Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Central Asia - Kyrgyzstan

And so, onto the final installment for our Central Asian summer; get your spelling books out as here comes Kyrgyzstan! Up until now, we've had three very different but enjoyable encounters in the Stans, with each country offering us something unique. But I think Kyrgyzstan probably gave us the most fully rounded experience so far. It certainly helped having two weeks here, giving us ample time to spread ourselves around and see what the country had to offer. I guess, like most of Central Asia, we didn't know what to expect upon arrival here, but we certainly leave with a whole pile of happy memories. 

When I last left off, we had a day left on our Pamir Highway tour, and were just about to cross over from Tajikistan. At the border itself, we had an experience that would ultimately be repeated many times over in Kyrgyzstan... Now, before coming here, I would've been surprised if many locals had ever even heard of Ireland, but when I handed my passport over to the control officer, he said two things:


...Conor McGregor!!!

As I said, this happened to us quite a lot! It seems that the UFC is huge in Kyrgyzstan, and even walking down the street, you'd see quite a few people with UFC hats and t-shirts. Well, at least they know we exist! I doubt your average Irish person could say much about Kyrgyzstan!

Our final stop on the Pamir Highway was probably the best of all as we spent the day on the shores of Lake Tulpar.

The lake itself was lovely, not to mention the surrounding mountains and wildlife. Only one day in and Kyrgyzstan had firmly put itself on the map. And it got even better! As usual, we were staying with a local family (who were really nice) and so, as we were leaving, Ais asked if she could get a picture with the mother. The woman hesitated and then walked away, and we were unsure if she was offended or didn't understand us, but after taking a few steps, she beckoned us to follow her to the family yurt. If she was getting her picture taken, she was going to do it in style!

The place was covered, floors and walls, with fine rugs and blankets, and she was only too proud to show it off. And even better again, after her photo shoot, she got Aisling and me to dress up in the local garb and get a few photos ourselves.

Pulling. It. Off.

And just when you think this woman couldn't get any better, she gave us a little present of a knitted teapot coaster! What a lovely gesture and it will definitely have pride of place on our coffee table.

She is seriously representing for the Kyrgyz people here!

On our way out of Lake Tulpar, we passed through the small village of Sary Mogul, which was a good place to stretch the old legs and see a bit of local life. And again the people were super! Asking where we were from, posing for pictures, and just generally being sound!

I know I've been championing the Kyrgyz people so far, and rightly so, but just like anywhere, if 99% of the people are great, that still leaves a few black sheep. And as we were continuing along the road from Sary Mogul, we encountered a military checkpoint and, long story short, they took our passports and refused to give them back unless we paid a fee (i.e. a bribe). Our driver, Amit, managed to bargain them down pricewise and, in the end, it was a drop in the ocean to us, but still it's the principle. I felt especially bad for Amit here as he is Kyrgyz himself, and so I'm sure he felt very embarrassed that his fellow countrymen would treat others like this. Anyway, an hour and a few dollars later, and we were back on the road.

Roads designed by MC Escher.

It was a short enough drive to the city of Osh, and that meant the end for our Pamir Highway tour and the end of our little Pamir family. The five of us had got on really well all week, and so it was sad to say goodbye, as we first dropped off and bid adieu to Sandra and Juan Luis, and then it was our turn to leave our driver, Amit, behind. And as we said goodbye, just like every evening for the past week, he repeated the few words of English he had, "Dinner, 7:30". A good joke, well executed.

So, it was time to see Osh! We got ourselves settled, freshened up after a week on the road, and headed out for something to eat. There was a restaurant just around the corner and so we went in, ordered and had a drink... only to be interrupted by a stranger a few minutes later.

"I am Amit's son. I am here to take you to dinner".

Wait, he was serious!? What we thought was a clever joke was actually an invitation for us to have dinner with his family that evening! I feel kinda bad for laughing now... But it wasn't just us, thankfully Sandra and Juan Luis also took it as a joke, and were as surprised as we were when Amit's son showed up at their hotel. It was a surprise, but a really nice one, and what a lovely gesture! Anyway, off we all went for dinner!

And what a lovely evening we had! I doubt Amit invites many of his tour groups out to dinner with his family, but I guess we're just unreal! We really did have a good week though, and even though he didn't have much English, we always made an effort to include him in our conversations, and were still able to have a laugh and a joke. Although, looking back now, maybe he was being serious the whole time...!

As for Osh itself, it was kind of a strange city, but still enjoyable. It doesn't have many attractions to speak of, and even the ones it does have were all a bit off...

Like a museum that looks more like a supervillain's layer:

Or an amusement park that looks abandoned, but isn't:

Or the airplane in the middle of said amusement park (it's not used for anything, it's just there):

Or the statue of Lenin:

Or any of the other abominations:

Still, we're suckers for a good ferris wheel:

By the way, another weird thing about Kyrgyzstan - we saw plastic bags everywhere from the British supermarket chain Morrisons. Things get a lot more bizarre when you realise Morrisons don't have any stores outside of the UK. So, how the hell did their bags end up here?! And I don't mean old rubbish bags on the scrap heap either. I'm talking brand new, hot off the presses, ready to be used bags. We saw them everywhere! Grocery stores, roadside vendors, we even got one ourselves while renting hiking gear!

