Friday, 13 October 2017

YURTS, COWBOYS AND SOVIET SANATORIUMS - around Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

There are three main valleys near Karakol, and almost without exception, tourists come to the town in order to walk all or part of them, usually on multi-day hikes. We seemed to be the only ones there doing day walks and hanging out about the town.
The first valley we tried was south from the village of Ak-Suu, where (yet another) sanatorium resides. This one was small and tucked away in the forest, and the valley leading from it was full of pine trees, butterflies, bees gathering the last of the pollen from the fading wild flowers, and funnily enough, loads of marijuana plants! We walked alongside the raging river on a very pleasant grassy path as far as we could, until it descended into too much of a scramble for us. We were also finding the altitude effecting us since we had arrived in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the Karakol region. At least, that was our excuse when we got tired!!


Beautiful raging river, Ak-Suu Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Path alongside the river, Ak-Suu Valley, Kyrgyzstan

The next valley along was the beginning of the Altan Arashan hot springs trek, and while it was still scenic, and a lot easier to walk due to a proper (unpaved) road, we found the big trucks, buses and ATVs blowing dust in our faces distracted from the beauty of the nature around us.


The cowboy rounding up his cattle, Ak-Suu Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Disused gate, Ak-Suu Valley, Kyrgyzstan

The marshrutka ride to the beginning of this walk was an interesting one- at 9am the old lady next to me was rolling drunk and practically falling into the aisle of the crowded bus, while Rich had a sick guy leaning on him and coughing his germs over him for most of the trip!


The young man in the Tourist Office in Karakol recommended us to visit the Karakol Valley, as he said there were many yurt camps nearby where the marshrutka dropped off and we could easily finding a yurt for a couple of nights without having to do a longer trek. In actual fact, there was no accommodation where we were dropped off, and after walking with our packs for hours, we finally turned back to the one and only place we had seen offering a bed. The yurt we were shown was mouldy, smelly and only mattresses without blankets (we weren't carrying sleeping bags). When the family smilingly mimed to us that it would be freezing at night, we took them up on the upgrade to a tiny wooden A-frame hut. It was also freezing at night, and we slept in all the clothes we own plus every spare blanket we could lay our hands on, but at least came with a light, bedding, a verandah and a door!


Farm where we stayed, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Yurt where we didn't stay, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Cute A-frames we ended up in, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan


We spent two nights in it, and spent the day in between walking up the valley as far as our legs could stand. Apparently, one needs to walk quite far up this valley to discover the real beauty- our walk was pleasant, but a bit same-y. The pine trees, snow tipped mountains, shiny horses nibbling away at grass near the river were quite picturesque, and although there were not many dwellings, we saw a few seasonal yurts selling kymys (fermented mare's milk), and other dairy products. We were so lucky with the weather for this trip and actually for our whole time around Karakol. There were some nasty days with rain, wind and cloud, where hikers on the high passes experienced hail and snow, but we managed to be in the hostel for the bad weather and out about during the sunny warm days.


So much marijuana growing everywhere, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Views around the Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Trying his luck, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Loving the walk, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Gorgeous scenery, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Enjoying the solitude, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

So much beauty! Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Grazing horses, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan

Yurts with kymys, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan



Jeti-Orghuz sanatorium had long been on our list of destinations in Kyrgyzstan. We were interested in the concept of the sanatorium, and couldn't pass up the opportunity to actually stay in one. Here is a repeat about sanatoriums from a previous blog for those who missed it:

The sanatorium is a bit of an institution in Russia and former Soviet countries. Workers could have a break paid by the state for a couple of weeks and return to work refreshed. These days, those that are still standing are more of a recreational/holiday spa combined with a medical treatments, which can be quite bizarre, but often involve thermal waters and hot springs. The settings are always in natural beautiful areas, especially mountains, due to the health benefits of the clean air. Unfortunately, the actual buildings aren't always in sync with the scenic soundings, as the Soviets often favoured brutal, monolithic structures that didn't exactly blend with the surroundings. Most that we know of are also extremely decrepit and not maintained very well. Amongst the places we visited in Central Asia, Issyk-Kol Lake in Kyrgyzstan had the biggest concentration of sanatoriums, seemingly one in every second town!

