Time to go and visit the Stans: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. We took a sleeper bus from Kashgar to get over the border and into Osh (second biggest city of Kyrgyzstan, after Bishkek). The journey was pleasant, with nice scenery (lovely high mountain pass of 3508m) and good company.
The only thing we didn’t expect was to arrive in the middle of the night at 01:15 in Osh, in a parking lot, in the middle of nowhere… We didn’t have any som (local currency), we didn’t have a hotel for the night and we didn’t have a map of Kyrgyzstan downloaded on David’s phone… We found a taxi (a car even smaller than our Toyota Aygo) and after some haggling (and luggage Tetris) we drove with another passenger to the hostel that we had booked for the next night. But the hostel was full… So, no other option than to wait for dawn. Luckily, the hostel had an Internet connection ;-). Happily, after an hour of waiting some people checked out and the hotel manager let us sleep in their beds. Sheer luxury!
We didn’t see a lot of Osh in the end, because we only stayed for one day and we used that day for getting our administration in order, our washing done and arranging a ride to Bishkek for the following day. As the normal taxi driver from the hostel was already on his way to Bishkek, the hostel arranged something else. In the morning we found out that we were traveling with a businessmen in his BMW X5. Not bad, especially since Tamar wasn’t feeling to well that day.
After 10 hours of traveling through beautiful scenery and eating (a plate with meat, even David found it a bit much) and drinking (David tried a drink that taste like vomit, a weird and disgusting combination of milk and wheat) Kyrgyzstan specialties we arrived in Bishkek. Bishkek is very, very different to Osh. Whereas Osh is a small town with a lot of people that are Muslim, Bishkek looked more like a more European town, with parks and organized streets and the way people were dressed. It reminded David a lot of Eastern Europe, without the high-rise buildings. Rather charming, in its own way.
We spent the next day sorting out our Uzbekistan visa (forgetting to bring money to pay for it and having to take the taxi back to the hotel to pick it up) and generally relaxing, eating a vast quantity of watermelon and snoozing.
That afternoon we went to the pre-departure briefing of our overland Tour and met some of the people with whom we’d be spend the next 5 weeks. The majority of the people were arriving the following morning, so we only met a few and they were mostly older people, with two others roughly our age. We got a bunch of information and filled in some forms, took just 1.5hrs. Afterwards we walked from the hotel through most of Bishkek, in the summery afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
Tour day! David woke up about 05:30 with a very upset stomach, not the most auspicious start to the trip…
We arrived at the meeting place, not entirely sure what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised, with a bigger mix of young and old (in the next days we would find out that is was a perfect mix with very enjoyable and interesting people/travelers) and the truck looking even more impressive in real life. We packed our bags, stopped off at the Bishkek market so everyone could grab anything they were missing (read: beer and spirits, but also warm blankets as we were warned for very cold nights). David lay dying in the truck during this time, while Tamar did some exploring.
Our first stop: Ala-Archa Nature reserve, where we would spend two nights. When we got there and had setup our sturdy tents, both of us slept away the rest of the afternoon (as we both didn’t feel well yet), in the hammock and tent. We had our first dinner of the tour (we were all assigned cooking groups and each group cooks a dinner, breakfast and lunch) and sat around afterwards (in the cold and dark), getting to know each other.
We had a nice big sleep in, made our own breakfast as nearly everyone else was off hiking. David wandered up the mountain a bit, enjoying the clear skies (nearly stepping on a little snake, was a great find! It slithered back into its hole, very disgruntled and loosing its sunny spot, before David could get a photo). As the temperature dropped and the clouds started to roll in he headed back to the truck, just in time to avoid the rain. We relaxed in the truck, reading and enjoying being out of the weather. The rest of the group started to trickle back over the course of the afternoon, usually sopping wet…
On day three we got up early and went back to the Bishkek markets again for more essentials (some rum for David’s upcoming birthday and some yummy food at the market) and then we drove all to lake Issyk-Kul in time for a beautiful sunset and a swim.
The lake is absolutely huge (6,500km square) and must be the biggest lake in the world with the least boating activity. In all the time we would spend driving around the lake, we only saw two small boats. The lake was once used by the Soviets to test their submarine torpedoes, amazing what ugly things people will do in beautiful locations. In the evening we sat around the campfire and ate marsmellow. After that a small group of us starting playing the game “Never have I ever”. With this drinking game you try other people to get to drink as much as possible. We ended up quite drunk and knowing a lot of things about everyone paying the game 😉
The next day, before we left the lake, David jumped in the lake early for a wake up while Tamar was on cook group duty (and she found it way to cold to swim anyway) and after our breakfast we went to visit some petroglyphs. They were carved into the rocks by the first people of Kyrgyzstan thousands of years ago. Many Ibex pictures, quite interesting and even one scene of people using tamed snow leopards to hunt ibex (you’ll need to use your imagination to see it in these pictures though 😉 )
The truck lunch in the sun, close to the lake, was a welcome relief from the grey clouds. We jumped in the lake with couple of the others from the tour and had a glorious swim (removing our swimming clothes in the lake and enjoying the associated freedom that entailed). We left the lake and spent the rest of the day in the Semenovskre Gorge. David went for a run with Simon and Richard from the group, up the valley, enjoying the nature, while Tamar prepared secretly some things for David’s birthday. The boys returned pretty sweaty from their run, so jumped very quickly into the stream for a wash (David’s third for the day!). Glacial melt water will really give you that special refreshing feel, your skin is so alive you can become convinced that you have gained an extra sense. A camp fire under the stars finished off this awesomely active day with a birthday song at midnight.
