28.06.2015 - 12.07.2015 18 °C
On summer weekends, there's a train from Bishkek to Balykchy, the first town on the western edge of the lake. We pull up to the train station in Bishkek wondering if we're in the right place. There is not a soul in sight; quite a change from stepping around bodies in most Indian train stations. It's a 5 hour ride (2 hours longer than by car) but supposedly more picturesque than the road running right along side us. No matter, we aren't in a hurry and the wood paneled train is rather retro.
Alexey meets us in Balykchy and we drive an hour further east along the northern shore to Chalpon Ata on the north side of the lake for the night at his friend's guesthouse. The next morning we visit the petroglyph museum nearby, and a nicely curated regional museum in town before stopping for lunch. The president of the Off Road Kings club happens to be having lunch at the same place, so we say hello, pose for a photo and look at the route map of the expedition. The only outstanding issue is our permit to circulate in the area near the Chinese border which is a bit tricky at the last minute, but someone in the club has a connection.
Karakol feels like a frontier town with wide crisscrossed streets in various stages of resurfacing. There's a mini market on every corner, an inordinate number of clothing and shoe shops, a few rows of cargo containers that constitute the bazaar and some restaurants. Always on the hunt for a cappuccino and a good wifi connection, we stop in at Karakol Coffee. The only disturbing aspect of this nice cafe is the exceedingly effective flypaper strategically placed next to each table. I decide it's the lesser evil.
Saint Trinity Cathedral, a beautifully restored wood church and the Dungan Mosque which looks more like a Chinese pavilion are the main sites to visit in town.
While the drive to Altyn Arashan is relatively short (50 km), once you turn off the main road the dirt track leading up is insane. Alexey skillfully maneuvers the Land Cruiser, over rocks and boulders, across bits of bridges wavering above a rushing river bordered by elegantly aligned, towering pine trees, What a ride. Many backpackers do it on foot in about 5 hours.
At 2400 meters (x 3 for approx. feet), there's no village, just a few houses mostly occupied in the summer. Yak Tours Lodge is down and dirty, run by Valentine, a charming, rugged mountain guide. We score the double room, a wood platform with a thin dusty mattress at the top of a makeshift staircase, probably because he and Alexey are good friends. The outhouse near the river is frightening, but the valley is beautiful, surrounded by crisp white peaks.
We set off with one of Valentine's mountaineering students to hike to a lake. There is no path and we trudge several hours through a steep pine forest and over endless green hills to reach a slightly disappointing lake at 3100 meters where we collapse, briefly. We follow the river back down along a trail which is just as difficult on our feet, but there is a reward back near the lodge: hot springs. You are given the key to one of several log cabins near the river which lock from the inside for complete privacy. Natural spring water flows in and out of the 3 x 4 meter tiled basin at a constant 40°. So soothing.
The drive along the less developed southern edge of Lake Issy Kul offers access to some beautiful sites including Jeti Oghuz - Seven Bulls - a picturesque formation of red rock and the lovely Kok Jaiyk, Valley of Flowers.
We stop for the night at the Barskoon Guesthouse, the home of close friends of Alexey at the end of a private road. Tanya and Alexander regale us with fresh greens from the garden and delicious homemade cherry wine. We drive off promising to be back in a few days.
The village of Tamga, on the way to Skazka, aka Fairytale Canyon which requires no further description, has a particularly nice cemetery.
Lake Shor Kol is the Kyrgyz version of the Dead Sea. An arduous, sandy road leads to the entrance gate manned by a group of locals. While a dip is tempting, the water is ice cold and I settle on watching Alexey float on the surface.
The CBT guesthouse In Bokonbayeva offers superior comfort. The decoration however, is a maelstrom of design on four walls.
We head back to Karakol for our last night before the expedition in order to see the Sunday animal market, reputed to be one of the largest in the country. Some bring truckloads of animals while others arrive with a few goats on a leash. In the horse area, specimens are paraded around, farriers restrain animals for fitting and stalls sell saddles and other equipment. Sheep and goats are poked and prodded for weight and fat content and money is exchanged freely. The only disturbing aspect is to see some animals bound and enclosed in the trucks of cars upon conclusion of a sale.
Around noon, we join the off Road Kings for the departure from Karakol. The first night will be a test run to the Karkara Valley that separates Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan to check that all cars are running smoothly and supplies are adequate. It's the first real rain we've had since we arrived in Kyrgyzstan almost a month ago. There are 9 jeeps, predominantly Toyota Land Cruisers. Communication between cars is handled by walkie-talkie. While we hardly understand the constant Russian banter, it's obvious that these guys are revved for the adventure. Little by little, we observe the detailed organization that has been put in place at weekly club meetings over the last few months, chaired by "President" pronounced with a French accent and good for a laugh every time. The lead car, is a white Nissan Patrol with "Drone" at the wheel. He and "GPS", an avid hunter, are largely responsible for planning the route. Cameraman, "Dimon" is shooting with a GoPro attached to a surprisingly efficient homemade Steadicam with a cell phone for playback; just one of several ingenious self-made rigs he'll be using over the next week. Not one hour in and the convoy pulls over. It's time for the first toast! Vodka is one provision that will not run out over the next week. As the group throws back a shot, the sun begins to break through.
