Kyrgyzstan – Home of Hospitality and Letting Freedom Ring With A Shotgun Blast.
How we reconvened with other overlanders in Bishkek, had a drunken night out with prostitutes, tried to climb a mountain and finally used the packraft.
After a freezing final night in Tajikistan we (reluctantly) exited the country encountering few problems (the usual “problem” requiring $25 to sort out soon disappeared when we settled back into the car offering to wait for the right official to arrive) and took the long road down to the Kyrgyz border. We were ushered through the gates and into Kyrgyzstan with barely a glance at the car (minus a required customs declaration which will become apparent later), taking less than twenty minutes. It was lunchtime and obviously not a convenient time to check vehicles!
We had heard all along our travels of the hospitality and stunning scenery that Kyrgyzstan had to offer, and our experience in Tajikistan would no doubt pale in comparison. We couldn’t wait.
We barely had enough fuel to reach Sary Tash, and luckily once there we found a fuel station straight away (I calculated it like that as fuel is cheaper in Kyrgyzstan – Griff). Luckier still, they accepted and could change dollars, useful as there were no ATM’s from the border until Gulcha.
The scenery rapidly changed from mountains to lush rolling green hills with felt covered yurts dotted about the countryside like mushrooms (all with shiny new cars alongside!). Stunning it definitely was. Herds of horses replaced the goats and cattle we had become accustomed to, but even they galloped into the road last minute to test our alertness at every turn. Horsemeat and fermented mare’s milk were advertised in every direction and at every yurt.
We drove to Osh for it’s famous Sunday Market, to stock up on supplies and find an ATM (the ATM in Gulcho wouldn’t accept our cash card). We hadn’t seen a big city since Dushanbe and the traffic and commotion overwhelmed us, so we decided to push on and try and find the mountain pass to Naryn over the Fergana mountain range. We drove through several beautiful rural villages running alongside the Jassy River. In one village we saw a truck that had gotten stuck in a ditch. Griff went to offer his services as a tow-vehicle, where he discovered the man at the wheel half-asleep and blind drunk. He accepted our help, letting Griff do all the work while he sat in his cab. Just as we were beginning to think the man didn’t appreciate Griff’s efforts, he grabbed Griff in a massive bear-hug and tried to share his vodka in celebration. As we politely declined, a local shopkeeper who had been watching the proceedings asked us where we were heading. Immediately he told us that the road to Naryn was closed and we should go via Jalal-Abad instead. We thanked him but decided to go on anyway, just in case there was a miscommunication. We crossed the river at another village and asked again about the road, only to have the news confirmed – the road was closed beyond Ak-Terek. At this point we agreed that it was wise to listen to the locals. As we turned the car around, another village drunk took a shine to us. He wanted us to drink with him so bought us a beer then, randomly, a cucumber and some tomatoes. As we struggled to depart without him, the local shopkeeper distracted him then motioned to us to scram quickly before he noticed! We gratefully obliged, taking the first road out of his sight!
That night we struggled to find a quiet spot to camp as there were so many villages close together, and we didn’t want to risk an encounter with yet another drunk. We saw an elderly man shearing a sheep outside his home using traditional hand-shears, and asked him if we could camp on his land. He was more than happy to let us, and he pointed us to a good spot by his walnut trees. Then there was talk of numbers (sounded like fifty something) and we deciphered in our poor Russian that it would cost us to camp there. But when Griff tried to give him the money, he got deeply offended and walked off, returning a few minutes later having written it down in Russian. What he’d actually said was “you write Russian well” – we had confused the word for write with the word for fifty! The irony wasn’t lost on us. When Griff tried to feed his horses with a carrot (which they duly snubbed) we were offered photo opportunities on one of the horses. Griff declined, as he and horses don’t get on, but I thought it would be ok as I was with one of the greatest horse-riders in the world – what could go wrong? Well, the horse was a bit jittery to begin with, but the guy insisted she was ok and to carry on. I nervously went to jump on from a nearby rock, but before I could swing a leg over, the horse bolted to the side, making me jump and skip to the other side to avoid any flailing hooves! Things would have been fine, had I not landed on a boulder and tripped backwards, landing squarely on another boulder and smashing my coccyx bone. The poor man said he’d almost had a heart attack! Other than a bruised bum and bruised ego, everything was ok. But Griff was less than impressed, firmly stating I wasn’t allowed on any more horses on our trip. I understood why, as it would be the end of the trip for me if I were injured, but I was in the land of horse-riders, and soon to be in Mongolia where EVERYONE rode horses! So disappointing.
