Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mountain Kingdoms

The 31st of August is Independence Day in Kyrgyzstan, a day to celebrate independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. We were in the town of Karakol at the time and went to see the local parade and cultural demonstrations.
Independence Day parade - each group and industry has a float
This section of the trip is called Mountain Kingdoms of Kyrgyzstan, and in the past few days we have seen some of the most amazing and varied mountain scenery. On the weekend we camped in a spot called Jeti Ogyz, setting up our tents where the local farmers graze their animals (hazards included navigating fresh horse poo in the middle of the night to go to the toilet!). We decided to climb a nearby mountain and with no map or trail to follow and scaled the most ridiculously steep section to get the most incredible 360 degree view. On the way down we learned that had we gone the other way it would have been far easier (slight navigation error on my part, woops!). It was so worth the climb though as we could see 5500m peaks and glaciers on the mountain range bordering China, and the other way looked back to Lake Issyk-Kul, which is the world's second largest alpine lake (behind Titikaka in South America) at 180km long and 660m deep. We were wandering through farm land with shepherds sitting in the sun watching their flocks; the traditional method of farming is still used here with no fences or defined farm boundaries.

View from the top looking towards China
Camping Masterchef competition continues...

Horses grazing on our hike

Sheep being herded through our campsite

We fattys had to get out of the truck to lighten the load to cross rivers on the way to campsite

The next day we headed for Kochkor, where we stayed the night in a homestay. The locals have been taught by a Swiss company how to run homestays and we were treated to hot showers, flushing toilets and a banquet of local foods...such a treat after nights camping in the bush. Down the road from the homestay was the local "Olympic stadium" - a very run down soccer field and something resembling a concrete running track. Much of the infrastructure is pretty derelict, having little or no maintenance since the Soviet era. There are many abandoned buildings including houses and factories. The roads are also in terrible condition, although there is a lot of road works being carried out by Chinese firms to improve them.

Desert-like "Fairy" canyon en-route to Kochkor
Boys playing soccer at the entrance to the stadium

Stadium with the Olympic rings on the far slope

Little boy at our homestay

The next day was a long drive to Song Kol, which is a lake at 3000m. On the way we were able to sit on the roof of the truck in purpose built roof seats, and although it was freezing it was a great view. Song Kol is one of the most stunning places I have ever been, the kind of scenery that just blows you away. Its a massive wide open plateau with mountains surrounding the lake. The land is used from June until September by farmers for grazing and in the winter the lake freezes over and there is snow permanently. The area is protected and there are no buildings, only yurts (the traditional tents used by the farmers).

We stayed in yurts and even though there was a frost on the ground in the morning we were super toasty with mattresses and two very heavy woolen duvets. We were treated to feasts breakfast, lunch and dinner, the highlights being an endless supply of homemade apricot jam with fresh cream, fresh bread and something that resembled donuts (athlete's diet is officially over!). The local farmers rented their horses to us and we did a trek down to the lake. Such an amazing way to see the area, despite the fact we were all slightly nervous going very slowly on horses used to being ridden flat out!
Sitting on the roof of the truck

Trying to squeeze past a Lada (popular Soviet car) over 3800m pass en-route to Son Kol

Star jumps at Song Kol (this took several attempts to get the timing, which was hard work at 3000m+!)

Horse trek to local hero's monument and lake

My horse (called "Farty" - so smelly!) and our Kyrgyz guide Billy leading the way back to camp

Pre-dinner drinks in the yurt camp

We headed back to Bishkek with a night in a rocky basin on the way to break up the journey. It was our first night of camping in the rain since we started the trip, but the rain was short-lived and we were then treated to beautiful stars with the sky being lit up every now and then by a thunder storm in the distance.

Camp en-route to Bishkek
Some of the group head to the Kazakh embassy in Bishkek this afternoon to collect their visas and tomorrow we drive into Kazakhstan for three nights there before heading to Uzbekistan. They did not get visas before they left as when they started the trip in Beijing we were originally supposed to travel through Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan and then into Uzbekistan, but have been advised that it is unsafe, so we are taking the long route, through Kazakhstan.

The people who are travelling all the way through to Istanbul also received the news a few days ago that Dragoman are now unable to take the truck through Iran because the British Foreign Office has issued a warning advising against all travel into Iran. This warning means that the truck would not be insured travelling through Iran, so the trip has had to be re-routed through Azerbaijan and Georgia, which is really sad for those looking forward to travelling to Iran.

Jakshy kalyngydzar from "Stan" Kazahkstan!


  1. I took the Dragoman trip from Turkmenistan thru Uzbekistan ending in Kyrgyzstan in 2008 and recall it as one of my best trips and appreciate the review. I almost married the local guide in the Kyrgyzstan and we later went to Thailand together and are still in contact and she wishes for my return to her country

  2. Amazing scenery and experiences. Intrepid as well with danger not too far away. Good to have a bit of comfort thrown in and to be eating gourmet. Great photos. Keep safe.