Kyrgyzstan road tripping

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If you want tips on driving in Kyrgyzstan click here!

~BISHKEK~ Max, my cousin & travel partner, and I met in Bishkek(the capital of Kyrgyzstan), in the evening time. I had a nice long cab ride after my cab driver got lost. We met at Bublik, a hip cafe with tasty food and filled with locals, as most cafes are at night in Bishkek. Max was with a guy from France and his girlfriend, a woman from Russia. We spent an hour eating, drinking tea, and exchanging stories. The French/Russian couple were freelancers, teachers, and travelers, traveling for a year now. We were all staying with Noah, a guy we met on Couchsurfing.com, who was now living in Bishkek as an English teacher, after living in various countries among Iraq, Uganda, and Portugal. We all took the Marshrutka to his place.

This is a Marshrutka: alt text

Max and I got the couches, while the couple got the kitchen. (Just the way it rolls)

Day 2: Max’s luggage was lost by Aeroflot. So we had a lovely trek back to the airport. Afterwards, we wandered the city looking at various neighborhoods and finding food. A few of the sites in the city. —-

This is the “Eternal Flame,” which you can find in most Russian cities, apparently in the former Soviet countries also. It’s dedicated to the lives lost in WW2. alt text

An art museum. Max was less than dissapointed. Mainly because it was supposed to have ancient items but was mainly modern art and fashion. But we saw an interesting exhibit on North Korean propoganda, which was interesting. alt text

Mosque that’s still being built alt text

Eating dinner. We ate amazing food here. They had veggie options alt text

That night we met some of Noah’s friends, Rico and Chris. Rico has been traveling and spent the last 3 weeks in Bishkek. Chris was on a sponsored program to learn Russian more fluently in Kyrgyzstan.

Day 3: We woke up early to get our car from Azamat, who was renting us “his baby”. We picked up Chris on our way to check out the Osh Bazaar so he could get souvenirs to bring back home.

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You can buy literally anything here. It’s comparable to a cheaper Walmart, outside. We got “breakfast.” I got Laghman, a traditional Kyrgyz dish, strictly without meat. When she brought it out, there was meat on it. I was like “you said no meat.” and she was like “yeah, there isn’t much on there.” omg Needless to say, I lost weight on this trip.

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Once we finished, we dropped off Chris, and headed to our first destination, Cholpon-Alta. It was about a 5 hour drive East. Cholpon-Alta is sort of a resort village for tourists, mainly from Russia and Kazakhstan.

On the way, we see a sign to the Burana tower in the city of Tokmok. We take the 10km detour. Mind you, there’s no one in the ticket booth but once you start walking around a lady will chase you down demanding entrance fee. I think it was 60 som ~ 1USD. Anyway, It was worth.

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This is a thing, right? alt text

Top of the tower. It was considerably hard to climb the narrow, pitch-black steps to the top. alt text

These rocks with the carved faces are Balbals, which date from the 6th to 10th century. They are basically tombstones carved for local warriors of the time. alt text

We finally arrived to Cholpon Alta in the early evening time.

We stayed at Apple Hostel, which was comfortable enough and in a good location. (The city consists of one main street) The street of Cholpon Alta is lined with cheap sunglasses, towels, bars, and bakeries. It came off as pretty touristy, Asian style. There’s a large beach here on Issy Kul lake with water slides and it gets pretty popular during summer months.

I was so exhausted from the drive, I fell asleep around 9pm.

Day 4:

We woke up early and went to the beach! I really wanted to try the water slides but we decided against it. The water was crystal clear, blue, and beautiful. Issy Kul is a huge lake with salt, and doesn’t freeze during winter time. We enjoyed the chilly water.

I didn’t take a picture of the slides but here’s a stock photo of them. alt text

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Issy Kul so kul alt text

After swimming we decide to check out the Historical and Cultural Museum in Cholpon-Ata. We were fans.

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Cholpon-Ata himself! Cholpon-Ata literally means “Venus-father” and is the name of a mythological protecting spirit. Who knew?! alt text

There was this guy. Eagle hunting is popular in Central Asian countries and is still a method of hunting today. alt text

Us exploring the different museums Why is there an empty pool? alt text

Am I Kygyz worthy? alt text

Later we get dinner at a local place near our hostel alt text

I look salty because they the only vegetarian thing they have is bread. alt text

Now we’re driving to the city of Karakol. On the way we stop at hot springs which are popular in this area. We meet a few students here who studied in Russia and Bishkek. They had a lot to say about academic life in Kyrgyzstan. They were all on holiday.

