Monthly Archives: July 2019

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Trekking Iceland – Veiðileysufjörður to Hornvík – Hornstrandir

When you are a little nervous about something, it always makes you feel better when the sun is shining 🙂   

boats in Ísafjörður harbour
Glorious morning!

I arrived early at the Borea Adventures dock to catch my boat transfer from Ísafjörður to Veiðileysufjörður and was beginning to think I may have been the only passenger.  However, with 5 minutes to go, 2 guys from the US (Sean and Daniel) and a group of about 15 people on a day tour showed up and we set out on the ~1 hour journey to Hornstrandir.

Views from the Borea Adventures boat transfer from Ísafjörður to Veiðileysufjörður - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Great journey, but unfortunately no whales

Boat transfer to Veiðileysufjörður

It was a very calm crossing in glorious weather, so I sat on the back deck enjoying the views and chatting with some of the other passengers.  We dropped the group of day-hikers off as we entered the Veiðileysufjörður inlet, and then continued on to a triangular structure (which turned out to be a pit toilet) that identifies the locations of campgrounds in Hornstrandir.

The crew launched the small zodiac off the back of the boat to deposit myself, Sean and Daniel on dry land, and then headed back to Ísafjörður.  There was no turning back now and I had 8 days to get to my pickup point in Hesteyri.

Images of the zodiac transfer to Veiðileysufjörður campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Lowering the zodiac (top-left), en route to Veiðileysufjörður campsite (top-right), and there is no turning back now! (bottom)

It turns out Sean is an award-winning professional wildlife photographer (a give-away being the enormous lens that was permanently attached to his camera) who had come to Hornstrandir to photograph a personal project on Arctic Foxes.  He and Daniel (also an amazing wildlife photographer) had met the year before in Alaska and were spending the next 5 days in the Hornvík area (my destination for the day) to capture the images.  Given we were heading the same direction and had similar interests we decided to hike together. 

Although there was a sign pointing in the direction of Hornvík, there was no obvious trail to follow.  So we simply set out across country in the general direction of the waterfall that we could see at the end of the inlet – the direction we should head according to the map. 

Veiðileysufjörður campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Veiðileysufjörður campsite. The pyramid-shaped building is the dry toilet

From Veiðileysufjörður to Hafnarskard Pass

After wading through knee-high shrubbery for much of it (very reminiscent of several of the hikes I did in South Greenland last year), we arrived at the waterfall, and found our first marker and the trail.

Views heading from Veiðileysufjörður campsite to the waterfall - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Bush bashing towards the waterfall from Veiðileysufjörður campsite

From there, the route to the Hafnarskard Pass was obvious and marked by large stone cairns stretching off into the distance.  It was also clear to us looking ahead that there was going to be snow in our very near future!

Large stone cairn - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Nice and obvious cairn, finally

As we climbed higher, the views behind us down to the inlet became more and more spectacular

Cairn and view back down to Veiðileysufjörður - Hornstrandir - Iceland

and indeed, we started to hit patches of snow that we had to cross.  This wasn’t entirely unexpected given how early it was in the season (the boats had only start running a couple of weeks earlier at the beginning of June), and this was one of the things I’d read about online that was adding to my concerns about hiking alone.  However, we weren’t the first people to pass this way and there were boot prints that seemed to be a few days old marking the trail across each of the snowy patches.

Following other people's bootprints in snow drifts - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Daniel leading the way through the snow, following in the boot prints of others

The fun really started towards the top of the pass, where we could see we would have to conquer a very steep snow slope to gain our destination.  

