My second visit to Central Asia in 2008 started in Kazakhstan and brought me from there to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. As I needed to see something else besides Central Asia I finished the trip in India, my plan to visit Pakistan unfortunately failed.
Due to a lack of public transport I arrive in Karakol on the back of a vegetable truck late in the night coming from Kazakhstan. In 2003, I arrived at night as well and I found it a rough place where I tried to get off the street as quickly as possible so I ask the driver to drop me at Vladimir’s hostel. He doesn’t know the town and after some fruitless search just tells me that this is the place I am looking for. I know it’s not and find myself alone at night in Karakol without having any clue where I am. I am scared. One house still has light and I just knock on the door. “Hello, I am a stupid foreigner and I have no clue where I am, could you please help me and tell me how to get to Vladimir’s place?” The hostel is not far.
Ala-Kul Lake Trek
The thing that strikes me about Karakol is that nothing, absolutely nothing seems to have changed since I last visited five years ago. Nothing seems new, no building seems unfamiliar, just the potholes have grown a bit deeper. I enjoy the afternoon at the beach, lake Issyk-Kul is refreshing.
I meet two Israelis and together we head into the mountains. Last time I couldn’t do the trek to Ala-Kul Lake because of early snow, this time I want to reach it. Together that will be easier, especially as my new friends have cooking equipment which I lack. The tourism office has been active promoting the hiking. A new map has been published; in fact, it is the same 20-year-old Soviet military map but the walking paths have been added. The first stage involves hiking 20km into the mountains along a very rough road. After an hour of walking, we are lucky and a UAZ van comes our way. They offer to take us on. The ride is rough, the minivan has no seats and we struggle to hold on to something in the cargo hold. I never thought that a car could go on a “road” like this. Twice we have to stop as something has to be fixed with the car. We walk for two hours more and prepare for the night. We have a good time together; it is amazing how many pictures I have of my Israeli friends laughing.
Our pace is slow. Matti and Maxim are both photo enthusiasts and Maxim alone carries six kilograms of camera equipment. Contrary to me, they do not constantly take pictures but they want to take the perfect shots. So, if they spot a good location the tripod comes out and we need half an hour or even more. They introduce the new technique of HDR to me. They also use fancy stuff like gray cards. In the afternoon of the second day we reach the breathtakingly beautiful Ala-Kul lake. The lake itself is at an altitude of 3,560m and our camping spot is even a bit higher. I have never slept that high and I never had such a cold night before. My equipment is bad, I have a tent that cost 10 € and I should not expect it to withstand any rain. I left home without a mattress and was glad that another traveller left one, a very cheap, very bad one, behind in Karakol. My sleeping back is more on the summer side of things. I keep waking up from the cold, in order to fall asleep again, I try to perform gymnastics while in my sleeping bag to get myself warm. After some time, I wake up again and the cycle repeats itself. The next morning, we spend hours taking pictures of the lake before crossing the 3,800m pass and descending to Altyn Arashan, night has already fallen as we arrive. The hot springs are a well-earned treat after the trek.
Cholpon-Ata – Bishkek
On the way to Bishkek, I stop in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan’s modest attempt at a resort town at lake Issyk-Kul’s beautiful beaches. Petroglyphs are also on offer. I stay in a cheap guesthouse which kind of doesn’t have a real toilet, very annoying. I limit my sightseeing in Bishkek, I have the feeling I explored the town in 2003 in enough depth.
A friend of mine is going to live for a year in Kyrgyzstan. She has just arrived and we take a few days to head to the high-altitude Song-Kul Lake. First, we stop in Kochkor and have a look at the animal market.
Kyrgyzstan differed from its Central Asian neighbours as it was the only former Soviet Republic where a functioning but fragile democracy developed. It has therefore often been the darling of the international aid community who found it easy to work with and worth supporting. Song-Kul also has numerous community tourism initiatives where local herders are being trained to accommodate tourists to generate a second income. You go to an agency, say what you want and off you go. Prices are low, if I remember correctly, we pay 2$ for every day our driver stays with us at the lake. Labour is cheap in Kyrgyzstan.
Song-Kul lies at an altitude of 3016m surrounded by gentle mountains that rise only a few hundred metres higher. The landscape is barren, only grassland, no trees, no bushes, no nothing, it has something open and magical. There are no permanent settlements, the herders with their sheep, cows and horses come in early summer and leave in early autumn. We stay in a yurt and a local family cooks for us. One morning we take horses but they do not really like to walk uphill, walking is more fun for me.
Osh and the Pamir Highway
From Song-Kul we head back to Bishkek and I head straight on to Osh. As five years ago there are no buses between the northern and southern part of Kyrgyzstan. It is still shared taxi territory. Ibrahim is a good driver and I like talking with him, in the last part we drive into the night and time and again we see cars, lorries, bicycles and everything without lights. Ibrahim drily remarks how cheap the bulbs are but they probably still cost more than a life is worth.
I head to the same guesthouse I stayed last time. Things have become more professional. I hope to meet some other travellers to share a vehicle on the Pamir Highway into Tajikistan. I am lucky, I meet four guys from Munich and in the end, two Americans join us as well. It is one of the trusted UAZ vans and besides us we have plenty of cargo bound for Murgab. We drive over a high pass that is not paved, there are few cars on the road, traffic is nearly exclusively Chinese trucks bringing Chinese goods. In Central Asia people distinguish between “normal Chinese” and “Dubai Chinese”. “Dubai Chinese” means things of decent quality that are usually destined to go to Europe via Dubai. “Normal Chinese” is substandard fare being dumped on Central Asia. We stay the night in Sary-Tash and the next morning proceed into the Pamir.