Tag Archives: Kyrgyzstan

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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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Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan via Pamir Highway – Part 2

Late start this morning after a night that was still below zero, but not quite as cold the night before.   Was lovely to be able to eat breakfast in the sunshine and enjoy the view 😊

Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

Then, with 20 sets of fingers and toes crossed, we headed back up the road to see if we could make it to Tajikistan.   James gave a couple of hoots of victory as we passed beyond our obstacle from yesterday, and the road did seem clearer, thanks to the passing of a few vehicles over the previous hours. 

Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

It was pretty precarious going at times, and we all actually got off the truck a couple of times so that James could just fang it through the mud, but we finally reached the Kyrgyz border successfully.

Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

My fellow travelers seemed to have limited concern for their safety standing where they were!

After completing the paperwork, it was out into no-man’s land, where the slight concern was that if we got stuck, who would help rescue us given we weren’t officially in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan…  

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

We are going to be in trouble if this gets worse!

But it turns out it wasn’t us who got stuck!   Instead, we came came up behind a truck that had cut the corner too close and was blocking the road.  

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Armed with shovels and crowbars, we helped dig them out of that predicament and tried to get them to back up into the wide corner so we could overtake them (they had an overladen 2WD vehicle with no snow chains on this road!).   

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

They weren’t having a bar of it and took off ahead of us.  About 20 minutes later, we come up behind them again – “stuck” because they couldn’t get up a part of the road due to wheel ruts and ice.   Gayle and James went to talk to them to, once again, try and get them to pull off to the left and let us past.  

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Which they did, kind of, after about ½ hour.    Unfortunately, they didn’t pull off far enough and they were on quite a lean, so when we went to go around them, the back of their truck took out the rear 2 windows of our truck!

oops - Pamir Highway

The 3rd rear window broke as we extricated our truck from theirs and then the real frustration started.   We pulled out our crowbars and shovels and set about trying to help them re-make the road to their satisfaction – but all they did was a lot of standing around and looking at the predicament – not actually doing anything.    And they refused to back up more to let us around.   It was a complete stalemate.

During this time, most of our group actually walked over the top of the hill to the Tajik border post (we were literally 500m short of the border!) and an hour later, when Gayle and Lauren and I decided there really was nothing we could do to get these idiots to move, we headed there as well. 

Pamir Highway - no-mans-land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

The group starts the walk up and over the hill to the Tajik border post

Over the top of the pass, we ran into 3 of our guys coming the other way … with 2 Tajik guys in camo!    We do love our guys in camo 😊   We kept going to the border to see how everyone was holding up – not great it turns out – even though the Tajik border guards had turned on the hospitality and everyone was sitting in a nice warm room with tea.    

Tajik Border Post - Pamir Highway

Given we were waiting anyway, we decided to at least get all the passports processed, but a few people had left their stuff on the truck.   So, Gayle and Jose and I walked back to the truck to collect the paperwork, and see how the truck was getting on as well.

The good news, was that the truck had moved!   Apparently, our friends in camo basically told the other driver to stop being a dick and move out of the way so we could get around them.    Unfortunately, we were now having trouble getting up a short icy patch, even with snow chains on ☹

Gayle and I collected the paperwork and started walking back to the Tajik border post.   We got over the pass and were ½ way down the hill when we heard a couple of victory hoots from James and the yellow beast came over the rise 😊    Soooooooooo glad to see the truck!

They picked us up (that would be right, after we’d walked the hard bit over the 5000m pass again) and we rolled into the border post with less fanfare than I was expecting.   I guess everyone was too nice and warm and busy sipping tea…

Then the next saga – 2 of the passengers didn’t have a paper copy, nor a downloaded electronic copy of their Tajik visa.   They thought they would have internet access so they could show the border guards … um, no.   This is a very remote border with very, very little traffic.  

Another hour or so passed while they tried to figure out with the border guards how they could get into the country.  Finally, after concocting an elaborate plan in which one of the 2 passengers with the visa issue would stay at the border, while one of the border guards come with us to the nearest town so that the other passenger with the visa issue could log onto the internet and save a copy of the visas, then return with a taxi to drop off the border guard and pick up the first guy, and then return to us again … In the end, it was all sorted in 2 minutes with a “quiet chat” behind closed doors and the exchange of US$300.

