Kyrgyzstan; exploring the vast wilderness

Somewhere in Asia is a region I wanted to visit for several years now. It is historically defined by its nomadic people, a region with an extreme continental climate and where few cities have been developed. It’s also a region which has acted as a crossroad for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe and Asia. In my perception it had not yet been discovered by mass tourism and in addition, some very interesting culture, architecture and scenery would tickle my senses. I’m referring here to Central Asia, or “the Stans”. Of course, I couldn’t wait any longer to go explore…

The countries being part of Central Asia are often referred to as the “Stans”. Stan simply means land or country in Persian or Farsi which makes for a reasonable explanation for the names of the former Soviet Republics. The countries that comprise Central Asia are Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. My plan was to visit all but the last one. Because there is too much to tell about these countries, I have decided to split the report into several parts, otherwise it would become too long…

On May 5, 2017 I flew into Bishkek to start my trip. A few days in the capital would be followed by a visit to Issyk-Kul, Kol-Ukok, Chatyr-Kul and Tash Rabat. Staying in a yurt, wandering around in amazing scenery and soaking up as much local culture as I could, were amongst the expectations.

Kyrgyzstan as we know it today is only 25 years old. August 31 in 1991 independence from the Soviet Union was officially declared. The country has a dominant agricultural sector and the vast majority of the Kyrgyz people are Muslim, followed by Russian Orthodoxy. The country is extremely sparsely populated. With its nearly 200.000 squared kilometers the country comprises an area five times as large as the Netherlands but the population is just under three times as small with only 6 million inhabitants. As a result there is plenty of countryside and wild nature to explore…

vast landscapes, like this one at the Torugart pass, are very common in Kyrgyzstan

But before I tell you more about my explorations in Kyrgyzstan, I have to mention some of the rumors spread on the internet. The first one is the lack of ATMs. According to many popular websites about traveling in Kyrgyzstan, you have to bring US dollars, no euros, with you and exchange them in Bishkek because there is no way to get the local currency in any other way. Well, on every corner of the street an ATM can be found, in Bishkek but also in every other city or small town. And, euros can be exchanged just as easily as dollars. Thanks for spending a lot of money by changing my euros into dollars! The second rumor is that you have to declare your valuables at the airport and that it is very important to keep the form to show it on departure. Even if you want to declare something at the airport, it’s simply impossible. So, also not true! The third and last one is about registration. Within five days after arrival in Kyrgyzstan every tourist has to register at the police office. Also, not true. These rules changes very often, so possibly some of the resources online are slightly outdated. Or, maybe some organizations benefit by a lack of tourism in Kyrgyzstan, because otherwise I really don’t know why they spread these rumors. In the end Kyrgyzstan turned out to be much easier to travel than they want you to believe.

Okay, back to the trip. The first two days were spent in Bishkek, the capital. With around a million inhabitants it’s not a very big city but you’d expect some sights and interesting things to see. Well, this is not the case. Bishkek is not very attractive, to put it mildly. The Osh bazaar, a local market, is one of the few interesting places in the city. A wide variety of products can be found here, from all kinds of food to clothes, souvenirs and musical instruments. Unfortunately, most of the fun of wandering around at this market is taken away by fake policemen walking around to harass tourists with an attempt to steal their belongings. It happened to me too but I walked away as soon as I could…

typical bread selection at the Osh bazaar in Bishkek

The history and culture of Central Asia is defined by the area’s climate and geography. The dry climate made agriculture difficult and its distance from the sea cut it off from much trade. As a result few major cities have developed. Instead, the area has been dominated for millennia by nomads. Their lifestyle is continued in Kyrgyzstan. In the summer, shepherds and their families take their cattle and belongings to the mountains and settle temporarily in yurts. One of my goals of the trip was to experience this lifestyle. It would be naive to think you can live as a nomad or shepherd during a short visit but I wanted to have at least a taste of it and absorb as much as possible…

