Monday, July 2, 2007

Kyrgyzstan: Who knew?

Osh, Kyrgyzstan – We arrived in southern Kyrgystan a couple of days ago and we still have not found a working internet café so I am typing this in Word and then hopefully either tomorrow or when we get to Kashgar, I can post it!

So what's happened between Kazakhstan and here? Some amazing things! We finally got to do a multi-day trek. But before I get ahead of myself...we arrived in the capital of Kyrgystan, Bishkek, after taking a 5-6 hour minibus ride from Almaty. It was a surprisingly smooth and easy trip from Almaty to Bishkek. The highway was so smooth and the Mercedes-Benz minibus was so nice that I fell asleep with my face pressed against the glass of the window. No jarring wake up calls with people staring at you because your head made a loud "thwap" as it bounced off the glass.

Bishkek was a relief after Almaty. The prices were a little more in our range. We ended up staying at the International Business School dorms. We had heard from an American couple (Barb and Ted who we are sitting next to us at the moment...but Karl will go into that in his next blog) that the dorms were a pit. If this had been at the beginning of our 6-month trip I would have agreed. The separate shower and toilet room were shared with the dorm room next door – you could call it a suite though that might be stretching it a little. However, since we were half-way through the trip (in Mongolia for a month we had pit toilets if lucky and no running water), I cozied up to the place and after a few days it grew on me. I checked out some of the other shower and toilet rooms on the floor and realized we were lucky...we got one of the cleaner “suites”. Our suite mates, however, were a different story – three guys who smoked in the bathroom, left trash everywhere, and partied into the late morning.

So now we were in a place that was a little bit more affordable to hang out, rest up and do a little bit of blogging. It took us a couple of tries and several frustrating hours to find an internet café that we could install Picasa2, Karl's must-have choice in manipulating the photos and uploading to Picasa Web. We finally found a café in a basement of a building that fit our needs and the girl that worked the desk was sweet and spoke English. Also a bonus was that it was just down the same block from Fat Boys, a little café, somewhat ex-patish, but with good food, a large book exchange, and several cute young female waitresses that always seemed to remember Karl.

So it got to be a little of a routine and I have to say I really enjoyed "routine" after months of excitement: get up in the morning, do a little workout routine (sit-ups, some weights using the 1.5L bottle of water, yoga positions, etc.), shower, walk through the park (actually parks), buy yogurt and a large mango or kiwi fruit juice, internet for a couple of hours, eat lunch at Fat Boys, internet some more until dinner, walk around in search of a good place for dinner and then retire around 9pm.

Kashgar, China - Ok. Now after 2 days of travel (which actually felt like 10 days) we are back in China. Going to try to finish the entry that I started in Osh.

So after blogging in Bishkek, we headed to Karakol and Lake Issyk-Kul for some change in scenery. In particular we wanted to get out and do a multi-day trekking trip and we had read that the mountains just south of Karakol (the Terskey Alatau Range, part of the Tian Shan Range that spans Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China) was the place to go. We spent the next day trying to get all the stuff together for the trek: renting a tent and stove, trying to get information and a map for the trail, etc. We were told that we should hire a guide as there were no trail signs, lots of snow on the last pass, 2 Belgians lost for 2 days, blah, blah, blah. So we ended up finding this budget sensitive tour company that had a guide for $15 a day. We went ahead agreed because the map sucked, we were on a time constraint, and there was suppose to be some free (and not-free) hot springs that we wanted to make sure we hit.

We started with a taxi ride to the the town of Jeti-Oghuz, past the Broken Heart and stopped right in front of the Seven Bulls. Basically red rock formations that looked like a broken heart and seven bulls (actually it looked like the 7 bulls had eroded to become about 10 bulls). The landscape was quite unique -- green, really green, grass and trees jutting out from really red rock and dirt. The taxi driver offered to take us to the 5th bridge (out of 7) for $5 more but being the cheapskates that we are, we said no. Also I wanted to make sure I didn't get HAPE so I wanted to walk the 1000m ascent slowly instead of driving it in 15 minutes.

The start was pleasant enough...along a dirt road following a stream up the valley. The road ascended but the incline was almost unnoticeable. It was a beautiful green lush valley.

At about 4pm we started the real ascent! We ascended about 300m (1000ft) in less than a mile. Hungry and sucking major wind...I fell far behind Karl and Marat. But that was ok...I had given Karl the tent to half-way up the climb and was hoping that the home for the night and dinner would be ready by the time I crawled up there.