View of bootprints in the snow we would have to conquer leading up to Hafnarskard Pass - Hornstrandir - Iceland
A trail of boot prints leads to Hafnarskard Pass – it was going to be quite a climb

It was every bit as steep as it looked and, given I was in the lead, I ended up having to kick snow-stairs into the slope with my boots in order to make progress.  Good thing that I’d seen Maxime do this last year in East Greenland!  It seemed that trekkers coming from the other direction had had much more fun – bum-sliding down the slope rather than hiking it!

bum trail and bootprints in the snow leading to the pass - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Boot prints and what I took to be the imprint of a bum-slide on the climb to the pass

But I made it eventually

Me at Hafnarskard pass looking back towards Veiðileysufjörður - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Me at Hafnarskard pass looking back towards Veiðileysufjörður

and watched as the others struggled their way up.  I had no idea how Sean was going to manage carrying that enormous lens of his, but he eventually joined us and explained that he basically used it as a trekking pole all the way up!

Trekking companions making their way up to Hafnarskard pass through the snow - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Daniel (top) and Sean (bottom) struggling up the snow towards Hafnarskard pass

The view back to Veiðileysufjörður was amazing of course

View of Veiðileysufjörður from Hafnarskard pass - Hornstrandir-Iceland
Final view of Veiðileysufjörður from Hafnarskard pass

but it was also very exciting to see what lay ahead of us.  No surprises – it was another beautiful vista!

Me looking towards Hornvik from Hafnarsgard Pass - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Looking towards Hornvík, our destination, from Hafnasgard Pass

Hafnarskard Pass to Hornvík

We tucked ourselves behind a rocky ridge out of the wind to eat lunch, relax, soak up the sunshine (after all, it’s not often you get weather like this in Iceland!) and admire the views.  Then it was time to continue on to Hornvík through the snow that lay on the northern side of the pass.

Trekking companions heading across the snow in the direction of Hornvík - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Daniel and Sean leading the way to Hornvík through the snow

My guess is that we were walking in snow for about 1/4 of the hike from Veiðileysufjörður to Hornvík.  It wasn’t terribly deep for the most part but it was a little slushy, and again I’m very happy with my Lowa boots that kept my feet blissfully dry and warm 🙂

slushy snow and great hiking boots
So happy with my waterproof boots!

We stopped for another rest much further down the slope, though really it was just an excuse to get the packs off and lie in the sun for a while.

Taking a break on the way to Hornvík - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Taking a break on the way to Hornvík

Not too long after, we reached a steep drop-off that revealed the river valley leading down to Hornvík.

Amazing view of the bright green  river delta at Hornvík - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Amazingly green!

Wow!  We were not expecting such a verdantly green reveal, made even more so by the bright sunshine and blue skies!  Being photographers, we had a great time here playing with the composition of the river and small lakes as they punctuated this vibrancy.  

Water patterns in the green of the Hornvík river delta - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Nature is an artist

We could also see our home for the night – the Hornvík campsite – which was located just past the yellow house on the edge of the inlet.

View of Hornvík campsite and the Horn - Hornstrandir - Iceland
The campsite is located just past the yellow house

The path became a little boggy as we descended into the valley, but we finally arrived.

Path and signs on the final stretch to Hornvík - Hornstrandir - Iceland
The final stretch…

Hornvík Campsite

Given that Hornvík is the most popular destination in Hornstrandir, the campground is large and really well set up.  There is a bright orange emergency shelter (you don’t want to have to go hunting for it in an emergency), a sink, flush toilets, and a permanent Ranger station. When the Icelandic flag is flying, the Ranger is in 🙂  

Images of infrastructure at Hornvík campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
The rangers station with flush toilets (top), fresh water (bottom-left) and the emergency shelter (bottom-right) at Hornvík campsite

It was here that I met the extremely helpful and lovely Vésteinn Már Rúnarsson and talked him through my hiking plan for the next week.  He gave me updates on the status of the trails (especially pertaining to bogginess) and made several suggestions given I was wearing hiking boots and not gumboots 😀   He also had the latest best guess as to what the weather would do tomorrow…

Ranger at the rangers station at Hornvík campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
The ranger is in!

Armed with this information, I found a place to pitch my tent with an awesome view (it wasn’t difficult as there were only 7 people camping here this night), and went for a walk along the beach admiring “The Horn” where I would be heading tomorrow on my hike.

view of the horn from my tent - Hornvík campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
My view 🙂

Million thanks to Sean and Daniel for hiking with me today!  Loved hanging out with you guys and I hope you have a ton of luck with your Arctic Fox photography!

