(48) Biskek, Kyrgyzstan: Ready for home + PLUS overview of Central Asia

I don’t have any notes from my last two days in Kyrgyzstan. Almost no photos either.

I had planned my last full day of travels to be my birthday. I stayed in my usual guesthouse in Bishkek the day before after arriving from Tamga, but the night of my birthday I spent at the Hyatt. My high school friend Brad, who used to work in the hospitality/hotels in Moscow, had a friend who worked at the Hyatt, so I got a deal. I enjoyed the white sheets, the fluffy robe, the pool. I wandered town, looking perhaps for a place to get my nails done, but nothing materialized. Kind of an anticlimactic ending for the trip and for my 30th birthday, but I was AOK with that.

All these posts are great an all, but what exactly is Central Asia?

Before I left on my trip, when I told people I was going to Central Asia, I would get responses like:

  • Oh, I loved the food there. (Uh, you’re thinking of South East Asia.)
  • Oh, yeah, China is one of my favourite countries. (Uh, still not quite there).
  • Where?

Central Asia was “put on the map” so to speak thanks (or no thanks) to Borat. And unfortunately, Kyrgyzstan got in the news for political reasons just before I left. But otherwise, Central Asia is one of a few clusters of countries that seem to be fairly unknown in the general North American population. Some others unknown clusters might include the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, etc.) or the Caucases (Azerbaijan, Armenia, etc.).

Central Asia is bordered by Russia to the north, China to the west, Iran and Afghanistan to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the west. The countries are all land-locked countries (Turkmenistan borders the Caspian sea, but there are no outlets to an ocean. And the Aral Sea barely counts as water anymore.) Uzbekistan is actually double land-locked – not only is it land-locked, but all its neighbours are too. (There is only one other country in the world that can say this. Do you know which one?)

It consists of the former soviet states east of the Caspian sea, and south of Russia – Kazakhstan (the largest, and the country I did not visit on this trip), Turkmenistan (the most controlled), Uzbekistan (the most touristed), Tajikistan (the poorest) and Kyrgyzstan (the most Russified). Each has their own ethic history, but the borders between countries don’t even come close to meeting the true ethnic divides. There are Turkmen in Iran, Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, Tajiks in Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyz in Tajikistan. And Russian everywhere.

It’s important to distinguish between ethnicity and citizenship, which didn’t really sink in for me until I hitched a ride with two Russian women in Kyrgyzstan. For some reason I had pictured Russians to be almost visitors here. Here for a while, just haven’t got back to Russia quite yet. I hadn’t considered Russian to be an ethnicity. But Russians have been here for generations. As one of the women said, “Kyrgyzstan is my home. I don’t like Russia. I don’t like all the drunk people.” They are ethnically Russian, but have a Kyrgyz (or Uzbek or Turkmen, etc.) identity otherwise.

Why people travel here

Turkmenistan probably for its wackiness. Turkmenistan seems to always have had a crazy, egotistical president. Posters, statues, newspapers, and books are all about the president. And while the rest of the country is fairly normal and rural, Ashgabat is a very odd, opulent city that has no equal. The gas crater in the middle of the desert is pretty neat too.

Uzbekistan for its Islamic historical architecture. Though I must say Iran has it beat.

Tajikistan for the Pamir highway, desolate and dramatic. The Wakhan Valley is gaining in popularity too. Lots of cyclists.

Kyrgyzstan for Issyk-Kul, the big alpine lake that never freezes, and for horse-trips. And the well-run and established community-based tourism system, which hooks up tourists with homestays, guides, and transportation (horse or machine).

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also attract a fare number of hard-core trekkers and mountaineers.

Geography

Turkmenistan is bordered by a mountain range to the south (along the border with Iran) but otherwise is a flat, dry, scrub covered desert.

Uzbekistan is bordered by small mountains to its east (along the border with parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) but otherwise is a flat, dry, scrub covered desert.

Tajikistan has some low lying and flatter areas in the far north near Uzbekistan and a bit in the central west, but otherwise is dramatic mountain valleys along its border with Uzbekistan and Afghanistan or high plains and mountains in the center and east.

Kyrgyzstan has some low lying areas in the southwest around Osh and Jalal Abad (as part of the Fergana Valley shared with Uzbekistan), but otherwise is a series of mountain ranges divided by sometimes narrow, sometimes broad, valleys.

