Belongings: The Kyrgyz were originally nomads and this seems to
have inculcated into their culture a totally different sense of privacy
and belongings than encountered in the West, a fact compounded by rampant
poverty – especially in the rural regions.. As always in such circumstances,
exposimg your wealth is asking for trouble. Don’t show large sums of money
– keep you dollars hidden, and if possible have only local currency in small
denominations. You should be careful with valuable possessions.
Clothing: Even if the people of Kyrgyzstan (especially in the North) are far more relaxed about religion than muslims elsewhere – you should still be aware of local sensibilities. In the larger towns, especially Bishkek, and the Northern regions, the people are much more weternised and more used to foreigners in their midst. Fashions such as shorts, short skirts, halter tops and bare chests are not likely to encounter outright opposition – but it is probably wise to dress cautiously so as to avoid offending people. Incidentally, in many regions if can be quite cool (if not cold) especially at night – so remember to bring something warm, such as a sweater.
Gestures: To attract attention raise your hand and say “kechiresiz” – or more simply : “oy”
To apologise the Kyrgyz place their right hand, palm flat against the chest – sometimes they use both hands. This gesture is also sometimes used when serving tea or when welcoming someone.
You beckon someone the whole hand is used – not just a single finger … the hand is held palm up and the fingers are repeated curled and unfurled.
To pinch your cheek, or rub your cheek in a downward motion, is used to signify that someone has done something bad, or shameful.
Greetings: Shaking hands – men shake hands – but usually women do not. (A recent trend is for business women to shake hands). Men often shake with both hands to show respect – the left hand patting the top of the other persons hand – although there are variations … one man may shake with the right hand whilst tapping the other person’s shoulder with his left hand and, in the South, men might shake with the right hand holding his left to his breast. Don’t shake hands across a thresh-hold.
When women meet they usually bow slightly – even from afar. They sometimes greet each other by touching right cheeks without actually kissing – although an older woman may place a kiss on the cheek of a younger woman. It is considered polite for younger and foreign women to kiss elderly women on the cheek.
Blowing your nose at the table: should be avoided – if you feel the need to sneeze or blow you your nose, turn away from the table or - better still – make an excuse and leave the table.
Eating with hands: several dishes, such as Beshbarmak and manti, are eaten with the hands – remember to use your right hand – never touch food with your left hand.
Omin: In some homes a meal may begin with a prayer – but every Kyrgyz meal ends with “Omin” – the Islamic equivalent of “amen”. The hands are brought up to the face and the palms brought down in front ot it as if washing the face – saying the word “omin”.
Seating plans: in a large gathering the most respected or eldest male sits at the head of the table and then others are placed in descending order of rank. Women tend to sit together at the far side of the table. In Southern Kyrgyzstan, men and women may eat in separate rooms.
Toasts: at meals alcohol will often be served - if not pressed on you. You will be expected to give a toast and drinking to the health of your host and his family will be greatly appreciated. When drinking vodka - watch your hosts - Russians tend to drain their glasses - "down in one" - and so do many Kyrgyz but a lot of Kyrgyz only drink half the glass.
Photographs and cameras: photographs are prized possessions. Not everyone has a camera and interest may be shown – especially if you have a dgital or ‘Polaroid’ (instant camera). Photographs make excellent presents.
Pointing (for example in giving directions), should be done with either the index finger or with the open palm.
Prices: in shops the prices are fixed – but in bazaars a certain amount of bargaining may be expected. Don’t expect, however, to knock a lot of the price, however, and renenber that the sums involved are usually quite small.
Respectful terms of address : older men are addressed with the honorific title “baike”, and older women with “eje”
Shoes: when entering private homes it is usual to remove shoes.
Smoking: the Kyrgyz – like most Asian peoples – do smoke. Kyrgyzstan was a major producer of aromatic tobacco and there are some local manufacturers. In addition herbs are sometimes smoked – but although you may well see Marijuana plants growing wild – don’t be tempted … it is illegal and can have serious consequences.
Spitting: the situation in Kyrgyzstan is not as bad as in China – but don’t be too surprised if you see people – even those who look like respectably dressed businessmen – spit in the street.
Staring: Strangers, everywhere, attract attention – and that is true in Kyrgyzstan as well, especially in the rural regions where foreigners are not frequently encountered - although it is not as marked as, say, in China. Although it may be unnerving and you should “keep your wits about you” – it usually simply reflects a natural curiosity.
Time and timekeeping: The Kyrgyz were originally nomads and this seems to have inculcated into their culture a totally different sense of time than in the west – which is much much more relaxed. It can be one of the attractions – but it can also be very frustrating. In Russian there is a phrase (chas) which can me can mean now, within an hour, in an hour’s time – or simply wait. This often means that things are ready at the agreed time – and schedules should not be too tight or demanding. Travelling times can also be longer than originally thought. Do not think that a journey of 300 kilometers will take 3 hours as in many Wester countries. Apart from anything else, many of the roads are through mountainous regions and traveling can be slower than on good roads.
Tipping and gifts: The Kyrgyz were nomads and are very hospitable and tipping is not common – although is always welcome in restaurants etc., where Western tourists are more frequently encountered. As part of this culture, however, it was usual for visitors to leave something behind as a gift and, for example at a homestay, a small gift – something small from home : photogaphs, postcards, a pen – are much appreciated and will be prized. If you are a guest at someone’s home for a meal you should take something small (e.g. fruit, something to drink, some chocolate) with you as a gift.
Toilets: Public toilets are “few and far between” … and in many cases, especially outside the cities. will be of the “squat” variety. Even these come in different forms … some may simply be a hole in the ground. Almost all will smell. Even where you find pedestal toilets – don’t be too surprised about the conditions – e.g. if there is no toilet seat.
Travelling in cars : usually women and children travel in the back seat – not in the front – even if there is no-one else in the car.