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Back in Time in Kochkor

After a second night at Issyk-Kul Lake we drove to Kochkor where we will spend the next two nights with a local family.

The Germans, we have met yesterday, weren’t able to repair their bicycle and therefore need to return to Bishkek to get the required spare parts. We gave them a lift to the next town where our local guide Erkin helped them to arrange transport. It took a few minutes until we found a van which had sufficient space for them and their two bicycles. I hope they will find the spare parts in Bishkek. Otherwise they will either need to continue their travel by public transport rather than by bicycle or get the parts delivered via DHL or UPS which takes a couple of days’ time.

We arrived in Kochkor around lunch time. Since we had some leftovers we decided to eat out of the truck, rather than eating in a restaurant or have our host family cook for us. We briefly stopped at the market where we bought some fresh bread, vegetables and fruit. We prepared lunch right in front of our host parents’ house and even invited them. They either didn’t like our food, weren’t hungry or too shy since they didn’t join us.

Kochkor is a very quiet town and there isn’t really anything to see. We still felt the need to go out to see and experience something and so Martina, Lauren, Paul and I went for a walk around in town. It’s very much bleakly, felt like back in Soviet times and is definitely no spot where I want to live or spend my vacation in. Many side streets were empty and the stadium looked like it’s rarely used with grass growing in areas where people are supposed to exercise or sit.

The “highlight” or our sightseeing tour in Karakol was the town’s Lenin statue where we girls got our picture taken which very much amused the locals. There were a number of other statues from Soviet time but I have no idea who those people are. Another “highlight” was the main street of the town. At least there were some people to watch. Here was also enough space to park cars and people left them everywhere, on the side of the street, in the middle of the street and at the sidewalk. Interesting were also the small shops. Some of them didn’t even look like a shop but more like a residential house with a small poster showing what’s for sale. Since there was nothing special to do we just sat down in front of a shop and watched the world passing by.

After a while it started to rain and we sought shelter in a small shop. While waiting we had a look around and found many items which you could buy loose, thus they weren’t packaged and you could freely decide on the amount to buy. Those items included sweets, pasta, rice and even margarine. As in every store in Central Asia there was also an excellent choice of vodka. In this shop the price for one bottle of vodka started at 60 Som (1.3 USD).

When we finished having a look around it was still raining and so we played a game called: “Go into the shop, buy a strange looking item and we will eat it”. Lauren was first and bought an undefined strange looking and tasting sweet. I was next and bought some stuff which tasted like washing powder but later turned out to be effervescent powder. After eating the two strange sweets we couldn’t handle any more and since it was still raining caught a taxi back home.

In the evening we enjoyed a group dinner prepared by our host family and afterwards had some drinks while watching “Little Britain”, one of my favorite comedies from the UK.

Eagle Hunting and Goat Polo

When putting down our camp this morning we had a nice clear view at the surrounding mountains and the Issyk-Kul Lake. What looked like clouds above the lake yesterday evening turned out to be snow covered mountains. I really enjoy being out in nature and on mornings like this one I wouldn’t exchange my tent against any fancy five star hotel.

Today I want to discuss two sports I came across during my travel in Kyrgyzstan. They are kind of special since we don’t have them back home in Germany. The first one is eagle hunting and the second one goat polo.

Our local guide Erkin had arranged a meeting with a guy who’s into eagle hunting and who was willing to demonstrate it to us. We met him on a wide open space where he waited for us with his son and his eagle. Both, the son and the eagle, had roughly the same age of nine years or so. When the boy is a bit older the eagle will become his and the father will raise another one. The eagle itself was quite large and had an amazing wing span. I also had the chance to hold the eagle on my arm which was only possible with a big leather glove since the claws of the eagle are pretty sharp. The eagle is also kind of heavy and I needed to rest my elbow on my hip to not accidently drop the bird and cause trouble. While I was holding the eagle on my arm it tried to take off for flight twice which was a bit scary. On the other side it was really fascinating to hold that big bird and experience its size and power. It’s these simple moments which make me very much happy.

