06.06.2015 - 24.06.2015 22 °C
It's 7am at the airport on Bishkek. With just a couple of windows open and no one directing traffic at Immigration, inching forward is all about how aggressive you're feeling. The upside: It takes so long that the bags are waiting for us. Next a test of negotiating skills, but once in the taxi, the atmosphere changes dramatically. It's a 30 minute drive to the center on a straight, flat, virtually deserted road. A few minutes into the ride we realize that while we're driving on the right side of the road, the steering wheel is also on the right. Even more confusing, some of the (few) cars we speed by are lefthand drive. Apparently, you can choose; righthand drive being the cheaper option. It's all very green and our cab driver, who looks about 15 and speaks remarkably good English, tells us it's the best time of year to visit. Although it's quite hot (>35°), most of the sites are in the mountains and judging by the quantity of snow on the peaks that cut an irregular line across the sky in the distance, we won't be too hot for long.
Buildings and shops with signs in cyrillic start to appear. I probably should have bought that "Point It" book. At Ultimate Adventures Guesthouse, we're greeted by a kind woman who shows us to a very basic room for 40 eu with breakfast which feels a bit expensive for this shoebox with paper-thin walls and shared bath.
She starts talking Kyrgyz or Russian, we're not sure, as if we might understand. After a few giggles and the help of our Russian phrase book, we've ordered breakfast. Later, we meet one of the French-speaking owners, Smail, who, as hoped for, proves to be a goldmine of information. As we still need the visa for Tajikistan, we've got a couple of days in Bishkek to formulate a plan for the next month.
The application for the Tajik visa is surprisingly easy and it so happens that on the day we apply, there is a Tajikistan cultural evening at the Bishkek Philharmonic.
The city is a grid of long, wide avenues with soviet-style buildings. On the main square, we stop to watch the changing of the guards. Total respect as they stand still in the boiling heat for hours. The mix of people on the streets is so interesting: Russian, Mongolian, Chinese - fair skin/Asian eyes, sometimes blue : Eurasian. While Kyrgyzstan is predominantly Muslim, most women are not veiled or covered at all. In fact, most are quite feminine, in short or long dresses, heels, accessories and make-up. They are also not hiding from the sun as much as other Asians do.
Kyrgyz like their beverages fermented and on every corner, sometimes out of their cars, in every restaurant and cafe, people are selling Koumis, fermented mare's milk, Tan, fermented cow's milk or Kvas a drink made from fermented bread. In one restaurant we are offered Maxim, a fermented cereal drink. One sip and we push the pitcher away. Aside from the sour taste, the consistency is akin to the liquid you drink before a colonoscopy. Let's call it acquired.
Food is also a challenge. Most dishes are made with lamb and lamb fat. And not just any fat. We're talking big chunks of fat from the animal's backside. Even rice is cooked in this giving everything a heady taste and oily consistency. The culinary saving grace is Shashlyk, skewered kebabs of lamb, beef and sometimes chicken, and a fresh tomato salad. Little do we know, we'll be eating this almost every day for the next 3 months. Vegetarians will be sorely tested throughout Central Asia.
The Osh bazaar in Bishkek is a sprawling market where you can buy anything. Really. It also makes for a good practice zone for Russian lessons. Within a few days, one of us has learned the cyrillic alphabet and can count making purchases, ordering food and negotiating taxis much more manageable. I'm relying on Google Translate which also works really well, provided you download the off-line version.
While it is more or less possible to visit the country via public transportation, it's neither easy nor convenient. Marshrutkas, mini vans with designated stops are cheap, crowded and plentiful in the city, while shared taxis (which only move when full, though you are welcome to pay for the whole car and you have to pay for their return trip) can get you to points further, but then what? Not to mention that some locations require 4-wheel drive. It doesn't take much to figure that having a car and driver is the way to go. Smail makes it easy by introducing us to Alexey Drosdov (email@example.com), a Kyrgyz/Russian who honed his English working for the American Embassy in Bishkek. One look at his fully-loaded Toyota Land Cruiser and we're sold.
We set out for a 2 week circuit with radar detector, camera filming front and back, "snorkel" a funny-looking contraption that filters dust away from the engine, altimeter, all kinds of charging capabilities for comps, phones, batteries, 40 litres of water, camping equipment and enough provisions to survive bad cuisine. Smail has laid out a plan for us with the caveat that we are free to change the program anytime, which suits us perfectly. Heading out of Bishkek, we drive through a gorge and up to about 3000 meters (approximately x 3 for feet) where we wait at the entrance of a bleak tunnel. People here do not line up in an orderly fashion, but rather jostle for position eager to get through first. When we finally pass, we see that it was a herd of sheep on their way to the Suusamyr Valley that had halted traffic.
