What is чай ич – chai yich? Literally, in Kyrgyz, it means to drink tea, but in reality – to chai yich is really much more than that. It can take hours, consume entire workdays, and build the foundation for relationships. In a land where bread is considered sacred, cutting time out of your schedule to come together, prove your genuine hospitality, and press food and drink onto revered guests is a significant part of daily life.
When traveling anywhere in Kyrgyzstan, it is nearly impossible to drive for more than one hour without the imminent need for a (sometimes) brief stopover for tea. On the roads to West from Bishkek towards Toktogul and Talas and East towards Issyk Kul and Naryn, there are impressive stretches of Kyrgyz rest-stops, haphazardly composed of yurts, modern cafés, women selling splayed-open dried fish and round balls of salted, dehydrated milk called kurut, and a collection of vehicles stopped for tea and food.
In Peace Corps lingo, these long stretches of road – and the longer time spent waiting to move forward on them – are called the Republic of Chaiyichistan. Your delays in this imaginary land can be a short fifteen minutes, or it can be a lengthy hour or two. The terrain of the Republic of Chaiyichistan is ever changing, and you often have little choice in your path through its territory. You can spend the time in rest-stops that resemble some barebones version of truck-stop-slash-restaurants of the United States, or in an ultra-modern Russian gas station. Or you can spend them unquestioningly abandoning the paved highway to climb rocky hills in your tiny sedan, past herds of horses, into a yurt to be served large bowls of kymys, bonding with absolute strangers. On the road to Talas, Britta, Sara, and I wandered through the mountains into the latter version.
Top to Bottom, Left to Right:
Turn off established highway onto rocky, dirt road into the mountains? Well, obviously. What else would you do? | Republic of Chai-yich-istan, Yurt-Route: Ak-Sakal outside a yurt, Yurt encampment, a herd of horses awaiting milking. | Our driver and an adorable baby. | Preparing to chai yich on bread and kymys (but, oddly, not tea.) | Breaking bread, a somewhat sacred task.