For the hunting demonstration the guy got a rabbit out of his car and placed it in the open space area. He then climbed on a small hill with the eagle and removed the piece of leather over the bird’s eyes. The eagle took off and was circling over the area and it didn’t take long until the eagle spotted the rabbit, grabbed it and called his owner with a loud and shrill sound. After the owner arrived the eagle started to take the rabbit apart and eating parts of it. It was kind of bloody and guess who was in the first row to see it, Alistair our vegetarian. You might also ask if it’s morally acceptable to kill animals for a sport, so basically kill for entertainment?

The same moral question can be applied for the second sport which is practiced in Kyrgyzstan. It’s goat polo and said to be the most popular national sport of Kyrgyzstan. It’s played like regular polo by guys on horseback but instead of a ball goat polo is played with a headless goat carcass. While being in Kyrgyzstan we tried to watch a goat polo match twice but both times weren’t successful since no goat was available. From a moral standpoint I would have watched the match if it would have been a regular play by the locals and we just join watching it. I probably wouldn’t have watched it when the play was only facilitated for us and we were the direct cause of the goat getting killed.

After the eagle hunting demonstration we stopped in a small village so Alistair and I could go shopping for tonight’s dinner. Alistair has a different shopping style as I do. While I want to first see what’s available on the market, than decide what to cook and buy the stuff, Alistair wants to buy whatever is available and afterwards decide what to cook. Probably both methods will lead to a good result.

We set up camp at another spot at Issyk-Kul Lake and spent a lazy afternoon there. Everybody was just chilling and enjoying the heath of the sun. Only Lauren was brave enough to jump into the lake for an ice-cold bath. In the late afternoon I started to prepare dinner with the help of Martina and Jason since Alistair was on a hike along the lake. While doing so we had an amazing view at the lake which is certainly better than the view from my kitchen back home. We prepared what I called a German dish consisting of sausages, mashed potatoes with onions and stir-fried vegetables.

While we were cooking Alistair came back from his hike. He has met two Germans on a bicycle tour around Kyrgyzstan who are in trouble because one of their bicycles just broke down and they are unable to fix it. We spontaneously invited them for dinner and our driver / mechanic Sam had a look at their bicycle seeing if he can somehow help fixing it. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to do so since the required spare part was missing. So the German couple will need to travel back to Bishkek and try to get the part there.

After dinner we were sitting on the beach where we had some vodka with apple and grape juice. Sam played the guitar for us and Paul gave us an impressive singing performance of Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic”.

Swallows Nest in Altyn Arashan and Camp at Issyk-Kul Lake

Before leaving Altyn Arashan we had the opportunity to visit a special hot spring pool called “Swallows Nest”. Not everybody went since some people were suffering from alcohol poisoning as a result of last night’s vodka drinking event.

“Swallows Nest” is half an hour walk away from Altyn Arashan so you not only enjoy the hot spring but also the hike there. We basically walked along the valley and down to the river were the nest is situated. While travelling overland in remote areas we also cover lots of distance on foot since often no other form of transport is available or simply because we are enjoying it. Just imagine a place which is in half an hour walking distance from your house. How would you usually go there? By car, public transport, pushbike, taxi…? How about walking next time ;-)

The “Swallows Nest” pool is situated very close to the river, a couple of meters up in the rocks. Going there is a little climb which isn’t so easy since the rock is all wet and slippery. Most people left after they saw it but I thought when I came here to take a bath in the nest I should get up there to get wet. So I climbed up and sat down in the nest. The water was actually not that hot more lukewarm but it was an amazing view up there right on the valley and the river. Martina, Helen and Lauren followed and so we four ladies were enjoying the bath together.

After we returned to the camp we quickly put down our tents and packed them into the military truck which will bring us back to Karakol. The ride back was again very bumpy and scenic. I even spotted a sign in the middle of nowhere giving directions to major cities like Tokyo, New York and Moscow. Not sure if they are trustworthy. I also spotted some snow which must be remainder from last winter. I heard there is a lot of snow here during winter time which is several meters high and completely covering the road to Altyn Arashan. I have no idea how people survive here in winter. I would freeze my ass off.

