Saturday 29 June 2024

2024 Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

5.6.24 Almaty

Sitting by the Independence monument, with the fountains periodically spraying me as the breeze lifts in my direction.  Reminds me of the fountains in Dushanbe.  More generally, Almaty feels like a more prosperous version of Dushanbe and Tashkent.  Lots of new buildings here, very broad roads - typically six lanes.  A novelty here are the bike lanes, mostly used by people zooming around on electric scooters.  I nearly got hit several times.  

The walk to here from my hotel - Hotel Renion Zyliha - pretty disastrous.  The scale of Almaty is large - everything much further away than it seems.  Things not helped by me getting lost, ending up in some dead-end road down south.  Really no excuse, since the sky is clear, so I can navigate by the sun.  In my defence, I also note that the tourist maps here are upside down with south at the top.  I suppose it’s understandable, given that to the south there is the amazing wall of mountains, still capped by snow.  Amazing to think that the other side of the range is where I will be heading soon - out to Issyk-Kul, which is quite close as the crow flies.

The flight here long, in two parts.  A stop-over in Istanbul, at the incredible main airport there.  On the downside, the prices are obscene - 8 euros for a cup of coffee or bottle of water.  Seems to be thriving, huge numbers of people milling around.  It truly is a global hub.

As with the onward journey to Tajikistan last year, the plane from Istanbul a big one - Airbus A330, holding what looked like some 400 people.  A slight delay meant we landed at 5am - not a good time, since my body felt it was 1am (although I rose a few hours early to begin the reprogramming).  My case was one of the last to arrive, but I’m impressed it did arrive, since it required a transfer.  The passport control not too rigorous - just took photo (no glasses), asked how long I was staying.

Customs more challenging.  As I went through the green lane, the usual dog had a good sniff around my waist.  I thought it was just being friendly, but the customs bloke got interested.  “деньги?” ("dengi" - money) he asked.  And in fact I did have 1,000 euros in my belt pack.  I told the customs officer, but he seemed unhappy - he thought I had more money elsewhere.  Eventually, he let me go, but it’s interesting that the dog was trained to detect dosh.

Despite the delays, my taxi was waiting for me.  This is a big help - the fact that you can just book taxis in advance almost anywhere using (or equivalent).  In the past, finding a taxi at the airport in exotic locations was hard - so easy to get ripped off.  There was another benefit, since my booking provided me with the name of a local/reliable taxi company.  I found their Web site, and was able to book a taxi to Bishkek on Friday (well, I hope).  
Very striking at the airport the number of people with blue, grey, even green eyes here.  Also noticeable how routinely Russian is used: apparently Almaty is still the big holdout of the language.

Eating in the hotel’s restaurant, after I found the two places I wanted to try were closed.  I notice that the mineral water - “Bon Aqua” - is owned by Coca Cola.  Such a predatory company…  
Took out some tenge at one of the many banks/ATMs here (called “bancomats”, rather amusingly…).  Noticed that some let you take out money without a card: you just input some number sequences obtained elsewhere.

The electric scooters a real danger - everyone goes so fast, and almost no one wears a helmet.  Car driving also pretty frenetic.  No EVs that I can see, a few flash cars - big SUVs etc. Roads pretty good everywhere.  
[Just noticed on the city map that there is a dolphinarium here.  Sickening that such things still exist]

The afternoon rather fractured by my need to sleep - my body still adjusting.  Then out into the pleasantly cool evening air.  Lots of people around, lots of cars heading out of town, lots of people strolling.  The air has remained mercifully clear, with the mountains still visible in their majesty.

I was tempted by one of the many Georgian restaurants here - they really are the Italians of Central Asia - but opted instead for Kishlak, a well-reviewed Uzbek restaurant.  For plov, of course.  The decor a little kitschy - all carpets on the walls and faux outside eatery - but the prices are great - 2,700 tenge (£5) and the service fast.  Plov is great - authentically greasy…

On the planes here, I was reading a translation of Manas - the Kyrgyz national epic.  It’s a part of the oral formulaic epic tradition.  Remarkably, it’s ten times longer than the Iliad, and 40 times longer than Beowulf.  The version I’m reading is by Akylay Baimatova, a native Kyrgyz who seems to have drawn on a major Russian translation.  The result is extremely clunky - and rather charming.  I’m enjoying it greatly, especially the references to places across Central Asia that I’ve visited.  Interesting too the depiction of the Chinese and the Manchus as the baddies…

Very few veiled women here.  In general, the young women seem very modern and liberated,  Everyone has smartphones of course, plus the obligatory airpod tech.  Especially useful when driving scooters at high speed…  Here in Almaty, everything seems bilingual - even the ads, which is great for me to learn some Kazakh.  Most people swap between the two effortlessly. Long may that continue.

For dessert, some “paklava” - which is very odd.  Honey, walnuts, currants, pastry.  Very nice, but nothing like baklava.  Good value - 5,400 tenge, around £10.  Reminds me of the many plovs we ate in Uzbekistan two years ago.  Interesting to see it here, along with Georgian - an emerging Central Asian cuisine.

When I leave the restaurant, it is already deep darkness - unlike in the UK, where night is more gradual.  Lots of young people out.  Noticeable that young women have no qualms about walking alone here, a good sign.  A few people smoking, only men that I’ve seen in public.

The scooters even more dangerous now - they zoom out of the darkness.  But at rest they are rather magical: outside the Baikonur station entrance, there are dozens of them, their other-worldly green lights giving them a menacing air - as if they were about to attack their mortal enemy, the metro.

6.6.24 Almaty 

In the Baikonur metro station.  Couldn’t find the tickets at first - you have to go through the usual security scanners.  Almaty metro quite limited - only one line, but modern and very clean.  Baikonur is all blues, whites and yellows, with granite floors.  No ads to spoil things, except a few screens running them.  Interesting poster showing wanted criminals.  Tickets very cheap - 100 tenge (20p) and use a jeton - a large, yellow plastic disc.  My train approaches - a nice breeze.

Out of the metro at Zhibek Joly then along Gogol Street to Panfilov Park.  Roads still very wide here - impossible to cross them without the traffic lights.  Electric scooters scoot…

Sitting by Ascension Cathedral, gold glistening in the early morning sun.  A riot of greens, blues and orange, with the main walls a fetching custard colour.  One main cupola, several smaller ones, plus spires.  Pilasters on the walls, plus wacky Thai-style mouldings over the windows.  It’s a riot of forms and ideas - I love it.  
The park is fine - quite big, full of trees. Not many such parks in central Almaty, even though trees abound along the streets, a striking and welcome feature in a city where temperatures can be high.

Inside the cathedral, everything is over-the-top orthodox.  Gold leaf everywhere, hundreds of icons, marble floor, the huge candelabra, the faint, sickly waft of incense.  All the women cover their heads - of course.

