Kyrgyzstan and our first “Explore” trip

We’re heading to Kyrgyzstan today.  We’ve booked a 15-day Explore “Mountain Kingdoms of the Silk Road” for A$3,140 each. The tour begins in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and finishes in Tashkent (Uzbekistan). The trip pace is listed as “full on” for travellers who like their holidays packed with activities and experiences, moving on quickly from place to place with lots of early starts and long, busy days!

Kazakhstan is the most economically advanced of the Stans, thanks to its abundant reserves of oil and other valuable minerals. Kyrgyzstan however is not so lucky. It has 5.76 million people, and suffered when it gained independence from the USSR in 1991, as it was no longer subsidised by them. It has also suffered from corruption, especially from some of its former presidents who are living very comfortable lives overseas with their families. As well as protests trying to get rid of various presidents, particularly in 2005, 2006 and 2007, in 2010 there were clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic communities in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad, and more than 200 were killed, and hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes. The Australian Government still has “reconsider your need to travel” around this area (though interestingly, not the same warning for places like Paris, London, Brussels etc where terrorist attacks were much more recent). Most of Kyrgyzstan’s attractions are rural and high altitude, and we’re glad we’ve taken the easy way out and booked a tour.

Friday 27th July     Almaty (Kazakhstan) to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)

After a very bad night with little sleep (people coming in late, going to lockers next to our room, Murray with 2.30am diarrhoea, and someone’s alarm at 5am) Murray takes the last thing in our arsenal of medical supplies in an attempt to be ready for our tour – 4 Simplotan tablets for giardia. He also decided on taking a stopper to see him through the travel day. With no breakfast, we take a taxi to the bus station, arriving about 10.30 AM. P1040813The bus station is large and fairly complicated. We enter through the back, and find our way to the large concourse. Dianne asks at the larger ticket office on the left, finds enough information to go to the right hand end where there is security, and a small ticket office (1,800 tenge each, or A$6.77) We are in the right place, and told there will be a bus on platform one leaving in 20 minutes. We pass through a ticket check, but no security, find the bus already there and nearly full. The driver puts our bags in the back of the ageing Mercedes 20 seat minibus, and we find two single seats near the front and settle in to wait for the bus to fill.

Strangely enough, there is some confusion as the bus fills up. The man opposite Dianne has two seats, and is waiting for a woman to turn up. When she does, he disappears and is late back, and almost misses the bus. Other passengers come and go, but at the stroke of 11, the driver starts up and we depart. We don’t go very far before we pull into a service station to fill up with Diesel. At least, the driver doesn’t do a whip around for cash for fuel. Progress is pretty slow through town, but we get up some speed on the busy highway, which starts as 4-lanes, but reduces to 2 wide lanes as we get further out. Highway police are on patrol and we get headlight flashes from oncoming traffic, and slow down accordingly.

We make a five minute loo stop at a large highway service centre, and a second fuel stop. Either the bus is thirsty, or more likely, fuel is cheaper in Kazakhstan. After a major turnoff, we climb the pass. The Australian government website says the road between Almaty and Bishkek “is particularly treacherous due to heavy traffic loads and a dangerous mountain pass”.  We’ve been on plenty of treacherous mountain passes, and this is definitely NOT one of them, and in fact it was pretty benign. Makes you wonder who writes these government warnings.

Close to the border, we enter a large city on the Kazakh side, then dismount the bus with all our gear at the border. It is a hot walk to customs/immigration where the baggage is X-rayed. We have to find our Kazakh immigration slips which we removed from our passports so they wouldn’t get lost, but pass through OK for another hot walk to Kyrgyzstan immigration for a quicker check, no forms to fill in, and a very long walk to find where we hope the bus will stop, keeping an eye on fellow passengers to see what they are doing, and helped by a young woman who speaks English. Dianne has read on the Lonely Planet website that some buses drop you here, although they say they take you the whole way to Bishkek, so we’re not over-confident of getting a start. We get some change with, a 20E note, indiscreetly opening our money belt full of a variety of notes in front of the group of urging taxi drivers. This confirms we should wait for the bus rather than take a taxi.

A$1 =  50 som

When the bus turns up, there is a mad rush for seats as a lot of our original people have departed, and there are lots of other passengers waiting. Dianne manages to reclaim our seats, but Murray has to struggle rearranging haphazardly thrown-in small bags under the bus, to fit out two big ones. The bus ride to the depot doesn’t inspire us, as the part of the city we pass through is more like Kampala than Almaty. Dianne is following our progress on maps.me, and is pleased to see we are going to the Western terminal, which is quite close to our hostel. The bus pulls in to a designated platform inside the terminal compound, and we are able to organise ourselves. A “taxi driver” right there makes us an offer, which we accept, put our gear into a mystery-make, low slung sports saloon/hatchback that has seen better days, and we sit there with a young woman who is getting antsy while our man tries for a third fare.   Getting out of the terminal is a struggle, but the trip to the hostel is short and cheap at 200 som ($A4), and we arrive in style at our hostel “Interhouse Bishkek” – at about 2 PM.

The hostel staff are very welcoming, and seem to be all female. One young woman lugs one of the big bags up while Dianne and Murray share the other one. At A$70 per night, one should be able to expect something pretty special and the hostel and room doesn’t disappoint, with sparklingly clean room, a big double bed, modern tiled bathroom, a desk and chair in the room and enough room on the floor for all our gear. The only shortcoming is that none of the three power points is close to the desk, but this is remedied when Murray borrows a home-made power board with a super-long cord.

After settling in we walked towards the Chinese restaurant, “50 paces down”, which proves a little farther. Fortunately they have a photo menu and we settle for a plate of chips for Murray, and a plate of fries-with-meat for Dianne. Murray finds our now favourite drink, peach nectar, in the fridge and we are able to make a meal of it. After the meal we take a short walk to the major intersection just up the road, which has a well-lit four-way under pass, and a supermarket with ATM’s on the far side. Unfortunately we have sucked the ING card dry so can’t get any change till we replenish it, but luckily don’t need it immediately.    Back at the hostel we kill time on diary and other duties, and managed a reasonable night’s sleep with no loo episodes from Murray, just a new worry about when the stopper is going to relax.

Saturday 28th July                Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)

We have breakfast at the hostel in the morning, nothing fancy but adequate with a surprisingly good porridge, toast and jam, tea and coffee for those game, and pikelets with cream and jam. We spend most of the day taking it easy, with diary, banking and photos. Out at 4.15pm to get some air and exercise, and visit the pharmacy across the street for more hydration powder, and hopefully some Noroxin, which we are short on. The two young women behind the counter don’t speak any English, but can read a bit. We settle for a couple of one-litre packs of hydration powder, and a couple of courses of Zithromax, the antibiotic Murray is currently using. Fortunately there are English instructions on the packets, and the price, at 1085 som (A$22) on the ING card is very reasonable.

We walk up to the intersection, but Murray has to go back to the hostel and up 3 floors to get the camera we’d forgotten. Take photos of the big Sovietski building in our street, and the strange multi-storey abandoned construction opposite. We get 8,000 som at the ATM which previously rejected us, then walk down the tree-lined main street looking for possible lunch without finding any. We walk a couple of major blocks, don’t see anything that takes our fancy, turn right for a block, then back parallel to the way we came. We see a fast food outlet which looks acceptable, but Murray is not keen, so we look further, and see a local restaurant with quite a few people in it across the street, and give it a go.    The place looks OK, but has a completely incomprehensible menu in Italic script in some language. Dianne has a look at some food going past, and indicates to the waitress we will have two like that. She also finds some peach juice out in the next room, and we wait for our food. Impressed to see two large plates full of noodles, meat and veg arrive. The food is pretty good, with some mystery green chilly items we avoid, Murray eating about half, Dianne most of hers.

We walk back towards the main intersection, and cross to the far side to have a look at some impressive buildings, including the massive multi-columned porch with a blue pediment of what must be a major civic building, being at one end of a long park with flower gardens, and another major civic building at the far end. The road has been closed for re-surfacing, so we walk to the end of the block, but still have to cross on the still-sticky tar. P1040843We return to the park and the large flower garden, high equestrian statue of Manas with a long sword and a flock of pigeons and fountain outside the Philharmonia, some sort of concert hall. Take photos all round, then walk to the end of the park, which is a block past our hostel, and back to the hostel at about 6.15pm for a quiet night of photos, diary and blogging, getting to bed about 11 PM

Supposedly Day 1 of Tour     Sunday 29th July     Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)

Murray wakes early, goes downstairs before breakfast with the computer to catch up on diary, gets an early start on breakfast, keeping on the light side and climbs up at 8AM to see how Dianne is going. She comes down for breakfast then we return to the room to pack, coming back down with our bags and the extension cord to check out and get a taxi called to take us to our next hotel, which is part of our official tour, which supposedly starts today. The taxi arrives fairly promptly, so we leave, forgetting our drinks in the fridge. It is a few kms down the main road to our next hotel, the Ak-Keme, but for some reason our driver uses a parallel street for most of the way. Some of the area we travel through is pretty rough, and includes a railway crossing, but we see several flash malls, and the area we end up in, is pretty flash, including the foyer and exterior of our hotel.

The foyer is a “Communist Bloc hotel”, with five world clocks behind the reception desk, but the staff is less confronting than the architecture, and we get our keys to room 1410. We negotiate the very snappy lift doors and try for Floor 1, Room 410, get out in Floor 1, onto very shabby red carpet, which trip adviser had advised Dianne to expect. Can’t find a suitable room number, so back in the lift, decide to try the 4th floor, as we know there aren’t 14 floors.  Step out onto a less-shabby grey carpet, find Room 410, which is better than we expected, but very hot and stuffy. There is an old-school centralised air conditioning system with a thermostat. The fan seems to be running, the thermostat is turned down to 10 degrees, and the fan is on max, so we give it time to start cooling the room.

We have been warned by the desk that the swimming pool would cost 300 som a person a day, but aren’t all that interested until we walk gingerly out onto our balcony to see the very flash, large, multi-pool complex with restaurant facilities spread out below us. The views from the room up to the mountains and across to parched playing fields, and down to the tree-lined main street, are pretty impressive.P1040834

We were under the impression that the tour meeting was today at 12.30, but have been given a map, and information that the meeting would be after breakfast tomorrow, so have the day free. Think it has been changed because most of the English people are arriving in the early hours tomorrow, but no-one had told us about the change.

