(A slightly-delayed post from the summer…be warned it’s a little long!)
Two weeks in Kyrgyzstan, a small, mountainous, partially “democratic” ex-Soviet republic in Central Asia – this land of soaring peaks and stunning green-carpeted vistas was the antidote to our city-hopping in Uzbekistan. Two weeks turned out to be not nearly long enough to explore properly as there are lots of places to go to, and travelling around is quite slow and frustrating. There is almost no public transport – between popular places there are shared taxis and minibuses, but as soon as you leave the most central highways, you’re utterly reliant on hitchhiking. More prepared travellers than us arranged car hire, and on balance this would have been a great idea, though apparently there are very few cars available to hire so you must book far ahead. Plus, the number of crashed-up car wrecks we passed on the side of the road suggests it’s not the safest place to drive… However, once we had managed to get to each place we wanted to visit, we had a fantastic time!
Here are my three highlights of our trip:
- National Horse Games, Kyzyl Oi
Once over the border to Kyrgyzstan, we hurried as fast as possible (using a variety of forms of transport) to Kyzyl Oi, a beautiful little village in the middle of the rocky Suusamyr valley, through which gurgled the roaring Suusamyr river. We had come here with one purpose: to see the National Horse Games of Kyrgyzstan. We were slightly nervous when we finally managed to reach Kyzyl Oi in the morning, because nobody in the surrounding villages seemed to have heard of any horse games taking place, which led us to believe that the small notice we had found on a website was perhaps mistaken. Luckily, it turned out that we had been right to put our trust in the site, as the festival was actually taking place!
Admittedly, the festival was not quite the “authentic” experience we might have wished for, but that actually didn’t bother me at all. It was a sort of showcase of various elements of different Kyrgyz festivals, all on one day – but that made it more interesting for us, and also I would have felt perhaps a little intrusive about attending a “real” festival just to stare. This set-up meant that we could ask questions about what was going on, and take as many photos as we liked and feel like as tourists we were actively wanted there, and that the village took joy in organising the day’s festivities. We met at the day a German anthropologist who had visited this same village the previous year in winter (when the big horse festivals take place) and she told us that in fact the set-up of the festival was exactly the same as the real deal, only at the real one different villages came to compete, whereas at ours it was different parts of the same village.
In the morning was a intriguing collection of demonstrations of Kyrgyz folk arts and traditions, for example dancing, performance of oral poetry, and ceremonies that take place at different points in a child’s development, such as the ceremony for when a baby takes it first steps. But it was the afternoon that really interested us – and the game of Ulak Tartysh that we had read about before arriving in the country – a sort of horse-back polo where the ball is replaced by a headless goat. This goat is so heavy that it can’t really be thrown, only dragged along with great difficulty by the riders, who compete in teams to try and get it into a goal. The young men of the village who were competing were really something to see – practically born in the saddle, they also showed us some other horse games – such as one where they compete to race along, picking up bags of money from the ground all while staying on the horse and looking graceful, and another where they wrestled on horseback. There was certainly no sense of “health & safety” at this day, and at more than one point the horses ran up into where the spectators were sat to an immediate scurrying away in all directions, and Rosie came within about a centimetre of having her ankle crushed by a thundering-past hoof, but luckily no one got too hurt. All in all a fascinating day!
2. Horse-trekking to Song-Kul lake
Horses are big in Kyrgyzstan. Like, really big. It’s a country where people have lived for thousands of years raising horses that were then traded all round the world. Many of these peoples only settled out of the nomadic lifestyles in the last fifty years, under Soviet pressure. So no trip to Kyrgyzstan would be complete without a bit of horse-riding…
Rosie and I were both complete novices so it was with some trepidation that we signed up for a three-day horse-trek to Song-Kul lake. Even though I came out with the firm conviction that horse-riding was really not for me, I’m very glad that we gave it a try – though my buttocks were KILLING for a long time after. We got to ride up through the peaks and jailoos and spend two nights in different yurt camps – the mountains (when not pouring with rain) were unimaginably peaceful and beautiful, and the yurts were cozy in the way nothing else can be when you’ve just spend god-knows-how-many hours being lumped around on top of a bumpy horse getting cold. They were warm, and soft, and filled with hot tea and fresh bread and fresh clotted cream and home-made Kyrgyz very sugary strawberry jam. We even tried a bit of Kumys, the Kyrgyz drink made of fermented mare’s milk. Again, worth a try, but we didn’t ask for seconds…
The dramatic part of the trek was after the second night in the yurts, when we woke up to find our guide had not tied up our horses properly and two of them had run away in the night. He spent a few hours searching for them before we decided that unless we wanted to spend the rest of our lives in yurts (probably not appealing!) we would have to take it in turns walking back. This really didn’t upset me too much as I felt much happier on my own two feet without a horse who kept trying to gallop off leaving me clinging to his reins in a panic! I still wonder whether those two horses are just having a nice time frolicking around up there, or if they managed to find them after we left… Horses are very expensive in Kyrgyzstan so I hope they did find them!
