Kyrgyzstan Sept 30-Oct 6, Oct 19-24, Nov 17-20
Kyrgyzstan is defined by its topography: unspoiled mountainscapes, stark craggy ridges and rolling summer pastures inhabited by semi-nomadic, yurt-dwelling shepherd cultures. It is famous for yurts, hats and horsemen. With a network of homestays and visa-free travel, it has become the gateway for Western travellers to Central Asia. The vast majority of attractions are rural and high altitude so the timing of ones visit is crucial. Summer is ideal with hikes and roads generally accessible. Midsummer sees tourists verge on the beaches of never-freezing Lake Issyk-Kol. From October to May, most rural accommodation closes down and the yurts stashed away. I arrived on September 30.
Independence from Russia occurred in 1991.
Area. 198,500 sq km
Population. 5.6 million.
Languages. Kyrgyz, Russian.
Visas. At least 60 nationalities can visit Kyrgyzstan without visas, including Korea, Japan, most Western countries and former Soviet countries.
Money. Som: On September 30 2015, the exchange rate was 69som to the $US. Money-changers seem to be every second business and are competitive. This reflects the rapidly devaluing currency. My Lonely Planet was published in May 2014 and the som was worth 49 to the $US.
On the plane from Urumqi, I sat next to a very nice Kyrgyz man who works for the municipal government in Osh. The flight over the Pamirs had great clear views of Kyrgyzstan’s rugged landscape (the country is 90% mountains). Joldubek took the bus the 30km from the airport with me. We had a long discussion about belief in God. He is sure God exits and is confident if he could speak good enough English, he could prove it to me. He believes he will go to Paradise and cannot understand atheism. Terrorists and ISIS are not Muslims. I am sure to call him when I am in Osh.
I then took a minibus (very crowded, no head room) and then walked 3 blocks to my hostel. It always amazes me when people take a taxi – so sterile an experience and 10x the cost. I love figuring things out, taking city buses, trying to decipher Cyrillic, interacting with the locals – always way more fun despite being more complicated (total cost of transportation to hostel from airport 90¢, taxi $7.
Bishkek (pop 900,000; elev 800m)
Green and bustling but short on sites, Bishkek is most useful as a comfortable place to pick up visas while planning your Central Asia adventure. With forgettable architecture, it is located on a huge flat plain, with the Ala-Too mountains creating a grand backdrop only clear days.
History. It was founded in 1878 on the site of Russian garrison and before that a small 1826 fortress. The name is probably derived from a term meaning “below the mountains”, but is also the Kyrgyz term for a plunger-equipped churn. From 1926-1991, the city’s Soviet name was Frunze.
My experience in Kyrgyzstan has already been positive: access to Gmail, Google and all the rest, food I recognize and nice people. I stayed at NomaD Hostel, a great new hostel with few guests this time of year. The bathrooms are particularly welcome: good plumbing, a proper enclosed shower that is spotless, a soap dispenser and towel by the sink, hot water in the sink (nice for shaving), spotless floors, a fan. There are only two guests and we are each alone in 12-bed dorms. I slept with an open window and nobody complaining.
Kyrgyzstan is 95% Muslim and 5% Russian, but Bishkek has a much larger percentage of Russians. They look just like me – light hair, fair skin and blue-eyed – so I no longer stand out and walk around incognito. The locals wear none of the trappings of Islam here – no little square hats, no head-scarves and completely Western dress. I also hear no calls for prayer.
There are virtually no tourist sites in Bishkek, so I decided to leave after one night and head east to travel around the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kol to Karakol on the far eastern end. I got a minibus (10som) all the way to the West Bus Station and in 2 minutes had a seat in a minibus for the 6-hour drive (500som). It was nice that the driver spoke a little English but noon of the other 6 passengers did. There was a young couple with a baby who insisted on keeping the windows closed in the hot, stuffy van over some fears for the baby.
Lake Issyk-Kol. More than 170km long and 70km across, this is the world’s second-largest alpine lake after Lake Titicaca in South America. The name means ‘hot lake’, somewhat of an exaggeration. A combination of extreme depth, thermal activity and mild salinity ensures the lake never freezes, even in the fierce winters, despite being at 1600m. Its temperate waters create a mild microclimate that attract Kyrgys, Kasakh and Russian tourists, but the foreshores are often rather mucky with rubbish. The main attraction for Western tourists is the accessible mountain hiking especially in the Tian Shan Mountains to the south. The most popular routes are between the valleys south of Karakol.
