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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Almaty

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.



25 Aug 98
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!
13 Sep 98
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.
13 Sep 98
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



29 Aug 98
By the side of the road, at the western end of Lake Issyk-Kul
29 Aug 98
Roadside catering
29 Aug 98
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.
29 Aug 98
The Kyrgyz love their little statues — and their horses. Also by the side of the road, at the western end of the lake.
29 Aug 98
In Kara-Koo village. The locals were friendly and most hospitable. One, surprisingly, was American. Hi, Kate.
30 Aug 98
Back on the road, Kara-Koo in the distance
30 Aug 98
Listening to Independence Day speeches, Bokonbayevo. The silly hat is called a Kalpak and is worn in all seriousness.

Karakol

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.



2 Sep 98
Spice seller, Karakol bazaar
1 Sep 98
Holy Trinity Cathedral, Karakol. The Bolsheviks closed the previous one in the 1930s; this one was re-consecrated in 1991.

Altyn Arashan

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.



4 Sep 98
En route to Altyn Arashan, Valentin throwing water over the engine
4 Sep 98
In the Arashan Valley, with Tent Peak (4260m) in the background
4 Sep 98
In the Arashan Valley, with Tent Peak (4260m) in the background
4 Sep 98
Our home at Altyn Arashan - the forestry service building
7 Sep 98
At our nearest neighbours - Jaldosh's yurt (but we called him George). Eliot, Ernst, Blythe, Larissa and one of Jaldosh's friends.
7 Sep 98
Bruce Harmon, frisbee thrower extraordinaire

Trek

I 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...



5 Sep 98
Limbering up: Eliot, Larissa and Blythe
5 Sep 98
Baggage wagon
5 Sep 98
First night's camp
6 Sep 98
Approaching the Ala-Köl Pass
6 Sep 98
The view from the Ala-Köl Pass
6 Sep 98
Here comes Eliot! On the Ala-Köl Pass.
6 Sep 98
Neil on the Ala-Köl Pass, lake Ala-Köl in the background
6 Sep 98
Going down...
On6 Sep 98
Named after our illustrious guide: Ernst Peak (on the left), c. 4200m
6 Sep 98
On the local glacier
7 Sep 98
Back on the pass, Ernst contemplates life, the universe and everything...
7 Sep 98
...and dinner

Ride

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.



8 Sep 98
Riding
8 Sep 98
Quran's camp. Last night, Eliot got stoned.
8 Sep 98
I hope it's not Kumus!

Karkara Valley

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.



Since independence, many places in Kyrgyzstan have reverted to their pre-Soviet names: Sokolovka is now Ak-Chiy and Sovietskoe is now Kyzyl Jar
10 Sep 98
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...
10 Sep 98
Perhaps Lonely Planet could run a caption competition for this one? Vodka as the prize, of course.
11 Sep 98
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.
11 Sep 98
In Kyzyl-Jar. The sign says, "San-Tash Pass: road too damn rough for cyclists". But that was the way to Karkara...
11 Sep 98
This is it — the road to nowhere. Somewhere out there is a yurt.
11 Sep 98
The yurt
11 Sep 98
Herder
12 Sep 98
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.