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Kumis: The Kyrgyz Cure-all

This detox isn't a spa. Kumis, a slightly alcoholic drink made of mare's milk, is a peculiar facet of the hills and herds of nomad culture in Kyrgyzstan that will cure what ails you.

Kyrgyzstan is an ideal place for travelers interested in an adventurous blend of culture and virgin peaks that never seem to end, a relatively new country for adrenaline-hungry travelers from skiers to horse riders. For most who visit this small mountainous country, it is the nomadic culture and traditions that are the highlight, a way to escape modernity.

In the spirit of nomad exploration and for those looking for a different detox than they’re used to, there’s kumis.

To the nomads, the only detox program is the “kumisolechenie,” the kumis cure. For those unfamiliar with this unusual drink, kumis is a beloved Central Asian dairy product that is made of fermented mare’s milk, and in Kyrgyzstan, it is lauded for its physical and mental benefits. From March to mid-June it’s kumis season; shepherds go out to “jailoos” (mountain pastures) and milk their mares to make their kumis.

The way to make kumis is fermenting fresh mare’s milk with the help of milk yeast. Afterward, the fermented milk is shaken and kneaded in special wooden vessels. Once it is properly mixed, the resulting liquid is bottled and clogged for fermentation. The end result is a chilled and carbonated beverage with a light alcoholic aroma and a sharp taste.

ABOVE: Homemade Kyrgyz kumis.

The traditional kumis treatment includes drinking fresh mare’s milk and kumis around five times a day. Travelers can watch or even join in the milking – maybe just bravely quaff some straight from the bucket. Kyrgyz believe the treatment can heal and help to manage chronic diseases and assist the immune system. Mare’s milk is viewed by some as like being breastfed all over again.

ABOVE: Fresh mare’s milk being poured in Kyrgyzstan.

Unfortunately, kumis cannot be stored for a long time. Difficulties in industrial preparation, bottling, and storage make kumis quite unique – certainly unique to the world of alcoholic beverages. There have been attempts to bottle and sell the drink in recent years, but the quality, taste, and utility don’t stand up to the traditional nomad way.

Of course, it’s not the actual detox experience that draws both travelers and locals; it’s an escape to the country’s untapped nature and meadows and a return to an older way of life. The months in which kumis is made are also warmer months in which travelers can relax in a traditional yurt and hit the hills without getting too frosty.

ABOVE: A nomad collecting mares milk in the Suusamyr valley in Kyrgyzstan.

Travelers will notice the special relationship that herders have with the horses and can immerse themselves in a complex world of husbandry. Each herd includes one stallion and the rest are mares and their offspring, which are tied to a rope called a jele usually somewhere around the yurt. Before milking a foal is brought to the mare, inducing her to be milked. These are not cows; there’s very little milk to be had, but they give it more frequently – roughly 5 times a day – hence the frequency of the kumis drinking.

ABOVE: Drinking kumis in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan’s Suusamyr valley.

The relationship between the milker and mares is far more intimate than it seems. It’s said that a mare lets only one person milk her. Each new person has to wear the clothes of the previous milker for the animal to see and smell. 

Though travelers will likely find kumis wherever they find themselves in Kyrgyzstan, in kumis season the regions of  Issyk-Kul and Naryn region are in the perfect season for travel: high altitude, good temperature, and it’s always fun to travel by horse.