Trans Eurasia travel

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Cultural Etiquette

Kyrgyz are for the most part cheerful, highly hospitable people with a genuine interest in foreigners. In the villages jailoos the tradition of hospitality is so strong that unexpected guests are still honoured and seen as a gift from God. An increase in the number of tourists over the past few years has taken the edge off this a little, as locals, understandably, are starting to view tourism as a viable way of supplementing their income; even so, foreign visitors are still courteously welcomed and are rarely seen as being little more than cash cows.

Having said this, it should not be forgotten that economic collapse and severe poverty since independence has engendered an atmosphere of resentment in some quarters, especially in Bishkek, where some foreign nationals are seen to be so patently overpaid and culturally insensitive that their lavish lifestyle and occasional boorish behaviour give some Kyrgyz the impression that all foreigners are of the same stripe. To try and counter this unfortunate image it is important to avoid flashing money about and to not act in a way that might be considered ostentatious, superior or immodest.

Kyrgyz society is relatively conservative, although far from hard-line Islam. Dress should be reasonably modest, with nothing too revealing, especially for women, and skimpy tops, shorts, miniskirts and skin tight trousers should not be worn. Headscarves for foreign women are not necessary in purely cultural terms but they are useful on occasions and provide a useful barrier against sun and dust.
If invited to a Kyrgyz home or a yurt, a small gift is appreciated. This does not have to be anything extravagant, just a little fruit or some sort of snack, or something for the children of the family. Family life is all-important and small gifts that say something of your own home life will be highly valued, such as family photographs or postcards of your hometown.

As a foreign guest one is placed on a pedestal: honoured but under close scrutiny at the same time. Therefore, it is important to acquit oneself well. A little of the language goes a long way, especially a few greetings and pleasantries in Kyrgyz, as does adopting the charming Kyrgyz gestures of putting the right hand on the heart after shaking hands and the omin face-washing gesture at the end of a meal.

Handshakes always take place between men, not between men and women, and it is considered unlucky to shake hands across a threshold. Shoes should always be removed on entry to a house or a yurt.

At any meal, bread is treated respectfully; it is never put on the floor, placed upside down or casually thrown away. If offered to a guest, bread should never be refused, even if it is just a matter of taking a little to eat. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, food is eaten and passed around with the right hand only, although there does not seem to be anything wrong with using the left hand for a bit of stabilisation when tearing bread into pieces.

Drinks - tea, vodka or anything else - do not have to be drained to the bottom of the glass; to do so is to invite a refill. It is quite acceptable to take just a sip, although with vodka there is usually much encouragement to drink it all down. To moderate intake, consider just drinking a third or half; this will, of course, be replenished, but at the end of the night it means a better outcome than having knocked back a dozen full glasses. As mentioned under Alcohol, page 62, earlier on in this chapter, once drinking has got underway it is usually impossible to make a polite withdrawal, so make an early decision on whether to participate or abstain.