Kyrgyzstan is just a little bit scruffy. Not in a sad, rundown, slummy, dirty kind of way but in an offhand, cool and slightly messy, ‘don’t care what the neighbours think’ kind of way. It’s endearing. I’ve developed a fondness for the country as a whole – the spectacular mountains and lakes, unfenced unmown spaces, dirt tracks, horses and donkeys, market days, abundance of walnuts and berries, crazy drivers in old soviet cars, and the warm genuine people with their nomadic souls and lack of pretension. Kyrgyzstan is a breath of fresh air.
Although Kyrgyzstan has been a major crossroads on the Silk Road, and even before, there is little physical evidence of this. The houses and buildings tend to be quite simple. Being nomadic, the people seem not so concerned with money and building great monuments. In contrast, the fanciest and most beautiful buildings we saw anywhere here are the burial tombs. As a predominantly Muslim country, the tombs are built in the Islamic style. They’re everywhere along the roads, even in the most remote places.
We arrived in our racing Renault 4WD rent-a-car at the western point of Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca. At 1600m above sea level it’s framed by the even higher snow-capped Tian Shan mountains. It’s also the second largest salt lake in the world, after the Caspian Sea. It’s said it never freezes. Kyrgyzstan is the furthest country in the world from the ocean but Issyk-Kul is so big that it feels like the sea. It even has some sandy beaches.
We planned to travel all the way around the lake starting with the south. Needing a break from camping we decided to go to a homestay guesthouse at Bokonbayevo. Camping gave us the freedom and opportunity to go places we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise but the homestay guesthouses in Kyrgyzstan ended up being one of the biggest highlights of our time here. They’re such good value, A$20-30 per night for two, including a huge breakfast and you can get lunch or dinner for a couple of extra dollars. They really are like homes away from home and you get to know the wonderful hosts and their families. Everywhere we stayed the hosts were very happy to make us vegetarian food, genuinely wanted us to have a great time and were really keen to share their culture. There are not many tourists in Kyrgyzstan and Australians are still a novelty. Some people had never heard of it.
Eagle hunting is an ancient tradition from parts of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. It’s a specialist skill passed down through the generations and requires the individual hunter (Berkutchi) to bond exclusively with a young eagle by caring for it, singing to it and feeding it on a daily basis for many years. Of course, the eagle is not free which makes me sad but we were curious to see an eagle up close. We didn’t want to participate in any hunting type scenario though. I enquired about this possibility and the response was ‘What? You don’t want to see blood?’ ‘No, no blood’. We met with two brothers and their magnificent eagles in a field outside of Bokonbayevo where they showed us how they trained them. JH was in his element.
We’d become increasingly fascinated by the local style of yurts and JH wanted to learn how they’re made, so our delightful host, Gulmira, organised a demonstration in the back yard.
In a spontaneous moment of madness we decided to buy one and get it shipped to England. We entered into negotiations using Google Translate and agreed on a price to have the yurt made. We’d have to pay the freight (to be worked out later). I’d have to transfer the money from Australia to a Kyrgyz bank account via New York. My bank in Australia wouldn’t let me make an international transfer without sending me an SMS code to my Australian mobile number. All well and good except Telstra international roaming doesn’t work in Central Asia. I spent countless hours trying to deal with the Australian bank via their chat function. It’s quite hilarious and surreal trying to explain to a banking robot that I’m in Kyrgyzstan and I want to buy a yurt.
After leaving Bokonbayevo, we were cruising along with JH driving when suddenly we got pulled over by the cops. Oops. We’d been warned that the traffic cops pull you over and it’s standard practice to pay them a bribe – otherwise they confiscate your licence and it’s loads of hassle to get it back. They wanted 5000 som which we didn’t have, so we had to break out our secret stash of US dollars to make up the difference. While negotiating this I noticed one of the cops smoking. Feeling that the situation warranted it, I said “give me one cigarette”. The shocked look on his face was priceless. I don’t think he was used to strange women making rude demands of him. As we drove away, he was shouting ‘Australia I love you!’ He must’ve made a good profit!
Karakol is the main Issyk-Kul town at the eastern tip of the lake. It’s a bit different to other parts of Kyrgyzstan. It’s quite beautiful with lots of older pre-Soviet Russian style cottages and buildings. It looks and feels very Russian. The wooden 1895 Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church is just stunning.
The northern shore of Issyk-Kul is equally as beautiful as the south. Perhaps even more so. It would be a lovely place to live. I imagine it’s freezing in winter though.
The Burana Tower is the main historical ruin in Kyrgyzstan. It was worth making a detour to see this lonely 25m tower that’s the only visual reminder of the ancient city of Balasagun. It’s humbling to stand by the tower in the empty field and think that there was once a thriving city here with 200 mosques. It existed from the 9th to the 14th century – more than 500 years. Now it’s completely gone with barely a trace left behind.
Near the tower is an even more interesting sight. A field of 6th century carved stone grave markers called balbals. These are the only real physical remains left by the Pre-Islamic nomadic tribes of Central Asia. They’ve started to lean a bit over the centuries and now look a bit like drunken humpty dumptys trying not to spill their glasses of wine. They’re very beautiful and we spent a long time contemplating them in awe.
After a couple of weeks trying to see as much as we could while we had wheels, it was a relief to arrive in Bishkek. We returned the rental car without mishap, apart from two speeding tickets (JH) and one flat tyre (me). Pretty good going I reckon. We rented an AirBnB apartment for a week of rest while waiting for a train to Uzbekistan. It also gave me the chance to complete a work contract that, for some reason, I hadn’t managed to do while camping.
The capital Bishkek is a modern European-style city of around a million people. There are a few lovely old buildings here and there but it’s mostly Soviet-style high rise apartments, wide streets, lots of parks and proper food. Oh the joy of rocket salad, cappuccino and veggie burgers! It’s actually a really lovely city to spend a week in. Apart from a single episode where I was almost robbed in the bazaar (which JH foiled with his street smarts) we had a lovely peaceful time. In a final act of Kyrgyz hospitality, we met a lovely couple in the supermarket who spontaneously invited us back to their apartment. We talked and laughed late into the night. It was one of those special times where we felt instant kinship with people from a completely different world. Thank you Kyrgyzstan, we love you and hope to see you again.