Just Slip Out the Back, Jack. Make a New Plan, Stan. Seeya ‘Stans!

Ahh, our last few days in the ‘Stans. We checked out the yurts in Uzbekistan, but Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic culture just begged for some additional round accommodations. So, naturally, we drove out to the far side of Lake Issyk Kul to stay in a yurt for the night. This experience was much more rustic than our “fancy” yurt stay in Uzbekistan (as in no flushing toilets (though they weirdly had a Western style Porta Potty), no running water, no potable water, and certainly no showers). To be fair though, they provided lots of blankets and even a small space heater (much appreciated as it got COLD at night). It was also far quieter, as we were the only guests on the premises. So while we sadly missed out on the Russian serenading, we thoroughly enjoyed a little solitude among the peaks.

The best part, by far: the views! It was most certainly a yurt with a view. Though set back quite a ways from the lake, the yurts were nestled in a pretty phenomenal spot, with a view of the picturesque Lake Issyk Kul backed by snow capped mountains on one side, and more red stone mountains behind.

We walked down to the lake the first day and were pretty blown away. I’m definitely more of an ocean person than a lake person (speaking strictly for myself here, Alan goes both ways when it comes to bodies of water), but this lake was pretty awesome. It was a lovely turquoise color, had a sandy shoreline (with oddly reddish sand) and even had waves. While much too early in the season when we arrived, it’s rumored to be a very agreeable place to cool off from the hot summer heat.

After lunch at the yurt we explored Manjyly-Ata, a holy pilgrimage sight with sacred springs believed to cure a plethora of maladies. I think the Kyrgyz have been draining these dry though because we barely even saw trickles coming from them. Ah well, the views and the donkeys were worth it.

A few days later, on our drive out from the home stay, we stopped in a village to get an introduction to yurts (aka bozuy, in Kyrgyzstan) and how they’re made. We saw the intricacy and detail required to build the collapsible wooden frames, how they are hoisted together, and then covered in layers of felt and woven mats made from a tall grass called chiy. We even tried our hand at making some decorative chiy, and I’m disappointed to admit we were not as skilled as the masters (shocker, I know).

Our next stop was a village stay to get a feel for the rural Kyrgyz experience. While the accommodations were far from luxurious, we were really glad we got to witness this scene. The village we stayed in was tiny, maybe three or four blocks wide and a mile long (if that). You could see the whole place just by hiking up half an hour on the mountains nearby. And you’re more likely to see a horse than a car on the dirt road that runs through the center of “town.” Everything and everyone here comes from a radius of just a few miles. The family we stayed with are, like most of their neighbors, farmers. They farm potatoes, and at times carrots, beets, onions and garlic. They have their own horses, sheep, goats, chickens and cows. And these furry friends (mostly) live in the backyard.

Overall, the home had a fair number of modern comforts and conveniences (a television, DVD player, a dead fox on the wall… We got a kick out of the bedroom décor.), but the bathroom is rustic for sure. Getting there entails a foray through the animal pen to a small wooden outhouse with a tiny triangle cut out of the floor. I think it is uncommon to stay in homes like this, as most tourists visit later in the season and stay up the hillside in yurt camps (that were not yet set up for our visit). Clearly six months of travel through Asia has changed our standards a bit, as I was just excited that they had toilet paper.

We stopped in to visit the village school and were bombarded with cute kids. I mean, really.

We were even treated to a class rendition of the Kyrgyz national anthem (accompanied by the music teacher on accordion).

And a video for your listening pleasure…

The mother of our house cooked all our meals and we ate at the table pseudo-with her. (She speaks no English, so she kind of just watches you eat and then refills your teacup every few minutes). The food was actually pretty good, if you could get past the hairs in it (seriously, I think there was a hair in every item I touched. Woman needs some anti-hair-fall Pantene). But oh well, I suppose a few hairs are a necessary evil when all the food is so local it’s literally coming from the back yard. Lady made a mean chak chak (sticky sweet fried noodles). And as with many places we stayed in Kyrgyzstan, she provided some phenomenal jams, which we slathered on bread until the carb police had to pull us away.

To work off the lamb and jam we went on a really nice hike up the mountains behind the school. It was positively picturesque up there. Steep, rocky and craggy in parts, there were also wide valleys full of grazing sheep and their shepherd on horseback (who, by the way, was the only other person we passed on the trails). I loved that the local village has a carpool equivalent set up for their sheep: they take turns shepherding all the neighborhood sheep up the mountains to feed.

Up top (at perhaps 3,000 meters) we were afforded immense views of Lake Issyk Kul and behemoth mountains in seemingly every direction. Pretty incredible, especially once we realized some of these peaks were around 4,700 meters! That (almost) rivals the heights we reached trekking in the Himalayas!

I decided to hold down the home stay while Alan, Ron and Linda went horseback riding one morning. You know, my whole being afraid of everything, thing. Horses are such a prominent part of the Kyrgyz history and culture, and these were some well-trained steeds, so they enjoyed the outing.

In the hopes of finding a shower and a flushing toilet we moved to a different home stay the next night, this time in a town called Kochkor. The town was far more substantial, and the experience was more hotel-like than home stay, but trust me we were happy about the bathroom situation. And the dinner spread was impressive, complete with a tiered tray of desserts. No complaints here ☺

On the way out of Kyrgyzstan, we spent one uneventful night in the town of Naryn so that we could make the long drive across the Torugart Pass to China the following day. Naryn may have its charms, but I would not say they reveal themselves during a drive down the main drag. It’s in the mountains with a river running through it, but seems slightly more gritty than alpine cozy. We did little here other than get really excited at the thought of private flushing toilets in our room, only to be disappointed when the tank literally fell off the toilet and shattered in Ron and Linda’s room, which required shutting the water off in our adjoining room. To make matters worse, there was some confusion about whether our room bill was already paid or not. Yet another miscommunication by our tour operator, which fortunately we resolved without too much commotion. At least we got in a little excitement in Naryn, eh?