Huge monument north of the cathedral, the Memorial of Glory.  A soldier about to lob a grenade, in a Christ-like pose of self-sacrificing crucifixion.  Bronze.  Complements the peace of the church with the war of World War 2…  

Went in search of the Green Bazaar.  Failed to find - because I went the wrong way again.  But the back roads were instructive: they could easily have been in Bokhara or Dushanbe - those anonymous, rather depressing backstreets with their broken pavements, building sites and zero points of interest. On the way back to the metro, I found the Green Bazaar easily.  Nothing special compared to Tashkent, Dushanbe or even Khujand.  Lively, with even more meat on display than usual.  Kazakhs like their meat…

Took metro to Abay - not far on the map, but a long ride on the metro.  Fewer travellers, the long open carriages fairly empty.  Announcements in Kazakh, Russian and English.  Once again, coming out of the metro, not clear where I am, or where to go.  The goal was the Kok Tobe cable car.  600 tenge return - a bit expensive, but nice and quiet.  Reminds me of Barcelona and Bilbao.  at the top, pretty tacky (a bit like Ngong Ping in Hong Kong).  The stark needle of the Almaty tower looms ahead.  Just looking at the external ladders makes me sick.  
To the flash Abay restaurant.  Great location with a view over the city and mountains.  Vaguely ethnic music plays.  Menu long, but lots of horse dishes.  I had the pressed pike…

Back to the hotel to grapple with Internet issues, then out to the main museum/gallery, formally the A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts.  Feels exactly like the one in Tashkent.  Second floor pyramid has carpets, then rooms full of paintings of landscapes and Kazakhs.  Some pix are animated versions.  A corridor of vaguely Impressionist stuff, pleasant enough.  Then more modern stuff, some Matisse-like.  Lots of peasant scenes.  Very unusual image of sci-fi platforms and domes - plus a man on a camel, by Kamil Mullashev.  In the Russian gallery, a nice portrait of Wilhelm Bitner by Repin, with the most amazing flying moustaches…  On the top floor multiple variations of Soviet life, Soviet workers, Soviet contentment.  Some pretty enough.  Many set in far-flung parts of the Soviet empire.  It’s amazing how similar in atmosphere and detail this place is to the Tashkent gallery.  Both are interesting, not for their masterpieces, which are few, but for the window they give into their Central Asian cultures.

Now back to the hotel - a surprisingly long way, yet again… These seemingly endless roads remind me of parts of Chișinău.  To Lali’s, continuing my exploration of Georgian cuisine around the world.  Nice Georgian music in the background, menu looks solid.  No one else here - it’s early (6.40pm), but that’s fine - it’s tranquil.  Ordered Adjarian khachapuri, asking for not too salty.  We shall see…  Have to say it wasn’t too bad - actually one of the best khachapuri I’ve had, including the many I've eaten in Georgia...

7.6.24 Almaty 

At breakfast, two blokes talking in Mongolian.  Not that I know how Mongolian sounds, but it plainly isn’t Kazakh, they spoke Russian to the waiter, a language many Mongolians know and - the killer - they are both wearing "Mongolian Cycling (Est. 1959)" sports jackets.  I now have a burning desire to visit Mongolia soon…

In the first of my two taxis to Bishkek.  Writing may be bumpy… Not sure how the border will be - I change cars, which means I must carry my luggage across to the other car…  Lots of traffic going in to Almaty - glad we’re going out.  As the buildings drop away to my left there is a range of snow-capped mountains.

Not much sign of China here - yet.  Saw Sinoil petrol, plus a Geely car.  Men painting an improbable pedestrian crossing on this busy road.  Blocking off the right-hand lane.  So my driver goes to the right of them, on the gravel edge.  Along the road, there are equestrian statues in the middle of nowhere.

The landscape has changed.  Now, devoid of buildings, just grassy hillocks, dry but green.  I wonder what shaped these forms?  The wind, perhaps.  Road a good dual carriageway, no lamps, so dodgy at night.  Interesting, the driver uses voice messages - while driving, of course.  I hate them, but probably convenient in traffic.  A small cemetery, the graves crenellated like tiny castles.  Great piles of fluffy cumulus over the mountains - quite attractive: a sign informs us it is 156 km to Bishkek…

Dual carriageway just ended, road rather rougher now.  Some wheat grown here, but no animals visible.  Overtaking on the inside seems popular.  Lots of driving in the middle of the road to avoid potholes.  Having turned off for Bishkek, the landscape changes again - reminds me of Crete and Mallorca.  We are also rising in altitude… A big wind farm, catching the wind on this hill.  I wonder how they transmit all the energy from here.  

[Sitting now by the side of the main Ala-Too square in Bishkek - sadly under renovation, and full of building materials everywhere.  The equestrian statue of Manas is nonetheless fine.  Much hotter than in Almaty - around 33°C, but low humidity and a pleasant breeze.]

To return to the ride between the two capitals, now that I am no longer being thrown around in the car, things went well.   My first taxi driver contacted me on WhatsApp, even sending me a pic of the car.  Traffic very heavy coming in but not so bad for us.  When we left the city, the range of mountains to our left reminded me of the Zarafshan valley I visited last year in Tajikistan, and also the train ride from Samarkand to Tashkent in Uzbekistan.

At first the road was dual carriageway, and the driver put his foot down.  But when it ended, it was like a new world - rather worse for wear.  Then some more dual carriageway, and we were soon in Korday, at the border.  The driver dropped me off after taking a pic of my face so that the second driver could recognise me on the other side.  Then I moved through the checkpoints: first Kazakh, then Kyrgyz.  The first took about 30 seconds, the second about 15 seconds.  The X-ray scanners lay unused at both.

On the other side pandemonium, as there were lots of cars in a dusty gravel car park.  My man found me, and we drove off.  The journey into Bishkek very similar in feel to Dushanbe: rather poor back streets, building works.  My room in B Hotel surprisingly grand, even with a small balcony.  Pity my mobile Internet doesn’t work (first time I've tried using an eSIM)…

8.6.24 Bishkek

Bishkek - how natural it feels to write that, and to be here.  Central Asia increasingly feels like another homeland, as the various parts fit together into a coherent whole.  Yesterday evening lots of chittering swifts swooping around.  During the night, dogs barking strangely.  Glorious morning, feels positively Italian.  From my room’s mini balcony, I can just see the mountains - yet again, ones that we will be the other side of in a few days.  A distant flagpole flies the Kyrgyz flag - an intense patch of red, like a poppy.  I’ve already contacted the driver who will take us along the north side of Issyk-Kul to Karakol, and then back along the south side to Kochkor.  Via WhatsApp, of course…

Out to do some shopping for our two long rides in the coming days.  Along to Globus supermarket on Jibek Jolu avenue.  Medium sized, decent selection.  Amazing apples - huge.  It also seems to be strawberry season here: along the road traders were selling them for £1 a kilo (?).  The sweet smell drifted over the pavement as I went past.  

Coming back I passed the Russian orthodox church, gleaming in white and light sky-blue.  As I walked back, a water cart came down the pavement, spraying to keep down the dust.  Unfortunately, it was impossible to cross to the other side of the street safely - pedestrian crossings are few and far between here in Bishkek, and the traffic is fierce.  Had to go to the edge of the road for safety from the spray.  Noticeable that the ads here are not bilingual - only in Kyrgyz.  And yet the bar staff were talking among themselves in Russian.

