It was like in a base camp. I mean, besides electricity, fast wi-fi and the shop around the corner where you could swing by in your flip-flops. Also, we were in Kyrgyzstan’s fourth biggest city and none of us was even close to being a mountaineer. We were all regular tourists. The mood was truly basecamp-ish, though. We would maniacally check the weather forecast and played cards for hours to kill the time. Sometimes the noise of squealing tires followed by the rumble of crashing cars drowned out the monotonous sound of the rain on the tin roof. Another jerk went through a red light on the intersection in front of the hostel.
We sat in the hostel bar watching streams pouring from the sky. Now and then small groups returning from the mountains appeared in the open gate. They would catch everyone’s eye, standing there all soaked and freezing.
„How was it?” everybody wanted to know.
Snow, wind, cold, a real Armageddon – was their story summarized.
I decided to use the downtime to solve my Tent Situation. I didn’t count on any professional service, rather a handyman who would file it here, welt it there and make the broken frame usable again. I asked in the CBT (Community Based Tourism) office.
„There is a man, a bit of a cobbler, a bit of a handyman. He might be able to help” said the woman behind the desk.
I went to a clattered workshop in a basement in one of the blocks. It smelled leather and dust with a note of mustiness. An elderly man shrugged his shoulders.
I tried in a garage. In the poor light, three young guys in polyamide tracksuits were bustling around an old Mercedes. One of them stopped his work and took the tent frame into his black grease hands. He looked it up and down and reached to his toolbox. He cut the damaged end off, tore off the outer layer so that one pole will fit into another and handed the frame to me.
„How much is it?” I asked.
I wasn’t sure whether he was generous or doubted if his work will outlast.
It appeared to be the latter. While I tried to set up the tent in the backyard of Duet Hostel, the frame cracked again.
So I was still without a tent. A few days later I got a message from Roberto (the guy we met in Kochkor first week of our journey). He had the same problem while camping at Issyk Kul. An epidemic of breaking frames. Roberto returned to Bishkek and offered to send me a spare pole if he found one. Wonderful man! He found it, but I had to wait a few days for the delivery. No difference, I wouldn’t go to the mountains in this weather anyway. Pashmina (who has been cycling with me until now) assumed that instead of being stuck in Karakol she’ll go to Bishkek to find a doctor and get her knee checked. She was told to take a break from cycling for a few weeks. So I haven’t seen her until our encounter in Almaty, a day before my flight home.
I didn’t mind being stuck in Karakol. It was comfy. Coffee in the morning, then reading a book under a blanket, making dinner with other hostel people and endless discussions over a glass of beer or a cup of tea. Real vacation. I kind of enjoyed it more than sightseeing. At least for a while.
To avoid getting too sluggish I went for a ride to Karakol Ski Base. At the entrance to the national park, there was a ticket booth. The price was 250 som. I tried to negotiate with a dedushka in the booth.
„I’m only going to the ski base and back, I’ll spend one or two hours in the park.”
The old man peered inquisitively.
„Where are you from?” he asked.
He thought my answer through and decreed devushka from Poland should pay 150 som and go. It still wasn’t cheap for a short ride, but I didn’t leave the hostel to get to the entrance and turn back after all.
The rain was still pouring and I heard thunder coming from the distance. The stifling, heavy air smelled of wet soil. The ski base emerged from the dark pine forest: a few buildings and a ski lift at rest. It looked gloomy, as all ski resorts on rainy days out of season do.
A group of Saudi Arabian tourists waited for someone to start the lift on their special order. They offered me to join them. It was tempting, but the thought of sitting in wet clothes on a chair going up to 3000 meters made me freeze. I wouldn’t count on splendid views in that weather either. I preferred to go back to the hostel, change into dry clothes and go back to being busy like a hibernating bear.
Ala Kul Lake (almost)
After four days of continuous rain, it started to clear. We decided – me and some other people from Duet Hostel – to go for the most popular trek in the area: Ala Kul Lake, located at 3560 meters, famous for its incredible turquoise color and outstanding beauty.
But first, we had to go for an expedition to the bazaar and get the supplies for three days in the mountains.
Hundreds of signs and colorful banners created a chaotic, vibrant composition. Shashlik, Apteka, Bee-line, Detski mir, Yevropa. Some letters were fancy, almost artistic, other heavy, with no charm. Booths and stalls. Sheet metal and plastic. Cars parked all over the place. We had to squeeze through the labyrinth of white delivery vans stuffed with watermelons and rusty passenger cars with the magic lights of invisibility on, blocking the street while their owners did their errands.
We bought some oats, pasta, sweets, and fruits, including a bag of dried apricots, which eventually became our emergency rations. They were rock hard, and you had to chew it for about 15 minutes before you could swallow it.