Religion

Other than a handful of churches dotted around Central Asia, the religious population is generally Muslim. But the kind of Muslim that can drink vodka and eat pork shashlyk. Islam as a culture, not as a religion perhaps. There is definitely a spectrum of Islam here, and considering I was here for Ramadan and had absolutely no problem getting food at anytime of the day (I don’t think I even saw any closed restaurants), it’s definitely not the same Islam found in Iran. I think I have seen maybe only one or two men praying in public here, while in Iran it would not have been unusual to have to wait to pay for your groceries until the cashier had finished with his namaz. Headscarves here seem to be more for function (i.e. keeping hair out of eyes) than for religious purposes. While there are definitely some more devout muslims here and there, as the Lonely Planet describes, “The Kyrgyz people took as much Islam with them as they could fit in their saddlebags.”

Language

Turkmen, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz are all rooted in Turkish, while Tajik is similar to Farsi (Iran). One Turk I met in Turkmenistan joked that Turkmen is like a really simple, literal version of Turkish. The Turkmen word for “key” is “opener” and the word for “landing” (as in a plane) is “falling to the ground.” Russian is also widely spoken everywhere. Schools before the break up of the USSR were taught in Russian, so most adults speak Russian. Kids are hit and miss.

In Tajikistan it was nice to use some of the Farsi I had learned, and in Kyrgyzstan I put in a good effort to learn Kyrgyz. However, it was hard to actually use the Kyrgyz I knew. Even if I asked, “How much is this?” in Kyrgyz, I would generally get a response in Russian. And while I know a bit of Russian, I don’t know any numbers other than “2” (dva). So after the price is given in Russian, I would have to ask “Kyrgyzski pajalsta” (Kyrgyz please). And hope that the price involved 1-39, 80-89, hundreds or thousands, as I didn’t know 40, 50, 60, 70 or 90 in Kyrgyz. It’s complicated.

Things you will see everywhere in Central Asia

  • Gold teeth (just because you can afford something though, doesn’t mean you should get it)
  • Whitewashed houses with sky blue trim
  • Russian vodka
  • Melon rinds placed thoughtfully rind down
  • Russian vehicles that look old, but are actually new (they haven’t changed the models)
  • In addition to cows, donkeys and sheep, Turkmenistan has a lot of camels, Tajikistan has a lot of yaks, and Kyrgyzstan has a lot of horses.

Music

Russian techno is all the rage, unfortunately. One song I have heard pumping in every country is one called “Alors On Danse”, which I know is French, but I’m pretty sure it’s by a Russian group. Another one is “We Speak No Americano”. I much prefer any traditional music, but it’s hard to come by. Additionally, “artists” such as Justin Bieber are heartthrobs even here. I heard one song in a mall in Kyrgyzstan and though “what is this crappy Ace of Base rip off?” and it turns out is was Lady Gaga.

People in Central Asia are oddly adept at

  • Retrieving the seeds from sunflower shells in two crunches or less
  • Being bi- tri- or even more-lingual (for example, in Khorog, people will generally speak Russian, Tajik, the local Pamiri dialect, and possibly a bit of English)
  • Living and getting things to grow in places you almost can’t find imaginable (deserts, high altitudes, steep mountainsides)
  • Not getting bored by the same few standard dishes available at every cafe (which leads me to…)

Food in Central Asia

If you’ve read the rest of my posts, you’ll know that I lost my appetite for about six weeks, lost some weight, and was sick a lot. So the food definitely wasn’t a highlight. Here’s what was on the menu. Everything is served with tea and bread (which is dipped in the broth and/or the tea and/or yogurt, especially in yurts).

Breakfast

  • Porridge (made with rice or cream of wheat)
  • Fried eggs
  • Fried potatoes

Lunch or dinner

  • Lagman (soup with noodles, chunks of meat, and maybe some vegetables)
  • Shorpa (broth with a chunk of potato, maybe chunks of carrot, and a huge chunk of mutton, which is removed from the broth and savoured after the rest of the soup)
  • Borsht (basically any soup with shredded cabbage, made possibly with shredded carrot, onion, or potato, and often chunks of meat)
  • Plov (oily rice with chunks of meet and maybe some shredded carrot)
  • Manty (moist dumplings stuffed with diced meet and onions
  • Pilmeny (like mini manty in a broth)
  • Shashlyk (skewered meat and fat)
  • Fried potatoes

All meals also involve a little tray with some wafers, biscuits, and wrapped sweets. The wrapped sweets, especially, are hit or really, really bad miss.