My first stop was the lake of Issyk-Kul, the largest of Central Asia. It can be reached by marshrutka (minibuses that leave when they are full) in about five hours. On the Southern shore the Bel-Tam yurt camp can be found, which turned out to be a good spot to meet other travelers. Together with Marion and Audrey from France, I explored the nearby Fairy Tale canyon, a beautiful area for some short hikes. Shortly after, we headed towards Kochkor from where the French ladies had planned a horseback riding trip into the nearby mountains and guess what, they allowed me to join them. With staying in a yurt, spending time with a shepherd family and visiting a lake in the high mountains being on the agenda, this trip had everything I was looking for in Kyrgyzstan!

life in the mountains with a shepherd family

Kol-Ukok, a lake located at 3.042 meters in the North-Eastern Terskey Ala Too mountains, was about 4 hours away by horse. This is of course at a “tourist-pace”. A professional equestrian will probably reach the destination within 30 minutes. I have some horseback riding experience under my belt, but it had been a few years since the last time I had been on a quadruped. However, within minutes I was back on track on my horse and together with Marion and Audrey I was on my way to the shepherd family in the middle of the mountains, about 2,5 hours away from the starting point. The scenery during the ascent was breathtaking with green mountain faces on both sides, shepherds controlling their cattle and snowy peaks in the distance. Around noon we arrived at our accommodation for the night. We were warmly welcomed with smiles and lunch…

A lovely couple and two of their small children live in a small house during the summer months while their oldest daughter is studying in Bishkek to become a teacher. Their oldest son, also our guide on this trip, is traveling between Kochkor and their house in the mountains several times a week. The little ones were curious, happy and very entertaining. Lunch was delicious but the warmth of the family was what made the stay. Every time we entered the house, we felt very welcome. The kids wanted to play all the time and really seemed to enjoy the freedom they have in the mountains. What I like about these places is the basic lifestyle. Materialistic things like clothes and electronics are not important. No, what matters is being together and appreciate the basic things in life. We slept next door in a yurt. Inside, our beds consisted of several layers of thin mattresses and blankets and in the end of the day a heater was installed. By 8:30 pm we went to bed with an attempt to sleep through the cold and wake up the next day in order to visit Kol-Ukok…

left: Paul “Whitaker”, right: the beautiful lake “Kol-Ukok”

Early in the morning the horses were ready and after a hearty breakfast with endless refills of tea, we started the ascent towards the lake. The final part of the ascent got steeper and steeper and I could only think about the return. Going downhill on a horse was not the most enjoyable, as far as I could remember from my previous horse riding adventure. First things first, we arrived at the lake in beautiful weather. The remote lake was deserted. We left the horses alone for a while and enjoyed the peaceful and spectacular setting. The lake was almost completely frozen but, after some navigation through rocks, I found an open spot in the ice which was useful for a nice photo. After all, reflections of mountains in a lake always add to landscape photography!

Roughly an hour later, time had come to head back to the yurt. Before we were able to enjoy lunch with the lovely family, we first had to make our way down the mountain. To relinquish control, especially to a horse, is something I found quite hard. But, when you keep in mind that the horse doesn’t want to fall either, things become a bit easier. Luckily my horse wasn’t suicidal, so we made it down safely. On the flatter parts I even enjoyed some accelerations on my “Ratina-Z”. Back at the yurt, the kids were outside waving at us and smiling as always. After a short session of playtime, we were invited for lunch. Tasty oromo (Kyrgyz dumplings) were accompanied by bread, jam and of course … tea. Around 2 pm we had to say goodbye to our new friends in order to ride the horses down to the valley and return to Kochkor. Thanks Marion and Audrey, without you I would never have visited Kol-Ukok and have such a memorable experience!

local men enjoying a conversation on the streets of Naryn

Before heading into the mountains towards Kol-Ukok, we had applied for permits in order to visit the Torugart pass where Chatyr-Kul is located. On arrival in Naryn, about two hours by shared taxi from Kochkor, our permits were ready. We arranged the logistics and the following morning we headed South towards the Chinese border. On the agenda for this two-day trip were the Torugart pass, the lake of Chatyr-Kul and Tash Rabat, home to a 15th century caravanserai.

