Kyrgyzstan – Mountains, Lakes and Nomads
Readers who are already familiar with our Small and Traditional tours to former Communist bloc countries will know that we are always looking for new destinations, especially those that give the opportunity to explore those places which are well off the beaten track and to learn about the local culture and social history whilst, at the same time, sampling their railways. It all started with Romania back in 2008 and has subsequently expanded to include most of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Georgia, Armenia and Uzbekistan. Whilst the details may change from country to country, we do aim for some constant themes in this programme, particularly the use of locally owned accommodation, restaurants, transport and guides. This ensures that our custom benefits the local community rather than lining the pockets of multi-nationals.
Inevitably our research trip can be no more than a framework of the holiday which will eventually evolve. The first job is to plan a route, select and check the accommodation and get a feel for the places of interest that can be visited. It also tells us a lot about the feasibility of the proposed transport arrangements, how long it takes to get from A to B, whether it is possible to get refreshments on the proposed route and so on – the things that make our “Small and Traditional” tours what they are. We also need a good local agent to do the “fixing” on the ground and this company needs to subscribe to our way of doing things.
My colleague for this new adventure was, as always, Ramona. She has been the inspiration for all the Small and Traditional programme and her involvement ensures a uniformity of standard across the brand. Those who have travelled with her in Romania and elsewhere will know exactly what I mean.
We’ve had our eyes on Kyrgyzstan ever since we first visited Uzbekistan back in 2015. They are neighbouring countries and both are on the old Silk Road but, in most respects, they are very different. Uzbekistan is mainly desert and the chief interest here is in the beautiful and historic cities. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, is almost entirely mountainous and the only city of any note is the capital, Bishkek.
We found a very helpful local agent and made the initial contact.
“We are a small tour operator from the UK and would like to include Kyrgyzstan in our programme.”
“Excellent. I’m sure we can help. Do you ride horses? Kyrgyzstan is a great country for exploring on horesback”
“No problem. Do you arrange trekking holidays where you could stay overnight in tents?
“ ......or perhaps another kind of activity holiday.”
“Actually, we are not very active.”
“Well, what exactly do you do?”
“We ride trains.”
“Oh......... Well there is one very scenic rail line which runs from Bishkek through the mountains to Balykchy on Lake Issyk-Kul.”
“Yes, yes great! We’ll do that.”
“OK but it only runs between June and September.”
None of this was going to put us off. We were determined we wanted to do Kyrgyzstan and the more difficult it sounded, the better we liked it.
Days 1 and 2
So it was that, in early April 2019, I flew from Manchester whilst Ramona flew from Bucharest and we met up at Istanbul’s old Ataturk Airport which was due to close in the next few days. The connecting flight was overnight as are all flights to Central and Eastern Asia but Turkish Airlines did a good job and we arrived on time at Bishkek’s Manas Airport at 0510.
Brits don’t need a visa for Kyrgyzstan and the arrival procedure was delightfully quick and easy. We were met in the arrivals hall by Mike, a jovial and enthusiastic member of our agency’s management. Mike spoke impeccable English and without an accent. We felt quite at home, especially when he divulged that actually he was born in Cardiff but had lived in Kyrgyzstan for 20 years.
The drive into the city took about 30 minutes and dawn was breaking as we arrived at our small hotel which belonged to the agency. The owner, Elmira, was on hand to greet us and breakfast was ready. What chain hotel can muster this kind of welcome at such an early hour?
By now we were very tired and spent the morning in bed before a light lunch around one. I remember the tasty home-made lentil soup and superb bread. They are rightly very proud of their bread in Kyrgyzstan and it is often offered as a greeting when visiting private homes. The tea is good too – a choice of black, green or lemon – but the Kyrgyz people are not big coffee drinkers.
Next, the city sights and Elmira and Mike took us on a comprehensive tour of their capital. Here came the first big surprise. Unlike Uzbekistan, there are very few historic buildings in Kyrgyzstan – a total of three in fact and we will visit one tomorrow! Bishkek itself was developed in Soviet times and, whilst there are many grand buildings, they are all modern and unmistakably Soviet in style. Elmira explained why. The Kyrgyz people were all nomads – many are still semi-nomadic and nomads don’t use big cities. The country is the size of the UK but only has a population of 6 million – clearly this is a country where the great outdoors predominates and this goes a long way to explain the early conversation about horse riding and trekking.
