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Published: November 14th 2014
On the bus to Almaty November 13 2014
"My recommendation is that you do a two day horse trek" said Azamat at Karakol CBT. "And then you can stay at Altyn Arashan in the mountains one night".
Gulp! I had never ridden a horse before! How painful would it be? But it sounded exciting getting up in mountains. And then one remembers the philosophy I always pushed on the boys 'I can, I can'. So I had no choice in the end.
We knew it would be cold and Azamat helped us buy hat and gloves at an excellent outdoor store in Karakol. We stocked up on food and Azamat drove us to the meeting point where Mirlan, our guide and horse owner, met us with the horses.
It was cold. I wore two T shirts, a long sleeve shirt and my Rab light weight jacket with my new Uzbek chapan as the final layer. The full length chapan was a godsend and we were well protected from the elements.
The horse riding advice from Facebook friends can be summarised as: "Relax and enjoy it. It
will hurt." The best analogy I can thing of would combine two aspects of sailing. Doing safety boat for the Hoo Freezer in February whilst sitting on a centreboard casing with the board half up.
The trek was three and half hours covering 16km and rising from 1600 to 2500m. For much of the way we followed a mountain stream tumbling down a wooded valley. The only other humans were the odd forestry worker. The wolves, snow leopards and bears stayed to themselves.
As we reached the end the valley broaden and was dotted with cottages which served in the most part as refuges. We had a four bed dorm to ourselves that backed on to the chimney from the main common room fire. There was no electricity except for a faint LED strip powered from a solar charged battery. You boiled hot water on the fire. The long drop loos were up the hill.
We were greeted by Stav, a Russian from the far East of Kaskhstan near Mongolia, who lived in Altyn Arashan all winter. He takes his food supplies up at the beginning and stays until April on
his own except for the odd tourist visit. He has two dogs and a cat for company. There are no visitors in January and February because the avalanche risk in the valleys below is too great. There is no mobile phone coverage. He spoke good English and was good company. I ended up playing him at chess which passed an hour as the pasta cooked on the fire.
Each hostel has a hot spring connected to it. These are directed into shallow pools enclosed in sheds. The water stinks of sulphur and is incredibly relaxing after the long ride. We choose one at 38C, the other was 42C.
It snowed 3cms or so overnight so the trip back was slippery on the steep parts of the path. I was glad when it finished. The most difficult bit was how cold (and stiff) my knees got. This dissipated once I had walked around for 10 minutes. Apart from that it was just a case of having a sore bum. It was still making the marshrutka journey today uncomfortable.
It was definitely well worth it. The scenery on the way down with the
dusting of snow was exquisite. It would be great to come back in the summer and hike further up.
The next day in Karakol it was Sunday and the local animal market. This had started at 5am and we got there at 8am with it still going stronger. First we walked down a passage created by sheep on either side, held by their hopeful current owners singly or in groups up to 6 or 7. Other people were rubbing the animals shoulders to judge their strength prehaps. The gauntlet of sheep lasted around 150m. At the end we turned to the left, returned and passed back through the cattle and horse market. Some horses were being shoed by the local blacksmith. There was no auction.
Bought animals were being carted home by new owners. Some were put in trucks, some were put in trailers. On several occasions we saw sheep in the boot or the back seat of old Ladas.
It was jolly cold with a high that day of around 0C. Again I was glad to have my chapan. We wandered through the town bazaar. We passed ladies selling Jarma
(fermented barley) and Bozo (fermented millet). Both are white milky broths the former not alcoholic and really quite sour. Bozo was well fermented, ("Kyrgyic Piva" she said) and actually tasted quite good. Jane is waiting for my stomach to disintegrate.
We stayed in the Jamilya B&B when we were not up in the mountains. We had a big room and the place to ourselves. We could eat in and choose to try restaurants in town on two evenings. The best was Maximum. We could have two courses each for around a total of 550som ($6). As we started to leave one man from another party came up and offered us more food from his hand as part of his greeting. A small example of Kyrgyic hospitality.