A walk down to Ala-Too square, a building site at the moment.  Then alongside to the Kyrgyz President's palace - quite impressive in its own way.  Then to here, Pishpek, where a huge wedding reception occupies the main hall. Outside is warm but not oppressive, the fountains plashing, easy rock music thumping away.  Had gyuro laghman - a bit disappointing, but the Kyrgyz bread was excellent, especially the small fried bread dough called borsok

9.6.24 Bishkek

In the car with Valli, en route to Karakol - a long day, but weather gorgeous, car great.  Driving out east, we pass the huge new mosque, based clearly on Istanbul’s great models.  Here in the outskirts, we could be in Samarkand, Tashkent, Dushanbe - that mix of bright shopfronts, half-finished blocks of flats, corrugated iron shanties.  Lots of trees here, as in Almaty - less common in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Wow, our driver even put on his seat belt - the first to do so.  Petrol seems very cheap here - around 75p/litre - half of what it would be in the UK.  Speed limit only 60 km/h - with cameras…  Women crouched under sun umbrellas selling fruit, veg.  To our right, the range of mountains stands magnificent, snow-capped.  The usual problem though: how to remember such scenes, how to describe them without resorting to cliches?

Just passing the turn-off to Kant - not named in honour of the German philosopher…  We’re leaving the mountains behind for the moment.  They remind me curiously of Pokhara and the Annapurnas.  No fishtail, though…

Heading first to Tokmok, to see the Burana tower.  Strangely, the car is right-hand drive - a Japanese market model from Toyota.  Our driver has a warning system for upcoming speed cameras, as did other taxi drivers.  Land seems fertile here, probably, the run-off from the mountains. People selling stuff on the road swinging a bag around to attract attention - just as women used clappers in Shenzhen.  The many rows of poplar trees make the landscape look very French/Italian.  

On the turn-off to Burana.  The road quite a lot rougher.  An abandoned petrol station called “Brent”.  Passing through Tokmok, another Manas statue.  Heading straight towards the mountains, which begin to rear up before us.  We cross a solitary rail line - going where?    On the tower - the stone stairs so narrow that that people can only go up together, or down together, not both at same time.  View pretty good of mountains.  Nice breeze up here…  A little way off a field of balbals and petroglyphs.

Getting close to the pass through the mountains, which are now softer and more rounded to the south.  Those of the north are swinging around to narrow the gap ahead.  The stairs up the Burana tower were spectacularly steep and narrow - and it was dark.  But worth it for the view of the nearby mountains.  Also, this is sadly one of the few ancient monuments in Kyrgyzstan, so a must really.

Turning on to the slightly faster road.  Lots of cameras and police with radar.  We pass over a river, plenty of water.  Not much traffic, but speed limits a constraint on our progress.  In the pass, descending slightly.  Very green masses on both sides, as in Tajikistan.

Lunch at the Foodstore - much more impressive than the simple canteen on the road down to Dushanbe in Tajikistan.  Food decent, lots of people there.  Now descending towards the lake, mountains bare, vegetation scrubby.  The mountains on the south of the lake now visible.  Our road follows the (single-track and short) railway, and the river.  The pass has opened right out now, mountains on both sides, but in the distance.

Yet more abandoned petrol stations, standing forlorn.  Our first glimpse of the lake Issyk-Kul… Passing Balykchy, where the railway from Bishkek terminates, quite extensive town.  Nearer the lake, it is a beautiful azure/emerald colour.  Driving along the north shore, sandwiched between the blue blue lake, and the mountains, the other side of which lies Almaty.  The lake is so big.

Driving along the road, the land between the lake and the mountains very flat.  Good building land, and I foresee that one day there will be holiday homes all along here.  The driver Valli said they are building a new airport at Karakol.  I look up and see the lake, and then the mountains behind.  They hardly seem real.  Just passed the existing airport at Tamchy, now known rather grandly as Issyk-Kul International Airport.  Already more building nearby, plus new hotels.  Cholpon-Ata, with another, even smaller airport, and lots of amusement parks - reminds me of Garda

Unusual oil company names: Red Petroleum, Brent, Partner Neft.  One thing: there don't seem to be the above ground gas pipes found everywhere in Georgia and Armenia.  Don’t they use gas here?  More of these curious graveyards with highly ornamented tombstones.
On a new road being made - rough, reminds me of Tajikistan, where most roads were very rough.  Cows grazing by the side of the road, the odd flock of sheep being herded.  Terrible road.  Mountains on our left very alpine.  Poplars along the side of the road.  You can tell we are getting to the end of the country - it’s rougher, as if petering out.

Nearly at the easternmost end of the lake.  The mosques use a strange grey-coloured material for their domes.  People riding horses in the fields.  After Frunze, the mountains to the north more interesting - like folded cloth, with deepening shadows (it’s 5pm).  Huge cumulonimbus ahead of us; ruh-roh…

Fields of pink flowers, not sure what.  An alley of poplars.  Heading south now.  Cows grazing by a river - something out of Cuyp.  Many more cows here - grass more verdant.  As we draw near to Karakol, the mountains rise before us.  Behind them lies China.

Outskirts of Karakol already look more civilised.  Roads better, buildings newer.  Hotel Madanur a little out of the way, but it has character.  Rooms a little faded, but wifi pretty fast.  Nice view of the mountains from our room.  Striking that a good proportion - 40%? - of cars passing by are right-hand drive, as our taxi was.  Clearly a lot of direct sales from Japan.  

The Dungan feast we had ordered in our hotel was amazing - and absurdly stuffed with food that the two of us couldn’t eat (we had to pay for three, which was the minimum for the special dishes).  We were guided through everything by Tarih (?), the owner of the hotel and restaurant, and Dungan like his wife, who also joined us.

I knew Dungans had a Chinese-based culture, but wasn’t aware they were in fact Hui, who had been forced to flee Xi’an and Gansu 150 years ago after a failed rebellion.  So they are Muslims, but the main background culture is Chinese.  They still use many Chinese words, often old terms now dropped in China itself, and they still dress in typical Chinese clothes for special feasts - bright red dresses with gorgeous embroidery.  

The food was a similar amalgam.  Some dishes like beef and aubergine, pure Chinese, but others like ashlan fu - cold noodles in a special vinegar - uniquely Dungan.  There was a chicken dish, and two kinds of bao: one stuffed with meat, the other with a kind of chard I found disgusting.  There were interesting dough constructions, plus rice.  The tea was sweet and fruity, and tasted like Lemsip to me.  The best bit was the dessert: a kind of mince piece stuffed with nuts and dried fruits, but far nicer than the sickly Brit version.

The wife said she had studied Chinese in China 20 years ago, and spoke good English, Russian and Kyrgyz (presumably, although we didn’t hear her speak it).  She said Dungan people could learn Chinese twice as fast as other Kyrgyz because of their oral culture, which still uses it.  Overall, her husband said there were about 100,000 Dungan, mostly in Kyrgyzstan, plus a few in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

After the feast, a stroll along the main street to the local Globus supermarket.  Once more, much further than it looks on the map.  Lots of people milling around, a nice relaxed Sunday evening atmosphere.

10.6.24  Karakol

Up early to catch a glimpse of a few sights/sites in the town.  Opening the window facing on to the road there is an indescribable smell of exotic lands - clearly not home, and all the more evocative and magical for it.  Quite a few high clouds over the mountains, some rain in the next few days seems inevitable…  A minivan just went by with “Tromsø services, Norway” on the side.  I imagine a lot of West European vehicles get sold on here to finish their days…

It’s 7.15am, and the road sweeper is already out collecting rubbish.  Also noteworthy that the bins here have separate containers for paper, plastic and glass.  Talking of working hard, it was striking that the maids at the hotels I stayed in were still working at 8pm… Three sparrows outside my window, and on the other side of the road a huge and majestic raptor glides by.  Lots of rusty old Ladas here, fewer flash new models than in Bishkek.