The next day started with a steady climb up to the 3800m (~12,500ft) Teleti pass. A little snow and a lot of scree later we were up. Not bad. It started raining on the way down but it peetered off halfway down. And down, and down we went. There were some switch backs but most of the time it was straight down. Even the switch backs were steep!

Ended up in Karakol valley at about 8000ft. It was about 3pm and both Karl and Marat turned to me and asked whether we should try to get a little head start on the next pass (another 2 hours possibly), Ala-Kol Pass, or camp here. I elected to camp here - it was low at 2500m (~8250ft), I wanted to sleep low because for me HAPE always came on the 2nd night, and we were all hungry already.

We found a totally sweet camping spot. Marat bought some bread off some folks from a yurt just down the way (we had eaten all our bread already) and started dinner. Karl and I relaxed -- attempted a towel bath but it started to rain, collected wood and started a campfire, and read. So nice not to have to cook!

Marat was just the perfect guide. Upbeat but laid-back and not too talkative. Definitely a gentleman: would wait and make sure I didn't fall into the water during river crossings, helped me put on my pack (though I got him to stop doing this after a pack weighed nothing), wouldn't let me carry hardly any of the food (I was already just carrying a few food items when he took everything that even appeared to have any weight to it...left me with the bag of dried pasta and the box of tea bags) and pulled some drunk Kyrgyz guy off me that wouldn't let go off my hand (after a handshake) was attempting to go in for a kiss (Where was Karl??? you ask... during this incident? Well, Karl was standing there about 15 feet away politely telling the drunk Kyrgyz that she was that the extent of American chivalry?).

As mentioned, the next day was another pass. Back up...past treeline, through a "camp" (a little wood cabin, camping spots, fire rings, pit toilet and lots of wood carvings), along a beautiful lake called Ala-Kol(our pic of this is even better than the one in the LP) and up to the pass. It was a haul -- 1300m (4000ft) back up to 3900m. The scenery was spectacular so I was left breathless from both the altitude and view.

I dropped the pack when I reached the top of the pass and went over to were Karl was waving me over. Check this out. We were standing on top of a patch of snow that was actually a cornice above a steep slope -- looking down it looked like a 90 degree angle (though Karl says it was probably more like 70 degrees). We figured we would walk up the ridge a little around the snow and go down the scree. Nope. Once Marat and I added our names and route to a little piece stuck in the large cairn at the top, Marat said let's go and headed to the spot Karl and I were just admiring. Well, though we took half the slope down with a mini-avalanche and picked up some speed halfway down, the snow was soft and the angle lessened further down so we lived. It took just a few seconds and we dropped a thousand feet on our butts.

Karl wanted to camp high that we stopped early and pitched camp in between all these snow-melt streams at about 3300m (11,000ft). Even at that elevation we were already back into the lush green fields of grass and flowers.

One thing that struck Karl and I as unique was the greeness. The lush green grass came right up to the scree and the valleys were full of dark, dark green pine trees (that were tall, a hundred feet tall). The green of the grass was almost neon (like the catepillar below!) and the green of the pine trees was dark and had so much depth that we knew we wouldn't be able to capture it with our cameras. (You definitely have to come out and see it for yourself!)

The next day was an easy day. Hurray! 2 hours and we were down to the hot springs. We decided to stay in the little Yak Tours house and eat with the rest of the folks there. Marat showed us a little hot spring along the river in the was perfect...more of a luke warm spring which us good since we were still warm from the hike. After dinner we checked out the hot springs...had to pay $2.50...there were 3 private concrete pools in a wooden cabin. So hot and so nice. We were jelly afterwards.

Slept well that night and the next day we hiked 3 more hours out to the town of Ak-Suu. I do have to say that this is one of the best backpacking trips I have ever taken. The scenery was incredible and unique (at least for me). There were hot springs at the end. I didn't have to cook (and only had to carry my personal stuff). There were chocolate trees and heavenly music emanating from the streams. And...ok, I'll stop.

Well I am going to end it here. Karl's already started on the next leg of our misadventure. For more pictures check out the slideshow below.

Bishkek, Karakol and the Terskey Alatau Range, Kyrgyzstan

1 comment:

Gooseman said...

Sounds like it was an amazing trip. My fiance and I are planning on travelling that area after we get married. Can I sound like a cheapskate and ask how much it costs to do this sort of thing?? Did that trek cost anything other than the guide and the hot springs entrance? How much was that dorm?