There’s a cute song about partying it up at Issyk-köl in summer by Асхат Норузбаев. I’ve finally found a clip of it on youtube after almost a year of searching 🙂
It is indeed a beautiful drive along the lake shore. Issyk-köl is the second largest alpine lake in the world. It translates to “hot lake” as although it is surrounded by snow capped mountains it somehow never freezes. Jakob and I took the marshrutka heading along the northern shoreline to Karakol. Autumn was calling and the colours of the trees along the shore were brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange. It was great to have some company as I’d been on the road alone for so long. Jakob spoke Russian and English so that helped things, and being a perfect gentleman meant that I didn’t have to lift a finger. It’s really so much easier travelling with a guy. I could write a book about the perils of the solo female traveler…
We stopped in Karakol, the administrative center of the province. It’s really quite pretty and quaint there, it was founded in 1869 and was originally called Przewalski (after the explorer Nikolai Przewalski whose last expedition ended here, and who is buried on the lake shore nearby). It was pretty cool to have seen the Przewalski horses in Mongolia and visit the place where the great adventurer rests.
Karakol is a lovely sleepy town, we stayed in the pretty Yak Tours hostel run by crazy Valentin. Living in his beautiful gingerbread cottage house was so pleasant. Jakob cooked up some pretty impressive meals and we enjoyed shabbat one Friday evening as well. We spent most of the time in Karakol checking out the gorgeous Chinese mosque, the Holy Trinity Cathedral , the market and backstreets. We also tried to sort out camping gear for the upcoming trek up to Altyn Arashan.
To get to the mountains we took a marshrutka to the Ak-Suu Sanatorium turnoff and proceeded with the dreadful 5-6 hour (14km) hike alongside the Arashan River up to Alatyn Arashan. I say dreadful as it is a pretty darn steep and an avalanche prone road! But my god, what natural beauty surrounded us. With every step the views got better and more breathtaking. This was the Kyrgyzstan I’d read and dreamed about with stunning pine forests and alpine rivers engulfing the soul. We stopped for breaks often to take in the views and (for me to catch a breath). Up in Altayn Arashan the hot springs awaited us as well as the chance to chat to other happy campers about the hikes to Ala-kol pass and around. We stayed in the festive Yak Tours Camp which was pretty impressive considering how isolated this part of the world is. Warm beds, communal kitchen, hot springs on tap and friendly staff made it pretty pleasant. The bathrooms were a little out of the way and it was pretty flipping cold venturing out to the smelly squatters at night.
The next day Jakob and I decided to tackle the mountains and see how far we could ascend. Being October already, the snow was creeping down the mountains and from what other hikers said it was pretty much impossible to reach the passes as the snow was too deep. I handled the first hike with vigor considering how high up we were (+3000m). I was pretty proud of myself, being a Durban girl and living at sea level for most of my life, high altitudes tend to give me headaches. I had some signs of altitude sickness, thumping headaches and shortness of breath, swollen fingers but I battled through it. We climbed up to the most gorgeous emerald lakes, made a snowman and reveled in the scenery. It was most definitely the highlight of Kyrgyzstan for me to have been in such a stunning place.
Jakob decided to take on Ala-kol and despite everyone telling him not to and how impossible it was -he frikking did it! I stayed on for another day, getting lost in the surrounding forests and smiling at the mountains and sitting by streams singing “To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones on its way” from the Sound of Music. It is just glorious there.
I decided to head back down to Karakol with crazy Valentine and his crazy driver. Being pretty ill, I couldn’t even consider walking back and took a lift with the crazy ruskies. There were rumors of Valentine being an eccentric millionaire, who apparently will retire with his millions in his native Russia. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this turns out to be true. The old battleaxe sure knows how to through things together with vigor. It was a nightmare driving back down, no road just rocks to try surpass and a river to avoid plunging into. A couple of times I thought it was game over for us as well as the van. There were times when they asked me to get out and walk as the drive was that unbearable in parts! It was probably the worst road I’ve driven down (worse than the roads in Mongolia or Tajikistan!)
Back in Karakol, my headaches melted away and my I regained feeling in my frozen fingers. I dinned at the quaint Traktiry Kalinka restaurant, feeling like I was in rural Russia rather than in Kyrgyzstan. I needed to get a move in and get to Barskoon and Tamga. I bid farewell to Karakol and headed off to find a marsh. I asked the driver’s advice as to where I should stay, he mentioned Tamga with certainty so I stuck with it. I was lucky to catch Tamara who had just returned from her trip to Bishkek and who invited me with warmth and smiles to her Guesthouse. It is just as lonely planet describes it, “run by a chatterbox granny and her quiet husband.” Tamara is just delightful, you get a sense that she sees you as a family member staying over for a couple of days rather than a tourist to milk. She offered me a free night as well and she cooked me some wonderful meals. Bless her, I had the gorgeous place to myself. We spent hours over chai, bread and jam chatting about travelers she’d met. She had a little book where she kept details and notes about the people she’d met. Other guests had chipped in where they could help, some guy decided to help her build her kitchen, another had helped tile the bathroom. I can see how anyone would want to continue to stay with her, I even extended my stay as she’s got a light and happiness about her that is infectious. Her quiet husband Askar is soft and gentle and there’s a feeling of serenity in that little guesthouse. It’s just a happy place, how can one but fall in love with life and the spirit of humanity. Tamara embodies the goodness of humanity.
Tamga was an attraction for me for several reasons, but the most exciting attribute was to head to the Barskoon waterfall to see the two statues of Yuri Gagarin. Askar took me out to see the waterfall and we hiked up to get better views. Sublime forests surrounded us and Askar told me all about the dreadful Canadian mining companies, who’re raping the country side to mine gold. It remains a sore spot for the Kyrgyz people. Much like in South Africa, cheap labour must endure the grueling and dangerous conditions to mine gold, which leaves the country where few benefit from the profits.
The one statue of blessed comrade Yuri is completely defaced, but another one has been erected which is pretty cool. Yes the great Yuri resided in Tamga after his space mission at the sanatorium which was next door to our guesthouse. Askar said he’d met Yuri, who used to walk the streets. He said Yuri smiled a lot and gave the children sweets. What a delightful image 🙂 I loved the sanatorium, it was eerily beautiful to walk in the gorgeous leafy park and to know Yuri Gagarin resided here gave me goosebumps.
Tamara organised a guide for me, a cute little chap who took me to see the gorgeous Tibetan inscription called Tamga Tash hidden in the valleys behind Tamga. I tried to teach the little chap some English, that only ended with him asking if he could kiss me!
I walked down to Lake Issy-kol a few times during my stay in Tamga, it’s so pretty down there and peaceful. The autumn leaves were devastatingly stunning, I didn’t want to leave this sanctuary at all. It was the first time on my travels I felt like I was on vacation.