Out in the cool air, the sun already strong.  To the amazing Dungan mosque.  Stunningly beautiful in its blue and custard colour, and crazy in its mixture of styles - Islamic pagoda with ornate Asian carving in the rafters, and a curious wooden minaret, rather ramshackle.  We couldn’t enter the mosque itself, but the exterior alone was worth the 50 som (50p) to enter. Afterwards to the Russian orthodox cathedral, again made of wood, but very different from the one in Almaty.  This looked like something out of Russian fairy tales - I expected Baba Yaga to appear…

In the car with Vali.  Who wanted paying now - in som.  So we went to the ATMs where I played the Panjakent game - being unable to withdraw more than about £50 at some, and £20 at others - or unable to get any money at all.  Ending up using two cards and about seven withdrawals, with a fee to pay on each…

Clouds over the mountains to the south, rain falling on the peaks.  You can tell Karakol is a safe town: three small children (about 5 years old) just walking on their own, no adults in sight.  Driving through the outskirts, lots of houses with that rough brickwork - the mortar crudely applied, barely holding things together.

To the Jeti-Ögüz Rocks, a road that reminds of the one to Iskenderkul in Tajikistan.  Astounding colour of the rocks; with the wind erosion, you wonder what events took place millions of years ago to produce these forms.  Wind strong - nearly lost my hat in the observation platform that juts out from the hill opposite the rocks, which are named the Seven Bulls after their supposed similarity to said number of said animals (although I count eight...).  I also slipped on the grass, my knee will probably blow up like a balloon. Ah well…

Back on the road, we pass more fields of the pink flowers - sainfoin, we have discovered - which is used when the fields lie fallow to regenerate the land.  Near Barskoon to our left is a singularly tall mountain, and behind it lies Xinjiang

We stop at a bend in the road, by a small bay with a white beach.  Behind, the mountains continue striding west.  But what caught our attention was the blue of the lake.  It was a colour I’d seen in the Seven Lakes of Tajikistan - a product of glacial runoff.  But the ensemble looked like nothing so much as a some sun-kissed Greek island, with the sea and the mountains continuing into the haze.  Beautiful. We stop off at another beach a little later.  Here the water is completely transparent.  A large pink beach extends for some way.

More roadworks - a doubling of the carriageway to make this whole area more accessible.  Strange there are absolutely no birds here…Right, just saw one, but only one… Finally on the turnoff for Kochkor.  Not exactly a great road surface, but zero traffic.  The flat landscape looks like Scottish moors, but without the water.  Now, a mars-scape.  A line of camels walking slowly across it, no humans visible with them.  The temperature has dropped and the rain has begun.

In Kochkor, in our B&B.  Which is basic but decent enough.  Has fast wifi, and only cost £20 a night.  The drive here wonderful and horrendous.  Wonderful because of the view of lake and mountain; horrendous because of the unending roadworks, which meant we drive at 20 km/h over un-made roads.  I felt sorry for our driver who has to drive back to Bishkek after all that.  But he earned a decent amount - pushed up to 19,000 som - about £180 - for two days’ driving from Bishkek, to Karakol, then to here.  Quite a slog.

Both here and in our previous hotel we had to take off our outside shoes and put on slippers/flipflops - very sensible, when you think about it.  To the Retro Cafe, about the only decent place to eat.  We go for safe old plov.  But plov is off -  a re-run of our experience in Samarkand two years ago.  Going for laghman bosso instead…

11.6.24 Kochkor

Wake early to brilliant sunny morning.  Kochkor is ringed by mountains.  Alas, rain is still forecast for later.  Just two hours to our yurt by Song-Köl, so a relatively short journey.  Our fixer has changed with yurt we are staying at, so not super happy that the new one has no connectivity.  Maybe some 4G in places?  We will see…  Our B&B offered an amazing breakfast: yogurt, porridge, eggs, vegetables, cakes, pancakes, bread, jam etc. etc.  We ate at the top of the building, in a kind of covered veranda, with splendid views south to the mountains.  The only two things not perfect here: the shared bathroom, and the two poor budgies outside our room, singing their poor captive hearts out.  

In the car with Erkin - the fixer’s dad.  We stop, a breathtaking panorama - folds in the mountains (2,500 metres), rough scrub, a single road leading down to the village Tölök.  At 3,447 metres, the pass down to the lake.  Ice and snow linger, air is notably colder here.  Only sound the mountain streams.  Clouds gather.  So Tajik, so Georgian, this landscape.

Sitting on the wooden bench in front of the yurts, with the unbelievable lake Song-Köl stretched out for 30km before us.  Behind, brilliant white cumulus clouds stretch out in a long line.  On the other side of the lake, the clouds are grey with rain, which is falling on the mountains, but above remains a vast blue vault, with a pale sickle of the moon just visible.

The journey here long and unforgettable, not least because our car’s four-wheel drive capability decided not to work, so it was basic first gear all the way.  Just as well, since after the turn off to Song-Köl, the road got rougher.  We drove along an endless valley after Tölök, passing numerous isolated farmsteads - but all with electricity, served by a single set of pylons following our road.  The river valley was green and fertile - where the farmers were - but next to them was barren scrub land, rising with the mountains.  The road went straight, along to the end of the valley, then left where it began a series of switchback loops - a sure sign of gaining height.  And everywhere herds of cattle, sheep - and above all, horses.  Hundreds of them, probably many thousands altogether.  Occasionally we saw a raptor glide across the sky, but no other fauna.

We reached the highest point in the pass - at 3,447 metres altitude - where a few other tourists gawped at the view, and carved their names in broad bands of snow and ice (such intelligence).  Then the descent to the lake valley, and once again it was striking how many thousands of cows and horses there were along the way.  Isolated yurts were dotted among them - where the herders live in summer.  The transhumance here must a colossal undertaking, but apparently worth it for the rich pastures by the lake: coarse but rich grass everywhere, dotted with dandelions and other colourful flowers in the meadows.

At our yurt - at Muras Ecocamp - there are two large dogs - not sheepdogs, but cowdogs/ horsedogs, which bark animals away when they get too close to the yurts.  The camp is run by a Tibetan-looking lady, ruddy faced, plus others.  We arrived just in time for lunch, which we had pre-ordered through our fixer.  There was soup with a soft, spongy bread, vegetable pastry packets, salad, dried fruit and green tea - all served in the dining yurt.  Given the isolation of this spot, pretty impressive that they manage to cook anything…

This is a “luxury” yurt camp, so instead of a hole in the ground for a toilet, there is a full china toilet bowl and seat set over a hole in the ground… For washing, there is hot water that you put in a big bucket, and then use a scoop to wash with.  The water is apparently collected from a nearby stream that has cleaner water.  On the drive here, we passed over many dried out gravel riverbeds, presumably in full spate in spring with the melt of the snows.

Rain clouds hover menacingly behind us and in front, but to my right, the northern end of the lake sparkles endlessly with tiny flashes of light.  Driving up here, the stones by the side of the road, and in the rocks, also flashed with reflected light - from silica in them perhaps, enhanced by the polaroid sunglasses I was wearing.  

