Category Archives: Central Asia


After our final border crossing of the trip – and our last border crossing until going home to America! – we began our tour of the last country on our six month Asian expedition: China! While China is technically not part of Central Asia, the city of Kashgar is still along the Silk Road, and it’s actually closer to Tehran than Beijing, ethnically more Uighur (with some Kyrgyz, Kazakh, etc.) and predominantly Muslim, so it felt a lot different from other Chinese cities like Beijing.

While there was obvious influence from China (including a giant Mao statue, some Mandarin speakers, and lots of proper Chinese food), the Uighur culture is definitely prevalent. We couldn’t decide if it felt more like a Chinese Central Asia, or a Central Asian China, finding instead that it fills some sort of nice hybrid space. The neon signs at the traffic lights would scroll right to left with Mandarin, and then switch direction for Uighur, which felt kind of like a metaphor for Kashgar itself. The city can’t even pick a side when it comes to the time zone. While all of mainland China is technically in the same time zone (kind of crazy when you realize that it’s thousands of miles wide), there are two times used in Kashgar (local time and Beijing. Meaning that if you follow Beijing time, it stays light out super super late).

While we came here almost exclusively for the animal market (so awesome it will be covered in its own separate post, coming right up), we were surprised by how much we enjoyed the rest of the city. It’s chock full of developing nation style markets, great old guys with crazy long white beards and our personal favorite attribute: super friendly people! As soon as we crossed over the border from Kyrgyzstan to China we noticed a marked increase in friendliness (no offense to the Kyrgyz). If you’ve been following our posts on Central Asia you know we’ve had some unpleasant experiences at the borders, but the Chinese border patrol employees were stellar. I legit got into a conversation with one sweet lady about pandas. I had to restrain myself from hugging her, lest it be construed as aggressive. So, we were off to a great start with China.

Once we hit the open Chinese road, the scenery changed from that in Kyrgyzstan, but it certainly did not decrease in splendor. We passed through a deep gorge, and the rocks were a beautiful red color. And the roads. Oh, the roads. We have never been so ecstatic to see a nicely paved, smooth, divided highway. (For those who haven’t followed our posts on the previous several weeks in Central Asia, know that we spent more time in cars on the most impressively poor roads than I ever thought I would in my life). But this was still Chinastan, so the division didn’t stop the occasional scooter driver from heading down the wrong side of the road.

The views from the plane on our way out were equally impressive.

We got our first taste of Chinese food while here, though it was surprisingly difficult to order given that our guide and the wait staff did not speak the same language. We basically got as far as “chicken” or “soup” on a menu with about 100 items listed. Nonetheless, it was pretty tasty.

Kashgar is a dusty place. In fact, I pulled up the weather on my iPhone one day and the forecast was literally “dust.” I had no idea that was one of the options. I guess that’s a result of the sandy deserts all around, but it results in one strange and eye irritating condition.

::dusty with no chance of meatballs::

And here I thought the smog in Beijing would be suffocating, turns out Kashgar was the place we needed a gas mask. And, funny enough, they do place gas masks in the hotel rooms for purchase! China is crazy, man.

We had planned on a visit to Lake Karakol as a little day trip, but when we discovered that such a “little” day trip would entail about thirteen hours of driving and less than two hours of actually being at the lake (unfortunately there was some construction on the roads), we did some quick research to find an alternate option. Shipton’s Arch fit the bill, and we were quite pleased to be backed into the activity since it turned out to be really stunning. This arch is supposedly the largest freestanding arch in the world.

The drive in takes you through, basically, the middle of nowhere, though there is a nice brand new road leading up through the desert. And the drive affords some pretty neat views, scraggly camel sightings included.

We also saw this awesome lady prepping a giant pig’s head for what’s sure to be a feast.

Once at the parking lot for Shipton’s Arch, it’s a little hike to get to the base of the arch, and a pretty steep climb up a number of switchbacks to get the money shot. They’re busy building a staircase, and what appears to be the beginnings of a viewing deck, but for now it’s au naturel. The pictures barely convey the depth of this thing. It’s a spectacular view. I’ve not been to Arches National Park yet (seriously need to do that soon!), but I imagine this rivals it in scale if nothing else.

Sunday was obviously our day to check out the famed animal market, but since it was so great, and we have so many lovely photos (and video!) to share, we’ll be covering that in a separate post. We had the rest of the day to explore Kashgar’s other sights and so we did. The first, Abakh Hoja tomb, was definitely worth the visit, if only for the beautiful rose garden. The tomb itself was maybe not as impressive as others we’d seen in the ‘Stans, but the coloring was more green than blue and a lovely change of pace from the ones we’d been checking out over weeks past.

What we most adored about Kashgar was the old town. It really feels like you are stepping into the olden times. Where else can you see someone’s fat-tailed sheep tied up next to their Beemer?

We wandered into a blacksmiths’ shop and admired the men with remarkable aim and tolerance for heat. We meandered into a few other shops where locals sold their wares, ranging from lots of metal and copper products, to ceramics and woodwork.

The streets feel almost like India here, with crowds and activity buzzing everywhere.

We also checked out the Central Asian Bazaar, which was quite the market. It seemed to go on for miles, lined with stalls selling furs, carpets, shoes, spices, nuts, instruments, snake oils (literally)… you name it.

