Category Archives: Kyrgyzstan

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)

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)