Karakol is on the Eastern side of Issek Kol, the second largest alpine lake in the world behind Titicaca. Streams flow into it from the surrounding mountains and no rivers flow out. Hence it is slightly salty and does not freeze. We had driven from Bishkek along the North shore through resorts filled in summer with Kaskhs and Russians and now empty. By the time we left along
the south shore there was quite a build up of snow, maybe 6 inches, outside the town. And then as we progressed West to the lake edge it disappeared. The West end of the lake is much drier, almost desert, and had little snow except in the surrounding mountains.
We were heading for the town of Bokonbayevo. It is the major town on the south of the lake and has become somewhat depress since Soviet times. They have an excellent CBT office and we found them straight off the marshrutka. We were lucky to be placed with Gulmira and Abduyrsul. Gulmira and Abduyrsul were a similar age to us. Gulmira had worked as a chef and Abduysul has worked for the police as a forensic expert. Both appeared to be retired now. They got income from CBT home stays, a small shop they ran by the house gate and from the produce from their small holding. They had sheep, a cow and chickens and horses for the shepherds to use.
Their children were all in Bishkek. The oldest girl was a stewardess for Air Kyrgyzstan, the first son worked for the Security Ministry and
the youngest was still at college.
This was the first home stay which had wireless, I think for the benefit of visitors. It meant we could converse using google translate in Russian once I had worked out how to swap between a Roman and Cyrillic keyboard. Abduyrsul had been based in Ashgabat in the early 1980's whilst in the army and had manage to avoid going to Afganistan.
Gulmira showed Jane how to make Manti, a large steamed ravioli filled with meat and onions. Manti has been a common dish since we started travelling in Turkish areas. We had them for dinner and they were very tasty.
Gulmira also tried to teach Jane how to milk their cow. This was less successful and it is clearly harder than it looks. Jane did manage to get the odd squirt and it would have been a very long process if Gilmira had not done most of it.
Bokonbayevo is a centre for Eagle hunters and we arranged a demonstration through CBT. This turned out to be a rare disappointment. It was interesting to talk to the hunter. He had a
little English and had a falconer friend Alan who had invited him to the UK for 10 days in 2007. The demonstration consisted on releasing a rabbit on the snow and the hunter carrying the eagle up the nearby hill. When he released the eagle the rabbit not unnaturally ran to the only hiding place around under the hunter's car. The eagle flew down and landed on the bonnet. It then went onto the ground and under the car to grab the rabbit. The next twenty minutes was a demonstration of how an eagle eats a rabbit. I found this quite interesting! It is not for the squeamish. And after a few photos that was it. I asked if the eagle could fly around and apparently this was not possible without a rabbit to catch. At 3000 som we thought it all a bit basic and would not recommend it.
We would recommend the visits we made after this to a house where a lady makes shyrdaks, warm felt rugs with curveous patterns and a nearby by village where they make yurts. Abduyrsul drove us round the village with the coordinator Ruslan stopping at the houses where
they did different parts of the yurt making process from shaping and bending the wooden frame parts to the decorative sides. We finished at Ruslan's house where there was a complete yurt all packed up for sending to Japan. They make around 4 per year. As with all trips of this nature we finished by having tea with Raslan and his wife in their house and talking about our families.
We left Gulmira and Abduyrsul with a small 'London' place mat on which we wrote our best wishes and thanks on the back. The next thing we knew they were giving us a white scarf, a hankie and a bag of apples from the garden. They were just lovely welcoming people. Request to stay there if you get the chance.
We came back to Biskek for one night and had booked the Inter City Center hostel for one night. It turned out to be much better value than the Rodem House where we had stayed previously. It was very clean, had good showers and an excellent kitchen. Having failed to watch the changing of the guard in the central square we bought food and wine at a supermarket for a slap up meal at the hostel. The was the second time we had purchased a bottle of Moldovian wine and the second time it turned up trumps.
So we have now passed though the border to Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan has really impressed us. We would love to come back when the weather is warmer and we could do more things and get higher in the mountains. It is so easy to get around, people are so friendly and generous and the scenery is just fabulous. It is one of the few places that is ever likely to get me back on a horse.
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