We drove about 100m to then be confronted with the customs checkpoint for Tajikistan!   Everybody’s passports and visas collected again to be transcribed into yet another book by hand…  By this time, the sun had set behind the mountains and it was getting very cold, despite having taped a tarp over the smashed windows (we were at ~5,000m after all). 

About 45 minutes later, we were on our way finally – down a dodgy road in the dark after a very trying day.   We were aiming for the town of Karakul and a guesthouse, which we eventually arrived at a very cold 1.5 hours later.    Kudos to James for delivering us safely – I’m sure the last thing in the world he wanted to do was drive down an unknown, crappy mountain road in the dark.

The guesthouse was awesome – with rugs on the walls and tons of rugs for the floor and doonas to cover us.   I also had my sleeping bag with me – it was sooooo nice to have a warm night!

Guesthouse - Lake Karakul - Tajikistan

Got up early the next morning to discover we were right beside Lake Karakol, one of the biggest lakes in Tajikistan.   Stunning morning and absolutely glorious setting!

Lake Karakol - Tajikistan

The guesthouse provided bread and eggs, and after a wonderful breakfast of fried eggs, and after doing our best to do a proper tape-up job where the windows were, we were off again – this time down the Tajik side of the Pamir highway.    

Driving this road was actually of the key reasons I decided to do this trip with Madventure.   Most other overland trips don’t drive the Pamir highway, but it is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I first heard about it. 

One of the immediately obvious things was this very impressive fence that we followed for a very, very long time.   I’m assuming it marked the start of no-man’s-land with China, given how close to the border we were.

Chinese Border - Kyrgyzstan

Lots of beautiful frozen scenery, and having blue skies was an absolute bonus!

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

The Tajik border guards had told us that the Tajik side of the Pamir highway was much better than the Kyrgyz side of it, but I think they may have been talking things up a bit…  Yes, it was paved … kind of.   But for much of the day we averaged between 20km/hr – 30km/hr because of the potholes and the fact it would descend into a seriously corrugated dirt road on occasion!

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

We eventually made it to Murghab where we stopped for lunch and to get more diesel.  I decided to try the Samsa for lunch – basically a meat and onion and fat “pie” or “empanada” – which was very tasty, but I did pick the globs of fat out before eating!

Samsa - Tajikistan

Then it was back on the highway and desperately trying to make it to Khorog as quickly as possible.    We had to go over two more high passes, and unfortunately, due to the super-bad roads, this took much longer than hoped.  That being said – I really appreciated the extended amount of time we had to enjoy the scenery 🙂

Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

In the end, we watched a gorgeous sunset, and drove in the dark for quite a long way, praying that James could see where he was going!   There was some concern at one point when James chucked at 13-point-turn having ended up on a bad road that didn’t seem correct.   Then chucked another 7-point-turn when he turned around again to deliberate on which way to go.   We ended up going the same way as we were originally headed given that we had seen 2 trucks come from that direction, and fortunately it turned out to be correct – just a very, very poorly signposted detour!

Sunset on Pamir Highway - Tajikistan

Fortunately, it was getting warmer as we descended, so I didn’t mind sitting back and watching the snowy mountains slide by under the light of the half-moon.  It was absolutely beautiful, and my thoughts were half a world away!

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Looking out the window at Kyrgyzstan

The way I’m traveling at the minute is not my typical style. Usually I spend a fair amount of time in a place before moving onto the next, and I rarely have a set schedule for doing so – if I like a place, I’ll stay longer.  If I don’t like a place, then I’ll move on.

So I’ve had to really change the way I think in order to deal with the rapid pace and set schedule of the current trip.    I actually chose to do an overland tour precisely because I wanted to travel along the Silk Road, and that is how I’ve come to think of it – I’m on my “mechanical camel” plodding (the roads have been really bad for much of it, and even on the rare occasion they have been decent we are speed limited to 90km/hr) along the Silk Road.   It’s not about the destinations so much (they are an added bonus), it is about the journey.

Which means that I spend a heck of a lot of time sitting in the overland truck staring out the window.

Staring out the window - Turkmenistan

And I’m loving it!

