Friday, June 10, 2011


Kyrgyzstan is a land of mountains, but also of lakes (and also of horses, but I'll touch on that later). To get a true taste of the country, both metaphorically and literally, you need to leave the towns and cities - Bishkek feels like a relaxed, provincial eastern European town - and head for the hills, where the nomadic Kyrgyz soul resides. The first place I made for was Issyk Kul lake (a bit of a tautology as kul means lake in Kyrgyz). Talk to any Kyrgyz person and they will tell you that you haven't seen Kyrgyzstan until you've seen Issyk Kul, which is seen as the jewel in the country's crown. It is indeed a special lake. Although Kyrgyzstan is a small country, smaller even than Britain, the lake is one of the biggest in the world (10th by volume, and 7th deepest). For the landlocked Kyrgyz it is their beach destination and is suitably equipped with hotels, deckchairs, parasols and all other beachy paraphernalia. Even the water is salty. However, due to it's high altitude - 1600m - it's not particularly warm despite its name (which translates as "Hot Lake"), as a brief dip unequivocally demonstrated. (The name refers to the fact that, because of its depth and high salinity, the lake never freezes, even in the depths of winter.) This means that the "beach" season is very short, outside of which there's barely a soul to be seen. Not that I was particularly interested in taking a dip, the surrounding landscape is far more interesting to me. The lake is surrounded on all sides by tall mountains and in the east, on a clear day you can spot the challenging 7000m peak of Khan Tengri on the tri-border with China and Kazakhstan, lording it over the other lesser mountains of the surrounding Tian Shan range - not that I ever saw it as at this time of the year the mountains are almost constantly shrouded in a blanket of cloud, at least at the higher elevations.

A "popular" beach on Issyk Kul, framed by a spur of the Tian Shan mountains.

Nevertheless at lower reaches the mountain valleys are spectacularly lush and alpine and are perfect for a day's wander past rushing streams, grazing cows and steep, forested hillsides. The town of Karakol at the eastern end of the lake is the administrative centre of the region and best base to explore the lake and its surroundings. Although now very much a tourist destination during Soviet times the town was very much off limits because it housed a secret, experimental submarine base since it was so remote and safe from prying eyes. The towns in the region, as opposed to the yurts, have a very Russian feel to them. Of course there are the Communist apartment blocks, but also the family houses have the same colour scheme as those of Ukraine and Moldova: whitewashed with sky-blue doors and windows.

Kurut on sale at a souvenir stall. These little, sour dairy balls can be found everywhere in central Asia and are a popular snack.

The other lake I wanted to visit was Song Kul. Located in the centre of the country in a high mountain bowl, it's said to be the country's most beautiful lake, surrounded by summer mounain pastures - jailoos. I arrived at the nearest town, Kochkor, under a leaden, evening sky. It didn't inspire me with confidence, but I decided to wait until morning to get more information about conditions. In the meantime I wandered around the bazaar where innumerable herdsmen had come down to sell their products: kymys (a mildly fizzy and alcoholic beverage made of fermented horse milk that is wildly popular amongst Kyrgyz - very much an acquired taste in my opinion), kurut (small, dried balls of sour curd which are a nice accompaniment to beer, but unappetising under any other circumstance) and mountain honey. The news the next day was not good: the pass to the lake was still covered in snow, it had been raining heavily recently, and there were thunderstorms forecast. I decided not to go (the main hiking season occupies a small window from July until Sptember). I had, however, bought plenty of food supplies in anticipation of the 4-day trek and needed to find some use for them. Luckily I met an Israeli traveller, Dekel, who was in the same situation as me and so we decided to join together for a smaller amble up a nearby valley to a more accessible lake.

The hike started off unpromisingly, under a gloomy raincloud; but that was quickly whipped away by the mountain winds to reveal blue skies and green pastures. At least in this corner of the mountains the herders had already moved to their jailoos and the valley was dotted with circular yurts that had recently been erected and countless fat-tailed sheep, cows and horses grazing away to their hearts' content. The brisk winds made the clouds scud overhead but we were happy to see that the thunderstorm was confined to the broad valley behind us where Kochkor was getting a thorough soaking, Indeed, we were almost at the level of the cloud and could see the vertical lines strafing the town. Then our luck turned for the worse. First, whilst crossing a small stream I slipped on a loose rock. I managed to catch myself so that only a foot got wet, but my camera bag got dunked too and despite the leather case the camera did not escape a soaking (I was later to find out that the damage was irreversible and so am now having to spend time scouting for a new camera). Secondly the wind changed direction. Instead of blowing sideways across the valley it was coming upwards from the town - bringing the big, black, evil cloud along with it. Burdened with our rucksacks there was no way we were going to outrun it, and soon enough we were enveloped in cotton wool with visibility down to 20m or less. Then it started to rain, but only for a short while as the rain transformed into hail the size of large, painful peas which turned the ground from green to white in a matter of minutes. And then, the icing on the cake, came the lightning. Luckily there wasn't much to fear as the tall peaks caught most of that, but I spent a good 10 minutes cowering behind my rucksack hiding from the (worst of the) hail. Wet and miserable we plodded on with grim determination until, upon clearing a crest, the lake hovered into view through the mist. We weren't really in much of a condition to appreciate it and set about pitching our tents and trying to get warm and dry before falling asleep exhausted, listening to the patter of the rain on the tent.

A rare break in the clouds allowed me to take a picture of the valley we were heading up (before my trusty camera decided to join Davy Jones in his locker.

The next morning though, the privations of the previous day and night became worthwhile with a splendid sunny morning, blue skies, crystal alpine lake with requisite mountain backdrop and not a soul around. I'm not a religious or even spiritual person, but moments like that are the closest that I feel I'll ever come to what other people may call a "religious experience". We took advantage of the sunshine and brisk wind to splay our damp belongings on the ground to dry before quickly packing up and heading back to Kochkor before getting hit by the afternoon rains again, glad that we had managed to at least spend a little time in Kyrgyzstan's superlative mountains.
Young Kyrgyz urchin on a large horse. In the countryside the horse is the most important tool: source of food, transport and money. Needless to say everyone can ride from an early age.

Whilst travelling through Kyrgyzstan I was struck by a random little oddity. For those of you wondering where our half-used "stuff" goes then Kyrgyzstan is definitely part of the answer. Public, inter-urban transport, like in many developing countries, is by minivan (aka marshrutka, maxi-taxi, dolmuĊŸ, colectivo or sotrama depending on the country); usually a Mercedes or GAZelle. Mercedes are usually European hand-me-downs, often from Germanic countries. You can tell because the Kyrgyz don't feel the need to rebrand or repaint their vans, and so along Kyrgyzstan's roads it is possible to see removal men from Bavaria, fishmongers from Jutland, Dutch electricians, mentally handicapped Swedes and even a Saxon sky-diving club. Passenger cars also display their foreign origins in national bumper stickers that linger long after changing owners, changing continents. D (Germany) and LT (Lithuania) are particularly popular. But it's not just vehicles. The British supermarket chain Morrisons must have recently undergone a rebranding campaign. Not that I've been back in the UK, but many shops sport Morrisons carrier bags which must have become obsolete back home and have been sold on. At least it's good to see that these things are being put to use and not simply discarded.

A van that belonged to a German car mechanic in a previous life. Now it ferries people from Kochkor to Bishkek.

A Morrisons carrier bag thousands of miles from the nearest Morrisons shop.

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