Also, how cute is this man?

We tried our best to get a photo of these hilarious assless pants the kids wear (I assume in lieu of diapers though it strikes me as an odd choice ripe for even less fortunate accidents), but there’s only so many attempts you can make to capture a shot of a baby’s ass without looking/feeling like a total creeper. Among other interesting baby accessories: they put their babes in these beds that are essentially long cradles with a hole. In the hole they place a ceramic pot, and the babies just go (as in using the toilet) into the pots. Fascinating, right? I’ve never heard of anything like that!

Craft street was lined with beautiful copper wares, and also some really good Turkish style ice cream. FYI, this is apparently where they filmed the Kite Runner.

Our last stop was the Id Kah Mosque. While the mosque itself wasn’t particularly mindblowing from an architectural point of view, it felt like a nice park inside with lots of trees. We also got a kick out of the propaganda on the signage.

And we started to see some of the awesome signage that proved to a be a theme throughout our stay in China. It seems like they have signs warning you about everything. I mean, there was a sign in the hotel shower warning that it could be wet, and hence slippery. Are there many people unfamiliar with the fact that showers get wet? Exhibit A (and do stay tuned for Xian and Beijing signs, because believe you me, they just keep getting better!):

Practical Info

Our Kashgar visit was coordinated through the same agency as our Central Asia travels. However, since this is our first post on China, I will cover the “can you travel in China independently” topic here. We went on to visit Xian and Beijing, and it was a tough decision whether to work with an agent or go it alone. We opted to go it alone.

I had received quotes from two agents for the Xian and Beijing portions, each of which included flights from Kashgar to Xian and the overnight train from Xian to Beijing (i.e. only five nights of hotels, not six as we chose in order to take the day train), plus transfers, hotels, and private guides. These quotes were both in the range of $1,900-2,500/person. This seemed shockingly high to me.

To make a long story short, we saved $2,000-3,000 by traveling independently. It was much easier than I expected. I will cover our flights from Kashgar to Xian and high speed train from Xian to Beijing in more detail in another post, but I purchased the air tickets on Ctrip’s English language site and the train tickets on the Travel China Guide website. We arranged a private full-day tour in Xian and a group Great Wall trip from Beijing. Locals were friendly. We took the subway in Xian and Beijing, and it was cheap and quite easy to figure out. Our hotel in Beijing had these neat little cards with top tourist sights written in English and Chinese, so you could hop in a cab and just point. Plus the hotel’s name and address were written in Chinese so you could get home, too!

Of course comparing a fully private guided tour with generally independent travel is apples to oranges. With the former you do not need to plan much nor worry about the details. But having just spent a few weeks with guides in Central Asia, we were really tired of all the history lessons and required interaction with relative strangers. So I would say we did not even want a fully guided tour in China, even leaving costs aside. Considering the thousands of dollars saved by going it alone, I am extremely happy we did China this way.

The exchange rate was 1 USD = 6.2 Chinese Yuan (CNY). Each place we stayed in China had electrical outlets that worked with US style plugs.

Transportation: We arrived from Kyrgyzstan via the Torugart Pass and covered that experience in more detail here. Since we worked with a travel agent, I never investigated the details of coordinating this. You can also cross the border from Kyrgyzstan to China via the Irkeshtam Pass. For onward travel, we flew to Xian via Urumqi. The airport was ~15 minutes from our hotel. There are some direct flights to a few cities, but most flights go through Urumqi.

Accommodation: We stayed at Tian Yuan Hotel. It seems pretty well-located, very near the Old Town and not too far from the Id Kah Mosque. Our room was spacious and nice. The WiFi did not really work, but it was great once they put a router in our room. The breakfast left a bit to be desired.

Food: At the markets and on the street there is quite a lot of food. We also ate at Karakoram Cafe, which serves a limited menu of Western food. The pizza was pretty good and the WiFi worked well. It cost ~120 CNY for a pizza to share (for two) plus a smoothie and soda. Dinner at the restaurant at the Chini (or Qini) Bagh Hotel was uninspiring (cost ~240 CNY for four of us). My dad and Linda ate at John’s Cafe and liked it.

Activities: The Sunday animal market is the biggest draw, and it is pretty impressive. Whether it is worth the effort required to visit Kashgar is another question. I would vote “yes,” because I rather liked Kashgar in general and the long journey here involved some wonderful scenery. For more information on the animal market, including a comparison vs. the Karakol (Kyrgyzstan) animal market, see our separate post here.

The Grand Bazaar (I think it’s also called the Central and West Asia International Trading Market, the Sunday Bazaar and other names, and it’s open every day but is most active on Sunday, when we visited) was fairly impressive. It is somewhat touristy, but mostly filled with Chinese tourists. There is a very large assortment of furs, shoes, spices (including exotics like dried snake, frog, lizard, etc.), nuts, carpets, instruments, toys, cloth, etc.

We didn’t see that much of Old Town and may have walked on a street restored for tourists. But it was pretty neat with blacksmiths, wood craftsmen, food carts, etc.

Abakh (or Apak) Hoja Tomb is a mausoleum along with a couple mosques. It cost 30 CNY each to enter. If you are coming from the ‘Stans and have seen glorious mosques and madrasas, you may be underwhelmed. Still, I thought it was nice and worth a visit.