Near the village of Char Kuduk, where equestrian games take place in mid Aug, we stop at a large pile of rocks called San Tash (counting stones) where one legend has it that when the Mongol ruler Tamerlane, a relative of Gengis Khan, passed through this valley on the way to invade China (late 14th century), he instructed his men to each take a stone from the banks of Lake Issy Kul and place it in a pile. On the way back from battle he had them each remove a stone from the pile thus indicating the number of men lost. While most of the group poses for photos on the mound, "Drone" sweeps the site with a metal detector looking for ancient arrowheads.
"GPS" leads us into a scenic gorge where we set-up camp near a river for the night. Within minutes, a fire's started and the kitchen, overseen by Nurdin (not everyone has earned a nickname yet) swings into action. Cocktails (vodka and Koumis - fermented mare's milk) and snacks are served followed by penne with a few pieces of lamb and vegetables and a lot of lamb fat. Soon after, several jeeps led by "Magnet" aka "Brigadier" take off for some fun but unsuccessful fishing. We retreat to our tent just as heavy rain arrives. Around 9:30pm we are summoned. It's now pitch black and drizzling, but the camp is brightly lit by an LED light-bar on one of the jeeps. Tarps have been installed overhead and the group is enjoying a second meal of soup and vodka around a long table.
Thunder and lightning rock us to sleep and by morning, the skies have cleared. We fold camp and head back to Karakol to purchase a few extra provisions. We pick up a plastic cover for our tent and some victuals to better suit our european palates, especially for breakfast, as the previous night's meal is less than appetizing first thing in the morning. As "Lyoha" (Alexey) says, "Better to overeat than under sleep!" The group will camp near Lake Issy Kul tonight while we spend another night at Alexey's friends in Barskoon, sipping their cherry wine and taking advantage of one last hot shower.
Day 3: A couple of cars have joined the convoy including "Antonio" and Zhenya whose white Mitsubishi van is already in trouble. "Lyoha" makes some repairs and we set off into the gorge leading to the highly secured Kumtor gold mine. As the mine is in operation, the road is well maintained though extremely dusty. While the long black "snorkle" fitted to the outside of the jeep keeps the engine clean(er), we can only close the windows to minimize our dust intake. We climb to 3800 meters and pull over to wait for the Mitsubishi which painstakingly appears about 20 minutes later. As expected, the couple will have to abandon their vehicle. With typical Kyrgyz hospitality, they are welcome to leave the van with some locals for as long as necessary. Almaz, an orthopedic doctor from Bishkek, offers to take the couple in his white Land Cruiser decorated with commemorative WW2 designs in honor of his grandfather.
It's late afternoon as we drive through Suyok Pass (3741 meters). "Joma's" 15 year old son takes turns between driving his dad's jeep and riding on top of it. Tragically, as many as 100,000 Kyrgyz died in the region in what is known as Urkun (exodus) fleeing the Red Army who was calling for locals to join Tsarist forces during WW1. Those who managed to survive the revolt of 1916 died in the mountains a bit further at the Chinese border near Bedel Pass (4000 meters). You can sense the hardship endured in this inhospitable terrain.
The convoy takes a few "short cuts" through the Kara-Sai Valley stopping at a border between borders control. Even though we will not be crossing into China, a special permit is required to be in this area. Once thru, we cross a bridge, carefully squeeze through a narrow vertical gorge then cross the river again. Having completed just under 200 km in about 10 hours, we stop for the night at an empty hunting lodge in Ishtyk. There are a few beds inside very rudimentary cabins up for grabs. One look inside and I opt to pitch the tent. Dinner: leftover penne with lamb, veggies and... fat.
Day 4: We're on the road by 10. "Mishka" loses a (spare) tire as he climbs a steep hill, bringing roars of laughter over the walkie-talkies as jeeps steer clear. The whole group watches from the ridge as he reclaims and refastens it to the roof of his blue Toyota FX, clearly the funkiest looking jeep of the group.
The fleet of 10 (another jeep has abandoned) advances along a relatively smooth road when suddenly the lead car takes a sharp left off road into a vertical climb up a series of grassy hills laying tire marks for others to follow, or not. When it levels out, everyone jumps out of the vehicles to climb up to a ridge. Carefully peering over the edge, some inching forward on their stomachs, reveals a vertiginous view of the river carved into the ravine below. This is Torobos Canyon.
Around noon we stop by the Karabil river (3200 meters) for some vodka and Koumis. We are very close to the Chinese border. As we continue thru a rocky gorge, thick patches of snow appear prompting squeals of pleasure as the guys take turns plowing thru.
Continuing through the riverbed, screams of excitement suddenly rattle the walkie-talkies. A possible Yeti (abominable snowman) sighting... The line of jeeps screeches to a halt, a guy jumps out of one, aims a rifle and fires! The animal gets away, but the excitement lingers well into the evening.