The foothills are blanketed in various hues of green with a few white patches set against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks. During the brief summer months, shepherds from surrounding villages bring their herds of sheep, goats and horses to graze in the "jailoos" (mountain pastures) setting-up yurt camps for the season.
Our first stop in the valley is the village of Kojomkul named after a remarkably strong man famous for moving massive boulders weighing hundreds of kilos. He would have been in the Guinness book, but it was only established in 1955, the year he died. He was 2.36 meters tall and weighed around 165 kilos. His modest house is now a museum where they have preserved his grossly oversized clothing which Alexey models for us.
In front of the Sports Palace in Bishkek, there is a statue of Kojomkul holding a horse.
The highly-developed network called Community Based Tourism (CBT) in Kygyzstan offers accommodation either in local homes or yurts for about 11 euros/person/night with breakfast. Dinner is an additional 4 euros per person. Rooms can be booked in advance or not. Bigger towns have a CBT office where you can choose from photos, or guides take you to places they know. Our first homestay is at number 13 in the village of Kyzyl Oi (250 kms from Bishkek).
At 1735 meters, it's already much cooler and we head out for an afternoon hike across a shaky footbridge over rushing snow melt that is the Kokomeren River. The air is filled with the delicious scent of wild thyme.
It's cold at night and as in most homes, the toilet and shower are outside, but they are surprisingly up-to-date - western toilet, piping hot water and great pressure. Oddly, the family does not use the modem conveniences. They have more "traditional" facilities in the back yard. It's amazing how quickly you get used to walking around in a towel, removing your shoes at the door (a custom native to most of Asia) and limiting trips outside. Imagine the cold winter months...
It's only Day 2 and Alexey suggests that we change our plan. He's full of ideas and options and quickly understands what may interest us. We hike for another couple of thyme-infused hours in another direction in the morning and after a hearty lunch we head to Lake Song Kul (3016 meters) for our first night in a yurt.
It's about 200 kms with the last 60 or so are on a bumpy, unpaved road. It's our first glimpse of just how comfortable the jeep is and what it is capable of. The sky is looking pretty ominous and around Kalmak Ashu Pass it begins to snow!
We cannot imagine getting to Song Kul without a 4 wheel drive, though it is possible as attests the damaged roadster of a couple of (nutty) German guys who arrive rather worse for wear after us. Song Kul is perhaps one of the prettiest sites in Kyrgyzstan. The lake stretches almost 30 kms and depending on the sky is anything from bright turquoise to deep blue, bordered by green pastures with snow-covered mountains all around.
White yurt camps are set up near the water. Each camp has 5-6 yurts with a couple of outhouses set back at an odor appropriate distance and there's usually a free-standing sink somewhere in the middle. No showers.
Yurts can accommodate upto 6 people and each has a wood-burning stove. The floor of the yurt is the grass, covered with locally-made felt carpets. We have a yurt to ourselves with a double bed made-up on a stack of thin mattresses on the ground, clean sheets and lots of typical Kyrgyz blankets. Stacks of blankets being an indication of wealth.
There is a separate yurt (tent or trailer) for communal dining, sometimes at picnic tables, often cushions on the floor.
While we have dinner, the stove in our yurt is lit so that it's warm when we retire. The fire burns out after a few hours and it's freezing if you have to get up, but the reward for traipsing to the outhouse in the middle of the night is the mind-blowing sky. The creamy band of the Milky Way stretches across your entire field of vision with trillions of stars shimmering, shooting and posing in 3D formations within in what feels like arm's reach. For a few minutes, you completely forget the cold.
One of the more popular activities in Kygyzstan is horseback riding. A local man, taking a few horses to the other side of the lake agrees on a fair price to take me along. While the scenery is beautiful, the ride is a bit boring and no amount of encouragement and downright kicking phases my horse so after a few hours I get off knowing it's just a matter of time before the jeep catches up with me.
We spend the night on the opposite side of the lake where some locals are installing a yurt camp. Notice, the emblem on the Kyrgyz flag is the form of the top of the yurt.
By dinnertime we're exchanging stories with a group of Swiss bikers, an Italian-British couple, an Austrian novelist, and an older Frenchman who refuses to stop traveling despite his children's concerns for his health.
We leave Song Kul via Parrots Pass (3050 meters), famous for its series of 32 switchbacks. Suddenly, a goat with its head stuck in a rusted paint can, stumbles onto the road. Without hesitation we all jump out if the jeep and the guys manage to grab and free it. If only, I had the reflex to reach for the camera...
If you're counting, we haven't had a shower in a couple of days and we're heading for another few nights in the mountains, We stop in the town of Naryn at the CBT office where wifi is free and for a bit more than 1 euro/person, we are directed to an apartment building for a hot shower in someone's home. 240 kms later, we arrive in Tash Rabat with its landmark the Caravanserai, an inn for caravans. Depending on who you talk to it dates back to somewhere between the 10th and 15th centuries and may also have served as a monastery. Just a shell now this was a place to stop, have a meal and sleep along the Silk Route.
