CUSTOMS IN KYRGYZSTAN
Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures have been described as mixes of Mongol and Turkish culture. Many of their customs are similar to each other and similar to those of Mongolians and Turks.
Kyrgyzstan is a multinational country, so in addition to respecting the customs and traditions of the Kyrgyz, one should also respect the customs and traditions if the other nationalities that live in Kyrgyzstan, the largest of which is the Russians. The customs and traditions in northern Kyrgyzstan are often different than those in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Show respect towards older people by shaking their hands and offering them your seat. Old men, called “aksakals” ("white beards") are treated with great respect. According to everyculture.com: “The most important element of etiquette is respect. Respect is given to elders and authority figures. Verbal respect is given by using the polite pronoun and endings, and by using the titles eje (older sister) and baikay or aga (older brother). People always use these polite forms, even with close friends and relatives. Respect also is shown physically. Men and women alike will give up their seats to elders on public transportation. A person's position at a table also shows his or her status. Men and women usually sit on opposite sides of a table, with the eldest and most respected at the head of the table, farthest from the door. [Source:everyculture.com]
The Kyrgyz are very hospitable and ceremonial. Any visitor, whether a friend or stranger, is invariably entertained with the best — mutton, sweet rice with cream and noodles with sliced mutton. Offering mutton from the sheep's head shows the highest respect for the guest. At the table, the guest is first offered the sheep tail fat, shoulder blade mutton and then the mutton from the head. The guest should in the meantime give some of what is offered back to the women and children at the dinner table as a sign of respect on the part of the visitor. Anyone who moves his tent is entertained by his old and new neighbors as tokens of farewell and welcome. [Source: China.org china.org |]
Traditionally, when a guest came calling, the host invariably unsaddled the guest's horse, and when the guest expressed a desire to depart, the host saddled the guest's horse for him. When a family pulled up its tent stakes to move elsewhere — even if only to a nearby vacant space — the family was feted both by the old as well as the new neighbors. At the same time, Kyrgyz observe a few unyielding taboos: they abhor lying and cursing, and they have rules of etiquette that govern many aspects of social interaction, from how to address one another to where one may relieve oneself . [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Customs and Etiquette in Central Asia
There are over 140 nationalities throughout the Central Asian region. Custom differ from country to country, and even from village to village, and thus sorting out proper etiquette and the "right" cultural tenets and customs can be difficult. For foreign visitors: as a guest in a region proud of its tradition of hospitality, locals will readily forgive any transgressions or missteps within reason. As is the case almost everywhere in the world, a smile and a laugh can go a long way. [Source: safaritheglobe.com]
One of the most beautiful features of Central Asian culture is found within one simple little gesture, this "silent bow". Often accompanying the handshake, men will place their left hand over their hearts and offer a slight, almost indiscernible, bow to their counterpart in a gesture of deep respect. This subtle bow or slight inclination of the head is also displayed in a variety of other exchanges among people. However, when not shaking hands, it is the right hand that is placed on the chest. You will most definitely encounter this when someone is offering thanks, saying goodbye or parting ways, or even when a younger man passes an elder in the street and wants to show his respect. [Source:orexca.com]
Greetings in Kyrgyzstan
According to everyculture.com: “Friends greet each other differently in the north and the south. In the south, men and women both greet friends of the same gender by shaking hands, often with the left hand over the heart. The opposite gender usually is ignored. Greetings are a series of questions with no pause and spoken over the other person's greetings. Older women and female relatives often will kiss on the cheek while shaking hands. Women sometimes kiss each other on the lips when they say farewell. The Arabic greeting assalom aleikum is frequently used between men. In the north, greetings are shorter, and only men shake hands with each other. Assalom aleikum is used only by a younger man to an elder, as a form of deep respect. Good-byes in both the north and the south are brief. [Source: everyculture.com]
