It was my cook duty day, so I got up early to ensure that I could help Keith take the tent down before reporting for action at 7.15. We are getting better at getting the Ritz down and in its bag, having been heavily coached by Richard, an overland veteran.
As the sun peeked over the distant hill several turkeys decided to provide a wake up call to any of those who might have considered lingering for an extra few minutes tussling with their sleeping bag. I don’t think Keith’s will ever be his ‘favourite’! Sleeping bag, that is.
Breakfast over, we made the bumpy journey back up to the road. The reservoir was behind us and we were back en route to Arslanbob. (The name means Lion Gate.). It was not long before we were again travelling up between craggy cliffs. To our side was a very turquoise blue water way. The reflections in the water were tremendous. After half an hour of trying to capture the view from the truck window, we had a camera stop which was unusual, but it was such a stunning sight. Unfortunately we find it is often difficult to really capture on camera the amazing scenes that we see because the landscape is so vast.
We eventually came across the reason that the waterway was so deep. A large dam blocked the way between two crags at one point, damming the water in the canyon and rendering the water level the other side very low. It looked a very Russian use of concrete. The stoney hills continued and a large conurbation appeared on the side of the now much lower river. It was like an oasis of green trees and houses in the middle of sandy coloured hills. Apparently it was a coal mining town. Kygyzstan has a number of coal mines of its own but imports coal from Kazakstan as well as the Kyrgyzstan road system is not good enough to enable them to get their own coal around the whole country. Coal is used for electricity and heating in the winter.
After a tunnel, the landscape changed abruptly and the earth was red. We saw our first cotton fields – more about which when we reach Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan can now be seen a couple of kilometres away over a barbed wire fence. It is ‘two sleeps’ before we reach the border.
The houses are noticeably more substantial now, often two stories and made of industrially made bricks rather than the red mud bricks that have formed the majority of the building material in the rural areas up until now.
Often houses are built around courtyards with large double gates providing a rather formal entrance. Roofs continue to be some sort of corrugated metal – often silver, grey, bright blue or green in colour. Frequently there is an open space under the roof covering stuffed with hay.
Suddenly the valley opened out again and a broad, dry river bed then appeared and remained with us when turned off what had been a dirt road for sometime onto a narrower dirt track. The road to Arslanbob. After a lunch stop taken under the shade of an abandoned petrol station, we were soon in the ‘metropolis’ that was Arslanbob, much to the mystification of the Arslanbobians. We might have landed from Mars, such was their seeming awe and interest.
This area was closed to outsiders until recently due to ethnic tensions, so very few tourists go there, if they do it is for trekking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Certainly people were much more conservatively dressed and there were no western fashions. Many women wore coats down to the ground with square shoulders in all sorts of materials (some quite exotically sparkly) and all wore the ubiquitous head scarf. Groups of elderly men with long beards sat in groups and we saw more day beds in use socially on verandahs and in cafés. We parked in what felt as though it should have been the market square although there was no market.
There were a few shops and food stalls around, but this seemed a town catering for its population not the random visitor.
Our accommodation for our overnight stop was in home stays. It is worth commenting on the home stay arrangements in Kyrgyzstan because it is an amazing system that seems to work well for everybody. Tourism is a key aspect of the country’s economic growth and so that as many local people as possible can benefit, an operation called CBT has set up a network of local families willing to provide a room or rooms in their homes for travellers to stay. There is usually a local co-ordinator who it seems is informed as you approach the town or village, often very late in the day due to signal issues, that you are coming and want accommodation for the night. I have visions that between the time that call comes through and your arrival there is a flurry of activity as rooms are requisitioned and old people are thrown out of their beds and areas are cleared so that when we arrive it all looks as if has been ready for ever. We saw evidence of this in our accommodation in Arslanbob.
When we arrived, Keith, Helen and I were shown into a large room that was, I would have said, originally an elegant salon or sitting room by its decoration. It had ornate ceiling and walls and a fairly modern sideboard with a mirrored area for glass and ornaments and another glass fronted cupboard along one wall ( now concealed by a curtain) and then a double bed and five beds on mats on the floor. An outer room had perhaps another five floor beds.
When we returned from a slightly more energetic walk than anticipated – our request for a short walk ‘so we can see more of the village’ was interpreted as ‘a high level walk so we can look down the village’ so two and a half hours later – the outer room had been turned into a Roman style feasting hall with a table about 6 inches off the ground groaning with food. I am never good at sitting cross legged for long periods of time and if you stuck your legs under the table they were in the person opposite’s face! All very tricky.
When we were eventually settled into our chosen sitting positions, ‘plov’ – the national dish of a sort of lamb and apricot pilaff – was served with home made bread followed by water melon. All very scrumptious but by the end of the meal I was crippled with cramp and hobbled off to our ‘bedroom’ for a night ‘a quatre’ with our jolly antipodean chums.