Tamga, Kyrgyzstan

My Experience In Tamga, Kyrgyzstan Is Exactly Why I Love Travel

Derek Kyrgyzstan, Perspectives 59 Comments

Tamga, Kyrgyzstan
This is a post about how the world is never as it seems, about how our travels can so often surprise us, about how we never know what we’ll find or who we’ll meet at any given time. And it is also a post about why that ‘unknown’ is, in my opinion, the best travel companion any of us could ever ask for.

There I stood. On a street. A quiet street. No vehicles, no people, not even any animals wandering around.

It had been almost thirty minutes since the mashrukta, the local style of mini-bus, had dropped me off in the center of Tamga, Kyrgyzstan, a small village located some 1700 meters (5600 feet) above sea level between the towering Tian-Shan Mountain Range and the beautiful alpine lake of Issky-Kul. And I wasn’t making any progress at all in terms of finding accommodation for the night. I had arrived without a plan and had only come to Tamga after meeting a local man in Karakol, a town situated 90 kilometers away, who recommended I pay this village a visit.

And now, here was I, just me and my stuff, looking all around and finding absolutely nothing, for quite some time. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that, “There’s nothing to do in this village. I’m ready to leave and find someplace ‘better’.” So I grabbed my bag and started walking towards the dusty patch of ground near the only intersection in the village, hoping to find some vehicle that would give me a lift out to the main road so that I could catch a bus to a bigger town further along the lake.

As I walked along, however, I soon noticed a tiny concrete building, more like a room, on my left with a sign that read “Beauty Salon” in both Russian and English. And out of nowhere I decided to go inside, ever-so-curious about the local price for a pedicure and for a trim of my afro. Actually, I figured that going inside the beauty salon would be my one last effort to find a place a stay and upon greeting the woman sitting at the table, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, in English, “Guesthouse?”. Expecting her not to understand, quite surprised was I when she immediately walked over to a shelf, grabbed a business card and handed it to me.

It was a business card for the Askar & Tamara Guesthouse right there in Tamga. I called the number on the card, an English-speaking woman answered the phone and before I even had time to realize what was happening, a 10-year old Russian girl on a bicycle was leading me through the village straight to the guesthouse.

We reached the front door and out walked Tamara, the owner, a 60-ish year old Kyrgyz woman with a huge smile on her face. She extended her hand, introduced herself and I kid you not when I say that in an instant, Tamga went from being a town I could definitely live without spending more than five minutes in, to the town that will probably be the highlight of my visit to Kyrgyzstan.

That’s how travel works, and I love it. I love the ups and, yes, I even love the downs. I love the disappointments and the sudden, brilliant surprises that often soon follow. And I love the fascinating people that I meet when I least expect it as well.

A Glimpse Of Tamga, Kyrgyzstan

Let me show you what Tamga looks like.

Here’s the main street…The Main Street in Tamga

Here’s the only restaurant…Restaurant in Tamga

And finally, the only intersection…Intersection in Tamga

Perhaps you can understand why, after only thirty minutes in this eerily quiet village, I was ready to leave. I have a feeling that many travelers would gladly give Tamga a miss based upon first impressions. But had I left town so quickly, never would I have discovered what lies behind Tamga’s empty streets, behind its mix of wooden village homes and handful of Communist apartment blocks, behind the few shops, the empty bazaar, the donkeys hiding behind trees and the occasional Kyrgyz man on horseback riding through town. Just like with any city, town or village in the world, behind whatever leads us to form our initial impression of a place, lies the opportunity to have an unforgettable travel experience. And here in Tamga, this village in the middle of nowhere, in a country that is already quite in the middle of nowhere as a whole, an unforgettable travel experience certainly did unfold.

And again, it all began with Tamara and her guesthouse.

Tamara - Tamga

Askar & Tamara Guesthouse, Tamga

Tamara, along with her husband Askar, owns the kind of guesthouse that you don’t ever want to leave. It’s simple, the rooms are basic and comfortable, but the conversations with Tamara that take place all the time is what makes this place so unique. She speaks excellent English, she loves to talk about all aspects of Kyrgyzstan, the world and life in general, she is very outspoken, her laughter and smile are incredibly infectious, she takes extreme pleasure in cooking delicious local dishes for her guests to enjoy and she goes out of her way to ensure that one’s time in Tamga is as rewarding as possible.

