Village-hopping back to Bishkek

Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
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Flag of Kyrgyzstan  ,
Thursday, May 3, 2012

A story has begun on a repeated loop through Central Asia, and it goes something like this: we find ourselves in a dusty bus station, wandering around, looking lost and extremely foreign, trying to decipher the Cyrillic signs on the front of rusting marshrutkas, until we are shoe-horned into the back of one, and blindly speeding off into the unknown. From Karakol, the scene was yet another loop of this story – this time, heading west along the south shore of lake Issyk-Kul, aiming for the village of Tamga.

We arrived with a surprising lack of difficulty considering the size of our bags compared with the tiny vehicle, and stepped out of the marshrutka. A bleak picture awaited us, our vision filled with half a dozen huge, looming tower blocks with run-down wooden houses in their shadow. Seeking out somewhere to lay our heads, we arrived at a small shop next to a seemingly-closed guesthouse, beckoned inside by the owner.

“Oh, you are tourists!” she exclaimed flamboyantly. “My house is closed for paint, renovation, you see?”

Close to the village lay the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine, and it transpired that she had picked up her surprisingly good English when she worked there. In earnest, she began frantically calling her friends who might be able to put us up, interspersed with serving sweets to a steady stream of children coming into the shop, all of whom appeared to eye us with a deep suspicion.

“Ah, my friend, she will come now,” she explained after a few calls. Soon, a woman in her forties or fifties came in and beckoned us away. We followed, still unsure whether we would bother to stay here at all. Her flat was in one of the imposing Soviet blocks, its walls a dark grey, and a weed-filled playground sitting in the middle of a large, empty square in front of it. The rusting slide and swing with only the frame remaining gave the place a strange, post-apocalyptic feeling that made us wary of what lay within.

The woman showed us into her small but perfectly pleasant flat, and into a room which, usually, was clearly her own bedroom. Her nonexistent English and our minimal Russian made communication difficult, and a phone call to the woman in the shop put our mind at rest about the fact that there definitely were, in fact, interesting things to see and do in the area. Thanking our host, we quickly headed out to explore the area.

The woman in the shop directed us towards Tamga Tash, a boulder inscribed with a Tibetan Buddhist mantra, about six kilometres away. The presence of the Buddhist stone in the Muslim heartland of Central Asia was a powerful illustration of the pre-Islamic history of the area. From around the Twelfth Century, ongoing trade along the Silk Route and waves of migration and invasion put paid to the Buddhist influence in Kyrgyzstan and its surrounds.

As we walked, we felt a different kind of landscape to the one we experienced around Karakol – a dry, sandy place, with horsemen riding powerful steeds through the dusty fields, grubby Kalpaks perching jauntily on wind-beaten heads. We walked fast to catch the last drops of sun, hopping across streams and admiring the surprisingly fertile orchards that lined the nearby valley with delicate white blossoms. Having almost reached Tamga Tash, heavy droplets of rain and a rapidly darkening sky beckoned us back to the village, and to dinner with our host.

On our return to the village, we stopped briefly to take in the cemeteries that overlooked the village, high atop sandy hills inland from the lake. On one peak sat the Muslim cemetery, and on its neighbour was the Russian Orthodox equivalent. Both were littered with graves rich in Kyrgyz imagery – the bold, swirled patterns of traditional clothing embossed onto headstones, and skeletal yurt frames covering grave sites, hinted at the traditions that have continued long into the swiftly-modernising present.

The high winds, and the mix of sands and rain brought along with them, swept us from these dusty hills and down to the village. Our ethnically Russian host was awaiting our return with a hearty dinner. Her granddaughter, who spoke excellent English for someone no older than fifteen, was also there, and we took the opportunity to exchange stories about Russian and English weddings. Marriage, much like food, can show a great deal about the culture of a place, and a DVD of our host's niece's wedding was cut between a solemn Orthodox ceremony and a wildly theatrical and overblown reception. In contrast, our wedding seemed remarkably underwhelming – no monster costumes, no mediaeval singers, and no disco lights.

