Karakol and the Bishkek Visa Blues


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March 25th 2016
Published: March 26th 2016
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Seven Bulls
Day 62 Sunday 20th March 2016 – Bishkek to Karakol



Yes we are finally seeing more of Kyrgyzstan so off to the Western Bus Terminal which Lonely Planet describes as “hold your breath – this is thoroughly confusing even for locals”, so we were really looking forward to this adventure. As we arrived at the terminal shared taxi drivers were opening the door of our taxi trying to get us to go with them, our taxi driver actually told them to go away and locked the doors till we paid him and got our bags ready to jump out. Soon as we got out we took off into the bus compound so we left them all behind and then a new set of issues started. Locating the correct mini bus was easy enough and we paid for our tickets at the cashier so far so easy then I negotiated a seat near the door while Scott went towards the back. We are describing them as a minibus but hey are just a large Mercedes Van filled with seats, and there doesn’t appear to be any inter city buses operating in this country that we have seen.
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Rear end of the Seven Bulls
The bus/van started to fill and in my row of 4 seats there already was a man and a little girl shortly after a very tall large man joined our row who took up 1 ½ seats so it was just OK for the claustrophobic one. Just as we were about to leave the driver found one more passenger who squeezed in between me and the larger gentleman so I now had a butt cheek hanging out the door with the driver pushing me in so he could close the door. Thankfully Scott called out to see if I was coping which of course I was not so quickly got out and decided to wait for the next one and try and get the two seats next to the driver. When the next one pulled into place there were already people in the bus including the one man in the front seat which started to worry me if we would ever get out of here. The gods must be on our side as the man worked for the bus company and hoped out and gave us the front seats, I am not sure if he saw what happen in the
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Tug of War
previous bus and understood or what but I am grateful.



Finally got on the road about 10am with 23 people including the driver in a minivan, so even though it was cold outside it was stuffy inside with the windows fogging up. The scenery was beautiful with clear blue skies and the mountains visible all around Bishkek. There were a few toilet stops it seems everyone had to go at different times at one of the bigger stops I jumped out to go, when I had to pay I assumed it would be fairly clean, well I guess for 10 cents you can’t expect much. Further down the road and there was a commotion at the back of the bus and we suddenly stopped and people jumped out as a young girl struggled to the door where she proceeded to throw up – oh the joy of travelling. Being in the front we missed the projectile vomit but unfortunately some copped it all over their shoes and the poor driver had to clean the mess up. Then a short distance down the road one of the old men stopped the bus again for the third time to
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Holy Trinity Cathedral
go to the toilet, I think the driver was starting to get frustrated. The driver was a very talented driver who could steer with his elbows while talking on his mobile and changing the stereo at the same time for the entire trip. We worked out that the minivan drivers were notifying each other where the police were with speed cameras as we would drop from 140km/hr to 40km/hr and low and behold around the bend were the police and soon as we passed we sped up.



Despite all this the view was beautiful, we drove passed the Kungey Ala-Too Range and huge Lake Issyk Kol with its spectacular blue colour looking across to another mountain range Central Tian Shan. We arrived at our hotel in Karakol at 3.30pm got settled and organised a half day trip for tomorrow around the countryside. Decided to go for a walk and just up the road there were cars doing burnouts with smoke bellowing and the smell of burnt rubber, it turned out to be a wedding with the bride and groom walking down the street, whilst friends hooned around. Other than that the town was pretty quiet so stopped
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Roof of the Holy Trinity Cathedral
at a nice café called Karakol Coffee to warm up and got talking to Zhamilia whose mother has started a NGO which is helping people in the surrounding villages called “Fat Cat Karakol”.



Went for another quick walk but it was now getting very cold about 3 degrees and apparently it is going to drop to -5 degrees overnight so went back to Karakol Coffee for a pizza before going back to our warm room at Tagaitai Guest House.





Day 63 Monday 21st March 2016 – Karakol



There is only a couple of other people staying in this hotel at the moment so we were shocked at the huge spread they put on for breakfast, haven’t seen so much cake first thing in the morning since Argentina. As arranged yesterday our ride to the mountains turned up just before 10, we had hoped it would be a 4WD but it was just an old Audi. Booking the tour yesterday was a bit of a leap of faith as we were not exactly sure what we were going to see for our money, but in the end it
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The main street in town
was well worth the outlay. Our driver got us out of town along the road that was more pothole than asphalt and then into the mountains to see the Seven Bulls. This is a large red sandstone bluff that is bare rock on one side and pine trees and snow on the other. Although not quite as large as we expected it is still a rather impressive lump of a rock and worth a look at.



Our driver then pushed further along a road that soon turned from mud to snow and ice and I was impressed how well he drove in such difficult conditions. The road crossed and recrossed a beautiful stream on log timber bridges till we hit a small landslide and we had to wait a bit while some workmen were clearing a path. Drove on for another 2 minutes and the road just became deep snow and we all knew that we couldn’t go any further. We had wanted to see the valley of flowers a bit further along although we knew at this time of year there would be no flowers, but we were happy for what we had already seen. On
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Our driver and his car at the point we stopped
our return we had to wait over half an hour as the workmen loaded a tip truck with the rock from the landslide before we could head home.



