Kyrgyzstan – Mountains, Lakes & Nomads – July
A regular traveller with Ffestiniog Travel, David Grosvenor has shared his thoughts and photographs of our recent escorted tour to Kyrgyzstan. This Small and Traditional tour is the most remote destination in Ffestiniog Travel’s tour portfolio and certainly lives up to its ‘small and traditional’ tour status. A small group departed on this inaugural tour in July 2022 followed quickly by a second departure in the same month due to popular demand. David provides a candid account of his experience in Kyrgyzstan in this travel blog, which also serves to capture the authenticity of our Small & Traditional tour range. These escorted tours visit countries that still remain untouched by large scale tourism and discover remote areas, true nature, rich culture and wonderful history with the services of a knowledgeable local guide.
David describes his words as “a personal blog written during this amazing tour.”
After the brinkmanship of health issues, the transport chaos at home caused by the heat wave (which forced me to travel to Heathrow a day early), the chaos that was Heathrow Terminal 2 where we had to queue for over 3 hours to get to check in with the consequent 2 hour delay to take off, the relative calm of Istanbul Airport (a relatively easy transit despite the miles of walking) and excellent on-board service of Turkish Airlines began to make me feel that the holiday had actually started.
It was a long day and the journey was exhausting but flying in to Manas Airport Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan this morning evoked a strong frisson of exotic adventure.
The first encounter with Kyrgyz officialdom couldn't have made more of a contrast to the normally impassive and sometimes downright aggressive passport control officers I have previously encountered in other countries (most notably the US and France). I was asked by the young lady if I had ever visited the country before and then she wished me a pleasant stay (...as she pointed what looked like a dash cam at me - presumably a facial recognition security system).
Dawn was breaking as we drove the shortish distance into Bishkek to our charming guest house down a little residential lane with gated compounds either side. A light breakfast was followed by a couple of hours sleep thanks to a Turkish Airlines eye mask and overwhelming tiredness.
In the afternoon our delightful local guide led us round the city centre. The temperature topped 40° (which you'd think we Brits would be used to by now) but despite jet lag and an overwhelming desire for a large cool beer it was a really interesting walk.
I think of all the post-Soviet era places I've been, this is the one with the strongest Soviet feel. It was after all a city that didn't exist until the Russians came and imposed a more settled lifestyle on this largely nomadic people.
The architecture of the city centre exudes a socialist heritage whilst the parks (it is supposedly the greenest of all post-Soviet cities) are filled with social realism statues. You are as likely to meet a hero of the Kyrgyz peoples fight for freedom as you are to spot Lenin on a podium or Marx and Engles having a chat on a park bench.
The changing of the guard at the presidential palace seemed to owe more to the Ministry of Funny Walks than any traditional Kyrgyz values and reminded me of the fandango that goes on at the Famous India/Pakistan border to which thousands are drawn to cheer on their nations peacock soldiers.
But the people who inhabit this city seem a happy and currently contented lot. There were children running around, playing together, families sitting in the shade of trees enjoying ice creams (which had formally been a rare luxury) and "artists" lounging in an outside "gallery" clearly not anticipating or even bothering to try and make a sale.
This evening we were treated to a home cooked dinner with tasty local delicacies that I FORGOT to photograph... time for an early night to try and get the body clock into gear ready for tomorrow.
After a sleepless night, probably the result of being over tired, at least this morning we didn't have an early start.
We were visiting the Ala Archa national park, no great distance from Bishkek and accessible for the first time in a while as a new access road was completed and opened only today.
What a delight! I'm sure that in some former life I must have lived happily in high mountains somewhere in the world. It was also a huge relief to escape the oppressive heat of the city and valley below and to walk at a sensible pace in a cooling breeze...we were, after all, at over 2000m altitude so breathing was noticeably that bit more difficult.
We were not alone enjoying the stunning scenery, but it is so vast one never felt crowded unlike some of the paths around Snowdonia these days!
Lunch was pleasant enough though the group had decided to eat at an air-conditioned mall where the food was international, everything from Thai broth to Pizza and Greek Salad whereas my preference would have been the open-air fish restaurant we passed en route and higher up away from the hustle and bustle of the city...
Anyway, lunch was followed by a fascinating and colourful visit to a venture seemingly run by a local family of women where we were treated to displays of some of the regional costumes and our first encounter with a yurt. The yurt was set at a fast roast temperature and my heart went out to these poor women and children wrapped up in metres of cloth.
They were such a delightful family...grandma, entrepreneurial daughter and grandchildren all made our visit such a memorable occasion. The daughter is actively involved in trying to bring back some of the ancient skills and crafts lost in the communist era and she is shortly to make a trip to Istanbul to represent Kyrgyzstan at an international crafts festival....if I heard correctly.
