Christmas in Bishkek

family portrait

If you’re reading this, you’re surely familiar with Christmas and Santa Clause.  You likely believed Santa resided in the North Pole, but you’re mistaken.  You see, Santa resides here, right smack-dab in the middle of Kyrgyzstan.  The people know it, the government acknowledges it and according to a Swedish firm’s research in 2007 there’s just no other logical place for Santa to reside but this predominantly Muslim country most Americans have never heard of.

But first, a little background (bear with me while this blog gets a bit more historical than usual.)  Kyrgyzstan didn’t always celebrate Santa Claus.  Before ‘Urken’ (means exodus in English,) the various tribes of what makes up modern-day Kyrgyzstan lived a nomadic life and adhered to more traditionally Muslim practices.  During this large revolt against Russian forces, perhaps as many as 100,000 Kyrgyz/Kazakhs died during the massacre (today, Russia admits that perhaps 3,000 died) setting the stage for Russia to officially move into the region 3 years later and create an oblast encompassing the region.  The USSR had only just begun to adopt Christmas traditions thanks to some friendly Germans who taught the Ruskies how to decorate a tree (the Soviets opted to replace the traditional star with their much-preferred red, 5-pointed star.)

The love of Christmas trees was short-lived, during the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin (the most loved of all Soviet leaders in Kyrgyzstan) outlawed Christmas trees and for the following two decades these iconic emblems of happiness and joy were missing from Soviet homes.  Christmas trees were not dead in the USSR, a new champion of trees soon arose. During Stalin’s regime, he realized the incredible of importance of these trees and he not only removed the ban but they became an officially recognized holiday symbol. In a fairly genius maneuver, Stalin appeased the Bolsheviks by stripping any religious meaning behind the Christmas trees and moved the date the trees were a symbol of from Christmas to New Year’s (a move not unlike previous world leaders such as Constantine made.) This move permitted the people to keep the winter party they now loved but removing the issue the revolution was based on. In the subsequent decades, Christmas trees became increasingly important but not as part of Christmas (which is celebrated January 7th by Orthodox Christians) as Stalin’s initiative to strip religion from the trees proved successful.

During the time of the Russian takeover of Central Asia and the following decades, the region became increasingly integrated with the USSR and as cities were established in the area, more ethnic Russians moved here, bringing their traditions and celebrations with them.  The Kyrgyz took to New Year as an important day and holidays in Kyrgyzstan became more closely aligned with the Soviet Union even though most Kyrgyz still identified as Muslim.

In 1991, Kyrgyzstan became independent but New Year remained the biggest holiday despite having little to do with any Islamic tradition.  In 2007, a Swedish engineering firm determined that Kyrgyzstan is the most logical place for Santa to reside.  Kyrgyzstan jumped on the idea giving an unnamed peak in the middle of the country the new name of Santa Peak.  And it worked, Santa made the move and the people celebrated with a large Santa party on December 30th (Father Frost and Grandpa Frost showed up too.)

So Tay and I set out to take some photos of the decorations around the city.  In addition to the variations on Santa Claus and Father Frost, there were quite a few people dressed as sheep (2015 is the year of the sheep in China.)

Holidays in Kyrgyzstan

Holidays abroad are pretty unique experiences.  Other than one Christmas in Europe I’ve always been home for the major holidays.  The holidays are definitely the hardest time to be away.  The weather in Kyrgyzstan gets cold, the days short and not much sounds better than a Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham about now.  Luckily most volunteers here live relatively close to others and for Thanksgiving all the Issyk-Kul volunteers (plus a few guests) came together in Karakol for a little American-style Thanksgiving.

Anna wrangling our dinner.  She's a pro.
Anna wrangling our dinner. She’s a pro.

We started out by going to the bazaar and finding a live turkey to slaughter for dinner the next day.  We bought the biggest guy we could find and after the vendor bagged him (easier than expected, turkeys calm down when you hang them upside down we learned) we took him in the marshrutka back to the apartment.  A bunch of Americans carrying a live turkey onto the marshrutka attracted quite a few looks… Then, the volunteers in town a day early came over to the apartment we were staying at for dinner.  Duck, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie… Delicious. Continue reading “Holidays in Kyrgyzstan”

Issyk-Ata (winter came to Kyrgyzstan)

After our trip to Almaty we met up with the Australian couple (they write at Yomadic) that’s been living here for a few weeks for a trip to Issyk-Ata.  Issyk-Ata is ‘famous’ for the mineral geothermal hotsprings and of course they contain all types of magical healing powers.  Hailing from Soviet times, Kyrgyzstan has many sanatoriums and this is one of the more popular ones.  Normally this is a summer destination but it’s beautiful in winter and we had a really good day.  Photos:

P.S. This trip happened a few weeks ago.  A lot has been going on since then so I just now had time to post this.  In the meantime, full on winter has arrived meaning skiing, icy roads and those crazy winds in Balykchy they warned us about.  More to come!

The details on getting to Issyk-Ata:

Getting to Issyk-Ata is easy as a public marshrutka leaves the East Bus Station in Bishkek on a regular schedule.  Currently, buses leave at 8:30, 10:00, 11:30, 13:30, 17:00 or 18:00.  The ride takes approximately 90 minutes and will cost about 70 som.  There is a schedule posted when you arrive to Issyk-Ata of when rides back to Bishkek will depart.  At the bus station there is not a sign in English, so you can’t read Cyrillic, ask where the Issyk-Ata marshrutka is.