David’s birthday! Pretty happy to be getting older, he has decided that he wants to get older for a really long time. After a food shopping stop at the town of Karakol we drove to an even more beautiful site on this day, camping in the curve of a fast flowing stream along the Terskay Ala-Too Mountains and close to the red stone cliffs in Jeti Orguz. We made a great fire, had a nice time with new friends and one of them (Katie) was also having her birthday, so a extra big party ensued. No photos of the party, but some of the campsite during setup.
Day six started with some heavy rain, but cleared around lunch time and a few of us went for a lovely walk up to an alpine meadow, with amazing views. Gers sprinkled near and far. The mountain springs were delicious, with the water coming straight out from the rocks.
The next day was a driving day. These aren’t as bad as they sound, as the truck has open sides so you have clear views out both sides and up the front is the area called the ‘beach’. You can open the roof and kneel up on the mattress so just your head and shoulders stick out. The beach is the most awesome thing about the truck, makes the long drives really enjoyable, as you get a 360 degree view and the sun.
Our main goal of the day was seeing an eagle hunting demonstration. We arrived in mid afternoon, in a beautiful gorge. The eagle hunting guy was dressed in traditional Kyrgyz clothes and we learned a lot from him about the traditions and training of the eagles. The demonstrations. First, his son got a fox skin, tied it to string and started to run. At that moment he released the eagle and it was very impressive seeing it swoop down at speed at grab the moving target.
Now for a live demonstration. Yes, a live one. A rabbit was produced from a bag and clearly startled by 25 people watching expectantly, choose a standard rabbit maneuver for this situation: doing nothing. Unfortunately for the rabbit, while it was busy choosing this maneuver and really getting into the role, the eagle was in motion. Around 5 seconds after the rabbit came out the bag, the eagle swooped in and grabbed the rabbit. 10 seconds after that it was eating the rabbit. Interesting, but we must say that we felt sorry for the rabbit and felt that the live demonstration was unnecessary. We camped in this beautiful area for the evening, enjoying a ‘warm’ sleep for a change and we went hiking some of the easy to clime mountains with a beautiful view.
The morning was nice and warm (you could take your jacket off for a while), a real change to the freezing cold morning in the mountains. We drove most of the day, stopping at lunch time at a little lake, which is as salty as the Dead Sea. Apparently. As it was cold, most people did not want to enter the water and freeze when they came out. A small group thought otherwise and of course David was one of them. David went for a swim (water was teeming with brine shrimp) and ended up getting into a mud fight with Simon and they both stunk of the sulphuric mud for the rest of the day. Lucky for David our day ended in the small town called Kochkar, where we all stayed in a home stay with a nice shower. The first one in a week. Yay!! The homestay was very nice, but it was essentially a hotel, as it there were so many of us. They prepared a nice dinner for us and we enjoyed our first sleep in a bed in a week.
After breakfast we headed off for our two day ger stay, at Sol-Kul lake (pretty high alpine lake, at 3000m. It is big, at 18km wide, but the deepest point is only 13m!). First though, we would need to go over the Kalmak-Ashuu pass, at 3457m high. We heard that it might be snowing, but were still surprised to be caught in a sudden snowstorm as we reached the pass! It passed quickly, leaving us with some great views down to the lake and where we had come. There was so much snow that the group even made a snowman.
Down and along the lake was fun. We crossed some streams and only needed to get off once to push the truck up a slippery slope. The gers were laid out in a circle and it was quite strange to see the inside of a ger without a stove or all the furniture, like in Mongolia. The ‘mattress’ we got was pretty uncomfortable but the blankets were very very warm, which really made up for it, as the temperature dropped below zero overnight. Before dinner we managed a quick game of cricket, which was quite challenge playing at 3000m, but a whole bunch of fun!
We woke up the next day to see the surrounding hills/mountains dusted with snow, a nice surprise. As we hadn’t been down to the lake yet, we walked down after lunch. On our way to the lake, a little nomad girl walked over to Tamar and took her hand not wanting to let go of it anymore she guided Tamar around. Eventually we crossed the small river and waved the little girl goodby. The water of the lake was crystal clear (and cold, of course) and some lovely views with the clouds over the water.