The countryside around here is spectacular and even in town, no matter where you look you see snow covered mountains. To the South of town are a string of mountains hitting 3800m and if you head 200km east from here you hit a point where Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China all meet there are two mountains (Khan Tengri and Pobedy) that are over 7000m high. The main reasons tourists come to this town is for mountain climbing and trekking but unfortunately for us we are a good one month too early. In April-May the snow melts a bit and the whole area is covered in flowers, so I sort of stuffed our planning on this one, but both really enjoyed the day anyway.



Back in town we headed up to the main square where there was a bit of a festival to celebrate Nooruz, local New Year. Wasn’t much to see and was mainly food, and bread stalls but watched a couple of tug of war competitions.
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The snowed in road into the Valley of the Flowers
Further in town and once again a lot of the shops were closed including most of the souvenir shops. Stopped at the Karakol Coffee shop for a hit of coffee and then wandered onto the main highlight in town The Holy Trinity Cathedral. The gates had been closed yesterday when we passed but as per the Lonely Planet’s description it was open today on our return. This is a large wooden church with fabulous green roofed towers and onion domes and was built in 1895. The Soviets ran it down and then rebuilt it in 1961, but services only recommenced in 1991. The whole block that it sits on is fenced off and today they were open and also the door into the church, but as we went to go in an old woman with a broom, sweeping inside told us off in Russian and made it very clear we were not welcome. I am sure after we left she rode off on the broom so wasn’t about to defy her in case she put a hex on us. Despite it being such a fabulously warm day as the sun dipped so did the temperature and we were very thankful
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Log Bridge
for such a warm room to stay in at night.





Day 64 Tuesday 22nd March 2016 – Karakol - Bishkek



Back to Bishkek today so another minibus journey to look forward to, but got another great breakfast to give us strength. When we arrived at the minibus terminal there was a bus nearly full and Scott got me the seat in the front while he was right at the back, so everything was looking fairly straightforward. We should know better, one of the passengers a young woman had left her handbag on the seat and was running about the area and the driver calling out to her. When she finally hopped in their was a problem and we ended up driving around town, from what I could make out her bags were in a taxi somewhere with frantic phone calls and a very annoyed driver she was eventually reunited with her bags. Our bus/van today was a bit smaller than the last one and only sat 16 including the driver. The trip had a few scary moments with our bus driver nearly having a heart attack as a small child
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Frozen Stream
about 4 years old came running out of a side street in one of the small villages, he swerved and the child turned at the last minute so it turned out OK but it does make your heart stop.



We only stopped once on the way back for food and toilets, the people on this bus had better bladders and stomachs than the one to Karakol. We arrived back about 3.30pm to get attacked by dodgy taxi drivers asking for 300 soms, it had only cost us 93 soms to get to the station so we declined his generous offer and walked over to others which all had similar offers, after many Nos on our side we got told 120 which was close enough. We walked over to the taxi and it already had a family in it so Scott would have had to sit on my lap or vice versa it is always a hassle, so we walked off in a huff. About 5 minutes down the road on the corner there were a few more taxis where we got one for 100 which was his first price and were soon at our hotel.

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Guys clearing a mini avalanche


The hotel staff welcomed us back like long lost relatives, we got settled and checked our emails for word of our LOI (Letter of Invitation) for the Uzbekistan visa but there is nothing. Walked over to Edgars for a beer and in what seems to be common only had a few beers available from a long list, it seems that it is only the more expensive imported beers are on offer even though every supermarket has the cheaper local/Russian beers on the shelf. If you do get them in the bars it seems there is only one round available not sure why.





Day 65 Wednesday 23rd March 2016 – Bishkek again



Today we are treading water, trying to decide whether to do another side trip in the country or wait here in case we get the email about the visa. Did a walk around town and got to see the changing of the guards outside the museum which we missed last time so I guess you always see something different. Went to our favourite coffee shop for some nice brewed coffee and once again had a complex English-Russian conversations
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The view of the mountains from town
with the waitress. We sure do miss South America where we knew a bit of Spanish, but here we know “nyet” Russian other than the word “nyet”. It is made all the more difficult by the use of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. We have muddled through okay but restaurants and cafes are probably the hardest parts especially if no one speaks English and the menu has no pictures. Today’s lunch was another typical example where we just pointed at some sort of pastry “things” and ended up with a really nice (but large) chicken potato pasty “thing” and a much smaller cheese biscuit “thing”.



I (Michele) spent the afternoon shopping up a storm and have finally found some great things to buy. Scott investigated some old soviet military medals and badges but they are vastly overpriced and no guarantee they are not replicas. Our Pasty “thing” was so large at lunch time that we decided to only have a light dinner and so went to the hotel restaurant Prego, more for a few drinks than a feed. We have slowly been drinking all the bars in town dry, quite literally and we are getting tired of them
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The view from the front of the Van
saying “nyet” or “no more” when we order a second drink and then have to scour a menu trying to find something else to drink. Got down to Prego and when Shelley went to order a second gin and tonic; you guessed it “nyet”. Over our stay here she has drank them out of two types of martini and three brands of gin and I have wiped out two types of beer; not a bad effort, except we haven’t been hitting it that hard, all the spirit bottles only have about 2cm of liquor in them. The barman did assure us that the bar is being stocked tomorrow, and I was going to ask if there was a lunar eclipse as the two must coincide.