On the practical side, money exchange was done at a bureau in a small shopping centre and then a visit to the Zum department store – once famous all over the Soviet Union, Zum sells just about everything you could possibly need and the top floor has a large range of locally made crafts, gifts and souvenirs. Ramona was in her element already!
An excellent meal in a traditional restaurant rounded off the day. Elmira and Mike were the perfect hosts.
Breakfast was served by a pleasant young woman who introduced herself as Nuraiym. “Call me Nurai. I’m going to be your guide for the next few days.” These people are nothing if not versatile. Nurai was well travelled, having been to many countries in Western Europe but not yet to the UK.
“Visas for the UK are very hard to get.”
I felt a bit ashamed. These people are so welcoming to us but what do we do in return?
Our driver was Uluk and our vehicle a Toyota 4WD. The 4WD part of the kit would soon come in very handy. Uluk didn’t speak much English but was a good and careful driver and we headed out of the city for our first real taste of rural Kyrgyzstan. We had to be patient – the Bishkek suburbs went on for a while and were not exactly beautiful. There were the usual Soviet apartment blocks and the roadside was characterised by rows of what looked like lock-ups. Each group seemed to be engaged in the same trade, all vying for business. Here was the motor traders group – cars up on ramps, old pickup trucks missing their wheels and piles of tyres of different sizes. There was the bicycle group and so on.
Finally we were out of the city. Across the wide and level Chu River valley on our right was a range of very spectacular snow covered mountains whilst close by on the left was the Kazakhstan border. We could see the fence very clearly and, at a couple of road intersections, border posts with a line of trucks waiting to cross on their way to Almaty.
The weather was clear and sunny and first stop was at the Burana Tower, one of the country’s three historic buildings. The tower is all that is left of an ancient city, established in the 9th Century and destroyed by Mongols in the 12th. The tower was once 148 feet high but an earthquake in the 15th Century reduced it to 82 feet. To get to the top involves a short modern and external metal staircase to the first level followed by extremely steep stone steps in total darkness using only finger holes in the wall as a guide. Elmira had stressed that the ascent was entirely optional but that was a challenge that couldn’t be resisted. It has to be said that the stunning views of the mountain range from the top were much the same as from the bottom but at a slightly different angle.
Nearby was a small museum with artefacts from the old city and, just beyond, a wonderful display of petroglyphs.
Lunch was at a small restaurant in nearby Tokmok and then we continued east along the main road. Near Kemin, our attention was drawn to an abandoned Soviet uranium mine, now heavily protected by a continuous fence of old container bodies – a blot on an otherwise beautiful landscape.
We turned left off the main road and headed uphill into the national park. Finally in the small village of Tar-Suu, the hard road surface gave way to a rough track. Up and up we went. Can they get a bus up here – even a minibus? Nurai insisted they can and we took her word for it.
Finally, at 1900m (6175 feet) we reached the Kok-archa guest house and were welcomed by the owner, his wife and children. This was definitely going to be Ffestiniog Travel’s most remote homestay but why was it here? The answer of course lies in all those horseriding and trekking holidays we had turned down!
As is normal in Kyrgyzstan, we took off our shoes at the door and put on slippers. We asked Nurai about this. Was there a religious or cultural reason because it applied in every house we visited? The answer was far more practical. It avoids taking dirt into the house!
The rooms were simple but clean and perfectly adequate. All had en-suite bathrooms but we shouldn’t expect refinements such as bed side lamps and wardrobes. There is no mobile phone coverage in the valley but, paradoxically, there is internet connection via cable and so it is possible to contact the outside world by WhatsApp!
It was still only late afternoon so there was time for a short walk. Nurai pointed to two possible tracks that, she said, were not too difficult. We chose the easier looking of the two which climbed up the side of the valley to an excellent viewpoint.
“It gets harder beyond here,” said Nurai, so we turned back.
