Karakol/Altyn-Arashan, Kyrgyzstan

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July 29th 2016
Published: August 1st 2016
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July 29 - Woke up early this morning, around 6:45 and the internet was down. What could I even do if there was no internet? Shockingly stressful when you should have it but don't, and yet all the days I know I won't have it, it's fine. I repacked, slowly, and had breakfast at 8am. Then the internet worked, so I used it for a bit. Saw the Romanians and was hoping that our timing to go to Karakol overlapped this morning, but it didn't quite match up. I left after 9:15am to find the share taxi that would take me to Balykchny, where I would then get a marshrutka to Karakol. I had to wait a while for the first taxi to fill up, but then Gaétan, a French Canadian guy, showed up and we were almost full. One more woman and we were on our way. It took about 40 minutes to get to Balykchny, and we were dropped off right at the marshrutkas to Karakol. There were two competing for us - presumably one was going north and one was going south around Lake Issyk-kol, but we took the one that was most full, which took the southern route. We got to leave right away, since we filled it up, which was convenient. We left around 11:20am and it took until at least 3pm to get to Karakol. But this is the marshrutka, which stops anywhere anyone wants along the route, and picks up anyone who wants a lift along the way. So we stopped a lot. So long, and kind of warm in there.

Once we arrived in Karakol, Gaétan and I walked to the hostel I booked. It is quite small, with a sitting area and kitchen and one room with twelve beds. At least they have curtains, so you can some "privacy". Gaétan decided not to stay here and once I got settled I helped him carry his far too heavy bags over to the place I had planned to stay originally, but was more expensive than anticipated when I inquired about it last night. I should have stayed there - it was quite lovely and the guy who runs it was really nice and showed us about everything we wanted to know, in quite good detail.

Once Gaétan got settled, we went for a walk to find some food. We went to a cafe that the owner of his guesthouse recommended. We had manti (dumplings) and it was cheap but pricier than other food I've had lately. But I have to remember that "pricey" is like $3. From there we walked towards the Orthodox church - quite a rare site here - and met two other travelers that we talked to for a bit. She was from Scotland and he was from Spain. I think they will do the same hike as we will do tomorrow.

From there we walked back to the hostel and agreed to meet at 7:30am tomorrow. We're going to take a share taxi from the bazaar to the start point of a day hike, and then we'll stay the night at a guesthouse there. A lot of people continue the hike up from there, and it sounds beautiful, but I don't have a tent or the interest in hiking 11 hours to get back to the guesthouse again. I'm just hoping for no rain. And there are hot springs up there, so that should be good.

Back at the hostel, I met some of the others in the dorm. Everyone is nice and we talked a little about trips. I gave some advice to a couple planning on doing the Pamir Highway, and got some advice in return. Then I turned off the light when no one was in the room, closed my curtain, and read for a few minutes before bed.

July 30 - Today I got up at 6am or so, repacked, and had a little bread and honey that was on the table in the kitchen, and waited to see if it would stop raining. I was worried, since I had a five hour hike on the horizon, and no good rain gear but a crappy umbrella. But it did stop raining in time for me to get to Gaétan's guesthouse nearly on time, around 7:40am. We stored our things there and then walked towards the bazaar to find the bus 350 that would take us to the starting point of the hike. We caught the bus on the road before the bazaar, so that saved us some time. Since we were the only ones in the bus at that point, the driver didn't forget about us, which was a bonus.

The path was a dirt (mud) and rock 4WD drive road that ran next to a river, so it was easy to follow. We started hiking at 8:30, which was exactly what we had planned. It was a pretty gentle uphill hike and we had a good pace. We never stopped for much, just to grab a handful of apricots or some water. We passed a few people coming down and several buses of people in either direction. That must have been hell, since the road was terrible. Lots of holes, puddles, rocks, uneven terrain...no thanks to the car. But walking that long seemed to take forever. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we walked in silence. It was quite beautiful scenery though - lots of trees, which have been lacking for most of this trip. I really enjoyed that. For the last hour, the path became much steeper and it was slow going. But we finally got to the guesthouse in less than four and a half hours, so that was quite good time.

The guesthouse is run by a guy named Valentine, and his family. He's like a serious old boy. Totally gruff, in fatigues. He was the real deal. They gave us tea when we arrived and some bread and jam. I asked him what flavor the jam was, and he took the spoon, tasted it, and put the spoon back in the jam. Hilarious.

When we were nearly done, his grandson showed us our room and asked when we would be ready to go to the hot springs. In Altyn-Arashan, you can rent small cabins with hot springs in them, but there are also natural ones around that are more hidden. We asked if we could go there and Valentine said his grandson would show us the way. We got changed and then headed off. It was about another 15 minute hike. Apparently there are four pools, but we only saw two. It wasn't as hot as I'd expected, but it was quite nice, right next to the river. As we were getting in, Gaétan put his water bottle next to the hot spring and it slipped and fell down into the river. That current was fast. We stayed in the water for about three and a half hours. The time went quickly and there was nothing else I had planned to do there. In the last hour, we shared the pool with a Japanese girl and a Scottish girl. We had met the Scottish girl the night before, walking around town. They planned to do a hike up from there the following day to see a lake, but it was an eleven hour return hike. No interest on my part. When it was time to go, everyone averted their eyes and I changed my clothes. It was quite cold and I was happy to get out of my wet suit. I walked away to find somewhere to pee, and Gaétan changed next.

