Trip Start Jun 29, 2009
18Trip End Nov 06, 2009
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At the Birds of Prey Festival turned put to include just three Golden Eagles and one Falcon, and we all began to understand that the definition of Festival might have a different meaning here in Kyrgyzstan; though there was music, dancing and a scary traditional game, where everyone ran 100meters to a small child whose feet were tied, with the first there cutting the rope for the child to run free. Much child crying ensued.
It was here that we found out about a salt lake, Shor Kol - 40km away, from another American guy who was writing/photographing a book on Kyrgyzstan. In keeping with our whimsical travel planning, we decided to check it out that night and inviting the American boys, headed off in a 'taxi' to find the lake on our dubiously remembered directions. We were lucky to make it as the road quality disintegrated in the last 10km and our elderly driver got into an altercation (and almost fight!) with a group of brusque Kyrgyz boys blocking the track, coming away from the lake after a day on the vodka. This was our first amusing shared taxi experience, as it set our taxi driver off on a rant about the state of the roads, the President and how he could have 'had' those big Kyrgyz boys if one of them hadn't pulled him away.
Our next great shared taxi experience came the next morning, when our arranged transport to take us back to the road turned out to be a clapped out Lada. Every 10 minutes it had to be jump started - in reverse! But the driver was an expert in handling it and we made it back to the road (where the Lada finally died) in record time. Onwards, we rejected extortionate offers of a ride in a shared taxi and hitched a ride to Balykchy from a nice guy who also negotiated our ongoing taxi to Kochkor. For anyone reading this in advance of their own Kyrgystan travel, our tip is to not get in a Lada if you are in a hurry. We traveled in about 5 in total and every one had to stop every ten minutes for the driver to 'cool and refill' the radiator!
Shor Kol's salt lake proved 'floatable' and though we all declined the application of oil (collected from the far side of the lake and offered in used drink bottles by local entrepreneurs), we did make the dash to the slightly less salty Issyk-Kol to wash off. By Shor Kol was a Yurt camp with 40-50 Yurts along the lake edge. These were essentially used by Kyrgyz families as holiday homes and included the traditional decoration inside, as well as rickety hospital beds in a head-to-toe semi-circle. that night we were invited into the Yurt behind ours by a couple of Bishkek men (one of whom was a policeman and the other claimed to have been in the secret police and during conversation, revealed he had been on a secret mission to India, back in the day). With the vodka flowing, the jovial conversation (in Russian and being translated sporadically by one of the American lads) often turned to paranoia, as they repeatedly checked that we were not journalists or spies! The American lads proved a hit with our hosts and they were invited to Bishkek at the end of their trip to meet the secret policeman's daughter!
In Kochkor, we found a small town with a pretty cool abandoned stadium and a homestay with a hot shower. Kochkor is in close proximity to amazing jailoos (open pastures) and we headed off first to Sarala Sez, to stay in a yurt with a Kyrgyz family there and to watch the arranged Horse Games. After some initial nausea and hypocritical shock on Caragh's part at the slitting of the goat's neck, it was hard not to be mesmerised by the game. Our American friends again provided some of the entertainment, with the ever enthusiastic Nick running after the action with his handheld camera and getting in all of our pictures too.
The Kyrgyz boys then insisted on some other traditional games in a Kyrgyz vs. Tourists tournament. Tug of War was played (and won by the Tourists) and then the boys were challenged to some one-on-one shirtless wrestling (which the Kyrgyz won without exception). That night we watched the goat being skinned and then cooked for supper in our honour. We slept in one of two yurts, while the family slept in a tin caravan behind, and their herd of sheep and goats coughed and burped and spluttered the night away. On the floor, in the cold and with this symphony of gastric horror going on, it was not the best night's sleep.
The next day, we headed by horseback to Kol Ukok, an alpine lake situated just below a glacier.
Again we stayed with a local Kyrgyz family for what was the most authentic yurt stay, out on our own nestled between the mountain peaks. No one spoke Russian, only Kyrgyz and surprisingly some French and English. Our host was a man of 31 with three children, a herd of goats, several horses and a home in the alpine Jailoo. He was shocked to find that Ben was his age.. yet had no children and no responsibilities, taking such a long holiday! His wife made about six types of bread, which Ben was happy about, but to be honest the diet of bread, cream, sugar and jam with Kumys (fermented mare's milk) was wearing, and we were in definite need of a vege/salad fix. The scenery here was magical.
