Out of the wilderness

So is Kyrgyzstan “the New Zealand of Central Asia”?  Well, that’s what it has been called by Emma, Odyssey Overland’s newest crew member who joined us on our first day in Kyrgyzstan fresh from being a tour guide in New Zealand, so who were we to argue?  The stunning mountains, lakes and rivers and wide open spaces that we have been enjoying while here have certainly impressed and provided a complete change from our time in China.  

But first, we had to get into Kyrgyzstan.  While it is considerably easier to leave China than to get into China, it still takes a whole day as there are 5 checkpoints in total, 3 on the China side and 2 on the Kyrgyzstan side, and at times you can drive for hours in between them.  With bags only needing to be taken off once, no food confiscated and most of the paperwork handled by the local guides, it was a straightforward day, the most difficult part was having to say goodbye to Sophie, our fabulous local guide who has been with us since we entered China on the previous expedition at the end of July.  

Crossing the Torugart Pass, the murky skies cleared, and the sun came out to welcome us to our second country of this expedition.  Just across the border we headed to a yurt camp near the 15th century Tash Rabat Caravanserai where horse riding, hiking in the hills and visiting the Caravanserai kept us busy for a couple of days.  Our hosts, Yuri and Rafael and “the Cook” provided much amusement and hospitality during our stay, not to mention education for Pete and Pat during their trip to the sauna with Yuri, which he insisted was an essential part of understanding Kyrgyzstan.  Some details have emerged, but it seems what goes on in the sauna, stays in the sauna…

Heading down from the lofty 3,500m heights of Tash Rabat, we stopped briefly in Naryn before heading a homestay in Kochkor for a well-earned shower. Our hosts again impressed with their hospitality, providing us with a delicious dinner and breakfast.  Kochkor’s market provided the crew with the chance to resupply for our upcoming bushcamps – rather successfully, as yak curry, roast lamb and barbequed duck would all be on the menu.  Meanwhile, the group headed to a local women’s co-operative felting workshop for an interactive demonstration, and a spot of shopping for the upcoming fancy-dress party.

Suitably restocked, we took to the hills once more, our destination being one of Odyssey’s favourite places in Kyrgyzstan (although there are quite a few contenders!), the Diety Orgus (or Jeti Oguz or Djety Oguz) gorge.  Our arrival into the gorge coincided with a rather impressive storm, which swirled around us, fortunately threatening more than it delivered.  By the time we were eating dinner, the wind had abated, and we were treated to stunning clear weather for the rest of our time in the gorge.  It is a walker’s paradise, most of the group made the 3-hour-ish return trip to the waterfall, while others headed off, packed lunch in hand, to scale the heights and bag their own peaks.  Relaxing in the camp was enough for others and the glorious sunshine and warm daytime temperatures made this a pretty attractive option!  A bit of a truck clean, making use of the water rushing down the river, and more sitting and contemplating, and it was a very relaxed group who boarded Penelope on our final morning to head down and out of the gorge.  The “7 bulls” (red sandstone cliffs) that “guard” the entrance to the gorge were out in all their glory for our drive down, a quick walk to the top of the hill provided the best views.

Our guesthouse in Karakol provided another friendly welcome, but sadly the town was water-free due to ongoing maintenance works, so our showers had to wait!  An afternoon to wander town, or to relax in the lovely homestay; we are continuing to enjoy a really relaxed pace of travel here in Kyrgyzstan, it seems only fitting given the relaxed feel of the country itself.  We headed into town for dinner, where beef stroganoff was a hit, the most popular dish on the menu and a delicious choice!A good night’s sleep followed (hooray!) by a hot shower, we were all set and ready to head off on our next adventure.  Penelope would stay behind for this one; we instead loaded up into what can only be described as Russian monster trucks, for the trip up to Altyn Arashan, a new destination for Odyssey.  At first, the road seemed almost disappointing and we were struggling to see the need for the monster trucks.  But soon it became clear.  This was no Penelope-friendly road.  In fact, in places, this was no road at all!  Bouncing over rocks, climbing impossible angles, whooshing through mud holes…  pretty much the most fun you can have sitting down!  Pete in particular was like a kid in a candy store, Kirsten choosing to ignore his continuous claims that he “needed” a Russian monster truck himself!

Arriving at the top we found ourselves at a simple mountain refuge, beds were claimed, the kitchen was set up, and the walkers amongst us headed off into the hills.  Hot springs were a particular favourite of Tom’s, a resident of the US Virgin Islands, it provided the warmth and humidity he had been missing, although we did fear at one stage that he was going to turn into a human lobster!  Carbonara pasta for dinner warmed us all, the mulled wine may have also had something to do with the festive spirits and Frank and his guitar once again provided a fantastic sound track to the evening.