One thing these endless hours of quiet contemplation reveals is patterns within the country we are traveling through.  I don’t often know the reason behind some of these things – lacking a person to ask – and I don’t have a picture for all of them (it’s unbelievably difficult to take pictures out of a moving truck when you are being bounced around like you are on a kid’s jumping castle), but here they are anyway 🙂

Kyrgyzstan is a land of:

  • Mountains

mountains kyrgyzstan

  • Transformers at ground level

transformer - kyrgyzstan

  • Blue  painted decorative windows

blue windows - kyrgyzstan

  • Decorative woodwork

blue windows - Kyrgyzstan

  • This fence

Fence - Kyrgyzstan

  • Re-purposed rail cars

repurposed railcars - kyrgyzstan

  • Cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms - Kyrgyzstan

  • Abandoned buildings
  • Half finished buildings that don’t look like they will ever be completed 
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Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan via Pamir Highway – Part 1

Leaving Bishkek for the last time, we had 2 long drive days to the Tajikistan border via Osh.  Aigol from the Green Apple hostel wished us luck with a juniper burning ceremony, and off we headed. 

Juniper ceremony - Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is most definitely a land of mountains – with over 90% of the country actually classified as such.   We started up and over the first mountain range during the morning of the first day – gorgeous scenery of course!

Kyrgyzstan

We passed under several avalanche/rockfalls protectors – obviously, some vehicles were a little higher than they should have been!

Kyrgyzstan avalanche tunnels

And ultimately passed through a 2.5km long tunnel to emerge on the other side.

Kyrgyz tunnels

From there it was down into a stunning valley

Kyrgyzstan

And into a canyon,

Kyrgyzstan

where we found our campsite for the night just off the side of the road.  The guy who owned the abandoned building to the left came and said hello to us and even helped some of our group pitch their tents inside!

Bush Camp - Kyrgyzstan

The next day we were up and out of there fairly early for another full day on the road.   

We stopped just before Osh to finally fill our 800L water tank to the brim at a local tap (first time it has been full since I joined the trip), which took about 45 minutes.   One does wonder why they have to put barbed wire around the tap?!

Filling up - with water

My cook group was on duty for the next 24 hours, so when we finally got to Osh at about 1:30pm – we headed straight to the market to buy what we needed for dinner and breakfast for 20 people.   I’d taken the lead in my group and wanted to cook something “local” as I figured it would be simple to find the ingredients.   To this end, I’d downloaded a recipe for Lagman while in Bishkek and that’s what we were shopping for.

lagman

With the help of Google translate (into Russian) and lots of pointing, we managed to get everything we needed, though finding mutton was surprisingly difficult!   We did get some, but decided to get some other “mystery meat” as well (I suspect it was horse – it was quite dark and gamey) to bulk out the meat content of the dish.   I also bought a heap of pistachios, honeyed peanuts with sesame seeds on them, dried dates and halva to combine together into a “mix-platter” for a local dessert. 

Had just enough time after that to find a shashlik on the street for lunch (oh my god it was good!  I should have ordered 2!), to change my Kyrgyz money into Tajik money, and buy a bottle of coke (it was the first bottle of full-strength coke I’ve drunk since Coke Zero came out … I actually prefer Coke Zero!) before it was back on the overland truck to continue our journey.

From Osh – we joined the famous Pamir Highway (one of the highlights of the trip for me), and we headed up another stunning pass in the late afternoon

Kyrgyzstan

and, once over the top, found ourselves another abandoned building with an area for the truck to set up camp for the night.    Trust me to be on the cook group that is cooking in the snow!

Bush camp - Kyrgyzstan

Fortunately, the cooking kept my hands warm, though my feet slowly froze through 2 pairs of socks and my hiking boots.   Unfortunately, there are no images of the cooking process, nor the outcome – I was too cold and too distracted to think of it!   But – judging from the comments of my fellow travelers and the number of people who came back seeking out seconds – the Lagman was a huge success 😊    As was the desert!   I think several people were surprised to hear that it was all locally inspired.

Filled up my coke bottle with boiling water before heading to bed as soon as everything was packed up.   Yes – the “hot water bottle” trick I discovered last year on the Huayhuash trek is back, and the real reason I bought the Coke in the first place at lunch 😊    

In summary, the night was COLD!  Thank God for the Coke-hot-water-bottle, as I did manage to warm my feet up before falling asleep.   It turns out that whatever the temperature was overnight, I was just warm enough with my sleeping bag and tent.    Of course, had to get up and go to the loo twice during the night.   Tried to make both times quick as possible, but even that short view of the stars was magic.

