Kyrgyzstan – one sheep’s head and mare’s milk to go please

Hitting the street in Bishkek in summer you are confronted with an army of informal beverage stands popping up all over the city. You will likely get your first taste of Maksim, a wheat-based drink that Kyrgyz like to drink in the summer which is said to be particularly healthy. Ingredients include animal fat, wheat flour and barley. Traditionally made by housewives, thanks to the Shoro Beverage Company based in Bishkek, this drink is now available to health conscious commuters on the streets of Bishkek.

In addition, there is also Chalap, a traditional Kyrgyz and Kazakh drink made of yoghurt, carbonated water, and salt. For the more adventurous in countryside there is Kumys or koumiss, fermented mare’s milk.  The drink was once promoted as a cure-all to foreign visitors in Central Asia.  Leo Tolstoy wrote about it in his book “A confession,” where he described it as a remedy with his battle against depression.

For foodies, the cities bazaars contain some real delicacies. In Osh bazaar there is sheep’s head and horse meat sausages for the adventurous traveller. Kyrgyz like their meat fatty and there is even a saying that “cheap mutton has little fat”. Beyond the local fare the bazaars display Kyrgyzstan’s melting pot of cultural influences.  You will likely find spices from the Uighurs (China), Korean kimchee and meat from Russia.

Kyrgyzstan’s retail environment remains very fragmented but larger department stores are appearing across the city. Wandering in Tsum shopping mall you might feel like you have been transported to Southeast Asia’s strip malls, trading in pirated software and memorabilia. However, wet markets or bazaars remain popular and cheaper for most consumers.  In recent years Kyrgyzstan has been increasingly used as a re-export centre, targeting central Asian traders. By some estimates it remains one of the largest economic activities of Kyrgyzstan.

In Dordoy market, the growth of Chinese imports and Kyrgyzstan’s poor balance of trade with China are visible. The market is a large wholesale market, aided by the free trade zone in Naryn. At present, this is the main transport link from Kyrgyzstan to China. However, most traders will attest that trading across borders can be challenging. Furthermore, recent closes in borders between China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have had a negative effect on re-exports. This has particularly impacted Dorday market, which has seen a dramatic drop in trade volume.

Central Asia provides some real logistical challenges, as it remains one of the two large concentrations of landlocked developing countries in the world. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are particularly constrained by the poor infrastructure quality and lags in the quality and competence of logistics services. Kyrgyzstan has made infrastructure improvements in recent years and a number of infrastructure projects are financed by international donors and foreign governments.

Beyond logistics, for the many traders, a reliable source of electricity remains a major challenge. The country ranks very poorly on getting electricity, with a high cost of income per capita. However, traders can take solace from the fact that Kyrgyzstan has become an easier place to do business. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, the country has made it much easier to start a business, dropping the number of procedures required from 9 (2008) to 2 (2011). That should at least increase the number of business start-ups, and quench the thirst of a few commuters.

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