The gushing water was the first sound of the day. We had decided to walk up the valley towards the snow covered peaks we had seen as we had travelled up to the camp site at Diety Orgus. Having consulted Saied we knew we were in for a long walk if we were to reach the point where the valley opened out and the snow capped mountains would be fully in view.
After breakfast we packed up food for lunch and by 9.15 we were leaving the camp. Our route took us up through the natural spruce pine forest and followed the stream, which we were to do all day. Three times we crossed the river and gradually worked our way up the valley.
At one point two horsemen appeared on the track coming towards us. In our usual friendly greeting, we waved and one got off his horse and said I should get on it for a photograph. Always one to try to get out of a photo opportunity, I reluctantly complied. Now I know I may no longer have the spring into saddle that I might have had once, but I still do not think it was necessary for him to place a large hand on my bottom to get me into the saddle….. I am not sure if Keith tipped the man for allowing me to sit on his horse for a photograph or for the look on my face as I was helped into my seat. Either way they shook hands thoroughly once cash had been exchanged to seal the deal!
We continued up the valley. There were horses, cattle and sheep grazing with the occasional goat intermingled. We rarely saw stockmen on their horses. Supervision of their charges seems very cavalier to me. The river continued to gush down along side us. The walls of the valley are lined with a natural spruce forest. Now and then there are clear gunnels running down from the hill or mountain top to the valley floor, apparently where at some stage in the past there has been an avalanche which has wiped out all the trees in its path. This seems to have created a natural fire wall every so often and shows a patch of light green in the otherwise towering dark green blanket of pines.
We eventually climbed up to a dividing of the ways and turned right. All of a sudden a new valley opened up in front of us – this one much broader. The scenery was amazing. It was definitely Sound of Music or Heidi material, it was magical just walking along the valley floor. About three hours after we started out we stopped for lunch. The sun shone down and a snow covered mountain peaked over the shoulders of the two mountains in front of it. We started out on our journey back. As we neared our camp we picked up fir cones and tinder for the camp fire. We felt we were thoroughly deserving of the large beer we consumed when we got back to the camp. A great walk and a good day.
It was still only mid afternoon, so I spent a happy hour or so writing up the diary and enjoying my beer.
After contributing to the chopping and chipping for supper, the meal consumed, I adjourned to consider the wardrobe for the next couple of days as we are going straight on to another two days of ‘outward boundness’. I think it is the first time on the trip that I have felt a bit overwhelmed with the challenge of finding enough clean warm clothes for the next stage when there has not been an opportunity to turn things around in the washing department. I eventually juggled the options until exhausted from a 15 mile hike and the clean clothes challenge I adjourned to bed.
Rain is forecast for tomorrow…….
The day started well. Breakfast in our ‘home stay’ and then off Kochkor town to take on supplies prior to setting off to our next camp site. I visited the felt co-operative again and made one or two Christmas present purchases. I feel very virtuous, Our felt making teacher was very excited that products from Kyrsygstan were going to England. It makes one feel very humble.
Once purchases had been made and supplies stowed away, we set off for Lake Issyk Kul. We had actually seen this lake in the distance when we arrived in Kyrgystan several days ago, just after we crossed the border from China. This time we travelled along the south side of the lake.
From the road it looks and feels like the seaside. The lake is poised between two mountain ranges and is 45 mikes wide and 150 miles long and is the second largest alpine lake in the world. Apparently it never freezes despite the extreme cold of the area in winter. It obviously had a very interesting history when Kyrgystan was part of Russia as it was a popular holiday resort of the Soviet hierarchy. It was off limits then to foreigners as it is said that officially sanctioned opium and cannabis growing took place around the lakes shore.
Our route initially followed the lake edge with cliffs on our right hand side. These gave way to sandy hills, then scrubland and eventually villages, but all the time there was a backdrop of snow covered mountain peaks in the distance. However, we gradually pulled away from the lake edge and there were cultivated fields between us and the water. In the villages colourful rugs and counter panes were thrown over picket fences to air. Occasionally we came across stirring Russian military sculptures of chaps in heroic stances and the skeletons of houses with empty doors and windows, either abandoned having outlived their era of usefulness or having never realised their potential.