Instead of going by military truck our fellow traveler Alistair decided to go for a walk and so he was ahead of us. After an hour or so we caught up with him and he joined us in the truck. There were also two German ladies staying with us in Altyn Arashan. We offered them to take their luggage with the truck so they can go for a walk towards Karakol. They happily accepted our offer and we picked them up as well. Unfortunately they weren’t really talkative and I had the feeling they came to this remote place in Kyrgyzstan to be away from everybody. Unfortunately they met us and needed to see us partying last night while they just wanted to have a quiet evening.

When we were back in Karakol, four people split from our group to go on a little side trip to the Eki Naryn gorge. The good thing about overland travel is your schedule is never too tight so you have the opportunity to split from the group, travel on your own and re-join the group a couple of days later. So Andrew, Chris, Helen and Isabella had organized a jeep which will take them on a two day journey to the Eki Naryn gorge. I didn’t join them since I was fine with the original schedule, thus spending a couple of days at the Issyk-Kul Lake.

When we arrived at the lake in the afternoon we had some lazy time which we mainly spent with sleeping, walking and chatting. Today’s cook group, consisting of Martina and Paul, cooked us a lovely dinner which was lentil soup. Paul and Wayne also started a campfire at which we prepared our desert which was banana with melted chocolate cookies on a stick. The evening went by very quickly. We chatted around the campfire and played stupid games such as twisting our bodies around a broomstick.

Hot Springs of Altyn Arashan

After two nights in the yurt camp in Jeti-Ögüz it’s time to continue traveling. We drove back to Karakol on the same bad road as we came here. Especially the bridges were a challenge and at some of them we needed to adjust the pieces of wood, the bridge was built with, so our truck was able to drive over them.

On the way we also drove by the small village of Jeti-Ögüz. The place is famous for its hot springs but we won’t visit the springs here but in Altyn Arashan which is our destination for tonight. There are also interesting rock formations in Jeti-Ögüz called Seven Bulls. They consist of red rocks and have a number of small peaks.

In Karakol we needed to say goodbye to Emilie since she needs to go back to Bishkek to deal with her Chinese visa application. While she had already submitted her application a couple of days ago, they first wanted to see the Kyrgyz group visa she is traveling on in Kyrgyzstan and not just a photocopy of it. So we arranged with the help of our local agency that the original group visa gets handed in at the Chinese embassy. After they have seen it they now request Emilie is getting an individual visa for Kyrgyzstan before they will issue her a Chinese visa. Therefore, she needs to travel back to Bishkek and apply for a Kyrgyz transit visa which is the cheapest one available.

In Karakol we also needed to change vehicles since our truck isn’t able to drive up to Altyn Arashan. So we hired some kind of military truck to drive us up there. It cost 5,000 Som (107.3 USD) for going there and coming back. Before jumping on the military truck we quickly packed a daypack since we didn’t wanted to carry our big bags up the mountain. The cook group also went shopping since we will need to cook our own food up there.

The drive up to Altyn Arashan was really bumpy and very much fun. It was amazing to see this military truck driving along what it no proper road but more a hiking trail which is partially steep. There was no traffic caused by other cars but from time to time we needed to stop because a herd of sheep was blocking the road.

Also interesting about the military truck was me finding a sticker of Luca. He’s a Dragoman leader who travelled all over South America, Africa and Asia. Wherever he goes he seems to leave his sticker behind which I could find at the weirdest places all around the world such as in this military truck. Because he’s so well known by now he’s even shortlisted by the travel magazine Wanderlust as guide of the year 2012. I also heard the story that Luca ones got lost in the mountains and wasn’t able to use a compass. But I’m sure he’s a great guide ;-) although I never met him in person.

It took maybe two hours or so to drive up to Altyn Arashan situated at an altitude around 2,400m. It’s basically a couple of houses lying remotely in a beautiful valley of snow covered mountains and a stream in the middle of it. Here we will be camping for one night. Altyn Arashan is mainly known for its hot springs and as soon as I have put up my tent I went to soak my limbs in the hot water. There were three different pools which were all kind of basic but nice. The largest one could fit 3-4 people and was so hot that I only could sit in it for 5 min.

After a self-cooked dinner we had a little party in the dining room. The cook group had not just bought food but also a few bottles of vodka. They all cost around 70 to 90 Som (1.5 to 1.9 USD) which is very cheap. I somehow wasn’t in the mood of drinking and just had a couple of soft drinks. After a while I regretted it since I was sober while everybody else was pretty much drunk. Have you every observed drunk people? They are all kind of childish which you can only bear if you pissed as well.