If coffee is offered, it’s always of the instant variety.

Back to the “reasons people travel to Central Asia” — food is definitely not one.

(47) Southern Shores of Issyk-Kul: Peace and contemplation

Ahh, Tamga.

My original intent was to village hop along the southern shore of Issyk Kul. But you know when you find something you love, you stick with it?

For partially these reasons, and for just wanting to flat out relax and enjoy my last week in Kyrgyzstan, I spent 6 days in and around Tamga.

I admit, I spent a lot of time writing. Writing these blog posts. Writing thoughts about my masters research and sections of my research proposal. It was really productive, but in a really slow way. I should take working vacations more often. 

After my first night, a retired Russian couple from Bishkek invited me to go with them on a drive up one of the nearby valleys. It was a gloomy morning, but it wasn’t raining. I walk out of the building I’m staying in, and the husband points at my Teva sandals. 

“Mistake,” he states. Apparently this is a hiking boot kind of trip.

The drive heads up a well-maintained road, through a picturesque river valley dotted with increasingly large waterfalls. The road heads towards a gold mine (the 8th largest gold field in the world) at 4200m operated by Komtor, a Canadian company. The revenue generated by the mines accounts for something crazy like 18% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, which speaks to both the size of the mine, and the size of Kygyzstan’s economy. 

The wife likes taking pictures as much as I do, so we stop a lot to get the shots we want. We stop for longer at two different points along the valley. The first at a great open spot with a wide view of the largest waterfall in the valley. We walk a bit, and I sit a lot. I’m in a very contemplative mood at this point in my trip (though I tend to think a lot at anytime) and I just sit, watch the river water ripple over rocks, and sing a little bit when I think everyone is out of earshot.

We are also stopped because the car is almost out of gas. The husband waves down the operators of a grader, and when they’re done a run they siphon two buckets of gas for us. 20% above pump prices, of course. 

The second stop is just before the road really starts to climb toward the mine and the road that heads south of the current range of mountains. Lots of flowers still dot the pastures at this time of year.  

On the way back, I have to ask to pull over just minutes from the guesthouse. I’m sick again. After a week with my appetite back, I’m afraid to lose it. I spend the afternoon napping and swear off tap water tooth brushing and morning coffee, which for some reason I had opted for this morning. The couple gives me some pills to take before my next two meals. I thank them, but know I won’t take them. 

The next morning I make plans to wander to some Tibetan inscriptions. I have absolutely no idea what they are about, how old they are, on what they are inscribed, but it’s a destination that gives my morning purpose. Lyuba, the guesthouse owner, draws me a map of how to get there. I promptly forget it in my room.

I realize this omission about 500m into my 6km walk to the site, but I figure I can remember it. Take the road to the right when the village ends. Pass the electricity station and the cemetery. A small stream I can walk through. Then a bigger stream – take the iron bridge to the left. A gate on the left that looks closed, but it’s not. Trail follows beneath hills. When the path forks, go along the river, not between the hills. Tamga Tash is up ahead on the right. Plus lots of references to small houses, big houses, fruit trees, gardens. 

No problem. 

The inscriptions are short. Looks like one phrase, or one word, sculpted large on the flat face of a large boulder which has worn down with the weather over time. The bushes surrounding the rock are filled with colourful Tibetan prayer flags, plus small cloth strips tied to branches like those found so commonly at shrines all throughout my trip.

I sit in a patch of shade and enjoy the view that snakes around the hills back down to a small ‘v’ of Issyk Kul I spot in the distance.

I’m feeling good, and whatever the view might be around the corner is tempting, so I push on. First through lush pastures knee deep in grass and purple flowers, and ankle deep in water running down from an overflowing irrigation canal above. I join up with the rough valley road after hiking up my pants and wading through the Tamga River. I chase butterflies and touch the flora. I have one unfortunate incident with some sort of shrub that stings me. The resulting pain and swelling lead me to think my finger might fall off. I don’t know the name of the plant but call it “fuckweed” and make sure it knows its name whenever I pass another one.

