After a 12 hour bus transit from Almaty, Kazakhstan we finally arrived in Cholpan-Ata, Kyrgzstan at 9pm....ever so slightly worried where we were going to stay the night. We needn't have worried....we were met off the marshrutka (minibus) by a friendly babushka (grandma) who led us off down a dark dirt track to our 'homestay' which turned out to be one of the more simple places we'd stayed.....the facilities being past the potatos and right at the blackberry bushes. Cholpan-Ata is set on lake Issyk-Kul - a massive freshwater lake at 1800m. There were numerous beaches around town where Russians, Kakakhs and Kyrgyz all flock during the summer to sun (sunburn) themselves, including pregnant women wearing g-strings! We made it down the beach but after a quick dip in the freezing glacial waters we went for some lunchtime shasklyk and beers instead!
Moving round the lake we arrived in Karakol - the trekking capital of central Asia. We stayed in a lovely homestay courtesy of Babushka Fatima. Her daughter-in-law spoke good English which was a real help and made asking questions about Kyrgyzstan and the USSR much less painful. It was interesting to hear how the people really struggled to cope without socialism for many years as they had never had to think about their careers or generating money. They were suffering an almost institutionalised mindset that was difficult to break free from. Only now are they starting to get used to trade and entrepreneurialism and starting to see the benefits.
Kyrgyzstan is full of two types of vehicles - Ladas and German-manufactured cars from the 1980s. I did not know it was possible for these cars to still be on the road, I thought they went to a little car heaven in the sky when we got rid. Now I know different. Most of the cars we went in had 500,000 miles on the clock BEFORE the mileometer stopped working! I wonder why we cannot be more sustainable in the UK and repair and reuse like here? Although, to be fair, I am, not sure that even 5% would pass a UK MOT.
We were lucky to be in Karakol on a Sunday to see the second largest animal market in central Asia....where we arrived bright and early at 6am! Lots of horses, sheep and cows.....and men in felt hats whom Bryn had a particular penchant for photographing with his long lens....
Not quite the same as in the UK...no pens for the animals so you had to watch out for the bucking horses and we did see a few sheep being stuffed in the boot of a Lada for the journey to their new home!
We had resolved that for our trek into the hills we didn't want another 18 year old 'guide' accompanying us so we set off round town in search of some camping equipment to rent, which is surprisingly difficult as most the operations who have equipment only rent it out as long as you hire a guide/porter/cook from them. However, after a couple of days we had sorted our gear and got in our bright blue Lada taxi (Bryn very excitedly hand picked this) which whizzed us up to Jeti-Orguz the start of our trek, undaunted by our 18kg packs.
The first day was pretty easy ambling up the beautiful valley in the baking sunshine. After a couple of hours walking we spied a yurt that agreed to bring us some chai.....what we didn't bargain on was that in Kyrgzstan, tea is never just tea....you simply must eat as well. So there we were....with a beautiful view down the grassy valley....tucking into a cream tea that would have gone for good money in central London....the homemade blackcurrant jam was the best we'd ever had! Grudgingly, we set off in search of our campsite for the night.
Day 2 was actually an easy day but for some reason we made rather slow going. We were walking up narrow alpine valleys full of grass, streams with big tall green conifers everywhere....all very Soviet. However, it was very pleasant walking mainly....apart from fording a couple of glacial streams where we needed to take our boots off. We'd done this a lot in Borneo but hadn't quite realised quite how cold the glacial meltwaters would be - people must have heard our swearing 20km away!
It started to rain just as we reached our campsite....we got our tent up pretty quickly and spent the rest of the afternoon cowering from the rain. Just before bedtime an inquisitive and insistent cow herd decided that they wanted to become friends and several times we had to shoo away a snuffling snout that was trying to get into our tent!! After living in fear of the cow shadows outside the tent all night , we generated the courage for a stern face to face dawn showdown....
We also spotted some interesting looking orange scurrying fluffy things that later turned out to be marmots.
Day 3 we got up a little late due to more rain and set off for the first high altitude pass of the trek.....this was where it turned out that the maps we had weren't exactly Ordance Survey quality. We missed the path and ended up doing most of the 1000m ascent up the river course....at one point going up some pretty steep sections as we got pelted by hailstones. This wasn't exactly the summer walk we'd planned.
Luckily, the weather got better as we approached the 3800m pass and there were some pretty stunning views as we trekked across the barren plateau.
Going down from the pass was a lot of fun as we got to ski down about 400m.....ok no poles or actual skis....but we made it down in record time and thankfully no broken bones in this remote place!!
