Oh how those Silk Road traders on their way between China and the softer, gentler south must have hated Kyrgistan! The awful mountains, that awful climate, those awful nomad protection racketeers squeezing them for every penny with the awful specter of disembowelment always at the end of their swords. No wonder they put their heads down and scuttled through post haste leaving nothing behind. So Kyrgistan is a tougher nut to crack than Uzbekistan: not only are there no sumptuous remains to admire and no public transport to speak of, there is also no southern-style hospitality culture. Ah yes, those fierce nomads are still here alright, unhappily housebound, their hearts still up there on horseback in the wild, wild hills.
An unwelcome sight on the Silk Road memorialized here: nomad extortionists promising safe passage for a fee.
And so, Urmat (or as he likes to refer to himself in emails Urmat!!!), who will hopefully reveal this impenetrable country to me, but who currently defines a new low in even my lax standards for research. Discovered indirectly in the bowels of the LP forum archives via an Australian lady (of about my age) who reported in 2014 that he had taken her on a nice trip, he has no verifiable internet presence. Nonetheless, we are soon planning our own 5 day adventure to include age-appropriate hiking and a visit to the last caravanserai standing, up in the Tien Shan mountains at the Chinese border.
The Tien Shan mountains, our final destination
Still, during the protracted wait for my baggage at Bishkek airport (I have elected to pass up the opportunity of a 17 hour shared taxi ride over the mountains from Osh for a mere 40 minute flight on Manas Air – the only Kyrgiz airline the British Government approves for its employees, and then only in absolute emergency) I have plenty of time to reflect on the many different ways spending 5 days in a car with someone I’ve never met could be a very poor idea.
Manas Air: It was probably most concerning when they started taking cell phone pictures of the inside of the engine.
I needn’t worry, despite his unprepossessing exterior Urmat has all the attributes necessary to make the trip a blast: He is an adept driver (even though the steering wheel on his 4 wheel drive Nissan is on the right side (as is driving in Kyrgistan) a double whammy which he confesses makes him “very frightened indeed”); an adept conversationalist (especially when bolstered by GT); a convivial joker (the first funny story he tells me, on the way from the airport, is of his 6 year old son pleading for “Minecraft” for his computer, except Urmat hears ‘Mein Kampf’. “I was very, very worried” he tells me shaking his head. Critically he is also a foodie. No wonder he has effectively cornered the market with solo ladies of a certain age.
Urmat is proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Bishkek to Cholpon Ata
We take off from Bishkek on the Chui route of the Great Silk Road, first stop the 9th C. Burana tower, the last remaining artefact from Balagasun, capital of the vanished Sogdian empire, and later capital of the Kara-Khanids, which I have been determined to see. Unfortunately it seems that when the top half fell off in an earthquake in the 15th century the locals carted away the bricks, so the Soviets couldn’t ‘restore’ its full glory. As a result it is totally underwhelming and despite a smattering of old graves and petroglyphs (any actual treasures having been hauled off long ago to St Petersburg) there is absolutely no palpable evidence of its historical importance, whatever the internet would have us believe. They don’t even charge admission. U. has clearly heard these complaints before and tactfully raises the contribution of Photoshop.
The Burana tower is most disappointing. The lure of Photoshop is obvious given the benches out front and the steps up the side.
A 5th century BCE petroglyph, but why on that rock particularly?
As a consolation we drive through Tokmok, where the notorious Tsarnaev brothers were raised. It is still home to about 1000 Chechens (none of whom are out and about). After seeing the village, it is easy to imagine the anger after failing at the American Dream.
Lake Issy Kul. No beach resort looks its best off season
We are soon circumnavigating Lake Issy Kul. Enormous and slightly saline, Issy Kul never freezes and in summer its north shore is heaving with Russians and Kazakhs all simulating a full-on beach vacation, karaoke included. This time the internet is not wrong, and its epicenter, Cholpon Ata, is indeed hideous.
Because no Soviet era beach paradise is complete without its statue of Lenin
This will be wall-to-wall sunblock in July and August
But it is out of season and everywhere for the next 200km except the optimistically named ‘Sunny Paradise’ is closed, so we are forced to check in. The unlikely rate of $6 per room is a reduction from last year when it was 10. U. hypothesizes she is being squeezed by new hotels (however the fact they are closed makes this theory less persuasive).