The valley is just beautiful. Like what I expected Kyrgyzstan to be like all along, but hadn’t actually seen yet. The valley made crooked by many years of river flow is the kind where a whole other stunning vista awaits around every corner. 

So I push on.

Around one corner, then another corner, and then another.

The valley is fairly void of signs of human life – four houses since I left the inscriptions, a few spots for herds to take shelter. A few men fishing. An abandoned van. I add this area to the list of places I could imagine living. So far on this trip Zagreb-Croatia, Bachesaray and other spots around Van-Turkey, and Khorog-Tajikistan all fit the bill. And curiously, they are all pretty similar to BC. Temperate climates. Mountains. Trees. Snow. Water. Sun. It’s probably about 25 degrees with clear sky and light wind. Perfect.

I daydream about refinishing one of the seemingly abandoned (though likely just in a state of disrepair) houses in the valley. I have imaginary conversations with travel guide writers and tourists in my head.

I end up going about 2 hours further than the inscription. I stop when I hit denser trees. Some men I passed earlier in my walk mentioned “wolf” and I didn’t know if they meant that wolves generally lived up here, or that a wolf has been causing shit and attacking people. 

I also knew that the corners that lead to more beautiful views weren’t going to run out anytime soon, and I still needed to walk back. If you had of told me in the morning that nice views awaited if I wanted to walk for over 6 hours, I probably wouldn’t have gone. But I’m glad the corners tempted me further than expected.

On my walk back down, I pause to see if the clouds hanging over some eternal snow on one of the peaks will pass so I can take a photo. Nope.

The men I had passed earlier were heading back down the road in their Russian jeep, so I tagged along for a few km before they took another fork. Earlier in the day I had assumed they were military based on their clothes, but the large proportion of men around here that seem at first to be military lead me to believe that men around here actually just like wearing camouflage.

On the way back down, I considered ways to come back up here. Perhaps on a horse on an overnight trip (but remember how much pain you were in last time?). Perhaps on another walk up the valley (but by the end of this walk, one of my feet was aching). By the time I got back to Tamga village, I had decided to just leave the valley alone, and keep my memories and photos. 

And the foot pain that wouldn’t go away for days. After resting for a bit back at the guesthouse, I could hardly walk. 

My peaceful time in Tamga was also dotted with:

  • Swimming in lake, Issuk-Kyl. The pristine, Okanagan-like lake, but with NO motorized boats etc.
  • A trip over to Bokonbaevo. Got my hair cut (it’s almost the end of my trip, it’s what I do). Checked out the market, expressed curiosity at the school uniforms for sale that looked like french maid outfits. Explored outside of town towards the mountains, enjoyed scenery of canals, fields, and graveyears. On the way here I had spotted a nice isolated beach to stop at on the way back, so asked my shared taxi driver to stop in the middle of nowhere when it was time to head home. Enjoyed more peaceful, warmish, clean water. Headed back up to the road and chatted up a family that had also ventured to (another part of) the beach. They drove me home (other recipients of mailed photos).
  • Enjoying the view of mountains during the Golden Hour.
  • The guesthouse. Good, though basic, food. The orchard with apples, pears, apricots. Flowers. Quiet.

(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.

(45) Inylchek base camp, Kyrgyzstan: Gasp!

I’m so sad I don’t have more (any?) notes from this excursion in real time. It was definitely a highlight of my entire trip. Below comes from memory and photos.

The first flight in the morning was to the North Inylchek area (i.e. the north arm of the Inylchek glacier). The documentary crew were shooting there, and we were picking up a camp that was closing up.

We generally flew only a couple of hundred metres above the river valley, which extended for ages. Everything was so stunning, I was just amazed. As we got to the head of the valley, the peaks got bigger and bigger. We passed over an “iceberg lake” in which a lot of chunks of ice build up and eventually the dam bursts in summer. We ascend next to peaks that go up to over 7000m. If I had to guess, we got up to about 6000m. In a helicopter with the windows open. It was amazing. The views and the altitude quite literally took my breath away. And those of others. When we landed at our destination the young boy got an oxygen treatment. The documentarians did there thing. I got pictures with the crew.

And then we did the trip all over again. Back to the lower base camp where I spent the confused night, where we dropped everyone off except me, and headed back, this time more or less directly (i.e. less of the scenic route) to the South Inylchek base camp. I got out, along with some supplies. The helicopter takes off while I duck down with the camp manager. I have arrived.