Happy to leave the Russians to their strangely psychedelic wedding practices, we went to bed early and slept well. Despite being right next to one of the largest bodies of water in Central Asia, the water had been failing to work intermittently for the past month, and we splashed our faces with a little bowlful offered to us by our host. The following morning, we were due to move on – at the advice of the shopkeeper – to Kadji-Say, a village further west that was for some time a top secret Soviet site due to an uranium mine opened in the early 1960s. Having been closed down after only a few years, Kadji-Say was now another quiet village on the Issyk-Kul shore. Our walk to the bus stop took us through the run-down sanatorium, one of many health clubs established by the Soviet Union to provide fresh air and exercise for the urban proletariat. Local history tells of Uri Gagarin holidaying here after his famous first space mission, but the drab buildings that remain did not hint at this glamorous past, except for a grand Soviet entrance arch sporting a silvery statue of a cosmonaut standing proudly to welcome visitors.

A short marshrutka journey took us along the shore road, sandwiched between red sandstone cliffs on one side and the almost-deserted shore of the lake on the other. We were dropped at a nondescript intersection next to a petrol station and a few closed shops, and pointed in the direction of Kadji-Say village, a few kilometres from the water. A high, concrete sign announced that this was, indeed, Kadji-Say, on the top of which was a hammer and sickle emblem, rusting a little from years of neglect, but still happily remaining nevertheless.

We began to walk, and within a few minutes a woman came bounding up to us. She was the owner of a guesthouse, and the wife of the local eagle hunter – a dying breed of men who hunt foxes and wild goats with trained eagles in the mountains. Her gold teeth glinted as she encouraged us to stay, but explained that she was going to Karakol, where her mother was in hospital, so there would be no food on offer. Glancing around the all-but-deserted area, we feared a diet of dry nan and water if we could not find a place that provided meals, so we continued along the dusty side-road.

A group of women were gathering rubbish and other debris on the side of the road, their headscarves choked with the dust and sand thrown up from their earnest brushing. One of them waved, and then jogged across towards us. She, too, was the owner of a guesthouse, Gostevoy Dom, and was indeed able to give us food. We were thoroughly wrapped up in the warmth of her welcome, and we followed her to her house, where we were given chai and nan in the shady courtyard. As we sat, she explained that we were her first tourists of the season, and pointed out the fevered renovation being done to the building before the many Russian visitors arrive in May and June.

We assumed, initially, that she was of Russian origin herself, but we were quickly corrected: “we are Tatar, Muslim Tatar,” she said, matter-of-factly. Tatars, like all the ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union, took advantage of the freedom to move that was offered by the USSR, and many settled across the state. As Muslims, though originally hailing from Siberia, Central Asia's Islamic society appealed to some, and here we were having tea with one such Tatar.

After our tea, which infused with blackcurrant leaves to give a remarkably fruity, sweet taste that was unlike any other we had experienced, she suggested that we take a walk across the red sandstone plain next to the village, towards a valley we were told was precisely “one, two, three, four, five electricity pylons” away.

“It is like,” she declared excitedly, before pausing for dramatic effect, “Mars!”

Our walk to 'Mars' first required us to cross a wide, flat plain between the lake and the mountains. It was close to desert, as we picked our way through the twiggy shrubs that sparsely populated this barren terrain. Occasionally, a miniature canyon, perhaps four or five feet deep, would cross our path – carved out of the soft, sandy rock by the rivulets that trickled down from the hills.

As instructed, we patiently counted five pylons, and turned the corner, south into the ravine. All around us were high, wind-carved rocks like the crumples of a huge blanket. The late afternoon light cast shadows across their deep russet folds, and danced an orangey glow on the few straggly plants that dared to sprout. We took it all in, savouring the genuinely Mars-like, otherworldly ambience, before returning in anticipation of what would turn out to be a generous, stodgy and delicious dinner.

On our return to the house, we walked along the deserted beach, with its grainy orange sand sinking beneath our feet. Miles of empty beach lay along the shoreline, in stark contrast to the grubby and over-developed northern shore of the lake. As we walked up the hill to the house, we were met with a group of eight or so horses, happily trotting towards the lake. As far as we could tell, these horses were not guided by anyone, but they knew exactly where they were going, and brushed us by as they headed for the lake shore, leaving us open-mouthed and stunned by their presence. What sweet joy to see horses running free, but what fear ran through us as they crossed the main road, seemingly oblivious to the fast traffic that passed by regularly.