Originally a center of Saka (Scythian civilization), the Kyrgyz people arrived in the 10th to 15th centuries and remained nomadic till the 1870s. There are at least 10 documented settlements currently under the lake, the level of which has dropped about 2m in the last 500 years. Karakol was established in 1869 and other settlements soon followed. Muslim Uighurs and Dungans arrived from China in the 1880s following the suppression of Muslim uprisings there. In USSR times, health spas dotted the shorelines. Before the 1970s, vast officially sanctioned plantations of opium poppies and cannabis surrounded the lake. The Soviet navy used the lake to test high-precision torpedoes from a military-research complex near Karakol. Tourism crashed with the Soviet Union but has revived in the last decade due to an influx of moneyed Kazakh tourists and Russian athletes who like the mild climate and high altitude as a winter training zone.
Karakol (pop 75,000)
With few sites, it is a good base for Central Asia’s best skiing and alpine hikes. I elected to stay at the Yak Tours Hostel that was delightfully described in the Lonely Planet and close to where the minibus dropped me off. A great deal at 350som, it is an old house and I had a hard time turning the old guy down as it was pretty run-down and not used much by tourists anymore (no hot water, few working lights, a continuously running toilet, no kettle) but it suited me fine for one night. My tiny room was very quaint: painted trunk and chest, wood bed and 9-old-fashioned needlepoints. I moved the next day to Teskey Guest House (650som including breakfast of porridge) run by a nice guy with good English and good knowledge of the trekking. But he is so obsessive about his facility that he can drive you a little crazy. He encouraged me to do the 3-day trek up the Karakol Valley, then over the 3850m Ala-Kol Pass and then down the Arashan Valley even though there was no accommodation at the top of Karakol and I had no tent. The snow on the pass was mid-shin and I had no gaiters.
I wandered around Karakol to see the Dungan Mosque (the only one of 9 mosques to have survived the Bolsheviks, it looks like a Mongolian Buddhist temple with a tip-tilted wooden roof, carved-layered eaves and wooden exterior pillars – 29som) and the Holy Trinity Cathedral (the 1872 stone original was destroyed by the 1890 earthquake and replaced by the present wood structure with its five onion-domes). Karakol itself is not very pretty with its Soviet-style apartments, shipping container malls, dusty pot-holed streets and poor sidewalks. I ate great food though at Lovely Pizza and the Kench Cafe.
So I did the most popular trek into the mountains up Altyn Arashan – 14km on a rough 4WD track and 1000m elevation gain. I took Bus 350 to Ak-Suu and got off before the turnoff to the Sanatorium. On the way up, I was passed by two 4WDs and two huge 25-passenger buses full of people. Most get a ride up but these buses were day trips only. The gradual slope made for easy walking and I was up in 4 hours at a steady pace. The “road” follows a pretty river all the way. Several hostels lie in a broad deep valley and I stayed at Yak Tours run by the affable Valentin (600som for room, dinner and breakfast). There were two Russian fellows who kept the vodka flowing and I drank more than I have for a long time. The valley is so popular as there are many hot springs here. I enjoyed a great 2-hour soak in the one of the four ‘tubs’ downstream from the hostel the next day with a nice Finnish woman. It is an easy 2-hour walk up the flat valley to some lakes that continue on up over the pass. The views of the mountains are stunning. I then walked out with a Hungarian man and the two Finnish women in 3½ hours and returned to Teskey Hostel for the night.
I returned to Bishkek and the NomaD Hostel on October 19. The bus from Kazakhstan let me off one block away. Bishkek has virtually nothing touristic to do or see and I was primarily here to get my Tajikistan visa. I applied at 11am and obtained it back after 3pm the next day. Apparently it is possible to get it the same day if you apply at 9am when they open. The embassy looks like a normal house in a residential neighborhood suburb quite far from anywhere in southeast Bishkek. I walked there and back (50 minutes one way from NomaD). Cost was US$55 with a free GBAO permit.
There is good trekking to the south of Bishkek in the Kyrgyz-Alatoo Mountains.
With two young guys we went to a great bar, the Munchen, on the fifth floor of a building one block from the hostel two nights in a row. Beer (60som for a large glass) and cocktails (150som) were very cheap. We shared a shisha both nights. It was very enjoyable company.
I had warm flip-flop days in Bishkek. In the clear, sunny days, the rugged, snow-capped Kyrgyz Alatoo Mountains framed the southern skyline.