It's almost 18h when we reach the Ishtyk-Su River at just under 3000 meters. We drive a bit further and set-up camp in the Uzongu Kuush river basin. As a testament to the road conditions, we've covered just 50 kms today in 10 hours. The kitchen crew whips up a traditional Plov (lamb with rice, vegetables and, wait for it..., fat). It's served with a fresh tomato salad which when added to the dish dilutes the heady lamb taste which we are having trouble with.
It's Day 5 and the established routine of breakfast, tent folding, and car maintenance takes about 3 hours. By 10 AM the group is ready to roll. The cars are looking pretty dirty, especially "Yoma's" camouflage Nissan Patrol, except for the tires which get a frequent bath in the many river crossings which happens to be the first event of the day. Fortunately, we don't need what's left of the bridge to cross...
Soon we are driving along a raging muddy river with China on the other side when the road ends. Over the next couple of hours, the jeeps proceed slowly over boulders of all sizes, often stopping to either shovel a path or fill holes to enable the thick tires to slide over. The teamwork and driving skills are thoroughly impressive.
By late afternoon, Dankov Peak (5986 meters) is in clear view. The stop at a border patrol camp is more of a courtesy call as Kyrgyz people always stop to greet others. A treacherous river crossing and climb to 3400 meters gets us to the Kotur River and our camp, a hunting lodge overseen by a hospitable local man and his dogs. We've completed 75 kms today. There are a few old trailers and tin cabins fitted with primitive beds. We decide to brave it in the tent despite high winds on the plateau. While a traditional Kourdak (meat, potatoes, onions and...) cooks slowly in a massive cauldron, overseen by Anvar, a bunch of us sit around a roaring fire to keep warm. "Gascogne" aka "Dartagnan" has everyone in fits of laughter as he rattles off one joke after another with theatrical delivery. I don't understand a word, but it's still funny to watch. It's the coldest night yet, but we survive.
Day 6 : A few of the cars are positioned in a small circle for a check before departure. The undersides took a beating in one of the river crossings yesterday. We pull away from camp, just as it begins to hail. The drive is straight through a high altitude plateau on a relatively good road between 2 snow-covered mountain ranges. When we stop for some photos by a gigantic rock, the altimeter reads 3772 meters. Breathing is an effort.
A scenic pasture with a couple of yurts makes for an inviting afternoon stop. As tradition calls for, the shepherd offers the group a drink. The family happens to be celebrating the recent wedding of their son and they are eager to show us the traditional table that has been set for the visit of the bride's parents. A few of us are invited to enter the yurt and toast the newlyweds. No thank you is not an option. There is not a millimeter of free space on the tablecloth filled with breads, cheeses, vegetables, fruits and sweets. A toast to the bride, a toast to the groom, another toast... We take leave with difficulty as they would like us to drink more vodka for as they say, who knows if we'll be able to drink in our next life.
The drive through the Kok Kiya Valley leading to Lake Kul Su (3514 meters) is beautiful in the early evening sun, but pales in comparison to the stunning turquoise water of this particularly secluded lake that sits deep in a ravine at the end of a less than reassuring track. It's a slow, technical approach winding through gigantic boulders scattered as a result of great seismic activity. This is perhaps the most beautiful scenery we've seen during this expedition. But it's almost 7PM and awfully cold. We carefully make our way back into the valley and set-up camp by the river.
Day 7: While most of us are getting ready to leave, Almaz and Nurdin bravely take a plunge in the river. The rest of us watch from the cliffs above in awe. Today we're heading to Tash Rabat most famous for its Caravanserai, once a stop for travelers on the Silk Route. The stone edifice is fairly well preserved and lies in a beautiful gorge. On the way, we pause near Lake Chattar Kul 3400 meters to fill water bottles from a spring of heavily mineralized water bearing a pronounced metal taste. As the hours pass, the water in the bottles turns cloudy and red from the iron and by the evening is no longer safe to drink. A vote is taken, and the group decides to continue to Naryn for the last night which will shorten the final drive to Bishkek. For us, the novelty of camping and no showers has worn off and we decide to leave the group heading for a hotel with a hot shower and firm mattress in the city.
Day 8: Although the road is being paved, the drive through Dolon Pass (3030 meters) is choked with dust. We stop in the town of Kochkor to visit a cooperative where 60 local women make traditional felt objects and weave yurt accessories and in Tokmok to visit the Burana Tower, a 9th century minaret that breaks the horizontal landscape and shadows a cemetery with very unusual headstones dating back to nomadic Turks (6th century). From here, the road to Bishkek is so smooth it seems odd.
"Dimon", kindly offers us a place to stay in Bishkek while we sort through thousands of photos, wash everything we own and prepare to move on to the next "stan".
Over 5 weeks we have driven about 6000 kms both on and off road and It's safe to say that we've seen most of Kyrgyzstan, or at least everything up to 4000 meters. The natural beauty of the country and kindness of its people are well worth the sometimes rustic accommodations and limited culinary options. Visit before the rest of the world finds out.
On to the next Stans...