Published: August 13th 2011August 13th 2011
Hmmmm.... where to start?
I guess our first point of entry into Central Asia would be good.
After 7 days awaiting a visa, an overnight in a border town and 5 hours at immigration, we were granted permission to leave China. Getting into Kazakhstan was easy in comparison, a smile, a salam and a stamp. Another couple of bus rides later and we arrived in Almaty. Oh Almaty, so lovely and gridded and not overcrowded. In between doing silly bureaucratic stuff, such as registering with the local police and obtaining visas for continued travel, we strolled the streets and well manicured parks and ate doner kebab and fries daily. Our first stop in Central Asia was a great one, the people very helpful, the food tasty, the city lay out easy to navigate and the cars actually stop for you when in a crosswalk, amazing! After days of walking for hours and then taking rests in parks we decided it was time to move on. We woke up early one morning and found our way to a mashrutka (mini-bus) headed to Bishkek. I took on the task of learning to read Cyrillic, which made finding our mashrutka much easier.
The border crossing was the easiest crossing I have ever done. They actually escorted us into an air conditioned room to scan our passports and then that was it. No lines, no silly questions ... easy.
We arrived to Bishkek in the afternoon and decided to walk to the downtown area to find a place to rest our bones. Good thing for the amazingly friendly Kyrgyz people, or we may have walked all the way to the airport. See we came from the West so we assumed we were dropped off at the West bus station so we headed in what we thought was the right direction to town. Well we were wrong, we had been taken to the East bus station - see I can read the words in Cyrillic, but I have no idea what they mean. Anyway a nice man walked with us back to town and he and I spoke in French (a real French speaker would have cringed at the sound) but it was our only common language. He told me about the dire unemployment situation in Kyrgyzstan - nearly 30% unemployed and average salaries around $100 per month. Crazy. We eventually found a place to put our bags down and took a little rest before exploring the rest of Bishkek.
Like Almaty, Bishkek has gridded streets, lovely parks, friendly folks and excellent kebab. It was really hot while we were in Bishkek and one of my favorite sights was all the people cooling off in public fountains. The way the Kygyz see it is if it is filled with water it is a swimming pool. And it is great - even in front of government buildings while the soldiers are doing the changing of the guard, children are splashing in the pools in front. So the pools and parks were my favorite, the Uzbek Embassy however was not. There we went through the most silly and bizarre, filled with bureaucratic bs visa process I have ever experienced. When we finally got our forms in we decided to head out into the mountains while our papers were processed.
We headed to Karakol, a city in the mountains near Lake Issyk-Kol. Beautiful city, lovely weather and lots of mountains surrounding begging to be explored...so that's what we did. We took a mashrutka to a designated drop off and walked up hill into the mountains for 4 1/2 hours. We arrived at a picture perfect mountain valley complete with river and fresh flowing hot springs. We stayed 2 nights in the village, Altyn Arashan. On our second day we decided to walk to the pass overlooking Lake Ala Kol. Very challenging, but oh so beautiful. Could that be the most stunning trek I have ever done? We met some really nice local guys on horses who could not understand why on earth we would be walking when we could have taken a horse - silly tourists. We eventually made it to the top of the pass - after 100 vertical meters of shale and loose rock. When we descended a group of Russian mountaineers told us climbing up in tennis shoes as we did was "extremely stupid and dangerous." Anyway the views were worth it. Turqoise water of the lake below framed by snow capped peaks and big thunder clouds rolling in to add to the visual. Our walk back to Altyn Arashan was quite exciting. We passed a man who was hacking off the legs of a dead horse and not too long after had to take shelter from the grape sized hail under a pine tree. Once we got back on the trail, the man with the horse parts (4 legs from a dead horse strapped on to a live horse) passed us. After that the walk was peaceful and absolutely stunning. Upon our return to the village we had a soak in the hot springs before calling it a night.
I am letting Andrew take over now...
