(46) Karakol, Kyrgyzstan: The hotdog miscommunication

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.

(44) In transit to South Inylcheck basecamp, Kyrgyzstan: The curious incidents of the girl in the daytime

(Reference to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon)

Getting to the South Inylchek basecamp for an early 30th birthday present to myself started off in an incredibly frustrating manner. My intent was to find a shared jeep through the backroads to Naryn on my way to Karakol, where I would meet my ride to the 1st basecamp. I had heard about this road from the two Aussies on motorbikes I had met back in Samarakand, Uzbekistan. They had said fantastic things, and while I also knew the likelihood of finding shared transport was slim, I had high hopes. I had 3 days to get to Karakol.

But these hopes came crashing down soon enough. My taxi from the guesthouse in the morning took me to the area where I would find a shared jeep, if there was any. There wasn’t. I wish I knew more Russian, Kyrgyz, or local contacts. There have to be people going to Kazarman. Jalalabad is the nearest big city. Surely people go back and forth. It’s just a matter of knowing where to find these people. This happens a lot in Central Asia. It is much easier when going the other direction – from small town to big centre – like I did when going from Murgab to Osh. It was easy. Travellers going the other direction have a much harder time. But it’s just a matter of knowing the drivers, which in this case, I don’t. The only other route is back to Bishkek.

So, I gave up. At which point I got a phone call from Asel at the travel agency I had been emailing with to arrange my birthday glacier stay. I needed to wire some money to her to get an express permit to the border area with Kazakhstan and China, which is where the glacier basecamp is located.

My trip to Bishkek is delayed as I find a bank and arrange a money transfer, but it all works out fairly effortlessly, with only a $1 fee.

Finally, I make my way to the taxi area where those going to Bishkek wait. I fill up the second space in the car – we wait for two more. And wait. Eventually I realize I left some printing back at an internet cafe, so I tell the driver I’ll be back in 15 minutes or so. Minibus to downtown, and back again.

And wait. And wait. I arrived just before 12, so it’s been over 3 hours. At which point I realize my passport is still at the bank where I did the money transfer. I tell the driver I’ll be back in 15 minutes or so. Minibus to downtown, and back again.

And wait. We don’t fill up until around 4pm. I’m tired, cranky, hungry, but feeling ill. And I have a 9-10 hour drive ahead of me. I fill myself up on Snickers, bread, juice, and Coca Cola.

The drive I am not enthused about, mostly because I had just done it yesterday in the reverse direction. It’s pretty and all, but I’ve seen in before. The driver pushes on until we stop for dinner at about 9pm. At first I don’t want anything, but then I’m convinced to have at least some tea. I also opt for some shorpa (broth with a chunk each of potato, carrot, and mutton), without the giant hunk of mutton. The two others are businessmen heading to Karakol on business. They bring out a bottle of vodka, and I have a small shot – perhaps it will help my intestines. As the men get drunker, one keeps trying to pour me more vodka, while the other keeps giving him a “leave-the-sick-girl-alone” look. I nap.

Eventually we take off again after the bottle of vodka has been emptied. The businessmen are drunk in the back seat and the driver and I are sober but tired in the front. I’m exhausted, but I see the driver is too. I stay awake for the both of us. As we head over the final large pass towards Bishkek well after midnight, the driver is nodding off at the wheel, albeit at about 10km per hour. I tell him he’s falling asleep and to pull over, but he jokes it off. I don’t know if he even understood me. At least my berating him loudly kept him awake. He pulls over at one point for a smoke and to splash himself with cold water. When the signal comes back, he turns on the radio too.

We arrive in Bishkek close to 3 in the morning. It takes forever, but we eventually find the address that the drunk men are going to. The driver continues on to the guesthouse I stayed at previously. I had been trying to call them all day to let them know I would be arriving late, but they either weren’t answering, or the phone number had changed. I get there about 3:30am, anticipating a worst case scenario of sitting outside the front gate until the morning. Luckily, it seems a group is packing for an early departure, and the gate is not deadbolted. The code opens the door, and I make my way up to an open space on the top floor. I hunker down for a few hours.

In the morning, I am able to get a room, but only after I’m brusquely told I have to pay for the night before because check-in is only after 8am. Sure, I used the toilet and nodded off on the floor, but I’m not paying for a room. It’s such a small detail, but after the incredibly long and frustrating day yesterday coupled with being sick and having no appetite, I feel like it’s the last straw and I want to cry.

Instead I sleep, which is probably a lot more productive.

In the afternoon I head out for Chinese food and make my way to meet Asel to pay for my trip and learn the final details. It all seems good, and I make a list of things I need to buy before the trip. Dried fruit, chocolate bars, new sunglasses?, more warm clothing?, a 5L bottle of water. I ask her about the possibility of getting a thicker sleeping bag up there. She tells me that I should be able to. don’t know what this means, but maybe I’ll look into something in Karakol.