The road leading to it narrows into a gorge once controlled by bandits. You either paid to get through, or you took an uncomfortably long detour, if they let you. There are several yurt camps in the vicinity including one particularly fancy one for $45/person/night! Their yurts have wooden floors and the outhouses have western toilets!
We stick to a standard, more authentic, yurt camp further up the road.
Tash Rabat is a beautiful area to hike or ride horses. The craggy ridge above us looks like the back of a dinosaur. We set-off after breakfast looking for the lake that offers a view of China. For hours we walk up and up some more. Aside from the occasional marmot we are alone. Usually they run way before we get close, but the wind masks our scent and we get really close to one thinking it must be dead. Suddenly it jumps up, loses its balance and backpedals in place like a cartoon character before scrambling to one of the many holes that dot the landscape. Every hill brings the hope of the elusive lake, but the view from every crest is yet another hill. It's getting harder to breath (3500 meters) and after 5 hours, a mini picnic, a snow shower, and some crackling thunder we give up and turn back (23 kms walked).
Over dinner with a French couple from Aix en Provence and their guides, we figure out where we missed a turn and settle on their photos.
Again, we modify the itinerary and head southwest towards Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan. We stop at MELS Pass (Marx Engels Lenin Stalin) on the way towards Bayetovo, by the monument dedicated to the Russian man who built this road. A local truck has also stopped to admire the panorama and they're overjoyed to meet us and to share a toast with the family in the back of the truck. It's a bit early for vodka and the only other option is koumis. Thankfully, no one minds if I abstain.
The scenery, is a mix of wide panoramas and narrow mountain passes.
About an hour before Osh, we stop in Uzgen to visit the minaret and mausoleum.
Osh is much hotter than northern Kyrgyzstan, but Alexey's friend "Joma" takes us to a nicely shaded restaurant and as the day ends the temperature settles around perfect. The next morning we visit Suleyman Too (throne of Solomon) the mountain of 5 small peaks that dominates the city. It is believed that the Prophet Mohammed prayed here and has since become an important pilgrimage site. A 20 minute climb gets you to a series of caves, one which houses a cultural museum offering a cool escape.
Joma has organized lunch at yet another friend's restaurant. He brings Samsas (the Kyrgyz version of samosa pastry filled with chunks of lamb fat and a little meat) cooked in a tandoor oven, a specialty of Osh. Tea, be it black or green, accompanies every meal in Kygyzstan and while we are thirsting for a cold drink, they insist that we drink hot tea with the samsas to melt the fat in our bloodstream... The main course is a specially prepared platter of Plov (rice with lamb and carrots). The meal ends with a fresh watermelon.
The bazaar in Osh is a vast network of alleys spread out on both sides of a river. Like most bazaars throughout Central Asia, the shops selling clothes, accessories & gadgets all operate out of former cargo containers. Bags of vegetables are piled high and buckets of fruit for jam, standard on every Kyrgyz table, stand on the ground. Men with carts are on hand to transport your purchases. As it is Ramadan, many shops are closed.
Turning northwest we drive to Arslanbob for a dramatic change of scenery. This tiny mountain village is surrounded by (supposedly) the largest walnut plantation in the world. We stop at the CBT office and choose a homestay from the photos on the wall. They all look pretty much the same and it's anybody's guess how far away the bathroom will be, so I pick my favorite number, 13. After lunch, we set off with a local guide to hike the area visiting a small and big(ish) waterfall.
The highlight is the walk through the walnut forest while the waterfalls are rather disappointing. The extremely rocky roads are painful to walk on leaving us exhausted after 15kms.
We drive along the border of Uzbekistan having to make a silly detour as official borders are still being worked out, and up a winding dirt road to Lake Sary Chelek. For the first time in weeks, the skies are gray and the lake is not as picturesque as usual.
Furthermore, the landscape here reminds us of Europe, so unlike the local tourists we meet, we are not as impressed. With the weather turning, we decide to head to the village of Kara Kou for the night only to find that the lone tourist hotel is sold out to an electricians convention. They offer us the possibility of sharing a room with other guests separating men and women, but we decide to continue.
Just as it's looking like we may need to pitch a tent in the rain, we spot a motel near Lake Toktogul, actually a reservoir. It's the cheapest room yet (8 euros for a double). The toilet, albeit inside, has me yearning for an outhouse.
Alexey belongs to a club called the Off Road Kings and their next expedition is coming up in a week. They have never taken tourists before, but he thinks we'd like it and the rest of the group agrees for us to join. We of course will take lots of photos even though they have hired a cameraman. The conditions will be pretty rude, but we decide that this is a unique opportunity, so we drive back to Bishkek for a few days to regroup and buy provisions in anticipation.