Kyrgyzstan may have been the most beautiful country in terms of natural beauty that we visited on the trip. Raw, untrampled, pure stunning scenery. We returned from our foray into the forest with a trip to the shores of Lake Issyk-Kol. Although we couldn't be farther from the ocean, this massive lake (second largest alpine lake in the world) gave us the oppurtunity to splash around and laze on the beach. People watching was facinating - russian tourists shooting vodka under colorful umbrellas while clothed only in skimpy speedos - hilarious. We spent two days relaxing, laughing, and swimming in the lake. Then time to return to Bishkek to pick up our Uzbek visas.
More bearucratic hurdles successfully jumped over, Uzbek visas in hand, time to head south to Osh before crossing the border. We jumped in a car with a family heading in the same direction, and spent the next 10 hours engaging in hand converstaions about the sights slowly unfolding outside the windows. Needless to say most of the hand gestures were thumbs up. Made it to Osh and were greeted by a hardluck town full of misfortune and turmoil. Riots and spats with the Uzbek population have left Osh full of bullet holes and burned skeletons of buildings. People, although a little more reserved at first, were still full of life and seemed excited to see a couple tourists browsing at their bazaar stalls. After spending a couple days exploring the area and making some new friends we decided it was time to attempt Uzbekistan.
As if karma came back to bite us, the border crossing into Uzbekistan was the most difficult crossing of the trip to date. Complete bag searches, seven passport checks, numerous declaration forms, lots of frowns and angry words, four hours of stress.... then the final walk through barb-wired fence and into Uzbekistan. Immediately we jumped into a car with some locals traveling to Andijon in the Fergana Valley. The music was turned up, the car started rocking, and all memories of the stressful crossing were erased. Andijon was a completly new experience for Alyssa and I. The place is way off the tourist map, actually a lot of Uzbeks avoid it. It was also home to tension a few years back, some clashes between the police and locals left hundreds dead and the living more than a little angry. So here we came, big smiles and camera in hand, walking straight through it all as if nothing was amiss. Andijon was by far the most traditional Muslim place we had encountered. Local men walked in droves to the mosques, woman dressed conservatively and not a Russian was in sight. We headed for the bazaar to get lost among it all.
After Andijon, we caught another car to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. The city was similiar to Almaty and Bishkek, albeit a little larger. We were able to couch surf with a local UN guy who turned to a godsend when he showed us the local swimming pool. Temperatures were reaching 50 degrees celcius, melting us while we tried to explore the markets and government sights around town. Our only savior was the swimming pool.
Tashkent gave way to Bukhara by way of overnight train ride (think sweat box with no windows and 45 degree heat for 15 hours). Finally, mercifully, we arrived in Bukhara and were able to find a room with AC for a reasonable price. Off to explore. I can't begin to describe the sights in Bukhara, but I'll try. Ancient tiled mosques, medressas, and bazaars filled every street and alley. Huge mosaics of blue tile reached high into the sky, each competing with a neighbor for architectural surpremacy. Walking among these buildings was breath taking, truly awesome. We spent a few days darting around the city, avoiding the midday sun when we could and seeing everything to attracted our senses. Alas, Uzbekistan had more to offer so it was time to move on.
Next stop Samarkand. A nice enough town, but without the ancient feel of Bukhara, Samarkand looked as if it was behind a glass case ready to be shown to passing tourists. Everything was immaculately manicured, grass was even length in all the parks, street were spotless (scrubbed by hand in some cases), buildings were new or restored to take away any evidence of age. While this tended to take away from the authenticity of the place, what remained was still amazing. Mosques and mausoleums were sprinkled throughout the city, each with a unique use of tiles and architexture. We spent two days walking around with our mouths hanging open from the sights, but found little else to satisfy our senses because of the steralized nature of the place and the way this effected the local population. After seeing all Samarkand had to offer, we headed back to Tashkent for a rendez-vous with the border the following day.
Back to Kazahkstan, back to Almaty, back to doner kebab. We sit here now readying ourselves for a flight to Turkey tomorrow. We officially say goodbye to Asia and welcome Europe for the next month. Then, we can't believe, to New York. Time has passed so quickly, but looking back we have encountered and conquered so much. There are so many experiences from our time in Asia to look back on...
Oh yeah, I shaved, sorry Koz.
So far we can not find an internet cafe where we can upload photos - really sorry, we have some great ones...we may try one more place before calling it quits - for now read your hearts out.
Happy Birthday to Noto and EH