Check in, payment, room allocation and the ensuing problems were all dealt with hilariously due to our lack of Russian, the staff's lack of English, and the strict "administrator's" (that's what they call hotel managers here) haughty approach to letting us stay. Once she had eventually finished her paperwork, she wrote us out a ticket (no viewing of the room first allowed), sent us upstairs to pay (no one was in the office, but Rich did see a hunchback midget with a tall white surgeon's hat wander out of a room while we were waiting!), and we were finally taken to a room. Unfortunately, for an unknown reason we were called back after about an hour to change to another room! The accommodation was average enough (we had to ask for towels, hot water and turn on the heater immediately due to the cold and damp), but the atmosphere of the place was unique. It's hard to describe just how decrepit the building was. From the outside, you wouldn't believe there was a business going on in there- with all the broken windows, bad smells and peeling plaster, it looked like it was about to fall down. The beautiful park like grounds were full of ruins of buildings that had fallen down. The 1930s Soviet-era architecture and design was so ugly and solid, but kind of retro and funky at the same time. No one seemed to mind us wandering the various buildings and hallways- the tiled treatment rooms with only a bathtub in the middle were a bit like something out of a horror film! The grounds were full of wildlife, and the red squirrels were a particular favourite of ours. We sat and watched them run around and tried to capture them on camera. Added to that the various random statues, pathways and weedy flowerbeds, it had a rustic holiday camp feel to it.



Help me! Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Stuck in a time warp, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

No idea what this was, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Main hall, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Retro hallway, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Waiting room, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Main building, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Falling down, but still used, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Slightly worn exterior, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Butterflies galore, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Perfect posing red squirrel, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Funky bin, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

Disused building in grounds, Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium

My name in Cyrillic! Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium


The rest of the time in Jeti-Oghuz we spent in a comparatively luxurious guesthouse run by an English teacher. The village is famous for the "Seven Bulls", a line of amazingly red and huge rocks surrounding the village, which reminded us somewhat of Central Australia, except for the pine trees. The views of the rocks from every window in the guesthouse right at the base of the bulls must vie for some of the best we've ever had! On the alternate side of the rocks was the "Broken Heart", where the rocks split in two, and the locals romanticised about the stories behind it. We immediately liked the small village, with it's sprinkling of simple accommodation (apart from the sanatorium), and few little shops and cafes. Our guesthouse was surrounded by little wooden outbuildings, small farms and livestock, which gave a rural feel to the setting. The next door neighbours were bee keepers, and we were lucky enough to have a full tour with translator (our host) of the incredibly interesting property, ending up with a purchase of natural honey and pollen at a bargain price.


View from our guesthouse windows, Jeti-Oghuz village, Kyrgyzstan

Just a nice door! Jeti-Oghuz village, Kyrgyzstan

Abandoned village hut, Jeti-Oghuz village, Kyrgyzstan

Dunny with an aspect, Jeti-Oghuz village, Kyrgyzstan

Ramshackle fence, Jeti-Oghuz village, Kyrgyzstan

What a setting for a cottage, Jeti-Oghuz village, Kyrgyzstan

Little tea yurt, Jeti-Oghuz village, Kyrgyzstan

Bee hives, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

Bee keeper selling his honey, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan



We were happily surprised to find a plethora of small walks around, which were perfect for us, in addition to the valley everyone walked up in order to reach Ala-Kol Lake. There were a fair amount of tourists coming into the village by marshrutka and taxi, but we managed to pretty much avoid all people by walking up hills in all directions. We knackered ourselves on the first two days becoming over-enthusiastic and ending up scratched, weary and sore from walking up steep hills through thorny bushes. The views were worth it, seeing the red rocks, the village and other valleys from high points. The plants were mostly a wild rosehip and juniper, with many varieties of large pine trees, and birds of prey and horses, often with a cowboy herding them were everywhere. One lovely sight was a father and son on a horse, riding down a steep hill singing away happily- another day a group of young boys with HUGE eagles and hawks approached us for photos. On another walk we discovered a canyon through the red rocks, with horses tied up here and there, which made Sal feel as though any minute a cowboy would run up and ride away to fight the Indians!