I love the way the huge bunched cumulus behind us are cut off and flat at the bottom.  And they seem so near - probably because they are, since we are at 3,000 metres altitude here.  On the opposite side of the lake, the grasslands have turned a gentle yellow as the sun begins to sink from its height.

Some of the cows are grazing nearby.  When they cross a red line - actually a row of small stones - one of the cowdogs zooms after them, barking loudly.  Occasionally, the cow stands its ground, or chases the dog, which retreats smartly.  But the cows always leave in the end.  The dogs do this policing quite autonomously.  One thing: the cows are not afflicted by flies at all.  So they never flick their tails as happens lower down in the valleys and plains.  This lake valley reminds me of Kashmir - that Shangri-La hidden away in the mountains, a blessed secret world, as here.

As dusk falls, the temperatures begin to drop rapidly.  We retreat to our yurt to add several layers of clothing.  This night will probably be quite chilly - our beds have multiple thick covers on them.  Lying on my bed, looking up at the yurt’s roof, I am reminded that the central dome at the top of this structure, uses two sets of three interleaved wooden strips that are found in the middle of the Kyrgyz flag - a rather clever re-use of its culture.

Holding up the mini-dome are around 60 sticks that slot into holes in the right bounding the topmost part.  The sticks are tied to a lattice of wood strips down to the ground.  A covering of reeds/plant stems bound into a raffia-like sheet comes next, then the layer of felt.  Everything is covered with a plastic tarpaulin (presumably cloth, originally) to make an extremely snug dwelling.

With the two wood panels of the door pulled to, the only light comes from a few holes at ground level, and the hole where the stove chimney exits.  Gradually, the eyes grow accustomed to the low levels of light.  The wind is getting up - an ancient sound that early humans must have known well and feared for the consequences of strong wind and heavy rain… (it occurs to me now to wonder what is holding the yurt down: then I spot several sturdy stakes hammered into the ground, and tied to the wooden lattice…).  Interestingly the stove (sadly unlit) has a dozen big, flat stones placed around it as a kind of heat storage system.  
Heard a generator, and feared it might be on all night.  In fact it was to pump water from a big one-metre cube container to the tank above the toilets and showers - clever.

In the dining yurt again - where the stove is lit, and being loaded with dried cow dung.  Fiat lux - the two bulbs here have gone on for the first time…  Similar food to lunch, but wholesome enough.  Our driver seems to have disappeared, which is slightly worrying, since we have no other means of getting to out next stop - Kyzyl-Oi - and then Bishkek.  I hope he’s just fixing his 4x4.

After supper, a postprandial stroll by the lake, some pretty pink to the west, the thin crescent moon high in the sky.  Although plenty of thick rain clouds around, the sky above is clear.  We hope it holds so that we can see the stars, free of light pollution.  It is quite cold now, so we hop in bed under the covers - fully dressed.  The covers are thick and extremely heavy.  Key thing is they are warm.  A little later, a man comes around to pour a highly-flammable liquid on our stove’s cow dung.  And whoosh - we have a working, heating stove, at least for a few hours.  And our solitary bulb now works - surprisingly bright.

The air is so clear here, and the sun’s rays are so piercing that I was forced to put some sun cream on to protect my face.  Much of this is now smeared over my glasses, and there is no easy way to clean them (using a cloth would just make it worse.)  The first welcome rays of infra-red from the stove are reaching me...bliss.  Amazing how isolated places teach you the value of basics like heat, light, hot water, toilets, showers etc.  The cow-dung man has come back, and filled the upper chamber of the stove with coal.  Not very eco, but likely to be warm.

Out to the stars, which, as you might expect, are visible in a way no urban location allows.  Crescent moon almost too bright, some light from the sun still in the wet.  But all very fine.


Up early, with the pale sun just over the mountains in the east.  Lots of clouds on the peaks, but blue dome above.  Air cold, sun’s rays warm.  Last night I heard a strange sound, like tiny stones shifting.  It was rain on the yurt roof.  But the ground now is dry.  I got up early to use the shower here.  Actually, as mentioned above, there is no shower, just a big bucket that you fill and then scoop out water that you pour on yourself - as in the Indonesia system.. And there was no hot water either - the stove was not lit, so my (cold) shower was very nominal…

At odd moments, I feel out of breath, due to the thinness of the air.  A deep intake of mountain air solves the problem.  Last night we saw four or five hobbled horses - their forelegs tied with a short rope to prevent wandering.  I see they have moved about 100 metres to behind our yurts.

One of the cowdogs has come for his morning ablutions - cocking his leg on the bench near me.  Nothing personal, I think…  A man rides by on horseback.  We salute each other.  Cows low in the distance, invisible birds chirrup. There is a slight breeze from the west.  Might be good: relatively few clouds in that direction, but plenty to the east (yes, I’m obsessed with the weather up here…)

An enormous bumblebee has just zoomed around me - huge.  Cowdogs already started chasing animals away from forbidden places.  A smell of coal smoke in the air.  The more wolf-like of the cowdogs came up to me, so I stroked it under the chin.  It closed its eyes in appreciation… Our rusty old stove is still slightly warm from last night.  A quick walk after breakfast, where we fix up some horses.  Which should be ready at 10am.

They were, and off we went.  The Kyrgyz saddle was surprisingly comfortable - padded with thick cloths.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that my horse didn’t respond to the signals I had learned in the UK.  It just seemed to ignore everything I did.  As a result, I often fell behind the person leading us, and had desperately to persuade my horse to catch up - an exhausting process of striking and squeezing its sides repeatedly.

It was a pity that the experience was so tiring, since the view everywhere we went was stunning.  Despite early morning threats of rain, and despite the Tibetan-looking yurt lady confirming that rain would inevitably come, it never did.  Instead, although huge puffy clouds piled up around us, no drops fell.  

We headed north, a little way from the shore, then cut in to see the only historic monument around here, a memorial to the hero Olzhobolat ulu Andash.  The form of the building, which is built rather roughly, like a dry stone wall, reminded me of similar monuments in Uzbekistan, notably in Bokhara.  Although rather crude, the overall effect is attractive.

Even though we had theoretically booked only an hour-long ride - I knew too well how achy we would be even from that - the guide decided to make it two hours, and over the hills.  He was only 17, although he looked much older with his sunburnt skin.  Naturally, his main questions to us were about English football teams.  We disappointed him in our minimal knowledge, doubtless.

Riding up and down the hills, crossing dried out stream beds and avoiding the deep holes of the ground squirrel burrows was even more tiring than riding on the flat.  Just when I thought that our yurt camp must be over the next hill, another ascent and descent proved necessary.  And then another.  It’s true, when we finally did begin our descent to the camp, the view was spectacular, with the whole lake laid out before us.  Still the weather held, with the sun’s rays quite fierce as the time approached midday.  Even though we had not asked for it, we had to pay for the two hours - 3,200 som, about £30. I also gave the guide 400 som. All in all, quite cheap by UK standards of course, never mind the fact that a horse ride along Song-Köl was a unique experience.  After lunch, we allowed ourselves a short recuperative sleep…

The continuing good weather, despite every forecast that I looked at, just goes to show, it’s not worth worrying: what will be, will be.  (Ironically, I just heard some growls of thunder.)  It is raining, but very sporadically.  Big drops fall on the yurt roof.  But on the western side of the lake, the sun shines.  Lying in bed in the yurt, looking out through the open panels of the yurt door, is like watching the most magnificent hi-res streaming channel.