Bishkek to Osh. On October 21, I caught a share taxi for the 10-hour ride to Osh. There are no buses or mini-vans to Osh. Go before 8am to the southwest corner of the Osh Bazaar and you will be actively hustled. There is no need to go the day before to arrange. It was very comfortable in a Honda van with only 2 on each bench. Flights are available for little money ($25) but the scenery was so spectacular, that I would encourage the drive. Even after the country flattens out, there is always an interesting view out the window.
After an initial flat area heading west, we entered a rocky gorge and climbed over 3586m Tor-Ashuu Pass with significant snow on the ground (a 2.6km tunnel here was the scene of a 2001 fatal carbon monoxide poisoning disaster involving cyclists), then a big decent to the yawning Sousamyr Basin, a classic example of Kyrgyz herding country. Then climb over 3184m Ala-Bel Pass again with nice rugged mountains and great views. The descent is into a beautiful valley that’s part of the Chychkan State Zoological Reserve. The route is now in the headwaters of the gorgeous Naryn River, which has at least 4 dams on it creating several reservoirs that we passed. The road loops around the vast Toktogul Reservoir before reaching Kara-Kol, where the first 210m high dam is (invisible from the road). We had a late lunch here (2 cups of coffee, 2 hard-boiled eggs and a bun were 90¢). The river is a fantastic turquoise/green showing its glacial source. The gorge of the Naryn has sheer eroded walls and towering pillars of red sandstone. Several times we waited for herds of animals blocking the road. The country flattens but passes several towns, dry grassy hills, and fields of maize and stacked hay, horses, cows, sheep and donkeys. Fall colors were just beginning to turn – it was all quite lovely. Arsianbob would have been a worthwhile detour that I didn’t take. An elevated ‘oasis’ town surrounded by an impressive wall of snow-sprinkled crags, the town is surrounded by a vast tract of woodland, the world’s largest walnut grove. The grove’s seed nuts were apparently a miraculous gift from the Prophet Mohammad to a modest gardener who he had charged with finding paradise on earth. Ozgon has a historic minaret and a three-in-one 12th century brick mausoleum complex.
In the share vehicle was an older man wearing the classic embroidered, white, felt, high cone-head hat (it also has an upturned brim, is quite an unusual hat but not uncommon). At every Muslim prayer time, he took off the cone hat and under had a Muslim skullcap and proceeded to do his ablutions.
In Osh on my first night, I stayed at the Hotel Alay, a real armpit of a place – one share bathroom for 40 rooms, no toilet seats, tiny bare rooms, no wi-fi, and like most hotels, no common area to meet other travellers. I moved the next day to Osh Guesthouse. It was severely slagged by Lonely Planet, but I don’t understand why. It was one of the better hostels I have stayed in.
I went out to eat at a fast food place. About 20 young Indians were the other customers. Just like in India, all the guys came up to me, shook hands and wanted to talk. Which country? etc. They were all medical students studying here as the tuition is cheap – $3,000 per year instead of $10,000 in India. They all lived above the fast food place. One guy complained about being recurrently beaten up and robbed at night by Kyrgyz guys.
Some observations about fellow travellers.
I hung out for a while with a 30-something Dutch couple traveling for a year. They had started in Sri Lanka but did not see one of the seven excellent Unesco World Heritage Sites. They didn’t climb Adam’s Peak as she wasn’t in good enough shape to walk more than 2kms, no less something that went uphill. When in Dunhuang China, they didn’t go to Mogao Caves, one of the best Buddhist sites in the world because of the cost, but instead went to the sand dunes (basically an amusement park with a mud-hole called Crescent Lake; it was the one place I didn’t go to). As far as I could tell, of all the countries they went to, they missed everything worthwhile. Like many couples, they also did not meet many other travellers or have a lot of authentic interactions with locals. Admittedly, we all have different tastes. The point is that an awful lot of travellers don’t have enough money to see the good things. They may have visited 15 countries but what did they really see?
There is a single Japanese woman in our hostel. She talks to no one, and when talked to can barely have a conversation. She is like almost all Japanese tourists I see, not socially outgoing. I always wonder what their travel experiences are. I can’t figure it out.
This week I have met two amazing travellers both with an end point in Australia and both determined not to fly: a German fellow cycling from Germany and a Swedish woman cycling from Sweden. Both are alone. They certainly see an amazing amount of road, but I also wonder what they miss. Because of their transportation style, they tend to move in pretty straight lines through countries. They certainly are in wonderful physical condition. The Swedish woman had fallen from her bike, fractured a bone in her foot on the 4200m pass between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and was flying home to recover before returning next spring to finish her journey, but to go a different way (through Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan) this time. Kazakhstan must be the most boring country in the world to cycle – thousands of kilometers of absolutely nothing. Even the German guy finally took the train.
