20/8/2013 - 3/9/2013
20.08.2013 - 03.09.2013 28 °C
The last two weeks have been great. They started off with us entering Kyrgyzstan and going to Bishkek, the capital. Bishkek is a chaotic, busy city of 900 000 people. Most of the people seem to be only first or second generation city dwellers which means that everyone has a different idea of how a city should work. Every 10 m someone would be selling something - either salted sour milk (it didn't really do it for me, I gave most of my cup away to a local), plumbing supplies or new shade of lipstick. The traffic was also a bit different. No one is game to run an orange light, let alone a red one as drivers tended to jump the lights, entering the intersection a few seconds before they go green (the lights count down the seconds until they go green). Also, people seem to have a different idea of what the line markings on the road mean - it seems oncoming traffic is expected to get out of your way if you want to overtake. We saw the aftermath of 3 or 4 crashes in the 2 days that we were in Bishkek.
In Bishkek we began a tour organised by a company called Community Based Tourism, travelling with Darwin friends Emily and Duncan, and driven about the country in a Toyota Hiace van by a Kyrgyz driver. Most of the time we were in rural areas, travelling through small towns and villages, some quite remote. Travel times could be quite slow as the country is very mountainous. We took a number of un-paved roads through spectacularly steep river valleys, where the road was more like a gravel track hugging and switch-backing up a slope of the ridge, until eventually flattening out for several hundred metres at the mountain pass at the top before repeating the winding-ness down the other side, in a different river valley.
Hiring the driver and his minivan seemed a bit like a cop out, avoiding local travel but it meant that we were able to see a lot of Kyrgyzstan that we would not have been able to see otherwise.
Our Kyrgyz driver claimed to not speak English, but his English seemed to be at least as good as our Russian so we managed by communicating in a mixture of both. Every second guest house generally had a younger woman who spoke a bit of English, so we could save up our complicated questions until then if necessary. Overall it was a great experience and we had a very good time. We felt that people were genuinely friendly and that the country had a good feel.
Community Based Tourism also arranged for a series of homestays in the commuinities and villages that we visted. This meant that we were able to stay in all sorts of accommodation e.g. mud brick houses, yurts, cottages, wooden houses and soviet apartment blocks. It also meant that we got to sample lots of local foods as the host family would cook for us most nights. It also meant that we had a few extras included like visiting someone who hunts with eagles, going hiking and getting guides in a few places.
Both wearing eye-protection
During our trip we spent four nights in yurts and the rest of the time in guest houses, apart from one night in a mountain hut whilst on an overnight walk. The guest houses were varied but generally we were provided with lavish spreads for dinner and breakfast. The table always held bread, and small glass dishes of apricot and raspberry jam. Often there was a fancy dish or platter containing biscuits (often stale) or sweets, and sometimes nuts. Our dinner meal typically began with bowls of soup that had potatoes and meat, followed by a second dish of rice and meat (or more potatoes and meat!), accompanied by a side plate of salty cucumber and tomato salad. Breakfast meals seemed to alternate between a sort of thin, runny porridge with a semolina kind of texture, or fried eggs. Both meals were accomanied by an endless supply of milk-less Chai (tea), served in small china bowls.
After leaving Bishkek behind we drove through a narrow, steep sided gorge that eventually took us to Isy-Kol Lake, a 100 km long fresh water lake that is 600 m deep. We went hiking from the lake shore up to 3000 m where stayed in a mountain hut, hopped in a thermal spring and saw boys and men on horseback herding up animals for the local market. A couple of days later we were in Karakol and were able to get to the livestock market. It was a very noisey and smelly experience but it was quite good entertainment seeing people trying to shove their (live) purchases into taxies, boots of cars and on the back of motorbikes.
Lachlan and some of the "seven red Buffalos" above Isy-Kol
Later we passed through several passes and reached Song-Kol Lake at 3200 m where we stayed in a yurt camp. Unfortunately for me I got a good dose of food poisoning and spent 24 hours trying to coordinate the squirts and spurts so that I didn’t soil the yurt. Our driver tried to fix me using his special tonic of vodka and salt. Unsurprisingly it didn’t work but it did seem to earn me a bit of respect!
Yurts on Song-Kol
At Song-Kol we spent two night in a yurt camp on the edge of the lake. Herdsmen (and women) bring bring their animals (sheep, goats, cows, horses and the poor old donkey) up to the lake to graze during the warm season, which lasts from June until September or October. Men on horseback watch the animals during the day, bringing them back to the yurt in the evening where they are retained in a wire enclosure overnight. Sheep are used for meat and sheep wool is used for making felt fabric (which is what yurt walls are constructed of) whilst horses and cows are milked. The Kyrgyz love a fermented horse milk drink. The mares are kept close by to the yurt for milking, by keeping their foals tied on picket lines near by to the yurt. In Kyrgyzstan farm fences are almost non-existant so animals seemed to be roaming everywhere. We frequently had to slow down or stop for animals wandering across the road. Driving nearby to the more main towns on a Friday or Satrurday could be especially slow, because of herds of animals being driven along the road to go to market. In villages it was common to see cows and horses tethered to front garden fences and road side trees or power poles, or else hobbled with their front or back legs tied together to restrain movement, so they couldn't wander too far.
Susanne and the coloured hills above Isy-Kol
After Song-Kol we passed through a series of gorges to Osh and then onto Arslanbob. Arslanbob is a village up in the mountains which specialises in growing walnuts. We had a short walk through the walnut forests and village with a guide. The houses used the water from the creek, via irrigation system. They had dug little water channels from the creeks so that all of the houses in the village had their own stream running through their gardens. From Arslanbob we slowly made our way to Torugart Pass where the border with China is. Here we switched cars and continued down to Kashgar in a Chinese Car.
Apart from right at the Chinese border (3752m at Torugart Pass) our highest pass was the Kalmak-Ashuu Pass at 3446m, which we went through in order to reach Lake Song-Kol.