I visited Kyrgyzstan in 2003 on a three-month trip travelling back to Germany from China overland that also brought me to Hong Kong, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia before ending in a Mad Dash Home to make it back in time for Christmas.
A word of warning. The quality of my pictures from this trip is bad, I was a bad photographer and I had an early digital 3,3 MP camera. Due to a shortage of memory cards I set the resolution down to 1 MP, what a mistake. Taken as memories from this trip, they are still quite enjoyable.
I will cover Kyrgyzstan only briefly, I visited again in 2008 and have much better pictures from that trip. I’ll focus on the things that are peculiar to the 2003 trip.
The break-up of the Soviet Union was a disaster for Central Asia, they were the weakest republics in the Union and they were aware of that fact. In March 1991 referendums were held if the Soviet Union should be preserved. In Kirghizia, as it was known then, 95,98 percent voted in favour. The decisions were made elsewhere and a few months later the USSR was history and the Central Asian countries had to go it alone. The break-up was managed badly. Instead of sticking together and maybe set-up a Central Asian Federation all countries went their own ways, borders and border control became the norm. The Soviet Union had rightly not given much importance to these already existing boundaries, railway lines and roads were built where the terrain was suited best and ended up straddling borders in many cases. Suddenly, visas were needed for everyday journeys. The Soviet economic system was centrally planned and so one republic produced this, the other republic produced that but none had an economy that could really stand on its own. After the break-up a common economic area would have been beneficial but that chance was missed, rather there was distrust and tit-for-tat conflicts. Why am I starting with this? Because to understand my experience in Kyrgyzstan and beyond it is essential to realize the decline in which the region was caught. Nearly everybody remembered the recent past as having been better, the options people had compared to 15 years ago were noticeably less enticing, the big majority just wanted the Soviet Union back and the infrastructure was crumbling.
I had planned 4 days for Kyrgyzstan mostly because one of my co-workers in St. Petersburg was born here and described it as dangerous. How little did she know.
In Central Asia in 2003 information you got from other travellers could be highly beneficial, organized hostels did not exist but people started to rent out spare rooms to travellers. Other travellers would give you descriptions, addresses, phone numbers to find the places. I travelled Kyrgyzstan with Gavin, an Englishman who was on a long trip home from Japan, we had met in China and were on the same bus over the border. In Osh we stayed in such a makeshift hostel which turned out to be a weird place. It was run by several guys who put a big emphasize on their Muslim religion. They strictly kept their prayer times and looked concerned as we brought a salami with us. It contained pork, we were allowed to eat it but we were not allowed to use their knife or plate. On the second evening, the stupid request by a Canadian couple if they could pay half-price if they would share a bed triggered a lengthy sermon about correct sexual manners. We moved on to Arslanbob, a small village in the mountains with a good ecotourism concept. A swiss development organization had helped set it up, local families were trained as hosts and others were trained as guides to show the tourists the beauty of the mountains, the walnut trees, the waterfalls. One, who spoke English, was the coordinator. It was very enjoyable but the stay with the family lefts me kind of upset. They treated us very nicely, the women cooked and the men of the house brought us food, tea, everything we needed. They were glad we stayed, but I felt guilty because of my privilege. I haven’t done anything in life except school and a tiny little bit of university but because of my birth in a rich country a family in Kyrgyzstan who have surely worked a lot more than I had, acted like my servants. It is unjust.
The road from south Kyrgyzstan to Bishkek is in bad condition and public transport has broken down. Shared taxis ply the route instead. We secure two seats on the car from Arslanbob straight to Bishkek. It is super-annoying, to save fuel the driver does not go faster than 50km/h, and we are in a hurry as we want to see the beautiful mountain scenery around the pass in daylight. We stop at some rest house to have something to eat, soon after two girls appear and sit down at the table next to us. Our driver points to them and says they just came because of you. Desperate times. On the pass there is a police checkpoint, the guys are quite rough and they say they are looking for drugs. Gavin has to take out all his belongings, all his money, the line between a policeman and a thief is slim. We get away unscathed. We arrive in Bishkek late in the night and ring the bell at some apartment that was recommended to us.
Bishkek is nothing to write home about. A few official buildings, a church and a lot of Soviet-style apartment blocks.
Better to get out into the nature again, we want to go to Karakol at the eastern end of famous lake Issyk-Kul. For the day we stop at some village on the northern shore and getting transportation from there is not so easy, all the minibuses pass, they are already full. Later a bus stops but it turns out to be an unpleasant ride. People are smoking on the bus, and one guy ends up sitting next to me and blowing the smoke into my face. He asks for money to stop, I tell him to fuck off. He loses his interest. Generally, it is a nice thing that everybody speaks Russian, allowing me to communicate. As we arrive in Karakol in the darkness we take a taxi, I want to leave the bus station as quickly and safely as possible. The next day we hike to the hot-springs of Altyn-Arashan, relaxing but the night is already cold in October.
I also entered Kazakhstan on this trip, there is no other connection from Bishkek to Tashkent. Only with a transit visa and only for a day. I spare you pictures, I visited Kazakhstan again in 2008 with a much better camera and took all of them again. While in Almaty I nearly became the victim of a crime. Two older man tried to play a trick on me, it goes the following way, one of them starts talking to you and suddenly he turns around and “finds” a wallet. This is full of money, various currencies, he takes it, has a look at it and offers to share. You can refuse and tell him to leave but he will just stick with you. After some time, another man approaches, says he is working for an exchange office, lost his wallet and someone saw us picking it up. Then your friend will say that you took the wallet. Then they both demand to see the wallet (which one of them has in his pocket). They immediately knew that I had a money belt on me (that was the moment I lost faith in them, never used one since) and demanded to see my money as they claimed the exchange office money was marked. I was stupid enough to get my money out but as one of them tried to grab it I held on to it tightly. They cursed at me and left. On to Uzbekistan.