3. Hiking from Karakol to Ala-Kul lake
This was a breath-taking three-day/two-night hike that goes up to almost 4000m at one stage – definitely the highest point on the Earth that I have ever been in my life! The views over the glacial lake at that height were something I don’t expect to see again in a long time – and the fact that the second night we stayed in a yurt encampment conveniently located by a hot spring only made it better. I’ll leave the photos to demonstrate the beauty…
I’ve been recommending Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to just about everyone since I got back, so here’s a little practical advice for anyone in the planning stages of a trip. I’m adding it to this post really so that I don’t forget it in the future in case anyone asks!
- Cash/money: out of Bishkek it can be hard to access cash machines or exchange points. We brought USD in cash from London so never needed to withdraw, and then exchanged it when we got there into local currency, and that worked pretty well. You can exchange in any bank, but they all shut their currency exchange desks quite early (like 4pm), so always change money in mornings. Banks are pretty easy to find in any city, it’s just a pain if you’re out in the countryside and you run out of money… You might as well change all the money you think you might need in Bishkek at the start of the trip as the exchange rates are best there (though they don’t change THAT much around the rest of the country) – and you can always easily change any unused currency back into USD/GBP before you leave. I found it better to have too much local currency than not enough… Met some people with horror stories of running out of cash and not being able to eat etc!
- Kit: I made the mistaken assumption I would be able to buy things like rucksacks/waterproofs out there. This is most certainly not the case! Really bring any sort of kit you might need as it’s really really difficult to find places that sell even a simple poncho raincoat. On that note, it was freezing cold/raining up in the mountains in July though the conditions change so quickly though, so one minute it would be pouring with rain, the next it was pure sunshine. I definitely did not have the right kit and so got rather wet/cold a few times… Basically you will need clothes and so on to suit every temperature from blazing sun to pouring rain and there isn’t much way to get round this.
- Weather: on this note, the weather also changes quite a bit seasonally and this really affects what you can do. In the winter some of the passes are snowed over so you can’t even reach some areas, so do make sure to check what time of year you are thinking of going.
- Phone: get a local SIM card as soon as you arrive. They are super cheap – the SIM card itself is free, and then you basically pay per week of use. I think we paid about 1$ per week which included 1GB of data. There is hardly any WiFi so having access to data is really useful when trying to plan things, or to ring up to book accommodation ahead. The company we used was Beeline, but I think there were a few options…
- Accommodation: out of Bishkek/Osh there aren’t really any hostels/guesthouses, and we stayed in homestays the whole time organised through CBT. These tend to have a fixed price and include breakfast and dinner. However, the cooking can be a bit dodgy… We brought travel towels but I’m not sure we used them once as they give you a towel normally or you can ask for one. But basically, you can just ring up the CBT office a few hours before you arrive, they will work out where has free beds, and send you directions or meet you when you arrive. Homestays normally only had one plug socket per room so if you can bring any of those plugs with multiple USB sockets then that would be v useful.
- Time and transport: as I’ve said before, it takes FOREVER to get anywhere. In our two weeks we only manage to visit three places – most people we met were there for a month just in Kyrgyzstan. If you have more time to spend, you won’t regret it, if you like outdoorsy things like hiking and camping (this is the opposite to Uzbekistan where I probably wouldn’t recommend staying longer than two weeks).
- Travelling companions: while I reckon you could go to Uzbekistan on your own, I think Kyrgyzstan would be harder, simply because if you go hiking and hitch rides, it’s definitely better to be with other people. Because there aren’t that many tourists around, you can’t be guaranteed you will bump into other people on the way – though you probably will a lot of the time.