My trekking companions for the day
Sean (left), Daniel (centre) and myself at Hornvík campsite

Trekking Information

Distance = 9.9km

Time taken = 7 hours and 20 minutes.  But probably 2 hours of that was spent chilling in the sunshine and taking photos 🙂

Map

Basic map of the route from Movescount

Altitude Profile

Altitude profile of the route from Strava

Download track as .gpx

Read more about my solo trek in Hornstrandir

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure in Hornstrandir:

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Iceland and around the world.

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My first solo multi-day trek – Hornstrandir in Iceland

Although I have now done several long-distance treks

all of them have been guided. 

Trekking group descending towards Karale Fjord with Knud Rasmussen Glacier and mountains in the background
Views over the Knud Rasmussen Glacier in East Greenland as the group descends to the Karale Fjord

My first solo trek

I had never really considered doing a solo, unguided multi-day trek, and 8 months ago when I decided I wanted to hike the Arctic Circle Trail in West Greenland, I was desperate to find trekking companions (turns out Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forums are pretty good for that 🙂 )

However, I’ve discovered that a lot can change over the course of half a year, which is how I now find myself about to embark on an 8-day solo hike in the most remote part of Iceland – the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords region.

Map of Iceland showing Hornstrandir location, and map of Hornstrandir
Top: Map of Iceland with Hornstrandir highlighted. Bottom: Map of Hornstrandir with main hiking trails indicated

Could I have chosen an easier place to start?  Most definitely!  But I do tend to dive into these things head first…

Why I’m nervous about Hornstrandir

I had two main concerns going in:

  1. The weather.  Iceland is notorious for its changeable weather (even in Summer) and several of the accounts I’d read online about hiking in Hornstrandir talked of the cold (a constant fear of mine, despite spending most of my time in cold places), rain and fog.  
  2. Whether the trails are well marked.  There is conflicting information online that mentions everything from an obvious track, through to stone cairns (which can often be obscured by fog) through to nothing at all.  What would I find?

In order to address the first concern (of the cold and rain at least), while home in Australia I spent a small fortune upgrading all my camping gear except for my tent.  Given how much camping I’m doing between now and the end of the year (and probably into the future), it was a strategic investment and I now have an Enlightened Equipment -18 degree down sleeping quilt, mittens, hood and booties, the Thermarest NeoAir XTherm sleeping mat, 260gsm thermals, Smartwool socks, plus all the gear I talk about in my summary for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

Almost all the gear I took on my hike in Hornstrandir, Iceland
Almost all the gear that had to fit into my 65L backpack for my 8 day hike in Hornstrandir. Love how small all my down gear from Enlightened Equipment packs (white compression dry-bag) and how small my sleeping mat is (green dry-bag). But even with that, the tent (brown bag) had to be strapped to the outside. I also had a separate chest bag for my camera, with the second lens and other accessories stored in the main pack.

To mitigate the second concern (and for their own sanity as well), my mum and dad bought me the Garmin InReach SE+ personal emergency beacon which, in addition to calling the emergency services if you really get into trouble, allows you to program GPS waypoints, track your route, and send and receive messages (I could check in each day saying I was OK).  I also had my flash new Suunto Ambit3 Peak watch (yes, I have all the gadgets!) which again allows you to set GPS waypoints and track your route, as well as an old fashioned Suunto global compass and map.

Navigation aids - Garmin InReach SE+, Suunto Ambit3 Peak watch, map and Suunto M3 compass
Navigation aids – Garmin InReach SE+, Suunto Ambit3 Peak watch, map and Suunto M3 compass

But it wasn’t just mum and dad that were concerned about safety. 