We made it back to the guest house in good time only to be thrown into darkness as a power cut hit!
My heart went out to the ladies beavering away preparing our meal, but my priority was to get to the "bar" and indulge in a much needed cold beer before it started to warm up.
Our meal was lovely though apparently it was missing one of the main courses which was still in the electric oven when the power went off.
It seems that the power issue may be to do with the guest house itself, so we have had to turn off the air conditioning tonight...I hope it won't mean another sleepless night as the room is extremely warm.
Tomorrow is a very early start as we venture off towards the large lake that dominates the country, Issyk-Kul and we travel there, all being well, on the country's only railway line.
It was a very early start to the day today...5.00am alarm in order to catch the train from Bishkek up through the mountain pass and on to the vast central Lake that is Issyk-Kul. Once aboard we were offered tea or coffee...and no cheap plastic or cardboard cups here...it looked very grand!
Its southern shore is dotted with small resort towns and villages currently hosting city dwellers escaping the heat of the plains...despite the altitude to be honest, it felt every bit as hot up here, although it was mitigated for the most part by a pleasant breeze - glad I remembered to apply the sun screen this morning however!
We were met by our minibus at the end of the line and then stopped off for a tasty, heavily Chinese influenced lunch before driving a further 75 kilometres or so to explore a fascinating field of petroglyphs, some dating back to 2000 BC. Boy it was hot, and I found it hard to keep the bad leg in shade, when I could find any.
A short drive later we arrived at our charming guest house for the night. Some of us tried to walk down to the lake shore beach that was supposed to be there, but we only found a short stretch of water accessible by a sort of diving stage.
I really wanted to visit the bazaar and so glad I did. The array of fruit and vegetables in particular was mouth-wateringly spectacular from apricots of all sizes and colours to tomatoes that just begged to be eaten whole like an apple. I treated myself to some cherries and apricots as we hadn't hitherto been offered much fruit, only to find tonight that our hostess who had prepared a delicious meal had also laid out bowls of tasty apricots and cherries! At least I have a treat for the journey tomorrow as we set out for the far end if this vast lake...it is something like 95km long by about 60km at its widest point.
This morning started at a reasonable pace with a breakfast that included a sort of frittata followed by delicious home-made pancakes and blackcurrant conserve. Although not as hot as it had been back in Bishkek it still felt very warm as we set off on the next leg of the adventure.
Issyk-Kul is a vast lake by any standards, virtually an inland sea especially since it is a salt lake. Something like 100km long and about 60km wide it dominates the Eastern end of Kyrgyzstan. To its north are the mountains of Kazakhstan (which is so close the phone would periodically welcome me to Kazakhstan) and to the south are the extremely high and still snow-covered peaks of the Tien Shan range which stretches along a wide band across central Asia.
Today we followed the northern shores of the lake past the small 'resort' towns that are growing up along this shoreline. We stopped briefly at a modern stadium built for the International Nomad games which have hitherto always been hosted by Kyrgyzstan and then headed off the main road to the traditional site of the games. We drove up through a narrow pass to where a vast alpine plain opens up surrounded by the high mountains.
A few young horse riders were plying their trade in an effort to get money from tourists, but their presence gave scale to this massive auditorium.
We continued past ravishing wildflower meadows to lunch...well...today in particular, the food has surpassed all expectations. It has been fantastic, superb, delicious and extremely generous in portions.
Seriously, the food we have been given has been extraordinary...simple, tasty and crammed with fresh ingredients. This tour and the guidebooks really do underplay the quality of food on offer. I am aware that our guide, Elmira(?), had herself pre-selected the range of food we had and hats off to her. I guess that this time of year is also good for fresh ingredients. As we drive along, we see the many different varieties of apricot trees which are bowed down with their golden crop along with cherry trees and other produce growing happily in the warm sunshine.
A stop at a hot spring lido of sorts wasn't my cup of tea but some of the group braved the rather shabby changing areas and took a dip in the different temperature pools. The place was heaving with local families and screaming children and even the 'cold' drinks available were not chilled...grump over. I couldn't help but think that the five of us (all men of a certain age and varying portliness) sat in a row, watching the proceedings, probably looked a little dodgy.
From there we drove on still with the lake to our right and eventually arrived at Karakol sitting at the feet of the highest range of mountains in Kyrgyzstan. We will explore the city a little tomorrow but this evening we had another even more fabulous meal at a nearby restaurant, where dinner was obviously influenced by Chinese cuisine.
Our hotel for the next two nights is modern, spacious and has all amenities and is a contrast to the small guest houses we have so far stayed in. It's been another amazing day in this fascinating country where the scenery and people continue to give and give and give.