In the morning we squeezed ourselves, 6 people with backpacks, into a cab, which took us to Karakol Valley. On a sunny day, it looked like a vision from a five-year-old girl’s drawing. Vivid green grass, slender white horses, clear, bright river, snowcapped peaks, and blue sky with a few white clouds.
For kilometers, the trail was wide and almost flat. After the recent rainfall, it occasionally turned into small streams. It was like the Alps but bigger. Much bigger. In 1991, when the USRR collapsed and Kyrgyzstan became independent, its first president Askar Akayev promised to turn the country into Switzerland of Central Asia. The landscape was like in Switzerland, indeed, even better. The mountains were higher, the valleys more spacious and the lakes more azure. Only the prosperity and order didn’t follow and it turned out Akayev’s promises, like all declarations of this kind, were just a pipe dream.
In the glade at the bridge, two UAZ-bukhanka were looking over the valley with the eyes of their ridiculous round headlights. Next to the cars, enterprising women were selling drinks to thirsty hikers. We crossed the river and the trail started to climb steeply. We were above 2500 meters and the forest was still at its best.
The camp was at 3000 meters. Bunch of green tents and a few yurts. Dark, thick smoke was rising from the pipe of one yurt, telling the world that unfortunately, no pope has been elected, but some garbage has been collected. There was a lot of trash all over the place, despite a big sign asking politely „please do not leave the garbage. thank you”. Also, tourists staying here apparently lived to the rule that the toilet is everywhere. The meadow around the camp was a big minefield. People are pigs sometimes.
Regardless of that, the place was exceptionally beautiful. Various lush thickets were growing around and there was so much greenery that all the tired eyes of the world could stare and rest. Immense peaks with a thin snow cover towered above the camp.
After dusk, the show started. As usual in the middle of August, the perseids started their big exodus. Once from one side, once from another, they rushed like crazy through the black sky untainted by the glare of the artificial lightning. We were standing in a circle, everyone with a cup of tea, and shivering from cold, we looked up until our necks started to hurt.
We slept three in a two-person tent. Mine was still broken, so Józefina and Weronika agreed to share theirs with me, although we’ve only known each other for a few hours. Every time one of us wanted to roll over, the other two had to follow her lead. Synchronic rolling over. At least it was warm.
It was raining again in the morning. We agreed there was no point in crossing Ala-Kul Pass, which was presumably snowed. We decided to go up to the lake and take the same route back instead.
We walked up a steep, narrow path next to the fast-flowing river Kurgag-Ter. Our shoes were making funny, clicking sound when we were taking them off the sucking mud.
The thought about going down on slippery mud and snow gave me a little panic attack. It happens to me sometimes. My fear of heights takes over control of my legs. They start to shake and in my head, I start to play absurd scenarios when I slide and land with my head smashed on some rock twenty meters below. And so, instead of being a strong, independent and fearless woman, I was shaking in my boots.
The fear was completely irrational, I knew it. I was on a regular trail for regular tourists, nothing dangerous. I happened to hike on more exposed trails. But this time I gave up and didn’t get to Ala-Kul lake. I waited for the others 200 meters below. They showed me the pictures, cheering me up that I didn’t miss so much this time. The lake was shrouded in fog and the color was subdued, far from the azure, I saw on the pictures I’ve seen on Instagram before.
We returned to Karakol one day earlier than planned. So, instead of celebrating my birthday in the mountains, I spent it in the city, mainly eating. I did as they recommended on http://www.destinationkarakol.com: „come for the mountains, stay for the diverse culture and cuisine”. Well, in my case it was more about the cuisine. Breakfast was western: pancakes in Duet Hostel. Lunch, local: ashlam-fu, cold noodle soup in a small diner at the bazaar. Dessert, western again: brownie and cappuccino. Finally, for dinner, a delicious vegetarian lagman, speciality of Uyghur cuisine.
I went to the antique shop on Toktogula street 249. Luc recommended me this place when we were in the mountains and he was eating oatmeal with the soviet spoon he bought in this very shop. He was very pleased with his purchase.
„This guy has a bunch of soviet stuff there, the shop is a real gem”, he said.
Alexander Korablev’s collection was impressive. Lenin on canvas, Lenin sketched with charcoal, Lenin gypsum bust, Lenin bronze bust, Lenin on the pennons. Just as wide selection of Stalins. A few Marys and Jesuses standing on the other side of the shop, to keep soviet gods separated from the Christian ones.
