A good friend of ours, who was an English teacher on the JET programme with me in Hokkaido and also a resident snowbum in Niseko, made a trip to Kyrgyzstan in January/February to do some rather extreme snowboarding, living in a yurt and hiking (on a split board) in the big mountains in here. He put us in touch with some of his friends who are based here, so we got in contact. Kas, from (Kyrgyz Tours) drove overnight from Karakol, picked us up from Bishkek in the morning and drove us to back to Karakol, some 400 kms away. We had thought about catching a minibus (or even a taxi), but we wanted the opportunity to stop and visit some of the places along the way, like Burana Tower, and Lake Issyk-Köl.
Kas explained to us about the monument for revolution that is right by the square where the military exercises were taking place yesterday – we’d walked right past completely oblivious. There was a bloody revolution here in 2010 and nearly 100 people were killed to change their corrupt government. I felt really bad that I had no idea that any of this had happened. After Kas mentioned it though, we could quite easily see all the bullet holes and the broken marble on the buildings across from the old parliament house (which is now shuttered after the bloody conflicts). I’m not usually one for monuments, but I really found this one to be powerful and to the point. Maybe all I need is a little explanation on the symbolism of the others.
We had a quick stop at another market to grab some snacks, some sandals for Risa and a new pair of glasses for me (my genuine Ray-Bans fell apart). It was great being there with Kas, as we’d have walked around aimlessly for hours trying to find a shop, but he’d ask and get pointed in the right direction so we were out of there in no time.
I had a tiny glimpse yesterday between buildings, but today was the first real chance for me to clearly see the mountain ranges that this country is so famous for. They were quite small for Kyrgyzstan, but for me they were enormous. And beautiful. And I was mesmerised. I’m sure the driver (Kas’ brother in law) got sick of pulling over for me to take photos.
The first scheduled stop of this tour was to the oldest building in Kyrgyzstan – the 10th century Burana tower. It’s not completely original as earthquakes and fires have done considerable damage, but it’s mostly intact, and the repairs have been faithful. It’s a beautiful tower, with amazing and intricate brick work. It’s also amazing to believe that this little tower is the oldest building in Kyrgyzstan! But, considering that the Kyrgyz mostly lived a nomadic life, it shouldn’t be so surprising. It was possible to climb to the top of the tower via some very narrow, and rather steep steps. There were essentially no windows inside the tower, so it was quite difficult to see where we were going. But, the steps were quite even (unlike most places in Mongolia) so it wasn’t that hard to navigate in the dark. Amazingly, entry to this area was free.
There were some ruins (mostly foundations) of the city and walls that surrounded the tower. The graveyard was quite interesting, with a couple of different styles of tombstones (though, our favourites were the ones with the old man holding the glasses of wine). It was also our first opportunity to see a Kyrgyz yurt, and apart from the higher/steeper roof, it was essentially the same as a Mongolian ger.
The road to Karakol on the northern side of Issyk-Köl was awesome, until it wasn’t. We went from easy 100kph smooth tarmac to a combination of potholes, gravel and road works.
90 minutes after leaving Burana Tower we had our first glimpses at the national treasure of Issyk-Köl (Lake Issyk) and it didn’t disappoint. The water looked amazing, easily as beautiful as any of the fantastic beaches we saw in Australia, only it was shadowed by beautiful snow-capped mountains.
We stopped for a late lunch at the tourist town of Cholpon Ata. It was still a little early in the season, so businesses were still busily preparing for the crowds to arrive. The town specialises in fish (due to the proximity to the lake), so Risa ordered a popular fish soup (which was served cold). I wasn’t a fan, and Risa didn’t seem to rush to finish it, either. She also ordered another round of sashlyk (chunks of meat on a skewer roasted over a fire) after the awesome experience yesterday, this time lamb – good, but smaller and not as amazing this time. I just had a sizzle plate of beef and vegetables.
I really wanted to take a detour down to visit the lakeside, but after lunch I completely forgot about it, and it wasn’t until we’d started driving away from the lake that I had remembered… I know it would have been cold (though, the lake doesn’t freeze over due to salinity, depth and mild thermal activity), but I would have loved to have a quick dip, even if it was only as far as the bottom of my shorts!
At my request we visited Chong Ak Suu valley, which was just a little past Cholpon Ata. At the entrance to the park there was a small toll station. Making the most of this semi-captive audience were two children and a man with birds available to hold for money. There was a small boy with an equally small and cute baby owl. Risa instantly fell in love with the ball of fluff, so I coughed up the 50som ($1) for her to hold it and play with it for a while. I have to admit it was impossibly cute. It was so soft that touching it was like touching a cloud, or smoke, or some other intangibly soft object. Watching it independently blink it’s eyes was all it took for me to lose it and completely fall in love with this bird. Photos and words can’t do it justice (even mine).
I held the adult eagle which cost me the grand sum of 100som ($2). It was surprisingly light. It was also weird looking into its eyes at such a close range. It was beautiful, but not compared to the owl (nothing is though). The third bird was an in between ‘teenage’ bird, partly covered in fluffy baby feathers, partly bald, partly covered in adult feathers. The poor boy with this bird tried so damn hard to get one of us to hold his bird, too, but unfortunately for him, it was uglier than the owl, and smaller than the adult so there was essentially no motivation (other than pity).
We drove for a short way up the valley along the rough roads. The valley continued to get tighter as we continued to make our way into it. We stopped by a small camp with some horses available for rent (not interested this time), and instead went for a short walk up the valley. It was already getting late, so we only had an hour. It was beautiful, especially the river, but sadly the further we walked up the valley, the more it closed up and the less we could see of the mountains in the distance.
There were beautiful tree lined highways for a lot of the drive, and interestingly most of the trees had the bottom metre of their trunk painted white. Kas told us that it had to do with insects, but I didn’t really understand. Something that was far more shocking were the hundreds (if not thousands) of dead birds on the roads. It took us a while to realise that it was actually birds that we were seeing, not pieces of broken tyres and garbage bags. Apparently, these black birds nest in the trees beside the road, and many of the babies leave the nest too early, end up on the road… and the rest is explanatory. It reminded me of footage you see of hundreds of fish or birds that wash up on shore after an oil spill.
We didn’t arrive in Karakol until around 8PM. We were going to stay in the driver’s guest house (which was enormous, beautiful and essentially empty) but water had been shut off due to construction so we couldn’t do basic things like flush the toilet and had no real choice but to leave. We visited a couple of others, but were too expensive – nearly $30 each for the night. We ended up a really nice guesthouse, Riverside B&B, just on the south west side of town. It was only 700s each ($14), which included breakfast. Riverside is run by a really friendly (and knowledgeable) Dutch man and his Kyrgyz wife. We arrived just after sunset (8:30) and we were exhausted, so when it was offered to have them cook dinner for us, it was impossible to refuse! It was a simple dinner, but only because it was a last minute creation.