Id Kah Mosque is in the center of town and any tour would probably visit here. It was OK but not terribly exciting or beautiful, at least compared to other things we’ve seen recently.

Our day trip to Shipton’s Arch was fun. The arch is a relatively unknown natural wonder, clocking in at 1,200 feet high by some measurements (it depends from which you side you view it and how you measure). It is very impressive. It took 1 hour 20 minutes driving from Kashgar, all on nice, paved roads. From there we walked on gravel plus some rocks and some metal staircases through slot canyons, culminating in a walk on dirt switchbacks up a steep hill to the arch. The round-trip hiking portion took us 2 hours 15 minutes, including some time at the top. They are doing a lot of work, so by the time you get here the path may be easier and there may be stairs all the way up to the arch. If you read about bad roads or rickety ladders, those articles are probably old…or possibly approaching from the other side??

We had intended to visit Lake Karakol but passed after our guide said it would take about six hours each way, partly on roads under construction. And this would have been the day after we spent nine hours in the car crossing the Torugart Pass. It is said to have wonderful mountain scenery, including multiple 7,000 meter peaks visible. There are options for multi-day treks in that area. We also considered a day trip to Davakul Lake, where I believe you can go camel trekking in the Taklamakan Desert.

May 16-19, 2014 (Friday-Monday)

Farm to Table: China Style

You may recall our recent post about the Karakol Animal Market in Kyrgyzstan. We were fortunate enough to hit back-to-back Central Asian Sunday animal markets, with the pièce de résistance being the well-known Kashgar Sunday Market in far western China.

Traders and vendors come from all over, and even driving up to the parking lot you pass people and animals making their way up the highway into the parking lot spilling out with motorcycles and their attendant humans and animals.

Once again, the parking lot rivaled the actual market in awesomeness. Watching a man tie a fat-tailed sheep to his motorcycle is probably one of the coolest things I’ve witnessed.

Like the last animal market, this is a market where people bring their animals to sell, or come to buy them. You can of course find your fat-tailed sheep, goats, cows, and horses, but the Kashgar market is both more abundant and varied, as you can often find donkeys and even camels and yaks (though we were sadly there on a day with no camels or yaks (womp womp)).

Again, like Karakol, it is pretty much madness, though in my opinion it was a bit more controlled chaos here as there seemed to be a little more in the way of organization, including lined rows where people posted their animals. But even with order, there is still animal excrement. And this time it went beyond the inevitable stepping in it. Alan and I were hit. Sprayed with animal poo by a passing vehicle full of cows or sheep, I don’t even know. I was in shock that I got shit-sprayed. If you look closely at the trucks they bring these guys in on, you’ll notice streams of dried crap. Lovely, I know.

Unlike the Karakol market, there were tons of prepared food stalls here. I realize transitioning from the shit-spray story to the part where we eat food here is kind of gross, but that’s part of the charm, the je-ne-sais-quoi appeal of these markets. There were some men kneading and tossing noodles with impressive skill, a few guys selling watermelon, some large vats of plov, and lots of people butchering and cooking up lamb meat and lots of tail fat. Alan tried a samsa (think Kashgar hot pockets), and I’m told they were quite tasty. I have to say, though, that the fat to meat ratio is much too out of whack for my taste.

The cows here were enormous. Way bigger than normal cows. I think they’re on ‘roids man. They had some serious ‘roid rage, too. We saw one get hit by a truck, and he was no happy camper. All I can say is, I’m glad I wasn’t responsible for pulling them off the trucks, like so:

The people watching rivals the animal viewing. The faces! And facial hair!

The fat tailed sheep are always a fan favorite. And for animal lovers like me, you can almost treat it like a gigantic petting zoo 😉

For some reason the goats seem to stick together in tight little packs. Every once in a while one would jump up and try to crowd surf. I don’t even care that this one almost broke my camera lens, he’s just that cute.

Of course, the donkey section was a highlight. For two main reasons. One: have you ever hung out in a crowd of asses screeching at one another? It’s epic. Exhibit One: this video. And if you listen closely at the very end, you’ll find out the second main reason this was a hilarious highlight.

Two: I’ve heard the expression “hung like a horse,” but it should really be “hung like an ass.” Good god, man.

This is by far the most famous animal market in Central Asia (and pretty much the main attraction of Kashgar), so there were definitely more tourists here than at the Karakol market, but we were still hugely outnumbered by locals (and animals). This was very much the real deal, and very much a highlight for us.

Practical Info

The animal market is now located several kilometers outside the city, so you will need transport. It takes place only on Sunday. We arrived at 11:30 am, and this seemed like good timing. The action starts much earlier, but it takes some attendees so long to reach the market from afar that we heard arriving early is ill-advised.

We had visited the Karakol (Kyrgyzstan) animal market the previous Sunday so can offer a comparison. Karakol is much smaller but actually felt more intense, in a way. We were the only tourists for most of our time there, and it is a bit less organized and more crowded. There were only sheep, goats, cows and horses, and the cows were not nearly as big as those in Kashgar. The scenery is certainly superior, as there are snow-covered mountains in the background. Though I’m not sure what the backdrop is like when there is less dust in Kashgar and you can see more than a mile away. The Kashgar grounds are bigger, and there were enormous cows plus way more sheep, goats, and some horses and donkeys. We were disappointed not to see any camels or yaks. I’m told these are present sometimes. Our guide thought perhaps the construction on the Karakoram Highway impeded animal flow.