According to fantasticasia.net: In Kyrgyzstan people usually greet each other once a day and say good bye when they leave. With people you don't know well you would use formal words like "Zdravstvuite" or "Dobryi den/vecher" for Hello, and "Do svyidania" for Good Bye, and with friends you can say "Privet" (Hi) and "Poka" (Bye). The word in Kyrgyz for Hello is "Salamatsyzby" (literally" Are you healthy?"), and for Good Bye -"Jakshy kalynyz" ("Stay well"), if you're the one who's leaving, and "Jakshy barynyz" ("Have a good journey), if you're the one staying. It may sound complicated at first, but with time, you will learn all these things and many more. [Source:fantasticasia.net ~~]
Handshaking is a common social custom in Kyrgyzstan, but is used by men mostly. Men shake hands to greet and congratulate one another and also to say Good Bye (friends, acquaintances, and strangers at a meeting or a conference). Close friends hug and even kiss, and this is considered to be normal. Typically men do not shake hands with women. If a man extends his hand first to a woman, the woman is supposed to shake it. If a woman extends her hand first to a man, the man would shake it, but this is not a very common thing to happen. So if you're a woman, just wait till a man initiates it. In hand-shaking business here, the woman is supposed to take a passive role. This takes a while for Western women to get used to, and often it is a very sore point. That a man will walk up to a group of men and women, shake hands with the men and ignore the women is not a cultural point that one should get used to, but a difficult custom to change. Concerning kissing hands (men do so sometimes when they want to greet women), this tradition does not really exist any more. Some people still practice it, but it is rather rare. Sometimes older men may greet young ladies in this manner. ~~
Thank Yous and Names in Kyrgyzstan
According to fantasticasia.net: In the west it is very typical to say "Thank you" very often and it is considered rather rude when a person does not use polite phrases like "thank you", "you are welcome", etc. In Kyrgyzstan the situation is slightly different. There is no doubt that Kyrgyz people thank each other and say "you are welcome", but they probably do it less than Westeners. So, at the beginning it might seem a little bit surprising, and you would have to get used to this cultural difference. Also in Kyrgyzstan you are supposed to say hi to a person only once a day, if you say hi for a second time they will think you have forgotten that you have already seen them that day. ~~ [Source:fantasticasia.net ~~]
In Kyrgyzstan different words are used to address an unknown person. If you can manage a few words of the local language or Russian, this will be very much appreciated. For a female it is "gospozha"(madam), "zhenshina"(woman), addressing elder Kyrgyz women (mostly in rural areas) say Edje (Older sister), and for a young woman "devushka"(girl) or Chon Kyz if addressing Kyrgyz girl. For a male it is "gospodin"(sir), and it is common to call a young man "paren" (boy) or "molodoi chelovek" (young man). Addressing elder Kyrgyz male say Baike (Older brother). ~~
The words gospozha and gospodin are a very formal way of addressing people and are when you don't know the person very well, you would normally use either the gospozha So-and-So or gospodin So-and-So address or call people by their first name and patronymic ("otchestvo" in Russian). For example, gospozha Ivanova or Elena Petrovna for female and gospodin Niuhalov or Artem Dmitrievich for male. With friends you can use just the first name or even their nick names if have some. ~~
Public Customs in Kyrgyzstan
Strangers do not usually acknowledge each other while passing on the street. Any close contact, however, such as sitting near each other on public transportation or making a transaction at the bazaar, will open the way to introductions. It is common to invite new acquaintances into the home. [Source: everyculture.com]
Everybody knows that Westeners usually smile when they talk to people, and also in pictures. You will not see a big smile very often when talking to Kyrgyz people, and they smile even more rarely in pictures. It is also a cultural thing. People are just not used to smiling a lot (no reason to, many say), and actually if you're too nice to people, some may think you're a little strange. But of course, there are exceptions, and you may encounter people who would be very friendly, polite, and smile at you. [Source:fantasticasia.net ~~]
There is less personal space than in the United States, and strangers brush against each other in public without apologizing. People tend to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, and physical affection is common between members of the same sex. People usually don't form lines. Pushing to the front of a group for service is normal and inoffensive.
