It rained overnight but had stopped by the time I got up ready to take my turn at cooking duty. It was not a good start to the day as I was caught up in a misunderstanding over what constituted a pancake. I can only refer to it as the pancake wars! I was heading down the thin Shrove Tuesday variety and Richard, my Australian cooking duty buddy, was going for the thick American style. The American approach won, but was not popular in all quarters. I just kept making pancakes.
By the time we struck camp it was raining again, so the journey back down the road and getting out of the truck to enable it to go over the bridges was not quite so much fun……
By the time we reached Karakol it was pouring. The ladies with whom we had been sharing our Yurt, and Elizabeth and Ken, had already pulled out of the Altyn Arashan trip. Wendy and Sarah both had bad colds. We seriously considered it as the rain was torrential and the route up was in any event too much for Penelope and we were going to be taken there in old Russian troop people carriers with the capacity to cope with the terrain (more of which later!). We felt the journey was not going to be improved by the weather.
In the end we decided to stick with it. By the time we had been to the market to find some lunch we were soaked and it would be fair to say it was not our best hour. However, there were interesting features to note. Karakol boasts a good coffee shop (I am told), a Turkish bakery and a huge market. The market goes on for ever! Many of the ‘stalls’ are housed in old containers with their ends removed. I have to say that the people of Kyrgystan seem to be quite creative with their use of containers. Why so many of them seem to have found their resting place here is beyond me, knowing how closely they are tracked by shipping companies, but we have seen them used as houses, offices, workshops and just parked (almost for a rainy day!) during our travels.
Anyway, back to our next move. As the truck could not get up to Altyn Arashan, it was going to be parked in the home stay where we would be staying later in the week. We were, therefore, transported there to collect what we needed for two overnights in the mountains and to board our very butch, if rather battered Russian trucks. The home stay looked delightful with yet another garden of English flowers. The sun had by now emerged and everything looked very fresh and it was very tempting to pass on what was advertised as a very bumpy route to the ‘spa resort’ high up in the mountains.
However, we sorted our packs and grabbed our sleeping bags and we were off. We had two trucks, somewhat in excess of our requirements given our reduced numbers. The vehicles looked like two rather battle scarred mongrels, but you would not have picked an argument with either of the drivers who looked as Russian and tough as old boots as the vehicles, both of which were needed to take us on the route up to the ‘spa’. It did not improve our enthusiasm for the excursion!
In the trucks there were several battered rows of seating, the inevitable absence of seat belts and occasional arm rests, but they did have sacking curtains which was a nice touch, I thought initially, but later wondered if it was to blinker us from panic caused by the terrain! Another interesting feature was the camouflage paint on the outside. From whom or what we were camouflaging ourselves I was not quite certain.
So we set off for what was, after the early sanity of Karacol suburbia, probably the most gruelling and bumpiest ride of my life. Once out of town, we were on a rocky track over which we pitched and rolled. The route switched back and forth as it tacked up the mountain on a path which would have proved a challenge to any self respecting mountain goat. Inside the truck we lurched and bounced for the two and a half hours it took to get to our destination.
Saied had explained that the current owner had taken over the spa when it had been in a state of dilapidation and no-one had been interested in it and had spent a lot of money on it, so we were quite excited at the prospect. Apparently there is something of a dispute going on with the local authorities as to who should mend the road up to it. It all sounded good and worth the drive.
I have to say that the Altyn Arashan valley is absolutely stunning. Another narrow valley with steep sloping hills of spruce leading down to a flatland where stock grazed and there was the occasional yurt. However, I am not certain where the money had been spent on the ‘spa’. I don’t know how much the chap spent but he certainly did not get good value from his contractors. The first impression was of an abandoned cluster of hovels with a rather up market fence along one side of the compound. Dogs prowled around and there was an ancient truck next to where we parked that we looked down on when we arrived only to be confronted with a dismembered and bloody head and shoulders of a dead horse on its roof. Not quite Tunbridge Wells Spa Hotel material (even if I don’t like their choice of carpets!).
We clambered down from the truck – it was a good two foot jump – and grabbed our bags. The accommodation offered was a ‘dormitory’ of 10 beds and a three bedded room in a new two roomed block made of plastic wood (because there isn’t any real wood about!) with rather impressive front doors – complete with door knockers! We opted to share with Emma, the trip guide, the three bedded room. It was the door knocker that swung it for me! Just to add to the general ambiance of decay, the manager on duty was apparently drunk – not that we saw him.
Anyway. Bags deposited to lay claim to our room, we went to help set up our kitchen which we had brought with us from the truck. It was a bit tricky as the dining room area where we were also going to cook was full of all sorts of people and you reached it via a table tennis area (game in progress) with a lady dealing with the entrails of a sheep in the corner in a bucket ……
All this aside, the valley was beautiful and offered a wonderful walking opportunity. Once again a big snowy mountain peeped put behind others in the far distance.
With the aid of head torches – a generator coughed into life for approximately two hours between 7.30 and 9.30 – a very acceptable meal came together and we adjourned to bed after an exciting game of dominoes. We know how to live!!