Where Kashgar has the clear edge is live animal quantity and food for immediate consumption. There were some snacks and a touch of grilling in Karakol, but Kashgar had a full-blown culinary scene. We saw countless vendors hand-kneading dough and pulling noodles for lagman; selling pieces of watermelon; boiling up meat; chopping sheep meat and combining it with fat to stuff inside a pastry and then bake in a clay oven. I tried one of these samsas (cost 2 CNY) and it was delicious, if you don’t mind a lot of fat. There are bagels too, moderately tasty if rock hard and filling at 1 CNY.

May 18, 2014 (Sunday)

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: 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)

Farm to Table: Kyrgyz Style

The Karakol Animal Market deserves its own post, because it was just that cool.

I mean, this is probably my favorite photo of all times. Doesn’t this sheep cuddle make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside and make you want to nuzzle someone or some thing!?

And how awesome is this photo-bombing Kyrgyz man?!

Only 15-20 minutes outside the town of Karakol, this craziness takes place once a week, every week.

What is it? A market where people bring their animals to sell, or come to buy them. Everything from fat-tailed sheep, to goats, to cows, to horses.

And it is madness. People and animals EVERYWHERE. Oh, and with animals comes animal poo. Be thankful you weren’t our shoes this day. Be very thankful. And remember to roll up your pants should you ever find yourself at the Karakol Sunday Animal Market.

I found the horse section particularly frightening given the instruction we received never to walk behind a horse, and the fact that this is physically impossible when the horses are packed into a field facing every which way. And they did not always look so happy to have people prodding them, checking out their teeth and feet.

And because Kyrgyzstan is the vertically unchallenged beauty that she is, the whole scene is backed by this stunning snow-capped mountain view.

The parking lot alone was fascinating, as you get to see things like men napping with their calf tied to the car…

and people dragging their sheep by its front legs…

or people carrying piles of sheep…

If you’re wondering about the going rates for these animals, we were able to figure out that fat-tailed sheep go for about $100 to $150 a pop. The bigger the butt, the better. Or, as Aiperi put it, we appreciate these animals from behind. Here I am “appreciating” a sheep ass. Badunk…A-Dunk.

It’s not just animals here, but anything you could want for said animals, from grains to feed them, rocks for them to lick (I guess they like the salt?!), ropes to tie them up with and veggies to serve with them. Sorry vegetarians!

And since this is a Kyrgyz animal market, you can also get your vodka and cigarettes (at 7:30 am, and presumably for a while before we arrived). No former Soviet nation animal market is complete without a vodka and ciggie bar!

Almost as fun as the animals, was the people watching. We couldn’t get enough of the old men in the traditional Kyrygz hats. And their epic facial hair. While men were much more heavily represented, we did find some women in traditional garb checking out the goods.

This was undoubtedly one of the coolest experiences we had in Central Asia. Talk about a unique (and not super touristy) spectacle. We were lucky enough to witness not one, but two back to back Central Asian animal markets as we were in Kashgar, China the following Sunday. Stay tuned for that post, coming soon!

Practical Info

The animal market is held every Sunday. Timing is about your only decision here. I think the action starts in the wee hours of the morning. We left the Green Yard Hotel at 7 am and arrived at the market before 7:30 am. I think this timing was ideal, as it was late enough to be light out and not so cold, but early enough that we beat the tour bus which arrived as we departed. Allow 1-2 hours for your visit.

There were vendors selling liquor plus fresh fried dough, some grilled meats and roasted fava beans. We bought a satchel of the latter, and they were salty and yummy.

May 11, 2014 (Sunday)

You’re Like a Big Eagle, With Claws and Fangs, Mike

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC PHOTOS. AWESOME, CRAZY COOL, GRAPHIC PHOTOS, BUT GRAPHIC NONETHELESS. Special heads up to animal lovers to proceed with caution (but hey, I’m an animal lover, too, and I thought this was amazing).

So, this is a story about the one time we met a Kyrgyz eagle hunter at a random spot on the side of the road to watch his eagle catch, kill and eat a rabbit. (Has anyone caught the Swingers reference by now? “And she’s just like a little bunny…”) And it was as cool as an eight-year-old boy thinks that sounds.

These birds are incredible. They can live to around 80 years old! This one is quite young actually (only four years old and already impressive in size), and older eagles can grow to be twice the size and are able to kill a wolf. A bird killing a wolf!

Hunters catch them by trap and train them. Once trained, the eagle works as a team with its owner, to catch prey. And this lucky bird at least gets to eat what he kills (or most of it). He also gets a sweet hat to cover his eyes.

Here’s how it went down. The eagle hunter’s assistant walked down a big hill with a rabbit in hand, and released it in the field. The poor little fluffy bunny rabbit made a futile attempt to run. Then our eagle hunter removed the hat from the eagle’s eyes, and within seconds he was flying on down, hovering over the rabbit for a moment before going in for the kill. He caught it without struggle, tearing its neck open with his claws to kill it.

The hunter went down to retrieve the eagle and the rabbit remains, and brought them up close for our viewing pleasure. The two men then severed the bunny’s head so as to save the body for the hunter’s bigger eagle back home, and we watched in amused and captivated horror/delight as the eagle devoured all but the very last bits of its skull.