I get set up in a tent. The tents are set up on palettes, above the moraine rock that the camp is set on. Within the big tent I have lots of foamy, and, as hoped for, a big warm sleeping bag. I set up my bed and my food and my water and my books.

The camp manager tells me the basic rules and points out key locations. Outhouse down the hill. Dining tent. Don’t wander off alone. Spend the next day getting used to the altitude. I think we are at about 4000m. It’s sunny and I bath on a makeshift palette/platform.

My stomach is a bit off still. At dinner that night I meet some mountaineers and hear stories. One solo guy attempted Khan Tengri (>7000m, the peak is split between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and China) with a guide, but didn’t make it. He believes that the camp and the main companies that serve it for mountaineers are more focussed on groups, and aren’t as invested in individuals. I hear about the group that summated Pobeda (also over 7000m, on the border of Kyrgyzstan and China), but had two casualties on the way back – two got stuck in bad weather and couldn’t descend. The peak is a very gradual, so climbers are over 6000m for a long time, making it dangerous. The rest of the group hadn’t returned yet, but they were expected the next day.

I cozy up in my tent for the night. Nice and warm. My technique is to read sitting up for a while so that I get my feet toasty before I stretch out. A few snowflakes fall outside.

In the morning I wake up, and….it’s snowing. Hard. About 16 inches has already fallen. It doesn’t look like anyone is up. Nothing has been shoveled. I don’t see any footprints to the toilet. I go in behind my tent. It snows perhaps another foot throughout the day. It’s cold, but beautiful. Foggy, not great views. It’s not until after dinner that a trail can be found to the outhouse. Where have people been shitting and pissing all day? There are going to be surprises behind each tent when the snow clears, I expect.

At lunch there was concern about the Pobeda crew getting back in the snow and fog, and by dinner they have arrived. The mood is both celebratory and sombre. I finally have my appetite back, and have double helpings of pasta. I think perhaps that my issues all along have been from water. While I don’t drink the water in Central Asia, I do use it for brushing teeth, and up here the only water is bottled.

I spent most of the day in my tent. I’m thankful to have the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, which I’m thankful for, as I finish all three books in the day and a half of snow.

The next morning, the fog has lifted, the sky is blue, and OH THE MOUNTAINS. Snowcapped peaks are what I came up here to see, and I get them in clean white spades. The sun shines brightly on Khan Tengri and I take tonnes of photos. TONNES!

I overhear something about a helicopter arriving this morning, and I ask if I can get on it. I never was clear about how long I was staying (I thought 3 nights, then going back to the original lower camp) but it seems this might be the only option. All of a sudden the base camp is in a flurry of activities. A group of guys starts clearing a landing pad for the helicopter, which has already left the lower base camp. I pack up quickly. And then we hear it coming. A group of us rushes to the makeshift landing pad. The more experienced around me tells me to get duck my head down to the ground. Snow flies everywhere. We load up and get on. And then we’re off, blowing snow all over camp.

And then we fly, not to the original camp, but to a different lower camp on the north side of this range. We fly over the mountains I was taking pictures of this morning. It is crazy amazing. As we travel further on the other side, a bit of green pops up here and there. So many valleys to explore.

We land at the green base camp. It’s technically in Kazakhstan, across the river from Kygyzstan. It’s pleasant here. Flowers. A cute but aggressive puppy. Trees. Hawks. Some rich Kazakh dude lands in an ultralight helicopter.

I don’t remember the name of this place, but I found the unnamed area on Google Maps (satellite view).

Some final highlights of this unnamed place.

  • Walked up behind the camp, further into Kazakhstan. Was told it would probably be OK, but that if there are bored military it could be a problem. I saw dudes a while into the walk and turned around. Lots of flowers and prettiness.
  • Tented. Slept sooooo well.
  • Enjoyed food with other guests on my first night, many of them mountaineers from Inylchek. They were pretty proud. One of them was…if I have this right…Kazakstan’s first female mountain lion (?). It means she has done a certain number of 7000m peaks. I think.
  • Do another walk up the other side of the river. Too steep. Get tired walking up the grass. I sit down and pretend this was where I was planning to get to all along.
  • Decide to stay a second night. I’m the only one there the second night, the camp is closed. I enjoy a night at the camp “bar” with staff. There is vodka.
  • I settle my bill with the rich owner (i.e. ultralight helicopter dude) and he tries (successfully) to overcharge me on what I was quoted. Blargh.
  • If I remember correctly, a group comes out for lunch. I get a ride back with them into Karakol and head up to the fancier place I stayed at the first time in Karakol.

