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Kyrgyzstan

Karakol to the Irkeshtam

Kyrgyz Potato Farmers, My Dad and China.

After a purchace of our huge and hugely awesome Kyrgyz hats(ak-kalpaks) in Kochkor, we went to Karakol. We had no reason for going, and chose on the spot over Naryn. We had heard it was quite nice, but had no idea about what to do there...

After a quick taxi and a unexpectedly long minibus around lake Issyk Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world. It took 4 hours to get from one end to the other. Huge. Scenery was pretty nice, as the lake is surrounded by pristine snow capped mountains and pine forests. Something even the Soviets couldn't ruin, even though they tried (there are a couple of derilict factories around, and a 'polygon', a secret Soviet military reaserch base where they used to test torpedoes).

Karakol is a funny town. Its a collection of dirty wooden shacks, separated by wide, leafy unpaved roads, with the occasional Soviet statue or squat appartment block. It was pretty empty most of the time, and competely unlit at night, apart from the main street, so navigating around at night had to be done solely on the headlights of cars that occasionally drove by.

In one of the few (the best apparently, with the usual lonely planet reader crowd) restaurants in Karakol, we met a French sailor who we had previously met in Samarkand (there really aren't many tourists in Central Asia...). He'd just spend some days hiking in the valleys around Karakol, and recommended us some good sites. Now, we had something to do.

It was worth coming to Karakol after all. After purchasing some bread, cheese and ham for our lunch, as well as plenty of water, we set out to walk the Karakol Valley, aiming to get to the alpine lake of Ala Kol.

After a few hours, we realised that the Ala Kol was miles away. 18 km to be precise, all uphill (i think we would have had to climb over 1000 meters), anyway, there was no way we could do it in one day.

Anyway, we decided to slow our pace and enjoy the scenery, which was fantastic. On the valley sides were lush pine forests, and clear river bubbling through, with snow capped peaks in the distance. Eventually the forest opened up onto a flat clearing, with the river lazily meandering through the grassland, where we decided to have lunch. Somewhat outside of the spirit of this country idyll, we were invited to a picnic by some drunk Kyrgyz potato farmers, who were having their yearly 3-day holiday there, and had just slaughtered a goat.

After a meal and their endless questions about the west, like whether everyone with short hair was a loser, or if dirty t-shirts like the ones we were sporting were cool, we hopped on their hardcore KAMAZ truck (made in the USSR, circa 1960 by the looks of it, but I could see it ferrying munitions to the Eastern front) to get a lift back to town.

It broke down. A lot. They had to wind up the engine every 10 minuites, hit it with a big metal bar every so often, but it all worked out in the end.

Eventually we made it back, after the bumpiest ride ever (the valley wans't exactly paved).

Next day, we got onto a bus to Bishkek, where strangely enough, I was going to see my Dad. Yes, in Bishkek (it's the capital of Kyrgyzstan). He was on some business in Almaty, which was only 300 km away, so he decided to drop by. Unfortunatley, he came in a car with Kazakh licence plates, which meant that EVERY cop in Kyrgyzstan stopped them and wanted bribes, for made up reasons such as that tinted windows are illegal.

Anyway, after a nice, if short dinner, to prove him I was still okay, and the opportunity to unload a few sweaters from my backpack, he was gone...

Next day, so were we. To Osh, in a ride that proved that all taxi drivers are dicks. It's a long story, but it was expensive, long and unpleasant.
Back in Osh, we quickly organised some transport to China for the next day did some errands, like sending photographs to our Kyrgyz Potato farmer chums.

The road to the Irkeshtam pass was unpaved and mostly empty, but as usual in Kyrgyzstan, within sight of huge, lonesome snowcapped mountains (the Pamirs this time). After a quick night in a village on the way (very quick), we were off to China.

The border was a mess. It didn't look like a border per se, but an impromtu parking lot for truckers, patrolled by soldiers checking passports. They were quite surprised by us, but quickly let us go. After hitching with a trucker to the Chinese side (7km away), we entered the People's Republic. A big clock tower showed Beijing time (+4 hours, rediculously), and the immaculately unifromed solders showed us the way...