It was well below zero overnight, because when our cook group got up at 6:15am to start breakfast, we were confronted with a frozen hose from the water tank!  Hmmmm…. Didn’t think of that!    Managed to unfreeze it and put the kettles on for a brekkie of potato/sausage/onion/egg stirfry + tea/coffee + bread.   Everyone else stayed warm for as long as they could and only emerged when breakfast was ready.  My hands were so cold that they’d gone beyond pain and into complete numbness.   Made it very had to pull down my ½-frozen tent!

Back in the (unheated) truck and rugged up with my refilled Coke-hot-water-bottle and my sleeping bag until I defrosted.  I think there were several others in the group who wished they had done Coke-hot-water-bottle thing last night and this morning as well!

On the truck

Up and over yet another stunning pass

Gorgeous scenery along Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

and we were finally approaching the border with Tajikistan.    Unfortunately, we were only 30kms away when we were confronted with this:

Snow on Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

Snow chains went on

Time for snow chains - Kyrgyzstan

And we plunged forward, only to be turned back about 500m further up the road – we just couldn’t get traction.    We stopped an old Russian van (those things really can go anywhere) to ask about the road ahead, but they said that it was completely snowy on the Kyrgyz side, but clear on the Tajik side.   So, no go for us.   

The decision was then made to try the other border that was about an hour or so away … though we’d heard that it was not for international tourists.   It was a lovely drive up a valley to be confronted with a small, padlocked barrier.

Border Crossing - Kyrgyzstan

Gayle and James went to see what they could arrange with the border guards, who explained that that border crossing was only for locals under a treaty with the Tajik government.   However, they were extremely helpful and called Bishkek to see if we could get special permission to cross.  They also called the main pass that we’d tried earlier and told them to send the snow plow down to clear the road.  

Unfortunately, Bishkek said “no” and we headed back up the valley to the main pass to await the snow plough to do its thing.   We ended up camping at the intersection, given it wasn’t clear how long it would take to clear 30kms of snow and it was going to be better to camp at 3000m rather than somewhere along an unknown mountain pass where there probably wasn’t anywhere to camp anyway.    Cook group 6 did a great job – was very yummy.   Then time for an early bed.   Couldn’t beat the view either!

Kyrgyzstan - camping on the Pamir Highway

My tent is the one on the far left in the middle image

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Kyrgyz Food

The first day in Bishkek, a group of us went on a walking tour with the amazing Aigol from the Green Apple Hostel to learn a little about the city.  I mentioned to her that I was really interested in the traditional food of the countries I visit and asked her to let me know if we came across anything very typical of Kyrgyzstan.

Along the way, we found this lady selling traditional Kyrgyz drinks in one of the many parks in Bishkek.  The options were: Shoro – a wheat drink, Tan – a salty yoghurt drink, or juice.   Aigol ordered the Tan and I had a sip of that – definitely not my thing.   So, I ordered the Shoro – oh my God – absolutely not my thing either.  I had to surreptitiously pour it out in the garden – I really couldn’t drink it!     Lesson learned – I don’t like traditional Kyrgyz drinks!

Traditional Kyrgyz drinks - Shoro and Tan - Bishkek

A little later on, everyone was up for the suggestion of Aigol that we finish the walking tour with lunch at a Kyrgyz restaurant.   It was quite a fancy place with an extensive menu … difficult to decide what to have!

I ended up ordering the most typical Kyrgyz version of “Beshbarmak on – Naryn”: horsemeat, long noodles, onion.  Yeah – not the tastiest thing I’ve eaten … I think I’m done with Beshbarmaks now 😊

Kyrgyz food - Beshbarmak on – Naryn - Bishkek

I also ordered a couple of traditional breads to go with it – Boorsok is a fried dough that is quite plain, but would be awesome with some sort of sauce or yoghurt to dip into. 

Kyrgyz food - Boorsok - Bishkek

And Kattama – fried layered pastry dough with spring onion – which was very tasty, and went down very well cold the next day for lunch as well!