Our owner was keen to talk with us at dinner, as she rarely had non-Russian visitors, and we learned about how she turned a little house next to a derelict plot of wasteland into a pleasant guesthouse.

“I said to the village government 'I can make this place beautiful, I can make this place useful'”.

She went on to explain that her son fixed and sold old computers in Bishkek: “I gave them a computer from my son, and after that, they said 'OK',” she happily admitted over a glass of home-made wine in the dim light of her kitchen.

Our host insisted, over another generously-proportioned breakfast the following day, to guide us towards the Skazka rocks – literally meaning 'fairytale' in Kyrgyz. After clearly relishing being able to show off her exotic English tourists to the other women at the bus stop, she slung us into a vehicle and ensured that the driver knew where to drop us. The driver dropped us at the right point, next to an unusually modern and clean-looking sign in both Cyrillic and Latin scripts pointing down a dirt track.

We followed an increasingly narrow track up towards the hills, which gradually became a labyrinth of narrow, winding stream-shaped channels that snaked down towards the lake. At every turn, we encountered a dead end, or rougher terrain, always hemmed in by high, sandy walls carved out of the land by water and wind. We looked around us at the shoulder-height walls that enclosed us from either side, their peculiar shapes and curves  sweeping and gliding at every turn. Looking up, we could see more rippled rocks, like the ones we saw at 'Mars' the previous evening, but had no idea what would reveal itself to us next, lost in this beautiful and strange landscape.

Eventually, after clambering, across, through, over and around, various rock formations, we came across Skazka. A psychedelic array of reds, browns, yellows and greens splashed across the vista in a series of warped and curved layers. A deep red layer jutted out from the ground like the spine of a vast stegosaurus, while butting up next to it, a soft yellow seam of rock sat worn smooth by years of wind and rain.

From the base of the rocks, it was hard to fathom the scale of the place, so we scrambled up a steep slope of loose rocks and dirt, and carefully stepped along the ridge of a hill until we were at a high pinnacle. The panorama was unlike anything we had experienced so far. To the south, massive hills blended into the mountain range, their coniferous trees clinging to the steep slopes. To the north, the smooth undulations and seams of the Skazka rocks crumpled and flowed down to the huge expanse of water that is Issyk-Kul. Around our heads, black birds of prey rode the thermals to glide high above the hills, before furling their wings and swooping down to catch their food far below.

We gingerly descended the hill and headed for the lake once again. We walked for a long time along the narrow, sandy beach that separated the land from the slightly saline water. Tracing the peaceful shoreline, it was easy to let the mind wander, and mine drifted to thoughts of home – not a yearning to return, but it was an excitement about settling and finding a focus again. For perhaps the first time on this journey, I had a zest for stopping, at least in some sense of the word – it was an excitement about what lay ahead when we eventually came home. These thoughts quickly faded, but, ironically, the inspiration that travel had stirred in me, led me to relish the notion of establishing roots, a niche, and a kind of fixity.

With these questions still swimming around our minds, we continued along the beach for some time, before hopping onto a marshrutka and making our way back to the accommodation. David and Dorian in Bishkek were waiting for us to collect our winter gear, and the following morning, after an entertaining journey in which a drunken man decided to pass out on our bags, we spilled out onto the relatively noisy and busy streets of Bishkek once more.

When we were last visiting, David and Dorian's flat had been filled with boxes and bags of belongings that the neighbours were stowing away from the dust and dirt thrown up by the rennovations they were doing to their home. On our return, not only were these belongings still there, but also the neighbours themselves were also seeking refuge. A mother and daughter living with two carefree twenty-something men, however, had some positive aspects, and the fridge and cupboards were full to bursting with food and drink. Our stop-over was a brief one, and we were soon away. Returning south, we began our descent towards the remote Irkeshtam Pass, our gateway to China. But first, a few final stops on our journey around Kyrgyzstan needed to be squeezed in...
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