You need to book boat transfers to and from Hornstrandir in advance.  In order to do so, you must provide your planned itinerary so that if you are not at your scheduled pickup, emergency services can be alerted and they have some idea of where to start searching for you. You are also strongly encouraged to register your hiking itinerary with Safetravel.is. Iceland really tries to take care of its visitors!

So, with both watch and personal emergency beacon programmed, I am as prepared as I can be!  Let’s see what the reality is like…

Read more about my solo trek in Hornstrandir

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure in Hornstrandir:

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Iceland and around the world.

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Flying into Ísafjörður – an amazing approach

Reykjavik domestic airport borders the southern edge of the city’s downtown area.  It is literally a 2km walk to the terminal from City Hall.

Map showing Reykjavik domestic airport compared with downtown
It is an easy walk to the domestic airport from downtown Reykjavik

As you might imagine, only small propeller planes take off from here (the rest depart from Keflavik International Airport, 45km away) and the terminal itself is very small.

Being the eternal early-bird, I arrived for my Air Iceland Connect flight to Ísafjörður about 1.5 hours ahead of time, only to find that I couldn’t get rid of my checked luggage until about ½ hour before the flight. They check each flight in in turn, you can’t jump the queue!

Check-in Notification at Reykjavik domestic airport.
They only check in one flight at a time. You have to wait until yours is displayed here

But eventually it all happened and I was winging my way to Ísafjörður in Iceland’s Westfjords region.

Air Iceland Connect plane to Isafjordur
Small planes for domestic flights within Iceland

The approach to Ísafjörður 

To be honest, there was not much to look at out the window of the Air Iceland Connect Bombardier Q200 propeller plane (clouds!) until we were on our final approach to the airport.  And then I kinda wished I couldn’t see anything! 

At least one aviation website considers Ísafjörður to be one of the most scenic and challenging approaches in the world, and I have to say “I concur!”

Flying up a valley with the right wingtip almost touching the mountain just outside my window, we pulled a hard 180 degree turn within the valley itself before landing on the tarmac runway.  Here is what it looks like from the cockpit of a plane (not my flight) – though I’m not convinced it gives you a good feel for exactly how close you get to that mountain!

Skip the first minute and play at 2x if you are in a hurry 🙂

All I will say is thank goodness we had a calm day!  I would hate to be doing that in rough weather!  

We touched down without incident (thank goodness!), and I spent the rest of the day wandering around town, and sorting final logistics for my week long solo-hike in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.  I really hope the weather remains like this!

move mouse over image to see full panorama

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Felt making workshop – Bishkek

One of the things I love to do while travelling is trying my hand at any local handcraft I come across. I still wear the silver ring I made in Nicaragua, travel with the scarf I made for myself in El Salvador, and will forever be in awe of the women who make the beautiful and intricate textiles in Guatemala – just to highlight a few. I was therefore very excited to join Bishkek Walks on another of their amazing experiences – this one to make my own felt product.

Felt making was one of the most important traditional skills in Kyrgyzstan. In particular, the technique of Ала кийиз (Ala-kiyiz) – literally “Multi-coloured felt” – was used to create clothing, as well as carpets and other everyday items for the yurts of the nomadic Kyrgyz. This is the technique we would be learning.

Our small group met at one of the many amazing coffee shops in central Bishkek, and Gulmira, a felt artist and our teacher, began by showing us some of the different products she’d made recently.

Gulmira displaying her artistic felts as an introduction to the workshop
Gulmira displaying her artistic felts as an introduction to the workshop. Rahat is translating for us though Gulmira did speak some English

Gulmira actually has a degree in fine arts and, although the use of coloured thread and embroidery in felt work was traditionally used by the nomads, she takes it to another level for modern tastes.

Selection of Gulmira's artistic felts
Selection of Gulmira’s artistic felts

I particularly loved this one where she had incorporated the use of material as well for a very 3-dimensional artwork.

Black and white artistic felt by Gulmira
This is a beautiful piece of art

While she showed us the different pieces, Gulmira also talked about the history of carpets and felting in Kyrgyzstan. It is a big job (as we would soon discover), and she painted a lively picture of how the nomadic people would congregate and work together to assist with the preparation of felts (and other items), given the amount of work involved.