After some time we turned right towards the mountains and started to follow one of the many rivers that feed into the lake. The water tumbled noisily over stones and boulders and was to provide our musical accompaniment for the next two days. The track was pretty stoney and Penelope bucked and dipped for several kilometres. We then came to the first bridge crossing the river and we all had to get out and walk as the bridge and the next three were not considered safe enough to cross with us on board. It was slow progress and a relief when each crossing was accomplished successfully.
We eventually made it to our riverside camp site, called Diety Orgus. A lovely spot with the stream gushing along on one side and pine covered hills all around. There were a few Yurts in evidence but no-one around. It looked a bit like the Marie Celeste, Kyrgystan mountain style. Eventually a lady was found and she kindly agreed to open up the Yurts to those of us who wanted to upgrade from tents, even though it is passed the end of the season and all the bedding had already been sent down to the lower ground prior to the Yurts themselves being dismantled for the winter.
Once again we decided to pass on the opportunity to spend a night in the Ritz and ‘upgrade’ to a Yurt. Luxury!
The evening was a little bit special as it was Emma, our trip guide’s birthday. A card was produced and Keith and Diane had found a very exotic cake in Korchkor and Simon found a very large white household candle…. A birthday on the road.
We slept with the sound of the loud burbling stream. No dung powered stoves in this Yurt, but overall it feels warmer than our previous camps.
Another beautiful day in paradise! We woke up to a bracing day awash with sunshine. We have been so lucky with the weather so far, despite the dire warnings of snow. It is great for us but I think the stock are suffering from the dry pastureland. Saied (apparently the right spelling of his name) says that it is usually much greener at this stage of the year.
We have come to the conclusion that Kyrgystan is an unknown gem of a tourist spot. The scenery is wonderful and the people lovely, if a little startlingly well endowed with gold fillings in their front teeth! Apparently an indication of wealth…….
Everything was packed up and we started our journey off the plateau. The route back was, for some time, the same as our route up and equally hard on the truck. Progress was slow as we crawled around the steep hair pin bends of the road to first the higher and then lower pass. Luckily there is very little traffic and we do not have to move over to the edge of the road too frequently.
As we reached the lower pastureland there were people in the fields with scythes cutting the hay and leaving it in heaps to dry. They must have been working the land in this way for centuries. Once again almost a medieval scene.
It is the 1st September and the first day of the school term. The school children we saw were very smart in black and white uniforms. Even the smallest girls wear black dresses with frilly aprons over the top and white bows in their hair. I think there could be the odd flutter of feathers in the woodcot in the UK if young girls up the age of 10 or 11 were required to dress in this way for school!
We headed right when we reached the valley bottom, away from Naryn and onto Kochkor. Our first stop was at the felt makers, where we had a fun lady teach us the art of felt making, quite key to Yurt living. The wooden frame of the Yurt tent is lined with felt and it is a vital aspect of the nomadic people of Kyrgystan. The felt makers were a co- operative of women from the area, so it was good to support them. No designer items for the Kyrgystan miss!
Having spent a jolly hour learning the art of felt making at a local women’s co-operative – should we ever need it – we were carried off to yet another ‘home stay’, but sadly not in the same league as our last one. It seemed that a whole row of houses had given over rooms to paying guests and our family lived in a sort of room in the yard. The view from the front of the house was tremendous – a complete range of haughty mountains with a row of hills in front. The room in which we slept was covered on both floor and walls with felt rugs and patchwork in a dizzying array of colours. Wouldn’t be easy on the eye to wake up there after a heavy nights drinking!
The afternoon was spent washing – both ourselves and our clothes. These pit stops between camping sessions are vital to our cleaning regime and help me maintain my equilibrium. There is only so much you can do with a wipe!!
Supper was at one of the home stay houses. The table was laid out in what we have come to know as the Kyrgystan style – bedecked with fruit, sweets, biscuits and preserves of all sorts. They even put jam in their tea! We tucked into soup followed by spaghetti – a little odd but good and savoury. Our vegetarian Australian ladies had a fried egg with rice. Not so exciting!
We wandered back to our room, folded our washing and prepared for another two days under canvas.
