Central Asia · My Travel Pawprints

Kyrgyzstan, July 2015

I have been dreaming about setting foot on the exotic lands of central asia for the longest time, however, since I am unable to find company interested in traveling this region, it was relegated to the bottom of my travel bucket list. I guess it is to be expected that “sexy metropolitan cities” like Tokyo, Seoul, London are much more popular travel destinations. I love these cities too, but at the same time, I would like to build a travel palette that is more varied. So when I came across an online notice of a group of female travelers looking to form a customized tour to Kyrgyzstan, I jumped at the chance.

Kyrgyzstan, one of the 5 “stans” formed after the collapse of the soviet union in 1991, is the only central asian country that does not require travel visa. It took me 3 flight changes and 14 hrs to arrive at this country, quite a feat considering that I was traveling within the asian continent, when it takes just 12 hrs or so to fly direct to europe! I had to fly from singapore to Kuala Lumpur, and from Kuala Lumper to Almaty in Kazakhstan, and then from Almaty to the northern capital of Bishkek.

Here’s a map of my 12 day trip.  From Bishkek, we covered the whole loop around Issyk Kul Lake, traveling southwards before arriving at Osh, the southern capital with a predominantly Uzbek population (the northen capital of Bishkek has a predominant Kyrgic demographic) then we took an internal flight back to Bishkek.

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Kyrgyzstan proved to be a country of rugged, unspoilt lanscape of beauty with harsh weather conditions. I could be baking in the 48 degrees Celsius heat in Bishek one day, and huddling under layers of blanket in a freezing yurt at Lake Issyk Kul region 2 days later. This proved disorientating for us tropical folks and some of my travel mates promptly fell sick.

As expected, this is considered a “hardship tour” for me because of the lack of proper toilets (we do it in the bushes mostly) and also because of the food. The diet consists of mainly beef and mutton, both of which I do not take. The bread, jam, melons and cucumber salads served were really sweet and fresh, but there were usually a million flies feasting on these before we start  our meals. This is a norm in this country and so in order to get enough energy to tackle the treks and hikes on the rough terrain, I had to close not one, but both eyes during meal times! I was told that these flies are harmless and that the “bacteria-carrying” type of flies are green in color, not black like these. Sounds like total bullshit really but hey, why start a fight over trivial matters like this 😉

Sanitation and food aside, I was totally mesmerized by the magnificent views of mountains, lakes and grasslands of Kyrgyzstan. I will let my pictures do the talking :>

Trekking at ala achar gorge. It was quite a challenging trek for us city folks and I think my guide was amused/irritated when a couple of us kept asking questions like “Are we there yet? How long more to go?” Very typical Singaporeans we are 😉 Her standard reply was “about half an hour more”, and  this answer would be repeated throughout the day for the whole 12 day trip. Haha!

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Burana Tower, a 11th century minaret, was 45m tall before an earthquake whittled it down to the current 25m. There was a legend about how a rich man constructed this tower to house his daughter so as to keep her from harm, as there was a prophecy about her downfall before she turns 16. No prizes for guessing that he did not succeed, some mishap did befall the poor lass on her 16th birthday. This story sounded like a cross between Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty.IMG_20150708_175230

Being creatures used to city comforts, we had asked for hotels with toilet facilities in each room. However, tourism is in its infancy stage in Kyrgyzstan and hotels are not widely available. As a result, we were able to enjoy the unique experiences of village home stays and  yurt stays. The catch is that we have to make do with outdoor toilets and scare ourselves silly with treks to toilets in the middle of the nights in pitch black darkness. The generators for electricity were turned on for only a few hours each night.

Here’s the family who hosted our homestay at chon kemin. The son is a language student at the University of Bishkek. He was also our guide for the horse riding session.
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What a colorful spread! A typical Kyrgic meal starts off with an assortment of mouthwatering homemade berry jams, freshly baked bread, the sweetest melons, and crunchy cucumber/tomato salads.
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The matron kept filling up our plates with this yummy plov and wouldn’t take no for an answer!IMG_20150708_203726

Horse riding through the lovely field of flowers.IMG_20150709_095351

Being a non-rider, I was a bit nervous at first and resorted to patting and talking to my horse in hope that it will be a tame ride. Seemed to work!
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Next up, we moved on to lake Issyk Kul, the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world and had our very first yurt stay!IMG_20150711_081439

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Very cosy in the yurt, but the icy cold air at night made breathing really difficult! I also thought the many layers of blanket were really heavy and made turning in bed quite a feat.IMG_20150711_093147

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The “sky window” or “tunduk” of Kyrgic yurts. This design is unique to Kyrgic yurts and apparently, this is what sets them apart from Mongolian or yurts of other nationalities. The tunduk design appears on the national flag of Kyrgyzstan, a nod to the nomadic culture of the people.  It requires quite a bit of skill to lift up the flap so as to allow natural light into the yurt. Covering up proved just as laborious. We were often left panting after numerous yanks with the ropes and heavy felt coverings. Yours truly is proud to mention that I managed to master the skill. Hey, who knows, maybe I have nomadic blood in me! :pIMG_20150711_083526

The view right outside my yurt. I felt really thankful for all that life has to offer when I set sight on this scene. What more can one ask for in life?IMG_20150710_165222

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Our second trek of the trip was a 12km trek to the Jeti Oguz, here we go….IMG_20150711_110259

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The Jeti Oguz, or bull’s head glacier. No idea why it’s called that because I cannot see any slight resemblance to a bull’s head at all. But who cares really, this is a picture perfect moment is it not?IMG_20150711_113838