The notion of personal space simply does not exist in Kyrgyzstan. This is especially true in public transport, as the buses and trolleys are very crowded, and people there may touch your elbows, push you, or even lean against you. To a Westerner who is used to the 60-centimeter distance rule, this might be a surprise. You might want to back away when talking to people here and they'll try to come up closer to you again, because that's how they are used to talk. Awkward and unusual as it may seem to you, please don't take it as an insult. The answer can be probably found in family traditions, as Kyrgyz normally have over 5-6 people living together in very limited space. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
A lot of people smoke in Kyrgyzstan, and there is no law that bans smoking until a certain age (like in European countries and the U.S.). Cigarettes are sold everywhere: at shops, supermarkets, kiosks, "bazaar's", and no identification with the birth date indicated is required to purchase cigarettes. That makes it very easy for young children to buy tobacco products, and smoking is on the increase among the youngsters. Smoking is officially prohibited in elevators, health facilities, public transportation, and taxis. Smoking is also restricted in most public buildings (such as museums, markets, classrooms, offices). Restaurants and cafes usually allow their customers to smoke inside, and there's usually no division between the smoking and non-smoking areas. So, if you're a smoker, you won't be happier. If you're a non-smoker, in most cases, you would have to put up with the cigarette smoke around you. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
Concept of Time in Kyrgyzstan
According to fantasticasia.net: Time can be quite relative in Kyrgyzstan. Depending upon the situation you're in, you'll find that being late for an occasion is either appropriate or rude. Here's a "rule of thumb" guide for when to be on time, early or late. Occasion and Rule of thumb: 1) An appointment: Be on time (the person you are meeting might be late); 2) Lunch with friends: Be on time/few minutes late 3) Business lunch/dinner: Be on time; 4) Dinner at friends: 10-30 minutes late. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
People in Kyrgyzstan do not have the concept of time and are not very disciplined at keeping time. They are often late for appointments, business dinners, conferences and all sorts of other events. It can be very annoying for someone who values his/her time, but be prepared for that. It is another cultural difference you would have to if not accept, at least be aware of. You will find that you are used to making a schedule for the day and trying to keep to it. Here that is almost impossible. Somebody will hold you up, offer tea and be offended if you refuse or the car can break down. There is that fine line to walk, one is to not give in and say, "Listen, you where supposed to be here at 2, now it is three and I do not have time to meet you now" Or get used to having a messed up schedule everyday. There is a line in between that you have to find. If you try to keep to standards that you are used to you will only get frustrated and upset. If you decide to drink tea and at every occasion you will end up getting nothing done, somewhere in the middle is the answer, but it is a hard happy medium to find. ~~
Why are they always late? You might find it very annoying that people around you in Kyrgyzstan are not punctual and do not value time. This would be especially true with regard to 'guesting'. It's either the hosts will be ready and the guests late, or the guests on time, and the hosts not yet ready situation. Remember, people in this part of the world have a different notion of time, and for them time IS NOT money. In situations like that, the best way to cope is to be a little bit more patient. ~~
Home Customs in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz are very hospitable people. If a Kyrgyz family invites you for a meal then you should take a small gift — for example fruit or flowers — take your shoes off when entering the house.
Most of the time, when people come into somebody's house, they are supposed to take their shoes off in the corridor before going inside the rooms. Sometimes slippers are offered, sometimes not, and so you would stay in your socks. In the more conservative south, men and women often occupy separate rooms at large celebrations. Boys and girls do not commonly befriend each other. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
When you offer something to eat (for example, some chocolate or sweets) to a Kyrgyzstani person, he/she tends to refuse after your first try, in which case you would probably think they do not want it. As a matter of fact, they would love to taste what you are offering, many people here consider it to be impolite to say No the first time. If you push a little bit, saying: "Oh, please, take a piece of it and taste it!" and insist on it, it is only then that they may consent, saying: "Oh, OK. I will taste it. Thank you.", though, they may have dreamed about it from the very beginning. So if you have a similar situation, and offering something to somebody, try several times to make them taste or take something that you're offering. If you give them one shot only, and they say No, and then you don't offer again, people would most likely feel ashamed to ask for it themselves.
