Saturday, March 30, 2013

Adventures on the far side of Issyk Kul

May 7, 2008

Bright and early last Thursday morning, Fulbright K, Young B and I took a taxi to the airport to pick up SB (who works at the American Home in Vladimir where I used to teach) and her friend Sasha. Apparently, SB had been on the way to the train station when she bumped into her friend. Being a rather spontaneous type, as soon as she learned that SB was going to Kyrgyzstan, Sasha decided to buy a plane ticket there and then and join her! We picked them up and had our driver take us to the Western Bus Station, where we caught a marshrutka to Karakol. The good thing about the marshrutka was that it was only 250soms ($7) per person. The bad thing was that it was terribly cramped. Not as cramped as the inner-city marshrutki, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable. I was seated next to a window (a requirement to help prevent motion sickness), but every time we went over a bump (and this is Kyrgyzstan, so believe me, there were many of them!) I was slammed into the side of the marshrutka. By the time we arrived in Karakol – six hours later – my right shoulder was thoroughly bruised.

We arrived in Karakol in mid-afternoon, only to find that the weather was miserably overcast and dreary. Additionally, while there are parts of Karakol full of cute little slavic-style cottages, much of the city is filled with low-quality Soviet era architecture. Under the dreary skies, the city looked thoroughly bleak and desolate. We made our way to our homestay (as usual, arranged by CBT), where we were hosted by a wonderful Russian family and their adorable kitten. After unloading our possessions, we decided to return to the center of the city to see what sights there were.

Our initial goal was the Dungan Mosque. Dungans are ethnic Chinese Muslims, and many of them live in Kyrgyzstan. The Dungan Mosque is unique in that it looks to all the world like a Buddhist temple, not a mosque. Apparently it was also constructed without the use of nails. We had hoped to see the mosque and then make our way to the city’s Russian Orthodox cathedral, but that was not to be. While we had a map of Karakol, it was a little vague, so we began asking people for directions. While we found the people of Karakol extremely willing to give us directions, we soon learned that, for the most part, they were exceedingly terrible at it. We wandered the city for nearly two hours, getting thoroughly lost, before finally stumbling upon the mosque. (Sadly, it turned out that we were on the correct road before we began asking for directions!) I must say that I was rather disappointed with the mosque. Having seen quite a few mosques in Kyrgyzstan, not to mention numerous Buddhist temples in Korea, it really wasn’t *that* impressive – and definitely not worth the effort we expended in order to find it!

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Dungan Mosque, Karakol

While we were exploring the mosque, a strong wind suddenly whipped up, blowing dust so hard that it stung our faces, and chilling us rather thoroughly. At that point, we decided to head back to our homestay. We discussed with our host alternatives for the rest of our stay, and she arranged a driver for us for the following day to take us to Altyn Arashan, a high mountain valley in which mineral hot springs are located. Early the next morning – a bright, sunny and utterly gorgeous morning, by the way – our driver, Victor, arrived in a rather frighteningly marvelous Soviet era jeep.

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Awesome transport.

We packed ourselves into the jeep (this time it was my left shoulder that was pressed against the side of the vehicle, so I was able to even out my bruises!) and began our two-hour trek high up into the mountains. The “road” to Altyn Arashan was steep in many places, and in many places it wasn’t really worth being called a road at all; it was simply a rock-strewn track through the mountains. We stopped at least four times along the way, so that Victor could refill the radiator and allow the engine to cool!

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Cooling the engine

The instant we arrived at the Altyn Arashan valley, we knew our trip had been worth it. The scenery was spectacular, and reminded us all of The Sound of Music.

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We arrived at the Altyn Arashan hot springs and were greeted by two friendly dogs and five adorable little puppies. (There were also two cats and a horse...) We talked to the caretakers and were given a tour of the facilities, then got down to the business of basking in the hot springs. Oddly enough, the hot springs are pumped into different concrete sheds – not exactly your typical spa relaxation venue – located next to the river. Each shed contains water of a different temperature and containing different minerals. The idea is to relax in one shed, run to the river to freeze, then run to the next shed. B and I skipped the running into the frigid river part – although the other girls did run into the river – insanity!

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Concrete sheds, housing the springs

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They weren't exactly luxurious, but the water was wonderfully warm.

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Sasha and SB brave the cold waters...

After relaxing in the hot springs, picnicking along the shore of the river, and playing with the puppies, it was time to return to Karakol. Victor decided to adopt one of the puppies for his daughter, so we had it for company on our way back down into Karakol – although the poor thing got quite motion sick!

The next day we arranged, through our host, for a driver to take us to the shore of Issyk-Kul to visit the Przhevalski museum and monument, and from there to Jeti-Oguz to see several famous rock formations and to visit the Valley of the Flowers. That morning was quite overcast, and we were worried that our day would be rained on. Unlike the awesome yet uncomfortable and rather ancient Soviet jeep from the previous day, we were treated to a luxurious and incredibly pimped-out minivan. Our driver, Dima, had the most absurd mullet ever:

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(Oddly enough, he works as a barber when he isn’t driving tourists about!)