We still don’t know what is happening with our errant driver, so I asked the yurt lady if she could send a message.  She said that she would, and later told us that she had contacted her manager, who would contact our driver’s handler.  This was interesting.  Since there seems to be no mobile signal here, we suspect she used a local comms device - some kind of walkie-talkie.  Also suggests that several of these yurts are run by the same manager/company.
Out after dinner - the best one here so far - to a cleared sky, and total silence.  The eastern shore illuminated by the setting sun, the folds and valleys caught by its rays. Black storm clouds north, rain falling.  We are headed there tomorrow - let’s hope it has gone by then.


Serious rain came down last night, driving hard on the yurt roof.  And sometime during the night there were strange not-quite-rhythmic noises, a kind of soft drumming.  A sudden whinny identified the culprit: a hobbled horse moving with a rather inelegant hopping motion, like a weird four-legged kangaroo.  Despite the downpour, the sky has already cleared, as our unreasonable luck with the weather seems to continue.  I hope so, because today we are taking a shortcut over the nearby mountain along rough tracks to get to the main road that will take us to Kyzyl-Oi.  It turns out our driver has been staying with friends in a nearby village, and so we have hopes he will indeed be around to take us back to Bishkek on Friday.

And it’s raining again.  The clouds turn the lake’s water a steel grey.  But there’s sun on the other shore.  The clouds have descended, wreathing the hills behind us in mist.  The mountains opposite have disappeared.  It is pretty cold and miserable - worse for all the horses and cows that have been out in it all night.  Glimmers of sun tease with the possibility that it might be dry…

In the car, heading north.  The roads are extremely difficult, even for the 4x4.  At one point the wheels just turned without getting any purchase.  Now we have stopped by another 4x4 that is deeply stuck in thick mud - not sure if we can help - or even if we can go on given the state of the track…

Thanks to the driver, we reach the pass at 3,400 metres - very cold, but we did arrive.  The view on the other side just staggering - the mountains behind Bishkek, seen from the south.  To the west, Kyzart.  Then a deep rut in the mud caused us to skid, with the car at an angle to the road, and tipping upwards at what seems 45 degrees, wheels spinning hopelessly.  We had to gather from the surrounding fields suitably big but flat stones and put them under the wheel to provide some grip.  Got out finally, but road still really bad…  [Now in Kyzyl-Oi, we made it…]

After that experience, the road proved no better, and I knew that even our 4WD and expert driver could still have serious problems.  As someone who has been driving many cars many decades in many countries, I watched anxiously as our driver had to make the right decision - about which of the many rutted tracks to follow, which part of the “road” to use, which gear to apply, what speed to take - hundreds of times in the two-hour drive down the mud track that took us from Song-Köl to the main road the other side of the mountains.

It was cold comfort that the views were amazing - I was hardly in the mood.  Moreover, this route was clearly yet another example of the fact that Kyrgyz roads are always infinitely longer than Western ones.  Even when we had descended from the pass, down the mudslide road - including one stretch that seemed a 1 in 2 gradient that was surely impossible to drive up - the road on the level kept on going.  We passed a few isolated farms, giving us a false comforting sense of approaching civilisation - well, a settlement - the road ran on.  And even on this stretch of the trip, there were sections that were tricky to negotiate, with mud ruts, deep puddles, tall piles of stones (to fill the puddles, perhaps?).  Talking of farms, along the way down we came across a small herd of yaks…remarkable in their absurdly long, shaggy coats, hanging straight down from their bellies.

Once on the main road that led from Kochkor to Kyzart, things improved enormously.  The road looked newly resurfaced, as if to compensate for the mud hell we had escaped from.  It was striking how many cemeteries there were, all with the characteristically ornate tombs.  Earlier we also passed some crumbling mausoleums, rather like the one in Song-Köl - and like the one in Bokhara.  The temperature contrast with the near-zero levels at breakfast were quite extreme: we were back in the baking lowlands (well, still at 2,000 metres altitude, but relatively).  As we pass along, there were two ranges of mountains either side.  Those to the north had an amazing variety of forms and colours.

Eventually we reached the end of this valley, and turned right for Kyzyl-Oi.  My heart sank when I saw that the road was unsurfaced - but at least it was relatively smooth and without major potholes.  This was Kekemeren gorge, and the road followed the path of the descending stream. It all looked striking like the route that led to Yaghnob valley in Tajikistan - not so far away geographically.  If anything, the mounts walls that towered over the canyon here seemed even higher than those in Tajikistan.  But the latter seemed greener, presumably because they received more rainfall.

Finally, after another five-hour drive, we arrived in Kyzyl-Oi.  Finding the Damira Guesthouse was not entirely straightforward, since there were no signs, and the characteristic dining yurt was nowhere evident.  Instead, the guesthouse that seemed to be our goal had a wooden structure where afterwards we ate.  Lunch was great - home-cooked and home-grown, including apricots and cherries.  We also had the fried bread we had eaten in Bishkek.  One slight surprise was to find a group of three Brits staying here; another was to learn that our driver was sharing our room - well, he has to stay somewhere.  Makes using the bathroom and toilet a little more awkward, but hey.

Out to see the village.  The streams behind our guesthouse are beautiful.  The main stream is a little way, and a smaller one makes a detour around an island full of mature trees.  The mountains behind rise hundreds of metres, fairly bare, with extensive scree.

So, rather amusingly, it turns out we are staying in the wrong guesthouse - this, improbably, is the Nazgul guesthouse.  Damira is back the way we came, complete with dining yurt, and not signposted at all.  The man I was dealing with there just phoned me, confused why I just gave 20 euros to one of the ladies in Damira’s as a kill fee for the food they might have bought for us.  I felt I should compensate him for the confusion (he can also claim the booking fee since I gave no notice for effectively cancelling).  We could move to that other guesthouse, but that would mess up things here, since we’ve eaten and used the room.  And they do have a very fast Internet connection, so there’s that. I’ve just checked and the other place has none…

14.6.24 Kyzyl-Oi

Slept badly - an uneven bed - but hey, that’s part of the fun.  Out to the stream behind the guesthouse and I am hit by the smell of Georgia in the mountains.  Clear blue sky, sun just over the eastern mountains.  Air cool still.  The forceful susurration of the streams - that natural, peaceful white noise.  Was that a cuckoo?

For breakfast, no porridge, alas, but a kind of Kyrgyz Cornish pasty - quite nice.  For the food and the room, 25 euros each - pretty good value.  On the road to Bishkek, which will requires us to pass over two mountain ranges, one with a high-altitude tunnel.  Strange feeling: road is quite gently sloping, and feels as if we are going downhill, but the stream flows against us.  Very similar to Yaghnob valley landscape, slightly more spacious.  The Tajik valley felt more closed in, secret and intimate.  Even quite near the pass, this gorge remains very broad. 
Across a bridge, through Kojomkul - poor-looking village, surrounded by mountains.  We have picked up a hitchhiker - well, he is blind in one eye, and seem to have a knee injury, so it seems right to do so.  Travelling across the plain between the mountains.  In a place now with a name - Suusamyr… feels very Tibetan here (not that I’ve been in Tibet - thanks to that fateful chicken sandwich), and also rather like Kashmir (where I have been), which is also a vale between mountains.

