Manas airmen get turn as tourists in Kyrgyzstan
NEAR TOKMOK, Kyrgyzstan — The group wound its way around the narrow bend, the horses treading carefully on the edge of the snowy precipice.
Snow-filled valleys yawned below, peering up at craggy, snow-capped mountains where not a sound could be heard apart from the noise of horses’ hoofs crunching through snow. The sun glared upon the tired travelers, casting a harsh glow off the snow.
When the group rounded the final bend, some of the horses began to canter excitedly, breaking into a full gallop before reaching their final destination: a tiny house tucked into a snowy valley.
Inside, smiling women brought steaming bowls of borscht, meat-filled dumplings, sweets, bread and tea to the American airmen seated around a low-slung table.
Welcome to a day off in the life of many deployed airmen with the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan.
Airmen stationed at Manas bring much more to the country than constant air traffic. They also bring tourism dollars.
Official figures were not available as to how much of the nation’s growing tourism industry is fueled by American airmen, but the base does offer a wide variety of tourist trips per week. Attendance is normally brisk at the many events, which include trips to local restaurants, daylong cultural tours, horseback riding, hiking, golf and whitewater rafting.
And airmen can even pursue the American national sport: shopping. Airmen are no strangers to Kyrgyzstan’s largest mall — a four-story edifice in central Bishkek that resembles a large, upscale flea market.
Airmen are known to frequent the fourth floor, which offers an interesting juxtaposition of goods: heavy appliances and local handicrafts, such as handmade rugs, felt hats, Russian nesting dolls, jewelry, toys, paintings and the obligatory Soviet kitsch.
Airmen overwhelmingly appreciate the opportunity to get off base and explore.
“One, it’s good de-stresser,” said Staff Sgt. David Moore, 31, of Youngwood, Pa. “And you get to learn about the culture.”
The locals also learn something about the Americans, he said.
“Anywhere you go, you’re basically an ambassador of the United States,” he said. “I’d say we’re definitely helping out the economy. I know they enjoy us coming out and shopping. Every time I go downtown, I spend at least $100.”
Moore, who has been on two deployments in Kyrgyzstan, is somewhat of an übertourist: On his first rotation, he went whitewater rafting, hiking and on day trips. This time around, he’s developed an affinity for horseback riding. He’s been three times, at $50 a pop.
“I can say this is the best [temporary deployment] I’ve been on,” he said. “If I had a chance to come back, I definitely would.”
Capt. Allen Specht, 28, of Charleston, S.C., said he definitely enjoyed the experience of horseback riding in the mountains.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was nice to get off base and see what’s happening in the country.”
Besides, he added, “it’s nice to get paid to go tromp around the mountains on a horse.”