For brave readers, check out this video (and be sure to note our freak out when the eagle swallows an ear whole):

Like, he pulled off and swallowed whole ears, eyeballs and brains at a time. According to the eagle hunter, the bird will vomit out the fur and bones tomorrow.

Our eagle hunter subsists solely on this eagle hunting business (and a Taigan puppy breeding business on the side. I’m going to need to get in touch with him once we’re no longer homeless, and see about importing a Kyrgyz hunting dog). Of course, he also breeds rabbits to maintain a big enough supply for his eagle hunting demonstrations.

This man loves his eagles. You could tell he wasn’t just saying it. He said the eagle is like a son to him, and by the way he looking lovingly into his eyes, and stroked his feathers while the bird shook rabbit blood onto him, I know it to be true. In fact, the eagle hunter’s wife and children take the backseat of the car. The front seat is reserved for the bird.

Practical Info

This eagle hunting demonstration was an add-on to the three-night itinerary we did with Ecotour. I think we paid 40 GBP. We did this on the drive from the yurt by Lake Issyk Kul to our home stay in Temir-Kanat village.

May 12, 2014 (Monday)

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)

Kyrgyzstan. It’s a Country.

True story: I visited a country that I didn’t know how to spell until after filling out my customs form. Whoa, that makes me sound ignorant. Did everyone else know there is a “z” in Kyrgyzstan?! I’m just gonna bank on the fact that probably half of Americans have never heard of Kyrgyzstan. 😉

By way of introduction for those that may have actually never heard of Kyrgyzstan, it is a Central Asian country comprised almost entirely of a “massive knot of colliding mountain ranges,” to quote Lonely Planet. These mountains and “their associated scraggy valleys, glaciers, gorges and ice-blue lakes dominate over 90% of the country.” In fact, the national hat is a big tall white thing that is designed to look like a glacier. The Kyrgyz people originated in Siberia though today they appear Asian given the Mongol influence and general assimilation and intermarriage. They are historically nomadic, and hence the yurt (and horse) plays a prominent role in the culture. There is a large Russian influence, what with the Lenin statues, Soviet style buildings, and Cyrillic script (we even learned some of the Cyrillic alphabet –enough to spell my name at least (Snowflake, E, H, H, backwards N…женни)). But the language is Turkic. Manas is the mythical national hero, and the epically long eponymous epic was composed entirely in oral form given the lack of written language among these nomadic folks.

Our welcome to Kyrgyzstan, as alluded to in prior posts, was less than pleasant. After a six and a half hour drive from Tashkent without food or bathroom break and a particularly infuriating and invasive bag check at the Uzbek border, we were in a rush to make our flight as a result of the failure of our Uzbek tour guides to comprehend time. Our true first taste of Kyrgyzstan was (very, very) briefly a pleasant change from our Uzbek farewell. After nearly an hour on the Uzbek side, we dragged our bags across the border. Sweating and incensed, we were greeted by a uniformed border patrolman. I looked at the man and asked, “Am I in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan?” His response, “Kyrgyzstan. Welcome,” was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard. I gave him an exasperated thank you and quickly pushed forth my passport.

The warm fuzzy feelings dissipated quickly as we met our new local guides in Osh, realized the time had indeed changed, and then rushed off in a hurried manner to catch our flight to Bishkek. Having not eaten since an early breakfast, and grown more and more furious as the long day wore on, we realized after we were dropped at the airport that we had no local money and thus no way to obtain those delightful looking M&M’s and Sprites behind the counter. (And OH EM GEE, did those look like the most delicious thing I’ve ever seen after weeks of plov.) From here, it’s a little unclear what happened. What I do know is that I asked the cashier if I could pay her with either Uzbek Sum or US Dollars (which in no way proves that I’m American, but I suppose that could have been the hint). Her answer was no. A few minutes later Alan heard a man near us use the word “Ukraine,” but other than that we could not understand him as he was speaking in Russian (or Kyrgyz, who knows). And then he looked at us with eyes full of misplaced fury and proceeded to spew a diatribe smattered with “American” and angry fist motions. We stood quietly by indicating that we had no idea what he was saying and that we were not inclined to engage in a fight with him, and watched as he garnered the attention of the entire airport terminal to scream and point at us bad, bad Americans. To be the recipient of such undeserved and undiscerning hatred was scary enough. But what really scared me the most was the fact that not a single soul felt the need to provide us with comfort or try to calm this man down. No security guards, no brave passengers made a peep. No one came up to us then or throughout the half an hour we waited to board a flight with this crazy man. No. Instead, we saw a handful of young men walk over and basically high five the guy. Then we waited and got on an airplane with the whole lot of them. Still, no one would make eye contact with us, though they did stare at us. To say we were disgusted would be an understatement. I have no words to accurately describe the way I felt at this point in a long and trying day of travel (the worst I think I’ve ever experienced in my life), but I did feel myself having a newfound sense of compassion for people who’ve ever had to bear the brunt of that kind of senseless hatred.

By the way, what makes it even more scary is that after we’d landed in Bishkek, a sweet woman came up to Linda in the baggage claim area and began to chat with her, but no more than a few minutes went by before Anti-American man came over, said something in Kyrgyz or Russian to this lady and scared her away. She didn’t even say goodbye to Linda.

