The ballad of Cholpon-Ata
Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
77Trip End Ongoing
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Shortly afterwards, we pondered loudly the whereabouts of our next stop, and the woman in front of us on the marshrutka began waving her hand over her shoulder, towards the back of the bus. We had just passed through Cholpon-Ata, the small town where we planned to stay for a day or two, and the first stop on our clockwise circumnavigation of the mighty lake Issyk-Kul
Luckily, we had been able to leave a lot of our luggage in Bishkek under the watchful eyes of Dorian and David, which significantly reduced our load on this long walk back. The wide, flat, fertile fields that hugged the lake's northern shore felt rather out of place, squeezed between the huge expanses of water and mountains that flanked them from either side. We were tracing the edge of the second largest lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca in Peru.
As we entered Cholpon-Ata, the place had an eerie, near-deserted feeling about it – we had been told that it was a premier holiday location for wealthy Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, but all we found was a run-down stretch of little shack-like shops and closed bars. Little groups of people watched us from a distance as we passed them, just hanging around on the dusty main street, doing nothing in particular, and we wondered if we had come to the wrong place.
Finding a guesthouse, we startled the owner with our appearance
Setting off in search of Cholpon-Ata's famed beach, we ventured down a dusty track in the direction of the lake's shorefront. Our path took us past lines of bungalows covered with corrugated iron roofs and exuding a kind of DIY sense of construction. The little track then opened up to a bigger scrubland flanked by large industrial buildings, all of which seemed to be deserted and decaying. Their metal window-frames were rusting, and straggly plants grew from their feet. The patchy grass was dotted with the charred remnants of bonfires, replete with the occasional pile of beer or iced tea bottles strewn next to them.
As we picked our way through this wasteland, the beach finally came into view. It rose out of the horizon in such a contrast to its surroundings that we were rather taken aback
A long time dwelling at the lakeshore saw the light dim and mosquitoes begin their nightly feasting, and we retreated to the town once again. Wandering for some time led us to a weedy park, which once may have been beautiful, but now neglect had seen it fall into disrepair. At its centre, in the middle of a long-derelict fountain, stood an angelic, silvery statue of a young woman surrounded by birds in flight. She reminded the onlooker of what might have been a more optimistic time, when what was once a nondescript farming settlement had become an up-and-coming resort for holiday-makers from around the USSR. She looked over the park with a glazed stare, oblivious to the gradual decay of her home.
Pulling ourselves away from the park, we went in search of food, trawling the empty main street parallel to the water in a quest for a café or restaurant that was open. Eventually, we found a little place blaring out Russian pop into the deserted street, and feasted heartily on fried noodles and vegetables, accompanied by a steaming pot of green tea. It was decided that the following morning we would leave earlier than planned, pushing further east to Karakol, Kyrgyzstan's third city, located at the eastern end of Issyk-Kul. Cholpon-Ata had been a surprising introduction to the lake, and we hoped that a change of scenery would provide some remedy to the rather bleak settlements we had experienced until now.