One of the most incredible travellers in the world appeared at Osh GuestHouse last night. Rhys is a 25-year old Australian who has been traveling continuously for the last 5 years. He worked hard at a good job after high school, lived cheaply and saved. Now approaching 100 countries (he doesn’t really keep track and doesn’t blog), he travels as close to the ground as is possible. He travels almost only by hitchhiking and camps almost all the time – he calls it “stealth camping” – in old buildings and roof-tops and in obscure woods and bush (parks have too many people and dangers) using a bivy sac and small tarp. With no tent he is practically invisible. He carries a phone, laptop and small SLR camera and is an active photographer. Hitchhiking is safe the vast majority of the time, but he has had a few near-death experiences from weirdos. In Mongolia he was beaten up and tortured. In Jamaica he was captured by a gang, had everything stolen but his passport and credit card, and escaped twice with the benevolent help of a young woman or otherwise would now be dead. Understandably his expenses are minimal. Even with occasional expensive flights, he averages less than US$10 per day! So despite having minimal income, he believes he can travel for 7 years in his style.
He traveled from Osh with an American/British couple driving around the world in a Honda Hiax. Starting in England, their plan from here was to go through Russia to Vladivostok, take a ferry to South Korea, Japan and eventually drive through Australia and end up in the United States. An insurmountable hurdle is Russia – a tourist visa is impossible and the 10-day transit visa stipulates that they can’t travel more than 550kms per day, but Vladivostok is 6500 kms from the Mongolian border. Una problema.
Just past the Tajikistan border, we passed an English couple cycling from New Zealand back to England (via Australia, Timor Leste, Indonesia, SE Asia, China, Almaty Kazakhstan, Bishkek and Osh. It had taken them a week to get to where it had taken me 5 hours. The road was compact snow on rough dirt/gravel. Wow, the people traveling in this part of the world are incredible. I am embarrassed to tell them about minimalist adventures and say nothing.
Even though I met this couple in Tajikistan past Murgab, I will include it here. After our vehicle had broken down for the second time, I was standing on the road and another couple of cyclists passed by. An Australian couple, they had started their trip in Bangalore, India, went north through Gugarat, Rashastan and the Punjab to cross into Pakistan at Amritsar (famous for the changing of the guard at the border). Then they cycled all the way through Pakistan and then out the Karakarom Highway to Kashgar, China, then via Irkeshatam to Sary Tash and into Tajikistan. Unable to find a guesthouse, they had slept out and were on their way to Dushanbe. Because of visa issues, they were uncertain where they would end up.
The most amazing travellers in the world are all in Central Asia (very similar to the bunch in Mongolia when I was there)!
Osh to the Tajikistan border. I was outside the usual tourist season. Despite having a post on the share ride forum in caravanistan.com (the most incredible web site covering Central Asia and indispensable to figure out visas and travel info), I had no replies. The 450km trip all the way to Murgab takes 9 hours going over several passes. It had rained heavily on October 22 in Osh and all fell as snow over almost the entire route. I could have arranged minibuses and shared 4WDs from Osh but organizing seemed a challenge, so I simply booked my own vehicle through Osh Guest House. Alone, it cost US$195 (discounted from $225 as it was off-season).
On a gorgeous sunny day, we started late as he had to put on snow tires and fill drums of gas. It wasn’t far out of Osh before we hit snow driving along the Gulcha River and the landscape was entirely white for virtually the entire trip. Before Taldyk Pass (3614m), the road became covered with ice and compact snow. Rugged, craggy peaks flanked the road. Big trucks had chains on, vehicles with summer tires slithered around or were parked and highway workers were shovelling dirt and gravel from small piles lining the road. Many trucks carrying coal passed us going the other way. At another 3550 pass, views were huge down to a wide east-west valley and the dazzling Pamir Alay Mountain Range on the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan border. The road descended to Saray Tash.
Saray Tash. Just before the Tajikistan border, this tiny village sits on a major crossroads: west to the tongue of Kyrgyzstan that juts into Uzbekistan, 74kms east to Irkeshtam on the Chinese border and Kashgar beyond and south to the Pamirs and Tajikistan. Saray Tash has some homestays and a trucker’s café where we had lunch. We drove 25kms west to Sary-Mogol and views of 7134m Peak Lenin astride the border, the cheapest and easiest 7,000m peak to climb in the world. The mountain holds the sad record for the world’s worst mountaineering disaster, when in 1991, an earthquake-triggered avalanche obliterated Camp II on the approach killing 43 climbers.