Another fabulous day exploring this corner of Kyrgyzstan.
Our day began with a large buffet breakfast then on to the local farmers market where the hard-working farmers from all around come to buy and sell stock and have a general catch up...much the same as anywhere else in the world though I'm not sure how many vets and inspectors were on hand here.
We then headed off into the foothills of the nearby mountains to visit the 'famous' seven bulls gorge. I had seen photographs of this extraordinary red sandstone rock formation and hadn't been particularly impressed...unfortunately at the foot of the seven bulls (now more than 7 bulls, not because of breeding but rather erosion) a considerable amount of ragged development has been allowed which mars the scene, however we took a longish and fairly steep walk up a nearby hill to be met by fabulous views all round. Photographs do not do the place justice.
I had the privilege of spotting a fellow artist at work and I went over and introduced myself...he spoke no English and me no Kyrgyz but with the help of the camera phone and lots of hand gestures we had a great conflab. He insisted that he wanted a photo of the two of us and Rod, a member of the group, kindly obliged.
I was frankly rather envious of him being able to capture that stunning scenery 'en plain air' and noticed that, like me, he preferred the view away from the famous Seven Bulls and out towards the more distant landscape on the opposite side of the valley.
By the time we returned to Karakol it was lunchtime and what a lunch!!!! I run out of adjectives trying to describe the food here and at this particular restaurant the service and ambience was delightful...it was however a little hot indoors as it has been an increasingly hot and humid day with thunderstorms forecast for this evening though its not amounted to much so far.
In Karakol itself we visited a charming mosque built by immigrant Chinese Muslims and a delightful late 19th Century wood built Orthodox Church.
As I write this, I am sweltering in my bedroom at the former Intourist Hotel in Naryn up in the "cool" mountains! The forecast tomorrow is 33°, which I guess is cooler than 40° but far warmer than I anticipated and, I gather, far warmer than normal. At times it would have been good to have had air conditioning in the minibus as it can get very hot and sticky which can be a bit of a distraction.
It has been another full-on day. We drove along the more arid south coast of (lake) Issyk-Kul today. A more dramatic drive than the northern shore as the mountains here tumble right down to the lake shore in various degrees. The road was something of a bone shaker not least because massive new roadworks are underway but the views were stunning.
At one point we took a minor detour up an unmade road to some extraordinary rock formations...almost mimicking the works of Henry Moore at times...or was he here and got his inspiration!
We were then taken to a small family business which makes the famous Kyrgyz yurts and saw how these iconic structures are made and then assembled. Fascinating. Then we were treated to a lovely homemade lunch which our guide, Elmira, had arranged. Once again, I made a bit of a pig of myself by eating two of the delicious steamed dumpling/pasta rolls made with little more than the dough and a native chive. They didn't look much but the taste and delicious texture was divine.
After lunch...or was it before lunch??? we met up with one of the few genuine and licensed Eagle hunters to chat and ask questions about his job/profession. Such a gently spoken young man and such a bond between him and the bird. It seems they live up to 50 years (the birds that is) and spend 30 of these working alongside their keeper before being trained to cope on their own and be released into the wild to breed and hunt as nature intended.
We have covered a huge distance today and our driver is to be congratulated for keeping us safe and sound. The last part of the drive took us south towards the Chinese border and along a Chinese built road constructed to aid trade between these neighbours.
Scenery...gobsmacking!!! Up and through a mountain pass at over 3000m (that's well over 10,000ft) and over high mountain pasture with herdsmen and their animals and yurts dotting the landscape...and I nearly forgot...we passed a group of Bactrian (two humped...that is Bactrian isn't it as opposed to dromedary) camels seemingly wandering on their own across this desiccated landscape.
At times the scenery has been surreal...I would love more time to absorb it and immerse myself in its vastness. I
I am SO lucky to be here and so fortunate to have a guide who is quite clearly proud of her country and wanting to share as much of it as possible with us during this brief visit.
We're back in Naryn (not a remarkably picturesque city but then townscapes are not what this trip is about).
The temperature when we returned from our adventures was 38°. It was mercifully cooler in the mountains but mostly because there was a gentle breeze. These are more or less unprecedented temperatures for these altitudes.
The landscapes have again been breathtaking...one minute vast open plains with herds of cattle or sheep grazing in the distance, the next minute rolling downs of sandstone then suddenly dramatic gorges of phantasmagorical rock formations.
The three-hour drive to our destination was, for the most part, on the good new road, though the last few miles was on much rougher terrain, and I feared the minibus would shake itself apart.