And I suppose this taught us that with everything going on in Ukraine, it was not an ideal time to travel in an area with lots of Soviets. The reality is we’ve no idea what spurred this man’s outburst, and even if it is related to Ukraine, we don’t know whether he was angry because the U.S. is pushing back against Russia or because the U.S. didn’t do enough to help Ukraine! Of course, there are narrow minded and aggressive people everywhere, and many in the U.S. But it is quite sad.

To state the obvious, we were a little uneasy after this. Top it off with the fact that Bishkek, the capital city and our first Kyrgyz destination, has a more extensive list of travel warnings than most places we choose to visit. It probably didn’t help that our hotel had metal detectors at the entrance and hotel staff checked the underside of our van for bombs before letting us pull in (though only some of the time, so that’s comforting…). I kind of feel like we spent the first three days trying to convince our guide that it only takes one person to ruin an experience and/or cause injury (be it emotional or physical) and that we do not believe that all Kyrgyz people are bad. She spent three days trying to convince us that Kyrgyz people are nice. Most of them are, really. And I’m the first to admit there are bad apples in every barrel, but I think we were justified in our decision to skip Victory Day celebrations, the nationalist holiday celebrating the Soviet Union’s WWII victory where lots of Russian-heritage Kyrgyz people might be drunk and hanging out in large crowds.

Bishkek was much more modern and Western than the cities we’d seen in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. (Though as with most places, Kyrgyzstan is more traditional in the villages, and in the city people dress in skimpier, more Western styled clothing, etc.) While Kyrgyzstan is the poorest of the three (they have no oil or gas, and the main sources of income are hydro-power, some gold mining and some farming and cattle breeding), the streets were somehow filled with luxury cars (BMW, Lexus, we even spotted a Tesla). Fun fact: the Kyrgyz drive on the right, but many cars have steering wheels on the right, since they just import cars from wherever they are cheapest! (And if you’re wondering if this causes accidents, let’s just say that our van sideswiped a parked vehicle our first night in town). And the western influence was far more palpable here. For instance, we used our credit card!!! At multiple places! And there were grocery stores with bar code scanners. And they, too, accepted credit cards!

A large part of what attracts tourists to Kyrgyzstan is the natural beauty, and that allure is apparent right from the get go. Bishkek is dubbed a green city, and it does seem that way (I mean, check out the view from our hotel room) but one of the biggest selling points in our opinion is the access to nearby mountains like at Ala Archa National Park. You can even ski just a short drive from Bishkek!

A relatively short drive (maybe 45 minutes) took us to Ala Archa National Park for our first up-close enjoyment of Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty. We were thrilled to stretch our legs for a bit and get in a little exercise (read: start walking off all that lamb!). The views were quite stunning from the start, as we began hiking up a trail through a canyon with views of a rushing and rocky river and rugged snow-capped mountains on either side. Alan and Ron felt the area reminded them a bit of the landscape in Switzerland or New Zealand.

It was remote feeling, and we bumped into fewer than five other people our entire time on the trails (though, to be fair, there were a number of young Kyrgyz people picnicking and drinking closer to the base of the trail).

The wildflowers were pretty beautiful, as well.

We stopped a little ways up for a picnic lunch, and enjoyed some bread, cheese, fruit and nuts (purchased on credit card!!!).

Alan, Aiperi and I carried on in search of the waterfall (which turned out to be more of a trickle), but we were treated with some awesome animal sightings. Marmots! Such fat and furry and awkward movers, I love these guys.

And later we came upon a large group of mountain goats. It is pretty spectacular to watch these things move. I startled one on the trail when I turned a bend, and we stood their, jaws agape, as it bounded down to the river, across, and back up the other side with such speed and agility it was hard to believe it really happened. Sadly, no snow leopard sightings.

Also a quick and easy day trip from Bishkek is the Issyk Ata Gorge and Sanitarium. This visit happened to coincide with Victory Day so we did have a quick police check on the way to confirm that our driver was sober (glad to see this care taken to prevent drunk driving, but a wee bit nervous that this is necessary at 9am). The area is lovely and we couldn’t even make it there without a few stops to admire the stunning poppy studded fields and green hills backed by Kyrgyzstan’s craggy mountainous landscape.

Issyk Ata is sort of like a wellness retreat. This is the closest thing I could compare it to in America. There is a “hospital” on site, but its services are more holistic than surgical. There are springs from which people drink the water, and from what we could tell the main attraction is one large hot spring in a concrete pool where locals come to swim. (In fact, it was almost all locals, I’m not sure we saw any other foreign tourists.) There are also some old Buddhist carvings, and as per usual, some really cute little kids.

Though we all came wearing our “special costumes,” as Aiperi called them, Linda and I opted to observe while Alan and Ron checked out the pool for themselves. I found it amusing that it was treated like a community pool, with kids running around and playing as if it was a regular, cool pool rather than a giant hot tub.

There were also hoards of Kyrgyz people picnicking and hanging out in yurt-like cabanas on the grassy hills nearby. We quickly learned how popular this pastime is for the locals. It seems that whenever there is a holiday, a birthday, a cause for celebration, or just free time, friends and families gather with food and drinks at the nearest outdoor space for a good old fashioned picnic. Now that’s a national pastime I can get behind. The horse slaughter wedding ritual? I’m still on the fence about that one.