Soon enough, it was time for us to try our hand at making our own piece of felt artwork.

Step 1: Felt making workshop

Choose your base colour. Gulmira had bought a large shopping bag full of wool that had been dyed different colours. I decided to go with a maroon base and blue highlights – two of my favourite colours.

Selecting wool for our felts - Felt workshop - Bishkek
Selecting wool for our felts (top) and the colours I chose to work with (bottom)

Don’t worry – I’ll explain later. I, too, was intrigued as to the purpose of the washing up sponge and the soap!

Step 2: Felt making workshop

Lay a thick base for the felt by pulling the wool apart and layering the stretched fibres over the top of each other.

images of laying the base of the felt mat - Felt workshop - Bishkek
Gulmira showing me how it’s done (left) and me trying to replicate (right)

I think a video will work better to explain this step.

Step 3: Felt making workshop

Once you have a full, fluffy base-layer down, turn by 90 degrees and add another layer over the top. This could be another block colour, or you could choose to start bringing other colours in.

Step 4: Felt making workshop

Add a final layer where you finish off the design with more intricate patterns if you wish. I decided not to get too fancy for my first attempt

My final wool mat, ready for felting - Felt Workshop - Bishkek
My final wool mat, ready for felting

but Gulmira’s effort was very impressive! The orange-looking things are actually pomegranates – she has a whole collection of artworks based around these fruits. As you can see, the resulting mat of wool can be several centimeters thick!

Gulmira's final wool mat ready for felting - felt workshop - Bishkek
Gulmira’s final wool mat is a little more intricate than mine

Step 5: Felt making workshop

Lay fine gauze over the wool mat and wet thoroughly with hot water. The idea is to saturate the wool and compress it into a thin layer while retaining the design.

So this is what the washing up sponge was for…

Step 6: Felt making workshop

Now the soap came into play. To help speed up the process of matting, we took the soap and rubbed it vigorously into the mat through the gauze. Again this helped compress the wool fibres and aid in their transformation into a self-supporting felt.

Soaping and compressing the wool mat to make felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
… and this was the reason for the soap

I have to admit, I couldn’t seem to make mine mat together very well and Gulmira was brilliant at helping me finally get it to work. I suspect my layering of the fibres was not as good as it should have been (I didn’t have enough fibres laid), but we got there in the end.

Step 7: Felt making workshop

The next step was to take the saturated felt, roll it up tightly, and squeeze out much of the excess water.

Rolling is a crucial part of felt making

It was then time to roll it from every side to make it start to shrink. After going one round with the gauze still intact, we removed this layer and went again. After another round of rolling from all sides, we then carefully peeled the felt off the backing material and kept rolling – including diagonally now.

rolling the felt to make it shrink - felt workshop - Bishkek
Roll, roll, roll, roll. From every side, from every corner, until it is the size you want it to be and it is properly matted

We were being quite delicate and precious with our felt when we started this step, but eventually Gulmira stepped in and showed us how vigorous and rough we could get with the material. Traditionally, the felt product would be rolled with hands and trodden on for several hours in order to mat the fibres together. We were being far too gentle it seems!

In the end, my geometric design turned out a bit wonky – but that is the nature of Ala-kiyiz.

my finished felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
It’s a little wonky… perhaps I shouldn’t have gone with straight lines on my first try?

I was very impressed by the designs the others had created (most of which turned out less wonky than mine) and Gulmira’s pomegranates looked amazing!

finished felts of all participants - felt workshop - Bishkek
Final felts from Dina, Rahat, Gulmira and Sjannie (clockwise from top left)

She was actually going to take it home and work on it a lot more – rolling it until it had shrunk down to about 1/4 size so she could make earrings out of it!

detail of Gulmira's pomegranate felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
Now I understand the structure! The pomegranates are mirrored so they can be folded over and gathered together into a dual-sided earring! Clever!

