Sheep Guts Won’t Kill You: A Guide to Seeing the Kyrgyzstan that Most People Don’t

Published: September 23, 2006

I’m an anthropologist. Actually, I’m still a year of fieldwork and a dissertation away from getting my Ph.D., so that makes me an anthropologist-in-training. In September 2007, I will move to Central Asia to study the ways people think about things like their ethnic group and their religion, and how that affects their participation in their country’s life. To prepare for that, I visited Kyrgyzstan this summer. The main reason for that trip was to learn some Kyrgyz—I’ll be asking people about their lives, and I want to be able to do that in their language. However, this trip also gave me the chance to observe, firsthand, some everyday situations that will also be part of my study.

A yurt camp at the Jeti Ögüz meadows, near Issyk Köl.

Researchers in my field tend to privilege a certain kind of method called “participant observation.” The idea is that you can learn a lot by watching and talking to people, but you can learn even more by watching and talking to them while actually doing what they’re doing. For example, you can look at the yurts that dot the Tien Shan mountains and you can ask the people about the yurts, but in actually building a yurt, you learn things that you would be less likely to learn otherwise, like the relationship between family size and housing which runs something like the following: Many Kyrgyz families have ten or more children. Setting up a yurt involves a delicate balancing act, and it helps to have that many hands to keep it from falling in on you while you’re building it.

I learned more in a few months of participant observation than I did from the dozens of articles and books I’ve read while preparing for my fieldwork. I’ve designed this article as a sort of advice column for someone who wants to get involved in people’s lives and see more of a country than just the restaurants and universities. I’ve organized it into a few sections of general advice I derived from my visits to five of Kyrgyzstan’s seven provinces. I’ve divided those sections into specific suggestions, illustrated by some stories from my own experience.


Bishkek: Plan your Participant Observation

I rented an apartment in Bishkek (in Chui province). This served as a base of operations for studying Kyrgyz and doing my more academic learning about Kyrgyz identity, nationality, and culture. If you’re not Kyrgyz, doing the kinds of things Kyrgyz do takes planning. You have to decide a lot of logistical questions: Where you want to go? What you want to do? Who’s going to take you there? How much will it cost? You don’t want these to surprise you. Also, if you’re withdrawing money from a foreign bank account, you need a trustworthy bank or ATM. Both of those things are rare outside of Bishkek. I’m sure it’s a terrible feeling to be out in the provinces and realize that you don’t have enough money to get home. However, because I set up a home base and planned before I left it, I never experienced that feeling personally.


Suggestion #1: Find a guide.

You can (as an article on Kyrgyzstan in the New York Times recently suggested) go to companies like Community-Based Tourism or Kyrgyz Concept and set up an excursion to a specific part of the country. I advise against it. Those kinds of tours tend to be heavy on the observation, but light on the participation. You can set up an itinerary yourself. You just need a guide. My main guide was my Kyrgyz language teacher, Tynara Ryskulova.* Tynara is a professor of Kyrgyz Studies at the American University – Central Asia. She possesses the two characteristics of a good participant-observation guide: she is nice and she knows people. Tynara was able to introduce me to her family and friends who were doing interesting things, which allowed me to do those things as well. Find someone you can trust. That’s even more important than finding someone you can easily communicate with. AUCA seems like a good source for trustworthy guides: the faculty and students are friendly, usually know English, and are often very willing to take a trip with you.


Suggestion #2: Learn the local language.

I already know Russian fairly well, but the further I got from Bishkek the less that mattered. I had to study Kyrgyz. It would be naïve to think you could spend a few months learning a language and know enough to get along all by yourself. That’s beside the point. Once, I was sitting in a circle of men eating sheep (a much more common occurrence than you would think). I received a dish of broth from the person to my right and held it for the older man to my left to dip his meat in it. He said “chong gishi bol” (may you be a big person.) That’s a compliment older people give to younger people when the younger people do something helpful, and I understood that and said “rakhmat” (thank you.) The fact that I understood just that small bit of Kyrgyz garnered approving looks from the men in the circle. You gain confidence working with people when you know even a little of their language. In turn, they are often more willingly let you participate in their lives. You may need an interpreter the rest of the time, but those few times you don’t will really count.

A gis is made out of felted wool.

Suggestion #3: Don’t worry about seeing everything.

I never saw the supposed tomb of the mythical Kyrgyz hero Manas. I never rode a horse up to the black rock where Arstanbap prayed at dawn. I didn’t swim in Issyk Köl. You’re not going to see and do everything because you are not going to have the time or the money or the stamina. Focus on living life with people instead of seeing as many sights as possible. I spent a day making a wool rug (gis) with a family when I could have gone to see all kinds of rivers and mountains and museums and monuments. It was worth it to make the rug and meet the people.