(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

Jalabad:

  • 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.

(42) Kyzyl-Oi, Kyrgyzstan: Back in the saddle again

Leaving Bishkek was surprisingly easy. Caught a bus to the bus station, and found a big van heading to Chayek, about an hour away from my true destination of Kyzyl-Oi. I was hoping to find transportation going counterclockwise around the mountains to get there, but had to setting on clockwise. This means that I’ll probably have to backtrack somewhere, and that I had to get a taxi for the final hour, but I got here.

I have to say I was pretty disappointed by the scenery for almost all but the last hour of my journey today. I guess I was expecting dramatic valleys and mountains, and I didn’t get them. Maybe it’s because it was overcast today. Maybe I was daunted by my first day out in over a week.

I was lucky to have a seat in the front of the van, so I could enjoy the views and fresh air. Most of the drive involved wide valleys with mediocre ranges to either side. I put up with the driver trying to make jokes in his spartan English, while I made an honest attempt to learn more Kyrgyz. The only problem is most locals always talk Russian with me.

When I got to Chayek, my fellow passengers directed me to “where tourists sleep”. It was a sort-of hotel. Usual tourist accommodations, especially when arranged by the community-based tourism offices, are in homestays or yurts. I wasn’t interested in the “hotel”, so I decided to try to hitch to Kyzyl-Oi.

I walked through to the end-ish of the town, and chatted up some locals at a bridge. Traffic was sparse, if not nonexistent, and I gave up the idea of hitching before I even started. Instead I tried to get one of the guys to drive me at a decent price. I thought I had a promising price, but I think the guy was just practicing the numbers he knows. He went from 1000 to 800 to 500 to 1000 to 1500 to 1000. I gave up and decided to walk back to the centre of town for a real taxi, or even the “hotel” if need be.

But instead I ran into a community-based tourism coordinator, who also runs a little shop, and she arranged a taxi (her son-in-law) and I bought some cookies and chocolates.

The drive, finally!, was lovely. Interesting hills, dramatic mountains, steel blue rivers, tree-lined valleys. The driver (and his wife who came along in the back seat) knew a bit of English, and his favourite phrases were “photo stop” and “no problem.” Worked out great for me. I got to the town I wanted, a few dollars poorer but much happier in photos. Plus Kyzyl-Oi soon presented itself to be a great base for hiking, and a scenic little village in its own right.

Kyzyl-Oi was my first true introduction to the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) program in Kyrgyzstan. Basically, an office (or even just a person) in a variety of towns and villages has a compilation of homestays, guides, possible trips, etc with set prices, and will sort everything out for you when you arrive to a town. In my limited time so far, it’s been quite helpful, especially since I picked up the cell phone in Bishkek. I arrived in town pretty late, so stayed with the homestay of the CBT coordinator, Artyk. I had a lovely dinner of salad and borsht, all the while praying that I would not get sick again, since this type of food was the stuff of all my illness in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

After dinner I had a sauna (steamy bathing room where a “shower” involves mixing boiling water and cold water in a big scoop and pouring it over your body), and went to bed with my stomach gurgling like crazy. Please, no sickness. Please.

I spent two full relaxed days in Kyzyl-Oi. I went for two long walks, took lots of photos, and spent a fair amount of time on my computer in the afternoons when it got stormy.

My hike on the first day got me up in the hills overlooking Kyzyl-Oi from the south. My first destination was a cemetery. Cemeteries here are more extravagant than back home in some ways, more primitive in others. Each grave is very evident, in that there is a big mount of soil covering where a person lies. This cemetery I noticed a first on this trip – each mound also had 3 or four wooden poles lying across it, kind of haphazardly like pick up sticks. No flattened grave sites with manicured grass. However, each grave (depending on the wealth of the family I suppose) has some sort of frame around it. It might be a full brick structure with the mound hidden away inside. It might be a metal frame – a simple rectangle, a dome structure, or some other ornamental cover. Some had stars and crescents, others had animals. Some are painted, some are plain. Some had etched stonework featuring a picture of the deceased, or maybe just a name. All in all, cemeteries on this trip have always been interesting.

