A week in Kyrgyzstan
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Michael has always rather wondered what those various small Central Asian countries with unspellable names ending -stan were like. One of them, Kyrgyzstan, had direct flights to UK and could be accessed by road from China. We were planning a trip to China, following the Silk Road to Kashgar. Torugat Pass has recently been open to tourists and would get us into Kyrgyzstan.
We drew up an itinerary and went to talk to Audley Travel in Witney. www.audleytravel.com
We would spend a week in Kyrgyzstan and fly home from Bishkek.
OVERAL IMPRESSIONS OF KYRGYZSTAN Kyrgyzstan, once part of the USSR, is sandwiched between Kazakhstan and China. It is a small country by Asian standards characterised by high mountains and pastures. The Russian colonial influence is still strong. Architecture and settlement patterns are Russian, but buildings are made from sun dried clay bricks (or if you are wealthy, kiln dried bricks) rather than wood.
In Soviet times there was a lot of investment in the area and the economy boomed. After independence this dried up. The big collective farms were broken up into smaller units. There was no longer bulk buying or machinery to work the land. Farmers used to having everything provided by the state found it difficult to think and plan for themselves. The first few winters were very hard as they hadn’t planned for enough fodder to last the winter and were selling off animals to survive. Numbers of animals plummeted as did incomes. This is only just being reversed.
Factories no longer had investment and when things broke down there was no money to repair them. Plants were sold off for scrap to China. There is still little working industry. Roads are full of potholes, although they had been given a mobile asphalting machine by Japan and work on resurfacing has begun. A lot still needs to be done but there is a strong sense of optimism.
My lasting impression of Kyrgyzstan is of jagged snow covered mountains and the high grasslands with nomads. In the summer months the grandparents and children take the animals up to the lush grasslands on the high plateau for three months while the parents work the fields. We passed large flocks of sheep, goats and cows being walked along the roads to the summer grazing, accompanied by men and boys on horseback. Boys learn to ride by the age of six.
ACROSS TORUGAT PASS TO NARYN The road climbs from Kashgar through the mountains to the pass at 3752m. The road was built in 1906 but closed between 1969 and 1983 due to tensions between China and the USSR.
Security is taken very seriously by the Chinese. Don't try taking photographs.
First stop is the entrance to the border area about one hour from Kashgar. Bags were scanned and passports and visas checked. We were asked to show books and maps. A quick glance showed there was nothing to offend on the maps. Apparently guards take exception to travel guides which show Taiwan in a different colour to China and will confiscate books unless the offending page is torn out).There was much scratching of heads over a DVD on Buddhism given us by a monk in one of the temples we’d visited. In the end the guard decided they were OK as they presented the Chinese view of Buddhism and there was no mention of the Dalai Lama.
Our passports were inspected again as we left the building. A few miles down the road is another checkpoint, belonging to military police where passports had to be shown again.
A bit further on the road enters a village in an autonymous Kyrgyz region of Xinjiang. A makeshift barrier barred progress until driver and guide had shown their passes for this area. After that it was plain sailing until the actual Chinese frontier where there is a simple barrier. Here we waited until our Kyrgyz driver and guide arrived.
It is a 30 minute drive to the Kyrgyz border point (a bit longer as we had a puncture within a few minutes). Crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan was very easy. We were waved through Immigration with little formality. Customs was shut for lunch so we just walked through.
The drive across the high plateau was beautiful – wide rolling grassland. We did a detour along an unsigned gravel track across a ford into a hidden valley to the old caravanserai of Tash Rabat. This is thought to be 15thC although may have been built on a 10thC monastery. It provided accommodation and shelter. It has been carefully restored and remains of painted plaster can be seen in the big dome, which was surrounded by smaller rooms, including a kitchen.
We had an overnight stop at in Naryn, the first major settlement on the road from Torugart.
We were booked in the CELESTIAL MOUNTAINS GUEST HOUSE in a refurbished 1960s Soviet block of flats inside a rather daunting compound on the edge of town. www.muzatravel.com/kyrgyzstan/hotels/celestial-mountains.htm. Buildings like this are found throughout Russia and its former areas. It was interesting to have chance to see inside one of these buildings. Four families would have lived on each floor.