The first day we drove quite a bit, all the way towards the border with China. After several hours in the car we arrived at the first checkpoint. We showed our permit and they inspected our car. Everything was OK and we continued towards the next checkpoint to see if we could go a bit further into no-man’s land. The scenery along the Torugart pass was quite stunning and due to the lack of any sign of human activity, it felt really remote which it actually also is to some extent. We passed the formalities again but this time we were accompanied by an officer who made sure we didn’t jump into China. After several minutes in a very strange place, we turned around and made our way to Chatyr-Kul…

a variety of colors creates spectacular scenery near Chatyr-Kul

The lake of Chatyr-Kul is located at an elevation of 3.530 meters and is, together with a 2 km buffer zone around it, part of the Karatal-Japyryk State Nature Reserve. It is a so-called endorheic alpine lake which means that it doesn’t allow outflow to rivers or oceans but converges instead into lakes or swamps. We started walking from the road towards the lake and were soon confronted with the characteristics of the lake. Navigating between small lakes and swamps made it extremely difficult to get to the actual lake itself. The setting was nevertheless amazing, no matter where we were. When I ventured a bit further than my French travel companions, I also noticed a lot of birds and started to wonder whether I was allowed to walk where I was. Most likely I had entered the nature reserve. I decided to turn around. Getting to the lake would take at least another hour, if possible at all. Together with the ladies, I continued the journey to the final destination of the day: Tash Rabat.

Tash Rabat, which roughly translates into stone fortification, is known for its caravanserai. In summer however, it’s also a popular stopover for people traveling from Kyrgyzstan to China and vice versa. Research suggests that it used to be a monastery in the 10th century. From the 15th century it has been used as a caravanserai, a roadside inn supporting the flow of trade along the Silk Road. During our visit it was very quiet in Tash Rabat. It seemed like we were the only guests staying overnight in the whole area (there are several yurt camps). Besides a visit to the caravanserai, we explored the area by hiking to a viewpoint and observing marmots…

“extremely tiny house” in Tash Rabat

The family, consisting of three generations, lived in some sort of train wagon. In the Netherlands this could easily be a very hip tiny house with the difference that a maximum of two people would live in there instead of six in case of this family (another difference would be that everyone would have a beard and a tattoo, wear an oversized t-shirt and possibly brew their own beer in order to be original and unique but that’s a completely different story…) So, in this case it’s more of an extremely tiny house. But, at least they have a huge, basically unlimited, garden. We were invited in their little house for every meal of the day. The food was delicious and the people were very friendly, although not being as open as the shepherd family near Kol-Ukok. They also wanted us to buy souvenirs which they happily displayed in one of the yurts. This gave a more touristy feel to our visit which was a shame. But, other than that, Tash Rabat was very impressive and the stay in the yurt, which had actual beds, was comfortable.

the caravanserai of Tash Rabat is beautifully located in the mountains of the At-Bashy district

Several hours by car later, we were back to some form of civilization in the name of Kochkor. This metropolis – around a thousand people spread out in a rather off putting setting – has about three restaurants. One was always full of locals which could be considered positive but hygiene did not really seem to be a priority. The other was completely empty and dark and the third one was weird but clean at least. We opted for this one on our last night before we went separate ways. A huge restaurant with a white interior and hardly any regular light but with green laser beams in the center, in case the old ladies took a shot at the dance floor. The waiters did not speak a word of English and the menu was only available in Russian. Other customers were scarce. In other words, we arrived at a restaurant one would normally try to avoid at all costs. In Kochkor however, this was the place to be for a decent meal…

Since I had tried Boso Lagman before and really liked it, this was the meal I ordered. Luckily they had it. It’s basically meat with some vegetables and thick noodles. I was also interested in a salad but ordering one was not easy. Trying to point at other tables to find out which ingredients had what name turned out to be a start. Some google translation also helped a little bit. But still, it was not completely clear which salad I had to order. At one point I had narrowed down my options to three salads and I decided to pick the one with the least number of ingredients. This turned out to be a Russian salad, something I was not looking for…