Kyrgyz and Russians tend to sit on chairs, benches or stools rather than on the floor. According to fantasticasia.net: Most older people think that it is not very good for health (the risk of getting cold), and it is not very polite to sit on the floor instead of a chair, or on the ground instead of a bench. Of course, young people worry much less about such things, but by and large, it is not customary to sit on the ground or the floor. Another reason for not sitting on the floor might be that the floors are usually not covered with carpets like they are in foreign countries, and are usually quite dirty to sit on. In contrast to sitting on the ground, you will notice that many young people (men, and women in villages) squat. The thing that surprises foreigners most is that some people can remain in this position for good half hour.[Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
Social Customs and Gifts in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz are very inviting people so it is not uncommon to be invited to a local's house, especially in the countryside. Foreigners are often invited to a social occasion like a birthday party or a wedding. If you do get an invitation, be sure to bring a gift; local sweets or, if you know your host drinks alcohol, a bottle of vodka is a great gift. If it's a colleague you do not know well, you may just express you best wishes, and maybe give flowers but usually only for women. If you give people flowers, remember one basic rule: the number of flowers that you bring to different occasions is very important. An even number of flowers is brought to a funeral. An odd number of flowers is for any other occasion. You certainly don't want to bring 12 carnations (or roses, or some other flower) if it's your friend's 30th anniversary. [Source: fantasticasia.net, safaritheglobe.com]
It is not necessary for guests to show up right on time to a private party, you may be a little late. Once you arrive for dinner remove your shoes and leave them at the door. Let you host show you a seat and lead the ceremonies; as a guest there may be some ceremonies. The first of these is often a toast with a glass of vodka (for the locals that do drink alcohol); if invited to give a toast in return, be sure to mention the hospitality of your host and remember, turning down vodka is rude so good luck. Guests are often invited over with no a special reason. If you are invited to a typical informal Kyrgyz party, be aware that there are also special seating arrangements for guests. The eldest person or honored guest is usually invited to sit either at the head of the table, or "tyor" they call it in Kyrgyz (the seat most distant from the door). Young people or hosts sit by the door to act as "waiters". They bring and take away dishes, pour tea, and do other things. In general, the younger you are, the more work you do. Going to somebody's house take some sweets or souvenirs for children. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
Sometimes a special occasion may be celebrated at a restaurant or cafe. Find out in advance when to come and how much money to bring. In some cases, an invitation may mean that the host is treating, and in some cases it may be an "Everybody pays for himself/herself' scenario.