I think I spent half of the three days I stayed in Tamga speaking with her, learning about her country, hearing about the trip to America that she went on a couple of years ago after winning a competition, exchanging ideas about politics, religion and travel, and on and on. I spoke more with her than with any other Kyrgyz person on this trip and I could have talked with her for a lot longer if I had the time.

A Beautiful Lake, Colorful Canyon, A Quiet Walk & Some Great Food

On my first day in the village, after expressing an interest in heading down to the shore of the Issyk-Kul Lake, Tamara walked me over to the beginning of a path near her guesthouse and, with that standard smile on her face, began excitedly giving me directions on how to get there. I had to hold in my laughter as her directions kept going and going and going while her genuine love for her village and for the lake became more and more apparent. She was excited for me to see this lake and after hearing how to get there, and remembering almost none of the directions, I was excited as well.

So, off I went, trying to play over in my mind the directions she had given, which went something like this:

Walk straight down this path between the trees until you pass two new houses, then find two more houses and walk slightly to the right around them before heading straight for some time until you reach the 120 steps. Go down the 120 steps and you will soon enter the large forest. Continue through the forest between the hills and eventually you will find a gate. Enter the gate and turn left, walk down, cross the stream and climb up the steps to the hanging bridge. Walk across the bridge until you reach the main road and turn left again. After walking for some time, you will look for the building with the blue roof, maybe it’s a green roof, and then look for a path that heads to the right. You will come to another gate. Enter that gate, turn left and soon you will reach the entrance to the beach on the right, down some steps.

Somehow, about forty-five minutes later, I found the beach and the lake, and was able to witness a remarkable scene of clear blue water with the massive snow-covered mountains in the background.

Issyk-Kul Lake with Mountains

Issyk-Kul Lake Swim

After an evening that involved more conversation with Tamara, some of her homemade pilaf, pickles and compote, I slept well in silent Tamga, waking up the next morning eager to see where the day would lead. And over the course of that following day, I ended up having a local man by the name of Bik take me over to the spectacular Skazka Canyon, located down a dirt road, with not a single other person around for miles. We hiked around for about an hour, soaking up brilliant view after brilliant view.

Skazka Canyon, Tamga

Skazka Canyon, Tamga (2)

Me and Bik, Skazka Canyon

Upon returning to the village, I went for a long walk through the fields, along the paths and into the tiny villages around Tamga itself, finding plenty of empty space, the kind of surroundings that made clearing my head so very easy, helping me to contemplate everything that I’ve been experiencing and what I can learn from it all.

View from Tamga

Fields Near Tamga

There was also a fifteen-minute ‘conversation’ with a drunk Kyrgyz man who must have hugged me more times than I’ve been hugged overall in my life. And I then spent considerable time waving and smiling to all of the people I passed, almost always receiving a wave and smile in return, whether from the men on horseback, the women chatting in front of their homes, the elderly man walking down the street with his cane or the children playing around.

Dinner was had at the only restaurant in town, with the two beautifully friendly women staff providing a most ideal meal of chicken soup and salad. And as I ate my meal in that empty, one-room, Soviet-style eatery, slurping up my soup and occasionally talking to the staff in a mix of my horrendous Russian and their limited English, I could not believe how much Tamga had grown on me so quickly. Had I not been pressed for time, I knew that I would have stuck around this village for many, many additional days.

But the next morning, after a leisurely breakfast of fresh mountain eggs, homemade pancakes and some hot tea, the time unfortunately arrived for me to leave. I went to my room, packed my bag, paid my bill, had one last conversation with Tamara, one last conversation so full of stories, of laughter, of insights into the Kyrgyz people and their culture, and then just like that, I said goodbye.

And moments later, there was I, right where the minibus had dropped me off a few days before, right where I had been looking around wondering how on earth I was going to find a way out of this dreadful place and reach somewhere ‘better’. But now I could only smile, feeling as happy as one could possibly be at having not skipped town that day, at having allowed the unknown to take over yet again.