Moving up out of the valley plain, the haze building up.  The zigzag road reminds me of Tajikstan and Georgia - especially by Gudauri, with the stinking lorries struggling to rise.  A sign stuck on a rock: “эвакуатор” - “evakuator" - meaning breakdown service.  Now at 2,900 metres.  Another “эвакуатор” sign - lots of them.

Now at the tunnel, waiting to pass.  There are gates closing it off for some reason.  Cars and lorries parked here waiting.  Very similar in location and design to the old “Tunnel of Death” in Tajikistan, except that here there is a pay-for toilet by the side of the road.  Fortunately, we are only a few cars form the head of the queue, now growing behind us.  Interesting that the vans here all have their number plate details on the back in a large type size. And yet lorries seem not to.

The other striking thing here is the use of old shipping containers everywhere - up in Song-Köl, even on the muddy descent from hell.  You have to wonder how they got them up there.  Helicopters would be easiest, but obviously impossibly expensive for these people living a very frugal existence.  So it must be by lorry - but then how do you get the thing off and into the middle of muddy fields?

Here’s the reason for the delay - horses, about 25 of them, coming towards us out of the tunnel.  Then we go in - one direction of flow only.  The tunnel proves a modern wonder compared to the Tajik one.  High roof, concrete cladding on the full extent of the wall, lighting throughout - luxury.

Through the tunnel, on the other side of the road, past a big flock of sheep - around 100 animals, climbing for the tunnel presumably.  Poor things - what a journey.  Another smaller flock.  And between them two lone dogs: with the sheep, or just on their own?  A long, long descent.

Finally on the plain, but limited by max speed limits and police radar.  Back to the land of the poplar trees… More sheep and cows, this time on the main dual carriageway into Bishkek.  Nearly there. Just passed a battered old truck with plates and signage from Sweden. Long drive to bring it here. Not many female drivers around.  Passed bloke selling kvass form a small tank of it by the roadside.  Lots of trees provide shade along this main road - something Kyrgyzstan is very good on - for obvious reasons.  A bloke sits in a wheelchair between the second and third lanes of the carriageway.  Waiting for charity…  Saw shop with the sign “Second-hand from Germany” - vehicles, obviously.

In Bishkek, in the absurdly luxurious Orion hotel - around £150 a night.  I allowed us this in part because we were spending about £25 a night for most other places.  Moreover, the bathrooms in those places were either shared or non-existent (I didn’t wash for two days in Song-Köl).  The hotel is placed a little south of Chuy Avenue, whereas our first hotel here - B Hotel - was north of it.  This means we see a very different side of Bishkek.  In fact, this area is very leafy - Hotel Orion is just off Erkindek Avenue, which is long, in true Kyrgyz fashion, and sandwiches a thin sliver of park between its two lanes. 
It’s clearly a very upmarket part of Bishkek - there are several swanky hotels and embassies - a kind of Kyrgyz Belgravia.

Another reason I chose this hotel is that it has a swimming pool, sauna and steam room.  After roughing it for nearly a week, it seemed only fair.  I’ve just had a sauna - alas, the steam room wasn’t steamy at all, and couldn’t be persuaded to steam up - but the sauna was fab.  

To return to our trip here, now that I can write a little more calmly, and without being thrown around in the car as it negotiated what at times was a rough road, it was even better than I hoped - and than I thought it would be from the map - even the topographical one, which I love and often gaze at, dreaming of exploring all its nooks and crannies, as I am doing now.

From Kyzyl-Oi the road rose very gently, passing through landscapes defined by the mountain stream powerfully surging through its valley.  Our road followed the stream just as I did many times in Tajikistan - Zarafshan valley, Yaghnob valley, the road down to Dushanbe.  Here the pace was more gentle, the mountains further apart and grander.

This led to a huge plain between two ranges of mountains, evidently inhabited by farmers.  The land was evidently fertile here, just as in the similar Kashmir region.  As usual, the valley plain went on longer than I expected, until we began the final ascent via a zigzag road that gave great views of the mountains we had come from, and of the valley below, although heat haze and pollution made the air less transparent than before.  We were often trapped behind ancient belching lorries, our driver was only too happy to overtake these behemoths on a hill and on a curve.  There were dozens of signs stuck to rocks offering breakdown services - obviously much in demand here given the punishing geography.

Then we came to the tunnel where we waited a good 15 minutes to allow a herd of horses to trot through the tunnel towards us.  The tunnel itself, at 3,400 metres, was shorter and far less intimidating than the similar mountain tunnel in Tajikistan.

The descent was long, swinging back and forth as the road flipped direction again and again, looping down the mountainside, and so beautiful - very similar to the descent coming back from Khujand.  Then we reached the plain on which Bishkek is sited, and began the increasingly congested drive in to the city.

For many kilometres before Bishkek, both sides of the road were full of shops - big ones like Globus supermarkets, medium ones like garages - obviously much needed for the old cars many drive - and small ones, the дүкөн (dükön - a word I already knew from Turkish dükkân, and from Lermontov and Pushkin, I think) - the small shops found across Central Asia.  There were people milling around everywhere (it was Friday, after all) and this gave a real sense of Kyrgyzstan buzzing.  Lots of young people, including young women in short skirts, alongside a few wearing headscarves that covered their head and hair completely.  Everyone seemed pretty happy and excited by in this new Kyrgyzstan that was evolving.  It was really heartening to watch.

On a similar note, I should confess that I was a little unsure how safe Kyrgyzstan in general and Bishkek in particular would be.  I can truly say I have never felt concerned for one second - it seems an incredibly safe place where young women and even small children walk alone, and unafraid.  In many ways, I’d say it is safer than the UK.

Our long-suffering driver, who today drove another four and half hours for us, was not very familiar with central Bishkek, so we had to guide him to our hotel.  There, I paid him the agreed 40,000 som - about 420 euros.  I’d already paid for his stay in Kyzyl-Oi - something that he would have covered according to our deal - as a thank you for his driving, and here in Bishkek we had another gift for him, or rather for his grandchildren: a dozen or so Polo mint packets.  I found these very popular when I gave them out in Tajikistan last year, because they are unknown around in Central Asia it seems, they are British, and they are mints, which most people like.  Sadly, as we went into the hotel, we could hear his trusty 4x4 failing to start: it seems the extraordinary exertions of the last few days had knocked it out.  It doesn’t bear thinking about what would have happened if this mechanical failure had occurred as we slid down the accursed mud track… [Later his son assured us that his father was OK, and that the vehicle had been taken off for repairs in Bishkek.]

After we had settled into out room (#301), we went out for lunch.  Since I had begun this trip by eating Georgian in Almaty, it seemed right to eat Georgian here in Bishkek at its end.  We went to Zaandukki - which was, naturally, much further away than it looked.  The staff clearly weren’t Georgian, so I couldn’t see whether I could remember some suitable phrases.  The Adjarian khachapuri was solid, but not at the same level as the one in Almaty.  To finish, we tried Iranian coffee, having drunk Georgian green tea with the meal.  The coffee was basically Turkish coffee with extra sludge.  Not recommended.

