Tash Rabat Caravanserai

I decided to go to the Tash Rabat Caravanserai on a whim.  I didn’t think I’d end up going, but as I was doing the silk road, I had to stop there and see this ancient trade hub for myself.  My soul wouldn’t forgive me if I decided otherwise.

To get there was a mission and a half.  I’d have to travel from Tamga to Balykchy via marshrutka, Balykchy to Kochkor and Kockkor to Narryn.  The day I left Tamga was the first rainy day I’d experienced on my travels, a fine example of the pathetic fallacy in my case.  I trekked down to the main road from the Sanatorium and was completely soaked backpacks and all until I reached the shack of a bus stand.  It was pretty tricky trying to decipher the Cyrillic of the marshrutkas as they sped past, but I eventually found some friends who helped me out.   It was an uncomfortable ride in the crammed marsh with two backpacks in tow.  We finally reached gloomy Balykchy which lies at busy crossroads on the eastern lakeside edge.  I found a shared taxi (rather a shared taxi found me) that’d be going to Kochkor, I didn’t have any luck finding someone to take me on to Narran unfortunately.  As always, there’s always space for one more.  So in I crammed with three other Kyrgyz ladies in the back seat and off we went.

Kochkor wasn’t particularly pretty, I found a CBT (community based tourism) office which was sadly closed so I hot footed it to the dreary taxi stand to try get to Narryn that afternoon.  I didn’t fancy being stranded in Kochkor for the night.  I met up with an American girl who could see my confusion and pathetic attempts to shake off dodgy taxi drivers who were all hollering at me.  She was working with the Peace Corps in Karakol and on her way to Narryn as well.  Whew, if it wasn’t for her I’d be in a pickle.  She bargained us down to a good price and we took ride in an old Audi with just two Kyrgyz men.  Loads of luxurious space, and we went hammer and tongs to get to Narryn before dark.

I wasn’t thrilled when I arrived in Narryn, I had nowhere to go and it was dark and wet.  Thankfully my American friend spoke Russian and she managed to help me sort out accommodation with CBT over the phone and she assured me that we’d be able to meet someone in Narryn who’d look after me.  Bless her, she really went out of her way to sort me out! Despite the creepy taxi driver offering his bed for me, I had no other options.  CBT opened up office for us and took me straight to my host family 🙂 I had the apartment pretty much for myself, for hardly any fee.

As soon as I put my bags down, I walked about Narryn to get some dinner and didn’t make it very far down the road at all. Eish…I walked into what looked like a restaurant from the outside, but turned out to be a bar. I was roped in by some thuggish looking men who kept on buying bottles of vodka, pouring me shots and toasting to me!  It was funny until a point where things started to get a bit unruly.  I managed to order some grub and the barmaid tried to ward off the overly affectionate men! They were intrigued that I was from South Africa and not black, then they decided to call me Michael Jackson! Brilliant.  The walk back to my place was pretty daunting as well, the men from the bar decided to leave with me and followed me for a bit…Some other oafs in the streets started the usual cat calling! I was pretty frikking terrified and ran back home. Exhausted.

Death alley aside, I slept pretty well and headed to the CBT office the next day to discuss Tash Rabbat transport. There’s no public transport that goes down that far South, so I had to hire a taxi driver.  It was going to cost a pretty penny, as I’d have to pay for the ride to Tash Rabbat and back.  There weren’t any other tourists around, and the nomadic family I’d be staying with were that last ones in the area so I couldn’t wait around in the hope that other tourists would be joining me.  End of tourist season has its pros and cons I guess.  I didn’t mind, I asked Mr Taxi friend to take me to the market where I could exchange some money.  Being a Sunday, there wasn’t much going on but CBT assured me there was someone there who’d help out. It seemed pretty dodgy and ominous to me as we got the what seemed to be mostly an animal market.  My taxi friend took me under his shoulder and smuggled me to the back alleys of the market, twisting and turning through a maze of back doors we eventually found a guy who could help out.  I finally figured out that this was an entirely black market affair! We all went into a stockroom, doors bolted shut, calculators out and a helluva lot of money was presented to me in exchange for my dollars.  It felt like something out of mafia wars, hells Bells all Scotch I was expecting guns to come out at any second.

Money bizniz done and dusted we emerged from the mobster maze and into the sunlight! The taxi needed some juice and we were off.  The road down to Tash Rabbat is breathtaking.  I saw
the snow-capped At-Bashy Range of the Tian Shan mountains in the distance.  Our first stop was Koshoy Korgon.  In the village of Kara-Suu lie the ruins of the ancient citadel  (10-12th century).  It was stunning to walk around such historic and natural beauty.  I circled the ruins a few times and tried to get a sense of how the architecture housed and governed the lives of times bygone.