Next day we drove through Jalal-Abad and north to Bishkek, hoping to camp halfway by the turquoise waters of the huge Toktogul reservoir and go for a cooling swim. Unfortunately the shore was so populated that we ended up finding a spot on a disused side road instead. Just as we started preparing dinner, a man popped up from behind a hill and insisted we join him at his house further up the track for dinner. We had no idea what to expect, but we weren’t prepared for the tiny shack they called their home while their proper house was being built. It was literally a wooden frame surrounded by plastic sheeting, with room enough for a low table, which could be removed so a bed could replace it. But it was cosy and they made us feel very welcome, offering us tea, beef, bread and honey, though we had to tactfully avoid eating the huge lumps of beef fat that were constantly pushed our way, traditionally offered to guests. A lovely evening followed, watching the well-dressed wife milking the cows, and tasting the fresh warm milk (we were only a little worried about it being unpasturised). Yoghurt was made and shared, eventually followed by a small shot or two of vodka. As darkness fell we realised they had no lighting, and used their mobile phones as torches! So we retrieved our head-torches and Coleman lamp from the car to shed some light for the remainder of the evening. The man was fascinated with our headtorches, and the following morning tried to buy one from us! We felt bad keeping ours (as we needed them) but promised to send him one, which we did before we left Kyrgyzstan.
We arrived in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, where we would pick up our Kazakh visa. It was a more aggressive city than we were used to, with plenty of road rage on display. It also seemed a little darker than the more recent places we’d visited; tales of fights and other violent crimes aplenty among travellers, which was unusual. We weren’t sure if we even wanted to stay in the city, until we reached the relative haven of Nomads Home on the outskirts. It is a family-run hostel/camp spot, and we felt at home there immediately. It is extremely relaxed, and the owners are friendly and speak some English (Nomads Home featured on our post of Top 5 Overlanders Hangouts). Ok there were a couple of disturbances just outside while we were there (one neighbour had a huge row with his landlady, and another shot the local stray dogs), but we were never worried. Even the local brothel two doors down was fairly discreet.
While in Bishkek, our social life took off again. We met Karsten from Switzerland, who was overlanding with his ten-year-old son Cedric and hitchhiker Tomo from Japan who was sharing their LandCruiser. Linda, from Holland, was cycling to Beijing from Istanbul. Jurgen, the Norwegian fisherman, had already been there a few weeks and knew the “best” places to go. Hughbert from Austria was also staying. We were reunited with Jon and Boris a couple of days after we arrived, and Vaughan and Kim from UK/Canada/France arrived in their Iveco camper to meet him for the Chinese leg of their journey.
As it was the weekend, Jon instigated a night out on the town and Jurgen, our resident nightlife expert, planned the itinerary. So after an (expensive) Chinese meal of chicken legs and vegetables we bundled into a couple of taxis and headed for the ex-pat Metro Bar. Several drinks later, and with a new accompaniment of ex-pats and friendly local prostitutes, we hopped into more taxis and made for a nightclub somewhere in town. No one knew where we were all going, and when we arrived it seemed we had lost Jurgen, and the prostitutes (not necessarily together). The club was a little strange, with a random beauty contest held part way through the night, and the music was terrible! So at 3am, after a boogie and a few more drinks, we decided it was time to go back to Nomads Home. This was a little tricky, as Nomads Home is locked after midnight, and AWOL Jurgen had been given the spare key. So Linda and I, being the smallest, were virtually thrown over the 6ft metal gate, to try and unlock the gate from the inside, follwed by Hughbert. No joy there. To make matters worse, Griff had started throwing up outside the gate (damn Stella Artois!) and Jon had to hoist him up onto the gate. The metal was clanging in its posts, and Griff landed on the other side just as a light came on inside the house. Jon was halfway over the gate as the front door opened and he stopped dead, caught in the action! The women rushed out in their nightclothes wide-eyed and annoyed, demanding to know what was going on. We explained our predicament, and apologised profusely, before slinking off like naughty children to our respective beds. All except Griff who had disappeared to the toilet. After ten minutes or so I thought I had better check up on him, as it was getting light and people would soon need the sole bathroom. I found him sleeping against the toilet door, and in my effort to move him he was sick all over the floor and up my leg! I managed to clean up the worst of it before dragging him to the tent, but on the way he decided he needed to throw up some more and chose the rose bed as his target. Unfortunately his timing was such that the back door opened and the owner peered out to see if he was all right. Luckily Linda was close to hand with a bowl, and I shoved Griff in her direction to catch his stomach contents just in time! The next day we all sheepishly emerged, expecting at best a firm telling off, if not an eviction notice! But the ladies there were great, teasing us for our bad behaviour and a mock telling-off for Griff for getting into that state. Phew!