And all I needed for this to happen was to simply remember that we never know what lies around the next corner when we travel, or in this case, we never know where a visit to a tiny concrete beauty salon in a remote mountain town in the middle of nowhere, might lead.


ASKAR & TAMARA GUESTHOUSE (Tamga, Kyrgyzstan)
Address: In Tamga village, directly next to the Bazaar
Website: www.askartamara.com
Email/Phone: askartamara@mail.ru / +996 394625361
Price: $16 per person (home-cooked meals for around $3-$4)
(Tamara has no idea how the internet works but if you’re in Tamga, be sure to tell her Derek sent you. It will blow her away as she loves how people all over the world can be connected through this internet thing that she doesn’t understand!)

Is Tamga your kind of destination? Have you ever had a similar experience, while traveling or at home, where everything changed for the better in one quick, random moment?


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Comments 59

  1. Austin

    Great to hear! Kyrgyzstan is truly a hidden gem, I’ve been there 3-4 times over the past 4 years but have yet to make it to Issyk-Kul.
    Hopefully in August!
    I met these 2 Kyrgyz girls my first time there and have met with them everytime i return. Really the most helpful and accomodating people.

  2. Ryan

    Thanks for these posts. We’re headed to Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan/Uzbekistsn in two weeks and these are just the kind of stories and random choices that make travelling exciting and have us so curious about these countries.

  3. Ross

    Great story. That is why travelling is so great. I have often been in places that should be good but some bad experiences colours it or in a place that has nothing going for it and because of kindness or a cool random experience you think the town is awesome.

  4. Pingback: My Experience In Tamga, Kyrgyzstan Is Exactly Why I Love Travel | Travel Addiction

  5. Rashad Pharaon

    That’s hilarious and awesome, and seems to be the norm in many parts of the world. What a waste of money to buy food with no customers! My favorite restaurant in on Cat Ba Island (Vietnam) usually only has about half the menu items available at any given time, but the cool thing is that if they DON’T have what you want, the owner hops on her motorbike, goes to the market, buys whatever ingredients are needed, comes back and cooks it. Talk about fresh.

  6. Jonathan Look, Jr.

    It always is the people you meet. I am typing this comment in the departure lounge from Kuala Lumpur airport. Everyone I Met said don’t go it is boring. I had an amazing time. I think attitude is everything.

    I had never considered Kyrgyzstan before. You paint a great picture!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Jonathan – Great to hear and attitude is absolutely everything. Anywhere you go in the world, your experiences so often depend on your own outlook as you wander around.

  7. Banker in the Sun

    This sounds like the kind of town I’d end up staying in for a month or more. How often do you get to experience a place with only one restaurant? What a great way to really get to know locals and forge lasting relationships. And that scenery is to die for. Thanks Earl!

    1. Wandering Earl

      @Banker in the Sun – I said the same thing to myself over and over again about the one restaurant. And our guesthouse owner had to call the restaurant ahead of time to make sure they had food to serve before I went over there to eat. Not too many customers so I guess sometimes they don’t even have food.

  8. Edwina

    That’s a lovely story, and it does make me want to go to Kyrgyztan!
    I’ve had a similar experience in Tuy Hoa in Vietnam. It’s bigger, but there was really nothing to do and nothing to see in a touristy sense. But I’ve found that often in those places you end up having the best experiences, because people are so open and really want to spend time with you. In Tuy Hoa, a group of women spent an evening teaching me & my travel partner how to assemble & Vietnamese spring rolls and pancakes. They didn’t speak a word of English (instead, we got slapped on the hand when we assembled our little packages incorrectly!), but we all had a great time, one of the top experiences on a three month trip! And there was a lot of waving too.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Edwina – That’s a very cool experience you had as well…and like you said, they tend to happen when we are in those destinations where there doesn’t appear much to do at all.

  9. Mary M.

    Thanks for this lovely post. It made me reflect on how the genuineness you found and appreciated there, so often vanishes or at least goes underground once a country experiences tourism as big business.

    For instance, I spent the last few days travelling to Dresden and Prague with my mother, and the taxi driver in Prague tried to convince us that he was entitled to charge double for two passengers (!), adding insult to our intelligence to the injury of the attempted swindle. We also noticed that the restaurants have two types of menus, the more expensive ones they hand to foreigners, and the cheaper ones (with slightly smaller portions) for the locals, in Czech only. In Tamga you probably don’t find this sort of attitude (yet?).