We get organised, go downstairs to look at the pool complex, find out the entry conditions, but find them unsuitable, so decide to follow the hand-drawn map to find local points of interest. We walk to the entrance to our hotel complex, past a large group of  European long-distance traveller minivans and motor homes, take a photo of what later turns out to be the International Terminal before they moved the airport, with a statue with a missing plaque of a 1930’s pilot in sheepskin gear. A diagonal divided street takes us to the main street – this street makes more sense once the airport connection is made. Walk down the main street, on the footpath with a row of large trees between us and the road.

There is an interesting local fruit and veg market on the way, and we get the soles of our shoes tarred on one of the newly surfaced roads they are working on around the city. Cross to visit the supermarket, walk past the recommended restaurant, then back to the hotel to find the room slightly cooler, but a reasonable breeze available when we open the ultra-squeaky balcony door.

After doing office work, we head out to the recommended restaurant about 8 PM, find it pretty deserted, but manage to sort out the ordering with the help of a couple of photos on the otherwise incomprehensible menu – shashlik for Dianne, soup for Murray. Walk back to the hotel to find the room still hot, but relieved by opening the balcony door. There are some major hoons in Bishkek roaring up and down the main road, so we can’t keep the door open all night. Murray has another middle-of-the-night loo session, and is getting worried by lack of urination, so we institute a hydration regime which seems to be taking its time to kick in. We have a pretty ordinary night’s sleep, particularly Dianne, and are pretty shattered by the time we are to go down to breakfast and front the meeting at 10.30.am

Day 2 of Tour – Monday 30th July Bishkek -Tour Start and City Tour

The breakfast room is large, well appointed, and a good buffet is set out for a surprisingly large number of guests. We meet some of our fellow tour members, and try guessing who the rest are. A highlight of the breakfast is a display of “born-to-rule” by a large group of Indians. The initial complaint was a lack of eggs, after arriving fifteen minutes before closing, and a large, overbearing man abuses the staff and the hotel roundly in a very loud voice, and the complaint is taken up by an older Indian woman in the group who is telling a serving girl how bad the hotel is, and what they are doing wrong.

We have the official tour meeting where we meet our tour leader, Olga and all our group of 16, except for Richard and Fran, who missed their connection and are stuck in Istanbul for another day. Everyone is from England except us and one person from Austria. The youngest is 23 (travelling with her mother) and the oldest is 83. In ascending order the ages are 23, 39, 47, 48, 50, 52, 54, 59, 63, 65, 67 (Dianne), 68, 70, 74, 75 (Murray), 83, so although we are at the older end of the scale, there are plenty around our age.  Most have done multiple trips with “Explore” and are very happy with them, so it looks like we have chosen well. Most arrived about 2am from a flight from England, so are feeling pretty shattered.

The meeting is over in half an hour and we get ready for our city tour, a combination of bus transport in our two Mercedes vans, and walking. Our first stop is back in our previous stamping ground, getting a better look at the pigeon-covered statue of Mighty Manas outside the Philharmonic. Mighty Manas statues are featured all over Kyrgyzstan, to honour the hero of the Epic of Manas, the longest narrative poem in the world. According to legend Manas unified tribal leaders long ago in the mountains and valleys. Take photos of the well-kept flower gardens around it, then we are dropped at Ala-Too Square.P1040862Cross the road to see the major buildings around the White House, Kyrgyzstan’s seat of government. We have half an hour till the goose-stepping guards do a change-over, so fill in the time walking through various parks and sculpture gardens, including Dubovy (Oak) Park, behind the statue of Kurmanjan Datka, (1811-1907). She was given in marriage to a man she did not want, so she fled back to her family, unheard of at that time. Instead she married the man she loved. After her powerful husband’s assassination, she became datka (means “righteous ruler”). There was an uprising of the people (including her husband before he died, and her son) against the advancing Russian regime, but she later persuaded her people not to fight against the very powerful Russian Army, and did not fight to save her son from being executed by the Russians. She would not sacrifice the future of her people to save one of her children. She’s now considered a hero in the country.

P1040868 After backtracking to see the changing of the guards, we have lunch at a fashionable restaurant attached to a very run-down “modern” glass walled theatre which should have been floating in a large pool of water, now dry. We have a pretty good lunch, although Murray doesn’t have a lot. We walk past a bronze statue of a ballet dancer who was a local boy made good, now directing the nearby dance school, then the war memorial, and finish off in the large and chaotic main market, managing to lose not one of the 16 or so in the group. The market has a number of features we haven’t seen, such as pasta dyed bright colours, crystallised sugar, lots of dried fruits, balls of cottage cheese which can be dissolved in water to make a drink, and last a long time without refrigeration of preservatives.P1040898

Away from the food section, there are endless stalls selling Chinese fabrics, toys, furniture, hardware, as well as more local stalls selling saddlery, and baby stuff, including cradles and interesting nappy alternatives for boys or girls which are tied on the baby’s equipment and discharge through a hole in the bottom of the cradle (not easily described!).

On the way home we do some weird manoeuvers on main roads, presumably because of road-work closures, pass a large mosque, and find ourselves back in our hot room on the 4th floor. We’re starting to appreciate that this trip is, as they said, “full on”.

At night, Murray isn’t 100%, but is on the improve urine-wise with the hydration regime we’ve instigated, so we go to bed hopeful, but in the middle of the night less hopeful, but by morning are ready to go, on a very light breakfast and a lot of hydration.

Day 3 of Tour     Tuesday 31st July     Bishkek to Karakol via Burana Tower

We’re on the road by 8am, and leave the city behind after a lot of direction changes, and head generally south and then east toward the north side of Issyk Kul Lake, surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountains, on pretty ordinary tarred roads, but the road improves when the road runs along the river which forms the border with Kazakhstan, and we cross in and out of Kazakhstan as the river meanders and the road stays straight. Apparently there is cheap fuel to be had in the sections which are Kazakhstan. We pass a fairly modern Russian jet fighter on a pedestal where there used to be a flight academy in USSR times, and turn right off the road towards Burana Tower in the World Heritage Site containing the remains of the ancient city of Burana (Balasagun).P1040939

The tower is set in extensive grounds, has been heavily restored, scoring an octagonal pedestal where the tower used to be tapered all the way to the ground. The tower is made of fired clay bricks, with six rings of bricks providing a relief pattern to the tower. A steel spiral staircase leads to a platform and the low entrance to the internal staircase which winds to the right on entry, and has wooden treads on the steps. The passage is too narrow for two people to pass, and quite dark, with only a couple of openings to let in air. We wait for a group already at the top to come down, fire up our torches and climb. The tower is not as high as we first figured, and with the heads torches, the climb is relatively safe.    From the top, there are views over the complex, with a museum, field of statues left over from a competition, rows of millstones, and the walls of the ancient city.

Back on the ground we follow the well-made “Chinese” road up the wide valley of the river which runs out of this end of the Lake. The valley narrows to a gorge through which the white-water river runs, then opens out as we come to the lake, which is the size of a small sea. You cannot see the far shore, but can see the range of snow-capped mountains beyond. P1040998

The lake is a clean blue/green colour, green in the shallower sections, blue further out. The high mountains ringing the lake are attractive, but the lake itself is too big to have any real charm, and doesn’t have a lot of indented coastline. On the shore, green farming land alternates with barren scrub and bare ground. We have lunch at a large restaurant, see a lot of tourist development, see a lone yacht out sailing, plus a few motor craft, including a parasailer, see what is called the International Airport, see a more indented, attractive coastline and drive up toward the mountains to stop at a large field of boulders ranging from 30cm to 3 metres which have been deposited by a glacier.

This is the Cholpon-Ata National Park, set up to protect the petroglyphs drawn from the 7th century BC to the 3rd century AD. The figures are typically etched into dark iron oxide deposits on the mostly granite boulders, and represent Ibex, typically drawn large, hunters drawn small, goats, reindeer, and snow leopard. From the park, you get good views of the lake.P1050028

We follow the shore along the north side of the lake, through increasingly fertile and productive land, as the lake narrows. Stop at an area where there are a number of burial mounds in the style of the tumuli in Korea, though not as high or well-rounded. Carry on around the end of the lake, crossing a large river and arriving at our destination, Karakol (population 71,500, elevation 1,745 metres) about 6.50 PM. Once a Russian military outpost, the city is now a hub for hiking expeditions into the Tian Shan Mountains.

We drop our gear at the Altamira Hotel in Karakol, getting a room off reception, while others are up-stairs, then head straight out for dinner after a very long day. At dinner we are “entertained” by musicians playing local instruments and music, uncomfortably close to our table.

Day 4 of Tour -Wednesday 1st August     Karakol Area

After breakfast we visit the supermarket to get ingredients for a picnic lunch – we settle on good local bread and bananas and peach juice, which becomes our daily routine.

Today we visit the important sights around Karakol – the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, the old Dungan Mosque and the Prjevalsky Museum and grave site, followed by a walk in Djety Oguz Gorge.

The Orthodox Cathedral is an historic wooden building in the Russian style originally painted but now left bare timber, and the better for it. The original was destroyed by an earthquake in 1890, but a new wooden version was finished in 1895. P1050076 It was reconstructed in 1961. It has four spires, two small octagonal, one large octagonal over the altar area, and a large square tower over the entrance. All towers have green peaked roofs, with gold onion-domes. Inside, the church is painted white with blue trim, and is quite light and airy. The wall at the front of the public area is carved timber, and the icons are generally brighter and more lifelike than most. The main icon is for the trinity, the church is named for. They have another large “miracle” icon of the Virgin which was untouched while a monastery was destroyed and burned. Typically for Orthodox Churches, there are almost no seats or pews.P1050067

The church does a lot of charity work for the local poor, and has a separate rather out-of-place metal building which serves as a soup kitchen. They also collect “holy water” which they keep in large drums for public use, stored under a gazebo in the grounds, and also have apple and other fruit trees. Lying in the yard is a massive, industrial strength water heated core, which Murray has to photograph. Heating a church for winter services would be no mean feat here.

