In Uzbekistan I collected pieces of paper to provide proof of where I’d slept on every single night in the country. But not as some strange holiday souvenir – this was a legal obligation. A few of the receipts I’d personally crafted, and weren’t officially legal – I was a criminal – a fugitive in a foreign land. These receipts were to be presented upon leaving the country. But how much would they fine me? Could I be detained? Would my embassy be able to help me? I’d bring shame upon my family, friends and nation!… Paranoia???
Well this was the general consensus amongst the travellers we had met in Uzbekistan, and since we were now leaving the country it was time to find out…
For judgment day, we chose the most obscure and insignificant border crossing we could find. I gave over my passport – several well-rehearsed lies at the ready… the border guard took it, deftly shuffled through it until he found the required page…and Thud! He handed me my passport. That was it? I’m free? Hey hang on a minute! I’ve lovingly nurtured countless pieces of paper and you don’t even wanna see em? What about all my exquisite forgeries?
We checked into our first Kyrgyz hotel with a minimum of acrobatic bureaucracy – I even changed money at the bank without providing a DNA sample – this newly acquired freedom was going to take a while to get used to… but I liked it!
Since the great Kyrgyz Mountains beckoned we decided to go straight off the beaten track. After the dust and heat of Uzbekistan the cool clean mountain air had taken on mystical qualities – I’d missed it with a passion. It would be a three-day trip if all went to plan, through the central badlands of Kyrgyzstan to Song Kul (the last lake). There were no buses across the first mountain pass to Kazarman so we spent half a day finding something affordable for the challenge. Nurlan, who worked for the ‘Kyrgyz-Swiss Forestry Support Programme’, eventually pointed us in the right direction. All we had to do was wait for the two remaining spaces in the car to fill before we could leave. In the meantime Nurlan showed us a rather nice (if a little pricey) restaurant to pass the time. The food was first class, and yet I couldn’t stop myself from wondering as Nurlan ordered the most expensive dishes on the menu; am I footing the bill for this extravagant splurge?
But with a proud smile Nurlan covered it. We met 30 minutes ago, we’ll almost certainly never see each other again – and you just bought us lunch??? Although I’ve experienced this before in Sudan and Iran, it still manages to blow my ‘there’s-no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch’ mindset. $6 is a fortune round these ways – I was crestfallen!
We travelled up through the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains past farmer’s busily harvesting sunflowers – for despite the still ferociously hot days, autumn was fast approaching. A couple of hours into our journey we took a refreshment stop in the narrowing valley and got talking to some truckers. It turned out they were heading in our direction and we could ride with them for free almost all the way to our destination. We took the bait, paid our taxi and jumped ship. It was a great journey, through dry, dusty windswept peaks that reminded me of Afghanistan or Ladakh. We laughed and joked about the unfortunate Uzbeks and Karimov – they ridiculed the Danish and English monarchies and bitched about corruption in their own land. After Uzbekistan this kind of loose talk was a revelation. Inevitably the truck broke down, but after a lot of head scratching and hammering we continued on our journey into the night. At a midnight supper break, slurping on Fergana melons amidst the silhouetted moonlit mountains beneath the magnificent starry heavens, I couldn’t help thinking ‘surely this is culture’?
After only a couple of hours sleep we trundled into a tiny village at around 7am. We were invited into a house for breakfast; and I broke my Georgian ‘early bird vodka toasting record’. As the vodka hit my virginal morning stomach I was pissed by 8am – this was going to be a good day. We said goodbye to our trucking hosts and commandeered a car to take us the remaining 50kms up to Song Kol.
The Alpine lake of Song Kul is situated above the tree line at over 3000m. The only stuff that grows up there is grass and edelweiss flowers. Ringed by 4000m mountains, this vast grassland is populated in the summer by semi nomads in Yurts who come here to graze their animals. It reminded me of the Bolivian Altiplano (with grass!).
We’d heard you could go up there, pay a few bucks and stay with a family. This was all true, but with a twist… when we arrived we introduced ourselves to the family and ask if it would be at all possible…then an old grinning nomadic woman handed me an English language pricelist. We discovered that a Swiss NGO had decided in its infinite wisdom to regulate all this ad hoc home stay stuff, for the apparent benefit of both the locals and the tourists. Looking down the price list I could see it would most definitely benefit the locals! A month’s wages for two people to stay the night (you can buy two sheep with that kind of money around here!). And what’s this? I have to pay $5 if I want you to dance for an hour! … The list went on. My vodka breakfast made the whole thing a little easier to grasp – I actually thought I was on candid camera. I explained to her we weren’t Swiss and neither was she, so we should forget all about that little piece of paper and do things the old fashioned way.