Old cameras, Zorka, Smena, Zenit, withs those funny slim lenses. Tacky porcelain figures: cats, elephants, deers, birds of all kind: ducks, hens, sparrows. All white with golden adornments. Baubles, spoons, vases, goblets, hats, rotary phones, clocks, trumpets and trombones dulled by time. Porcelain dolls, standing stiffly on the shelves and looking at the visitors with their creepy glass eyes. Albums with thousands of stamps sorted thematically. Tons of items, that once had a life and were now slowly dying, hoping to catch someone’s eye and get a chance for a new life. But most of them had to accept, that their glory days have gone forever together with the soviet era.
I cycled to Jeti Oguz, a resort 35 kilometers from Karakol. Huge, rocky bulks were rising from pale meadows. Someone once thought the shape and the folds of the copper-colored conglomerates looked like the bodies of furious bulls, hence the name Jeti Oguz, Seven Bulls in Kyrgyz. They looked a bit out of place, as if someone pasted them into this subalpine landscape.
In the shadow of the bulls stood an old soviet sanatorium. There were a few stands with honey and local products next to the road. At the river, families were sitting on the blankets and picnicking. Cows were walking carefree on the road leading deeper into the valley, lumbering in the reddish mud. Suddenly, the sleepy valley was woken up by the sound of enthusiastic, repetitive tooting. A wedding procession was heading towards the sanatorium. It was a bit strange since it was Wednesday. Cars were zigzagging on the dirt road and the boys on the backseats were wooing through the open windows, letting all the world or at least all the valley know they’re partying tonight.
I took a byway back to Karakol. Everywhere I looked stretched endless fields, burned by the August sun. A group of boys, about seven-eight years old, was sitting in the grass, enjoying the freedom of the last days of the summer holidays. One of them ran onto the road screaming „hello!” and raised his hand to give me high five. It happened often, cheerful kids screaming „hello, how are you?” and giving fives. I thought it was cute. I reached out my arm and just a second before my hand met the boy’s hand, I saw something in his eyes. Provocation. Devilry. Pure evil. He seized my hand so that I fell. My knee, covered in sand, started to bleed. The boy chortled at his prank and ran away to his mates.
My Russian skills were not enough to tell him off. I lied still on the road, trying to act as something serious happen. The kid was staring at me. His devious grin disappeared, and tears welled up in his eyes. The little bustard got scared. His older buddy sitting on a donkey started to explain something to him. The boy came over with his head down.
„Sorry, sorry, izvinite”, he mumbled sniffling.
„Vsyo harasho, all good”, I answered and shook his hand.
„I’m not going anywhere. This is a typical tourist event, I’m not going to take part in that. I don’t want to be another number!” declared Oliver, when I asked if he is going to Jyrgalan for the Summer Festival. The event had a catchy, cool name: J-fest and everyone in Karakol was talking about it.
Sem, Dutch overlander also staying in Duet, offered me a ride, so I avoided taking a crowded marshrutka. After an hour’s drive, we arrived in Jyrgalan, a little mining town close to the Kazakh border. In a big glade, the organizers were working hard setting up the scene and connecting the sound system cables. It didn’t look like a mass event. Most of the guests were western tourists, but the locals showed up too. Elderly gentlemen have put on shirts for the special occasion. Some of them were wearing kalpaks – traditional white felt hats with golden patterns that looked like snowcapped mountains. Those who wanted to be more casual chose baseball caps, also white and with the same golden pattern.
We received flyers with the program in Russian. There was everything. An official opening, Mayor’s speech, trail running race, mountain biking race, music and dancing performances, lunch, first aid course, kok-boru match, a guided hike in the mountains – a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
A nervous teenage girl translated the Mayor’s speech. Her voice was shaking, but he bravely made it though, poor girl. Then the head of the local tourist organization entered the stage.
„We have been working in five years on our project Destination Jyrgalan to transform our town into Kyrgyz Chamonix”, she said with proud.
I’ve never been to Chamonix, but Jyrgalan didn’t look like any alpine resort I’ve seen. No gigantic, five-star hotels, fancy wooden lodges, and glamorous restaurants. Just a few guesthouses with an outside toilet and a tiny shop with the groceries standing in the cardboard boxes all over the place. I don’t want to romanticize the simple, rural life, but I’m afraid when Jyrgalan one day becomes a Kyrgyz Chamonix with a big SPA-hotel and a cool cable car, the whole charm will disappear. I guess I like one-horse towns better than spotless alpine villages. Still, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Destination Jyrgalan. I hope they’ll manage to develop tourism without ruining the vibe and creating a soulless resort.
A presentation of national Kyrgyz costumes started next to the stage. Luckily for the models, this year’s J-fest took place on a chilly day. They had plenty of layers on. A brawny muscleman with a neck tattoo looked embarrassed by the fact, that he is walking around in a mottled robe and a wolfskin on his shoulders. Young girls in fancy hats smiled shyly while a woman with a microphone explained the correlation between the number of woman’s children and the height of her hat.