The notion of personal space simply does not exist in Kyrgyzstan. To a Westerner who is used to the 60-centimeter distance rule, this might be a surprise. You might want to back away when talking to people here and they'll try to come up closer to you again, because that's how they are used to talk. Awkward and unusual as it may seem to you, please don't take it as an insult. The answer can be probably found in family traditions, as Kyrgyz normally have over 5-6 people living together in very limited space. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
Eating Customs in Kyrgyzstan
The eating etiquette of Kyrgyzstan includes the placement of a white cloth — dostorkon — -over the eating area (may be a table or the floor). A meal ends with a thanks given to God with in the form of a loud “omin”. Picnics, especially, are served on a dostorkon. People are expected to sit with their feet either to their side or away from the dostorkon. Handle the food only with your right hand. At the end of the meal bring your two hands up to the face and drag them down as if washing the face and recite the word “omin” – the Muslim equivalent of “amen”.In many homes — unless it is a strict Muslim one — eating also involves drinking. When alcohol is served guests are expected to drink. Don’t think that you can drink just a little – once started it can be difficult to decline further rounds. [Source: kyrgyz.net.my, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website, advantour]
Bread is considered sacred by the Kyrgyz and must never be placed on the ground or left upside down. It is never thrown away, and leftovers are fed to animals. Do not start eating the food until the host invites you to the table. And, always let the eldest or honored guests try the food first. Hosts do not usually ask the "Would you like to drink something?" question, they just give it to you. At the end of a meal, a quick prayer may be said. This is from the Qur'an, but it honors the ancestors. The hands are held out, palms up, and then everyone at the table cover their face in unison while saying omen. Kyrgyzstan say it is a sin: 1) To leave your food on the table untouched; 2) To eat food while standing; 3) To treat any food scornfully. [Source: everyculture.com, fantasticasia.net ~~]
According to safaritheglobe.com: After you're seated, dining etiquette is fairly relaxed and rarely will a Kyrgyz be offended at your mistaken dining habits that don't translate. Once the food is served, and there may be multiple courses so don't overeat, you will likely find that the host will serve everyone. Unfortunately, this means you must eat what you are served, and as a guest of honor, that could be a sheep head. You'll probably also be served kymyz, which is mare's milk, especially if you visit in the summer months. [Source: safaritheglobe.com]
You may find that there are utensils (cutlery) present and if so use them in any manner you prefer, but ideally in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left). On other occasions though you will be expected to eat with your hand; be sure to only use your right hand to eat. You'll also be served flat bread with your meal, which must be eaten in its entirety and placed directly on the table when not eating it; again use your right hand to eat your bread. When the food is finished, you will likely be served tea. Be sure to join in on this local favorite and socialize to close the meal.
There are special seating arrangements for guests. The eldest person or honored guest is usually invited to sit either at the head of the table, or "tyor" they call it in Kyrgyz (the seat most distant from the door). Young people or hosts sit by the door to act as "waiters". They bring and take away dishes, pour tea, and do other things. In general, the younger you are, the more work you do. Going to somebody's house take some sweets or souvenirs for children. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
During holidays and personal celebrations, a sheep is killed and cooked. In the north, the main course is beshbarmak, which is accompanied by elaborate preparations. The sheep is slaughtered by slitting its throat, and the blood is drained onto the ground. Then the carcass is skinned and butchered, and the organ meats are prepared. The intestines are cleaned and braided. The first course is shorpo, a soup created from boiling the meat and organs, usually with vegetables and pieces of chopped fat. The roasted sheep's head is then served and distributed among the honored guests. The fat, liver, other organs, and the majority of the meat are divided equally and served to the guests, with the expectation that they will take this home. Guests receive a cut of meat that corresponds to their status. The remaining meat goes into the besh-barmak. It is shredded into small pieces and mixed with noodles and a little broth, which is served in a communal bowl and eaten with the hands. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
In the south, the main course is most often plov. The sheep is killed and prepared in the same manner as in the north. Shorpo also is served, and the meat, fat, and organ meats are shared and taken home in the same way; however, it is rare for the head to be eaten. Plov is served in large platters shared by two or three people, and often is eaten with the hands. For a funeral and sometimes a marriage, a horse will be killed instead of a sheep. The intestines are then used to make sausage.
See Food, Kazakhstan
Drinking Customs in Kyrgyzstan
In the summer a traditional drink called koumisss is available. This is made of fermented mare's milk, and is drunk at celebrations when it is in season. Multiple shots of vodka are mandatory at all celebrations. It is a custom for Kyrgyzstani people to drink a lot of alcohol for holiday celebrations. The drinks usually vary between beer, wine, Champaign, and vodka or sometimes altogether.