Snug in our beds, most of us waited until the sun rose to rise ourselves, and hearty porridge warmed us from the inside before the sun hit its full strength and we were once again stripping off our layers down to t-shirts!  Back into the Russian trucks, and we headed downhill, returning to Penelope, and to Rob who had stayed behind in an attempt to shake a persistent stomach bug (he insists that rumours of the arrival of two Swiss women at the homestay had nothing to do with his decision, but it seems an uncanny coincidence…)

From Karakol we headed to the shores of Lake Issyk Kul.  This is the second largest alpine lake in the world (after Lake Titicaca in South America), sitting at around 1,600m above sea level.  With a length of 170km, and a width of 30km, there is plenty of shoreline to choose from.  As we meandered along the lakeshore, at around the time for setting up camp, we headed off the main road and started bumping down a small track.  The first fork took us straight to a house, so a swift reverse and then we took the other fork which wound us around and ultimately into a beautiful grove of trees, about 100m from the lake.  By now, we are all a well-oiled machine, camp set up takes no more than 15 minutes or so, and then it is time to relax.  Gin club met on the beach, the brave headed into the water for a swim, others chopped up firewood for the evening’s campfire, and we enjoyed spectacular views over the lake and to the snow capped mountains opposite.

The clear skies and still conditions remained through the night and into the next morning, giving many of the ladies the perfect excuse to hit the beach for a Pilates session, followed by a voluntary compulsory dip in the lake.  Walks along the beach, a casual breakfast, and a cooked lunch, then we packed up camp and headed further along the lake in search of another lovely spot. Given how much we had all enjoyed our first lake-side camp, our next camp had a lot to live up to, but the overlanding gods were on our side, as we headed off down another small track a couple of hours later and found ourselves a private beach.  A great setting for a party, so time to don those fancy dress outfits that we had all been accumulating in the markets, grab a glass of punch and a handful of popcorn, and dance around the campfire.  The outfits, well, I’ll let the pictures tell the story!  Special credit goes to Rob (he’s an icicle before you guess otherwise), and Pat (there is only one picture, and it’s blurry, but his outfit involved a dip in the lake and then running through camp dressed only in beige underwear while hitting himself on the back with dried branches, giving us another glimpse into the mystery of his and Pete’s sauna experience in Tash Rabat!)

A stunning sunrise greeted us on Julie’s birthday, and we broke camp earlier than we have for a while to head to the Chu River for a spot of white water rafting.  At this time of year, water levels are quite low and the rapids more gentle than at other times of year which suited most just fine, especially those (including Lyn, Julie & Bev) who had never rafted before.  Under stunning clear blue skies, surrounded by beautiful scenery, and floating down on glacial blue water, it was a pretty nice way to spend the morning and we enjoyed the opportunity to experience Kyrgyzstan’s natural attractions in a different way.

After our time in the mountains, a hot shower, long overdue laundry service, wifi, Russian department stores and the Osh Bazaar, statues and monuments, art galleries, hamburgers and French restaurants awaited us in Bishkek.  Unlike the cities we had visited in China, Kyrgyzstan’s capital feels more like a country town, with a few bigger buildings being the only evidence of the city’s importance.  It is a great place to wander around, or sit in a streetside café on the main avenue, Chuy, and watch the world (and dignitaries in convoys of blacked out armoured cars) go past.

One admin task that had to be done while we were in Bishkek was to obtain Uzbekistan visas for most of the group who hadn’t been able to obtain them pre-departure.  Unlike the 10+ day processing time that the embassy in London frequently adheres to, we were in and out within 15 minutes, with instructions to return at 3pm to collect them, another 15 minute process.  Easy peasy, which is always a relief when dealing with the visas for this part of the world which can at times be complicated and difficult to obtain.Goodbye city time, hello mountains again.  Stunning scenery surrounded us once again as we headed first west then south through the Kyrgyz and Ala-Too ranges, around the beautiful Toktogul lake and found a nice bushcamp on the edge of a river with stunning glacial blue water.  As a delicious lasagne was prepared for dinner, the weather closed in, even Mike’s barometer couldn’t help us this time, the rain started, and while it was never torrential, in combination with the cold wind it was enough to send everyone scurrying to bed earlier than normal.

Fortunately the next morning, normal service had returned, and we awoke to clear skies.  Another stunning drive through mountains as we wound our way around the Uzbekistan border at times no more than 10 metres from Uzbekistan, but these borders aren’t open to foreigners (or even local cars in some instances), so our journey continues and we continue to enjoy our last days in this fantastic country before we cross into Uzbekistan.

Next stop – Arslanbob, home to the world’s largest walnut grove.  We stayed in homestays dotted around the village, and enjoyed a great jeep ride up into the walnut grove where it was harvest time.  Our guide, Begayim, seemed reluctant to leave, but we were certainly reluctant to let her go, so she joined us on our journey back down from this untouched village.

Approaching the Uzbekistan border we had one final bushcamp, the clear skies and stars above providing a fantastic backdrop and even inspiring a drink the “Kyrgyz sunset”, a heady combination of vodka (cheaper than water) and cherry juice.

Is Kyrgyzstan the New Zealand of Central Asia?  You’ll have to come here to decide for yourself!  It is certainly one of our favourite countries on our trips through Central Asia, and rapidly climbs to the top of our expedition members’ favourites as well for its combination of stunning scenery, friendly people, rural culture, wide open spaces and hiking opportunities.  Simply wonderful.

A quick thank you David & Carol, David & Helen and Pam who have shared their photos with us (and all of you)!

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