Recommendation

In my opinion, the best souvenirs are either the ones you purchase directly from an artisan, or ones that you make yourself under the instruction of an artisan. The Felt Workshop hosted by Bishkek Walks is a wonderful opportunity to create your own felt product using a traditional Kyrgyz technique, and is a wonderful way to experience first hand the challenges involved in creating these impressive everyday items. I can’t imagine making a whole carpet like this!

Felt workshop group with our finished felts - Bishkek
Our finished felts

Time: ~3hrs or a bit longer, depending on the group.

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.

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Mosaic walking tour – Bishkek

Having explored an obscure but interesting part of the history of Kyrgyzstan’s capital on the Interhelpo: The making of industrial Bishkek walking tour with Bishkek Walks, I immediately signed up for Rahat’s Mosaics of Bishkek: Soviet Street Art exploration. I have a particular fascination for street art wherever I go so was very keen to see what Bishkek had to offer.

Detail of one of the mosaics on the Bishkek mosaic walking tour

An added interest for this particular tour was that all of these artworks were created between the 1960s and 1980s to highlight the positive elements of the Soviet system and “inspire citizens with beautiful everyday surroundings”. I was curious to see what this looked like.

Sunny Fish Fountain

We met less than 100m from where I’m staying in central Bishkek (literally around the nearest corner) at a large fountain that I must have walked past at least 10 times but never noticed! 😳

Rahat talking about the Sunny Fish Fountain
How did I manage to miss this?

The Sunny Fish Fountain was built in 1982 by Russian designer Vladimir Krugman as Soviet limitations on artistic freedom were relaxing. It is pretty easy to see how it got its name 🙂

Sun and fish of the Sunny Fish Fountain - Bishkek
Fish and sun anyone?

The tiles are made from melted glass stained with different compounds, some of which had to be transported all the way from Belarus. The artists involved in the project had to travel, create each tile, transport it back to Bishkek and erect the statue themselves – quite an undertaking for a fountain as large as this!

The whole and details of the Sunny Fish Fountain - Bishkek
Sunny Fish Fountain seen in its entirety and in detail

Ala-Too Movie Theatre

Our next stop was a few blocks away at the avant-garde Ala-Too movie theatre. This is the oldest cinema in Bishkek and is recognised as a cultural monument of the Kyrgyz people. Rahat explained a little about the history of social change in Kyrgyzstan during the life of the theatre, before focusing in on the artwork that decorates the upper part of the building.

Walking tour group in front of Ala-Too movie theatre - Bishkek

It turns out, this is not the original decoration! In 1963, to mark the 100th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan joining Russia, the original horses were replaced by panels showing the achievements of the Soviet Union, including a man with a dove to symbolise peace, a cosmonaut to represent scientific achievements, and people reading books to symbolise education.

Artwork panels on Ala-Too movie theatre - Bishkek
A cosmonaut, the Soviet star, education alongside agriculture, the hammer and sickle, and a symbol of peace now adorn the Ala-Too movie theatre

Labor mosaic

After a stop at the Monument of Friendship (another creation to mark 100 years of Kyrgyzstan joining Russia) and a discussion of the Women mosaic and others that visitors are now not able to see because they are located in a privately owned buildings, we walked about 1km west to find our next artwork.

The Labor mosaic by Mihail Bochkarev and Altymysh Usubaliev was created in 1964 and was one of the first mosaics in Krygyzstan. The panel depicts some of the working class of the Soviet Union (farmers and factory workers) and also some of the more intellectual achievements (scientists sending rockets to outer space).

Walking tour group in front of the Labor mosiac - Bishkek
Note how the mural is located on the side of a pretty standard Soviet building

They used river pebbles as a cheap and convenient material to create the artwork, and it is an example of how artists attempted to beautify empty space on the walls of otherwise boring Soviet buildings.

An unusual thing about this mosaic is that it includes a panel with the names of the artists. Since artwork was supposed to be created for the enjoyment of all people, the artists themselves were generally not deemed important and very few include this acknowledgement.

