Abhishesh Adhikari | KF19 | Kyrgyzstan

When you live in a new culture for a long enough time, you start to realize subtle cultural norms that you wouldn’t have necessary learned by reading a book about the country. I have now been in Kyrgyzstan for exactly 2 months. Here are some interesting facts about the country and its culture that I have noticed after arriving here.

1) Manas: Manas, a warrior who united Kyrgyzstan, is undoubtedly the most popular folk hero in the country. You see this name everywhere. There are streets, statues, universities, radio stations, national parks, and many other things that are named after him. Even Kyrgyzstan’s main airport is Manas International Airport. During one of my borrower visits, I visited his final resting place, Ala Too mountain, in the northwestern city of Talas. There they have Manas Ordo, a historical park and museum built in his honor.

Manas Ordo, the burial place of Manas. Legend has it that, as a kid, Manas regularly lifted the huge piece of rock shown in this picture (center right)

2) Tea: People in Kyrgyzstan love tea. It is like a replacement for water here, and you drink tea with pretty much every meal. The amount of tea I drink everyday has probably quadrupled since my arrival here. Tea is served in small bowls instead of cups, and you almost always order traditional Kyrgyz bread with the tea.

Black Tea in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz bread

3) Tipping: It is not common to tip in Kyrgyzstan. However, a lot of restaurants add an automatic 10% service charge to the bill.

4) Influence of Islam: The vast majority of people in Kyrgyzstan are Sunni Muslims. However, you don’t see obvious signs of Islam while walking down the streets of Bishkek, partly due to its Soviet history. After the collapse of communism, the influence of Islam has slowly been coming back into Kyrgyz society. A lot of my Kyrgyz friends don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, and some even skip lunch on Friday to attend prayers in the mosque.

A mosque in Osh

5) Handshakes: Handshaking is a very important part of Kyrgyz culture. Every morning when I see my male colleagues, we always shake hands. While I was used to shaking hands with people I am being introduced to, or people I haven’t seen in a while, it took me some time to get used to shaking hands all the time with people you constantly see.

However, while shaking hands is really big among men, it is not very common to shake hands with women. Once, when I was introduced to an old woman in rural Kyrgyzstan, I extended my arm expecting to shake her hand. Instead, she gave me a very confused look (even though she turned out to be really friendly.)

6) Focus on Cleanliness: People value cleanliness a lot here. You need to always take off your shoes before walking into anyone’s house.

7) Very few street lights: Kyrgyzstan is generally a safe country, but there aren’t very many street lights. Even in the capital city of Bishkek, the streets are barely lit at night.

8) Environmentally friendly: A Kyrgyz friend of mine told me that Bishkek is one of the greenest cities in the old Soviet republics, maybe even in the world. Most of Bishkek’s streets are wide and lined with trees and bushes, and it actually looks really pretty.

A typical street in Bishkek

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