The pools were scorching hot, and maybe not the cleanest! After the hot pool you jump in the cold pool. It’s supposed to be good for your circulation, among other things. And as my (Canadian) mother always says, “cold water keeps you young and firm!”

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After our spa day, we drove, with a few scenic stops, to Karakol, a small town on the East side of Issy Kul.

Karakol:

The roads aren’t so great here, admittedly like the majority of Kyrgyz roads. We stayed with Elvira, our Couchsurfing host. She was also hosting Tim, an Australian, bicycling from Almaty (the largest city in Kazakhstan, and previous capital to Astana), where he was living as an English teacher. He had done several bike tours before. Driving in Kyrgyzstan is crazy. Biking is even crazier. We actually see quite a few bike tourists mainly from France and Belgium. I can imagine it’s quite dangerous to bike here.

This is her house~ alt text

Max & Tim enjoying life alt text

our sleeping arrangements-

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The house, like the majority of houses in Kyrgyzstan, do not have any indoor plumbing. I just finished brushing my teeth outside. Can you imagine in winter time? brrr

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Day 5: Onward to Naryn!

This was a nice 8 hour leg of the journey. We arrived late at night. Naryn is a relatively large town in the center of South Kyrgyzstan. On the way we made three pit stops. An old cemetary, a beautiful red beach, and a salty peninsula.

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Day 6: Our Horseback Riding day.

This was one of the most scenic parts of Kyrgyzstan. Traveling by horse through the mountains. Our guide was jamming to Kyrgyz music most of the way.

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We took a break after 4 hours of riding, to this yurt with a nomadic family. Although we couldn’t converse super well, we did manage to have conversation. They offered us Cumis(fermented horse milk, yum), tea, and fresh bread. (I can’t personally do the horse milk, but Max was a champ and drank maybe 4 cups) We shared our walnuts and dried plums. It was a nice little exchange.

Picture of all of us.

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On the way back to Naryn we got a flat tire. After unsuccessfully trying to change it, (we had no signal at all) we flagged down a family that finally stopped to help us. They were all crammed in a small car. They helped us change the tire in a matter of seconds and then asked us if we could bring Baboushka and the two kids with us to Naryn, as their car was overcrowded and they were headed the same direction. We said sure! The boy was especially outgoing. We showed them photos of our trip and some music, including Kanye, which I think they liked.

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Day 6: Drive from Naryn to Tash Rabat and Chatyr Kul and THEN to Kazarman. We got up early and left around 6:30/7am. We didn’t arrive to Kazarman until 5 am the next morning. Driving this was such a pain. I do not recommend doing this in one day.

Tash Rabat: A historic part of the Silk Road. It is what they call a ‘caravanserai’, a sort of roadside inn where travelers and their animals could stop for the night or a few days to rest while traveling along the Silk Road. Used as accommodation and food facilities, they often provided some opportunities for trade and religious rituals. It was a single stone structure with something like 30 rooms for storage, baths, and stalls to sell goods.

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Inside the building alt text

Once we explored Tash Rabat, we headed south to Chatyr Kul. Chatyr Kul area was probably one of my favorite scenic drives despite sleeping for most of it. Unfortunately, there are no gas stations in the region and the actual Chatyr Kul lake is very strenuous to get to. Max and I drove to the South side of the lake and we tried to hike in, but realized it was way too far and we didn’t have an adequate amount of time if we wanted to make it to Kazarman the same day.

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So we decided to attempt driving Begi(we named our car) to the lake. Max and I drove Begi over a river and over a few hills, dodging randomly placed large pieces of concrete and wire, until we arrived at a deeper river.

The first river. alt text

Random concrete… alt text

We decided Begi might not make the second river. Especially with no cities, gas stations, or phone signal, we were weighing out the risk. We eventually noticed a nomad and he waved us over. I asked him how to get to the lake. (Mainly using limited Russian and our made up sign language) He hopped in the car and started pointing various directions. Not sure if this happens a lot or? The place seemed deserted minus a few yurts here and there, and supplies that looked like they were going to build something here once upon a time. alt text

Side note** We needed to get a border permit to get so close to the Chinese border (Chatyr Kul area). We got it in a day before arriving to Naryn and I think it was around $15.