I Googled this to see if there was a logical reason, or if we were just going mad, and found countless other blogs with people asking the same question! I even found a blog post about it from all the way back in 2011. And they even had a different bag design back then!

We still haven't figured it out... Maybe some preemptive brand awareness campaign for when they eventually set up in Kyrgyzstan.

After Osh, we made our way to the nation's capital of Bishkek. This was a bit more normal, and although there was nothing mindblowing here, it was a nice place to spend a few days.

Cool flag too - it's the sun, with the domed roof of a yurt at the centre.

After a few relaxing days of city life, we were ready to get our hands dirty again. We jumped on a minibus for a 6 hour journey to the Northern town of Karakol, which would be our base of operations for a three-day hike up to the mountain lake of Ala-Kul. 

Like Osh, Karakol itself was a funny little town, and they also had a fairground of their own - even more decrepit and run-down, but still inexplicably functional!

It was like something out of a horror movie!

The Ala-Kul hike was great though! The first day was a straightforward enough climb with a steep section at the end and an overnight stay in a yurt. The altitude wasn't much of a problem either, but the heat was tough going. I know I shouldn't complain about good weather, but it's not the most fun to hike in!

Day two offered a lot more pain, and a lot more gain, starting with a rocky upward climb to the lake itself. The worst of the day was ahead of us, but for now, we could bask in the majesty of that view, and that blue.

And here's a video diary too!

If it was a steep and rocky climb up, it was an even steeper and rockier slide down the other side. Usually the downhill bit is fun, but this was just too vertical to fully enjoy. Still, we made it down in one piece and continued onward.

The next part of the day was a more pleasant stroll through flatter and greener pastures, interrupted only by a coursing river blocking our path. In order to keep my feet dry, I opted for the potentially more embarrassing, but ultimately more badass approach.


Aisling took the more sensible route, shoes in hand, but ultimately stood barefoot in a pile of shit on the other side, so what's the real lesson here? It seems like there's an analogy for life in there somewhere...

After an unintentional detour through a forest, we finally made it to our pit stop for the day in the village of Altyn Arashan, complete with food, drink and natural hot springs.

We also had a bizarre conversation about Ireland with the owner of the yurt camp. Now, we were impressed that local people had heard of Conor McGregor and even knew that Ireland existed, but this guy took it to another level. He started by comparing Russian and Irish literature, remarking on the work of Beckett, Wilde and Shaw. He then starts telling us how he loves to listen to traditional Irish music, when this random woman chimes in from another table saying that her favourite song is Molly Malone! Who knew Irish culture was secretly thriving in rural Kyrgyzstan?!

The final day brought a much easier descent to the nearby town of Ak-Suu, where we could catch a bus back to Karakol. Now, we had rented a set of rain ponchos for ourselves before starting this hike, just on the off-chance that the weather would turn, but after two days of blue skies, we were feeling like we had spent money for nothing. So, in a strange way, we were glad to feel the raindrops falling on the final day, just to get our money's worth!

And that was kind of it for Kyrgyzstan! In the end, a surprise contender for our favourite country of the trip. We just really enjoyed the place - the friendly people, the incredible scenery and even the weird and wonderful attractions. Kyrgyzstan was bizarrely charming.

As we were flying out of Almaty in Kazakhstan, we said we'd spend a couple of days in town, just to get a very brief taste of the biggest of the Stans. Not a huge amount to report really, just a reasonably nice city, but similar to Kyrgyzstan, it wasn't without its little absurdities. Though this time, I felt they were a bit more intentional.

Like an upside down house:

Or a car filled with fruit:

Or, if you want a snack on the go, try a cup of lettuce and carrots:

Or why not get a picture with Kazakhstan's most famous sons:

The Beatles...! Maybe the sculptor misunderstood when they said they wanted a statue of Lenin.

And that was our quick stop in Kazakhstan! We weren't really in the country long enough to give any sort of detailed analysis, and the only place we visited was its largest city, which is never really going to be representative of the country as a whole, especially one the size of Kazakhstan. But I guess that just gives us an excuse to come back here again and see the place properly.

On a side note, what's the capital of Kazakhstan? If you said Almaty, you'd be wrong. If you said Astana, you'd also be wrong. As of March 2019, the city formerly known as Astana is now called Nur-Sultan. Fun fact! In other unrelated, name-changing news, Swaziland changed its name last year to Eswatini. Double fun fact!

Anyway, I've kinda gone off course here, but that's Central Asia done! A part of the world that we previously knew very little about, but one that we would wholeheartedly recommend to put on your to-do list. Each country has something unique to offer, and I'm sure in our 5 and a half weeks, we've barely even scratched the surface. For now, we're off home to Ireland for two weddings in two days, and then off once more to see Denmark and the Faroe Islands. See you there!

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