Checking out of the yurts, we continued our journey and passed by this wooden church . Like most religious institutions, its fate changes depending on the political situation and who’s in charge. So throughout the years, it has switched from being a church to gymnasium, to a school and then back to a church. The crosses on top have been replaced with soviet flags and then reverted back to crosses again. No picture takings inside allowed. This church seemed to be frequented mainly by pious old ladies in traditional and conservative dressings.IMG_20150711_162947

We then visited the golden eagle man. Falcony is one of the traditional sports in Kyrgyzstan, and this skill of hunting with eagles is passed down through the generations. We visited during the off-hunting season. Females are used for hunting because they are larger in size. They can grow up to 9kg with a life span of 30 years. This one here, named sareejee (not sure of the spelling), is 9 years old and weighs 5, 6kg. She was caught at age 5 and will be kept in service for 10 more years before being eased back into the wild. The Kyrics recognized that eagles belong to the wild and hence do not keep them for more than 15 years.IMG_20150712_144346

Here’s me feeling really anxious, but still trying to ham it up for the cameras.IMG_20150712_143741

The predator’s kills.

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Lynx on the left, foxes on the right.IMG_20150712_131726

Taking leave of the eagle man, we passed by a Sunday cattle market at Kochkor. My travel mates were really excited about this and got all trigger happy with their cameras. I didn’t linger around too long because it was really really hot and dusty! I also started developing a strong urge to bring the baby lambs home as pets which of course I

couldn’t :<

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A breeder with the traditional Kyric hat. He gamely posed for me and was excited to see himself on my camera screen. Too bad I do not speak his language and so we could not communicate much.
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The highlight of the trip, Lake Songkul. At 3013m above sea level, this lake is a real beauty, but not easily accessible.IMG_20150713_120927

Our 2nd yurt stay
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I thought I have just discovered heaven on earth and can just sit here for hours, enjoying the view. I didn’t though, because the sun was also pretty lethal.IMG_20150713_134852

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2nd horse riding session, at Lake Songkul, I am now pretty comfortable with horse riding and am not afraid to go faster! Yipee yay!!IMG_20150713_154714

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Never imagined I’ll have the opportunity to roam the grasslands and take in the magnificence of the plains on horseback. It was a thoroughly liberating feel and one of the best experiences of life so far. I am going to do a horse riding trip in mongolia one of these days! Getting very excited just thinking of it.IMG_20150713_172724

View on horseback. A car hurtling across the grasslands, leaving a trial of dust behind as it passes. Where are you going and what business are you attending to on this heaven on earth?IMG_20150713_172506

Continuing our journey down south, we stayed at a village home of a Uzbek family. The 3rd son in law (in orange shirt) of the family patriarch was our guide cum driver for this trip to 2 waterfalls. He drove us through the super rocky paths in this 1971 russian made jeep. I couldn’t believe how hardy this vintage baby, which is even older than me, is! Its driver is indeed the Michael Schumacher of this terrain and I think he can definitely give Mr S  a run for his money. After this extremely bumpy ride which felt like some kind of X games Kyrgyzstan, I think some of my internal organs changed positions within my body.IMG_20150716_094901

Locals selling “kurut”, or milk balls. Horse milk mixed with salt and flour and baked under the sun til it solidifies. Let’s just say this requires an acquired taste.
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This drink here, “kumis”, or fermented mare’s milk, is placed in a sheep skin sac which apparently enhances the taste of the milk. It is stirred occasionally with a plant’s stem for 4, 5 days and is good for digestion.IMG_20150716_113653

It has a sour, pungent taste. Quite alright for me though, because I think it tastes very much like traditional chinese medicine, which I am not too adverse to.IMG_20150716_113709

Here begins the long and treacherous hike up to our 1st waterfall. The toughest climb of my life so far. Busted my lungs going up, busted my guts coming down the steep path of loose rocks. 2h trek. I kept falling and sliding the guide had to help me all the way down. He even asked “are there no such paths in singapore? ”

Er, no.

I was quite flustered and thought “Shut it you arrogant, sure-footed man who moves through the terrain so briskly you’re just like a mountain goat!!!” But  since I depended on him to get back home safely, I continued meekly with his help. 😉IMG_20150716_101239

The 1st waterfall
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The 2nd waterfallIMG_20150716_152302

Never thought I’d be able to experience what it’s like to stand under a waterfall like so. Weee!! Very cold and quite painful with the water pressure, but still…..weeee!!!
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After we left the village, we drove on to Osh and passed by many pretty sunflower fields.IMG_20150717_111107

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On hari raya, we visited a holy site for Muslims. This is a pilgrimage place for many who want to perform the haj. The only UNESCO heritage site in Kyrgyzstan.
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These mountains are believed to be able to cure ailments like infertility, joint aches, head aches.IMG_20150717_151657

Osh was quite boring for me, and with a shootout between Syrian terrorists and Kyrgic security forces 2 days back in Bishkek, the Osh bazaar was closed. So Sulaiman’s mountain was the only attraction we went to before flying back to Bishkek for the city tour. It was 48 deg Celsius in Bishkek which made the tour really painful. Here’s Mr Lenin….IMG_20150718_114119

Change of guards outside the museum.IMG_20150718_115848

Soviet remnants  in the museumIMG_20150718_124243

Soviet style buildings, look kind of dreary.IMG_20150708_150719

Farewell lunch with local folklore performance by this group “Dastan”.IMG_20150718_140230

After struggling through the city tour under the sweltering heat, I flew back to Singapore with precious memories of my 1st central asian tour. My travel mates were speaking of visiting Uzbekistan together with Tajikistan next. Some even encouraged me to visit Xinjiang next door, which they had already toured and gave praise of her colorful culture. A million thoughts and ideas swirled in my mind as I dozed off on the plane, dreaming of my next adventure in more exotic lands….

 

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