Kyrgyz food - Kattama - Bishkek

Had a great lunch with Aigol and really appreciate her taking extra hours out to introduce us to some of the food of Kyrgyzstan!

We had another opportunity to try a very famous Kyrgyz dish when we visited the town of Karakol on our 3-day trip around Issyk Kul.   Our driver took us to what looked like a hole-in-the-wall place (but one that was very, very popular with the locals) so we could try Ashlyan-fu, the specialty of the town.

Ashlyan-fu restaurant - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Ashlyan-fu is a dish of cold, vinegary noodles with fish.   I didn’t find any actual fish in mine, so maybe “fishy bits” might be a more accurate description!   It was really delicious and had a bit of a kick to it as well (which was a really lovely surprise) – perhaps due to its origins as a Dungan dish imported from China.   This was served with a bread stuffed with potatoes, which was a nice counterpart to the spicy dish.

Ashlyan-fu - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Then, when we stayed in the yurt camp, I had the opportunity to try Kyrgyz Plov.  Very similar to Kazakh Plov, and just as tasty.  I do really like this dish 😊

Plov - Kyrgyzstan

So, very happy to have the opportunity to try several Kyrgyz dishes, and I reckon I’ll be back to visit this amazing country in the future!

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Issyk Kul – Kyrgyzstan

While we were waiting for James to un-stick the truck from the Tamgaly petroglyph mud with the help of his fireman and Army friends, we hired a mini-van and headed off from Bishkek for a 3-day tour around Issyk Kul – the second largest mountain lake in the world (behind Lake Titicaca).

Around Issyk Kul - Kyrgyzstan

It turned out that it is a bloody long way around this lake, so there was a lot of hours spent in the minivan driving.   But we did get to the following sites:

Burana Archaeological Complex

This complex is actually the remains of an ancient (X-XIV century) settlement, the most prominent feature of which is the Burana Tower – a minaret from the XI century and one of the first known in Central Asia.    These minarets were typically built around morgues to call the faithful to prayer and to also serve as watchtowers.  At 24m tall, it is only about half its original height (the top part has been destroyed) and is adorned by “ornamental belts” and other decorations.

Burana Tower and Archaeological Complex - Kyrgyzstan

The interior staircase is not for the claustrophobic, and is made out of bricks.  It is a one-way street only so timing your ascent/descent when others are around can be challenging!

Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

Although the tower is what draws visitors to the site, there are other areas to explore as well.   There were many examples of petroglyphs on display.

Petroglyphs - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

As well as stone sculptures and monuments from the Turkic nomads.  These sculptures typically include features such as hats, clothing, ornaments and weapons, and some are depicted holding a vessel in their right hand.

stone sculptures and monuments from the Turkic nomads - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

Then there were the giant millstones, used in water mills along the Burana River for grinding the grains the population cultivated.

Giant millstones - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

And stone columns with different writing systems – including Turkic and Sogdian scripts.

Differnet writings - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

Unfortunately, we only had an hour at the site, which was nowhere near enough time to explore it properly.   The whole Burana Archaeological Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – yes, still finding them everywhere 😊

Petroglyphs at Cholpon Ata

Because you can never see too many petroglyphs, several hours later we stopped at a very large petroglyph field at Cholpon Ata.   This was basically a huge field full of boulders and scattered rocks, and although there was a map of where to find things at the entrance, it really didn’t help at all!

Cholpon Ata - Kyrgyzstan

Hmmm… which ones have petroglyphs?

But, wandering around, I managed to find several of the petroglyphs – a few of which were really, really impressive!

Petroglyphs at Cholpon Ata - Kyrgyzstan

There were also a handful of examples of the Turkic nomad sculptures

Turkic nomad sculpture - Cholpon Ata - Kyrgyzstan

And beautiful views of both the mountains and the lake.

Cholpon Ata and Lake Issyk Kul - Kyrgyzstan

Again, we had an hour here, but perhaps 1.5 hours would be better

Dungan Mosque

Once we reached Karakol – one of the biggest towns on the lake – we visited a couple of specific buildings.  The first was the Dungan Mosque – a very ornate building which was apparently built without a single nail (the wooden sticks are curved in special way to create a stable building without nails).   If it seems to be Chinese in style – it is!  The Dungans were Chinese muslims who left China due to their religion, and this particular mosque was built by a Chinese architect and several artisans between 1907 and 1910 for the Dungan community in Karakol.