Hiking in Jeti-Ögüz

It became daylight very early, maybe 5am or so. The material of my tent is very thin so it’s pretty much daylight in it. I slept very well right next to the river with the sound of nature. Although it was raining during nighttime and the grass is all wet, the water level didn’t rise and swamped my tent.

Breakfast was at 8am. We had porridge, stone hard bread and black tea. At 9am people started to go for hikes around the valley near Jeti-Ögüz where our yurt camp is situated. There were basically two groups of people; one group went with our local guide Erkin to see a waterfall and the other one went towards a glacier. For the waterfall hike you really needed a guide since there was no real path leading to it and you just walk across meadows and forest. Therefore, the hike was rather short and people have been back around 11:30am.

I went with Emilie and Chris on a self-guided hike towards the glacier. Alistair was in front of us trying to cover as much distance as possible. Lauren was behind us in a fancy fluffy outfit making her more look like she’s going to a rave party than a hike. We walked until the path ended and then continued over a muddy meadow which wasn’t too much fun since it was hard to walk without getting completely covered in mud. Also there wasn’t any glacier to see, only a couple of snow covered mountains which I guess was it. Even Alistair, who was walking the whole day with high speed, didn’t see a proper glacier. At some point it also started to hail and Emilie and I found shelter under a big tree. We waited 10-15 min for a weather change which didn’t come. The mountains were all covered in big clouds and so we decided to walk back to the yurt camp.

During our hike we also experienced how the local people live in the mountains here. Their lifestyle is very basic. They live in a yurt or basic tent surrounded by their cattle, horses and sheep. The whole family seems to contribute to the work which needs to be done since I saw many kids taking care of the family’s livestock. Although they live a very basic life, all people I’ve met seemed very happy and welcoming. So you basically don’t need much to have a happy and satisfying life. However, I’m probably wouldn’t enjoy sticking to this basic lifestyle for the rest of my life. I could live like this for a couple of months and during summer time only but then would like to return to a more civilized place.

On our hike we also ran into a number of dogs which were barking loudly and came very close whenever we passed by a yurt or tent of a local which I found a bit scary. Probably people here really need dogs for their personal protection and to avoid their livestock getting stolen. On the way back we also met some local kids with which I tried to have a basic conversation with. One girl said “Yum, Yum” to me and pointed towards their yurt. Maybe she wanted to invite me for lunch or so.

We were back at the yurt camp for a late lunch around 1:30pm. We had some kind of big dumpling filled with cabbage which was very delicious. In the afternoon I had a very long nap lasting from 2pm to 7pm since my body seemed to be exhausted. Our leader Jason was also exhausted since he’s suffering from flue. Therefore, he relaxed reading a book about the afterlife and angles. I personally don’t believe in this stuff but he’s really much into it.

While we were relaxing, Martina, Andrew, Paul and Wayne went horseback riding towards the glacier. Their guides were little kids in the age between 6 and 8 who were sitting right behind them on the horse. Since all of them were beginners the kids were having fun seeing them having no real control over the horses. The cost per horse incl. guide was only 15 USD which didn’t go to the kids but the women of the couple owing the yurt camp.

Dinner was at 7:30pm. We had cabbage salad, soup with cabbage and bread filled with mashed potato for starter and four dumplings filled with spring onions and small pieces of meat for main. In the later evening people were sitting in the truck, chatting or reading since there was no light in the yurts we are sleeping in.

Karakol Livestock Market

According to the Lonely Planet the livestock market in Karakol is one of the city’s major attractions. It starts around 4am and runs until 10am or so. Our local guide Erkin told us the earlier we go the better and the more we will see and experience. 4am is really not my time of the day for getting up and so I decided 6:30am will be early enough for me. My roommate Isabella didn’t wanted to get up since she experienced already enough at the livestock market we visited in Ashgabat.

I decided to have a quick breakfast before I go but as soon as I sat down I met my fellow traveler Andrew who wanted to go as well. He had already ordered a taxi and so I skipped breakfast and went with him. The livestock market was only a 10 min drive away from our hotel. As we came closer the street became significantly more crowded. The locals had all sorts of vehicles to transport themselves and their livestock.

