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Published: October 22nd 2007
As planned, we left the urban life to discover the countryside of Kyrgyzstan. We took a mashrutka (minibus) from Bishkek to Karakol in the Issyk-Kul region. Issyk-Kul, at a height of 1800m, is the world's second-largest alpine lake (after Lake Titicaca) and moderates the climate around the lake in winter and summer. Karakol itself is a few kilometers behind the lake but it is Kyrgyzstan's fourth largest city and a hub for hikers and climbers. Although a city, it lacks of any urban infrastructure. Many roads are unpaved in the middle of the "city" and a lot of garbage is burnt every night leaving a dusty cloud over the city. Actually, exept Bishkek and Osh, the country is very rural and people live in quite poor conditions. Some families don't have a shower and toilets are always very basic and in the backyard. In the streets pedestrians have to watch their steps because many sewers are open and there are big holes on the ground. At night it's even worse because there is very few street lighting. On the roads, mashrutkas and taxis have to avoid regularly sheep or cows herds crossing the road!
The next day we hiked 4,5
hours from Karakol to Altyn Arashan set at 2800m in a postcard alpine landscape. In fact 94% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous! The country's average elevation is 2750m, with 40% over 3000m high.
Altyn Arashan is not even a village, there are only 4 or 5 houses and some yurts for the tourists. But the locals proudly call it a "Health Resort" because there are some sulfur hot springs. Of course we had to tried them!! But the main reason to go there was for the hiking possibilities in the beautiful mountains around. Unfortunately, Annamaria had to renounce to the hike because she became sick (we learned some days later at the Karakol hospital that it was a gastritis - but it's over now!). Anyway, it seems she had chosen the right day do stay in bed because the hike was very long (7 hours) and hard and, as if it wasn't enough, a snow storm happened!
Actually, we realized there what we already knew... we arrived a bit late in this country to really appreciate the hiking possibilities. One of the most popular hikes from Altyn Arashan was too risky because it includes a pass at 3800m. The
snow and the risk of avalanches make the hike impossible at this season. Also, most of the yurts installed in the high-altitude summer pasture (jailoos) have already been removed and taken away. That reduces a lot the accommodation possibilities and consequently the more-than-one-day hikes (we didn't bring our tent). And it was FREEZING!! Even if we had a perfect blue sky almost every day the icy wind didn't let us feel like it was 10 degrees! People here don't know the word heating (or just wait to turn it on until winter really starts)!! It's always a torment to enter into the frosty blankets at night!!
Anyway, all that doesn't prevent us from enjoying this beautiful country! After Karakol and Altyn Arashan, we went to the small village of Tamga, on the south shore of the lake Issyk-Kul. The landscape there was beautiful with the deep blue lake, the fruit trees full of autumn colors and the snow-covered peaks in the background. And a funny memory: to arrive at the village, we had a lift in a... cow truck! The first day we walked from one sandy beach to the next and the second day we had our first
horse riding experience! 3 hard hours for our legs and backs, but everything went well!! We didn't expect to have so young guides (see pictures), but they were very professional! You should have seen the 7-years old girl riding the horse without fear as if it was the most natural thing in the world (well, it is the most natural thing for her...)! After the ride, we had some tea, honey and home-made bread at this local family house.
We pursued our journey in the south-east of the country, near the border with Uzbekistan. After a one-night stop in familiar Bishkek, we took a shared taxi to reach a small village near Jalal-Abad. Even if a shared taxi is more comfortable than a mashrutka they also maximise the available space! In fact, no matter the distance to be covered, the mashrutkas are always more than full when they leave and even if you think there's no more room for other persons, they regularly stop on the road to take people and their tons of (smelly) bags! Shared taxi have more limited room, but they never leave with less than 4 passengers + driver unless you pay for a unused
seat! These are the two main means of transportation in Kyrgyzstan: no train and big buses are really rare. Anyway, if it's not always very fast, this basic transportation network works quite well and mashrutkas are a great place for people watching! Also notable is that (like in Iran) almost all private cars are also shared taxis. Resources are very limited in this country and only the few rich can allow to drive alone in their cars. Our shared taxi driver was a business man on his way back to the south and also for him a few extra dollars are very welcome. Quite a contrast to the West (Europe, NA) where you can see so many cars in the streets with only the driver but without passengers.
The ride from Bishkek to Jalal-Abad was very long (9 hours) but really a marvel from the standpoint of landscape. We passed two 3000m-plus passes (one at 3586m!), drove around the immense Toktogul reservoir, then down the deep and impressive Naryn River gorge to finish into the Kirghiz part of the broad Fergana valley with its cotton, onion and potato fields.
We arrived too late to go straight to the
village of Arslanbob, as we had planned. Our driver proposed us to drive us to Jalal-Abad to find a hotel for the night. But what we didn't know is that it was the day before the President visits the city for some festivities. All the hotels were full and we thought a moment that we would have to sleep in the street!! Finally our nice driver found us a room in what we suspect to be some kind of brothel. But it was at least warm, clean and quite!
The next day we went to the elevated village of Arslanbob (1600m). This big village in the middle of the mountains is home to the largest walnut grove on earth (11'000 hectares). Even if located in Kyrgyzstan, 99% of the population is Uzbek. They have strong Uzbek traditions, the architecture is Uzbek and the 3 schools teach in Uzbek! It's also a conservative village, as most of the Fergana valley region. In fact, the south part of Kyrgyzstan, separated from the north by high mountains, is in many points closer to Uzbekistan than to Kyrgyzstan.
In Arslanbob, thanks to the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) organization, we had the chance to
stay with a local family. CBT is a project initiated by the Swiss NGO Helvetas. The organization is present in many important touristic places in Kyrgyzstan and offers homestay opportunities as well as tours with local guides. It's a good opportunity for us to get closer to the locals while traveling in a socially responsible way! Here again (as in Tamga) children were employed for different works. In fact, the only person of the family who spoke English was the 13-years old Fatima. We felt a bit bad when she had to work as translator after school and work at her parents' shop but she obviously liked this job! As in Tamga with the horse guides, we wonder if this kind of child work should be considered an abuse or not...
In addition to enjoy the warm hospitality of the family, the good food (in huge portions!) and of course the local walnuts, we also enjoyed the village life of Arslanbob. Annamaria went on a CBT guided hike in the walnut forest and the mountains around while Silvan had to stay at home because it was his turn to be sick!
We are now in Osh, our last
stop in Kyrgyzstan. After two days of visiting the city and checking out the internet cafes, we will cross the border to Uzbekistan tomorrow and begin discovering the fourth country of our trip! The halfway point of our trip is now already behind us but still many interesting stories and nice pics are hopefully to come for us and you :-)
Greetings also to travel buddies Lukasz, Tuende and Micheal. Hope to see you again in Uzbekistan or later South-East Asia.
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