    But despite the occasional scam, even the more touristy spots of the world offer plently of positive experiences, and nice people can still be found.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mary – I can say that in my 3 weeks in this country, I did not encounter any scams and nobody ever tried to rip me off, in shops, with taxis, buses or anything else.

  10. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling

    Tamara looks so cute! Yes, there’s so much the locals can show you about a place if you are just willing to let them.

    I have a suspicion that Kyrgyzstan is going to become a backpacker hotspot soon – yours isn’t the first travel blog I’ve seen where people have gone and adored it. And it seems the number one thing people love the most about it is the kindness of the locals.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Karyn – It will become more and more popular but I think the issue is that none of the other countries in the region offer free visa on arrival to foreigners. If that ever happened and there were 2 or 3 Central Asian countries you could easily visit without having to deal with visas/embassies, I think Kyrgyzstan will become even more popular. Either way, there’s still a few years left to get here before the rush!

  11. Victoria

    It sure is Earl! I love the fact that just making contact with people opens doors of friendship and interest.
    I remember when I first lived in the then-Czechosolvakia. I was sitting in a cafe looking out on the old city square when I saw a local man with a Mohawk hairstyle. I said that I liked it and he told me that he was going to cut it off. For a joke, I asked whether I could come with him. He actually said yes. So I did! He was an ex-diplomat turned artist and he introduced me to his group of merry friends who were actors and musicians. I didn’t go back to my hostel for a week and they wouldn’t let me pay for stuff either!
    Thanks for sharing Earl!

  12. Bama

    Such an uplifting post, Earl! Travel will only do that to us if we open our mind and ready for those changes of plan, local people’s suggestions and even some random information when we’re on the road. This post truly reminds people why traveling is such an enriching thing to do in life.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Bama – Well said and without an open mind, it really is hard to have those experiences that provide us with the greatest memories and the greatest lessons.

  13. Dave K

    Thanks for putting in the time and effort to bring your experience in Tamga alive for all of us. The pictures really added a dimension to your story. I think that your travel stories are fascinating to all kinds of travelers: full-time travelers, occasional travelers, ex-travelers, future travelers and travelers in spirit. I find myself researching the places that you visit, such as Lake Issyk Kul, while I’m supposed to be working. Thanks to your post, I now know a little bit about the kinds of fish in the lake and that there are ruins of ancient civilizations under the lake. Your stories give me a little escape until I can get away for real. The Lake Issyk Kul looks beautiful and cold! Did you go for a swim?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Dave – Ha, well, sorry to distract you from work! And you probably know more than me about that lake now 🙂

      It is a beautiful lake, the kind that you can just stare at for hours and hours, especially with the mountains in the background. I didn’t go for a swim though as the water at this time of year is freezing and I don’t do too well with cold water!

  14. Jason

    Getting to have those intimate conversations with Tamara, a proud local, is like striking travel gold. This is definitely my kind of travel story. So glad you stuck around to discover what was hidden in this nondescript looking village and have chosen to share this with us. Thank you. That lake looks incredible!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Jason – It is gold and the good news is that such gold can be found almost anywhere on the planet if we’re open to the idea of welcoming whatever lies around the next corner.

  15. Taylor

    I enjoyed your story 🙂 It’s nice to see that even places that don’t look like there’s anything actually have hidden gems, like the people you met, the lake and the canyon.

  16. tom

    A great story, beautifully written — the essence of what travel writing should be. Had a similar experience in Betty’s Bay, South Africa,10 or so years ago.

  17. Quade Baxter

    That was so well written! And true the best experiences happen when you least expect them. I accidentally spent two days in Guatemala City last year,and was not looking forward to it.One of the best days in my travels wS right there in GC!

  18. Steve C

    Yup, another unforgettable moment just around that nondescript corner. There are Tamga’s and Tamara’s all over the world and the search is the starting point. First you wander, then you stop along the way and interact with people. A smile and small talk is all it takes to get these unbelievable moments to begin. Great Post!