Heading south, the potholed pavement degenerated to gravel before Bordobo at the Kyrgyz border post at the base of the mountains. Border formalities were routine. The guard said their tiny friendly cocker spaniel was a marijuana spaniel. It was then 20km further on a single lane dirt track to 4282m Kyzyl-Art Pass and the true border. Snow was minimal and road basically clear. A great statue of a Marco Polo sheep with huge curved horns is at the pass. Just beyond was the Tajikistan border post.
Kyrgyzstan – Nov 17-20
Back in Kyrgyzstan for the third time. I arrived at the Uzbekistan/Kyrgyzstan border at 9:30pm, Uzbekistan time (10:30pm Kyrgyzstan time), 1½ hours after the border had closed and with 2½ hours left on my Uzbekistan visa. I had heard horror stories about overstaying your Uzbekistan visa (jail, huge fines, deportation and inability to return to Uzbekistan for 10 years – this latter would have been fine, the others not). The place was dark and deserted and in the middle of nowhere. The taxi driver had pointed out a hotel 500m away but it didn’t look open.
I approached the gate and then walked away. A flashlight appeared so I returned and showed the soldier with his AK47 my almost-to-expire visa. We made the joke about my first name which I always say Ronaldo – everyone knows Christiano Ronaldo. He called his boss and eventually opened the gate and took me to customs where the whole team had assembled. I filled out the form and showed him my carefully collected hotel registration forms which he ignored. After a complete search of my bags including many files on my computer, they gave me a stamp. They were very courteous and pleasant.
The we went to the locked Kyrgyzstan border in the 100m wide ‘no-mans-land’ and shouted and shone his flashlight. The soldier left and I waited for the Kyrgyz guard. The big fat guy kept asking about money. At the border check point, the guy was very pissed off “You must never do this again. You wake me up. Do you have a present?” Not wanting to part with any of my dwindling cash, I gave him a large piece of turquoise I had bought in Tibet (probably fake, I did not really want it anyway and it was just dead weight in my pack). I told him I had paid $20 for it. He took it, gave me my passport stamp and I was in Kyrgyzstan! I am feeling lucky today.
There was even a car at the border gate. He extorted $7 out of me to drive the 5kms into Osh. When I walked to Osh Guest House (a great hostel), the streets were packed, women and babies were standing around at midnight. There had been an earthquake (which must have happened in the taxi) and everyone was out of their houses. It took until 2am to get into the hostel and I fell asleep as soon as I put my head down.
The only real negative of the day is that I had received my Turkmenistan visa at noon on the 17th (15 days to get a 5-day transit visa!) and I was 1000kms from my entry point back in Tashkent. There was a flight back to Nukus but it arrived at 8pm and the border closed at daylight. So I had to give up on my hope of seeing all the ‘stans’. I doubt if I had enough money to see Turkmenistan anyway.
I had a great day in the guesthouse playing bridge, answering emails and writing nasty letters to MasterCard and Visa who had been anything but helpful after at least 4 hours on Skype trying to sort out my problems of having no debit cards and only one credit card that did not have a pin. It helps to get things off your chest.
I booked flights to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and from there to Dubai via Astana Kazakhstan and got my son in San Francisco to wire $400 to Dubai via Western Union. He is such a nice reliable kid.
I had forgot to change the time on my watch and got up late for my 9:10 flight but made it with 75 minutes to spare. They had no record of my flight!! It had apparently been cancelled even though I had a confirmation email. The Osh airport had wi-fi (very slow) and I tried to book the flight. Eventually after 30 minutes of trying the agent was able to go online and do the booking on their computer.
Traveling independently has many rewards, but sometimes it would be nice to have everything looked after for you.
So I am back in Bishkek for the third time, staying at NomaD Hostel again. The 30km ride into Bishkek from the airport cost 40som (60cents), on orf the best deals out there. I decided to phone Air Astana to confirm my flights to Dubai on November 20th. The flight didn’t exist!! I contacted Tripsta.com to see what had happened – the flight had been cancelled and I had not been contacted. So I went back on line, rebooked the flight, this time for $75 less, called Tripsta and got the new flight. Use checkmyflight.com to confirm bookings – simply enter your flight code and last name.