Leaving the church, we take a photo of an imposing public building from the Soviet Era, take the buses to the Dungan Mosque, built in 1910 in the style of a Buddhist Pagoda, all wood and no nails. The entrance gate has a red roof and pillars and dark green timber gates. Inside the gates, the view is pure Chinese, with blue-painted multiple-stepped roof supports, upturned corners on the metal roof, cream painted external columns, mustard coloured internal roof timbers with no ceiling. The gables of the roofs are painted in multi-coloured diamond patterns. The whole place is very well painted and maintained. Just off the main building is the “minaret”, a two-and-a-half story squat, square tower of diagonal pattern timber, painted blue, with a Chinese style curved pyramid roof.

On the end walls of the entrance verandah are graphic displays of the earth and planets in orbit one end, and a rainbow with a verse form the Quran on the other. The mosque is very interesting, and beautiful, but we learn there is no place for women here (or anywhere), and they stay home to cook, do housework, and look after children while the men are at prayers. This mosque was financed locally, but there is another, larger mosque financed by Turkey.    After the mosque, we drive about 7 kilometres down towards the lake, stopping on a promontory above the lake where there is a park and museum devoted to the great Russian explorer, Nikolay Prjevalsky. There is a museum guide woman who speaks good English, and is obviously a Prjevalsky fan, who describes at GREAT length his four epic journeys across Central Asia, with the object, never realised, to speak to the Dalai Lama. He got very close a couple of times but was turned back by representatives of the Dalai Lama.

It should be noted that Prjevalsky was a Russian army officer of Polish origin, and all the members of his parties were from the Russian Army. These were the days of the Great Game, with major European powers vying for influence in the area. In his travels, Prjevalsky spent time at Karakol, and died there of typhus after drinking local water after getting lost during an unsuccessful hunt. He requested that he be buried here, overlooking the lake, and there is a grave and monument a few hundred metres closer to the lake than the museum.    He was a very keen hunter, and the discovery of the Prjevalsky Horse was only incidental among other studies he did of flora and fauna. To get a good look at the horse, he shot one, as they are wild and untameable. An ageing stuffed trophy is in the museum, together with other birds and animals. We are pretty glad he wasn’t born here, as we can’t imagine how long the talk would have been then. By the end we are all more than ready to leave. We walk to the monument overlooking the lake and now disused commercial harbour before returning to town.

With picnic supplies and rain gear we drive for about two hours, to the Valley of the Seven Bulls, at Djety-Oguz, stopping first at an area of the bright red rock which outcrops low in a lot of gorges around here.P1050122 While we take photos, we are approached by a group of young boys who have eagles of various ages and sizes with them. We were forewarned that the eagles were not properly trained or looked after, and we should not encourage the boys, but the eagles are impressive, especially a large one which spread its wings fully into the breeze. Murray managed a surreptitious long shot of an eagle on the ground behind some buildings.P1050121

We drive on further up the gorge, over a number of bridges over the fast-flowing stream to where it opens out into a valley with green grassy slopes, with a pine plantation on the other side of the river, and a gorge further up with steep slopes and pine trees. The vehicles stop near a bridge, and we walk further to a grassy slope with large boulders suitable for seats or picnic tables. The weather had been threatening for a while, with dark clouds passing, and we had just settled down to eat about 2pm when it starts to rain, and we finish lunch in the bus. Others tough it out, and it doesn’t rain for long.P1050142

The plan is to walk back down the gorge for about three kilometres, with the buses coming later to pick up the stragglers. We start off in rain gear, and when  the rain eases, are too lazy and untrusting of the weather to take it off, so are pretty sweaty when we arrive at the wrecked bridge which marks the pickup point. It was a pretty pleasant walk through pine forest and green grass, much easier walking on the grass than the rough gravel road, and crossing the river several times, but would have been a lot nicer in better weather.P1050128

On the way back to Karakol we stop at a war memorial we have seen on the way out, with very chunky Mongolian looking soldiers either side, one with a sub-machine gun, one holding his arm up to indicate enough of war, and a bereft family in the middle. It is a very brutalist Soviet sculpture, but touching in its own way.P1050152

In the evening we have dinner at a Dungan homestay sort of restaurant. Karakol’s Dungan community are an ethnic minority group of Chinese Muslims who fled here in 1877 to escape oppression.

We hear about local customs, including bride-kidnapping, which is still practised in Kyrgyzstan. Our hostess tells us she was kidnapped, and has been happily married now for many years. We’re all flabbergasted at this news. We later google it, and find that up to half of all Kyrgyz marriages include bride kidnapping, and of those two thirds are non-consensual, and maybe 15% or more involve rape. Some of these bride kidnappings would be more akin to an elopement, but a lot aren’t. Although the practice is illegal, bride kidnappers are rarely prosecuted. Bride-kidnapping is not peculiar to this area – it still takes place in the following countries – Rwanda, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, Pakistan and China. Quite a few other countries practised it in the past.

We’re given a demonstration of making the famous Ashlyanfu noodles which are made of a mix of cold wheat noodles and gelatine bean noodles in a vinegary sauce. There is lots of rolling and stretching noodles to get them to the desired diameter and length, starting from a thick, coiled plate of noodle, and ending with a dozen tangles of noodles of the right diameter. The rolling is helped with oil on the hands so they don’t stick to the noodle. The main meal is noodle and meat, Ok, but nothing to rave about. After the meal, the bus driver is imposed upon to stop at a nearby shop for after dinner drink purchases.

Day 5 of Tour Thursday 2nd August – Karakol to Kochkor, via Barskaun Gorge Waterfalls.

We have our usual 8AM breakfast, 9AM start with a stop at the supermarket for our bread with banana, and peach juice picnic lunch, then drive along the southern side of the lakeP1050188 through agricultural countryP1050180 before taking a well-made road up the west side of the lower section of Barskaun (Barskoon) gorge, a very deep cut through a residual gravel bed from glacier action. The good road is courtesy of Centerra Gold, a Canadian company running Kumtor, a large scale gold mine 3 hours in from the main road. This mine contributes nearly 10% of the country’s GDP, and the Kyrgyz government owns just under one third of it, but both sides have lawsuits against each other at present, which has helped cripple investor confidence in investing in Kyrgyzstan.   On the way in we pass mine vehicles ferrying workers in trucks very similar to Dragoman travel adventure vehicles. 10 km in, the valley has changed from dry scree to a steep sided valley of green grass down low, pine forest above, and rugged rocky mountains along the skyline.P1050197We park the vehicles near a pedestal with a bust of Yuri Gagarin on top. We can see a large waterfall very high up, with an outward spray of water, like the look of it, but think it looks awfully high up the mountain. The first waterfall we are climbing to is below this, on the same stream, but at a more reasonable height. It is a fair climb, particularly at altitude, and the track at times is slippery with pea-gravel, but we manage it with a few rest stops, recovering our breath quickly once we stop climbing. P1050206There are a lot of people visiting the waterfall, and we have to wait our turn before taking a look from a distance of about 50 metres. Take photos then traverse the grassy hill to the right to find the path climbing to the second waterfall, which has a gentler slope, but a lot of horse traffic and obstacles left by the horses. We can get a lot closer to this waterfall, but it is still pretty crowded, so we take photos and start the return trip.P1050219

Back at the buses, we do a short drive to the large second statue of Yuri Gagarin, Russia’s first cosmonaut who holidayed around here when he was recovering from his space flight, P1050227then walk down by the river, get out our picnic supplies and have lunch by the river, in much better weather than yesterday. The river is very dark grey, possibly glacial silt from dark rocks, possibly tailings from the mine.

After lunch, we drive back down the gorge to the main road, and west along the southern side of Issyk-Kul lake, which is pretty arid compared with the north and east shores, but which has some attractive indented coastline, and yurt camps for tourists taking the waters. We find a semi-deserted length of lake shore, walk a couple of hundred metres down to a reddish coarse sand beach between a local family on one side and campers on the other. The water is clear and green, and most of the other travellers, mostly English get in for a long swim, saying the water is fine. Dianne and Murray test the temperature with feet, and decide to stay out. Apart from the chill in the water there is an interesting bright yellow growth on some of the boulders, looking like algae, or the notorious “rock snot” contaminating NZ waters. P1050257From the shore Murray gets a telephoto of a red-necked grebe, well out on the lake.

The weather is threatening again, but we get back to the buses without incident, and drive on into rain which eventually eases as we go further west. The scenery inland from the lake gets increasingly arid, but we come to more tourist complexes, including a massive, now abandoned project financed with Government corruption money. A feature of the area is a large bronze statue in the top of a scree slope above the road which looks like someone having a symbolic crap on the punters of Kyrgyzstan.

We pass strikingly eroded cliffs, high mountains with permanent snow, some extensive Muslim cemeteries, and bad lands inland; beaches and bathers on the lake shore. As the lake narrows we see agriculture beginning to appear, and as we get closer to Kochkor, we see serious farming and green fields.P1050320 In Kochkor (population approx. 14,000, altitude 1,800 metres) before proceeding to our homestay accommodations (Kochkor Family Guesthouse) we visit another supermarket for evening drinks and tomorrow’s picnic lunch, and check out the traditional horse milk sellers in the market across the road.  P1050352

The group is split into three sections for three different home stays. We end up in the largest room in the first house, with three beds in an enormous room, decorated with large wall hanging quilts and carpets, and a large colourful rug on the floor. P1050313The single loo, bathroom and wash basin are located near the entrance to the building, and make for an interesting night on Diamox anti-altitude medication we are taking because of the 3,000 + metres altitude tomorrow when we stay at a traditional yurt camp at Song Kul Lake.

We have a big meal at one of the home stays, walk back down the street and out to the main road to get evening photos of the mountains behind the town, and sunset over the town. The Diamox makes the night interesting, with numerous loo visits. We  are due to return to this home stay the day after tomorrow, so are able to leave our big baggage, but must sort out our gear for an overnight at high altitude.

Day 6 of Tour -Friday 3rd August     Kochkor to Song Kul Lake Yurt Camp

After a good breakfast at the home stay, we get in the bus for a short drive to the home of a local Kyrgyz felt maker, where we are assembled on chairs in the garden courtyard while a middle aged woman explains techniques and processes in felt making.

