We’re back after a six day digital fast. Has anything happened that we need to know about?
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan has a population of nearly one million. They also have a great market where once again dried fruits, nuts and spices take centre stage, along with a wonderful range of fresh fruits and vegetables and breads and cakes. However it is all downhill from there. Intrepid has planned a ‘wonderful ‘ day in 32 degree heat walking between a series of World War Two memorials and Soviet era architecture. It does not go down well with the group even though we have our old Chinese tour leader’s mantra “think positive” still ringing in our ears. A quirk of Kyrgyzstan is that people drive left and right hand depending on whether their cars came from Europe or Japan.
Out of the city again things pick up when we are treated to a display of local horsemanship. This comprises four ‘games’. The first is picking up a small object from the ground while riding at speed. The second is horseback wrestling where you try to pull your opponent from their horse. Then there is horse racing which is more Man from Snowy River than Melbourne Cup. Finally there is a game of dead goat polo where the object is to scoop up the headless dead goat from the ground and deposit it in a large receptacle at the end of the ground. Of course the other team will be trying to prevent you from getting there. Sounds pretty grim but actually it was very exciting and the horsemen were very skilled and extremely competitive. The whips they carried were used on the horses and their opponents but were held between their teeth for much of the game.
Kyrgyzstan is a very poor country. The average wage is approximately AU $300 per month, however food and alcohol are very cheap. You can buy a block of butter or cheese or a magnum type icecream for a dollar. Vodka is $6-8 per bottle. When Kyrgyzstan achieved its independence during the breakup of the Soviet Union unfortunately all the factories that provided work for the population closed down as the Soviet Government had provided economic subsidies. These huge factories are now empty and neglected eyesores and many of the men work in Moscow leaving their wives and children behind. Another factor in Kyrgyzstan’s economy is the fact that it is 95% mountainous, parts of it snow covered all year long.
Intrepid is making a difference by employing local guides and drivers. We also lunched at a local home where the income provided from this source was displayed in the new air conditioner, curtains, double toilet and luxury yurt in the back yard. Accommodation can also be in homestays where both a bed for the night, dinner and breakfast are provided by a local family. It also gives us an insight into the life of normal Kyrg families and small towns.
The yurt stay is both a way of helping the local nomadic people and gaining an understanding of their lives. The traditional seasonal herding lifestyle is still intact despite the Islamic and Soviet influences After a climb to 3500 feet through snow banks melting onto the road we could see Lake Sol Kok and our accommodation for the night in the distance. Inside the yurt it is surprisingly warm. There is a wood heater, colourful thick felt rugs on the floor and decorative felt panels lining the interior. We will be sleeping on beds piled high with quilts. We were welcomed with a cup of hot tea and a lunch of white fish caught from the nearby lake, potatoes and salad. Kyrgs love everything sugary. On the table will be honey, honey sugar, jam, sugar cubes, sweets and chocolates. There is little evidence of obesity as they live such busy outdoor lives however their dental health may be another story. Their national food is the yoghurt ball which we didn’t taste based on the reaction of those who tried first. Said to be like eating salty chalk. The other gourmet delight sold by the side of the road in vast quantities is fermented mares milk, said to be wonderful for clearing the gut and returning you to first rate health. Once again we abstained after being told westerners often reacted with diarrhoea. Not something we want with so many days on the road. The camp is in a very exposed area of grassland by the lake surrounded by mountains on the other side. The wind whistles and thunder crackles overhead. Nearby some local nomadic people are assembling a yurt cobbled together with pieces of canvas, plastic sheets and felt. It has obviously been in the family for years and is looking the worse for wear. The grandma is giving instructions for assembly while the grandfather is doing running repairs on the willow frame. In the distance the sheep herd moves towards us and by the lake is a herd of horses with a number of foals. What an experience!!
Breakfast is wonderful. Bread made before our eyes last night on a wood fired oven, porridge, donuts and buckwheat pancakes with homemade jam. Then it’s off on a bone jangling 6 hour ride through the steppes, slipping and sliding up the road, even through snow drifts in this early part of summer, to our home stay near the boiling pounding waters of the Kokomeren River. This river offers rapids from rating one to six for white water enthusiasts.
Kyzyl-Oi, our stop for another night is a tiny riverside village deriving its income from herding and tourist homestays. Apart from a small shop selling things like drinks and socks the locals must wait for the weekly visit of a truck from Bishkek which sells fresh food and ingredients for cooking like flour and sugar. At night there is quite a show when the cows are herded, by horseback riders, through the village, peeling off to the various homes where their owners are waiting to milk them.
Our epic journey continues as we climb to a cold and snowy mountain pass, the highest of our journey then down through the fertile, broad Suusamyr Valley once again dotted with yurts.
Our final destination before we pass from Osh into Uzbekistan is the UNESCO listed Sary Chelek National Park. This is yet another stunning landscape of walnut forests with lush undergrowth including the nodding purple heads of wild garlic. Towering over this is velvety green swathed mountainsides. Our accommodation in Arkyt Village, is yet another community homestay complete with a tribe of kids playing unsupervised and perilously close to another rushing mountain stream. Later we see the same group of four aged from 5 down to 2 pushing a baby of about 8 months harnessed into a pram with once again not an adult in sight. There is a barn with calves and chickens within view of our bedroom window. You couldn’t dream this up.
Now we’re off to Uzbekistan!