We escaped any Victory Day related drama save for a drunk old man picnicking (on vodka) at Issyk Ata who asked Aiperi where we’re from in a tone we cautiously viewed as angry. Thankfully, by now we had instructed Aiperi to let anyone know we were from Canada. I don’t know if he was on to us, or had just never heard of Canada, because his response was, “America? [drunk Kyrgyz mumbling]…America?”And by skipping the festivities we actually made it back to our hotel in time to discover we had a perfect view of the fireworks from our balcony.

The food options were also more plentiful in Bishkek, and included more western style options (still no McDonald’s or Starbucks though). Our guide, Aiperi, impressed us with her restaurant selections and we feasted on some glorious non-meat-and-potato dishes (even sushi!) for a few days before heading to the more rural areas where we would again overdose on lamb. I even joined Aiperi on the dance floor at one of the restaurants that had a bit of a clubby vibe to it. Kyrgyz girls can move those hips!

Practical Info

Unlike its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan does not require a visa for US citizens. In fact, we didn’t even fill out a customs form to enter the country. And they never collected our passports at a hotel! You could travel independently here, but it would be fairly difficult. If you speak Russian then it’s probably not as hard, and Turkish would help a bit, too. 1 USD = 52 Kyrgystani Som (KGS).

We visited in mid-May, which is before the peak season. Combining Kyrgyzstan with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan made it hard to time each perfectly, because later in the season those other countries will be scorching. The downside to visiting this early is that certain higher altitude yurt camps, treks, roads to lakes, etc. are either not accessible, or not reliably accessible such that you can make plans assuming access. The upside is it was never too hot, nor crowded. Perhaps you could do a Central Asia trip at the end of summer and time it to arrive after the sauna in certain places and before the snow in others…but I’m not sure.

Bishkek is somewhat more modern feeling than we expected. Credit cards are accepted at many establishments (generally only Visa, though). There are plenty of 24-hour supermarkets. We were still reeling somewhat from our Osh airport experience and the various travel advice warnings, so I wouldn’t say we relished our time here or saw that much of the city. Seems to us that a lot of the appeal anyway is the gorgeous surrounding mountains, which you can visit at places like Ala Archa National Park.

We bought our first SIM card in Central Asia, choosing Megacom. The purchase required a passport (one for the two of us) and the cards cost only 80 KGS each with I think 45 KGS of credit on them.

Transportation: We flew into Bishkek from Osh on a Pegasus (Turkish airline) flight. The drive from the airport to Ak Keme Hotel was maybe 20-30 minutes. We always had a car with driver. Our guide and many national travel advisory sites recommend against walking around much at night. They also recommend using only radio-dispatch taxis.

Accommodation: We stayed at Ak Keme Hotel. It was passable, at best. It is a large building and in the summer the pool would be open. The A/C did not work in either of our rooms. Breakfast was mediocre. In a city alleged to be not so safe, the rooms had no deadbolt or chain and no peephole. The security guy at the property entrance once used the long mirror to look for bombs under the car, and there is a metal detector at the building entrance. Another large, generally devoid of character hotel. Our guide pointed out the Jannat Regency (and called it five-star), which was near many nice-looking restaurants but maybe a little outside the city center?

Food: The food here was far more varied, and generally better, than what we found in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. We enjoyed each of our dinners at Tubeteika, Barashek, and Arzu. The menus were extensive and the alcohol generally cheap (like $4 for a JW Black). All accepted Visa.

Activities: We did not do that much in the city. We made two day trips. The first was to Ala Archa National Park. The park entrance is ~30km from Bishkek, and the road ends 12km beyond here. That is where you’ll find a lodge (seasonal?) and some well-marked hiking trails. The second was to Issyk Ata hot springs (farther from Bishkek, maybe a two hour drive) where we paid 60 KGS each for 45 minutes of access to the hot spring filled pool. Beware the scalding water pouring out of the pipe! The bare bones cafe served some tasty lagman.

May 7-10, 2014 (Wednesday-Saturday)

A Feisty Farewell

No trip to Central Asia is complete without some yurt action, so naturally we had to check it out and see what it’s like to spend a night in a yurt. If you’ve read any of our other posts on Central Asia, you will probably not be surprised to know that getting to said yurt involved a pretty rough, long drive. The landscape was all desert, not so much sand dunes, but lots of patches of about 6-inch high plants and nothing else. We stopped in this one area that seemed to pop up out of nowhere, with just a few trees and tons of locals picnicking, which was completely random and really fascinating.

While here, we climbed up the slate rocks to check out some very old petroglyphs. Up top, a local guy showed us a scorpion he caught and somehow maneuvered into a water bottle. It’s probably for the best that we declined to share this piece of information with Linda until after the yurt stay was over.

When we finally arrived, we were smack in the middle of the hot hot desert. There wasn’t much around except for a handful of yurts and a few camels, though our yurt accommodation was surprisingly fancy – we got thick mats to sleep on, there was even a light and a power outlet in the room, and get this…flushing toilets on the premises! Living large, my friends.

Alan and Ron went off to explore Lake Aidarkul for a quick and refreshing swim. Meanwhile, Linda and I stuck around at the yurts for a camel ride. Our camel guy seemed to be mildly infatuated with me, and I was hesitant to include this on here because it makes me all bashful, but I got a kick out of the fact that in Alan’s notes from this day it reads “J and Linda do camel ride, guess guy loves J. Natch.” Aw, honey.

