I only stayed one night at the somewhat swank guesthouse. It was quite a way out of the city centre, and it was going to get expensive if I was going to spend a few days here. So in the morning after breakfast I packed my bags, said goodbye to the Spanish as they left, and took a taxi to a guesthouse recommended to me by the two French women I met in Jalal Abad. Another lovely spot.
Karakol is where I decided to screw adventurous travel, I just want to relax the rest of my time in Kyrgyzstan. So that’s what I did. My one big adventure was to head up to Jeti Oghuz, a spot with some neat red hill sides (Jeti Oghuz means “seven bulls”) and a gorge that opens up into the “Valley of the Flowers”.
I found a marshrutka at the bazaar, which got me to Jeti Oghuz, the town. But the hill formations are another 8 or so km up the road, and the gorge goes another 8 or so up until the wider valley. I started walking, and got about 2km before a car pulled over. The driver knew the drill – “Jeti Oghuz, 100 som”. I accepted. It was hot.
We arrived at Jeti Oghuz proper, which also includes a few shops, some houses, and a sanatorium. (Aside: whenever I hear that word, I think “psychiatric hospital” instead of “health resort”. I can’t shake the association.)
With a Bounty and Snickers bar each in hand I headed up the gorge to the “Valley of Flowers”. In May, this valley is brushed with a stroke of red as the poppies bloom in full force. Around two years ago or so I found a photo somewhere on the internet and shared with a friend, hoping I would one day come here – this was the image of Kyrgyzstan that so enticed me here. A field of red flowers with green, snowcapped peaks in the distance.
The gorge itself was nice. Shady, with lots of picnic spots clinched by local families. The smell of fire makes me want to go camping. And then the valley.
It may have been Valley of Flowers in name. But in name only.
I realize it’s getting near Fall and all, but there are still plenty of flowers in bloom in Kyrgyzstan. Purple ones. Yellow ones. Pink ones. Blue ones. I’ve even seen an odd poppy. But this? This was a field of grass grazed by horses, sheep and cows. I don’t even see remnants of any sort of flower, let alone where poppies might have grown.
A few yurts dot the valley. It’s pleasant enough, I suppose. But not the image I had in my mind. Maybe the picture from the internet was photoshopped? Actually, I don’t even know if the picture was from the Valley of Flowers. I just assumed it was, as they are both valleys with poppies.
Ah well. I got some exercise. And I enjoyed a Snickers and a Bounty bar.
Back down at the sanatorium I decided to suss out getting a massage. A British guy I who was leaving the guesthouse in Karakol as I was checking in had been here and enjoyed a massage and a swim in the pool.
Apparently at one time this sanatorium was quite magnificent. Heads of State came here for summits.
At one time.
It’s run down now. If I hadn’t actually seen people walking around, I would have assumed it had been abandoned years ago.
But a man outside the main building caught my eye and asked if I was there for a massage. Indeed I was. He showed me inside to the main reception area, where he seemed to be indicating that he would be giving me a massage. I don’t think so. His hands were grabby enough while trying to explain a back massage was 200 som.
But how to explain that I want a women masseuse? I try “woman” “female”. I point to him, I point to me, I point to the woman sitting beside me.
Just when I think they understand me, the response is something like (in gesture, not in words), “Aahhhh. Back massage. 20 minutes.” Uh, I get that already.
“Aaahhhhh. Full body. 40 minutes.” Nope, still not getting me.
“Swimming? Swimming pool?” Shit, we’re getting further, not closer.
“Ahhh, 20 minutes. 200 som.” No. I think I’m going to have to give up.
At which point an administrator-looking woman comes over and asks me to follow her. She again tells me the price, the length of time, the amount of body. I know this. Then miraculously she pulls out a Lonely Planet Russian language guide. She points to the word for swimming pool. No, we’ve already been through that option outside.
Then the phone rings and she leaves me. I start leafing through the guide and find the word for woman. But then even better, I find the words for masseur and masseuse, and then everything comes clear. I’m assigned a woman, who explains to the original man that he’s out of luck. I also learn that “girl” would have been the understood word for female.
The massage was relaxing. Back, legs, arms, shoulders, neck, head. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to lie on the sheets I was on, but whatever. The male masseur popped in at one point, perhaps trying to get a peak at what he couldn’t touch. Or maybe just to confirm the work schedule for the next day. I really have no clue, but I was well covered until he left. 40 minutes went by quickly enough, but not quite quickly enough when she finished off the massage by pulling at chunks of my hair. Could have done without that.
Outside the sanatorium, it was starting to rain, but it was still brilliantly sunny.
I negotiated a taxi to get back down to Jeti-Oghuz, where passenger traffic was light and I hired out a shared taxi to myself to get back to Karakol. I actually was paying local price though, so it was cheap.