My $6 ‘suite’ at ‘Sunny Paradise’ wasn’t too bad apart from the all-night poker game next door.
Fortunately the local fish restaurant is open and fortunately too someone has caught some fish (not the Kyrgiz, fishing is not in nomad culture).
Superb lake fish especially with a beer. Not shown, the first of many liters of Kazakh Coca Cola, U. will polish off since he doesn’t drink alcohol at all.
Cholpon Ata to Karakol
Fortunately U. loves to drive. He especially loves to drive off piste and is never happier than when chugging up (or down) some impossible gorge at 2mph. First order of the day is therefore to circumnavigate two: Grigoryevskoe and Semyonovka – up one and down the next. There is however a small matter of the 6000+ foot pass at the top. From tire marks the one person who has been up this year also had to return – but yesterday or a month ago? Happily the shepherds hurtling towards us in a Soviet era UAZ (extreme off-road jeep) give the thumbs up: (They have been putting together their yurt camp for summer grazing; in a couple of weeks they will move their flocks up into the mountains until the fall).
The Grigoryevskoe gorge. This is the road, not beside the road.
The pass at just over 6000 feet is just round the corner and relatively free of snow
Indeed the top of the pass does have little snow, but as we start to descend it becomes clear why they were so skeptical of our tires: the road is solid mud from the snow melt, and at exactly the worst pitch. U. tells me to get out. Apparently my first hike will be to meet him at the bottom of the 4km. steep bit. He takes off, sliding from side to side, and I try not to look. Later, he explains laconically “If I drive off the mountain with you it is two problems; I always prefer to simplify”.
Fortunately the car is still on the road when I reconvene with Urmat at the flatter bit.
Unlike the Grigoryevskoe side which was jagged, stony and narrow, Semyonovka is a stupendous bowl, Wyoming on steroids.
The Semyonovka basin. One photo can’t do it justice but I haven’t figured out the pano mode. Note the summer yurt in preparation.
It will be a site of the biannual Nomad Games this fall. Surprisingly an American team competes in the goat-head polo event; less surprisingly they aren’t very good. Is it difficult to practice hitting a goats’ head around in the USA U. wonders?
The road out of the Semyonovka basin.
I have been alerted to the can’t miss experience of the rock pools beside the lake that advertise themselves as a hot spring, so I am prepared with a swimsuit, but not unfortunately with the fur coat necessary to reach them from the changing room unfrozen, nor as it turns out, with an adequate towel. Nonetheless, while U. retires to the car for a nap, I spend a pleasant hour and a half in the toasty water chatting with a Spanish/Romanian couple circumnavigating the world in a tiny camper. They are desperate to unload their horror stories of sleeping in Russia in March (-15°, ice on the inside) and to wax lyrical about Iran. Their 12 year old daughter seems decidedly less enamored of the whole enterprise
With a population of 60,000+ Karakol, tonight’s destination, is Kyrgistan’s 4th largest ‘urban’ center, and, with a 9 month season geared to both skiing and summer trekking much more prosperous than Cholpon Ata, which sees tourists only in July and August.
The wooden church in Karakol from back in the day when it was 50% Russian
The guesthouse, run by U.’s Dutch friend and his Kyrgiz wife, is a cut above. For $8 the bed and the breakfast (home – made bread and honey with the eggs) are a dream. A map in the living room confirms the major visitor demographic as Russian, Kazakh and European. Just one pin from New Jersey a few from Michigan, and mine, the first from Boston.
The view from my window at the perfectly lovely Dutch/Kyrgiz B & B.
Sadly though, no beer to go with the traditional lagman noodles at the hole in the wall dinner. Even more sadly there will be no more beer for the rest of the trip.
The best lagman noodles in Central Asia. They look like pasta but are much more chewy. Unfortunately any meat that looks like beef is usually horse.
Karakol to Kochkor
It turns out that Karakol is also the Alamanov ancestral seat, and so we make a quick detour into the wilderness to the family graveyard and U. adds another wreath of artificial flowers to his mom’s grave.
The view from the Alamanov family cemetery.