Dinner was a multi course meal amongst the other tourists in a bigger tent. We drank a little vodka, busted out the cards and played a little dhumbal, and then everyone headed outside to the campfire where a Kazakh (the yurt camp was near Kazakhstan and thus many local residents are ethnic Kazakhs) singer and guitar player serenaded us. The Americans headed to bed afterwards, but the Russian tourists stayed up late very passionately (read: loudly) singing some patriotic songs.

As a telling example of the monitoring and control the government does and has, know that tourists must “register” at every hotel they stay at. These little stubs we receive when we hand over our passports at each stop must be presented upon exiting the country as proof of where we’ve been. So, even at this yurt in the middle of the desert, we had to use our passports to get documentation to serve as proof of our whereabouts. I’m starting to get the feeling that the government likes knowing where we are!

On the drive out to the yurt we had stopped in Gijduvan for a demonstration of the pottery workshop. You know this guy is legit, because he met Hillary.

We also stopped briefly to see a fortress built by Alexander the Great (holy oldness!) and to see the holy water spring and holy fish (so much holy in this sentence!) at the base of the fortress. While Ron and Alan climbed up top for the view, Linda and I stayed down and chatted with Mansur. A very curious Uzbek tourist was intrigued, and, speaking no English (or anything for that matter), stood about three inches from my face and watched me as I spoke and listened. I tried to be polite but my personal space bubble was just bursting and I finally had to run away from her in the awkward, shamed way that us space-bubble activists do. By now we were quite used to being among very few tourists (meaning foreigners, as we saw tons of Uzbek tourists) and used to people saying hello, wanting to know where we’re from, etc. We joked with our guide that we should just wear a big sign that says “AMERICA,” since he was constantly fielding the same question from curious Uzbeks as to our origins. Luckily, all the Uzbeks we encountered responded with enthusiasm, or – at the very least – tolerance (sadly, this was not the case for all of our Central Asian visit).

We left the yurt early in a best efforts attempt to escape the desert heat before it was at its most oppressive. It was Samarkand or bust! By now, by the way, the views on our drives were becoming more and more incredible. Beautiful pastures backed by stunning snow-capped mountains. Every so often a boy riding a donkey, or a shepherd tending his herd of cattle. Or sheep. And then these fields of poppies. I can’t even stand how beautiful it was. These photos are not even properly taken. They’re car shots. From a moving van. You can see the reflection of the camera in the window. And the blur from the speed. And it’s still the most amazing pastoral scene.

And then, the pent-up excitement was killing us. We’d been teased by these mosques, these madrasas, these caravanserais, these architecturally and historically significant buildings. One after another of impressive, amazing, intricate, beautifully tiled, older-than-old things. But we knew the icing on the cake would be Samarkand. Oh, Samarkand, the holy grail of Silk Road destinations. And here it was, at our fingertips and ready for our incessant photo taking and endless stories of ancient Islamic tall tales. And this is what we arrived to:

Wouldn’t it be our luck that our trip to Central Asia coincided with a period of construction and renovation on perhaps the most noteworthy historical sight among all of the Silk Road’s sights. I can’t lie, after all the history we’d soaked up like a (partially functioning) sponge, we were not quite in the right state of mind to truly appreciate the awesomeness that is Samarkand’s Registan Square, but this construction really did us in. We could hardly appreciate the grandeur of these buildings. Their scale puts the ones we saw in Tashkent, Khiva and Bukhara to shame, but it is very difficult to appreciate from the side, with jackhammers screaming (as evidenced by my face in that lovely video). I think part of what detracted from our experience here as well was that there were so many souvenir shops in, and modernization evident on, the buildings – for example, plastered walls and lights installed in the rooms to create better gift shops. Restoration is one thing, but some of this felt more like alteration and enhancement. We did not realize that all three enormous buildings on Registan Square were built after Tamerlane’s rule. By the way, Tamerlane is the same guy as Amir Temur.

Our first afternoon in town we were on our own, so we wandered around a bit independently. We meandered down the walking street, which used to be lined with stalls and covered. There is a bit more of a regular city vibe here (short shorts sighting included – though jeans are still a rarity). It’s not too surprising given that it’s the second most populous city in Uzbekistan at about a half million people. While the walking street is lined with souvenir shops and feels quite sanitized, it is a very pleasant place to kill an afternoon.

We ventured into the Jewish quarter in a search for the synagogue. By chance, McLovin happened to find us and show us the way. Not kidding. This kid had the lisp and everything…is this not the Uzbek twin of McLovin?!

We escaped the heat with a soft-serve in the shade. When in Samarkand do as the Uzbeks do?

There is also a nice little market off the walking street.

Aside from Registan Square, we also visited the first mausoleum of Amir Temur, where he is buried among others. It’s decorated with marble, papier-mâché over brick, gold leaf adorning everywhere, and the tomb is black jade.

What still managed to impress us mightily after all the sightseeing we’d done by this point was Shah-i-Zinda, a narrow street lined with mausoleums so densely packed and intricate it’s hard to fully absorb what’s surrounding you. This was by far the most impressive tile work we saw on the trip.