We scrambled along on through dusty roads.  Despite having an old rattletrap our little car did well on the taxing roads which are really only suitable for 4X4s and trucks.  I noticed mainly IMG_8799Chinese trucks screaming past us and Chinese workers building roads.  My driver told me that the Chinese build these roads in exchange for Kyrgyz raw materials and scrap metals.  A modern day silk road confronted me, not quite as charming as the camel caravans I envisioned.  It’s the harsh reality of yet another third world country dealing with the ever increasing lust for raw material from the Chinese.  The trucks heaved with scrap metal as we dodged them on the roads.  Young Chinese boys were digging and constructing the roads.  A sad sight but familiar sight.  From travelling Africa, the Chinese road networks are rampant with desperate looking young men building them.

At about 60km from At-Bashy lies Tash Rabbat.  It felt surreal as we got closer and closer to our host family’s ger. I had to fight back the tears of excitement as I greeted them.  I didn’t think I’d have another family ger experience after Olgii.  It had snowed the previous night and a blanket of snow covered the valley and ger.  My host family was on the verge of moving to their winter camp.  They were friendly and welcoming and there was never any shortage of food and sweets.  No one seemed to speak much English, however the daughter of the family spoke a little and would be there for a day at least!

I decided to head straight to the Caravansarai, ploughing through the snow along the sloshy path I imagined Marco Polo’s brave adventures through these very mountains and possibly through this valley.  The Caravanserai is a stone fortress dating from about the 15th (or even as early as the 10th century  when it was a Christian monastery at one time.  “Tash Rabat” means stone fortress and it served as an important node on the Silk Road route.  It was humbling standing on the stone walls and exploring the chambers and dungeons.  I partied on the roof with some drunk Ruskies (who I named Dmitri and Sergei).  They lived in Bishkek decided to make the pilgrimage to this great sight.

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I was later kidnapped by some lovely friendly Kyrgyz friends who wanted me to join them for lunch.  Bless them, there was a generous display of food and ample vodka shots to ward off the cold.  Hell, even a camel joined in our party.  Drunken nonsense aside, my new found friends told me that I was brave to travel alone, decided I should enter Top Model po-Ruskie?! And questioned why I wasn’t married then cheered me because I wasn’t married and encouraged me to travel more.  What a wondrous afternoon.

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It was with a heavy heart that I said farewell to my friendlings, I enjoyed their spirited company and generosity and waved them off as they headed back to Bishkek.  I had learnt a new Russian word “кушать” and had lunch with a camel, how could one top that?  On the way back to the ger (for more chai) I noticed a new car was outside and new guests had arrived.  I heard the familiar babble of French and met lovely Gulzada and Eric.  My first impressions couldn’t have been more wrong, I guessed Eric was a wealthy Frenchman and visiting Kyrgyzstan with his very young Kyrgyz wife!  Turns out Eric was a Swiss gentleman who was touring Kyrgzystan with tour guide Gulzada and driver.  We had the most splendid afternoon drinking chai eating bon bons and talking French.  I was ecstatic that I had some company and the host family’s house was warm and abuzz all afternoon. We decided to take an afternoon walk to watch sunset and say hello to the yaks.  It was just gorgeous.IMG_8836I decided to be brave and take on the ger for the evening, Eric and the team were all set for the warm family house but I talked them into ger-ing it up avec moi.  It was pretty cold inside and I felt the familiar signs of altitude sickness, numb and swollen fingers and pounding headaches.  The worst part of the night was going to the toilet…It was about 20 meters away from the ger, so it was a freezing walk through the snow to the blimming squatters.  I had to contend with bloody wolves and cows and dogs and horses but it made it an experience.  At least the moon was full which set the snow alight.IMG_8816

The next day Eric and co were off to hike up to Chatyr-Kol, about 3500m up.  I was going to go horse riding (lols) with my host father but they chatted me into joining the happy trek team.  My god it was a stunning hike.  I pushed as far as I could but as the snow go deeper, I stopped at knee deep snow and waited for the others as they crept even higher.  I remember waiting in the shadows of the icy peaks and freezing to death, that was probably the coldest I’d ever been in my life.  My head was pounding, fingers and hands swollen and my legs were numb.  I had to descend into the sun before I passed out!  I spotted snow squirrel of sorts looking all cute in it’s winter coat.

The others scrambled down soon after and we enjoyed our packed lunch in the sunshine as we thawed.  It’s amazing how even a few meters down my head felt normal again although the ear buzzing didn’t subside.  We hiked back to camp and decided to give Tash Rabbat one more look around.  We got the gatekeeper to let us in and we explored the mystery inside.

We enjoyed another afternoon of chai and chit chats but sadly Eric and Gulzada decided to head off with their driver.  Gulzada gave me her details and invited me to stay with her and her family when I got back to Bishkek.  I was thrilled 🙂  I waved them off and they set off into the sunset and enjoyed the evening in the ger tout seul avec la chute de neige.  

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I was sad to say goodbye to my host family after my excellent breakfast.  There generosity was outstanding.  CBT is an fantastic community based initiative which tries to involve nomadic families in the tourist industry.  It’s all handled in a humane way where at least most of the pie is shared and nomadic culture is preserved.

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