The market was crowded too. It took only 1-2 min until I lost sight of Andrew and continued on my own. It was so packed that it was impossible to walk without getting in physical contact with the locals. Actually I didn’t have much interest in the livestock but getting in touch with the locals and experience the rural life in Kyrgyzstan for which it was perfect. The market was divided into different sections depending on the type of livestock for sale. There was a section for sheep, one for cattle and one for horses. I didn’t see any goats or camels as we spotted them on the market in Ashgabat.

The sellers were standing with their livestock in the respective section waiting for a buyer to come by. Some of the sellers looked bored and killed time by reading magazines which they have placed on the back of their sheep. Others were chatting or taking curious looks at me which I returned to them. The buyers took their time to walk across the market, inspecting different animals and negotiating prices. While doing so they appeared pretty calm and relaxed. There were no loud discussions or screaming people.

It took me about an hour to walk across the market and chat with the locals using my hand and feet. Afterwards I returned to the hotel to have breakfast. Since it was still early in the day and we didn’t plan to leave before lunch time, I went for another walk around in town. The buildings in Karakol either look like basic houses which you usually find in rural areas or like relicts of Soviet architecture. It all looks very depressing and obviously there isn’t much money in town to make major improvements.

From the front desk of the hotel I had received a basic map of the town including the location of several points of interest. Based on this information and what I heard from my fellow travelers I decided to visit the Lenin statue, the Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Dungan Mosque. The Lenin statue is a relict of Soviet times. According to our local guide Erkin it was just not removed because there isn’t enough money in town and people don’t really mind the statue. For the visit of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral I covered my hair since all women in the church were wearing a headscarf. It seemed to be a special event going on since the ground of the church was completely covered with grass which was interesting to see. The Dungan Mosque was built for the local Dungans which are Muslim people of Chinese origin. It looked very much different than the mosques we have seen during the past weeks. It’s made of wood, painted in turquoise color and looked more like a Chinese temple than a mosque.

Around 1pm we drove towards Jeti-Ögüz where we will spend the next two nights in yurts. On the way there we stopped at a mountain named “broken heart” but you needed lots of imagination to actually see a heart in this piece of rock. The yurt camp was really lovely. It was situated in the middle of a valley, very close to a river. Driving up there was pretty slow so a couple of people decided to walk. At the yurt camp we had three yurts for us, one yurt as dorm for the girls, one for the boys and one mixed gender.

To have some privacy I decided not to spend the next two nights in the yurt but put my own tent up. After I have done so right next to the river my fellow traveler Andrew scared me by explaining the risk of a flash flood coming down the mountain which made me moving my tent a couple of meters away from the river.

Dinner was prepared by the couple owning the yurt camp. It was served in a special dining yurt where we sat on a pillow on the ground and enjoyed the home-made food and hot black tea.

Issyk-Kul Lake and Cholpon-Ata

Today we drove from our camp in the Chong Kemin Valley to the small town of Karakol. On the way we stopped in Cholpon-Ata, a resort town at the Issyk-Kul Lake. Measured by volume Issyk-Kul Lake is the tenth largest lake in the world. It’s 182 km long, 60 km wide and situated at an altitude of approx. 1,600m which makes it the second largest mountain lake in the world after Titicaca Lake. The Issyk-Kul Lake also has a higher concentration of salt than sea water which makes it the second largest salt lake in the world after the Caspian Sea. Before travelling here I have never even heard about the existence of this lake.

I far as I know “Issyk-Kul” means “warm lake” in the local language. The lake actually never freezes due to its extreme depth of 668m, thermal activity and mild salinity. During Soviet times the lake was a very popular vacation spot with lots of sanatoria around the town of Cholpon-Ata. This is still the case today but the number of tourists declined. They aren’t coming from the whole Soviet Union anymore but mainly from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

We stopped in Cholpon-Ata because we wanted to see the petroglyphs which are pictograms on rock surface. We visited an open-air museum were you can see approx. 2,000 of these petroglyphs. Some of them are very easy to spot and for others you need to use your imagination to actually see something. After walking around for a while we got somewhat bored and my fellow traveler Martina used the time to give Paul a massage on one of the big rocks.