Boso Lagman (right) turned out to be a good choice, especially when you take into account that the menu (left) was pure abacadabra

The next morning, before going back to Bishkek, I wanted to visit the weekly animal market. In the morning I was woken up by the local imam at around 4:30 am. I had no idea sunrise was so early… Luckily the imam also triggered the street dogs to make some noise, so sleeping was over for the night. After breakfast I was able to join the owners of the guest house to the gathering of farmers and other locals who were looking to trade some animals. About 15 minutes later I arrived in a mix of mainly stressful sheep, goats, cows and horses but also geese, chicken, rabbits and other small animals were present at the market. I said stressful because it was pretty clear to me that the animals were aware something unpleasant was about to happen. For the traders, however, this was business as usual. Young and old were together, looking to either sell their cattle or to expand their stock. It was a rather fascinating scene. Once a trade was completed, the animals were put in the trunk of the car. That was not the most pleasant scene but I guess it’s part of life in Kyrgyzstan. Below you can see a proud boy with his goat…

a proud boy with his goat, do you think he wants to sell it?

After my visit to the animal market I went back to Bishkek. After a day or two of relaxing and digest all the impressions and experiences, this trip to Kyrgyzstan had come to an end. Initially I didn’t have huge expectations about this country. As a result, I came rather unprepared. However, Kyrgyzstan got me by surprise because, in fact, it has a lot to offer. Bishkek might not be very attractive but as soon as you leave the capital city, you’ll experience a lot of freedom around the beautiful lakes and in the many mountains. The people still seem to be extremely honest, at least outside Bishkek. The price for a taxi is fixed (yes, you read that correctly) and bills for food and accommodation are settled according to menus and fixed arrangements. Even though they could easily rip all tourists off because of the language barrier. The question is of course, for how long? A visa is not required anymore for travelers from many countries (all EU-countries for example), prices are very low, scenery is breathtaking and a tourist infrastructure is slowly being developed. I’m afraid the attitude from locals towards tourists will change in the coming years…

Being lost in translation is really applicable to traveling in Kyrgyzstan. Hardly anybody speaks a word of English and since Russian and Kyrgyz are so different than the Latin languages, it’s impossible to guess what the other person means. The Cyrillic script is a true mystery so that doesn’t help either. As a result I ordered the same food quite often, simply because I knew the name of the dish and that I liked it. Communication with locals is very limited if not impossible which gave me the feeling of being an observer or outsider instead of being part (at least to some extent) of daily life. One way to arrange your logistics in Kyrgyzstan is by hopping from CBT to CBT-office. CBT stands for Community Based Tourism and every relevant town or city has one. There is someone who speaks English, can arrange tours and point you to a guest house, usually theirs. The more popular towns usually have a travel agency as well.

During this trip I haven’t seen all that Kyrgyzstan have to offer. Karakol and Osh are two cities from where more wilderness can be explored. I might pay a visit to these regions in the near future. In June I will return to Kyrgyzstan for some skiing and since that will place at high elevation, some acclimatization is recommended. And guess which areas are perfectly suited for some high altitude trekking…

So, if you’re looking to spend some time in the wilderness and have a unique experience at low cost then Kyrgyzstan might be the choice for you. Don’t wait too long before the attitude of the locals towards tourists might change!

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Kyrgyzstan!

2 Responses to Kyrgyzstan; exploring the vast wilderness

  1. Oliver says:

    Nice article Paul! Bringing back good memories from when I was in Kyrgyszstan 3 years ago(whoa, was it already 3 years ago!?!?). And of course amazing photos, as expected of you 😉 !!
    Cheers, Oliver

    • Paul says:

      Hey Olli! Thanks, yeah Kyrgyzstan is quite nice. Are you still in Copenhagen? I just had a great Mango / Kokos lassi in Berlin (let me know if you’re around Berlin, I’m here for 3 months)!

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