A group of kids in traditional clothes and sneakers performed a vivid dance to local music with a modern beat. After their show, preparations to the most exciting part of the event started. Kok-boru – a traditional game of the nomads, considered national sport in Kyrgyzstan.
They brought a headless goat carcass with tied legs. Men on the horses gathered around. The referee gave a sign and one of the players picked up the animal body as if it didn’t weigh anything. He put it on the horse’s back and galloped towards the goal. Immediately, two representatives of the opposite team appeared next to him, blocking his path. It was hard to figure out, who plays with him. There were no team uniforms, just worn-out jeans or weathered tracksuits. With acrobatic agility, the players were leaning out from the horses, when they wanted to pick up the goat from the ground. The ecstatic speaker once and again shouted: this is a sport for real men! The goat remains were passed from hand to hand, the steeds were loping, the riders were fighting with their lips pursed in focus, and shepherd dogs were running furiously around them, surprisingly not even trying to nibble some of the goat meat. This whole bustle was hypnotizing in a slightly macabre way.
The Kyrgyz machos finished their game and we went for a hike to Turnaluu Lake. Our guide was a young local man, Nursultan. We walked through endless meadows and pastures. I could see now what they meant talking about Kyrgyz Chamonix. The valley was vast and beautiful. One could wander there for hours, and I could only imagine how perfect the mild slopes were for freeride skiing during the winter. The Turnaluu lake was small and surrounded by pine trees. Dark thick clouds gathered on the horizon. The air was still for a moment and then filled up with the rumbling of thunder. We speeded up and before the thunderstorm started for real, we were back in Jyrgalan.
There were no lights, no houses, no lamps, nothing. Even the stars were hiding behind the clouds. The front lights of our car were cutting this absolute darkness. The soviet tarmac was full of hidden potholes filled up with water. We parked on a flat meadow with some huge stones and hurriedly set up the tent. I hoped it will withstand the rain.
It was the cheapest tent from Extreme Tour, an outdoor rental in Karakol owned by Igor – a well-build Russian man in his fifties with a grey braided mustache and a stern look. The timeworn canvas was patched with duct tape and apparently remembered many soviet tourists climbing the tops of Tien-Shan.
Luckily the weather started to improve before we washed our teeth. The thick cloud coating spread apart and even some stars showed up. There was no need to worry too much about the condition of the tent.
In the morning we realized, how stunning our camping spot was. I opened the zip of the tent and saw the majestic mountains, bathed in sharp sunlight. On their tops, there was a clean layer of fresh snow. The hoarfrost covered the tent and the whole meadow.
We continued driving upwards. The old soviet asphalt disappeared. The car was jumping lightly on the frozen ruts and bumps. Rust-colored, rugged landscape, partly covered in snow replaced the green meadows. We reached the Chon Ashuu Pass at 3822 meters in winter conditions. Next to the road there were some brick buildings with empty window holes gradually falling into disrepair. Two dogs with bright matted fur came running and barking. A girl came after them.
Her clothing consisted of many woolen layers. She stood there and stared at us. Sem grabbed some snow and started a snowball fight. The girl jauntily responded to his attack and fought back as if it was a matter of life and death. Then her mother came, wearing thick, colorful knee socks. We said we didn’t expect anybody to live up there.
„It’s just for the summer”, she said. „My husband works with the repair of the road.”
Even in the summer, it had to be harsh to live there. Cold, wind and only the rocky tops in the eyesight. Remote from anything. 50 kilometers towards the Chinese border there was a town Inylchek, but it wasn’t very much going on there either since the soviet mine was shut down. There were empty blocks and about 20 families left. Karakol was 80 kilometers away but it took about two hours on this road. If there was snow or a landslide, the family was isolated.
We returned to Duet hostel. A narrow package waited for me at the reception – the spare parts to my tent finally arrived. The pole was a little too long but I cut it with my jack-knife. After almost two weeks I could finally move forward.
„I’d like to pay for one more night”, I said to Ana at the reception.
„Yes, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
„Good. It’s time to move on.”
Well, if even the hostel owner tells you it’s time to move on, then I must have stayed in Karakol for too long.
We bought a bottle of Georgian wine, for goodbye. It was supposed to be semi-dry but turned out to be terribly sweet and terrible in general.
„I’m a bit freaking out about cycling alone.” I admitted to the guys.
„I’m driving to Bishkek tomorrow, you can join me if you want”, said Sem.
I wasn’t sure what to do. On one hand, I was skeptical about camping alone, especially after the incident with the exhibitionist on the horse. I wouldn’t mind a good company. On the other, I came here to cycle, I still wanted to climb some passes and then go to Kazakhstan. And until now I cycled much less than I planned.
I went to bed with my head heavy from dilemmas and poor quality wine.