Next to a bank to transfer money to a friend whose father has just died, so he can buy a horse. When I inquire as to the ‘so’ I learn that the death requires the family sacrifice a horse for the mourners to boil and eat. On further inquiry I also learn (with a quick demonstration) that every Kyrgiz knows how to kill a horse for sacrifice. Horses being expensive U. has planned ahead – his father’s horse-to-be is already getting fat (but also old and presumably tough) in the backyard.
Funeral horses en route somewhere unpleasant
Today is to be a major hiking day, and since U. doesn’t hike and I prefer to hike alone, we should both be happy except I have failed to factor in his abiding paranoia about my well-being. Fortunately the NYM hitchhiker we have picked up and he has coerced into taking me by hand to the top of the mountain and I manage to foil that bogus plan; as soon as we are out of sight I shoo him off. Upward he scampers and luckily enough goes further than me so he can rejoin me on the descent in the nick of time; and so we emerge innocently together into U.’s line of sight (albeit not hand in hand).
Some age-appropriate hiking after I ditch the millenial
On the descent the millenial forces a photo just as it is starting to snow. I am wearing 7 layers, unfortunately the 8th, waterproof, one is 3000 feet below where Urmat said I wouldn’t need it.
The second hike of the day couldn’t have been more different even apart from the weather: the south side of Issy Kul.
Urmat allows me to do it without an escort but forces me to take my mac.
Tonight we must stay part way into the high mountains. Unsurprisingly Kochkor village, pop. about 100, has no guesthouses. Fortunately U. has a favorite homestay with a grandma who unusually for a nomad will be both cheerful and friendly. But no! disaster has struck! Number 1 son, an erstwhile policeman has been arrested for corruption and fled to Russia. In order to pay the massive bribe that will allow him to return unmolested Grandma has had to sell all their worldly goods, and in spite has also turned off the heat and canceled the internet, much to her grand-daughter’s distress (with reason: her ambition is to earn a Presidential scholarship so she can study at the American University for free then escape to the States, neither of which can be accomplished without web access).
Mean grandma cut off the heating and the internet
The living room, like the rest of the house, was absolutely freezing, I was too cold to take a picture of my bedroom.
The saga continues at the only restaurant where we must eat dinner. I am struggling to cut up my chicken breast with a spoon (knives are not a restaurant feature, presumably for obvious reasons) when the waitress rushes over and cuts it up for me so energetically that the macaroni and cheese I hadn’t ordered (I had actually asked for black rice) shoots off the plate and onto the plastic tablecloth. No worries! She scoops it back immediately. U. is outraged and berates the hapless staff about how they will need to up their service game if they want to attract tourists or even other customers (apart from us the restaurant is empty). The staff are puzzled by both concepts and later as they all sit down to polish off the massive amount of food that hasn’t sold today, we see why.
At night I pile my bed with every blanket I can find, but it is still too cold to sleep well. I give granny $10 to pay for the internet as well as my room but U. wields GT for the Russian equivalent of ‘good luck with that’ (he speaks Russian much better than Kyrgi). The American University has 20 free places a year, a success rate of 0.0001%.
The American University in Bishkek. Tuition is $6000 per semester so only the very rich can afford it.
Kochkor to Tash Rabat.
On our final day we will drive quite far up into the Tien Shan mountains almost to the Chinese border. But what a surprise! We pull out of Kochkor and the China tributary to the Ferganian route of the Great Silk Road has been well and truly one belted. Seriously, this road into the bowels of China is the very best I have seen in all Central Asia and the trucks plying it assiduously show the 21st century Silk Road is alive and well.
One belt one road
Predictably U. hates it and determines to approach our target Caravanserai the back way, no doubt up horrible craggy gorges, over heart-stopping river passages and through snow enrobed passes. Fortunately or not today’s complement of jailoo shepherds, already beginning to move their flocks upwards, firmly nix the idea; the pass is still too full of snow.
Of course Urmat finds us a suitably hair-raising alternative
The jailoo shepherds are having none of it and turn us back.
U. sadly turns the car round and once back on the dream road to China suggests hopefully that I surely must want to drive for a change.
On the dream road to China through the Tien Shan valley
But the caravanserai, about 15 km up a side road, lives up to expectations. U., a Game of Thrones fanatic, insists I send a picture captioned Westhill Castle or something to Jim (I proudly treasure being the only person in America who has never watched Game of Thrones, so I willfully forget the name and don’t, to his bitter disapproval).