Day 66 Thursday 24th March 2016 – Bishkek still



Welcome to the Hotel Club Bishkek
Such a lovely place (Such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel Club Bishkek
Any time of year (Any time of year)
You can find us here.



Apologize to all the Eagles Fans out there (all
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Inside Edgars Bar
6 of you), but this place has turned into our very own Hotel California, or if you prefer Groundhog Day, with each day almost identical to the last. Sent off an email this morning to find out what has happened to our LOI for Uzbekistan, and whilst we waited did our usual walk to the other side of town for a coffee followed by a pastry thing for lunch and then back to the hotel. Late in the afternoon got a reply from the Uzbekistan travel agents to say that we should have our LOI today or tomorrow and they will look into it tomorrow morning!! TOMORROW, why not bloody now???? Stuck here for another day so gave the good news to the staff at the hotel about our extended stay and they sort of looked at us in an evil sort of way and told us “You are never going to leave ha ha ha ha” whilst rubbing their hands together with glee. No actually they looked at us with a look that said “why do you want to stay here so long??”



We bludged in the room for the afternoon and started to get annoyed
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Shelley inside Edgars
with being stuck here way longer than we wanted to. I guess we shouldn’t complain as the hotel is great and the staff are some of the nicest and most helpful we have ever come across, it is just that we want to be moving on. We then opted to drown our sorrows and go back to Prego for a drink and a feed as we were promised that they were getting a delivery of booze today-well.



So I called up the Captain,
"Please bring me my wine"
He said, "We haven't had that spirit here since nineteen sixty nine"



Yep, you guessed it, no delivery and the only beer they had was warm and flat. No fault of the bar that the beer is flat it is just how the local brew is, but warm beer is inexcusable. The local beer in question is Apna, it doesn’t taste too bad except that it is flat and it was served warm but when it comes in a half litre bottle with an alcohol content of 11% you either don’t care after two or you
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High Stepping Guards
just pass out. Decided Prego has done it for us including most of the bars in town and we just need to move on.



Day 67 Friday 25th March 2016 – Bishkek still



Was promised an LOI today so we spent most of it hanging in the room glued to our email waiting. Around midday we ducked out for lunch and found a little café on the third floor of a small shopping centre, where we got a great feed of traditional Kyrgyzstan food. Michele had a soupy spicy noodle dish while I had a plate of spicy dumplings, and what made the place even more remarkable was I was able to get two rounds of the same beer without them telling me they had run out.



Back in the room we fired off another email to the travel agents and got a reply that we should have our LOI this afternoon, so we sat and waited. Gave up around the 5pm mark and headed out for a beer, we are now contemplating giving up on Uzbekistan and travelling to somewhere
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Changing of the Guard
more inviting like Afghanistan. Returned to our newly discovered café for another great feed and a couple of beers before returning home and packing. Tomorrow we are heading back into the Kyrgyzstani countryside, which hopefully will be more fruitful than waiting in town for an LOI.


Additional photos below
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Peak hour
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The road out to the Valley of the flowers
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Shelley in the snow
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The red sandstone Seven Bulls


27th March 2016

'...so much cake first thing in the morning' :D
Cake for brekkie? Sounds like my kind of place! The scenery is truly stunning.
27th March 2016

Cake heaven/hell
If you like Cake get on the first plane to Argentina. Unless it has changed since we were there, the place almost runs exclusively on cake and bad pizza.
27th March 2016

Eagles
Relax said the night man we are programmed to receive . You can check out any time you like but can never leave .
27th March 2016

Bishkek girls with machine guns
I knew quoting the Eagles would rattle your chain, I just couldn't find an appropriate (and publishable) quote from the Cramps.
3rd April 2016

Kyrgyzstan, the joys of bus travel
Packed in like sardines and then the vomit...yikes, ah, the aromas. Glad you were in the front.-- the kindness of strangers is usually good. I feel bad for the driver...just trying to earn a living. That must be one of the downsides of his job. I don't like sweets for breakfast so the cake would not be appealing. Your snowy drive sounds nice and scenic. You've had some great day trips. You are very good at haggling. I've always been fairly good at it but you've got me beat.
4th April 2016

The art of haggling
Michele is the champion haggler I just stand back and admire. Cake for breakfast isn't our first choice but we have got it so much in our travels I am starting to think it is the norm.
4th April 2016

Life in the Fast Lane!
Surely make you lose your mind..... gorgeous scenery in Karakol. You look great Shelly as always. Whats with the last drinks after the first order...funny stuff? Come on visa AUM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
4th April 2016

Life in the slow lane
The place reminds us of the old saying about India "Anything is possible, it just might not be available". Thanks Traudy
4th April 2016

Life in the Fast Lane!
Surely make you lose your mind..... gorgeous scenery in Karakol. You look great Shelly as always. Whats with the last drinks after the first order...funny stuff? Come on visa AUM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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