The Path to Enlightenment mosaic

Another kilometre further west (yes, there is a fair bit of walking in this tour), we arrived at one of the campuses of the Kyrgyz National University whose back entrance sports an amazing mosaic called The Path to Enlightenment.

Walking tour group in front of the Path to Enlightenment mosaic - Bishkek
The front entrance is not nearly as beautiful

Created in 1974 by Satar Aitiev, it remains a mystery how this particular mosaic was even allowed! During this period, the Kyrgyz Union of Artists dictated that all artwork had to be accessible and easily understandable to the common person without explanation or interpretation. They had a lot of control over what an artist could create and would intervene in the design of artworks if they did not adhere to their guidelines

The Path of Enlightenment mosaic in Bishkek

Its modernist, painting-like feel was completely at odds with anything that had ever been done in before Kyrgyzstan and definitely requires some interpretation! The passive figures are in stark contrast to the strong and active figures typical of Soviet style art, and although religion was not part of the Soviet era in Kyrgyzstan, the central figure is almost spiritual in nature.

Radio and Nowadays mosaic

Our next stop was Bishkek’s telecommunications office and its very relevant mural of a giant sending out radio waves. Science was a favourite topic for artists during the Soviet time (we’ve already seen scientists depicted in the murals above), and this science-related mosaic was again made from cheap, local pebbles.

Radio and Nowadays mosaic - Bishkek
Note the use of pebbles to make up the mosaic

The Lenin is with us mosaic

The final artwork we visited on the tour, Lenin is with us, turned out to be another vast mural canvas. Created in 1978 by Lidia Ilyina (a rare female artist), it depicts the whole of Soviet society, including soldiers of the Red Army, female and male working class citizens, students, pioneers and, of course, Lenin.

Walking group in front of part of the Lenin is with us mosaic - Bishkek

Interestingly, all of the men are depicted with some kind of profession while the women play a support role. As a female artist, whether this was her artistic impression of the realities of society at the time and she wanted to send a message within the constraints of the Artist’s Union guidelines, or whether it was simply an order from the state – nobody knows.

Lenin is with us mosaic - Bishkek

We also don’t know whether the fact that Lenin (depicted in his classic posture showing the way to communism) occupies a significant portion of the mural perhaps indicates the artist felt that Lenin was being forgotten. Unfortunately, records were not kept about any of the artworks created at the time and so many remain open to historical interpretation.

Lenin figure in the Lenin is with us mosaic - Bishkek

Recommendation

If you are interested in the history of a location told through artwork, the Bishkek Mosaics Walking Tour is fantastic.

Rahat had a lot of information about each of the mosaics and wove them together with the story of the Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet era history in a really amazing tour. She covered a lot more than what I’ve summarised above so definitely do the tour to learn more!

Time: 2hrs. Note: it is about 4km of walking and you end in a different place from where you start. Rahat can offer advice on how to get back to where you need to go.

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.

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Interhelpo and the making of industrial Bishkek – walking tour

When I was in Kyrgyzstan 2 years ago, I really wanted to participate in the walking tours offered by Bishkek Walks. Dennis from Walking Almaty (the Green Bazaar and Golden Quarter tours are two of the best walking tours I’ve ever done) recommended them to me, but unfortunately I did not have enough time, given our small delay in mud of the Tamgaly Petroglyphs in Kazakhstan.

I was therefore very excited to see that the day after I arrived for my second trip to Bishkek, the Interhelpo and the making of industrial Bishkek walking tour was scheduled. Yes – it is a bit of a random theme for a walking tour. But this is what I love about about tours offered by Bishkek Walks and Walking Almaty! They go beyond the standard history spiel and tour of obvious buildings to showcase something different and unusual about these cities.

Selfies of me, Rahat and David
David (right) joined myself and Rahat (centre; the guide) on the Interhelpo walking tour. Thanks for the photo Rahat!