Kyrgyz people cherish their nomadic traditions. Although these days they do not live in yurts year-round, many Kyrgyz families set off to high pastures and erect their yurt as a summer dwelling. Even in villages, families may assemble a yurt in their backyards during summer as a family gathering place. Functional mats and screens, known as chii(also spelt as chij)  are an integral part of yurt construction and decoration.
Chii are made of sedge, which grows in the foothills of the Kyrgyz steppe. The screens are used to cover a yurt’s wooden frame. If the weather is very hot, then the outside felt covering is removed and the chii screen permits cross breeze through the yurt: nomadic air-conditioning. Chii screens are also placed over the felt covering to protect it from being blown off in windy weather.
Chii mats are put under ala-kiyiz and shyrdak (felt carpets) inside yurts to protect them from dampness and wear and tear. Patterned chii mats also serve as partitions to separate the kitchen area of the yurt. Chii are also used to compress the felt to make the felt carpets. All the patterns are symbolic, though interpretations of the signs vary, and they now make them in less garish colours to satisfy the tourist trade, which is keeping these skills alive.

We are given a demonstration of making chii, ala-kiyiz and shyrdak.

  1. Making Chii -There is a frame of 35mm bamboo set up a meter off the ground, with half a dozen evenly spaced strings with a rock tied to each end draped over it and tied to the first reed in the mat. The reeds for the mat have already been cut to length, and the next reed is placed next to the first reed and the strings are crossed over on it, and the rocks are allowed to hang.P1050327Each reed added requires six strings to be crossed over it, and a teenaged girl was assisting the master mat maker in this. A reed mat can take hours or days to make, depending on the size, and the strings are tied off when the mat is complete.
  2. Making ala-kiyiz (means colourful felt). She takes a small completed chii mat, about 120 cm x 100 cm, lays it on an open-weave cloth on the ground, and piles wool of a selected colour on it, about 10 cm thick, then lays strips of a brightly coloured wool on it in a pattern. The wool is wetted down with boiling water spread with a watering can, and the mat is rolled tightly while carefully keeping the pattern in position. The boy helper ties the bundle tightly with string, and then a rope loop is passed around the bundle and the felter keeps it rotating while the boy and girl compress the bundle with their feet as it rolls across the courtyard. This normally can take hours, but in our short demonstration, the bundle is opened after a few minutes to reveal a felt mat about 1 cm thick, which the felter continues to roll under the mat using her hands and forearms. The rough example of patterned felt is displayed before the second phase of rug-making is started.
  3. Making shyrdak. Using two pieces of compressed felt in contrasting colours (red and black in this example), the felt squares are  pinned together, a pattern is drawn on the red and both layers are cut with sharp scissors. The cutouts are then swapped to the opposing colour, to form a positive and negative image and giving two single thickness squares, one a red pattern on black, the other a black pattern on red. The cut material is stitched together so that the stitches show as even stitches an even distance from the join. The join is eventually covered up with a flat, three-strand cord to finish it off, which hides the rough stitching and outlines the pattern. The felter demonstrates spinning a single strand, from loose wool. The carpets or wall hangings produced by this method can be very large, and durable, provided they are never washed.P1050325

After we finish with the felt, we descend on the supermarket and nearby market to buy our picnic lunch, including a water melon, as demanded by Dianne, then head out of townP1050360towards the major pass which will take us up to 3346 metres, passing through alternating farmland with simple farmhouses complete with piles of dung made into cakes for heating,P1050405 and rough, dry mountain gorges, along rushing rivers below snow-capped mountains. It is very picturesque. P1050411We do a long climb out of a very green valley, up toward the snow, and near the top we come upon a large herd of semi-domesticated yaks, very hairy and shaggy, with sharp horns and a legendary foul disposition, so try to keep clear of them when we stop for photos in the midst of the herd.P1050422 Climbing past the yaks, we come to the top of the pass, and stop for a break, photos and a toilet stop. The cold is pretty intense and we are glad of the inadequate help of the polar fleeces.P1050434

From the top it is a pretty gentle descent toward the lake, which is just visible through the haze at the summit. We are now in rolling green hills (the jailoo) serious summer grazing land, and are starting to see yurts and animal compounds where the owners or shepherds have come for the summer. P1050476We stop for our picnic lunch at a rock outcrop, all crowded down at the end of it, out of the wind. After our bread-and-banana lunch, we walk right around the outcrop, and take photos including the nearby yurt and stock yards. A couple of kids from the yurt try their luck with the others, end up with a reasonable haul of left-over food and sweets. From the lunch stop, we can see across the lake to the snow clad mountains behind it.

Our track down toward the lake takes us past many summer camps of herders, lots of horses, sheep and cattle. At the east end of the lake, a substantial river is running into Song Kul Lake. On the south side of the lake, rolling green hills lead up to the higher peaks, and down by the lake, as well as higher up the slopes there are authentic herders yurt camps as well as the commercial variety. Our camp, Song Kul Lake Yurt Camp, is definitely of the commercial variety, with about 30 yurts, set in an L shape, with a camp fire and seating in the centre of the “L”, about half a kilometre from the lake shore.P1050483

We are allocated yurts, find ourselves sharing with Martin and Nicole, no problem for us, but maybe a problem for them with Murray on Diamox and on a short turn-around to the loo. We walk down to the lake-shore, which has a short gravel beach, and little of interest apart from a few gulls and a small stream running down past our camp and forming a wetland obstacle.

We have a good evening meal in our dining yurt, finished off with some of Dianne’s watermelon, which is a bit under-ripe, very pale pink, but edible.  In the evening we sit around the camp-fire place with no camp fire, until it is too cold to wait for the stars to come out (we’re at 3,013 metres) although we do see Mars rising over the mountains, and get some sunset photos over the lake.P1050503

In the night, Martin doesn’t get a lot of sleep, possibly due to Murray getting up for the long, cold walk to the loo every hour on the hour. The up-side of this is numerous views of the stars, but they aren’t all that good, maybe Northern Hemisphere wimps, or maybe a rising moon giving too much light pollution.

 Day 7 of Tour Saturday 4th August        Song Kul Lake to Kochkor

Today we have committed to a walk of several hours up to the top of the range of foothills, pretty good walking on short grass, with some scrambling on the outcrops at the top. Dianne doesn’t have the approved footwear, but takes both slip-ons and adventure sandals. The initial walk is on a gentle slope from the camp up to the main road, on mostly grass with a dry watercourse. P1050491We pass active shepherd’s summer yurts, a lot of cattle and some horses. Across the main road, the land gradually curves upward, and we start to feel the altitude.P1050533 It is 3013 at the lake, and will be 3300 metres at the top of our climb of the foothills of the Moldo-Toor Range. There are a lot of wild flowers, grasshoppers and moths in the short, green grass. We reach the outcrop at the top of the first line of hills, then descend to a saddle before the second climb. In the saddle there is an interesting large circular patch of a tussocky grass. This is an invasive species, but not a problem as the animals still eat it. P1050550We cross over the outcrop on the next ridge and walk on the far side of it, while most of the others go low, to descend to a saddle before climbing to the cairn on the third crest. P1050557From the top we get good views over the lake, which looks better from up here, and can see our yurt camp and several other commercial camps as well as individual summer pasturage yurts, and a lot of animals in the valley away from the lake.  We can also look down and see the tiny figures in the landscape of the members of our party who gave up early.P1050542

On the way back we pass close to the shepherd’s yurt, which has a herd of horses, and Olga points out that one of the mares is being milked. We get a good photo of a woman kneeling down, with the milking bucket on her knee.P1050563

Back at the camp, we have lunch, get a photo of Murray in the dining yurt in a colourful local hat, pack up our gear, and are away about 12.30. P1050566 Luckily the weather has been good, and it hasn’t rained, so we are able to go back on a different, very picturesque road, which brings us back onto the highway about 50kms further south than the road we came in on. People who were out here a few days before us couldn’t use this road because it can be very slippery clay in wet weather, and it had rained while they were here. The road is considered the most dangerous road in Kyrgyzstan because of the 33 Parrots Pass Apparently the Russian word for “fear” sounded just like the English word “parrot”. The 33 referred to the number of switchbacks on the treacherous descent. We head back the same way we came, until we get to the river at the head of the lake, then stay on the east side of it. We follow generally the gorge of the river, before climbing to marmot altitude, and get a photo before we get to the top of the “33 Parrots” pass. P1050573We do a welcome camera and loo stop here, looking down on the switchbacks which are tight down a steep slope between mountains, at least 20, maybe the whole 33 of them. From the top of the pass we can see the road continuing up the sloping side of a green valley.P1050618

Having negotiated the pass, slowly, we get into an area of smooth green valleys with pine clad peaks above, and a strongly running river which disappears into a narrow, rocky canyon. We turn away from the river and ascend a long, green valley, prime marmot country, where we see a lot of burrows, but only a fleeting glimpse of one of them. P1050644We do a photo/loo stop near the top of the climb (3,018 metres), later getting some good rolling green hill scenery.

We descend a gentler pass to get to some civilisation, and a big river which disappears into another rocky canyon. Find a bit more habitation, before getting to the main road toward Kochkor, passing through alternating barren, rocky gorge scenery and green riverside pasture.

Back in town, we have a short rest before fronting up for a cultural display at our home stay. There is an older woman, a young woman and a teenage girl, all dressed in traditional heavily embroidered formal gear, doing local folk songs. The older woman, the music teacher, keeps time with a pair of animal hooves clapped together, and the women play the local stringed instrument, like a skinny lute, plus a variety of instruments played by the teenager, including a conventional Jew’s Harp, and a bamboo version of it, plus a woodwind instrument a bit like an ocarina. The music is quite skilful, and not hard on the ear.P1050663

The older woman is wearing a white head-dress in an inverted cone form, a bit Egyptian looking, made of a long strip of cloth which has practical uses when on the nomad track. After the show we have another good dinner at our homestay, at an elaborately set table with raised bowls containing sweets, dried fruits, bread and fruit. Everyone agrees that our homestay is the best of the three.

It has been a long day, and we hit the sack early after an interesting and well-deserved shower in the only cubicle.

