It's all about the people
Capital - Bishkek
Area 198,500sq Mtrs
Currency - Som
Languages - Kyrgyz and Russian
Your mission, should you choose to accept it..is to read on!
As we have been rather busy the blog is a little behind so I'm writing this 6 weeks into our trip to Kyrgyzstan. So firstly all I will say is don't come here it's an awful, dreadful place so keep well away!
Well, that's the story we want everyone to know - so we can keep all for ourselves! It is the most unspoilt, beautiful country on our trip so far, the people are so friendly and hospitable and it's incredibly cheap. Lots and lots of outdoor activities much like the alps in the summer, (and skiing in the winter!) but more beautiful, less busy and much, much cheaper. We can't understand why there aren't more tourists, probably because it is a "Stan"!
Point of order author. There are quite a lot of tourists here but they are mostly from Kazhakstan. They too are also very friendly and equally keen for us to like their country as are the Kyrgs. :-)
It is the only "Stan" you can visit free for 60 days and it is very accessible with major airlines flying to Bishkek regularly and cheaply - Think I might need a job with the Kyrgyz tourist board! Come here now people, it's going to change once the secret is out .
Back to our trip, we arrived in Kyrgyzstan at the end of June, after our wonderful but stifling time in Uz. There we had been restricted to staying in hotels so we were all looking forward to getting back to Tigger and freedom. We were also excited about being able to cook for ourselves again, we haven't written much about food in the blog mostly because there hasn't been a lot to write about, Central Asia is certainly not known for its food unless you are a big fan of boiled mutton that is!
I love meat but I have to say that central asia has found a way to knacker it good and proper. Not much pork around for obvious religious reasons so that leaves lamb, chicken, beef ( at least thats what I think it was ) goat, yak and horse. Boil for at least 24 hours and serve in a thin watery stock. Mmmmmm.
For our first night back on the road we find some rolling hills and tuck Tigger away out of the sight of the road for the night. A passing horseman gives us a wave as we are setting up camp - ahh its nice to be home! And even better after a rummage around in the food cupboard we find a real treat,
Spanish omelette and beans for tea - nothing like the taste of home. Or to quote James "That hits the spot"
I have to laugh a little to myself when “we” drive or move about in the van because as far as I can recall the nearest that the author has been to getting behind the wheel is when she is sitting in the back!
We head off to a place called Arslanbob (snigger like a schoolboy) which is home to the world's largest walnut grove. We have with us only a small amount of money which we changed at the border, this is a shame as we could have made more of our time here, you can cycle, horse ride, and hike the area and all can be arranged by the local CBT (community-based tourism) office ( as opposed to cognitive behavioural therapy office!)
CBT is a great organisation which allows tourism to directly benefit the local community and arranges homestays, yurt stays and activities all at affordable prices and has offices all over the country.
We decided to go for a hike on our own to the local waterfall which, to be honest is a bit underwhelming but the surrounding scenery is beautiful and little do we know but just a taste of what is to come. We get hopelessly lost but have enjoyed our walk anyway and met lots of Kyrgyz people who unlike the Uzbeks love having their photos taken
"Take our photo Meester"
Central Asia? could be the Alps!
We need to get some money, Arslanbob doesn't have a bank, nowhere takes credit cards so we need to head off to a bigger town, so unfortunately cut short our visit and head off in search of an ATM. On route to the next town, we spy some pools with people swimming - its hot and we are feeling bothered so we decided to stop and go for a swim. There are a number of what seem like pits and we have to pay 20som each to use them - which is a whopping 20p each. Bliss after the hot van and while we are in the water James is chatted to by a lady who insists on giving him/us a watermelon.
It was actually better than it looks - slightly!
Everyone wants to talk to us and practice their English - which mostly is pretty limited to "Hello", "Where are you from" and "My name is ......" This we are to find out is pretty universal across the country, everything else is done via charades. We do however meet one lady who is an English teacher and invites us back to her home in Jalal-Abad for something to eat and help us find an ATM
We spend the evening with Aligul and her family. It is truly humbling to see how little these people have and yet how much they want to share. We sleep in Tigger outside her house, which is on the hillside overlooking the city, although she would have been very happy for us to have stayed in the house, but we didn't want to turf anyone out of their beds! As well as a teacher she is an artist and very proud co-owner of a local gallery where she teaches local children to speak English as well as teaching painting. We are taken to see the gallery the following day. Aligul is very proud of her achievement in establishing the gallery/school and rightly so, not only is she a teacher in a local school as well, she also has 5 children, the youngest being only 2! We are very grateful to Aligul for her hospitality and insight into her life and amazed at her achievements, resilience and optimism given her circumstances.
