Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan
On 24 August 1998 I packed my bicycle with a tent, a sleeping bag and a wad of dollar bills, and hopped on a plane to Almaty. Here are the photos.
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The capital of Kazakstan (in 1998), it's the most cosmopolitan city in Central Asia and probably much more fun than quite a few cities back home. Boris Yeltsin arrived a few weeks after I departed and promptly had a heart attack. That's Aeroflot catering for you.
The view from my room in the Hotel Kazakstan: the Arman cinema (night club, internet cafe) and the Zailiysky Alatau mountains (3-4000m). The Kazakstan provides the full Soviet-era tourist hotel experience: mysterious phone calls in the night; all-seeing, all-knowing babushka floor ladies; full-on seventies decor and prostitutes in the lobby who can afford the bar prices you can't. It's the one address you can pronounce and everybody knows and anyway it's so big you can't possibly lose it. And it has great views. All this for $48 a night!
Bactrian camels. They still have wild ones in Xinjiang, but these were in Gorky Park, which is the kind of place parents take their kids when they're little as a "treat". There's nowhere else on a wet Sunday afternoon. Just like home, really.
The Soviet WWII memorial, Panfilov Park. One colonial legacy the Kazaks don't seem too bothered about getting rid of. A wedding couple had themselves videoed beneath it while I was there.
Around Lake Issyk-Kul
By the side of the road, at the western end of Lake Issyk-Kul
I stopped at Bar-Bulak to put some air in a slow puncture. These kids were curious but shy. They took a little persuasion — but only a little.
The Kyrgyz love their little statues — and their horses. Also by the side of the road, at the western end of the lake.
In Kara-Koo village. The locals were friendly and most hospitable. One, surprisingly, was American. Hi, Kate.
Back on the road, Kara-Koo in the distance
Listening to Independence Day speeches, Bokonbayevo. The silly hat is called a Kalpak and is worn in all seriousness.
At the eastern end of lake Issyk-Kul is the town of Karakol. It's a pleasant collection of Russian colonial buildings (and the Mikrorayon Voskhod tower blocks), a great place to relax and also the place from which to arrange trips into the mountains. After a week I felt quite at home.
Spice seller, Karakol bazaar
Holy Trinity Cathedral, Karakol. The Bolsheviks closed the previous one in the 1930s; this one was re-consecrated in 1991.
From Ak-Suu, ten kilometres east of Karakol, a steep track climbs south into the Terskey Alatau mountains.
At the end of an hour or so's rough jeep ride is a small and disparate collection of wooden buildings.
They comprise a meteorological station, a collective farm and a forestry service outpost.
Valentin Derevyanko, the main man in Karakol tourism, had a deal with the latter.
I spent five days up there, in the company of Eliot (from San Francisco), Larissa and Blythe (students from England) and Bruce and Paul (also from California), along with our guide Ernst, and Bruce and Paul's guide.
We had three days trekking, one day horse riding and spent the time in between relaxing in the hot tubs. It's a great place.
En route to Altyn Arashan, Valentin throwing water over the engine
In the Arashan Valley, with Tent Peak (4260m) in the background
In the Arashan Valley, with Tent Peak (4260m) in the background
Our home at Altyn Arashan - the forestry service building
At our nearest neighbours - Jaldosh's yurt (but we called him George). Eliot, Ernst, Blythe, Larissa and one of Jaldosh's friends.
Bruce Harmon, frisbee thrower extraordinaire
TrekI spent three days trekking up to the lake of Ala-Köl in the company Larissa, Blythe, Eliot and Ernst, our Kyrgyz guide. With a horse to carry the rucksacks we spent the first day climbing a high side valley west of the Arashan, camping near its head. Next day we picked up our packs and scrambled over the 3900m Ala-Köl Pass to make camp by the lake of the same name, 400m below. In the evening we went for a walk on the glacier above the lake and in the morning reversed yesterday's climb. On the other side we co-opted Jaldosh and Quran into carrying our rucksacks on their horses, and by late afternoon were drinking tea back at Jaldosh's yurt.
Besides providing transport for the rucksacks we also bought the marmot they'd shot from our cowboy friends. In the evening we enjoyed a second dinner, traditional style - delicious. Eliot, however, was over at the collective farm, experimenting with some locally produced milk product...
Limbering up: Eliot, Larissa and Blythe
First night's camp
Approaching the Ala-Köl Pass
The view from the Ala-Köl Pass
Here comes Eliot! On the Ala-Köl Pass.
Neil on the Ala-Köl Pass, lake Ala-Köl in the background
Named after our illustrious guide: Ernst Peak (on the left), c. 4200m
On the local glacier
Back on the pass, Ernst contemplates life, the universe and everything...
Bruce, Paul, Eliot and I spent one enjoyable and relaxing day on horseback. We paid another visit to Jaldosh and his wife, drinking Kumus and listening to him play the Komus (a kind of lute) and sing. Afterwards we climbed up into the side valley of Anyr-Tyor and visited Quran's rather less homely camp. We took lunch at a tarn to the south (at 3200m) and made a less leisurely return journey in a thunderstorm.
Quran's camp. Last night, Eliot got stoned.
I hope it's not Kumus!
According to the guidebook, the eastern gateway to the Issyk-Kul basin was "an immense silent valley called Karkara", which straddled the Kyrgyz-Kazak border. The road was poor, there were "almost no buildings to be seen out here" but there were, earlier in the year, herders in their yurts. The border was open and saw very little traffic. How could I resist? I packed the bike with plenty of food, vodka and cigarettes for the border guards and set off for the back-end of Central Asia.
I rolled into the village of Ak-Chiy in the early evening and saw these guys sitting on the grass drinking vodka. Very soon I was drinking with them, then eating dinner, and then off somewhere else to drink more vodka...
Perhaps Lonely Planet could run a caption competition for this one? Vodka as the prize, of course.
Damir, one of my hosts: "We'll give you this autographed 20 com note as a souvenir and you give us (each!) an autographed $20 note." Twenty com was worth one dollar.
In Kyzyl-Jar. The sign says, "San-Tash Pass: road too damn rough for cyclists". But that was the way to Karkara...
This is it — the road to nowhere. Somewhere out there is a yurt.
On the road back to Almaty. No pics from Kegan because my time there was spent in police custody. But I did catch my plane home.