More home cooking with local produce provided us with a nice evening meal after which Ramona and I spent the evening sorting out the dates for all the Small and Traditional tours for 2020. This was an urgent job as we had to meet the copy deadline for the May brochure.
Once again breakfast was excellent – there was even porridge here! Then as we were putting on our shoes by the front door, a little kiss on the cheek for each of us from the youngest son in the family. We asked about his school and were told that this is in Tar-Suu and caters for all ages though it was currently closed due to repairs being done on the roof.
Setting off back down the track, 4WD was soon engaged and we bumped our way for 4 kilometres down the hill.
Returning to the main road we came close to the railway line that will be used on our tour. The landscape became more arid and we were reminded of the scenery in Colorado as the line wound its way up the canyon.
By late morning we had reached Balykchy and Lake Issyk-kul. Although trains were off the agenda for this recce trip we felt we should at least see the station. We needn’t have bothered – this one would be a contender for the prize for the most Soviet looking former Soviet station! Square and concrete, it looked the same from both sides. There were staff going about their business but no trains of course. Beyond the station there was a sizeable freight yard and evidence that coal was once the mainstay of traffic on the line. There was no reason to hang around here and we pressed on.
Although it is frequently said that there is no tourism infrastructure in Kyrgyzstan, that’s not entirely true as the north side of Lake Issyk-kul (the side facing the sun) is something of a playground for citizens of Bishkek looking for a summer beach holiday. Small towns have given rise to unattractive ribbon development of hotels and cafes along the main road, re-enforcing our earlier view that the urban scene is not the best part of what Kyrgyzstan has to offer.
We stopped at Cholpon-Ata for lunch and to inspect the archeological museum with petroglyphs. The ancient artists had taken advantage of thousands of boulders which were part of the morainic material deposited by a retreating glacier at the end of the last ice age.
Heading eastwards along the lake we reached Oruktu where the chief point of interest was a series of outdoor natural thermal pools, each one of a different temperature. The complex was laid out for a large number of visitors and is obviously very popular in the summer but, like countless holiday attractions in the UK, looked rather incongruous out of season. There wasn’t a soul about other than one member of staff cooking something on a BBQ. Was he hoping for trade or was it his supper? We had our swimming gear with us but Ramona and I looked at each other and quickly moved on!
Across the lake, the Tian-Shan range of mountains that had so enthralled us yesterday were still with us but today the cloud had come down and, although it was still fine, it was dull. It’s a definite fact that the weather does play an important part in one’s appreciation of a country. Yesterday was amazing, today much less so.
The main town in the area is Karakol, situated at the far end of the lake. Once again the town itself is unremarkable but, as we were to find out tomorrow, it is in a stunning setting. We were now 240 miles from Bishkek and only 93 miles from the Chinese border.
We visited the Dungan mosque built in the style of a Chinese pagoda and completed in 1910 before driving to our guest house for evening meal.
The cloud had lifted to reveal that Karakol is surrounded on three sides by mountains whilst the fourth side is, of course, Lake Issyk-kul. Breakfast was great and included pancakes. We were feeling better already.
Unfortunately, our guest house, whilst clean, comfortable and welcoming, didn’t have enough rooms with en-suite facilities for our groups and so the first job today was to find another. The ever resourceful Nurai had already anticipated this and took us straight to a small hotel which fitted the bill perfectly. It also had the advantage of being closer to the town centre which would be useful if customers wanted a stroll in the evening.
We had a stroll ourselves, visiting the Russian Orthodox Cathedral built entirely of wood and completed in 1895, the outdoor market and a souvenir shop which sells excellent mountain honey!
By mid morning we were on the road again, continuing our circuit of the lake and, yes, this side of the lake is so much more remote and interesting. We encountered several nomadic farmers on horseback rounding up their herds (both cattle and horses) ready for the summer migration to higher pastures where they would live in their yurts until autumn. Many were dressed in traditional clothing. For the most part they ignored our cameras although we did get the feeling that one chap was enjoying the attention as he was galloping faster than the rest, closer to us and cracking his whip for effect – the local poser no doubt!
We had turned off the main road and up a valley to visit Jeti-Oguz, a tiny community dominated by sandstone cliffs – the Seven Bulls.
