Balbals and Bulls

Bishkek was a shaky experience for us, so we were thrilled to get out and explore the Kyrgyz countryside. We set out for Lake Issyk Kul and for Karakol with high expectations and light spirits.

On the (long) drive out to Karakol we stopped to check out the Burana Tower. It’s an old tower, dating back to the prime Silk Road days, and now about 80 feet high having been shortened by earthquakes. We climbed to the top on a very narrow, dark, winding (but short) staircase. But what stole our attention were the balbal stones: ancient Turkic soldier stone markers. The stones depict the soldiers, and many are holding their swords and a cup full of the traditional Kyrygz drink: kumis, i.e. fermented mare’s milk. (P.S. we tried, despite our better judgment, to find and sample this treat, but apparently were there in the wrong season for alcoholic horse milk! Darn.)

The small museum onsite was densely packed with relics from the various religions that called the area home at one time or another. There were Buddhist figures and Arabic language carved stones, Zoroastrian ossuaries and plenty of bronze.

We also made a pit stop at the Petroglyphs at Cholpan-Ata. In this huge boulder field, you can wander around the stones, a handful of which have long-horned ibex, deer, hunters or other objects carved into their surface. The people who carved these believed in Shamanism and worshiped the sun, thus these carvings mostly face south towards Lake Issyk Kul.

From there, the long drive continued. Lest there be any doubt as to the quality of the roads, we got a flat tire. Luckily, the scenery was incredible, so we hung out and stared at the stunning view of Lake Issyk Kul and the abutting mountains while our driver changed the tire like a boss. Seriously, it’s like he has a background in the NASCAR pit crew or something.

Among the other weird things spotted on our drive: (1) We witnessed the end of a road race our guide believed to honor veterans. Each runner had a police car escort. What!? (2) We saw a group of men building a “billboard” of stones on the hillside. (3) We made a pit-stop on the side of the road and happened to have stopped under a huge collection of birds’ nests (and birds!). (4) We saw the Kyrgyz flag painted into the same hillside (their flag is red to symbolize blood, portrays a sun for a bright future, and utilizes the curved lines crossing of the yurt top). And (5) Caviar flavored Lays!

And finally we arrived in the town of Karakol. It’s a peaceful area near the lake but several kilometers from the shore. The neighborhoods are full of quaint white poplar-lined streets with gingerbread styled homes. It’s a popular trekking base and there is lift-served and heli-skiing nearby. One popular activity is the Sunday Animal Market (a highlight of the trip for sure, we’ll be covering it in a separate post because we have so many great pictures to share from that day!). The lake, in all its splendor, is probably the main appeal. It is the second biggest alpine lake in the world (behind Lake Titicaca) and the seventh deepest. It never freezes thanks to its extreme depth, salinity and some hot springs. The elevation is about a mile high and it has no outlet. It sits between the Kungey Ala-Too mountains to the north and the Terskey Ala-Too range to the south. The north side is more developed, with hordes of Russian and Kazakh visitors descending in the summer. We spent a night on the south shore of the lake after leaving Karakol and before arriving to our village home stay (to be covered in upcoming posts).

Our hotel was amazing (finally), and we gorged on the delicious breakfast spread of fried eggs, oatmeal, crepes, and pastries but mainly incredible fresh jams.

Outside the city is a lovely area called Djety Oguz, or Seven Bulls. This gorge got its name from the stunning row of red rocks that (don’t actually) look like a row of bulls, though we counted at least nine. Getting there requires a back and forth crossing of the river on narrow wooden bridges and a very primitive road, but the end result is well worth the effort. The green meadows are covered with cows, horses, sheep and goats, and then of course there are those gorgeous Kyrgyz mountains serving as the backdrop.

We especially enjoyed watching this young Kyrgyz boy come riding his donkey across the river and up to the meadow to tend to his sheep.

And then, in a perfectly random and awesome moment, a man came by on horseback with a PUPPY IN HIS BAG. Yes, man on horse + puppy in bag = awesome.

Back in town we hit up the religious Karakol sights. The Russian Orthodox church, built of intricately carved wood, is quite pretty. I stopped to pet a homeless dog before entering the church, and a woman, maybe deranged, offered me some food to feed the dog. When I exited the church a few minutes later, she handed me a flower and then, after I’d thanked her and headed back to the car, she yanked a branch of lilac off a tree and ran over to give that to me as well. She may be a mentally ill homeless Kyrgyz, but she’s a dog lover. So our souls are connected. Kindred spirits, if you will.

We also visited a Chinese styled mosque, which was not terribly exciting, given that we were not allowed to enter. Still, it was a colorful and eclectic building. We found it intriguing that there were signs at the Russian Orthodox church telling women to wear head scarves and no short clothes.

Practical Info

The small city of Karakol did not seem terribly exciting, but we loved the Sunday animal market and it makes a nice base for exploring the mountains. Note that Karakol is at the eastern end of Lake Issyk Kul, but several km from the lakeshore. There is lift-served and heli-skiing around here, I think the season is roughly December-February.

Accommodation: We stayed at Green Yard and loved it. It feels more like a guest house than a hotel. Our bed was enormous (two doubles joined together) and the furnishings were pretty nice. WiFi worked OK. The highlight for sure was breakfast.

Food: We picnicked or ate at Green Yard for all our meals. Dinner at Green Yard was good, but questionable value at 690/person. You order in advance and select a couple starters and entrees and everyone in your party then gets the same food. It did not measure up to the super high breakfast bar.

Activities: On the drive from Bishkek (which took maybe 5-6 hours of actual driving time) we stopped at Burana Tower and Cholpan-Ata, both covered above.

In Karakol, we had one full day and visited the Sunday animal market in the morning, then Djety Oguz later, and lastly a brief city tour of the Orthodox Church and mosque. It was a 15-20 minute drive from Green Yard to the animal market. We arrived around 7:30 am. I’m told the market starts like 3-5 am and ends at 10 am. I liked our time. It was fully light out and not so cold, there was still plenty of activity, and we were about the only tourists for most of our time there. By the time we left, a tour bus had arrived.

The drive to Djety Oguz from Green Yard took 1-1.5 hours (I think). Our van was 4WD with good clearance, which was important as the road to get up higher was rough. We stopped in a somewhat nondescript (but gorgeous) spot after crossing the river back and forth several times, and ambled up the road/meadow for a bit before turning around. I think there are real hikes, and maybe multi-day treks, around here.

There was no fee to enter the Orthodox Church, but a sign advised that women should have head-scarves and long clothing. The mosque seemed to indicate a fee, but I don’t think our guide paid anything, and we were not permitted to enter the building.

May 10-12, 2014 (Saturday-Monday)

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