This was the only accommodation in Naryn and we had been warned it was “simple.” The bedroom was simply furnished in what can best be described as ‘school dormitory style’. There were communal washrooms, toilets and bathrooms on each floor although there are two en suite rooms now. In summer, yurts erected in the grounds provide additional accommodation. It was scrupulously clean and well looked after by the owners. Dinner and breakfast were ample and good in a pleasant basement dining room.
To KARAKOL Next morning we continued to Karakol. It was a splendid drive through a gorge up to the Dolon Pass. As we dropped down the far side we passed horsemen taking herds of goats and sheep to graze in the upland pastures for the summer.
We dropped down from the high grasslands to the shore of Lake Issy Kul. The flat land from the lake shore to the edge of the mountains was cultivated and we passed through many small villages of Russian style houses, built from concrete rather than wood.
Karakol by Kyrgyzstan standards is a large sprawling town. It was a Russian garrison town but later closed to visitors as it was a research base for torpedoes during Soviet times. It benefited from high levels of investment, which the newly independent state of Kyrgyzstan is unable to maintain. The Soviets built parks and gardens but lack of money for maintenance means many are now overgrown. Main streets are paved (often with pot holes) but side streets are unpaved and lined with trees which made photography difficult. There were chickens running around the houses and sheep or goats tethered on grass verges during the day.
We had arranged to be in Karakol on a Sunday so we could visit the Sunday Market. There was a large animal market with brisk trading in horses, sheep and a few goats. There was also a large area for second hand car sales. This is very important as it is one of the few sources for spare parts.
The Main Bazaar is separate. It is a maze of stalls selling everything from live chickens, clothes, household essentials to children's books.
There isn’t a lot for tourists to do and see in Karakol. We went to see the Russian Orthodox Church. This was used as a club during Soviet times, but is now returned to use as a church.
We also went to the Dungan Mosque built by Chinese Muslims who settled here. This is a lovely quiet place with painted wooden buildings made without the use of nails.
The Przhevalsky Museum is a short drive outside Karakol and commemorates the work of the famous Russian explorer who died in Karakol. His grave is in the grounds of the museum. The custodian, an old lady, is very proud of her museum and visitors are liable to get a guided tour in Russian from her. There is no information in English and the museum has a lot of maps showing the expedition route and some stuffed animals.
We stopped at HOTEL AMIR in Karakol. http://www.hotelamir.kg/. This is a modern building in a quiet residential street and popular with tour groups. People either love or hate the place. It is very clean and the staff were friendly with good English. Our bedroom was small with uncomfortable trendy furniture. Noise is a major problem as the building is basically a large barn. Heavy room doors closing (think Slade Prison), people talking and groups being given morning calls echo round the building.
Breakfast was excellent. We had one dinner (ordered in the morning), which was a poor almost unpleasant meal and very expensive for what it was in a country with generally low prices.
JETI OGHUZ We did this as a full day from Karakol, stopping to take photographs of the Broken Hearts and Seven Bulls. The Russians had built a large sanatorium under the Seven Bulls and this is now used as a tourist resort. It was a pity the tatty tourist development spoilt the views of the rock face. We drove up through the gorge on a rough road across several narrow wooden bridges. The gorge opened out into a wide grassy valley, Flower Valley, before climbing further up through the wooded valley over even more basic bridges. The driver was intending to spend the day fishing so drove until he reached a suitable spot for his fishing and parked up. We continued to follow the track along the fast flowing river through steep wooded hillsides, past a few isolated yurt settlements.
As we walked higher there were splendid views of the snow covered mountains. The valley widened out and the track become even less obvious as we had to scramble and jump our way across boulders in the grass along the river. Heavy rain the previous day made it heavy going, so we never made it as far as the view of Oghuz Bashi (Head of Bull) mountain.
Returning the same way, found the driver who had had an unsuccessful day fishing, and told the guide to stay with him while we continued on foot back down the valley. The sun disappeared behind dark clouds and fortunately the car caught us up two minutes before torrential rain did.