Issyk Köl: Do Things That Make You Uncomfortable

Issyk Köl means “hot lake,” and is the name of the body of water as well as the province that houses it. The lake is salty so it never freezes over, even in the winter, and it has been a popular resort area since Soviet times. I stayed with Tynara’s family in the village of Saruu, on the southern banks of the lake. Our trip was something of a special occasion. Tynara’s father had died four years ago; he was the clan head, so his family has a memorial for him each year. The memorial (referred to as a toi, which is a general word for any special family gathering) involves the sacrifice of a sheep.

A sheep tie, in preparation for the sacrifice.


Suggestion #4: Get your hands dirty.

All the guests gathered in the yard and a few men (in this case, two of Tynara’s brothers) brought a sheep to the middle of the group. Everyone sat or squatted as the animal’s throat was cut and the blood poured into a basin. An old man in the group recited from the Qu’ran. After the recitation and the sheep’s death-throes were done, everyone stood up and went about making preparations for the meal. I was interested in the actual process of rendering the sheep. Tynarbek, one of the brothers who performed the sacrifice, was kind enough to explain why they did what they did. He also asked me to help him cut open the stomach. As I inserted the knife and had to keep myself from retching at the smell. I’ve taught about pastoralists and animal sacrifices in introductory anthropology classes. But now I know what it feels like to have my hands covered in fat. I’ve seen young sons look on as their fathers went about their work. In a few years, those fathers will give the knife to their sons and teach them the process. This experience is something you can’t learn from a book.


Suggestion #5: Sheep stomach won’t kill you.

Neither will sheep lung. Or horse intestine. I know because I ate all of these things and survived. I’m not saying the innards tasted good. In fact, the horse intestine did make me a little sick (just plain horse meat is very good, however). Your momentary discomfort is worth the rapport you build by eating with people. My hosts boiled most of the meat from the sacrifice for three or four hours before we ate it. The face and hooves, however, got cooked by blowtorch, which took the hair off while it cooked the meat. They cut this meat off the bone, fried up some of the spare fat, and passed it around to the guests as an appetizer.

The sheep’s head and hooves, prepared by blowtorch.

I had the fortune, as it were, of being near the cooking area when this happened. The men handed me the tray. I looked at the meat, looked at the fat, and decided the meat looked better. Before I could put it in my mouth, they stopped me and said, “No, no. You have to eat it like this, or it won’t taste good,” and demonstrated picking up a piece of meat, a piece of fat, and eating both together. I grabbed what looked like one of the smaller pieces of fat, only to find it attached to three or four other chunks. I was about to shake off those stragglers, when I looked around. They were all nodding their heads approvingly. They were saying “turaa, turraa,” (yes / that’s right). Eating a little sheep fat opened up doors of trust that led to very valuable conversations and experiences later on.


Suggestion #6: The water tastes funny because it’s good for you…

I had a similar experience the second time I went to Issyk Köl.  I went on a pilgrimage to Manjili, a holy site that contains a series of springs that are thought to have special powers. Manjili was a holy man who is buried at the site. The first spring we went to had a row of cups lined up next to it. I took a gulp and tasted the sulphur-rich water. The taste worried me, but there was nothing I could do about it. The other springs we went to tasted less like sulphur, and more like dirt. There were special springs for people who had back problems, leg problems, fertility problems, virility problems, and even luck problems. Tynara’s younger brother Tursbek and his wife were with us on this trip. They had empty plastic bottles to fill from various springs. (When we were told the next spring on our visit was the love spring, Tursbek’s wife turned to him and abruptly told him to hand over one of the empty bottles).

Our guide preparing to tell our future. Example of shamanistic practices near Manzhili.

Our guide to the springs was considered clairvoyant. At a spring where Manjili and his family supposedly slept, she sat us down, pulled out a string of beads with the 99 names of Allah on them, and proceeded to tell the future. She pulled at the beads for some time, the suddenly stopped, turned to members of our group, and told us something about our lives, or gave us instructions for fixing family problems. It seems that not only will my next trip to Kyrgyzstan be successful, but I will meet a man in a large building, my project will interest him, and he will help me accomplish it. She didn’t know beforehand who I was, what my line of work was, or why I had come to Kyrgyzstan. The people in my group were very impressed. We ended by sleeping for a few hours where Manjili slept. We walked back towards the lake as the sun was setting. I wasn’t thinking about the sulphur water. I was wondering if the luck spring really worked. And, I have to admit, I do get a little nervous now when I walk into large buildings.

This is the first of a two-part series. Read part two here


*Note: Tynara Ryskulova works with SRAS students studying Kyrgyz language and culture.

About the author

Schaun Wheeler

Schaun Wheeler is earning a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Connecticut. He spent the summer of 2006 traveling Kyrgyzstan with SRAS performing initial research for his dissertation. Impressed by his eagerness to submerge himself in the culture and language that surrounded him, we asked him to share some of his thoughts on how other students might best do the same. Most of Schaun's advice can be applied to relating to any foreign culture, although his stories focus specifically on the experiences he had with the Kyrgyz.

View all posts by: Schaun Wheeler