We finally get to the lake. The Nomad(we never got his name) had his binoculars with him. He said he was looking for birds. Maybe bird watching is a common pastime here. I looked through his binoculars and it was really difficult to see anything at all. The lake was really serene, but I don’t know if it was worth it. I asked him if he swam in the lake and he said he did. He mentioned it was freezing at night and in the early morning, but he was still up for it.

I really thought the person who advised us, would have explained Chatyr Kul area better, especially on how difficult it was to get here, but regardless, the surrounding beauty was amazing, and that did make the trip there mostly worthwhile.

I stole this photo since I didn’t get any good ones. alt text

Max and I then headed to what should be the “highway,” that would take us to Kazarman, our final destination for the day(s). After missing the exit, we turned around and searched for the turnoff, we unmistakably saw on google maps. The highway was merely an imprint in grass that sometimes turned into a dirt road. We had to take this grass highway all the way to Kazarman. We were low on gas and we didn’t know if the next town would have a gas station. After driving for a while on this “highway” we decided to turn around and drive back to Naryn, where we knew we could find gas even though it would be a 3 hour detour. We drove slow to save on gas, but we eventually did make it to Naryn. We ate dinner at the Nomad cafe. I remember being so hungry and satisfied with my noodle soup. Of course there was meat when I asked for “ without”, but I quickly just removed it myself and dug in. I was too tired and hungry to complain.

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With Max at the wheel, we set out again on the path that we thought was correct. The sun was starting to set. We drove for about an hour on paved roads before we arrived at the rocky dirt part of the highway. It always happens! There was not another soul driving in the night on this bumpy road. After about 20 minutes we started our first ascent into the mountains. This is where the roads got horrendous. At first it was just a pothole here and there, but in the mountains, these potholes turned into gaping holes. Because it was dark, sometimes Max or I didn’t see them and a wheel would fall in and distort the car. I had tried to sleep in the car earlier, but now I was wide awake. The holes got larger and larger. At one point half of the road was missing, and there was a cliff on the outward facing side. Max got out to scope how it would be possible. I just rammed the gas and flew over it. phew the adrenaline was working hard at that point. It was maybe midnight. That happened a few times during the drive. At one point we see a bridge, but the car falls onto the bridge, as we realize later, it wasn’t really connected. As I drive down the narrow bridge I suddenly stop. Max starts to question the stop, but then he sees why.

The bridge has been deteriorated by the rushing river. The second half is in the water. We are stuck. I declare myself finished with driving and Max takes over. He does a nice U-turn and we drive an hour and a half back over the road over the terrorizing holes right back to where we started. Feeling great at this point.

This is a picture after we made the U-turn on the bridge. We then realized what we had just drove. alt text

We re-examine the map. There was NO sign saying not to take the path with the broken bridge.

—-One day I will return and put up a sign.

So this time we head in the direction to try another bridge. It’s backed up with construction equipment and workers. Max gets out to talk to them. As I was in the car waiting, I thought how I might be more scared if I were in another country to go outside and talk to a bunch of older men at 2 am. Of course I wasn’t going to go run around outside, but the atmosphere seemed safer here. They gave Max directions, and we found the right path, reaching our destination at 5am. maybe I shouldn’t have felt so safe? Maybe I was just too tired.**

The guesthouse owner didn’t seem super pleased to be woken up so early, but hey, what can we do?

Day 7: KAZARMAN TO OSH

We woke up late in Kazarman around 10am. I was exhausted but Max wanted a head start on the road to Osh. Reasonable, after what we went through. We didn’t want to drive that late at night again.

So we started our 6 journey. We booked a guest house on booking.com, but once we arrived we couldn’t find it. (We knocked at the address and it was not a guesthouse) We found another guesthouse in the same area though, and it was great. They had indoor toilets and showers and that’s all we could ever hope for at this point. I walked around the city and found a nice Western cafe to eat at. You know, usually I like to eat from local restaurants with traditional food and such. But sometimes it’s nice to get something that’s actually vegetarian and reminds me of home. For me, it’s been about a year since being in the States! So I will splurge on comfort food, that reminds me of home, from time to time.

Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, located near Uzbekistan and therefore has pretty large Uzbek community. Most women there cover their faces and its overall a more traditional society.