DRIVE TO BISHKEK VIA THE PETROGLYPHS AND BURANA TOWER From Karakol it is a full days drive to Bishkek along the opposite side of Lake Issy Kul with views across the lake to the snow covered mountains. It is a pleasant drive around the head of the lake through fields and then along the north shore, which has a very different feel to the southern shore. There are a lot of new developments and it has a definite holiday atmosphere.
We also noticed a number of new mosques being built in every village. Most mosques were closed during Soviet times and since Independence a number of new mosques have been built with Saudi money. This is an issue of some concern to the government as there is also an increase of radical Islamic teachers coming into the country, especially in the west.
Gradually the land became more arid and desert like. We stopped at Cholpon Ata to walk round the Petroglyph site, along a marked walk through the boulder field past the best of the petroglyphs. The rock carvings are thought to be 1,000 to 3,000 years old. Many represent hunting scenes with carved reindeer.
At the end of the lake the road goes through Shoestring Gorge (Boom Canyon) with road, railway and thundering Chu River. The road is lined with soviet statues – snow leopard, eagle and stag.
After the gorge the valley widened out with small settlements with people working in the fields or else asleep under the trees.
Our next stop was Burana Tower. This is all that remains of the old city of Balasugan at the foot of the Shamshy valley. The 11thC monument looks like the stump of a huge minaret. Next to the tower is a collection of 6-10thC Balbals from the Chu valley. These are grave markers found in parts of central Asia and typically show men with swords holding a cup or bowl. Each had decided character. It is likely that they were erected at the tomb of a warrior and depict other warriors he killed in battle.
BISHKEK Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and a relatively modern city with few historical sites or landmarks. There is a feeling of wealth here, not seen in the rest of Kyrgyzstan. It is a very green city with a lot of trees and parks. We visited the Russian Orthodox Cathedral where there was a special service with lots of singing.
Apart from that we didn’t have chance to see much else of Bishkek as Michael went down with galloping diarrhoea for three days and ended up needing a doctor. Doctor, nurse, driver for 90 minutes plus drips and medicines cost $65 and worked. He saw a lot of our room but little of Biskek.
ALA ARCHA I had a trip to Ala Archa Nature Park. It was a nice drive through the suburbs and past the President’s House in a very expensive part of Bishkek. We left the city behind and drove through rounded grassy hills with little farming. The hills got steeper and woodland began to appear. After passing the ticket office into Ala Archa, the valley sides steepened. The sides are wooded but the tops bare with snow covered peaks. The President has a summer house in the valley and also a yurt where he entertains guests.
There is a popular walk up the hillside past the climbers’ cemetery. This meant crossing the river. The first bridge had iron girder sides but had lost the wooden slats to walk across. The second bridge still had the wooden slats to walk across, swaying in the wind but nothing to hang onto…
I walked up the valley with the guide until we reached a river, which was too deep for us to ford. We returned the same way and then continued down the valley through a small picnic area. This is very popular – judging by the litter. The waste bins were full and overflowing. Elsewhere litter had been collected into a neat pile and left or worse still had been left without any attempt to clear it up. The area was rapidly becoming squalid and this was the first time we had encountered anything like this.
We were booked into SILK LODGE HOTEL in Bishkek. http://silkroadlodge.kg/. This is situated in a quiet area not far from the main street. It was spotlessly clean. We had a large, comfortable but rather strangely shaped room. The reception staff were helpful and spoke good English. The meals in the restaurant were good although it always seemed to be empty.
From Bishkek we caught a direct flight back to London Heathrow.
FINAL COMMENTS We loved the high plateau. We didn’t think Karakol repaid time spent although we enjoyed the day to Jeti Oghuz. In retrospect we would have liked to have spent more time around Naryn doing some gentle walking on the hills. One problem with the high plateau is there is little accommodation apart from yurts which can be a bit basic, especially toilet facilities….
Kyrgyzstan is a marvellous place for walking, wildlife, serious hiking or horse riding. It is still relatively undiscovered, and worth visiting.
Our pictures of Kyrgyzstan are here.
44 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.