Day 8 of Tour -Sunday 5th August – Mountain Drive Kochkor to Suusamyr Valley Resort

The day’s driving takes us 240 km over passes and through mountains of the Inner Tien Shan Mountains as we make our way west. We drive along the Suusamyr valley which stretches for 155kms, and is situated at an altitude of 2,000-3200 metres between the dramatic ridges of Suusamyr Too and  Kyrgyz Ala-Too ranges, to end up in a horse-milk spa in the Suusamyr Valley.

We do a group photo with our homestay hostess and her family, do the now familiar lunch shop at the supermarket, and head out of town, along a fertile valley, seeing a few Muslim cemeteries, and eventually doing a long stop at a substantial one which is not near any village. P1050687The variety and size of many of the tombs are interesting, and we get some good photos with the snow-clad mountains behind. We even see a bit of wildlife, a hare which runs through the labyrinth of tombs. Some of them are in good condition, some have been allowed to weather to broken down mud walls. A lot of the burial sites are just a mound of piled earth, with no attempt at improvement. We take a lot of photos, as the scene is quite photogenic.

We carry on through alternating fertile and barren scenery – see summer yurt camps and vintage Russian solid-rubber tyred four wheel caravans, farm tractors, and old Lada vehicles.P1050727 It is the hay making season, and we make a loo stop where a man is cutting hay with a scythe. The villages near the road are typically small, but there are towns in the flat green valleys near the river. We see more Muslim cemeteries, some more interesting than others.P1050742

We come upon a large, clean, fast-flowing river and make a turn across it on a bridge, carry on beside a large tributary to a view point where we can see the river, and also very picturesque, colourful red, cream and pink mountains ahead of us. P1050762We carry on along the tributary, find a lunch stop by the river, with limited shade, so you almost have to be in the river to get any.P1050783 The weather is very hot, even in the shade, and the river so wild you can hardly talk over the noise. It takes a while to round up the troops after lunch, and we then carry on up the river, passing an incredible pink sand scree slopeP1050798on the far side of the increasingly wild river which is now running in a narrow gorge between high, rocky mountains. We pass some very suspect looking Russian era bridges, including one made as a large box girder all in timber.

We emerge from the gorge into a wide, fertile valley with a village, and a monument to a famous, local strong-man, Kojomkul (1889-1955) who stood 2.3 metres tall and weighed 165 kilos, and could lift 600 kg. The town is named after him. The monument dome has seen better days, and the timber and thatch weather shelter over the dome is even worse, and there is a sign, plus Olga, to warn us against entering, but there is a very large hand-print of the strong man on the inside of the dome, and we are encouraged to try our hands for size. Some do, some don’t. Either way, this was a mountain of a man, who is shown carrying a very large rock in a monument on a hillside further down the road.P1050840

The villages here are pretty basic, but most have a hay stack and an animal shelter, which has a pitched roof with more hay stored on the ceiling.P1050860

We are getting into rolling green hill country, and there is a pass on a good road, but we peel off and head up the valley to find the Horse Milk Spa, otherwise known as Baytur Resort, set on a hill over the main road, with a large parking area, and a long haul with our bags to our allotted accommodation. Our luck is in today, and we get a well-appointed container, with a skillion roof over, a verandah with two chairs, two beds, air conditioning, and a bathroom, and quite close to the dining room.P1050872 We take advantage of the hot weather and a clothes line on our verandah posts to do a large wash and hang it out. We’ve been told that this is a sort of a health farm, where people come to drink the horse milk five times a day, but we see no evidence of this.  It seems like a lot of their clients are from Saudi Arabia, and we’re just here to make up the numbers.  There is also a large function going on in an enormous yurt, but we aren’t wanted there either. There is a group of men at a gazebo on a knoll overlooking the valley, and Richard goes up to investigate, and is offered food and drink, but there is no common language so he doesn’t stay too long. Later we see the remains of a number of shashlik meals on the table there, being recovered one plate at a time by waitresses – making sure they don’t run out of work!

The evening meal is adequate, but with no real choices. The Beef Stroganoff is hardly that, but palatable enough with mashed potato – in fact Dianne thinks it is one of our better meals, but some of the others are quite scathing about it. Dinner is over in about twenty minutes.  The dining room has a bar, but it is closed, and we are definitely encouraged to move on as soon as we’ve eaten.

A group of us go for a walk looking for something to do – find a rather sad-looking games hall with broken equipment, and a swallow nesting inside, and some swings.  We go over to the horse stables and see the horses, but no sign of any horse milk.  The group excitement for the night is the arrival of a Dragoman-like truck. We go to investigate, and find it is the service truck for a group of about 20 serious cyclists from Estonia. We all finally admit there is no entertainment here, and go to bed. We have no complaints about the actual accommodation, though some others think it is the worst of the trip.

Day 9 of Tour Monday 6th August        Suusamyr Valley – Toktogul Reservoir

After breakfast at the Resort, we fill up with diesel on the main road, and climb the Ala-Bel Pass (3175 metres).  P1050896                                                                                                                    The pass road is good, and the slope pretty gentle and it takes us up into the scenic world of rolling green hills, herds of horses, cattle and sheep, beehives, and the yurts of summer season shepherds. P1050921We would love to stop here and do our walk for the day, as it is very interesting, though we must admit there is no shade, and it is hot. P1050917Continued on, following the course of the Chichkan River to the junction with its tributary, the It-Agar River. We get out of the vehicles here for a walk of just over an hour. We do a steep climb on a rough road, with pretty ordinary scenery, which improves as we proceed to gentler slopes further up.P1050966 Pass Saz Kul Lake (actually a small alpine tarn), where some call it quits, while the rest of us continue on to a ford of the river. It is pretty hot, and everyone is happy to turn back.P1050956

After, we have a good lunch at a wayside restaurant then carry on down the  Naryn river gorge till it opens out in a wide valley with a large lake (actually Toktogul Reservoir, a very large man-made lake). We cross the river at the end of the lake, and climb through rounded grassy hills, with a good view over the lake. High on a hill, we turn off to Kok-Bel Hotel, an ageing resort, left by the Russians, and slowly (or not so slowly) dying from lack of maintenance.

The first room we get is red hot, and the AC doesn’t work. We get one of the cleaning staff to have a look, and she decides the easiest fix is a transfer with all our gear to a new room, which suits us fine, as the fridge in our old room sounds like a jet taking off. The new room doesn’t have a fridge, but next thing we see two women carrying a fridge from another room. The itinerant refrigeration mechanic probably comes around once a year.

The resort is about 50 metres above the lake, with once-landscaped gardens, several swimming pools, now all empty, P1060036and a long path down to the lake. We walk down for a look at the about 20 guests who are swimming in the frigid water, and consuming a fair bit of Vodka. We decide against swimming, and walk back to the resort for a rest before the evening meal.

The dining hall would seat a couple of hundred (we are the only ones eating there), looks like an Education Department COLA, with a steel frame and some sort of shiny white plastic cladding, which shows all the ripples in the construction. The food is pretty basic, with not a lot of choice, but adequate. During the night there is raucous partying by a group occupying a large yurt near the dining room. In the morning they are still there, sleeping, and looking pretty hung-over.

Day 10 of Tour Tuesday 7th  August     Toktogul Reservoir – Jalalabad

We breakfast in the COLA, take parting photos of the general state of disrepair, and the lake, and follow a road climbing high above the lake, through fairly barren land before descending to the river which flows out of the lake through a gorge too narrow to take a road.P1060040

The gorge widens out to a valley which supports agriculture, and we stop in a village with a good market to buy lunch supplies. We get some good photos of the market, and a friendly torpedo melon vendor, who also wants our photo. P1060064Shortly after, we get a look at the top end of several hydro dams arranged down the river to maximise the hydro potential. The water in the dams is a deep, clean and green, and we take a lot of photos of the water with steep, rocky mountains descending into it. We stop on a bridge over the top dam where a milky white tributary joins the dam, and the waters go a long way as separate colours before mixing. P1060073The road is cut into the side of the gorge, and we get virtually continuous views of the lake all the way to the first dam, where we have a comfort stop at a very dodgy loo, and a chance for photos of the local mythical hero, and of the dam, which are not through the bus windows.

The discharge from the hydro plant forms a short river before it becomes the top end of the next dam, which is just above a large industrial city of Tash-Komur which fills the valley. There was a major antimony mine here, and there are a number of large industrial buildings. In spite of being an industrial town, it has a lot of poplars and pencil pines, and looks quite attractive, particularly along the river which quickly becomes the still, green waters of another hydro dam.P1060085

We continue in prime agricultural land, following the border with Uzbekistan, which tends to follow either the rivers or good agricultural land. In some places there is a genuine no-mans-land, with substantial fences and possibly land mines, but in other places the border is a rickety fence. There are complex irrigation works which seem to not cross the border, even on the high ground. We stop for lunch at a wayside stop, which could have been idyllic, except for the rubbish and smashed vodka bottles we have to clear away to find seating on the concrete seats under a substantial trellis which is covered with grape vines.P1060171 There are bunches of grapes, but not particularly appetising. Concealed in the scrub behind the fence is a small, running irrigation channel, and across the road is one of the large, precast Russian-era canals with a fast flow of water. Most examples of this style canal we have seen are disused.

On the way into Jalalabad, which is in the north-eastern end of the Fergana Valley, in the foothills of the Baba Ata Mountains, we skirt around a medium sized dam, descend to the flat valley floor which is prime agricultural land, with rows of poplars, corn fields, and bare brown hills either side. The area is also well-known for its spas and mineral water sold across Central Asia. We cross a river with a coarse gravel bed and a meandering stream of flowing water, and not long after we cross a large almost full irrigation canal with a bunch of kids (boys we suspect) swimming in it.

We book into a rather interestingly named hotel, the Roza Park, owned by an American, married to a local, who thought investing in an American style apartment complex in Kyrgyzstan would be a good idea. Apparently most of the apartments are vacant, except for a couple of floors leased as a hotel. After settling in, we have a drink on the terrace off the reception area, and head out in the vans for a meal at a reasonably flash restaurant, with some interesting dishes, including the local “soup with meat”, with half a sheep complete with bones, and good, cold beer. The night passes well for us, but there is an incident in the night, which has been brewing the whole trip, and which affects the cohesion of the group.  The problem stems from two non-compatible single people having to share a room.