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There’s been some border disputes over the years, but now it’s relatively stable. It was a hard time for both sides. I think the two ethnicities want to be friends but you always have that one revolutionary that wants to make change and ethnically cleanse the other, as it happened 3 times in their history. This then results in the guy whose family was killed and he wants revenge and it becomes chaos. As I walk around, I can’t imagine this happening since the people seem so genuine and friendly, but it happens. Our Kazakh Couchsurfer on the second night lived through the last dispute eruption and was scared for his life. He didn’t leave his home for 4 days and stayed with his family. People were being slaughtered and burned alive just walking around on the streets because of their ethnicity. He explained that many of his friends are Uzbeks. I think it really affected him to see so much hate.

Day 8: Another day in Osh

We went to the western cafe I visited the night before only to realize that it was closed on this particular day of the week. Max and I were bummed. There was a Russian guy sitting on the steps that invited us to join him and his female friend who were going to go to another cafe. So we tagged along. They carried good conversation as we sat at a fast food cafe shop. Both journalists from Bishkek, they were writing a story together on alcohol, or something of that sort. The Russian was previously fired from his job from taking pictures at protests and writing articles on the subject matter. Apparently many journalists have been laid off for the same reason.

We spent the day with him chatting and going to bazaars.

Day 9: OSH to Arslanbob

Again, we woke up super early since we learned our lesson driving last night to Kazarman. We also wanted to stop in Uzgen for the animal market. On the way there was so much traffic (of various animals making their way to the animal market)

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Max and I drove 5 or 6 hours until we reached Arslanbob, stopping in Jalal Abad, for lunch. Arslanbob is know for it’s walnut forest- one of the largest in the world. A lot of people go hiking there. Plus they have beautiful waterfalls. We arrive there in the early afternoon. I take a nap and we meet a group of travelers to hike together with, into the walnut forest. There’s a guy from France, 2 Italians, and a woman from the UK who has BIKED from the UK TO China, where she taught for a year, and is now biking to??? I forgot, I think she said Turkey. She was really badass. When Max asked her about photos, she said she had 40,000 photos from her trip thus far. They were going to camp overnight in the forest, so we left them at some point to continue our journey. We got lost on our hike, but it was good because we walked through the hilly village of Arslanbob. There were streams coming from the mountains and the air was cool. All of the kids kept coming out to say hi and ask us to take their photo. That night we ate dinner at the hostel, home cooked by the owner, with some other travelers, overlooking the mountains.

The walnut forest! alt text

A beautiful waterfall! alt text

Streets of Arslanbob alt text

Day 10: We drive to Toktogul Lake!

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We drove through colorful mountains and blue rivers and lakes.

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I was constantly in awe. Once we finally made it to Toktogul Lake, we went for a dip. There were little minnows biting our legs! The water was super refreshing.

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After swimming, we went to the city of Toktogul. Everything was closed… We finally found a Shawarma place that made us wraps and they even made me a vegetarian one! While we ate, we watched an advertisement for something on their tv that refreshed every 30 seconds. We memorized every word.

That night we stayed at Azamat’s guesthouse which I highly recommend (if you happen to travel in Toktogul..)!! link

Day 11: Drive back to Bishkek - everything comes full circle.

It’s a long drive, but we decide to go a day early on the 30th since the 31st is independence day and we want to celebrate! August 31, 1991 is the day when Kyrgyzstan got independent from the Soviet Union. The road is paved t h e e n t i r e w a y. It’s heaven.

On the way we stop to take photos and these kids run over from their yurt alt text

We have arrangements to stay at Viva Hostel but they don’t have a room. The owner books us a room down the street. We are in the HOOD. Drunk guys are pissing on the street. Just what you can imagine.

Day 12: We are right next to Osh Bazaar, so we walk around for a bit. We get some souvenirs. We stay this night at Viva Hostel. It’s much nicer, but still in a sketchy area. We return the car to Azamat’s sister and head out to the festivities. There’s a concert going on with some Kyrgyz and Kazakh pop singers. So many people. It’s lit.

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Day 13:

Max leaves really early in the morning. I wait for the clothes I washed in the sink to dry, go to the atm for cash to pay for the hotel, I pack, and get information about taking a bus to Almaty, Kazakhstan the same day. I eat at a pretty good Indian restaurant and lug all of my things to the bus station in the 90 degree humid heat that’s taken over the city. The bus ride is 4 hours. It is hot and sweaty and my Kyrgyz sim card stops working after about an hour when we cross the border so I can no longer watch Ted talks. I was the only foreigner in the marshrutka. It costed 400 som or like less than $6 USD.

This marks the end of our trip through Kyrgyzstan!

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