Supper with the family
Aligul in her gallery
John is quite excited about the next part of the journey as we are heading off on roads that are only accessible for 4x4 vehicles and only during the summer months as in the winter they are impassable due to snow. Will Tigger be up for it - his first real test? We are driving to lake Song-Kol which is Kyrgyzstan's highest lake at 3016mtrs. To say we are driving on roads is said only in the loosest of terms, steep rutted rocky tracks would be a better description, not to mention the terrifying drops off the sides of the road - no barriers here!
Yes, it's true. I was indeed looking forward to this driving part of the journey. Is that wrong? Great fun to be had to drive your 4x4 Syncro van off road. A test of man and machine. Man vs mountain. Husband vs wife! Good god woman. Take your fingernails out of the dashboard, drop a Valium and let me drive! But seriously, I do have to concentrate on the road and not glance down too often as it is quite an adrenaline rush tempered only by the absolute amazement of the whole experience. To use a much over-used expression, it is truly awesome. J
A taste of the road going up
I have since looked up our route on the most dangerous roads in the world website and the Song Kol road is in there! Especially noted for its hairpin bends - just as well I didn't see this before we left!
Don't go too close to the edge!!!!!!!
Despite this death defying drive (skilfully managed by the driver) it is probably the most beautiful drive/place on earth we have ever been. Each time we reached a summit, breathtaking views, driving through mountain valleys filled with herds of beautiful horses roaming free, nomad yurt camps nestled alongside mountain streams. We take our time to reach the lake partly because we couldn't rush if we wanted to due to the roads and secondly it is so stunningly beautiful we want to savour the journey.
We have two amazing wild campsites en route which I'm pretty sure are going to be up there in our top ten campsites for our trip. We make use of our camp shower and feel totally back to nature!
Campsite number one
Campsite number 2 ( can you see tigger? )
While driving along there are lots of shepherd families and kids who love to wave and shout "hello" as they run or gallop their horses alongside the van. Children of all ages ride horses (no helmet of course) usually young boys of around 10yrs who's job it seems to be is to look after the animals. We stop to have some lunch and are soon surrounded by the local shepherd community. They aren't backwards in coming forwards and they all come along as we are eating our lunch to peer inside the van. Nobody can speak English and we don't speak Russian so all communication is done via sign language and guessing! We do understand that they love to have their photos taken, although its a bit odd that they feel as though they have to put on a serious face as soon as you pick up the camera -- nooo where are those happy faces of a second ago?!
Yes, it's really frustrating when you see the picture opportunity, get a happy and smiling permission to go ahead and then the serious face pops up! No amount of coaxing can get them to drop it either – God knows I tried!
this is Kamil and he had a lovely smile - honest!
The young lad Kamil who invited us back to the family home raced us down the hill on his poor little donkey but he looked so happy and made up that we had accepted his invite, how could you feel cross with him? I’m sure the donkeys get far harder tasks than a quick canter home. Top tip out here. Hospitality is very serious. You have to accept everything offered to you but if you don’t like it, don’t neck it or you get more!
We stop to chat with some more locals and are invited back for Chai with the family, it is a wonderful experience, the whole family want to chat/charades with us - a couple of the kids have a smattering of English and we are able to communicate, who needs to speak the same language, laughter seems to be the order of the day. We are also treated to our first taste of horse milk - Yes HORSE milk - a large bucket is brought out and the milk is laddled into cups. It's an interesting taste, to say the least! They have so many cows not really sure what the attraction of the horse milk is other than they ferment some of it so it's alcoholic! The stuff we had wasn't alcoholic and tasted foul but we smiled and said lovely. John made the mistake of finishing his cup and it was promptly filled back up again! Wisely I didn't finish mine and it was returned to the communal bucket for use later on. These were such lovely genuine people, they didn't expect anything from us other than to enjoy our company, we did give the kids a few gifts we had but they would have been happy with just a wave and a Spacebo (Thankyou)
Horse milk yummy - hmmm!
So so friendly
And so sweet!