Day 11 of Tour -Wednesday 8th August Jalalabad-Walnut Forest at Arslanbob-Jalalabad

Our main event for the day is a walk in the walnut forest at Arslanbob, which is 90kms away, and involves a bit of backtracking. Previously groups had stayed there, but they’d had problems with the suitability of the accommodation, and loss of some belongings.

Before we head out, we have a look at the centre of the city, taking a photo of a small truck loaded with not particularly good lump coal, and the statue of Lenin in “thinker” pose in a park off the main square. Lenin is still a hero around here. P1060186The rather bare main square has a dead fountain and some tired looking flowers in planter boxes and park benches.P1060192

Behind the square is a “modern” curtain walled building with ethnic decoration above the windows and on the columns, next to it is another “modern” building with a flat concrete roof with up-curved edges, and across the road is a large timber colonial-looking building with shops below. Across the road from the square is another park, this one with a statue of a famous local poet. This is definitely NOT Bishkek.

We drive out on the main road through the square, seeing a variety of new and old buildings, construction work and a large mall with an elevated pedestrian bridge. We follow the road we came in on for a while, then cross an irrigation canal, pass through agricultural land, and cross a large river with a stony bed and very little water. On the far side of the river is more agricultural land extending to the brown, dry hills at the edge of the river flats.

Halfway up the hill, we stop at a park with a commemoration of Roza Otunbayeva, the woman who became president in 2010-2011 after the ethnic strife in the Fergana Valley in 2010. She flew hundreds of local kids to safety. The memorial is quite moving, considering the ethnic strife was relatively recent, and still simmering. We cross the hills to where we saw the dam yesterday, cross another large, dry river bed and turn off the main road to follow the river upstream, with the height of the hills increasing as we go further upstream. We find the cause of the river bed being dry – a weir across the river diverting the flow into a large irrigation canal. Above the weir, the river bed is not full, but there is a strong flow of water in the main channel. On the far side of the river there are villages with what look like new buildings with new metal roofs.

We turn away from the main river along a tributary and climb on a rough road toward the “village” of Arslanbob, which has a population of 60,000, but mainly spread out in farms and rural villages. It is market day, and the village is packed, so we stop short of the town and gear up for our challenging walk to the Walnut Forest, setting off about 11.30am.

The market is packed with people, looking at some food items, but mainly clothing, shoes, hats, some hardware. We buy a circle of local bread from a vendor, get a good photo, take general photos, plus one of a traditional butcher with meat hanging above the counter for inspection,P1060234 visit the “interesting” loo, get a photo of a vendor demonstrating a “modern” pasta rolling and cutting machine to make less work for the housewives, before walking up the steep main road which leads to the waterfall and Walnut Forest.

The party splits at a turnoff leading down to the river, with our local guide taking two of the women up to the waterfall to wait for us to come past on our return loop. We pass traditional houses with barns storing hay, do a steep descent to the river on rolling gravel, cross on a small log bridge and climb the rough gravel track on the far side to a viewpoint halfway up the mountain which contains the National Park.P1060265 It is pretty hard going, but there is a bit of overcast, and shade from trees, and the weather is not as hot as we were expecting. We pass the first walnut trees, and see a brilliant iridescent beetle. There hasn’t been a lot of wildlife on this trip, so you have to make the best of what you find.  At the viewpoint we get views over the village, down the valley, and up the hinterland scattered with house roofs to the main range towering over the village.

The track slopes up the flank of the mountain, and it looks like we will be going to the top of it, but it levels off and circles around, through a walnut forest divided into plots with wire or brush fences, in accordance with traditional ownership or leasing. The path has widened out to a grassy track 10 metres wide, and we settle down to our traditional lunch of circular (Uighur) bread and banana, with Murray taking alternate bites of each, Dianne splitting the “loaf” to produce a conventional banana sandwich.P1060269

We carry on walking on an undulating path, not too steep, but not particularly level, in the heat. At a crossroads, the party splits into two, with the “slow” walkers taking the short way, the “fast” walkers taking the long way. In a rush of blood, we assume we are fast, and later regret it, as it is a long haul on an undulating track. P1060288From a hill on the track, we can look across a valley to another hill, and are told everything we see is walnut forest. This accounts for the importance of Kyrgyzstan as an exporter of walnut products, and the size of the village.

Towards the end of the walk, we do a steep descent along a ravine with a river, which ends up at the waterfall. This is a substantial fall, about 20 metres from a ledge in the limestone gorge, and is an obvious draw for the locals, with dozens of vendor booths lining the path down to the base of the waterfall, and scores of locals taking in the sights, or getting cool in the spray from the falls. We have free tickets, and descend most of the way to the base of the falls, but decide against going all the way, and ascending the steps on the far side to visit a substantial bar and restaurant.P1060294

We have a cold drink in the extended bar and restaurant section along the escarpment over the river and falls before being called to the local bus parking area at the village end. The buses are the standard Asian small minibus/pickup made by all the major manufacturers in Asia. Ours are the pickup version, maybe a Daewoo, with a covered metal canopy and bench seats either side. As a concession to safety, there is a chain across the back to keep passengers in. There are four to a side, plus Olga in the front for our “bus”, the other eight in the other bus, and we take off on a bumpy ride back through the market area and to our buses, getting back about 3.45pm.

On the return journey, we get some good photos of typical farms, with a house, barn with hay stored under the skillion roof, walled and gated animal yard. We get better photos of the river, long swing bridges over it, the weir complex looking from upstream, and more boys swimming in the irrigation canals. We see new housing being built in the middle of no-where, a very large brickworks with unusual large kilns, where the coal appears to be spread on the top of the kiln, but there is no obvious means of creating a downdraft to get the heat to the bricks.

We finally get a decent photo of the large modern ceremonial gates at the entrance to the city. The large black columns appear suspiciously like black poly pipe, a tribute to the irrigation industry, perhaps? We arrive back at the hotel about 5.45pm have another drink on the terrace, and go out to a different restaurant, the Alton-Ordo, which we have noticed before as it has a small Eiffel Tower outside. The meal was again satisfactory, without being great.

Day 12 of Tour Thursday 9th August  Jalalabad(Kyrgyzstan-Fergana (Uzbekistan)

We have a ceremony in the morning thanking our drivers and distributing their tips, as we’re crossing into Uzbekistan today, so will get a new vehicle and local guide. At the start of the trip we’d all contributed US$35 which was given to Olga to distribute to various people who have helped on the way, but the majority going to our two drivers. The group also decided to each put in US$25 for Olga, who has been a wonderful guide, doing far more than she needed to make our trip enjoyable.  She’s had a very hard time too, because of the ongoing problems with the two women sharing, one of whom should have gone on a more upmarket trip where she could have gotten the special attention she wanted. She was also the only one who didn’t put in for the tip – go figure!

The drive takes us in a different direction to the previous day, over dry hills to another large dam, and around the upstream end of the dam. We travel through more agricultural land, across a large, stony river bed with a small flow of water, pass through Uzgen,P1060443 a large market town, with a very active market, getting some good street-life and building photos.P1060465

We cross another couple of large rivers, this time with a lot of water and enter Osh (population 261,000), a major city for these parts, with new high rise buildings, old style Soviet apartment blocks, and parks and ornamental streams.  According to legend it was founded by either King Solomon or Alexander the Great, and dates back to the 5th century B.C., but little remains to suggest its ancient past, and today it is Kyrgyzstan’s second city and very much soviet in feel.

We stop near the main square of Osh, with a flash toilet complex, a massive Soviet style square, an ageing curved 4-story administrative centre, and public buildings, including an American University. Opposite the Administration centre is a standing statue of Lenin, with his left arm opened wide, doubtless declaiming. The centre piece of the square is a massive flagpole with a very large Kyrgyzstan flag.  P1060483Beyond the square we can see the tip of Suleiman Too Mountain, a rock outcrop which is the major point of pilgrimage for Muslims, outside of Saudi Arabia, possibly because the Prophet Mohammed once prayed here, but its fame as a place of pilgrimage predated Islam.  Behind the Lenin statue, down by the river, is a park with an umbrella installation, and a row of large hearts for marriage photos. One of the buildings in the square has a large mosaic from Soviet days. The nearby war memorial has a symbolic yurt over a grieving female figure. We spend a half hour here, then carry on.

On the way to the border we pass a massive service station, and a large market area leading up to the border. We change all our Kyrgyz money, unaware that there may be a problem changing Uzbek money into anything else. We only find this out from Aslan, our new guide, in the bus to Fergana.

At the border, we finally get a decent photo of one of the bright yellow tanks on a trailer, with a refrigeration unit that sells cold drinks by the roadside.P1060496

At the Dostyk border, there is a queue, but Olga organises us into a VIP line before bidding us farewell. We get a fairly easy ride through Kyrgyz immigration and customs, being conceded the status of VIP’s because of our white faces and tourist status. There is still some heavy security and X-raying of baggage, but no real hassles. It is a long walk in the heat to Uzbek Immigration and customs, but, again, we get a reasonably trouble-free passage, and meet Aslan, our new guide. on the far side.

Our new vehicle is an air conditioned tour bus, and pretty comfortable. We manage a seat up front for photos of our new country, but there isn’t a lot of difference at first, with large fields of crops, and brown hills in the background. The roads are definitely better, and we see a lot more small minibuses, and new, small cars, made in Uzbekistan. General Motors, with their Chevrolet brand, have a large presence here.

We see vineyards, oil pumpers, and massive urbanisation as we drive through Andijon, which is infamous for the May 2005 killing of hundreds of protesters by the Uzbek Government.

In Fergana, we divert from the main road to the suburb of Margilan to look at the Yodgorlik silk processing factory, and are taken through the whole process from unwinding the silk using hot water to melt the natural glue, to the individual strands being combined into a group of 20 strands before winding onto a hexagonal skein winder. Interestingly the silk is formed onto the cocoon in a back and forth pattern, rather than a winding around the cocoon, so the cocoon does not spin as it is unwound. This part was particularly interesting as we’d never seen it before.P1060538

The 20-strand silk on the winder is quite stiff and harsh to the touch, courtesy of the residual glue, and needs additional washing to make it white and soft. After washing, the silk is formed into a larger diameter skein by an unexplained process, and it is stretched between rods about 2 metres apart, and is tied into bundles which are then stretched on a lathe-like machine between hooks which are rotated in the same direction by an electric motor. An operator applies plastic tape to designated sections, using the motor to wind it tight, as a mask for the dyeing process, similar to tie-dyeing of cloth. The dyed skein then has to be dried in an industrial strength spin dryer, unwrapped and re-wrapped to protect the dyed sections from the next colour. With 3 or more colours, this is a very time-consuming and skilled task, a reason why silk is so expensive. The dyed threads are then placed on looms in the right order and position to produce the required patterns. We are given information on the types of dyes used, both natural and chemical. Some of the processes to produce dyes are complicated, adding to the cost of the finished product.