I mean to leave early the next morning for Karakol, a 7 hour journey, but I need the rest and sleep on and off until 10am. At the “bus” station, finding a shared minivan is easy and we’re soon off. I sit in the middle middle seat. The woman to my right doesn’t seem to like fresh air, and asks for all the windows to be closed while the vents are turned on. I already feel ill, so this does not help. The driver makes good time, but he likes weaving and accelerating/decelerating quickly. I already feel ill, so this does not help. We stop at some roadside fruit and veggie markets/stands. Similar produce to the Okanagan. A man sleeps on his watermelons. A car drives by, filled in the back to the windows with tomatoes.

The first part of the journey I had already done before on my way to Chayek and Kyzyl-Oi. The new part for me, the journey along the side of Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world, is lost to my feelings of sickness. It’s a hazy day anyways so I couldn’t see much if I wanted to. There should be snowcapped mountains across the way, but I barely can even make out across the way.

Finally in Karakol, we stop in the centre of town and wait for about half an hour for reasons I don’t know. But it gives me a chance to get some fresh air and dry heave out the side door of the van. After many fruitless phone calls to any of the guesthouses I would like to stay at, I finally get in touch with the one recommended by Asel. The driver is also finally ready to drop off all his passengers, so we’re off.

The guesthouse is lovely, and will likely be more expensive that the “cheap price” that Asel described, considering it’s like a North American bed and breakfast, with a huge bed, clean hot shower, and satellite TV. I don’t care. All I want to do it crawl up in bed and die. Which I do (well, without the dying part).

The guesthouse also includes dinner, so I come down about 7pm without an appetite. I get through about half a bowl of borsht and one bite of garlic-fried eggplant before I excuse myself from dinner and conversation with an overenthusiastic and barely-understandable retired English man who’s travelling though some inheritance money. I think to myself how some of this money might be better spent on dental care, but he seems to be doing find without it.

My appetite the next morning is still barely there, but I make it through some rice pudding and fruit. I’m expecting my ride to pick me up shortly, but I don’t know when. I relax in my room while I wait. And wait. I know we have a 5-6 hour drive ahead of us to the first basecamp where the helicopter departs from, and Asel said he would get me “in the morning” so by 10am I decide to make some calls. Through some help of the guesthouse staff, I find out that the driver has not even heard about me, but will be here in an hour. We contact Asel and she apologizes for some delay because of another group of travellers, but I just think she dropped the ball.

Before we depart, I get one of the guesthouse staff to ask the driver if I can get a warm sleeping bag up at one of the base-camps. He seems to think I can arrange it. I’m not convinced,

The drive to Maida Adyr base-camp was more of what I expected Kyrgyzstan to be like. Increasingly steep mountainsides, increasingly snow-capped peaks, decreasingly treed slopes. The geology here is strange – the hills are technicoloured. Red beside black beside brown beside grey. The mountains make no attempt to blend in with the country side.

The Russian jeep has a bit of trouble. We’ve barely started to climb when we sputter to a halt. It’s too hot for the engine. Water is poured from ready recycled bottles. “Photography,” he says, giving me something to do while we wait. This happens four more times along our way.

There’s one image in my head I didn’t manage to get a picture of. After we’ve come down from the major pass on the route, we turn a corner to see a broad expanse where two river valleys meet. Snow capped peaks frame the view. A few buildings dot the plain, but what strikes me are some mounds in the ground at a bend in the river that at first seem like buried ruins of an old settlement but then appear to me as a very simple cemetery. I make note to take a photo on the way back.

We’ve almost reached the destination when we reach Inylchek town. A checkpoint requires me to show my permit for being this close to the Chinese border. The town itself looks like it once had potential, now faded. Empty buildings and half-finished apartment complexes dot our route.

And finally, Maida Adyr base-camp. A little rough around the edges, but the basic rooms are comfortable. The managers here (who, like the driver, don’t speak English) seem confused at my arrival. I suspect Aser dropped the ball again. I’m doubting there is even a helicopter at this point. What I paid for I really don’t know.

The base-camp is right alongside a small military base with a helicopter stationed out front. Is this the helicopter? I go to take a short walk up alongside the broad, grey river valley, and the military men who check my permit ensure I know not to take any photos of their base (which I do anyway).

Dinner is possibly the best meal I have in Kyrgyzstan. Mashed potatoes, fried cabbage, meatloaf ball thingies which I dot with ketchup. I wrangle up some appetite to enjoy it.

Three military men are also eating, and I soon am invited to join them. Their English is limited, but I learn that they fly the helicopter (my helicopter?). My name is not easy for people in Central Asia, and comes out sounding like “Tuna”. I eat and drink with the pilot (General), co-pilot (Colonel), and engineer (Captain). They tell me that three shots of vodka is tradition. I confirm it’s not four before I finish off the third. The stuff does not go down smoothly.