After lunch, we went in search of a few gifts to take back.  One place in particular seemed perfect for our needs.  Epos was clearly marked on Google Maps, but try as we might, we couldn’t find it in the physical world.  Only by reading people’s (positive) comments on the place did we work out it was hundreds of metres from where Google placed it.  If anyone reading this is looking for gifts in Bishkek, Epos is great, but found on the third floor of the big ZUM Aichurok shopping centre by the fountains, a little way along from the Fighters of the Revolution monument.

The friendly Epos sales staff clearly had few tourists to sell to, because when we asked prices, they gave them and then immediately offered discounts.  I feel ambivalent about haggling in these places.  On the one hand, if you don’t haggle, you are playing the gormless tourist who doesn’t know the value of anything.  On the other, knocking down the price means less money for people who need it more than we tourists do.  I take the position that a little genteel haggling is appropriate, and allows everyone’s honour and needs to be satisfied.  And so after the haggling over money, a purifying sauna seemed doubly attractive.

To Mubarak at 104 Chuy Avenue for a very fine plov and green tea.  Nice relaxed family ambience.  Out into the pleasantly fresh evening.  A stroll along the chief streets of a city is a key way of taking its pulse.  Bishkek is hale and hearty.  The streets are full of young people, old people, families just walking along, standing around or sitting down.  Everyone is relaxed, and clearly feeling good in this moment.  It’s a wonderful atmosphere, and I am lucky to be here to experience it.

15.6.24 Bishkek

On the way to Dordoy market, of which more anon…  For the moment, our lunch in Navat deserves attention.  Symbolically, the restaurant is located in the same building we couldn’t find yesterday.  And symbolically, we also couldn’t find the restaurant either.  It was supposedly on the sixth floor, but up there were just dozens of mobile phone repair shops - like those in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.  We went back to the fifth floor and wandered about, and managed to meander across to a new building where on the sixth floor was indeed our restaurant, like dozens here - huge food court of every variety, from trad nomad fare to KFC.  Another testament to how fast Kyrgyzstan is developing.

One of the great features of this place is the view over the north-east of the city, including Victory Square and the Turkish mosque.  A nice touch a small glass of chalap - a kind of saltier, thicker airan.  Not to my taste, but interesting.  We have ordered plov (yet again) but may return this evening to try something different.  Plov already arrived - meat smells great, and I don’t even like meat…

Have ordered the chak-chak - the fast one, since the one we really wanted takes 25 minutes to prepare allegedly…  To the east, a huge chimney belches out the worst kind of brown-grey smoke.  According to the map, it’s a coal-fired power station.  Pity it’s so close to the centre - presumably when it was first built, it wasn’t…  Weird pud - crumbly worms made of sweet pastry - very sticky.  Goes well with tea…

Now in the National Museum of Art. Sadly no photos allowed… Not that I am expecting too many masterpieces.  We begin with carpets. Many have the characteristic Kyrgyz pattern that we have seen everywhere - symmetric, looks like horns and plant forms.  To the special exhibition by Mels Inakhynob.  Smelling of fresh oil painting… Mostly scenes of people going about their daily lives, effective enough.  Of the main collection, the one most of interest are those showing Kyrgyz landscapes - especially ones we recognise, like a painting called “Mountains and explorers” showing the valley leading to Song-Köl.  Finally to the other temporary exhibition of works by Dzymabaev, including a series of woodcuts illustrating the Manas epic.  Rather fine.  1968 edition, apparently.  There were some nice, not great pix, but the bar on taking photos meant that they would be largely forgotten by me.

Afterwards, yet another long trek through the afternoon heat to the Central mosque, also called the Turkish mosque.  The latter name is doubly justified: it was funded by the Turkish Diyanet, and looks like something straight out of Istanbul.  Huge minarets, vast dome, glorious blue inside.  But the fact that it was new, clearly based on ancient Turkish design was a little jarring.

And so back to the main event of the day: Dordoy Bazaar.  Perhaps it should be more properly called Dordoy Bizarre: the sight of thousands of shipping containers turned into a warren of shops was so surreal.  It looked like something out of dystopian novel, where people had been reduced to sheltering in rusty old containers. In fact, it was a brilliant idea: ready-made shops plus storage formed by placing one container on top of another.  It was like all the other bazaars I’d seen, but updated in this weird way.

The place was heaving with people, and the constant flow of rushing porters pushing goods at high speed made it even harder to walk.  There was every imaginable good, many from China, some from Korea and EU.  There were stacks of fresh cherries and mounds of apricots, together with fried goods.  In one region there were lots of surprisingly trendy-looking little corner cafes.  Another long alley was full of clothes. One section was more ramshackle, with gaps in the corrugated iron roof.  Mostly, it looked reasonably permanent.  It certainly felt like the evolution of a new, 21st century bazaar.  So interesting to see it happening here, in Kyrgyzstan, rather than in China or India.  Another indication of Kyrgyzstan’s rapid development and even innovation.

To Navat for dinner.  Where we finally get to eat chak-chak (natural) - which consists of sticky (with honey) crispy sheets with the odd raisin and walnut.  Good.

16.6.24 Manas airport

Up early watching the sun alongside the city power station belching out smoke.  Quick drive into the airport.  Even at 6.30am lots of roadsweepers out working.  Tough life.  Jolly taxi driver, working the phone as he drove.  He liked the Polo mints we gave him (our last packet).  Sitting in the airport lounge waiting for our gate seems an appropriate moment to reflect on this trip.

It has been amazing from every viewpoint.  Amazing scenery, amazing experiences like staying in a yurt at 3,000 metres, surrounded by mountains.  amazing journeys, for example around Issyk-Kul, and the trip back to Bishkek from Kyzyl-Oi.  Interesting food, varied hotels, from luxury to the bare basics and shared facilities. A generous welcome everywhere, with friendly, skilful taxi drivers.

In many ways this trip is the most ambitious I have ever attempted in terms of its organisational complexity.  And yet I was able to sort out everything, in advance, thanks to the Internet, specifically WhatsApp, which is used by everyone here. You could say that the Internet has fulfilled its promise too well: there is now almost no travail in travel.  Almost, but not entirely.  Two of the strongest and most memorable experiences were about things not being easy.

Up in Song-Köl, there was no 4G, no Internet, electricity for only an hour a day (from a generator).  And that was great, because those quotidian concerns dropped away, leaving the place itself.  

The other unforgettable experience of difficulty was leaving Song-Köl, taking a route over the mountains. The long-feared rain, which fell the night before, made the track into a huge marsh.  Even the 4WD struggled at times, and we were often close to getting bogged down - literally - in thick mud, in the middle of nowhere.  It was a chastening experience, because it revealed the true nature of travel, where unanticipated problems can spring up at any moment, and have to be dealt with as they do, not before.  For example, when our vehicle skidded sideways, with the front nearside stuck up a bank, and the other wheels were spinning hopelessly, the solution was to collect large, flat rocks, which we jammed under the wheel to give it grip. That worked, but only because our experienced driver - a sunburnt septuagenarian who used to be an engineer on the roads - knew what to do.  We didn’t.  

So the Internet has indeed made things easy in some ways, perhaps too easy at times.  But the essence of travel - that travail - is always lurking in the background, to give voyages that unique and addictive thrill that keeps me excited about the next one.

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