This was to prove to be one of the most beautiful drives of the trip so far.
After another hearty breakfast, we left Naryn just after 9.00. The scenery was interesting and picturesque all day. Once Outside of Naryn the road became very basic with signs of the Chinese road building interventions, with huge road surfacing machines and associated earthworks very much in evidence. For some time we travelled along a mountain lined corridor which then opened out into a broad valley.
We passed several animal markets along the way where groups of nomads gathered to trade their animals. Goats, sheep, cattle and horses all seemed to be under discussion. The location seemed to be random – just a cross roads or roadside venue. There were no towns or villages around. As we gradually got higher there were the family yurts of the nomads who take their herds up to the high summer pastures. The climate is too harsh for them to stay up at this level and before the end of September they will be moving back down the valley. Apparently the snow can start any time from now.
Every now and then we saw a lone horseman looking down on the road from the top of the hill, silhouetted against the cloudless blue sky. They tended to be the herdsman and usually some way away we would see a large herd of animals. It all seemed a bit cavalier to me with the animals seeming to dictate where they went, but I am sure it was more scientific than it seemed. We had to slow at one point for a herd of horses to be driven across the road.
Eventually we left the road and started climbing a track which clung to the hillside to take us steeply up to the top of first one and then a second pass.
At the top, Simon stopped the truck so we could look down the valley and see our route snaking up through it. I think he had not got the truck out of second gear for a considerable time and the dust that our progress had created surrounded us in a halo of terracotta sand. En route we had seen a glacier with it’s ice twinkling in the sunlight at the top of a distant mountain. This was in stark contrast to the heat of the truck as all the windows had to be closed so we could breath. It was good to get out and to breathe the fresh air as we looked back over our route. Across the top of the plateau we could see lake Song Kul shining silver in the sunshine.
The inevitable lone horseman watched from his perch on the skyline as we marvelled at the view and took pictures. Keith went up to have a conversation with him and there was lots of pointing as he identified the territory his herd grazed, which was vast. The afternoon was moving on, so we piled back into the long suffering Penelope and set off to the lakeside, our camp for the next couple of nights.
We drove up and over the top of the hill and started our descent into the valley with the lake ahead. As we neared the lakeside we turned off the main track and took off bouncing over the pasturelands. Ahead we could see a large gathering of yurts that appeared to be set almost on the lake shore.
All around us large herds of sheep and goats cropped the pasture, but it was very dry and looked to supply very little nourishment. As we got closer to the Yurts we saw more horses and cattle.
When we arrived at the yurts we found they were actually quite a distance from the water and we were offered the opportunity to ‘upgrade’ from our tents to a yurt for our two night stay. We decided to take this option and abandon the Ritz (probably the only time in my life that I give up a Ritz overnight stay!), not least because a yurt is considerably warmer than a tent and we had been told that it could snow at any time.
We found ourselves, therefore, sharing with the Australian ladies, Wendy and Sara, which was great as we get on well with them. Having the Yurt was also useful as I was on cooking duty and it would have been difficult to help put the tent up and make supper.
The meal – a lasagne – was cooked in a Dutch oven over the fire with hot coals placed on the lid to brown the top. It was all very successful. We opened a bottle of the French wine we had found in Datong, so a very jolly meal was had by all.
The difficulty of our camp nights is that once the light has gone, the temperature falls rapidly. In these circumstances there is little alternative but to adjourn to bed, particularly when the stove has been lit inside your Yurt – the trouble is that it is often about 8.30 and there is a long night ahead!
We are still at circa 3,500 metres above sea level and breathing is quite hard at times particularly if you have been at all energetic.
We left the Tash Rabat valley soon after breakfast. It was another lovely day, although very cold first thing. I was up and out walking at 6.30 hoping to catch the sunrise. The sun came up and the charge had run out on my phone. C’est la vie!
Our journey took us to Naryn, a small Soviet town providing a stop over en route to our next camp by the Song Kul lake. It was a town slotted into a sort of canyon consisting mainly of one through road. Once again mountains towered over it on both sides. Our accommodation was in a ‘home stay’, a guest house in our terms. From the outside it looked like a communist concrete block. Once inside the rather grand double gates it was very different. The garden was full of roses and colourful petunias – the epitome of the English country garden. Inside the house there were generous sized rooms and a fully operational bathroom. You cannot imagine how much that was appreciated! Apparently in Soviet times it was a block of flats. It worked well as guest accommodation and the lady who ran it was lovely.