After the cemetery I climbed further on a horse trail to a hill topped off with some sort of surveying feature. I sat atop it, enjoyed the view and the cool breeze, and pondered. Soon the afternoon storm came with its chilly wind and rain, and I descended. On the way down I chatted with some young girls, played with lots of puppies, and bought some Coca Cola. I am drawn to animals here, and I find that after a few initial barks, if I put out my hand, squat down, and say “Come here puppy” in a loud, overly dramatic, low baby voice, I can engage almost any dog.

After the storm passed, I spent the last golden hour of the day on a short trip over the foot bridge at the edge of the village. As I walked over, cows started coming in from a day out in the high pastures. They know the drill. I pretended like I was herding them in, but in reality they couldn’t have cared less that I was there.

On walks here I feel a bit like Moses. The locusts/grasshoppers/crickets are abundant, and some of the species have red under their legs, so when they jump out of the way frantically it’s like the red sea is parting before me.

On my second day I explored further beyond the bridge I crossed the day before. I thought I had seen a small group of buildings from my viewpoint above the cemetery yesterday, so that was my goal. So I walked. I parted more Red Seas of crickets. The lower hills in this area are covered with some sort of grass that is fairly unremarkable close up, but that gives the landscape a sheen, as if you’re always catching the contours in their best light. Kind of like those icky shirts back from the early 90s that change colour depending on which way you look at them. As I climb, I realize that there is no cluster of buildings or yurts, and there is no obvious end to my hike. At one point I just stop. I am content. I sit on a rock, swat away the flies around me, and just relax, listen, look. More pondering is involved. A bit of singing.

Back in the village the afternoon storm comes in. I pick up some Snickers bars for the horse trip I have worked out with Artyk for the next morning. A wedding is happening soon, and a cluster of young men have appeared on the main road with streamers and balloons on their vehicles, preparing to kidnap the soon to be bride. They add boister (is that even a word?) to an otherwise sleepy village.

In the evenings here I have been at my computer a lot. I’m actually beginning my prep for being back at home. Resumes. Cover letters. MBA research project prep. Slowly ticking off all the old blog posts I never quite finished. While I’m enjoying it here, I’m excited to get back to Canada too. Opportunities are presenting themselves, and I’m creating others. I feel like great things await.

The next morning I’m up early for the horse, and things start to be a bit hayward. Departure time of 8 has turned into 9. I’m given a tent (aren’t I staying in a yurt?). Are there yurts? Where will I eat? My questions go unanswered, as Artyk left to Bishkek yesterday afternoon and won’t be back until after I’m gone.

Once we sort out loading the bags on the horses, we’re off. It’s not more than a kilometre or so before I realize that this is going to hurt. I’m already shifting in my seat.

Soon we turn off the main gravel road to a rougher side road, which also follows the valley. We alternate between the road and paths below the road. I haven’t said more than 10 words to my guide, and I hope Artyk explained where I wanted to go. I’m assuming everything is fine, which is not always the best things to do when one has expectations, but I let it be.

The river valley is lovely, and is dotted with wild flowers of every possible shade of purple. Pale lavender. Brilliant fuschia. Deep violet. Bright indigo.

We stop for tea at a yurt around noon. Bread, tea, and all manifestations of cows milk – cream, butter, and even thicker brown stuff I don’t recognize. Kymys too. My first taste of the famous fermented horse milk found in Kyrgyzstan. It’s like a tangy yogurt drink. Not horrible, but I can’t finish my cup.

Just a bit further on we stop for lunch and for the night. Lunch is friend potatoes (the uszh) and takes over an hour to prepare. The sky darkens and it stops raining. The guide suggests doing the two lakes tomorrow, on the way down from here. This will mean a full day tomorrow instead of just a few hours. I kind of want to get my horse hours over as soon as possible. Instead I push to go to one of the lakes this afternoon, and to skip the other lake. The sky is still ominous, so no final decision is made yet.