At this point, we thought we'd done the hard work....but oh no....our crappy maps made it a tough afternoon for us. First we trekked one km too far down one side of the valley before realising that there was no way through due to some nasty looking morraine piles....so we had to head back up to where we could actually cross the river.....then we headed too far down the other side of the valley...and ended up having to descend about 400m down an extremely steep track through pine forest.
We had another equally tough day to follow - made even harder by the fact that our legs were wooden from the previous day - pretty difficult to motivate sufficiently to wriggle out of our sleeping bags! After a lot of slow trudging and a picturesque stop for tea at 3,000m....
....we were finally at Ala-Kol Lake (3500m) for a late lunch just as the hail starting to pelt down again! It was really quite scary walking round the lake as the heavens ominously rumbled. There were hardly any trekkers, no where to pitch a tent and we were dressed in summer gear as slowly everything started to turn white!
We made it to the pass at 5pm, definitely not on schedule.
Our jubilation at having finally made it up quickly evaporated as it was snowing heavily (covering tracks) and starting to get dark. Unfortunately, because of this, we could not locate the path down from the pass. We searched for around one hour, including one near fatal descent investigation! At 6pm we really thought we would be those silly trekkers who disappear after going off on their own into the wilderness - it was too late to go back to the last place a tent could go, too cold and exposed to stay on the pass and no route down! Finally we see something resembling a slighter gradient and decide to go for it - after sliding down on our bums for 30 mins we were down and thankfully still in one piece. Shortly after it started to thunder and hail so we erected our tent in record time and as we looked out later we were surrounded by a foot of snow! We decided we needed to celebrate our survival through a tough day - what better way than a fine chilled vodka and caviar supper. Perfect.
An easy half day walk followed to our end point, Altan Arashyn, where we were able to go in a butch lady's shed for a hot spring bath - perfect recovery. The mutton knuckle soup wasnt anything to write home about though! Only one vehicle was due to make it's way back into Karakol that day so we waited around until the departure time of 6pm. 3 hours later we were still waiting as the driver had decided that fermented mares milk in the hills was a much more appealing propsect. Our spirits started to slump as we realised that we weren't going to be having our celebratory beer and shashlick feast that evening Then we saw a jeep revving its engines and hollared the locals in our best russian to give us a lift. After a bit of negotiating we were on our way. This was the roughest track we had ever been on - it took over 2 hours to go 20km - at one point we all had to get in the total darkness and walk down while the jeep skidded down the worst bits! A flat tyre didn't help matters....but at least our head torches came in useful as they tried to change the tyre by mobile phone light! We were very happy to arrive back late, and safely, in our nice homestay where they invited us to join them for a supper - bread, jam and tea.
After a day of laundry and recovery (i.e. more shaslyk and beer!) we headed off around the lake to Kochkor, the land of rolling green pastures, in contrast to the more rocky snow-capped mountain scenery at Karakol. This was where we did our 'Life of a Shepherd' horse trek wedding present, courtesy of the Centric boys, Chris, Sean, Andrew and Pete. Thanks lads. This was great fun. With no riding experience we were a little nervous, but then, as we mounted our steads, we realised these were friendly chaps. We were quickly learning the Kyrgyz horse language e.g. "Tcho" and a kick to the gut to go faster. But there were no real worries as our mounts were certainly no sprinters! Bryn, in fact, had a particularly flatulant mount and was regularly scorned as he moved upwind of the group. It was a great experience staying in the traditional yurts. They are so warm, and the families make you feel so comfortable and serve endless food - "more cream tea anyone?" Another girl, Nona (American), came along with us and she proved to be quite a mean card player!
There was a cute little puppy at one of the yurts who'd had his ears and tail cut off! It turns out that they do this all across central Asia so that the dog has less problems when it gets older and starts fighting!
At the end of day two, our horses were starting to turn asthmatic and sweat heavily so they were glad that we dismounted for the final time. Our guide departed back to the yurt from the previous night where he had been exchanging glances with a sweet sixteen, and we relaxed by the glacial lake at 3500m. A really good trip.
We just spent two nights in the capital, Bishkek, as no real sights and no cheap hotels. We did appreciate our bathtub and separate living room in our $40 hotel for a treat though! We wandered the leafy streets and had a final meal out with Nona, before beginning our 2 day overland journey back through Kazakhstan to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. It was disappointing that as we got off a matrushka in Kazakhstan that Bryn was surrounded by a group of jostling men, one of whom kept making repeated attempts at his pocket.....for his 'wallet' which thankfully was just a wodge of toilet paper. A difficult situation as they were all in on the scam and we were trying to get our bags off the bus at the same time before it drove off....
2 days, 3 countries, 1 randomly shut border crossing for foreigners only due to a power cut!, 2 borders successfully crossed. Uzbekistan here we come!