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Published: October 15th 2016
Kyrgyzstan is not dissimilar in many ways to Kazakhstan, but it is clear to see which country has the oil revenues. In turn, Bishkek, its capital was quite similar in many ways to Almaty, with its wide, tree-lined streets, but it has not been quite as successful at disposing of much of the old Soviet architecture. But that in many ways made it a slightly more relaxing stop, and certainly it would appear that Kyrgyzstan will be by far the easiest of the Stans for western tourists in terms of entry requirements.
The drive from Almaty to Bishkek took around 4 hours and took us through a range of landscapes, from rugged barren mountainscapes to quite productive farmland, with cotton the predominant crop. All the cotton is picked by hand, as apparently hand-picked cotton generates double the revenue of harvester-picked cotton, so it was not unusual to see up to a hundred workers at a time in any of the fields. Bishkek is quite close to the Kazakh border and we arrived there for a late lunch. The afternoon was spent viewing the very few tourist attractions available in Bishkek, which included Panfilov Park, Central Museum and Ala-Too Square. One
location that really got our attention was Victory Square, with its large war monument, under which there was a steady flow of wedding parties, often lined up and waiting, looking to get their official wedding photos taken under the monument. Two such groups can be seen at either side of the monument in the accompanying pic. We also evidenced a couple of instances of their releasing doves for good luck, a custom I have witnessed previously in Moscow. We also took in the local bazaar, and while this was probably not significantly different from many other large markets in the region, I can never get enough of markets as that is where you see the true characters of that location and get the chance to mingle with them (they generally get a kick out of meeting Aussies), and in that respect we weren't at all disappointed.
Early evening produced a particularly interesting show. A local falconer puts us through the paces of how they train their birds of prey, the signals they provide and how the birds are rewarded for their efforts. He ran us through the process, in turn, for a falcon, a hawk, an eagle, and a
vulture, each of which had its own individual characteristics. The guy was very much a showman, and you could tell much of his act was put on for the spectators, but that goes with the territory. It also gave us an insight on how the temperature can change pretty quickly late afternoon up in the mountains, as the show started in warm, sunny weather, but we were all huddling together less than an hour later!
The prime object of the visit to Kyrgyzstan was to visit the 'never-freezing' Lake Issyk-kul, one of the largest mountain lakes in the world, located in the northeast part of the republic between ridges of the Tien Shan mountain range. This was another drive of around 4 hours, broken by a stopoff at the very attractive Burana Tower, a 24-metre stump of what was once a huge brick minaret, dating back to the 11th century, but clearly fully restored. We were able to climb up the extremely narrow internal staircase to get a great view of the surrounding countryside, with the mountain backdrop. Also on the same site were a collection of around a hundred balbals, which are quite small Turkic totem-like stone markers,
sporadically spread over quite an area. En route, we also stopped off for lunch at a local 'homestay' residence, where once again we were overwhelmed by the quantity of food provided by our hosts and the expectation that most of it would be eaten.
The drive along the north side of the lake was interesting to say the least. The first city reached, Balykchy, appeared to have nothing to offer but a series of abandoned manufacturing plants, offices and warehouses, covered in weeds and graffiti, with clearly no effort having been made to rehabilitate any of the sites. The general squalor of this town is supposedly a 'national shame' and not exactly the welcoming first stop for what is supposedly Kyrgyzstan's most popular summer resort. It also supported a fishing industry once, but now all the old fishing boats lie rusted on the shores. As we drove on further, the various townships were a small improvement, but I tried to think of the most appropriate description for them, and the only word I could up with was 'bleak'. Then lo and behold, we suddenly turned off the road just short of Cholpon-Ata to enter a resort that looked like
an oasis in the desert - luxury villas, lush green grass and adjoining gardens, and good supporting facilities - ah, it must be good to have money in this part of the world! So it certainly gave a good insight as to where Mr Putin and his friends might spend their summer vacation, and where the hoi polloi might spend theirs.
While in that region, we took in a brief visit to the petroglyphs from the Paleolithic era, and visits to both Grigorevka Gorge and the Ala-Archa National Park, each of which I would describe as being interesting without being spectacular. From there it was a road trip back to Bishkek to prepare for an obscenely early flight next morning to Uzbekistan, the prime objective of this tour for me where I hope to retrace the steps of my previous brief visit there just over 10 years ago.
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