Having been allocated our rooms and dumped our bags, we cadged a lift on the truck down town to get some Kygystan money, called Som. You seem to get lots of hundreds to the pound. It was interesting to note that the exchange rate for US dollars and the Euro were advertised, but there was no mention of sterling. Now ‘in funds’ we set off to find a lunch stop and were delighted to be confronted with a crisp salad. Following lunch we took a quick walk to the ‘market’ which was basically an array of small shops, either in a collective housed in a large market hall or stalls set up by the side of the road. The different sectors – vegetables, dry foods, clothing – all seemed to have a different area. It is such a different place to China – from the ladies fashions (a mix of Muslim, colourful outfits and western fashion) to the cars, predominantly aged Lada’s in various stages of deterioration.
It was very warm, so we decided to walk back to base and catch up on ourselves. We walked along the tree lined main street, watching the people and peering into shop doorways.
After a quiet afternoon and a bit of laundry we once again faced the challenge of Kygy hospitality. Sure enough we arrived in the dining room to tables groaning with food and then even more food arrived!
It felt as though we were marking time in Naryn and girding our loins ready for our next camping expedition, but it was a good stopover and gave us the opportunity to settle in to Kygystan and it’s people, which has been a refreshing change. The country that we have seen so far has been beautiful and the people seem as if they have all been to charm school.
Although we have been in a predominantly Muslim territory since Kashgar, I heard the call to prayer for the first time.
31st August is Independence Day in Kyrgystan. It made kittle difference to our day by the lake which was just beautiful!
A cockerel crowing (as it seemed) in my left ear, woke me early. It had been a good night although occasionally interrupted by braying donkeys and yapping dogs.
It was very cold first thing, but by the time breakfast was over, the sun was bringing real heat to the day. After breakfast, we decided to take a walk along the lakeside and then turn in towards the hills and back to the camp. A good circular walk of circa three hours we thought. We found that Helen from Alice Springs and Peter, Keith’s bird watching buddy and an old friend of Helen’s, also wanted to walk, so we set off together.
The herds of sheep and goats, cattle and horses were all in evidence. Dogs of all shapes wandered around and chickens scratched in the dirt. Every now and then several young horsemen galloped past demonstrating their undoubted equestrian expertise.
Our walk first took us to the waters edge. Here cattle were being taken out on a narrow spit of land into the water. I am not sure of the reason for this but the reflections in the lake were delicious! For the first time I regretted not having a camera with a decent lens. We wandered along the lake edge for a bit. The water was very clear but the midges in the end drove us further inland.
Eventually the yurts for renting were left behind and there was just the single yurt homes of the nomadic herding families. As we swung round away from the lake towards the hills the ground began to slope and the lack of air became more apparent. Unlike Tash Rabat there were very few birds in evidence, but every now and then birds flew from the ground just ahead of where we were walking.
We walked back into our camp just in time for lunch. Post lunch there was a game of goat polo further along the lake. It sounded a bit like a boy thing to me, so I adjourned with my diary and a cool drink. It was very peaceful and the perfect setting with the lake in the background and occasional sheep and goat herds wandering past. Now and then the peace was disturbed when the polo game overshot and several horse men came thundering past only to disappear again in a cloud of dust.
Eventually the polo watchers returned and supper was set in motion. I offered the potato peelings to the chickens on the basis that the grass looks very unappetising – they have apparently had an exceptionally dry summer – but my overtures were rejected. However, the turkeys(!?!) who appeared a little later had no such qualms about potato off cuts and dug the peelings out of the fire where they had been placed to dispose of them. Luckily, at that stage, no fire had been started otherwise dinner would have taken on a very different dimension!!
Dinner consumed and the post sun set dramatic drop in temperature sent us ‘yurters’ off to a very early night enhanced by the dung filled stove burning away in our quarters. Interestingly the dung has no smell and sends out an amazing amount of warmth. Sadly it doesn’t last all night…….