We had made Karakol our base for the last couple of days, but even though there was loads we hadn’t seen, it was time to move on. Just as Altyn Arashan stood out when I was doing initial research about Kyrgyzstan, the alpine lake Song-Kul also stood out. We contacted a local tour organisation, CBT (Community Based Tourism) about joining one of their many horseback tours that they do to the lake. We were a little early in the season to be visiting, but it had been an early spring so we thought that everything would be OK. However, speaking with the CBT office while we were in Mongolia last week painted a different picture. Initial reports were of heavy snow (even as low as town), which meant there were no herders by the lake – and no herders meant no accommodation.
Leaving Karakol, we caught a mini-bus to Balkchy for the bargain price of 200s ($4) each (not bad for a four hour bus ride). It was cramped and slightly uncomfortable in a worn out seat in the rear of a Mercedes Sprinter van, but luckily I had a seat for the entire journey, so could have been much worse. We actually travelled via the south side of Issyk-Kul, which I was pretty happy about, as we travelled along the north side of the lake last week.
There were lots of beautiful sections of mountains, and nice views of the lake, but it didn’t seem as impressive as last time, which could be a combination of the weather and us being on the other side of the lake. I made the most of the time by busily reading the Lonely Planet for Turkey.
There actually were a few other tourists on the same bus, but they only went as far as Bokonbayevo. It was a little surprising how many people would hop on and off, and sometimes in seemingly isolated areas. The bus did have a few extended stops (Bokonbayevo was one) which gave us enough time to hurry to a public toilet as there were no toilets on the bus. Some of the food that was cooking in the market smelt amazing, but I didn’t want to risk the bus leaving without us, so we made do with a packet of chips.
Again, as with other minibus journeys, passengers were very courteous, giving up their seat to elderly or to women. Instead of paying as passengers entered the bus, they would wait until the bus was in motion, and then pass money up towards the driver (whilst he was driving) and then the change (if applicable) was passed back along several hands to the person who just hopped on. I guess it must be faster to do it this way…
Arriving in Balkchy the plan was to transfer to another mini bus to Naryn (but exiting at Kochkor), but the taxi drivers told us that there were no buses, and that a seat in a taxi could be purchased for 200s ($4) each for a thirty minute journey. My instinct was not to believe them, but there are just too many things that I didn’t know, so I eventually took their word and put our bags into their taxi. We were only going to save a few hundred som, so it didn’t seem worth the risk. I later learnt that there are buses that run, but we’d missed the last one for the day.
It didn’t feel as safe and welcoming as other places that we have visited in Kyrgyzstan, but it was probably all in my head. There were a lot of men standing around the centre of town (which is little more than a few shops with markets behind them). As we walked by, we had destinations yelled out at us, ‘Song-Kul’, ‘Bishkek’, ‘Naryn’. They weren’t aggressive, but they were persistent.
We went to the small CBT office, which was just off the main road. Even though I spoke to the man in the office a few days ago, and he assured me that the tour was possible, even with the recent snow, it was still a relief when we finally booked. Oddly, when I had originally contacted the main CBT office, I was told a price that was much higher than what we actually paid – the original quote was several hundred Euro each, but we ended up paying a few hundred dollars in total. However paying was a challenge, as they only accepted cash – I had to walk all across town with one of their guides trying to find an ATM that had enough cash (it was late on Sunday).
We were recommended a guesthouse by Andre, the host at our guesthouse in Karakol. He drew us an elaborate map, and described it in great detail, but it didn’t seem to match what we were actually seeing (or the printed map that CBT gave us). We were directed to her craft shop and was totally overwhelmed by amazing crafts, but since we have nowhere to put them, and would also have to post them home, we couldn’t buy anything.
When we finished looking around her craft shop, her brother picked us up and took us to her parent’s house. Fatima’s guesthouse is amazing. It is an old house that has rooms let out, next door to her parent’s house. The style in our room was awesome. There were several beautiful shyrdak felt carpets and rugs that Risa absolutely loved. And I can’t forget the large painting of her grand parents. Also loved that our beds were on opposite sides of the room, even if mine was a little short…
We explored a little more around town, but didn’t see much to explore. We wondered through a small fruit/vegetable market, and stocked up on lunches for the tour (not included in the price) at a couple of small shops. We saw one or two other tourists, but I was told that at the peak of July and August, the tourists almost outnumber locals!
Fatima suggested we visit the park, which turned out to be a very old and abandoned looking park complete with old and dangerous looking rides, and nightmare inducing abandoned buildings.
Fatima also pointed out the biggest building in Kochkor – a sad looking four-story apartment block.
There isn’t a lot to do or see in town as a tourist, so I’m sure that most people are only passing through on their way to Song-Kul, like us.
We were treated to an amazing dinner, which felt like a feast for a king, with a huge selection of breads and jams, and then followed by a hearty meat and potato dish.
After dinner Fatima’s family, Ainora (her mother), her father (sorry, forgot his name), and her daughter performed some traditional song and dance for us. It was a great surprise and was really special. Risa got up and danced with them. It was pretty poorly coordinated, but it was genuine and very sweet. There was also a dancing goat that danced as the father played his stringed instrument (spoiler: they were attached by string to his right hand, moving as he strummed).
It was our favourite thing in Kochkor and highly recommended to stay here if visiting. Her phone number is 0555435977. CBT in Kochkor can also point you in the direction of her craft gift shop.