Tash Rabat (our destination) is one of only three well known 'ancient' buildings in this vast country. Remember, the Kyrgyz were a nomadic people and permanent buildings did not generally feature.
Tash Rabat was once a busy caravanserai, a stopover for caravans of traders along the Silk Road. There are of course many branches of the Silk Road, this being just on one such route.
Its location is stunning and although the building has had some restoration work it retains a magical quality.
We ate here in a yurt (our hostess and her family had created a wonderful table of local delicacies and treats) before we headed back to the main road for the return drive to Naryn in what had become, once again, an uncomfortably hot minibus.
En route we made many stops both going and coming back. There were many large statues of important Kyrgyz people and animals such as the ubiquitous horse, deer and occasional snow leopard alongside the road.
Eagles were flying everywhere over this dry landscape no doubt hunting for such prey as marmot, of which we saw many and despite the almost desert like conditions there are wide river basins draining from the nearby snow-clad mountains and in spring these become torrents of meltwater.
One thing I have failed to mention and which, for me, adds to the sense of adventure is the use of the Cyrillic alphabet more or less everywhere including menus - so it can be difficult making any kind of choice. The Roman alphabet can be spotted but normally just for brand names or perhaps a few local businesses trying to seem a little less "Russian/Soviet". The use of the Cyrillic alphabet seems to run counter to physical appearance of the people and the proximity of China and of course the generally accepted Muslim faith...so instead of Arabic script (or Chinese characters) welcoming you to a mosque you are faced with a Cyrillic greeting.
Tomorrow we set off back in a generally northerly direction to our most isolated stopover yet!
Today was a twelve-hour shift in a very dusty and boneshaking minivan. I felt for the poor driver who must have been exhausted at the end of the day! (Certainly, he looked a bit bleary eyed this morning at breakfast)
However, it was another amazing day. We left Naryn around 8.00am and set off back along the main north south road and after an hour or so we turned off and drove up away from the main road along an unmade track for some 50km. The scenery was almost biblical in scale again and we reached an altitude of around 3500m at one point. Eventually we started to descend towards a distant hazy lake (Son-Kul) and the scenery slowly flattened out into a vast plain. We off-roaded for some time (at one point the poor driver lost part of his rear bumper) to a small encampment where we feasted like kings in the most gloriously colourful and traditionally built yurt...
After lunch (delicious but simple) we then watched as the girl milked their mares (a two hourly job apparently) ready to share with us the results. The freshly milked stuff was quite pleasant...the fermented variety not so.
We still had a long drive to our stopover. The main road was busy with traffic travelling to and from Bishkek and at one point the train which we'd taken a few days ago was spotted somewhere along the narrow gorge.
Eventually we turned off into the Kemin Gorge, a local beauty spot, and the road gradually narrowed as we passed through tiny hamlets while the skies darkened and a storm threatened.
The track up to our base was the worst track ever... one step too far...especially after our long day. We had to disembark to allow the driver to get up the track and we walked the last 200 yards or so. We were late arriving so after eating we trekked across in the dark to our rooms and my unflushing loo....
Good morning from Northern Kyrgyzstan after a fitful night's sleep...though it was the quietest so far...but then we are SO FAR from anywhere that isn't a great surprise...The morning dawned a little hazy and more humid than it has been. Things didn't seem as bad in the fresh morning air after a silent night.
When I saw what I'd had to negotiate to get to the room last night and then seen a herd of cattle driven up the track this morning it's amazing I didn't fall or get even more lost than I had done let alone trampled through some beast's effluent! It was also with some comfort that I found I had not been alone in the failed loo situation!
Breakfast was quite acceptable, and we didn't have to rush off at dawn which was some relief. The minibus coped much better with our descent down what was little better than a dried-up river bed than it had done making the ascent last night and we made good time on the main road.
The main objective today was to visit one of the only three ancient monuments extant in Kyrgyzstan, the Burana Tower on our way back to Bishkek. At only roughly half its original height it is still an imposing, albeit partially restored, monument. It is the only remaining building of what was once a large and prosperous city which was devasted by an earthquake centuries back. The small museum had some interesting artifacts including some Nestorian rock carvings...I really must investigate this 'Christian' sect more as the name has crept up a lot during this visit.
It wasn't the longest drive today, but we only just made it to the Osh Bazaar in Central Bishkek before heading back to base and a well-deserved cold beer and tasty evening meal.
That's it! Fin! The End. We fly out early tomorrow and are due to arrive Heathrow around 4.45 pm local time...around midnight "our" time.
What an adventure!!! Wish it could have been 14 days though with a little time somewhere just to soak up the local colour and relax.
Ffestiniog Travel returns to Kyrgyzstan in July 2023 - click here to view the tour itinerary and book online.
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