En route to the caravanserai
The photo I refused to send to Jim. What’s the name of that castle again?
Probably a better view
Originally an early Christian church it morphed to a travelers’ stopover and then to a winter sheep barn where over the years the shit hit shoulder height. It has been cleaned up now, but not attracting visitors today.
The caravanserai was originally an ancient church
The accommodations rival last night’s effort in Kolchor
There’s always a prison
Note the stone that rolls on top with the neat little hole for food and drink
U. permits me to walk back through the gorge alone provided I take my hiking pole in the unlikely eventuality there will be dogs. “It would make me feel better” he wheedles plaintively.
Of course there aren’t any dogs but I do meet a frantic shepherd on horseback who has lost his yaks. Fortunately I have spotted them further up and therefore save his job, or more probably his life.
The shepherd brings his kid for a photo-op and meanwhile loses his yaks.
Fortunately a herd of yaks are hard to actually lose.
In Naryn our destination for the night, U. (no doubt feeling guilty about last night’s accommodations) insists we spring an extra $2 for a real hotel with en suite bathrooms and shower curtains (no heat, however they do supply space heaters which is clearly a false economy since they are quite full).
A celebratory goat dinner for a job well done. The guys in the back room are drinking vodka.
It was delicious. Note the knife (but still no beer for me).
Naryn to the Kazakh border
Our last day en route to the Kazakh border passes uneventfully except for that second speeding ticket (130km/hr in a 90km/hr zone). Unlike the first one, which could be palmed off with the standard 100 som (10c) ‘consideration’ this time U. comes back with an official form that promises he will be arrested if he doesn’t pay a more substantial fine within a week. Evidently in each 5 hour shift the police work 4 ½ hours ‘for themselves’ and only ½ hour for the government, so it all comes down to bad timing. “You asked me how corruption can be stopped” he says philosophically “This is how. If I break the law, make me pay the government”. He shrugs. We have been round this issue of deep-seated corruption many times. Tellingly the problem is compounded because Kyrgistan is a functioning democracy. A strong man ‘reformer’ like those who did the trick in Kazakhstan and now in Uzbekistan is not in the cards.
Finally blue sky, but on the way to the border
The trip comes to an end. Over the last 5 days we have talked about: Nomad culture ( a lot); Kyrgi politics and corruption (a lot); sheep husbandry (a lot but we do have a mutual interest); socialism and the end of capitalism; Syria; the Rohinga; #Me Too; Black Lives matter; child rearing; our families; religion in the 21st century; the geopolitical alignments of Central Asia; and many movie-related topics including whether Eddy Redmayne is the legitimate successor to Daniel Day Lewis. I have taught Urmat several useful words like ‘hangry’ and ‘high maintenance’. He has taught me some poetic Russian phrases like ‘so many winters, so many summers’ (said when meeting an old friend after some time) that I may find less useful. When we have got fed up talking we have listened to his music that besides Kyrgiz pop (which isn’t bad) includes Motown, Sinatra, Irish step dance and once, surprisingly, ‘Hava Nagila’. We have agreed much more than disagreed except we have failed to find common ground on the subtle yet important difference between ‘horrible’ and terrible’. Without Urmat, Kyrgistan would have made no sense at all. At the border we promise to keep in touch and I refuse to promise to watch Game of Thrones. Then we part with a handshake, but although he grasps my hand with both of his there is no bear hug; honorable Kyrgi men will never touch a woman other than their wives.
On to Iran
A hop, skip and a jump and I am back in Almaty. In my absence the Iranian embassy has undergone an upgrade. The doors are locked tight and I am ogled by several cameras before being pinged in. The ugly plastic-covered furniture has been changed out for ugly non-plastic covered furniture and instead of a 1950s slide show the TV is playing the English version of ‘This Old House’ dubbed in Farsi. The only other person waiting is a Kazakh government lawyer, who presses his business card on me while fervently hoping I won’t need it. But Dr. Jekyll has run out of options and he knows it. “Have a nice trip” he intones reading from his “How to appear human” training booklet (according to the Iranians from Samarkand this actually exists) as he passes back my passport, knowing there is nothing he can do to stop it.