Posted by Nomadics 01:54 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged backpacking

Kyrgyzstan - Pictures

Jailoo (Summer Pasture) on the Osh-Bishkek Road
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Song Kol - Reflection
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Song Kol - Our Yurt
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Yurt by the Song Kol lake
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Horse and Toilet
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Karakol Valley
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Posted by ameurice 03:51 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged photography

Song Kol

Summer Pastures in the Roof of the World

all seasons in one day

We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan at Osh, also in the Fergana valley but with a very different flavour to Uzbekistan. The town itself had little to keep us there - we spent most of our time planning the coming several days in the mountains. Nevertheless we kept ourselves entertained by climbing a (very) large rock in the centre of town mysteriously called Solomon's Throne (rumoured to have come all the way from Israel?) and in the more bluntly named 'Rich Men's Cafe'.

Kyrgyzstan is roughly divided into two by the imposing Fergana mountain range and on our journey from Osh to the northern village of Kochkor (via the capital Bishkek) we crossed three passes above 3000m and enjoyed some splendid scenery. The drive took an excrutiating 22 hours or so so we made a stop in the dreary township of Toktogul; a word of advice: never come here of your own will, the 'motel' could well have been in the film of the same name...

During our brief stop in Bishkek we enjoyed both the calm tree-lined avenues as well as some solid Japanese/Korean food (Bi-bim-bap, kim-chi, gyoza...) The connection to Kochkor went smoothly (but still involved fighting through the locust swarm of taxi drivers). The bumpy ride took us through stunning pastures, desert and mountain scenery - not uncommon for Kyrgyzstan.

Arriving late in Kochkor - a tiny, secluded village lacking even running water - we were greeted by Omar whose tour agency organised everything from immediate accomodation to a horse-trek for the next three days, in the space of half an hour! We were lodged in a charming Russian-style house owned by an old Kyrgyz woman who kept a room free for tourists. Unfortunately we weren't served Russian food... Located as it was in a fertile valley and surrounded by gigantic snowy peaks, the thunderstorm's aftermath (and rainbows) made for a pleasant walk around the village.

The following day, after a heavy meal eaten in a grey house and under grey skies, we me our guide (Jyldyz-Bek), mounted our horses and set off towards the legendary lake Song-Kol. As if on cue, the skies opened up and we had the privilege to ride through the verdant pastures in a pleasant golden light (a privilege that would not last...). The sense of freedom is surprising and puzzled me at first, but later I realised that while riding through these rolling hills, prairielands and mountains we had not seen one single wall or fence. Indeed the land seemed to belong to everyone and our only company were wild horses, cows and the occasional sheperd. Several hours later we stopped at the yurts in which we would sleep that night; another storm gave us the excuse needed to nurse the aches and pains of horseriding...

Up at dawn, and greeted by a howling storm on the morning run from the yurt to the toilet (dodging cowpats and the angry bull) set the tone for the first half of a very uncomfortable day. Our guide led our horses over a slippery, rocky mountain pass at 3500m in the full fury of a hail storm which lasted for a good couple of hours. However, as the valley opened up on Song-Kol, divine providence again rewarded us with stunning blue skies and great sunlight (the light seemed different in Kyrgyzstan, probably a complete absence of any pollution...) Having left our horses at the yurt encampment, we walked around this beatiful plateau and I somehow lost sight of Anton in the undulating hills; while searching for him a Kyrgyz herder rode up to me and dragged me into his family's yurt. These were probably the most hospitable people I have met while travelling and I had the honour of sitting at the back of the yurt, sandwiched between a bleeding goat's head and trotters, and the local wisemen. There was no choice but to eat what was offered - rolls of intestine, raw backbone and bleeding liver, and to wash it all down with some strong Kumys (fermented mare's milk) - how I didn't also leave with crippling food poisoning amazes me, maybe I have something to thank Uzbekistan for!

Posted by ameurice 22:20 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged backpacking

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