We had a quiet day to recover, keeping on our best behaviour, but late that night Adam arrived a bit bedraggled and needing food. We were not expecting him to arrive so soon after Tajikistan so it was cause for celebration! Griff took him out for beers and shashlik, and pushed it so close to the midnight curfew I thought we’d be told off again! Over the next few days we spent time catching up with chores and visiting the huge Alamedin bazaar (which sells everything!), during which time Martina, Michael and Perla the dog arrived, who we’d met in Khorog. So of course we had to socialise a little more. We bought British sausages from the ex-pat butchers behind the Metro Bar, and treated Jon and Adam to sausages and mash. Then there was the small local bazaar, which had a huge bread oven, and each morning we would buy fresh bread and eat it with honey while it was still warm. All these things combined led us to stay in Bishkek for ten days, instead of the few days waiting for our visas!
We reluctantly left the city and drove to the stunning location that is Issyk-Köl. The blue, slightly saline waters are even warm in some parts of the lake due to the thermal activity underneath it. It is the second largest alpine lake in the world, and the beautiful Alatau ranges that form the northern part of the mighty Tian Shan Mountains surround it.
We spent a relaxed couple of nights camping on its southern shore, cooking cottage pie on the woodburning stove, swimming and packrafting. It was like a mini-break partway through the trip! We reached the regional capital of Karakol, and after spending several hours in Karakol Coffee house and catching up on the internet we decided to have an excursion into the mountains.
So after a quick visit to the local tourist information office (a rarity in Central Asia), map in hand, we decided to visit the hot springs of Altyn Arashan and nearby Ala-Köl, a lake just over a mountain pass, a day’s walk from the springs. By the time we found the correct road to the settlement it was 4pm, and the road was slow going. The valley sides crept higher and the roads became rockier. Switchbacks are tricky at the best of times in the Landy but with a trailer it felt pretty precarious! We finally reached the small huts of Yak Tours Camp at about 8pm, and settled in for the night with the other travellers. It was pretty cold, being 3000m up, and we found out from other hikers that the pass to Ala-Köl was still under snow, and a vertical snowy wall had to be climbed to reach the pass itself which itself stood at 4200m.
We didn’t fancy our chances of being able to reach the pass, but at 7am we left bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to try. The path was difficult to find (something that seemed to happen a lot here) so we stopped to ask a nice German guy called Sasha who had been walking for 8 days and was camped up by the river. Half an hour later, we trudged up the slope to find the river with the tree trunks across it, the only way across. Then it was a continuously steep climb, which immediately exposed our lack of fitness! After several hours we reached the snow-wall, confirming that no, we wouldn’t bother to try, and laid down for a nap in the sunshine instead. In our defence, we hadn’t walked anywhere since Georgia, several months ago! and a 200m high near vertical snow wall seemed beyond our technical expertise. We spent a couple of hours retracing our steps back to camp, where a nice hot spring was waiting to sooth our aching muscles. It was a heavenly way to end the walk!
The following day we crawled back down the dicey road to Karakol. On the way down we got stuck in one of the muddy tracks and had to winch off a rock, but other than that it was not as bad as the drive up. Then it was a quick dash for supplies, a trip to the post office to dispatch the aforementioned headtorch, and straight to the border to cross into Kazakhstan.
We must admit, we weren’t too sad about leaving Kyrgyzstan. We loved the scenery, and some of the people we met were extremely friendly and hospitable, just as we’d been told. But there was none of the excitement or friendliness when driving through villages as there had been in Tajikistan, people just stared coldly instead. There was also a huge drinking problem that led to a lot of aggression, even in small places like Altyn Arashan where a fight broke out at 2am. It felt a little disappointing as a whole, and I wonder how much of that is down to high expectations (and recommendations) and how much is down to visiting Tajikistan first. We’ll never know, but maybe we will return one day and see a different side.
Next stop, Almaty!