The place that I’m staying at is not a yurt. It’s more of a summer tent, and my guide and I set up our tents along side it. The woman has two cute children, but the young boy gets annoying pretty quickly. He has a penchant for tugging at jacket and hitting my bum. I’m reminded of something that I was told on a hike in New Zealand where I had met a young family. “When you play with children, you will always end up disappointing them” meaning that you will want to stop before they do. This is definitely the case.

The family also has a dog, who absolutely loves me. He sinks into my scratches until he no longer has balance or alertness.

The toilet is outdoors as is expected. I’m told its over a small crest of a hill. At first I just think it’s anywhere over the crest, as you can’t be seen from the camp area. But then I realize they mean that the toilet is just around one big hug rock. There’s no hole in the ground, just a worn trail around this odd rock that’s over 6 feet high. I spot small piles of shit from the baby. They must just shovel it all up every day or so. I decide to pee in the grass instead.

As we wait for the weather to clear, I notice that there’s almost a weather line about the ridge to the right of the valley with the lakes. Blue on one side. Dark grey on the other. I try to convince the guide that the path is clear, but we wait until almost 4:30 before we take off.

We climb steeply with the horses before the high valley starts to level off. It’s nice to be off the route of the road. There are supposed to be two lakes in this valley – a small and large one of the same name. I see a depression that seems to be a dried up pool. I joke to myself that this is the small lake. And then soon the “big” lake is pointed out. It’s pretty piddly as far as lakes go. Hmm.. Maybe the other little depression was the small lake?

It’s still early so we keep going up the valley. Very worthwhile. We run into some shepherds and my guide seems to have a discussion with them as to which way would be the best to continue on further. One joins us along up the broad valley, which we explore for another hour. If I had decided to do both lake valleys tomorrow instead, I would have missed this part, and I’m so glad I didn’t. Wild flowers. High grasses. A valley ending with the eternal snow remnants of an old glacier. We stop for a pause. I take photos and sit and think near the river. I wish I could go to the end but there’s not enough time before the sun goes down.

Back at the tent, dinner is a tasty lagman, the usual noodle dish. I’m not feeling sick, so my appetite is alright. I just hope my stomach stays this way. I head to bed early with a headache and some stomach rumblings, but they don’t turn into anything major. I ponder taking a Gravol, but opt for some acetaminophen instead and fall asleep soon enough.

The night was filled with crazy dreams. If I’ve ever spoken to you about my dreams before, you’ll know that they are strange, but filled with vivid details. Here are the two examples from this night.

My old dance teacher’s husband explains how when he goes to Shanghai, he is accosted by women that make signs with very dirty phrases. In this instance, the women that he speaks of didn’t have time to make a sign, so they got t-shirts printed instead. He arranges to have them arrested.

Except I’m not told this story directly, I read it in fine print on the outside of a pack of Hubba Bubba. My dance teacher retells the story later after I point out the oddness of having this printed on a pack of gum.

The second dream I’m sitting on a WestJet flight waiting to take off. There are a lot of WestJet staff eyeing seats among the paying passengers. I fall asleep before the plane takes off and don’t wake up until after it has landed. I’m confused. After I leave the plane I have to confirm with people where I am. I have landed in Kelowna on my way back to Salmon Arm from this Central Asia trip. An old friend from highschool and her husband are also on this flight, but they don’t want to give me a ride back to Salmon Arm. And then I’m confused as to why I was on the flight. It’s only June 30th and I’m not supposed to be home until the Fall. I wonder what this extra flight home is going to cost.

I surprise my parents at their apartment (which they moved into since I left), but I quickly tell them I’m heading out again and will be back in September for good.

It was all very strange. Interpretations welcome.

The next morning we leave by 9 for the few hours back to Kyzyl-Oi. My ass is so sore from riding yesterday that I spend most of the ride shifting around, changing positions when the one before gets uncomfortable, which usually only takes a few minutes. I pretend my horse and I have developed a special relationship, in which his snorts are his way of telling me thank you. I have become a horse whisperer in my own mind.

Back in Kyzyl-Oi I decide to stay for lunch and then try to hitch a ride to the main Bishkek-Osh road to eventually get to Jalal Abad so I can take a back road to Naryn in the middle of the country. While I’m waiting for lunch I read a portion of a book I’ve got with me about the scientific origins of the earth. It’s mostly about geology. I note a passage by Lord Byron featured on one of the pages, and I feel it’s speaking about me.

I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a feeling…