Saturday the road to Song Kul

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.

Friday to Naryn

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.

Sunday a day by the lake

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…….