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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Which Yurt Do You Fancy?

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BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan ? Throughout the former Soviet Union, the architectural barbarisms of Bolshevik civilization have been inflicted with a dreadful sameness on disparate lands and peoples.

Where nomads once pitched circular felt tents called yurts, where Moslem horsemen galloped in to capture their brides, cities are uniformly made of grayish brick or slabs of cracked concrete. In every village square, a Lenin on a pedestal strides forward with a hand outstretched, as if to shake hands with someone much taller than him.

So, I was pleased when my driver, a Russian Jew named Alan, promised a glimpse of the real Kyrgyzstan along the road to the mountain lake of Issyk-Kul, near the Chinese border. We would stop in a yurt and drink mare's milk, he promised. And sure enough, ninety minutes out of Bishkek, we pulled off by a line of cafes and souvenir shops located in yurts, some of them decorated with ram's skulls.

It appeared we were expected. Barbecue men charged up to beckon us with skewers of flyblown meat. Women in headscarves called our attention to smorgasbord-sized tables selling gum, grapes, bottled beer, candy bars, breath mints, felt hats and cardboard tubes of potato chips rattled to dust on the sea and rail journey from America.

Unfortunately, Alan initiated an episode of intra-ethnic violence by making the cultural blunder of choosing one yurt over the others. As we headed for the door, the other yurt owners unleashed a torrent of abuse at the recipient of our commerce. Two women screamed at each other. They were attractive young ladies, with long hair and dark Asian eyes, and their caterwauling evolved into a catfight of the sort bad girls have in schoolyards: hair-pulling, eye-clawing, kicking, spitting abuse.

For a moment I considered photographing the fight, but I hesitated, considering the shame they would feel. I guess I'm not a real photographer but, really, what publication would want pictures of eye-clawing Kyrgyz women? I have enough trouble selling travel stories anyway, possibly because I clutter them with unsavory details about Philippine bombings and Kamchatka restaurants that serve dishes like "chicken tobacco."

Inside the yurt, flimsy tulle hung like a parachute from the center of the ceiling. We sampled chilled mare's milk ? it was sour like kefir and a little buttery. There is a reason people drink mare's milk in this mountain region, I later heard from Tynara Shaildayeva, a spokeswoman for a mine located at 4,200 meters above Lake Issyk-Kul.

"At high altitudes, colts die if they get too fat," she said. "The nomads have to stop them from drinking too much milk. So they drink it themselves."

While sipping mare's milk, we reflected on the sights of the road. While cities are a tribute to communism's intellectual stultification, there is one place a people can be counted on to preserve a hint of its heritage: the rural graveyard.

Every few kilometers on a Kyrgyz or Kazakh road, you pass a city of the dead, with buildings of a size that might comfortably house dwarves. On the stony rolling hills around the cobalt blue Issyk-Kul, strange structures made of mud and brick arise: facades of houses that look like Spanish mission churches, domed mini-mosques topped with Islamic crescents, the steel frames of yurts topped with stars. Painted on some of the facades are the faces of men in turbans. The structures are the dwelling places of the dead.

In Kyrgyzstan's nomadic past, Shaildayeva explained, these cemeteries were built of mud brick. The dead lived there, the nomads believed, and kept an eye on their descendants. When the structures eroded away, the spirits were freed from their duty to watch over their children. But now that the Kyrgyz were largely settled in cities and villages, they had taken to building their graveyards out of real brick. Somehow, when remaining in a town near the graveyard, the survivors felt the need to keep their ancestors at hand, in permanent houses.

Inside the yurt, the cafe owners watched us with beaming faces that seemed to say: We won. I gulped down the mare's milk ? trying not to think too hard about consuming something that came out of the hindquarters of a horse ? and we stepped out into the blinding sun.

Peace had returned to this village of yurts. One of the former combatants had a scratch under her eye. She smiled at me and hefted a melon. "Want some watermelon?" she said. I declined. Luckily, no further combat ensued.

Russell Working is a freelance correspondent based in Vladivostok.