We watch women operating the looms in an automaton fashion, shooting the shuttle back and forth by a string yoke, opening the path for the shuttle every pass, beating down the weave to make it tight, and changing colour in the shuttle for pattern variations. As  well as hand looms, there are also electrically driven machine looms, ageing and clattering, but still working to produce wider cloth and simpler designs.  These looms are also operated by women. There is a haze of silk strands and dust in the air, and a pretty intense noise level, so it can’t be a very healthy place to work. P1060568Additionally, when we arrive, the factory manager seems to be laying down the law to operators about defects and wastage.

In other parts of the factory, young girls with good eyes are weaving carpets in intricate designs in poor light. The looms are part of a major structure in a room in the factory, and the frames are intricately decorated, as is the ceiling and structure of the old building.  After the factory, we visit the sales outlet, and some purchasing occurs, mainly scarfs.P1060536

We drive on wide, well-surfaced multi-lane roads, and see urban areas extending as far as the eye can see, P1060583and enter Fergana City proper through a large, new ceremonial Gate, and arrive at our hotel, the 777 Club, at about 5PM. People have been looking forward to this hotel for some time, as it has a swimming pool. Hotel swimming pools can be good or bad – this one is pretty good, apart from the desert chill of the water, and pretty well everyone gets straight into it, some for longer than others. Martin has to buy some new swimmers first, as he’d left his outside his room to dry last night, and someone decided they needed them more than him.

Tonight, we are offered a selection of three restaurants, and most of us take the cheaper option of the restaurant just across the road, which turns out to be pretty good. After the meal, we cross the road to the main square beside our hotel, which has a crowd of local people out for the evening, with a dancing coloured fountain, rides for the children, a jumping castle and an excellent ice cream stand, where we all sit and enjoy various ice-creams.    The room is pretty good, although the AC is pretty mysterious as usual.

Day 13 of Tour Friday 10th August   Fergana City to Tashkent

Our 45th wedding anniversary.  Some of the group try an early morning swim. Breakfast is a big buffet, and OK. After breakfast, we assemble to be fitted into a fleet of smaller cars for the trip to Tashkent, as, for some security reason, tour buses are not allowed in the tunnels of the Kamchik Pass (2,300m) we cross on the way. In a fit of genius, we decided on the Hyundai 7-seater minivan, rather than the saloon cars, and get a much better view of the scenery and much better photos from the front seat.

We started off as a convoy of four cars and the mini-van with Richard, Fran, Martin and us in the minivan bringing up the rear. Our driver was only young, spoke no English, but drove well and seemed cheerful. The first leg of the trip was about 40 km to Rishtan, which is famous for its bright blue and green ceramics with the unique ishkor glaze. We travelled on a good road through agricultural land, with widespread urban sprawl as far as the eye could see. Along the road approaching the town there are signs for pottery, and the “big jug” at an intersection. Stop at the Rishtan Art Ceramics factory, the local workshop of Rustam Usmanov. The potter is apparently internationally famous, and is just back from a trip to a pottery expo in Santa Fe, USA. After a quick look at the range of pottery items produced here, his son, who is the head painter, takes us around the works, first getting a young potter who is a student on holidays, to quickly knock up a variety of small dishes on an electric wheel. They dry at room temperature for several days in summer before firing the first time in a gas-fired kiln. They also have an older wood-fired kiln for special items.

The fired biscuit ware is dipped in a glaze, and fired again to a matt white finish preparatory to painting and final firing. Our guide demonstrates his skill at drawing and painting by first centring a plate on a turntable and drawing a series of concentric circles by applying a standard mechanical pencil to the rotating plate and spacing them by eye. Next, he draws a perfectly straight line from the centre dot to the edge, then an opposite line, then lines at right angles. With the grid drawn, he proceeds to show us a semi-finished 5-pointed pattern which he admits has been drawn with a grid measured by a protractor. He then demonstrates on an unfinished plate adding complex patterns with a fine tipped goat-hair brush and an ink of glaze which will change colour when fired.    We are next shown a table with materials for glazing, which look pretty bland in the un-fired state, but turn brilliant colours after firing. The application of a final clear glaze is not explained.P1060610

After the demonstration, we return to the sales area to purchase pottery, look at historical pottery items and showpieces, and to admire the workmanship in the new wooden house the potter has built on the site.  We buy a couple of small teapot shaped plates for the granddaughters. Other team members make substantial purchases.

After leaving Rishtan, we proceed on good roads, through suburban sprawl for our pre-lunch stop at Kokand, to see the reconstructed major palace of Kokand Kahn, in a large park in the centre of town. The palace was built in 1873, but its fortifications were blown up three years later, and the harem section (which took up half the palace) was destroyed in 1919. P1060658 Despite this, it is pretty good, our first sight of a real Silk Road palace/Temple/Mosque on this trip, and brings back memories of our 2008 trip to Uzbekistan. We are shown through by a local guide with good English, and take a lot of photos of Islamic architecture and decoration, and see some historic relics from the time before the Russians destroyed the Harem section, and occupied the rest. P1060664There is a map of the various Silk Road routes, and most of them pass through cities we are familiar with.P1060679

We lunch at a fairly flash restaurant in the basement of a supermarket, quite close to the palace, then continue driving through Kokand, seeing some flash new buildings and some Soviet Era relics, and out into the flat, dry brown countryside, on particularly good roads. We start climbing into the hills, then into dry, rocky mountains, on a 6-lane highway with a pretty easy grade, through tunnels which are no-go areas for photography, with masked and armoured guards carrying sub-machine guns. We emerge on the far side of the tunnels to a much steeper descent. There is a parking area and lookout on the edge of the escarpment, and as we are parking we notice a man on scaffolding dressed in camouflage gear, wielding a large machine gun. At least, after our earlier armed guard experience, this is what the powers of suggestion tell us. In actual fact, the camouflage gear is real, but the machine gun is actually a large jack hammer, and he is working on a big-horn sheep sculpture. We take photos of the switchback roads below us,P1060728and are asked for group photos by local tourists at the lookout. We buy ice creams and drinks, and take our time looking at the size of the pass project. On the sides of the mountain, we can see the signs of earlier, steeper and scarier roads over the pass.

Back in convoy, the road straightens out after half a dozen switchbacks, and takes on a more gentle, but still steep by highway standards, 12% gradient. The scenery is spectacular on this side, with high, steep mountains and wide roads. Further down, we come to a hydro dam, but also encounter a lot of smog from coal mining and coal-fired power stations in the valley, and photos are pretty obscure. At Angren, a town which probably services the mining and power industries, we do a loo stop at a very flash building with an extensive covered dining and drinking area. It is called Angren Land, but looks more like a gambling casino than a restaurant. Interestingly, the business of the town is defined by a large wall poster opposite the casino advertising rates for sized aggregate, premixed concrete and wheel loaders.

Further out of town, there is a large, new power station which is greeted with disdain by the greener members of the crew, but it is a damn site cleaner than the older ones down in the valley, and pristine compared with the older Indian power stations. The terrain on this side of the pass is much greener, with a pale green blush of grass on the hills, and crops and rows of poplars in the valley bottom. Not far from the power station we see a group of cars on the side of the road immersed in smoke – think it is an accident, but just someone burning rubbish.

The road carries on over drier, rolling hills all the way into the outskirts Tashkent, where it becomes a madhouse of one-ways, no-ways, U-turns, too scary to take photos, but we survive it, and carry on into the quieter traffic of the city centre, P1060782where we pass a number of landmarks which we don’t recognise at first, but become familiar later, and end up at the Uzbekistan Hotel, the first familiar sight, which we had seen back in 2008.

While we are waiting for rooms in the hotel, there is a disturbance in the lobby, and an extremely well presented wedding party turns up for photos at the spiral staircase, and in the lobby. The wedding reception is to be in the ballroom/breakfast room, and scores of well-dressed women, and semi-formal men turn up for the celebration. P1060787This hotel was built in 1974, and is rated four star, and is in a wonderful position in the centre of the action, but it’s now a big jaded, and not worthy of four stars.

After booking in at 6pm, we assemble in the foyer and walk to an indoor/outdoor restaurant bordering a large park. To reach it, we have to walk past a large, new entertainment centre, all white columns and roof eaves decoration. It is new since last time we were here, together with a lot of other major buildings, so it’s very hard to recognise anything around here. The restaurant reorganises seating for us beside the park, and we have the usual Uzbek staples. Murray, in particular, is finding the local soups, particularly Borsch, to his taste, and the beer is cold and good. Selections for non-beer drinkers are harder to find, unless you like vodka.

After dinner, the more enterprising members of the group manage to find an interesting form of ice cream, made on a refrigerated flat bottomed pan, using cream and berries chopped up with showmanship with two putty spatulas. Dianne buys one, and it is quite tasty, if expensive.

Back at the hotel, the wedding celebration is still in full swing, and some of the party join in for a while. The hotel room is adequate, but not all that much better than other hotels we have stayed at on this tour. The precast concrete screening in front of the windows makes photography from the room difficult, and the 17 storey LED display on the facade flickers in the room, even with the curtains drawn.