I have since feverishly researched this NGO and found out they have a finger in almost every area of Kyrgyz development; forestry, agriculture, women’s rights and tourism. Once upon a time it was called Shepard’s Life, now it has a brother called CBT (community based tourism) and a sister tourist agency called Novinomad. All these agencies are run by the Swiss NGO Helvetas, which is funded by the Swiss government and USAID. They’d basically given this nomadic woman a guidebook on how to treat foreigners correctly whilst staying in her house and a phrasebook so she can learn useful phrases like ‘Bon appetite’. To add insult to injury (in my opinion) when you leave she gives you a ‘Customer Feedback Form’ which asks you to grade her hospitality from 1 to 5 and whether or not you would recommend her to a friend and what you think she needs to improve.
My girlfriend sees no problem in all this, so I’m not sure if I’m over reacting – but to me it’s all a bit too much. In brief, I think it’s a little too contrived and takes away some of the magic of staying with a family. But perhaps more importantly it could have long-term damage on the local’s way of life. The new ‘Lonely Planet Central Asia’ has just been released, and after looking at it briefly, it seems they absolutely love the system, which no doubt means it will be massively popular over the next few years. This will ultimately attract more local people to enroll in the system. But since tourists are a particularly temperamental bunch and this is a very volatile part of the world – a bit of unrest and a few mentions of Al Qaeda will have the tourists running for cover and leave a lot of empty tourist Yurts.
We tried our first batch of Kymys (fermented horse milk) at Song Kol. It tasted like BBQ’ed fizzy milk, with a dash of vinegar. Watching women milk horses is pretty shocking – I thought I’d walked onto the set of ‘Farmyard Girls 3’. The Nomads love it! The whole family was constantly burping and belching – and no matter how many times the old women produced a momentous burp, it never lost its comic value.
It was cold up at 3000m and having come from 40C to minus 6C in just 24hrs, my skinny system found it hard to cope. Fortunately the nomads have some experience in keeping the cold out, and after the longest bed making ceremony I’d ever witnessed we were soundly asleep (Wrapped in 30 psychedelic quilted blankets).
Despite the atmospheric charm of Song Kol, I still pined for the mountains. We travelled to Karakol in northern Kygyzstan, which is a lot more Russified than the south; and entered the Kyrgyz backpacker circuit. Though we hadn’t come for the culture…
Back in the timeless mountains staring Mother Nature Square in the face, respect seems to grow with every step. The balance of power ebbing slowly away, until petty humbleness surrenders to awe. For the diamond air has a knife-edge – and as timeless as the mountains are, they’re constantly under attack from the wild temperamental moods of the sky. At the end of our second day the weather changed violently, forcing us to take refuge in our tent for the best part of 18 hours. We camped at 3600m, battered by persistent hail and snow throughout the night – and this was summer! At noon the following day, the weather improving sufficiently for us to tackle the snowy pass, providing us with a stormy panorama of the Tian Shan.
After only a few days in the mountains its easy to be a romantic… up where the rivers are spawned; following their course as they twist and merge on their journey through lush green valleys where courting butterflies dance amongst wild flowers, placid cattle and prancing horses. Imaginative thoughts of a perfect world become distant illusions as my curiosity gets the better of me and I tune into The BBC World Service on my SW Radio. That blissfully ignorant river will soon flow into a world where it seems suicide and cold-blooded murder are the only way people seem to be able to make a political statement nowadays. But first it will pass the little Kyrgyz town of Karakol where an increasing number of entrepreneurial locals have discovered that for 5 minutes work slapping a tourist about, they can earn a year’s wages.
Oh well, life’s good; I just stumbled upon an impromptu game of Buzkashi (a traditional polo-like game played with a headless goat carcass). I sit in the hot spring bath, resting my weary muscles and watch the sun go down on the suddenly beautifully clear evening (feeling mightily fortunate since that private little display of Buzkashi would have cost us $65 to arrange through CBT). Though soon I’ll have to climb out of here and my steaming wet skin will be attacked by the cold mountain air as I dash back to the tent.
After our first stint in the Kyrgyz Mountains we travelled to Lake Issyk Kol, (the second largest Alpine Lake in the world) for a bit of R&R and maybe a chance to spread the tan from my face to the rest of my body. At 1600m, it was a bit chilly; walking along the blustery beach in our warmest clothes reminded me of a northern European beach holiday. The only difference being the Russian men; lined up, hands on hips, red as lobsters, staring at the autumn sun in their skimpy swimming trunks.
With only two weeks left on our visa we were moving fast. We headed further to the north of Kyrgyzstan for a few more days in the mountains. This time up Al Archa Canyon to Ak Say Glacier. Being in the north, the trekking season was almost over. Climbing above 4000m became quite technical since the snow was frozen and stubbornly resisted when I tried making headway on steep climbs. Autumn was in full swing, and despite the luxury of staying in a stone cabin up at the snow line – as spectacular as it was – we froze our Asses off!
Weeks earlier in Uzbekistan, fantasies of cool Kyrgyz snow showers had kept me sane through the blisteringly hot days…
Be careful what you wish for😉
I’m still in Kyrgyzstan, and in two days we will attempt the mountain crossing into China…