After lunch in a small village which was suffering a power cut, we turned off the road again to follow a sign which said plainly, in English, Fairy Tale Canyon. The local name is Skaska which means the same thing. I don’t think we could have been more surprised. It’s as if we had been transported in an instant to the Arches National Park in Utah – but without the tourists. Bright red sandstone formations stretched as far as the eye could see and we took a short walk to admire our surroundings. (This turned out to be not good for keeping shoes clean!!!).
The culmination of our exciting day was to be found at our destination and we must point out straightaway that we will NOT be expecting our customers to do this. We often boast that in “Small and Traditional” we immerse ourselves in the local culture so it was decided we would spend tonight in a yurt! No, it wasn’t a yurt-shaped chalet with all mod cons for the tourists. It was a proper yurt about 15 feet in diameter containing two mattresses with blankets on a carpeted floor and a small table for our belongings. Washing facilities were a kitchen sink fed by a tank some distance away and, even further away was a portaloo.
Surprisingly we slept well apart from wondering what kind of animal was prowling around outside at 2.00am. We think it was a horse but we weren’t sure!
This was the only day that we experienced any rain and fortunately it wasn’t continuous. We checked a couple of very small homestays in a nearby village but neither were big enough for our purposes. Next we had an appointment with an “eagle man”. Golden eagles are kept for hunting (not for sport) and we were due to meet one of the owners. We learned that golden eagles live for 70 years and each one is kept in captivity for only 15 years when it is released into the wild whilst it is still young enough to find a mate and live happily ever after!
Continuing our education, we next visited a family that made yurts as a business. By now we had a personal interest in this. Father and sons were occupied with constructing the frame work and felt covering whilst mother and daughter were engrossed in some highly skilled decorative detail. Ramona and I noted that our yurt didn’t have any elaborate decorative work – clearly we had the economy version!
We had known for some time that Nurai’s home was on this side of the lake and, as we stopped to take a photo of some particularly good looking mountains, she commented that her village was just a few kilometres up a side valley. We asked how often she managed to get home to see her family and she replied only five or six times a year. Ramona suggested that it would be a pity when we were so close not to take advantage – so we did and it turned out to be a real high spot of the trip.
Nurai’s village is tiny. Set in a wide valley at 2200 meters (7150 feet) above sea level, the main occupation, unsurprisingly, is agriculture. Home is a smallholding with a few animals whilst living accommodation is a small cottage (although they are building a larger one next door). We were made most welcome – lots of food and tea of course which was amazing considering we had given no notice of our arrival. Dad also turned out to be an accomplished musician who sang a folk song to his own accompaniment on the guitar. As we left the village, Nurai showed us the small village school. From here, she had gone on to university in Bishkek and was now finishing her Master’s degree. That’s impressive!
When we reached the rail yard at Balykchy, we knew we had completed our circuit of the lake. The tour we are proposing to put in our brochure will have more than this – we will include the mountainous area towards the Chinese border, Naryn and Lake Song-kul but some of these roads were still closed by snow at the time of our visit and, in any case, we were running out of time.
So Uluk turned his Toyota in the direction of Bishkek and we drove back to the city. Elmira and Mike were there to greet us and we spent the evening at another local restaurant, discussing our trip and making plans for our 2020 programme.
Airport check-in was at 0435 and Mike was on hand promptly at 0400 to take us there. Several international flights seem to depart between 0600 and 0800 and the airport was busy. Nevertheless the exit procedure was straightforward if a little slow and our flight to Istanbul was on time.
As we took off we reflected on the fact that today was the first day of operation of the brand new international airport in Istanbul. We hoped the captain knew where it was!
When I was at school, my old English teacher used to say that you should never go to the opening night of any new theatre performance as that is the night the scenery falls down. Well, the same is true of airports. Istanbul International Airport looked impressive from the outside but inside the escalators didn’t escalate and the signs pointing you to the ATMs sent you to an empty space on the wall. No point in asking for directions at the information desk either. It was their first morning too and they didn’t know their way around anymore than we did.
None of these things spoiled the trip and we have returned home confident that, in Kyrgyzstan, we have another very worthwhile “Small and Traditional” destination which will make us very welcome indeed.