Day 14 of Tour Saturday 11th August   Tashkent (Uzbekistan)

Today we are doing our City Tour, in a medium sized bus, with our middle-aged, possibly Jewish guide. Arslan will meet us later, as he has to go to the airport to pick up the guests for the next leg of the Uzbekistan tour.  We start off through the central part of the city, passing notable buildings and flash hotels (more flash than ours, with swimming pools), before stopping at the memorial for the 1966 earthquake, which levelled a fair bit of the old section, possibly the Jewish quarter, but didn’t kill a lot of people, as it was in the middle of the day and people were either at work or at school. The memorial features a large granite plaza with an insert of split black granite, indicating the earthquake and a bronze heroic scale family pushing against the power of the earthquake. P1060808We drive from here through to the city to the Islamic Quarter, the first area that we find familiar, stopping first at the Mausoleum of Abu Bakr Kaffal Shoshi, a noted Sufi scholar and teacher. The front room contains his large tomb and five smaller ones, and three more at the back. It’s a rather plain building by Islamic standards, but quite impressive. P1060821In the main quadrangle, we take a lot of photos of the domed buildings with larger rectangular entrances with peaked arches and white colonnaded courtyards. P1060823 The main building, the 16th century Barak Khan Medressa has some very upmarket shops with carpets, jewellery, and complex wood carving, a lot of it produced from a single slab which converts into several forms of book holder, originally for the Quran, now for IPads and IPhones. They are really well-made, but not cheap, and we resist the temptation.

Our next stop is the fee-paying Moyie Mubarek library museum, which features a large 7th century Quran printed on antelope skin, protected in a glass case, and a collection of historic items, including 30 or more rare 14th to 17th century books, but with photographs not allowed, the recollection is pretty dim. From here we walk around the complex, past the large mosque with towering minarets, and a small irrigation canal to our bus.

From here, we drive to the market, which, together with the nearby circular building with the external spiral ramp,P1060858 we easily recognise from before – and it looks just as spectacular with its coloured multi-segmented domes in Soviet technology concrete. P1060842We get out of the bus hurriedly to avoid bringing the wrath of police down on the driver, walk through the market with as good a display of fruit, vegetables, spices, meat and general merchandise as you would find anywhere. We buy some nectarines in our free-time, and walk as far as the impressive bakery area, getting photos,P1060862 and have a look at the interesting bright yellow and red carrots, apparently a product of the intense sunlight they get here.

Having rounded up the strays, we proceed to the rather elaborate underground metro, stopping at several stations to take photos of the decoration and architecture, but not the rails, which are considered a security risk.P1060881 We emerge from the Underground, move on to the botanical garden park with trees from all over. P1060889 There is a war memorial, with a bronze statue of a grieving woman, and an eternal flame, with the names of all those fallen in the “Great Patriotic War” from 1941 to 1945 engraved on bronze leaves in Cyrillic alphabet order, taking up some 20 sections of the wooden colonnade with a 24 page book with 200 names per leaf. A lot of Uzbeks died in the service of Russia.P1060894

We have the afternoon free, so get a quick lunch from the hotel cafe, rest for a while, then go out to investigate the area at the other side of the park opposite the hotel, walking past the statue of Timur on his horse in the park, one of the few things that hasn’t changed around here. Take photo with our enormous hotel is in the background.P1060899 We try to recognise anything, but it’s been so drastically changed it is not possible. There is now a large pedestrian mall here, and lots of upmarket shops. P1060911We see a fair bit of local action, but are taken by surprise by a dust storm which showers us with acorns from the trees, and makes it hard to walk the streets, so we repair to an upmarket shopping centre to sit it out, then walk around to the park where we dined last night, finding the park pretty run down, but still a serious venue for wedding photos. In particular we watch a pigeon wrangler use birdseed to induce a flock of white pigeons dyed multicolours to fly to the bride for photos.P1060918

We finish our loop around the city, P1060925then head back to the hotel to get ready to walk back to where we had been when the dust storm hit, for a farewell dinner at a posh restaurant, the last dinner of the trip. Afterwards, on our way back to the hotel, walk through the pedestrian mall lit up with strings of LED’s to entertain the crowds out doing a passagio.P1060933Other buildings are lit up, and we photograph the main offenders P1060939before taking the lift to the top floor bar for more night photos.P1060941

Day 15 of Tour Sunday 12th August   Tashkent (Uzbekistan) to Astana (Kazakhstan)

The tour officially ends after breakfast – in typical fashion, they’ve managed to make it sound like there is one more day in the trip!    Some people have left early, some are staying on for another night, and the stalwarts doing the next leg of the tour have left early this morning to fly to the other side of Uzbekistan and make their way back by land. Richard and Fran are booked to leave tomorrow, and we don’t leave till 6pm tonight, so we are happy to take a taxi to the Railway Museum with them in the morning after doing most of our packing. We are also interested in having a better look at the large Christian church we saw on our arrival in town.

Our taxi is reasonably priced and drops us off at the museum, which has a mostly outdoor exhibition of locomotives from the Soviet era,P1060977 mostly steamers, with some old diesels, and some massive machinery used for laying and/or maintaining tracks. The driver’s cabin is accessible on some of the locos, but there is not a lot of detail left.  The larger engines are characterised by the height of the boiler drum above the wheels, giving an unusually large gap between the bottom of the boiler drum, and the top of the wheels and engine frame. On some engines this gap is used to accommodate pressure vessels, presumably for the braking systems.  The gap increases the overall height of the engine, and is possibly caused by the size of the fire box, which may be large enough to accommodate wood, rather than coal firing, and is a feature of the various engine classes on display. The engines are not even close to being in working condition, apart from a diesel with some small carriages which is used for short rides. On each engine, the con rods from the pistons to the first driven set of wheels have been removed, possibly to make it easier to tow the engines into position.

We decide against a ride on the train, and plot a course to what Murray thinks is home, but others know is to the Orthodox Cathedral. We follow maps.me through wide streets and along a canal, finding the main railway station by accident. P1060983We ask security out front if we can go in to take a photo, but the reaction was – buy a ticket, or stay out. We take photos from the outside showing the name of the station, then cross at an underpass and walk away from the station on a wide street, with fairly up-market apartment buildings and some office buildings. We have arranged for a late checkout, but time is passing, and by the time we get to the Orthodox Cathedral we are starting to run out of time. There are signs in the building forbidding photography, so we have a quick look at the ornate blue and white building with gold onion domes, take photos from the outsideP1060999 then try to convince a reluctant taxi driver to take us to the Uzbekistan Hotel, which he finally agrees to (problem may have been he wasn’t sure where we actually wanted to go, and there was no language in common).

Back at the hotel we bid Richard and Fran farewell, promise to tell them if the taxi arranged by Explore worked as planned, recover our baggage, and wait in the foyer using the internet until it is time for our taxi. We are a bit leery of the arrangement, but have some time to make other arrangements if our man is late. It is getting down to the wire, and we had previously quizzed taxi drivers delivering guests but without luck, but our man shows up on time, and delivers us to the airport. He speaks pretty good English, has been a business man before the USSR collapse, has been talked into taking driver/guide jobs because of his good English, and is developing a business in tourism. At the airport, which is on the outskirts of the city, we give him all our remaining Uzbek cash, which isn’t a lot, and pass through security.

Passage through the airport is pretty standard, even though this is not a domestic flight, and we are in the air on an Embraer 88 by 6 PM, Murray with a window seat taking photos. The city is extensive, with a ring of cultivated land around it, but we are over dry sandy country after ten minutes and even drier country further out, with the only greenery along wide river valleys. 20 minutes out we cross a large, shallow dam with irrigation canals and cultivated land below it, but 10 minutes later we are over a very barren area of eroded mountains and ravines. The mountains get higher and sharper, but show no sign of snow on the peaks. The country flattens out, but remains barren until we get to a series of lakes not far from Astana, and there is extensive broad acre cultivation. Approaching Astana we can see a definite water course with water in it and a number of lakes, and the large circles of centre-pivot irrigation. There are large areas planted with alternate forest and crops, running down to the edge of a large, probably shallow lake.

At the airport, we still have a fair bit of Kazak money, so are able to go out and look for a taxi. We are wary after our Almaty incident with the taxi, and will only go with one that has a taxi-meter. It is a fair haul in to town, and we are surprised when our man asks for $US25. We demand to see the meter, but he is reluctant, changes his bid to 20,000 Tenge, which is far too much, so we insist on looking at the taxi-meter, offer him 5,000 which is still high, and he grudgingly accepts it.

We book into our hotel, Grand Park Esil which is pretty good, supposedly four star, booked with 10,770 frequent flyer points per night. We have a look at the hotel restaurant, but it looks pretty deserted, so head out to look for food locally, after checking out the gym. The best we can do is a Burger king across a wide street and a parking lot, in a shopping centre, which looks closed, but we look around the corner, find a bar open and the Burger King beside it. We have a large meal with Pepsi between the two of us, and walk a bit further to look at the well-lit buildings and parks, getting some good night photos, and finding two interesting supermarkets with a lot of specialty stock, possibly for the expat market.

Summary of Our Thoughts on Kyrgyzstan and the “Explore” Trip

We were really happy with “Explore”.  Their organisation was excellent, and their guide Olga was incredible. The people they attract to their tours were the sort of people we like to travel with – well-travelled, adventurous, active and friendly, and of a more mature age. We liked the way they organised the days – if we had a big travelling day, they would make sure there was a walk the next day. The program included plenty of walks, which we also like. We also liked “picnic lunches” so we didn’t spend half the day sitting in a restaurant waiting for food. We were surprised by how little we spent during the two weeks, as most costs were covered in the original price, including quite a few dinners. We will be looking for more tours to do with them.

We found Kyrgyzstan interesting, especially as we knew little about it before this trip. We loved the “jailoos” which were so scenic, but we had already seen them in Kazakhstan at the start of our trip. In fact much of the scenery was reminiscent of Kazakhstan, which is not surprising seeing it’s the same landscape, with just a man-made border between them. We didn’t see anything we thought was world-beating during the trip, just a lot of pleasant countryside and interesting people.

2 thoughts on “Kyrgyzstan and our first “Explore” trip

  1. Behrens, Sandy

    I loved your report . . . especially since those are places I will never get to. You are real troupers. I was sorry to hear of Murray’s problems at the first and was happy when he got over it.

    We had a pain-in-the-ass woman on a tour I took to China . . . she was a retired colonel’s wife and nothing was good enough for her. She did have a private room but she was terrible to the tour group, the guide, the bus driver, the vendors, etc. By the end of the tour, no one would speak to her or sit with her. She has been a good bad example!

    Thanks for keeping my on your list and please don’t take me off.
    Sandy (in Denton)

    Like

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