And, at long last, it was time to bid farewell to the ‘Stans. We (shocker) piled into the van for a long drive across the border, bracing ourselves for our old familiar and favorite (not) Central Asian pastime: overland border crossings. At first, the road was very smooth, and the scenery was quite beautiful. Then the road turned into dirt and while the ride was much less pleasant the view only increased in grandeur. It was remote, and beautiful, with nothing but pastures of sheep…

…stunning mountains…

…endless stretches of road surrounded by pastures of sheep and mountains…

…and a truck carrying a yurt. (Also lots of furry marmots running funnily. If you’ve never watched a marmot run, you’re missing out, man.)

It became impossible to hold out for toilets, so we used these lovely facilities:

And then we finally for once had a relatively smooth border crossing experience. I mean sort of…it still took hours, but this time mostly because checkpoints were as much as 70km apart. But by comparison, we had it good, since we picked up a poor stranded Dutch couple that had been waiting for their car from China for hours at the gate between Kyrgyzstan and China. And Torugart Pass is renowned as one of Asia’s most unpredictable borders, due to frequent logistically caused gridlock and weather related closures (it sits at an altitude of more than 12,300 feet!). Not to mention the lines of dozens of trucks sitting in a row on either side of the border. So I think we were pretty lucky.

Practical Info

Most of our time in Central Asia was arranged through a UK-based travel agent, but eco- and community based tourism are popular in Kyrgyzstan and thus we arranged a few nights of yurt and home stay lodging via Ecotour. This is the website: http://www.ecotour.kg. It is a good idea to bring drinking water or purification tools as potable water was not always available. And if you need your coffee, bring some instant grounds.

Kochkor is one of the centers for Kyrgyzstan’s budding community based tourism industry. Through outfits like CBT, Shepherd’s Life and others, you can arrange home stays, yurt stays, horse trekking, day trips to Song-Kul Lake, etc. When we altered some plans mid-trip, Ainura at Shepherd’s Life was very kind and helpful. To clarify here, we had arranged things through Ecotour, which has an office in Bishkek, and we were pleased with their services. But Shepherd’s Life got involved because they have an office in Kochkor, and so they coordinated the local changes.

A popular attraction in this region is Song-Kul Lake, which we might have visited had it been later in the season and/or we had more time. We also skipped Tash Rabat on the drive from Naryn to the border because we were worried about getting to the border early enough on a Friday to minimize the risk of missing the cut off and getting stuck until Monday!

Transportation: We arranged our own transport from Green Yard Hotel in Karakol to Bokonbayevo, where we met our Ecotour team. The drive from Green Yard was two hours. We paid 3,500 KGS for a (very) small minivan. The other options were 2,500 for a sedan or 5,000 for a luxury SUV. Green Yard helped us arrange this. We could have taken a public bus for much less money.

From Bokonbayevo our transport through Ecotour was a white Mercedes minibus, of the sort seen all over Kyrgyzstan. It took only 15 minutes to reach the yurt camp near the lake shore. The drive from the yurt camp to our first home stay was perhaps 30-45 minutes. From the first home stay to the second in Kochkor, the drive was longer but I don’t recall details. From Kochkor to Naryn, we crossed the Dolon Pass at nearly 10,000 feet elevation. The road was pretty rough much of the time, and this took 2.5 hours.

Our last day in Kyrgyzstan involved a very long and rough drive over the Torugart Pass. This border crossing was more pleasant than some of the Uzbek gems, but it was at least as bizarre. We left Naryn at 7:20 am and two hours later reached the first passport checkpoint. We said goodbye to pavement and bumped along for two more hours until we reached the Kyrgyz customs and immigration station. Three passport checks at this spot. Then we continued ascending to the high point of the pass, where we said goodbye to Kyrgyzstan and walked through a gate to our next van on the China side. Then we drove several km down the hill to the first Chinese checkpoint, where again passports were inspected, along with every item in my father’s bag since he had to empty it on the table after passing through the mobile x-ray truck. Continuing on, there was another checkpoint before we finally reached the actual Chinese immigration station. And we must say that these government workers were extraordinarily nice and friendly. It was such a welcome change, Jenni wanted to hug the lady!

A few minutes later, we were driving on a perfectly paved, divided highway…and we were ecstatic. There was a full nine hours of actual driving time from Naryn, Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar, China. You can also cross the border at the Irkeshtam Pass, but we were coming from a different part of Kyrgyzstan. Should you decide to cross the Kyrgyz/China border by land, be very diligent in your research and plans because there are many rules and pitfalls for the unwary. Things like you may need to arrive at the border by noon, and you may not be allowed to proceed unless the Kyrgyz officials confirm there is transport awaiting you on the China side.

Note that local time in China is two hours later, since that entire country uses one time zone. Be sure you understand whether people are talking about official Beijing time or local Kashgar time, because both may be used.

Accommodation: Three of the four nights covered in this post were spent in a yurt or home stay, all arranged by Ecotour. In Naryn we stayed at the Khan Tengri Hotel. There were some mishaps (noted above) and a lack of WiFi, though the property was fine and the onsite restaurant was quite good. It is far enough outside town that you could walk in but might not want to do so.

Food: Almost all our meals were covered by the Ecotour package, but I’m including this section to mention two things. (1) we had a yummy stuffed and rolled pasta type dish called oromo, and (2) it’s a good idea to carry water and ample snacks for these long drives, especially crossing the Torugart Pass.

May 12-16, 2014 (Monday-Friday)

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