Song Kol is too cold for habitation during the winter and only really accessible from June until September, therefore, it is not commercial in any way whatsoever, there are no shops, no petrol stations nothing. Absolutely nothing man made that is permanent - just the nomad yurts and animals grazing - herds of horses, cows and goats are in the majority here . As we approach the lake we see the snow-capped mountains in the distance surrounding the lake and I feel overwhelmed with emotion. It is so, so beautiful and unspoilt it makes me cry! - obviously, the rest of the crew think I have lost the plot, as I blubber away "it's so beautiful" I'm putting it down to altitude!!
I’m putting it down to the effect of alcohol in high altitude or menopause. Actually, why is it called the menopause? Shouldn’t it be called the menostop?
Pictures really don't do it justice
Not quite warm enough for a swim and rather a lot of Mozzies next to the lake
We have read in the all knowing Lonely Planet that there are yurts which you can stay in beside the lake, you just need to look for groups of more than 3. We stop at the first big group we see. Yes they can put us up, breakfast and evening meal included 1000som per person (£10)
With a bit of luck they will give you enough fuel to burn on the stove so you can keep warm. Ours, unfortunately, didn’t and when it burned out about midnight it got really cold.
We head off for a walk after a substantial lunch of lamb stew (veggie for James) but before we go we ask in charade like manner if we can do any horse riding - we understand that our host will sort something out and we head off to the hills
A note for all you vegetarians out there. Lamb stew with the lamb taken out counts as vegetarian here.
Spot our Yurt camp near the lake
As we are wandering back from our walk we are approached by two young lads holding on to three horses, they pass the horses over and wander off, so we are going horse riding unaccompanied it would seem - please also note last time we went riding my lovely husband ended up on the floor and James has barely ridden!!!!!!!!!! So off we go rather cautiously, they seem to stop when we want them to which in my opinion is the most important factor and we even manage to finish on a little canter!
Excuse me – This was in Bali. I ended up on the floor because my kamikaze horse was going to run straight into a boat on the beach, or as I suspect even worse, attempt jump it with me on board. So I gracefully baled out. That’s my account of the situation and I'm sticking to it!
James felt quite happy
This is my slightly nervous face in case you were wondering!
When we get back to Yurt camp central a group of French tourists have joined us and it would seem that some traditional horse games have been arranged for them and we are also invited to watch. The games are due to start in around 30mins so we rest in our yurt after our horse adventure. Just before we are about to leave we hear what sounds like a baby crying. It sounds terrible. Surely the French people didn't bring with them a baby to the middle of nowhere?? We go outside and the crying is getting worse, we notice a huddle of men around something that is thrashing around and then I remember something I have read in the all knowing Lonely Planet, horse games involve the slaughter of a goat as the torso is required to "play" the games with. As I remember this and start to tell John and James, all of a sudden it becomes very quiet, no more crying, the deed has been done. James refuses to watch the games and John isn't too sure either, my feeling is, it's traditional and it's dead now so might as well see what the poor goat gave up its life for!
Can you spot Mr Goat?
They are riding pretty fast - how come they don't fall off?!
When Suzanne told us that she had heard about how a goat's head was used to play the games it made me quite angry. Normally I go with the flow on things local, especially customs and traditions, but I considered this to be unnecessarily barbaric so I too decided to boycott the display and prepared to settle down to listen to some iPod shame. Suzanne came back in to tell us it was the goats headless carcase and that seemed strangely less horrific and I relented and went to have a look. I’m glad that I did because after witnessing the show I get it. It’s a development of huntsman's horse riding skills. You have to be there and witness it yourself before it makes sense so I won't try to justify it now. And what a fantastic photo opportunity to see these young men show off their horse skills. Picking up objects like paper money from the ground whilst zooming past at full gallop hanging almost upside down from the saddle with only one foot in the stirrups. Respect! Well, at least Billy gets used for dinner later so it's not done just for the sport, the sport being a by-product of the nomad way of life.
Perfect end to a perfect day
After our Song kol adventure, we head to Bishkek the Capital to say goodbye to crew member number 3 and put him on a flight back to the UK - he has been with us for nearly 6wks and he thinks that's long enough with his parents! Which is fine - Still sad to see him go though. We allow ourselves a couple of nights in a hotel with a pool just as a treat you understand before we bid him goodbye and continue with the next instalment of the adventure.