Back at Valentine's we asked for dinner. As they prepared it, the others came back to the hostel. Turns out we were all staying in the same place. Dinner was two salads and two different soups, oddly enough. But plenty filling. After dinner I wrote in my journal and read a little, and then went to sleep around 9:30pm. It was a long day.

July 31 - Another long day. Woke up at 5:30 and started to pack up. My wet things were still wet, and there did not seem to be enough space in my bag if everything was not packed just so. We left at 6:00 and started the (mostly) downhill journey back. We left early to avoid rain, and because we wanted to visit another site today that would have the best light in the morning. Fortunately, we did avoid the rain until it started to drizzle just at the end of the walk. Unfortunately, the clouds covered the sky and it rained for the rest of the day, so there would be no good light to take pictures with. The walk went very well and quickly, and we passed no one walking and only one car coming up when we were near the end. We also saw three sets of campers at different points along the way. I started the hike with my fleece on, because it was chilly, but the first part of the hike was uphill and I quickly got overheated and took it off. Later, when I cooled down, my arms were cold, but I couldn't be bothered to put the fleece back on. I realized that my hands didn't work that well and that my arms were slow as well. Quite cold indeed.

We finished the walk in about 3 hours, and just as we got back to the main road to wait for a marshrutka to take us back to town, a guy in a mercedes stopped and told us he's take us back to town for free. He just wanted to chat in English. He was a carpenter, had five kids, and loved the US. He had applied for a visa to study at UF, but was denied. I've heard many such stories and it always makes me feel bad. Especially when I know that the US takes money from each person for an interview and doesn't return the money if the visa is denied. At least Turkmenistan didn't take any money from me before they denied my visa. Anyway, he wanted to take us to a guesthouse but finally understood where we were going, and he dropped us off at a bus stop, rather than the bazaar. I'd been hoping to buy some bread, but we'd had some apricots on the way down, and there was a taxi at the bus stop that would take us for a decent price.

Our destination was a rock formation that is apparently highly photographed, called the Seven Bulls. From the other side, it's also known as Broken Heart. I did not see the heart and there certainly seemed to be more than seven objects, none of which appeared to be a bull. It rained all day, and in the rain, those rocks were pretty, but not so photogenic. We started out at a tourist yurt and had some bread and tea. The bread we had to buy at the shop. Both things were super expensive, compared to local standards. We should have paid less than $1 for both, but paid an exorbitant $2! We met a French couple in the yurt and they had been cycling for three weeks here, and it had rained everyday. This is reportedly the worst summer in a century for weather in Kyrgyzstan. I have been quite lucky, comparatively.

After the tea, we decided to venture out for some photos, since the rain was not stopping. Pretty, but could be so much better in photos. Along the way we met Molly, a Swiss girl. We walked with her a bit, and she was heading into the nearby gorge for a walk. I had decided earlier not to bother, since I was ill-equipped for rain. All I had was an umbrella that would not stay open. That is what happens when you decide to liberate something from the lost and found. Gaétan jimmied it open with a small stick, and it did the job. I am so not an engineer - never occurred to me to fix it that way. Well, the rain had slowed and we'd heard good things about the gorge, so we walked with Molly. We walked for almost an hour - the scenery was beautiful, a lot like the walk we had finished this morning. I figured we would have to turn around soon, but then a van picked us up and drove us to the end of the gorge. It was a family looking for business in their yurt for the night. We declined, since we were heading back to Karakol, and continued walking towards a purported waterfall. When we got to the right area, we were told we would need to rent a horse to get there. No thanks.

The next step was finding a bus to take us back, but there weren't any there, so we had to walk back, in the rain, to the main gorge. There we found an empty taxi, and the guy came back with a friend and asked us if we wanted a ride, almost as an afterthought. He agreed to drive us back to the entrance, where we could get the bus. But his car broke down three times on the way there. They had to keep fixing it. The third time, we were close enough to see the seven bulls again, so we paid him a little less and walked back to the main road.

At the main road, we found a taxi driver who would take us back to town. We agreed to his price so we could get out of the rain and not wait for the cheaper, but potentially much more crowded and much less comfortable, marshrutka. I kept falling asleep during the twenty minute ride - such along day already with a lot of hiking. We got back around 4pm and said good-bye to Molly. Headed for the guesthouse where we would stay for the night, checked email and relaxed a bit. My pants were covered with mud from the last two days. I don't think they will ever be clean again. At the guesthouse, I met an American couple working at the international school in Tashkent. Interesting, but not my cup of tea. And there is a lot of tea here. They had also worked in Pakistan and Guatemala. Almost makes me feel bad that Switzerland was my first one. Almost.

By 6:45pm we were looking for somewhere to eat and ended up at the closest place that the Lonely Planet had mentioned. There were three other tables full, all travelers. We had the simplest meal out of everyone, lagman, one of the three main dishes in Central Asia. It's noodles, meat and veg in a broth. Pretty tasty actually. After dinner I was just annoyed about being cold and walking again in the rain, then a shower, some internet and blog writing. Very exciting.

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7th August 2016

Looks fantastic
Beautiful scenery. We may be going there next year.

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