Where the hell is Kyrgyzstan?
“Where the hell is Kyrgyzstan?” That’s what a mate asked me in the travel literature section of Borders last year. The guy who asked me this is a well-informed, well-read Joint Honours graduate (for the Strathclyde-grads contingent, the guy was Michael Collins). He was by no means the only person who gave me a blank look when I said I’d be travelling through Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is the MAN
Kyrgyzstan is a relatively small, landlocked former Soviet republic in Central Asia. It has the population of Scotland. It’s also an intriguing mix of peoples, languages and ideas. Our seemingly endless car journeys here have shown that this is a country of astounding natural beauty. Most of the local people we’ve met in Kyrgyzstan (excluding shared-car ‘taxi’ drivers, who are subhuman, money-grabbing scum!) are warm and friendly. They are also proud of their country and open to foreigners being here.
Bizarre Soviet decisions have led to some of the world’s most ethnically mixed-up borderlines. Gerrymandering, and other strange political behaviour, has created a situation where there are entire towns in Southern Kyrgyzstan comprised solely of ethnic Uzbeks. We visited one of these towns – Arslanbob – where we stayed with a local Uzbek-Russian family who participate in an excellent scheme called Community Based Tourism (CBT). CBT is a Swiss-supported initiative designed to increase tourist interaction with locals and to ensure that tourist revenue goes directly to local communities. By organising home stays with local families; and by arranging treks, tours and transport with local guides and drivers etc, CBT cuts out the traditional tourist agency middle-man. It’s an excellent, highly practical idea.
In Arslanbob we stayed in a picturesque country house/farm that had a colourful garden with many fruits and vegetables. There was also a stream, many animals and an array of plants and trees. It was the perfect place to chill out before and after an exhausting trek.
Our never-ending trek to the Holy Lakes
After seeing city after city in every country we’ve travelled through, we were keen to experience the mountainous charm of Kyrgyzstan. We arranged a three-day, two-night trek through CBT. It would take us from 1,500 m in Arslanbob over a 3,500-metre pass, then to a collection of Holy Lakes, and back to the town. The lakes, collectively called Kol Kupan, form an eye-catching place to where many local Uzbek Muslims travel in pilgrimage every year. We went with two CBT contacts – Nizod, our guide, and Shezad, the cook. Both were local Uzbeks with a nostalgic yearning for the glory days of the USSR. Both also had a serious nicotine addiction. Nizod looked overweight but was in fact extremely fit and, unlike us, totally accustomed to trekking at altitude. His enthusiasm was fuelled by a small jar of chewing tobacco, which we lovingly took out at every break. Likewise, Shezad lit a cigarette at every given opportunity, including – worryingly – during cooking.
Indie naively wondered if we’d have to trek uphill. The first and second day unequivocally showed the answer was yes! In spite of the beautiful scenery and cool fresh air, the trekking was rigorous and very demanding. On the second day, we got up at 0600 and did a four-hour, 1000-metre ascent, most of which we had to climb with our hands too. It was hard going, and not just cos of us not having exerted ourselves much in Asia. The trek wasn’t helped by Nizod’s confusingly vague explanations. For a start, the guy’s English was pretty out there. Imagine a heavy Russian accent booming the following phrases:
“I see Indie very, very tired. I not think he make Holy Lake”,
“I recommendation go very slowly”, and
“This here rest ten minutes.”
Actually, he was probably thinking the same thing about my dodgy, grammatically challenged Russian. He was a jovial and upbeat guy, and even surprised us with Snickers bars when we reached the 3,500-metre pass. Nonetheless, some of his comments were misleading at best.
Nizod says: “from here only one hour to lunch”
In reality: There is at least an hour and a half’s good walking til we stop for lunch, probably two
Nizod says: “to get to campsite we go past easy pastures then through small canyon”
In reality: We will indeed go through easy pastures, but that’s where the ‘easy’ grinds to a halt. We’ll be faced with a massive, towering canyon. We won’t go ‘through’ it – far from it. We’ll climb it, exhausted. Indie will vomit along the way.
Nizod says: “I think maybe today trekking six-seven hours, ok?”
In reality: If we totally push ourselves to the limit, we’ll be lucky to finish the day’s trekking in under ten hours.
In retrospect, it was overall an excellent experience, and one I’d repeat. But it was way tougher than we thought. Some of the downhills were just endless scree – like walking over marbles. On our return to the Arslanbob guesthouse we read comments from several people in the visitors book – all warning of the demanding Holy Lakes trek!
Only in Kyrgyzstan…
Only in Kyrgyzstan does a 48-km bus journey take three hours. It is incredibly slow (stopping every couple minutes) and absurdly full (at one point there was literally not enough standing space in the aisle to put both feet flat on the floor).
Only in Kyrgyzstan is the border control point located ten km from the Chinese departure point, leaving you with a weird, tiring walk across a vast no-mans-land!
Only in Kyrgyzstan do you find dorm accommodation in a converted Soviet-style flat, full of Japanese tourists. Random.
Only in Kyrgyzstan do you walk into a tourist agency and start speaking to the guy in Russian, before realising he is, in fact, an eccentric but very helpful Englishman. When you tell him you’ve been using a Lonely Planet guidebook, he gives you an appalled look, like you’ve just uttered some grave insult (“Austin, that’s my mother!!” style).
This is a strange and relatively unknown place. Here in Bishkek, there are Russian looking people – many of whom are blonde. There are also people who look Chinese, Kazakh, Turkish, Arab and South Asian.
In China, Indie took charge of all negotiation with locals. I limited myself to smiling and saying ‘please, thank you, hello, goodbye, how much is this?’. In the space of a walk across the Chinese/Kyrgyz no-mans-land, the roles have reversed. I studied Russian at uni til third year, but I hadn’t spoken it, let alone read it, in two and a half years before coming here. Day by day, it’s coming back to me, but it’s a real challenge.
We’ve come a long way from Vietnam. To re-cap just how far, check this out:
In Vietnam we travelled 2,200 km
In Cambodia we travelled 1,300 km
In Laos we travelled 1,800 km
In China we travelled 10,000 km
We’re more than half way home!
Indie on the Iraq War
This week I have been feeling a little drained and have used all my creativity trying to add to my own book- ‘A Life Through Asia’. So if this entry seems a bit confused, forgive me. For a while now, I have been wanting to write about the Iraq War. Tony and George (T + G) call it ‘the War on Terror’ or, rather, part of ‘the War on Terror’. But for me it is a war of terror. The fact that first it was all about these WoMD but then after none were found, it changed to ‘installing democracy’, is something that should be scrutinized. If they care so much about democracy and human rights – the soul’s right to breathe; to live freely – then why aren’t they making more of an effort to stop so many violations going on in so many other parts of the world? I guess that is an obvious point.
I suppose other obvious remarks are – why can some countries have WoMD and others not? Why can some countries prevent others from having them? Why does America/UK let India and Pakistan have WoMD but not Iran or Iraq? They tell us that it’s because the leaders of these countries are radical, crazy and more likely to use them. But no one has to be reminded that only one country as used nuclear weapons forcefully on another nation. And this leads me to say that T+G don’t have all their marbles intact either. When Parkinson questioned Tony about his actions in Iraq, he said “sometimes you have to put your faith in god”. Hmmmm…. Bush himself says that he has ‘conversations with God’ and that his favourite philosopher is Jesus. Can you believe that people like this are in charge?
It seems funny that people who inflict terrorist attacks on the West also claim that they are acting in God’s name. Basically, it has to be said that it is a war on Islam. Christianity v Islam. And a war to secure oil – that precious commodity that is slowly destroying our planet.