After dinner, I seem to confirm that a helicopter is going up tomorrow. I also seem to be told that I’ll be staying two nights, I think. It seems like I’m the only one going up. Uh, I hope they know I’m not paying for it.

Later that evening, four other men arrive. They are shooting a documentary about the Aral Sea disaster, and are heading up tomorrow too. In the morning, I see a family that must have arrived late. I’m not the only one! I ask the mother, who speaks decent English, to confirm that I can get a thicker sleeping back up at the base-camp. The camp manager jokes that he has ordered one to fit two people.

At first I’m told I’ll be going up in the second flight, but then the General asks if I want to go up on both flights. The first is going to North Inylcheck, the second to South Inylchek. It’s a present he says. Happy Birthday to me!

(43) Karakol and Jalal Abad, Kyrgyzstan: From Russia with Love

(Note: I’m posting this 3.5 years after the fact. My notes are variable in quality, so what I give up in narrative quality, I get back in just getting this damn thing posted).

I was able to catch a ride quite easily on my way out of Kyzyl-Oi. Considering only about 5 cars seem to pass through this peaceful village on the way to nowhere on a given day, waiting only 10 minutes to find something was remarkable.

In Kyrgyzstan, hitchhiking is kind of a misnomer. It’s more like every car is a potential taxi. You wave your hand, people stop, you say your destination, and settle on a price. This is true over long distances, and within cities. While there are official taxis, most are just random dudes with random cars.

So my first ride of the day was with some sort of extended family. Two middle-aged men in the front, an older gentleman in the back and two young girls splitting the difference between us. 

A nice thing about these sort of taxis is that the passengers and driver love sharing their country, and often point out things to take pictures of. Heading out of Kyzyl-Oi, we wind along a scenic river valley, which broadens out as we near the main road from Bishkek to Osh. The family pulls over to show me a shrine. From what I gather, a giant was involved, based on the enormous handprints on the ceiling of the shrine, and the statue I spot later on of a man carrying something big on his back. 

It’s haying time right now, and the fields are abuzz with cutting and gathering. Sometimes it’s all done by hand, but there are a few machines in this area too.

I get dropped off at the junction with the main road. They’re heading right, to Bishkek. Me, the other way. I’m aiming to get to Toktogul tonight. Somewhere closer to Jalal Abad, and I heard Toktogul has a hotel. I figure between private cars and minibuses from Bishkek, I wouldn’t be waiting longer than a few minutes.

I was wrong.

I guess 45 minutes in the grand scheme of hitchhiking isn’t that much at all, but dark storm clouds were overhead, it was very windy, and it was already quite late in the afternoon. I scope out the nearby yurt situation, and figure I’m not completely screwed. Worst case scenario I have a cold sleep in a field and try again in the morning.

And then, a magical car pulls over. And even more magically, it’s two young women. Russian women heading to Karaköl. I explain wanting to get to Toktogul, we settle on 200som (about $4.50 for a 3 hour ride), and we’re off. The driver speaks English quite well. She learned English in order to work for the US Army in Afghanistan as a hairstylist. 

“Was it dangerous there?” I ask.

“No, I was in the American bubble,” she replies.

She thinks it’s dangerous for a “pretty girl” like me to be travelling alone. I suppose the unknown always seem scarier than it really is. 

Highlights of our drive south:

  • Canyons, trees, lakes, valleys, sunset.
  • A dinner stop at a cafe in a steep valley. The dirtiest toilet I have possibly encountered on this trip, maybe ever.
  • Slowing down, but not actually stopping, in Toktogul. They offer me a place to stay with them that night.

Highlights at “Russian Mama’s” apartment in Karakol:

  • I don’t quite understand the relationship between my drivers, the older Russian lady, and the young girl with the Russian lady. I think the driver is the cousin of the passenger, who is the daughter-in-law of the Russian Mama and the mother of the little girl. I think.
  • I help the Russian Mama prepare a whole lot of food. Lots of food. Turns out her husband died recently, she’s still in mourning, but the next day she is having a party tomorrow on the 40th day of his death. This is custom I understand.
  • Russian Mama sits me down in her living room and goes through photo album after photo album of her family. She speaks to me in rapid Russian. The pictures are worth a thousand words, and I get the jist that she is proud of her family and she misses her husband.
  • I have a lovely hot shower, with instructions to only run the water when absolutely necessary. Water and heat = $$$

Getting to Jalalabad:

  • Easy to get a shared taxi
  • More beautiful views, canyons, river


  • Leave my bags at the CBT office, explore markets and restaurants.
  • Quiet evening at the guesthouse. To get to my room I have to pass through the room of two other women. We’re cool.
  • Don’t feel a desire to stay.