First we went to the Przhevalski museum and monument. Przhevalski was the Russian general who thoroughly explored Central Asia for the Russians, and in the process discovered numerous species of animals, such as the Marco Polo Sheep and the Przhevalski Horse. The museum contained stuffed and mounted specimens of many of his discoveries, which was a little creepy. Behind the museum is a monument to Przhevalski, as well as his grave, as he died of typhus in Karakol.

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Monument to Przhevalski

From the Przhevalski museum, we drove to Jeti-Oguz. Our first stop was the Broken Heart rock formation.

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It does look vaguely like a broken heart...

From there we drove to the Seven Bulls rock formation – which to us didn’t look like bulls at all. Also, each of us counted more than seven, although we all had different totals.

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Bulls? Really?

Our next destination was the Valley of the Flowers. According to our guidebooks, starting in May, the valley is filled with flowers and is quite a sight to see. Well, while we were there in May, apparently early May isn’t exactly the time for flowers. While there were some flowers, there weren’t many. We were told that late May and June are the times to go.

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Beautiful valley, not many flowers.

We had been wandering around the valley feeling a little disappointed, when we noticed a yurt on the opposite side of the river. While photographing the yurt, it disgorged some young men, who saddled up a horse and rode across the river to us. Sasha immediately asked if she could ride their horse. In the end, they agreed to round up horses for all of us to ride for an hour in the valley. Unfortunately, I was not very comfortable on “my” horse. I felt as though either the back of the saddle was higher than the front, or perhaps the horse’s hind-quarters were higher that its front. Plus, my stirrups – even though shortened as far as they would go – were simply too long. Any time I went faster than a walk I felt as though I would topple out of the saddle. Meanwhile, the horse Sasha got was beautiful, sleek and well trained. They even showed her how to make it rear on command!

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Me on my horse of the day...

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This horse was incredible; I wish I could've ridden it!

After our hour of riding, Dima suggested stopping at one of the valley’s yurts (he knew the owners) for lunch. For a small fee, we were treated to incredible hospitality and a lovely meal of freshly killed sheep.

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Family yurts in the valley

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Fulbright K and I inside a yurt

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Our yurt hostess and two of her three daughters

After lunch, we drove out of the valley and stopped at a small store where I bought some tan. It tasted like it had gone a little bad, but I figured it’s fermented already, how bad can it be? I drank about a fourth of the bottle before deciding that I should probably pour the rest of it out. That decision would come back to haunt me later.

We then drove to another valley which gave us access to a ski-base. The idea was to ascend to the top of the ski-slopes for a killer view – although as the ski lifts weren’t running, we didn’t exactly make it to the top. B and I made it about a fourth of the way, while the others made it a good halfway. Even though we didn’t make it to the top, we had some pleasant views – especially since the skies had cleared by then!

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View from the slopes

B, Fulbright K and I were the first down from the mountainous ski slope, and while we were waiting for Sara and SB, I decided to go pet a grey horse that was tethered nearby. Now, unlike dogs and cats, most horses aren’t all that into being petted. In contrast, this horse was incredibly friendly, rubbing up on me and nuzzling me and enjoying the attention... and then I noticed that he had a giant erection! Now, I’ve spent a lot of time around horses, and I know that male horses have a habit of stretching their penises out periodically... This wasn’t just a stretch, this was an erection. It was a little creepy. Especially when he kept looking at me with this hang-dog expression, as if to say, “Are you *sure* you’re not a mare?”
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After leaving the ski-base, we returned to our homestay, where I spent the entire evening running back and forth between my bed and the bathroom and feeling thoroughly miserable, no doubt as a result of the bad tan. I decided that I was off tan forever (a decision which lasted all of three days, but that’s a story for another post!).

The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn to go to the Al Bazaar, the local animal market, held every Sunday from 5am to 10am. The market was an incredible experience, full of cows, horses and fat-tailed sheep. Additionally, it’s located right next to the Auto Bazaar – home to Ladas of every color. Sadly, I learned that a male horse goes for about $1000 (females are more expensive), and ancient and colorful Ladas go for about $1300. I won’t be buying either. I did take lots of photos though!

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Уй means cow in Kyrgyz.

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Horse for sale!

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Fat tailed sheep!!!

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Orange Lada, $1300
I *really* wanted to buy this one.

Our final stop in Karakol was the Russian Orthodox cathedral, which we didn’t make it to on our first day. I’ve seen innumerable Orthodox cathedrals in my travels, but I’ve yet to grow tired of onion domes.

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After that, it was time to leave. Fulbright K, B and I were returning to Bishkek, while SB and Sasha were continuing on in search of further adventures. Since there were only three of us returning to Bishkek, we decided to get a taxi for both speed and comfort. Granted, it cost 500soms/person (twice as much as the marshrutka), but it was comfortable, and only took five hours as opposed to six.

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