We arrived in Karakol in the late afternoon. Here we also met Erkin our local Kyrgyz guide. Radik, who has been with us during the last days, was just a stand-in for Erkin since he was still busy with another group when we entered the country a couple of days ago.

On the first look Karakol looks very depressed. There are many things which still remind of Soviet times such as a Lenin statue or buildings in Soviet architecture. Erkin told us this is the case because first the town has no money to change these things and second people don’t really care if there are still statues of communist leaders in town since they never really hated them.

We stayed in the Hotel Amir which appeared to be the nicest hotel in town. It features nice modern rooms, internet access and excellent food which we enjoyed at a group dinner. Over dinner we also discussed a potential side trip our fellow traveler Andrew was suggesting. He researched the Eki Naryn gorge is a scenic spot to visit and he wants to organize a jeep to go there. Andrew and Chris will definitely go and see the gorge. Helen and Isabella consider going as well. I quickly looked up pictures of the gorge over the internet and decided not to join the side trip since we will see many similar gorges in Kyrgyzstan. I’m happy with the original itinerary after which we will spend two days camping at the shore of Issyk-Kul Lake and will stick to it.

Later in the evening some people went out to a Russian style nightclub named CCCP and really much enjoyed it.

Hiking and White Water Rafting on the Chong Kemin River

Kyrgyzstan is the country for the outdoor enthusiast. While our stay in Uzbekistan mainly consisted of visiting Islamic buildings, Kyrgyzstan is about hiking, horseback riding and staying in yurts. Many of us were looking forward to this change in order to return to a more overlanding style of travel and get some physical exercise.

This morning different people went on different activities. Alistair, Wayne, Chris, Paul and I went on a hike together with our local guide Radik. Jason, Sam, Martina and Helen went horseback riding, Isabella was having a look at the local flora and all others had a sleep-in.

Our hike lasted five hours and led us towards the top of the mountain range behind the small village we were staying in. Radik has never been to the area before and got rough instructions on where to go from the manager of the campsite. I’m not sure if he led us to the most scenic spots in the area but I didn’t care too much since I was glad to simply move again. The older boys, Alistair, Wayne and Chris, went quite fast on the uphill part of the path so the younger ones, Paul and I, had to struggle. It’s not we are unfit but Alistair goes on a hike on every! day in his live, Wayne every weekend or so and Chris is a trained mountain-biker. They simply have more exercise in walking uphill which was amazing to experience.

The hike itself was pretty scenic. First we walked through the village with its basic houses and yurts. Then we went uphill to a viewpoint where we had a nice view on the village below us. Continuing from there we found ourselves in the middle of meadows, trees and snow caped mountains. During our hike we also ran into a number of animals including cattle, horses and a snake which I wouldn’t have expected here at 2,200m altitude.

After a quick lunch six of us went white water rafting. I was a bit exhausted from the hike and therefore not really in the mood for rafting but since I had signed-up for it, I thought I’ll better go. Radik and the manager of the campsite joined us as well so we were eight people sitting in one boat. The difficulty of the rapid was classified as grade 3 (out of 5 available) so it was pretty easy to navigate and more like a nice afternoon on the Chong Kemin River than an extreme sport. The manager of the campsite even took a couple of phone calls while rafting and after a while we started joking if he has that many girlfriends calling him. We spent about two hours paddling on the river and even managed to get wet. Only parts of it were waves, the remaining water came from us splashing water at each other.

While we were away for our activities, our driver Sam was maintaining the truck. He somehow seems to enjoy lying underneath the truck and getting filthy. He also seems to enjoy posing for photos with his big spanners.

In the evening Emilie arrived from Bishkek where she has submitted her application for the China visa. I’m glad she’s with us again also because Andrew is sick and so she can help me cooking. I asked a number of people if they have an idea how to prepare the dish Andrew wanted to cook consisting of spaghetti, tined tuna, mustard and yoghurt. Nobody seemed to know and nobody seemed excited of me trying to cook it. So I decided to open some tined vegetables and Emilie and I cooked a vegetable based sauce going with the spaghetti.

After dinner it was poker time again. I seemed to have infected some people with this fascinating game. Sam even asked me to suggest him some books to study the game.