But it was time to say good-bye to our American friends and for us to head (by hot and stuffy minibus) to Karakol.
We hadn't booked any accommodation in advance, which was a mistake, as when we arrived we had time to check two hostels (both of which were full) before darkness fell. Three American peace-corps girls were staying at the second hostel and overheard our being directed off into the night and offered us a bed in their triple room. We gratefully accepted and though the room was nice, the facilities were not - and we entered day 5 without a shower. Finally becoming crusty travellers, we headed out of Karakol to Altyn Arashan - the hot spring plateau atop the Arashan range. With our hiking map we did the typical 'are we on the right path?' dithering for 30 minutes before we met Valentin, who runs Yak Tours Camp up at the hot springs, who confirmed we were on the right route and that he was bringing some news reporters up to his hostel and we were invited to join them for supper.
Arriving in just four hours we sampled the amazing hot springs - the perfect tonic for our tired and filthy bodies! The reporters from Internews were up at Altyn Arashan to report on the finding of Buddhist relics and rune stones found up in the mountains recently.
Valentin was adamant that we should try to get in their video, but luckily we escaped being featured. We did enjoy a great dinner with them though, at which the traditional Kyrgyz/Russian hospitality was in play. Invitations such as 'drink your vodka or the Russians will come to London for you English people' were shouted out, and so we joined in with our toasts to beautiful Kyrgyzstan and new friends. They were curious as to why we were travelling in Kyrgyzstan and wanted to know if we knew something they did not. They asked what we knew about Kyrgyzstan - and the tone became serious, reminding us of the paranoia we encountered at Shor Kol about us being reporters or spies. Satisfied that we were just curious tourists, they passed us their contact details and told us to contact them 'in case we come into any trouble'.
We then headed off by minibus again to Cholpon Ata, previously avoided as everyone we met lamented on how touristy it was. We however, now in desperate need of a shower, made a beeline. We met a lovely old man on the bus, who welcomed us to Kyrgyzstan and blew us kisses as he got off the bus. Cholpon Ata surprised us in being so much more developed than the rest of Kyrgyzstan - even Bishkek. There was a tarmac main road and street lighting and a bustling restaurant scene and nightlife. Houses were also being developed. All this sat in contrast to the capital and the towns we'd visited so far, which were little more than a concentration of dirt roads and houses with corrugated iron roofs nestled amongst colonial gingerbread style houses and massive monuments. Though all set against the backdrop of the breathtaking mountains. We walked along Cholpon Ata's main road from the minibus stop to 'town' and came across a garage door that stated in Russian that rooms were available. We enquired and found a great little room with a shared kitchen and dining room and at last a hot shower! The people staying there were mainly Kazakhs on their summer holiday and we met a lovely Kazakh (of Russian and 'local' Korean descent) who was a student in Bishkek. She was holidaying with her family (they came to Cholpon Ata every year), who invited us to join them for meals and to the beach/lake shore. We have to admit that after 6 remote days up in the mountains without a shower we quite liked Cholpon Ata, and think that it would be a great cheap beach holiday destination.
Once we got used to the mode, travelling around Kyrgyzstan was much easier and less stressful than we had read about. Initially being part of a foursome made shared taxis easier to negotiate and quick to set off. When on our own, the minibuses between the main cities were frequent, fast and cheap enough - though you have to bag a(n openable) window seat to avoid suffocation. We worried a bit about our safety in Bishkek, where there being only a few streetlights after dark didn't help allay our fears over the city's night-time reputation. But we came to no harm, and also met no corrupt police or anyone else unsavoury that would have inspired us to call the cards that numerous people had offered us, in case the need arose. Times are tough for the Kyrgyz, and have been since independence; life in the jailoos and also tourism last just 6 months of the year, the government this year sold too much of its water to Kazakhstan and with its recent elections the country is inching towards totalitarianism. According to one of our taxi drivers, he witnessed the stuffing of ballot boxes and lamented that many Kyrgyz journalists have gone missing...
But if you don't mind a bit of an edge to your travel, then in offering a bit of everything; from mountain hikes, yurt stays in rich pastures, alpine lakes and glaciers, to cheap and cheerful beachside resorts - we would certainly recommend travelling in Kyrgyzstan.
Where I stayed