Dungan Mosque - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Pravoslavik Church

The second location we visited in Karakol was a very intricately decorated Russian Orthodox church built entirely of wood!  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed – so this was the only one I could sneak while sitting in the grass eating a banana.  It was really a spectacular building!

Pravoslavik Church - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Jeti Oguz

Leaving Karakol, we headed back out into nature to visit Jeti Oguz – the “valley of the 7 bulls”.  This is a geological protected area, and I have to admit I was puzzled about how they came up with 7 bulls from the formation.  No matter which way I dice it, I don’t get 7.   Would have been great to have had more time here to do some hiking, some of the pictures I’ve seen of the surrounding area are gorgeous!

Jeti Oguz - Kyrgyzstan

Fairytale Canyon

Then it was on to the Fairytale Canyon, which features eroded and multi-coloured rocky formations.

Fairytale Canyon - Kyrgyzstan

Before spending our second night right on the lakeside at the Bokonbaevo yurt camp.

Bokonbaevo yurt camp - Kyrgyzstan

Issyk Ata

Our last day around the lake dawned overcast and rainy.   This was OK though since we really just had a long drive back to Bishkek with only one stop at the waterfall and hot springs at Issyk Ata.   Given it was cold and I hadn’t had a proper shower for a few days, my original plan was to hit the hot springs.  But when we got there, these turned out to be essentially a swimming pool – ie not very natural.

So, I decided to chase after Gayle who decided to hike to the waterfall instead.   It was snowing and absolutely freezing cold, and I never did catch up to Gayle (turned out I went right when I should have kept going straight to find the waterfall), but my quick hike up the valley above the river was very pretty, even if my face froze on the way back as I walked into the wind and snow.

Issyk Ata - Kyrgyzstan

Summary

Issyk Kul Lake is one of the key tourist attractions of Kyrgyzstan.  And although it was nice, I didn’t find it all that spectacular to be honest.   It’s a very big lake and if I were to choose a side – I would say the southern side is prettier (and more remote) than the northern side, which seems to have a string of towns run into each other along the road.  

Not sure if my opinion would change with a different itinerary – and perhaps there are ways to do hiking around the lake with amazing views (I will need to look this up for next time),  so although it was great to get out of Bishkek and see new places, I would explore other areas of Kyrgyzstan before returning here.

 

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Ala-Archa National Park – Kygyzstan

One of the days we had in Bishkek we decided to head out to the nearby Ala-Archa National Park for some hiking. Archa means “many groups of Juniper trees” of which there are 4 types within the park. It is only 40km away and it was absolutely perfect weather to enjoy the scenery and get some exercise.

Decided to do the Waterfall Track (2hrs one way) with the possibility of continuing to the glacier, depending on ice/snow. The information panel at the entrance to the park pegged it as a low-medium demand hike, so off we set expecting a nice, not-too-strenuous walk.

Or not!

It’s actually a fairly steep hike up to the waterfall. Perhaps the low-medium rating was more relevant to the mountain climbers who originally used the area as an alpinist camp and training ground.

That said, it was really beautiful – with gorgeous views up the Ala-Archa river valley initially.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Followed by even more gorgeous views up the other valley leading to the waterfall and glacier.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

We came across some Eurasian Lynx on the way up

Eurasian Lynx - Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

But unfortunately, the only snow leopard we found was this concrete guy at the entrance.

Snow Leopard - Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

When we reached the waterfall, it turned out that it was too snowy/icy to actually climb up to the plunge pool (and hence waaaaaay too snowy/icy to head to the glacier without crampons etc), so we sat in the stand of pine trees at the base and ate lunch and explored the river in the immediate area.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Took my time trekking back down, stopping off for about an hour at my favourite viewpoint to take it all in

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Then took a quick walk up the first part of the Ala-Archa river valley trail while waiting for our transport to leave at the agreed time.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Have to admit, it wasn’t the most spectacular walk I’ve done in the past year or so, but it was a lovely day out and great to get some hiking in! Oh – and the sign translations were great too 😊

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

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