The story of Interhelpo

Rahat began by explaining the origin of Interhelpo – a cooperative of industrial workers and farmers who came to Bishkek in the 1920s from Žilina, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). Their goal: to build a socialist economy within Soviet Kyrgyzstan and introduce modern industrial and agricultural practices to the country. As Rahat explains in her blurb about the tour:

More than one thousand workers including their family members arrived in Kyrgyzstan – a pure land that was free from capitalism, and where they could build a new, equal socialist society.

As we walked down a seemingly non-descript street lined by the houses built by Interhelpo members, Rahat painted a detailed picture of the hardships and challenges faced by these intrepid souls when they first arrived in Bishkek.

Scenes from the street with Rahat showing us before photos of the area and the way people lived
Rahat had many historical photos to illustrate her descriptions of Interhelpo and how the people lived
Photos of the exteriors of different houses built by Interhelpo - Bishkek
Some of the different houses built by Interhelpo. The man in the main panel invited us into his home. Here he is explaining that the original Czech exterior is the green layer and the grey “shell” decoration was added as a “beautification” in the 1970s. You can also see some whales/dolphins (bottom-left) and a rocket (bottom-centre) that were also added as part of this beautification process.

Even now, families living in the apartments that were built during that time do not have a lot of luxuries. We were lucky enough to meet a man who invited us into his small and crowded home for a short visit. There was very limited light and the walls were so thick (at least 30cm!) the lady of the house complained that there was no way you could make modifications even if you wanted to.

I guess buildings were constructed in this “brute force” manner as the Interhelpo cooperative did not include any architects or engineers in their midst!

Scenes from inside one of the Interhelpo apartment buildings - Bishkek
Inside the dark hallways of one of the Interhelpo apartment buildings

The achievements of Interhelpo

Despite this difficult start, the members of Interhelpo went on to achieve a great deal in a very short time through sheer determination and hard work.

At the centre of their endeavours were the all-important factories they originally envisaged. Unfortunately, we were not able to enter (it is now a modern industrial complex) but you can clearly see it is the same gate in the image below.

Modern day and historic images of the gate to the factories of Interhelpo
Modern day (top) and historic (bottom) photo of the main gate to the factories. You can see it is the same gate if you look for the 3 doors that are now hidden behind the blue gate

They also built a vibrant community that operated under Socialist ideals. This included a Community House – complete with theatre and meeting rooms.

The theatre inside the Interhelpo community centre - Bishkek
The theatre inside the old Interhelpo Community Centre. Note the old-fashioned chairs.

An impressive stadium that you are still able to rent out for 900 Kyrgyzstani Som (about USD$13) per hour. I love the old board showing matches between the different factories (vertical) for the different sporting events (horizontal).

Images from outside and inside the stadium built by Interhelpo - Bishkek
Outside and inside the stadium built by Interhelpo. Bottom-left is the old match fixtures board.

A swimming complex. I’m not sure I would want to swim there myself, but the kids were having fun and I thought the diving platforms (now into an empty diving pool) were awesome.

Images of the swimming complex built by Interhelpo - Bishkek
The main pool (top) was filled with water but I wouldn’t want to jump off the impressive diving platforms (bottom) at the minute!

And amazingly large parks that have been revived in recent years by the descendants of Interhelpo members and funding from the Czech government.

Rahat and David walking in one of the parks built by Interhelpo
Part of the large park established by Interhelpo and recently revived.

Interhelpo also built many more buildings and a lot of the basic infrastructure of Bishkek before dissolving in 1943 and having its assets transferred into the hands of the State. An ironic end to this interesting experiment in socialism.

Recommendation

If you are interested in history and want to learn about a different aspect of the development of Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan, the Interhelpo and the making of industrial Bishkek walking tour is a great option.

It was a fascinating 2hr stroll through an area of Bishkek that tourists don’t generally visit, learning about a history that few people are even aware of. Rahat has loads of stories and details that I haven’t gone into here – you actually have to do the tour to learn more 😉

Time: 2hrs

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.

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