Kyrgyzstan, as any other country, has its own unique traditions, but unlike other countries, our traditions are above government, religion and law. Traditions are our everything, they control our lives and form us as people, so to understand Kyrgyz people you first need to learn about our traditions and culture. Some are beautiful and graceful, others are strange and illogical but each is unique. And those who question them will be accused of treason!
You can start to explore our rich culture with the list below, but the full list will take more than a couple of pages:
Gatherings with wide family
Once a month every family slaughters/sacrifices a ram, which means you have a big gathering of all relatives at someone’s house. The men start their day by choosing/buying a ram (young and tender hopefully), while ladies bake bread and prepare all the necessary pots to wash the ram’s guts. When the ram is brought, the family gathers around and the eldest person prays. After, as you’ve already guessed, the men kill the ram, skin it and cut it while ladies wash the guts.
Rich feast with guests
When we set the table for guests we make sure that there is no empty spot on it, that’s why we put 4 small bowls of the same jam in different quadrants, honey, sugar, butter, fruit, candies, cookies, nuts, raisins and bread, we just spread pieces of bread all over the table until it covers the whole table. The variety and amount of snacks and appetizers depend on family and their financial capacity, but bread and tea is a sure thing. Some notes for the uninitiated: don’t try to eat everything in round one, and always assume that there is a massive meat-laden course a few minutes away.
Better to get married before 25
You have to get married before 25, or be considered a person who has failed at life. Parents are the highest court, the word of wisdom, if they say you have to marry, you better find a girl/boy you like or have one found for you. Around 150-300 guests are invited to the wedding, though your parents decide who they are, usually colleagues you have never met, classmates and neighbours, extended family while you have the right to invite 10-20 friends. The groom pays for the wedding, so his parents decide how many people the bride, or better said, her parents can invite. People bring money as gifts, and you better keep track of the amount because the next time you attend that person’s event you better bring the same amount of money he gave you… or the war commences.
Kalym for the family of the loving bride
Another interesting tradition related to weddings is Kalym (ransom in Kyrgyz). Yes, if you want to marry a Kyrgyz girl, you have to prepare a ransom. If she is a “city girl” be prepared to pay up to $ 1000, the amount depends on her education and your parents’ negotiation skills. You also have to be ready to pay for the wedding celebration (for 150-300 people). As for the bride, she moves into your house (or better put, your parents’ house) with a dowry that should be decent and can include furniture, appliances, kitchenware, etc.
The importance of wedlock
Living together out of wedlock is not allowed. Period. It has nothing to do with religion but TRADITIONS and good moral standards. However, there is always a way to get around it. If two really want to live together and the official wedding is not going to happen soon, then we have another (insert your own adjective) tradition called “Kyz Uzattuu” (bride’s farewell). It is a small (compared to the wedding but still pretty big in terms of guests invited) celebration when the groom comes and gets the bride (who can actually wear the wedding dress so it is basically like a small wedding) with her dowry. This is all followed by hundreds and thousands of procedures (TRADITIONS) but the main idea is that as many people should witness that your kid is officially given permission to live with somebody else, that he or she is not shamelessly living out of wedlock. Later, in a couple of months, they celebrate a real wedding, and there is no way not to. Divorce is discouraged and regarded as a shame and a failure.
The strict hierarchy of family
When there is a family gathering (for different reasons: slaughter, wedding, funeral, birthday) as a young member of the family you are supposed to come and help from early morning till late night. As a young girl you are not supposed to sit at the main table, but in the kitchen, washing, cooking, cleaning, serving, washing, cooking, cleaning, serving. Young men are supposed to take care of the fire (girls work, boys throw wood onto the fire…), while the meat is cooked in a huge pot we call a “Kazan”. If you don’t show up or show up late, there will be low murmurs about you not being well brought up. Families are usually pretty big (when you include the extended family), which means that every weekend most young people are busy helping one family member or other to wash, cook, clean, serve.
The pleasant and endless cycle of gifts
There are countless small occasions when you should give or receive a present, normally a scarf for women or a shirt with Kalpak (traditional hat) for men. However, you don’t wear these presents but keep them to regift at the next occasion, always careful to avoid the dreaded regifting back to the original gifter. Coming soon, an app for that.
To read more about traditions, culture and stereotypes download the guidebook: “Kyrgyzstan: mountains, horses, but no Borat! A not so boring guide to this wild country!”.