride their horses: even when you think you are in the middle of nowhere, there is always a great chance of meeting a man on a horse. But take care when you meet them after dark: they like there vodka and are probably drunk. A tradition they picked up from the Russians…

Beautiful roughness

Samat can’t almost stop telling us the brave stories of the national hero Manas. Like so many other Kyrgyz he is proud of his history and traditions. Maybe the fact that they are a young nation also contributes to that. Only since 1991 they are independent from the former Soviet Union. The story of Manas symbolises the pride and unique nature of the nomadic people of Kyrgyzstan. We are very thankful that Samat invited us to his grandmother’s house. But above all for sharing the story of Manas, or in fact: Kyrgyzstan. We understand a little more of the history of the people living here, and that makes the roughness much more beautiful!

The next morning we are not allowed to leave before we have a breakfast with Samat and his Grandmother. Babushka is just getting out of bed. Her dentures are still in a cup on the table, where she placed them overnight. She walks around the table, tries to organise. The teaspoon goes into the cup with her dentures. She realises she is confused and takes it out again. She gets out the dentures, places them in her toothless mouth. With a dirty cloth she wipes the denture cup, which then becomes… a tea cup. We are curious whom of us will be the lucky one… Russian roulette! After breakfast we say goodbye to these two beautiful and warm people. “Please tell your family to visit Kyrgyzstan”, Babushka says. Yes, finally – after three months in Kyrgyzstan – we can say we will!

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For more experiences and pictures of our time in Kyrgyzstan have a look here