The next day I hoped to get to Altyn Arashyn, a small spot up in the mountains with a few guesthouses and hot springs. It was either a $50 jeep ride, or a 15km walk. I was going to opt for the hike. The British guy had described it, and it didn’t seem too bad considering I had already done that today.
But then I woke up in the morning, and my hip ached from the day before. It was an easy decision to just stick around Karakol for the day.
My one other large accomplishment was getting my visa extended. My original plan was to actually only stay in Karakol for two days. But when I arrived at the visa-extending place, it was closed. Some police men nearby gave me the usual arms-in-an-X gesture, meaning it was closed. Through our language barriers, I learned that it is closed for either two days, until September, or until September 2. I am hoping it’s the former, as my visa expires on September 1. Two other guys I run into enlighten me. It’s a holiday. August 31 is Independence Day. The Kyrgyz Republic proclaimed independence from Russia just 19 years ago. I had completely forgotten, and hoped that this wasn’t going to impact my plans for an easy extension.
After some phone calling by my guesthouse operator, she suggested it should be open September 1, as all other offices and school are. I was in luck. On September 1st, and $23, 4 hours, and 2 passport photos later, I was in possession of a legal right to remain in Kyrgyzstan. Awesome.
The day before, when the visa place was closed, was Kyrgyz Independence Day. Celebrating 19 years of separation from the Soviet Republic. I had already decided not to head up to Altyn Arashyn, so instead I wrote in the morning, and headed out in the afternoon. At the guesthouse I was told that there may be some activities in the afternoon, and definitely a concert later in the evening, all at the nearby stadium. The town was abuzz with foot traffic. I enjoyed a late lunch, and decided to read my guidebook and spend the afternoon checking out any major sights in town. Old wooden church, check. Old wooden buddhist-looking mosque. Check. Wait – horse games with a headless goat on Independence Day? I ask my server. It happened a few hours earlier. Damn.
I take a wander through an old amusement park. The leftover garbage from some early activities today line the lanes. I watch as people get on a circular swing ride, mostly without a chain seatbelt. A 10 year old works the motor as a young girl helps get the thing going by pulling on one of the chairs. I decide that I’m not a fan of circular swing rides today.
I pop by the stadium around the time the doors open for the concert. I hang outside for a bit, getting a sense of the scene. It seems as though the concert isn’t going to start for quite a while yet. I opt to head back to the guesthouse for a quiet evening.
My first two evening were very quiet. I was the only one staying at the guesthouse. But then, a group of artists (apparently performers from the concert) came to stay the second two nights. They came in late each night, to the frantic shushes of the guesthouse owner, and drove me crazy each morning by slurping coffee and laughing while I tried to eat my breakfast in peace. I think I was oversensitive after too many days of quiet.
The day after Independence Day was the first day of school in Kyrgyzstan. It’s tradition that the young pupils bring a bouquet of flowers for their teachers. The kids are dressed in black and white, and I’m told this is their uniform. A few years ago the education minister decided that there was too much disparity between the few rich and mostly poor population in their dress, and uniforms would help make student more equal in appearance.
Great idea, but the uniforms must have been designed by a pedophile. The girls are dressed up in what looks remarkably like a french maid outfit. Cute black dresses with frilly, lacy white aprons. White frilly bows in their hair. Odd.
Overall, I spent my time quite peacefully in Karakol. Quiet evenings writing. Quiet mornings writing. Afternoons walking, taking photos, checking email, eating dinner. I ate dinner at the same place each night. A mixture of Russian, Kyrgyz, and Dungan (Chinese Muslim) fare. It was pretty good every time, except the last. I, for some insane reason, opted for “hot dog”. The menu reads “hot dog” and then the price of 30 som. I also get mashed potatoes and a salad, but am looking forward to a hot dog.
It comes, but it’s two hot dogs, and no bun. A glob a ketchup sits on the edge of the plate beside the mashed potatoes. I take one bit of the hot dog, and I know I won’t take any more. It’s as if a regular hotdog, which itself is not all that appetizing being made up of ground up animal bits, has been ground up again and then chewed by cows and spit into hotdog shapes.
When the bill comes, I have been charged for two hotdogs. I am confused, as I just ordered “hot dog” not “hot dogs” or “2 hot dog”. The resulting conversation probably went something like this.
“I ordered ‘hot dog’.”
“Yes, but see, there is are two hot dogs on your plate.”
“But I only ordered one.”
“But one portion is two hot dogs.”
“But is says ‘hot dog – 30som’ on the menu, so surely one portion is 30 som.”
“One hot dog – 30 som. But one portion is two hot dogs, so 60 som.”
We go back and forth for a while. Eventually she changes the bill and I save 30 som for the half of the portion I didn’t order.
Overall Karakol was much nicer than I expected. It’s really just a town, but seeing as it’s such a hub for travellers and it’s situated between the lake and the mountains, I expected more hustling. More crap souvenirs. But the streets were lined with trees, the sunsets were orange, the lightning storms were purple, and everything but the hotdog tasted good.