Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track
As American foreign travel is concerned, we are more likely to head to Cancun for spring break, or across the border in Canada for some duty-free shopping—not to Kyrgyzstan. The 2008 guidebook Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track by Jessica Jacobson (an American scholar who lived, worked, and traveled in Kyrgyzstan for two and a half years) sheds light on a place that many would consider far beyond the beaten path. The guidebook contains all of the information you would expect from a guidebook: where to eat, what to eat, where to sleep, prices, where to get a cab ride, and how much it should cost. Expect some anecdotes about Kyrgyz culture, but don’t consider it a substitute for an official history.
In my opinion, the key to a good guidebook is good organization, and this book could use more organizational clarity. The Table of Contents is broken down into into regions and “areas,” but I could not determine the difference between a region and an area, if regions were parts of areas (there are only two areas compared to nine regions), and what this distinction means for travelers. After the contents, introduction, map, and a brief history, the book opens with “Travel Essentials,” or everything you need to know about visas, air travel, train travel, what to bring, communications, publications, and more.
“Words You May Hear” (under “Travel Essentials”) seems useful at first, but actually contains only three words. A glossary of terms would be a welcome addition. Details about the cities and towns highlighted under the regions seem especially useful; they are broken down into dining and lodging options (ranging from upscale to should probably avoid), phone numbers, people to talk to, attractions, and websites where available.
Some of the entries, such as local restaurants, are “starred” with two asterisks, meaning they are especially recommended by the author. But if you don’t catch that brief note in the introduction, you’ll be scratching your head the entire book as I was about what those asterisks are supposed to indicate. There aren’t many photos in the book, and where there are images it would have been nice if they had captions. With so much information spanning geographic areas in a single page spread, it isn’t clear which image corresponds to what place. Should the book be reprinted, I would also suggest including a key and an image list.
Based on this book and Jacobson’s travels—do I want to visit Kyrgystan? Absolutely. The strongest impression I received is that Kyrgyzstan is “a nature-lover’s dream,” to quote Jacobson. Although the tourism industry is still in the process of being developed (with positive results), the country can be described as being well-suited and hospitable to backpacking, hiking, skiing (on virtually deserted slopes!), nature photography, horseback riding, camping, visiting or living in yurts, and numerous mineral and hot springs/spas and sanatoriums. Everywhere there seems to be a guest house (or yurt) with someone willing to show a foreigner around, and Jacobson never mentions encountering problems being an American woman on her own in Kyrgyzstan. The activities Jacobson participates in aren’t the typical tourist activities; they include long (and difficult) hikes and local festivals. Yet for those who want a shopping mall, she tells you where to find one. Roaming Kyrgyzstan is well-suited to assist the adventurous DIY traveler. Jacobson promises that if you don’t mind going over some bumpy roads in a noisy dust-filled car, the dynamic vistas of Kyrgyzstan will be breathtaking and like none other on the planet.