Being a guest in some Kyrgyzstani houses, you may be pressured to drink more than you usually do. If you attend a big event like a Birthday party or a national holiday, there is going to be a lot of toasting, and often times people drink "bottoms up" to most of the toast. If you are a guest of honor (and being a foreigner you may expect to be one), people would drink a lot to you, and you're expected to knock it all down no matter how much or little you enjoy it. For someone who is not used to it, such heavy drinking may be difficult to keep up with, and the main goal for someone like that would be no to stay sober, but avoid getting sick. So, if you really do not feel like drinking, just say politely "no" and do not drink -this is the best way out in such a situation. Often you may accept one drink, thinking that one means one, but if accept the first drink custom will often dictate that you drink with the rest until the end of the bottle. Women have an easier time refusing alcohol then do men. They say there is a very short period between the first and the second (drink or sometimes (what happens more oftenly)bottles). [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
Toasting is a big part of any drinking event, just like drinking is a big part of any social event. Everybody is supposed to be able to make a long toast. The longer the toast, the better. Long toast supposedly show your intelligence. To make a toast is the same as to make a speech before a big auditorium. Many find pride in being given a toast, and many find offense in not being offered to propose one. That is why the host or the toast-master often would not call it a day until everybody has had his or her chance to propose a toast. Also be sure to pour drinks for everybody, then for yourself, to pour for yourself first is very odd here. ~~
Superstitions in Kyrgyzstan
It is bad luck in Kyrgyzstan to: 1) to meet the woman with empty bucket. (especially in the morning); 2) to shake your hands dry after washing them; 3) If a black cat runs across your path; 4) to lay "lepeshka" (round bread) upside down or on the ground, even if it is in a bag; 5) To ask someone about time and distance to a destination. (they believe it may cause unexpected problems in the road); 6) To come back home for something you have left there. You can return, but look at a mirror and everything will be ok. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
Kyrgyzstan say: 1) to watch a sunrise often, or to get up with the sunrise is good luck; 2) to watch a bird sitting near your window brings news or letters; 3) Do not kill a spider, it brings guests to your house; 4) do not sit at the corner of a table/desk, you will not get married ever or will get bad wife/husband; 5) Do not clean table with paper, you will never get married ever; 6) Never hit anybody with a broom, you won't be lucky; 7) do not use a broken mirror; 8) do not whistle in the house, especially at night. It brings evil spirits and you'll be broke. 9) Do not give a knife and a clock as a gift.
Kyrgyzstan also say: 1) If your ears are burning, it means somebody is talking about you; 2) If your nose is itching, someone will invite you for a drink; 3) If your palm is itching, you will get money soon. 4) Do not sweep the house 3 days after your relatives left for a long jorney, otherwise they will never come back. 5) If knife fall down on the floor wait a man coming soon at your house, if spoon or fork wait a woman. 6) Do not get light a cigarette from a candle. 7) When a person returns home (such as after a war, service in the army, or being in hospital), before he/she enters the house, the person should take a cup of water and circle it over his/her mouth. The person should then spit into the cup. You should leave the cup outside. It means you leave all bad things and bad spirits outside, and not in the house.
Kyrgyz say you gain more enemies: 1) If you sweep the house at night; 2) If you wipe a knife with bread; 3) If you leave a broom standing against the wall; and 4) If you step over a lying gun or man. They say it is a sin: 1) To leave your food on the table untouched; 2) To eat food while standing; 3) To treat any food scornfully.
Regarding babies Kyrgyz say: 1) Do not let a baby look at the mirror, she/he will have bad dreams; 2) Do not leave baby's clothes outside at night; 3) Never say good words about a baby, the evil spirits may be attracted by them and may harm the baby.
A talisman, or a charm, was also believed to protect the child from evil spirits. Talismans could be in the form of a tip of a yak’s tail, or one from a newly born colt, which was stitched into the child's clothing. Later on, when Kyrgyz tribes converted to Islam, they started using a scroll with a Sura taken from the Koran, which was given in an amulet in the shape of a triangle – called a tumar. Sometimes the parents would put a bracelet on their child’s leg, or an earring in one ear, assuming that evil spirits fear metallic things. Bracelets made of black beads were put on a child’s wrist. A black bead in an earring was also believed to act as a protecting amulet. Even today these amulets can be seen on children.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated April 2016