So, what do you do for fun when you live in a remote place, with a lot of livestock and horses? Well, you play polo of course! Kim (our tour guide) organised the locals to play a game for us. They brought a live goat, cut its head off and proceeded to play the most entertaining sport ever. They played 3-a-side, the object is to get the goat onto a cloth, without having it taken from you by the opposing team. The horses sometimes got close, very close and sometimes, for no apparent reason they would bring the goat up and throw it towards the crowd. Very entertaining and they gutted it and cooked it afterwards, no waste here.
Sad to leave this gorgeous lake, but happy to be aiming for a lower altitude (and warmer temperatures) we drove around the lake, getting the truck bogged! But, with 20 people helping and moving stones (from a suspiciously convenient stone pile, maybe an old monument?) we got it out. Just as we were finishing our truck lunch, it started to hail! Pretty good motivation to clean up quickly!
As we left the lake, we came to the pass and from here we could see the winding, twisting switchbacks to get down. Even more exciting when you will be going down 1000m. Our truck driver Colin is a very experienced (he has driven for this overland company on 4 continents and learned to drive trucks in the Swiss army), so he guided the truck down without a hitch.
We found a bush camp in what appeared to be a deserted area. As we drove the truck, we saw a car parked in the long grass. A man emerged, opened the trunk (so now you couldn’t see through the rear window), turned up the music and retired to the back seat with a young woman. He wasn’t put off in the slightest by 20 odd people setting up camp and hanging around 5m away. He did leave eventually… We had a nice fire and slept relatively warmly.
The following day was a very long drive day, but hugely interesting. We crossed a mountain range, with two passes well over 3000m. Such glorious views, with barely anyone around.
Our main objective was one of the most intact caravanseri (a building which traders on the silk road stopped at), located at 3100m. It was amazing! We could explore all inside, with no barriers to stop you from exploring the unlit rooms, with wells of 15m… Outside the building some nomad women were earning a couple of months salary by selling the carpets, toys and slippers they made themselves to almost all of our tour group members. Tamar wished she could have bought something too, but in every country she has to leave all the beautiful things in the shops as nothing else fits into our backpacks. This is not easy for her and she will probably regret some of the not buys when she is back home. A well, a good reason to go back to these countries in the future 😉
After visiting the caravenseri we started looking for a place to bush camp, a little worried about how cold it was (3000m is cold at night same as the previous ger camp, but this time no amazing thick blankets). Kim and Colin (tour guide and driver) stopped by a ger camp to ask if we could camp nearby. Then the ger camp operator mentioned to them the possibility using his Russian sauna and staying in heated gers (for a reasonable fee)….. Tamar checked the ger and informed David we were going to abandon our tents that night and stay in one of the gers.. It was quite luxurious and later in the evening they lit the stove with coal, such delicious heat emanated that we both slept quite well.
But before bed, SAUNA with four other people from our group! It was very hot, there was birch and the snowmelt stream was 10m away and had been dammed to make a plunge pool. Then Colin joined, with an excellent bottle of vodka and the sauna just went from awesome to unforgettable! This truly was a highlight of the trip and we stayed at the sauna for about 3hrs, in and out of the plunge pool about 7 times. One thing about the sauna: it was started with coal, but the fuel used to keep it going was not wood, as we were far above the tree line. It was yak shit! Burns pretty good, kept our sauna super hot!
We left this glorious place on the 13th day of our tour through Kyrgyzstan, full of good cheer, ready for the last evening of camping. However, due to a longer journey back towards Kochkar than planned, we stayed at the homestay again! Hot showers and comfy bed!
Last day of Kyrgyzstan tour. We cleaned the truck out, and headed off to Bishkek in the rain. David started a list of books and movies, which kept us all in high spirits. Our lunch stop was right beside the Burana Tower, which dates from 999AD, but suffers a bit from some soviet ‘reconstruction’ (not always sympathetic to the original style). Whilst the stairs were excitingly steep and delightfully claustrophobic, the view from the top (24m high) was quite nice.
In the late afternoon we arrived in rainy and cold Bishkek. After sorting out our bed in the middle of the 16 dorm bedroom (filled with people from our tour group), we got changed into fancy clothes (so good for Tamar to feel like a women again with high heels and make-up) and walked to the restaurant for a goodbye dinner. Eight people from our group are leaving on Saturday (we will get five new people in return). We had a lovely dinner with some nice drinks and afterwards a smaller bunch of the group (incl. us) went for some more drinks at a bar. The girls had some nice cocktails and the boys drank some meter towers of beer. Everybody happy 😉
Today we are sorting out our administration and we are doing some washing for the next part of the tour. We are looking forward the next stage and are curious to all the new adventures that we are going to have. The last two weeks in Kyrgyzstan have been the most enjoyable of the whole trip so far. The country is so beautiful and the people are very friendly. If you like hiking and staying in the mountains, you should definitely visit this beautiful and very affordable country. We also had a lot of fun with the group, nice people (young and old) that have traveled all over the world (Tony has travelled over 135 countries, for example), so lots of stories to share. We can’t wait till tomorrow when leave for Kazakhstan…