  19. Dan Barber

    Earl,

    A great story. If you keep yourself open as you do, your travels have so much more depth.

    A few years back while in Morocco I somehow got talked into driving a new friend and his brother to their local home which was near a town called Attaouia near the foot hills of the Atlas Mountains.

    It was quite a drive from the coast where I stay in Essaouira and with every kilometer I kept thinking what did I get myself into……The guys could not speak English and I could not speak Arabic or French except for few words…So, we listened to the radio that made my teeth itch! lol.

    Anyway, we got to this place in a very poor village and I saw the mud brick “home” where the rest of the family lived (along with a few animals..) There was no indoor plumbing. My heart sank and I thought…Wish I had a drink…

    Three days later, I did not want to leave. The mother and her daughter cooked wonderful local dishes. The people from the village would come over at intervals just to see the foreigner that took the time to visit them. Asking questions about life in America and so on.

    I would go for long walks with my new friends crossing beautiful crystal clear rivers and through swaying wheat fields…All with the snow capped Atlas in the background.

    This was not what I expected. I’ve never forgotten the experience and hope to go back some day. Take care Earl! Where are you off to next?

    Best,

    Dan

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Dan – Wow, quite an experience and another great example of not knowing what to expect. And usually, the best experiences occur when we are certain we’re about to have a negative experience.

      Looks like I’m off to Istanbul and Bulgaria for a short visit, then to the US to visit family.

  20. Erin

    What I love about you and your love for travel is stories like this. You are a fantastic traveler and Marsha’s right, your smile and laugh (and obvious love for people) make others want to smile and laugh and get to know others. Thanks for sharing this! I’ve definitely been surprised what I’ve seen and who (or is it whom) I’ve met while traveling. It is definitely one of the best parts of travel!

    Let me also just say that that lake is UNBELIEVABLY gorgeous! WOW is all I can say! Beautiful! Thanks for sharing your story and all the great pics!

    Keep inspiring!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Thanks for that Erin and yes, it is such a great aspect of travel. As long as we maintain a love for the unknown, our travels shall always be rewarding!

  21. Cailie Kafura

    Yes! I have been looking forward to this blog as Kyrgyzstan seems like a place no one tends to know much about.

    This is so wonderful!

    I would love to visit, but not sure how safe it would be for a woman in her mid-20s… any thoughts?

    Thank you for being an awesome nomad!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Callie – Perfectly safe over here. Just head this way and you’ll see. Such welcoming people everywhere and definitely nothing to worry about as a solo female in this country.

  22. Ash

    One of my favorite types of posts you write, new breed of explorer narratives never get old. Has a first impression of a place that it is boring ever been correct or do you always find gems.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Ash – I’m a firm believer that we can always find gems but sometimes, it just doesn’t happen. It might have to do with our state of mind, an unfortunate experience (which does happen from time to time) or things just not coming together. But I do think that we have the right mindset, we can always find something positive everywhere we visit.

  23. Forest Parks

    As beautiful or amazing as the world can get I almost always feel that it needs another human to enjoy it with or to make us as enthusiastic. I love people and their ability to transform a place with pure enthusiasm.

  24. marsha ramsey

    what a wonderful experience !…. I was having “Derek withdraw” and reading your latest journey helped with that !…. I smiled and laughed out loud as I visualized you laughing and chatting with the drunk man ! – (your smile and laugh make others want to smile and laugh)….. I am sure Tamara enjoyed every moment with you as you did with her….Derek Earl Baron, I just love you !!….. “if” I am reincarnated I want to come back as you !! … namaste my friend

  25. mzuri

    This is exactly my kind of travel. What a fabulous experience. Definitely puts Kyrgystan on my radar – thanks for that.

    (… So whenever you finally get to Caucasus Georgia, you can experience similar fabulosity, but with the addition of chacha and artisan wine. And dancing. And polyphonic singing.)

  26. Sarah Shaw

    Sometimes you just have to give somewhere a chance. Take a wander and meet the locals and appreciate it for what it is. I find that even if the destination itself isn’t that great, often the locals you meet make it!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Sarah – Absolutely. Just stop, take a rest, go for a quick wander and just like that, everything can change!

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