Classic Jeti-Oghuz view

Looking away from the village, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

Little boy cowboy, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

Red rocks into the distance, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

Bringing the fat bums home, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

Waiting for the cowboys and Indians, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

Amazing view of Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

Jeti-Oghuz cows

Made it to the top! Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan


A short video of the beauty around Jeti-Oghuz:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4M33wsQnDU


To be honest, Sal was bitterly disappointed on the day we walked up the main valley. After about one and a half hours, the valley fanned out to gorgeous grasslands, with mountains on all sides, and yurt camps spread out as far as the eye could see. This is where we should have come for our yurt stay, not the Karakol Valley!! By this point Richard was very grumpy indeed about yurts in general, and it has to be said, from our experience, the yurts we saw were at best damp, dark and unwelcoming, and at worst mouldy and stinky. Oh well, we still enjoyed the walk immensely, apart from the many vehicles on the road.


Yurts in the valley, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

View from nomad camp, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

Herding up the horses, Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan

What a view! Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan


*A note about yurts- although most Kyrgyz people are now settled, the system of moving their livestock up to the jailoos (high pastures), and using yurts as their summer accommodation during the mild weather still continues. In winter, the semi-nomadic shepherds move themselves and their livestock back down to the villages, just as they have done for hundreds of years. Yurts are such a huge part of life here- the top frame is featured on many signs, and even their national flag.


Friendly driver with yurt symbol on truck window

Yurts with mare's, Karakol Valley

Damp yurt for the night, Bokonbaev

Yurt symbol on gates

Yurt on the beach

Yurt top

Even see the yurt symbol on number plates!



After our experiences around Karakol, especially with Jergalan and the Karakol Valley, we came to the conclusion, that we couldn't believe a word any of the locals told us with respect to places we wanted to visit. Perhaps they were just trying to be helpful, or maybe it's because the tourist industry is comparatively new, but people often had no idea what we were talking about, but tried to be kind and often advised us wrongly. We learnt to ask questions of other travelers who had been the way we wanted to go, but even then not many people were doing what we wanted to do (i.e. short day walks in different locations). So, mostly we winged it and found out as we went.

A couple of days on the beach before returning to Bishkek was on the cards, and we thought the northern side of Issky-Kol would make a change of scene. Unfortunately, another dangerous marshrutka ride was involved in order to reach our destination, and Sal thought she would be sick from the driver's erratic driving due to being on his phone for the entire journey. Rich tells her the scenery was even more quaint than the south side, especially with the leaves of the trees changing colour for autumn and the haystacks lined up in the fields.
Cholpon-Ata probably sees the most tourists of all Kyrgyzstan in the summer months- almost all are Russian or Kazakh. When we visited (mid-September) the place was virtually deserted, and lacking any character or warmth. We traipsed around the surprisingly pleasant beaches (apart from the usual piles of rubbish hidden in bushes and around corners), but our hearts weren't really in it. Our last day, we sat on the beach with a cold wind blowing in our faces, and attempted to eat a revolting undercooked chicken, and we knew it was time to leave.


Lovely old chair, back street, Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan

View of/from main beach, Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Kyrgyzstan surrounded by the rest of central Asia

Our surprisingly limited trip through Kyrgyzstan (in terms of distance!)


We found things in general a bit run down and grubby in Kyrgyzstan. Of course, it is an undeveloped country without much industry, but there seems to be an air of neglect about the place. People only do what needs doing and there doesn't seem to be much pride in their surroundings. Almost all the natural spots we visited were full of rubbish, a very sad sight to see, considering the small population and how much rubbish there was. We found all of this very contrasting to Uzbekistan and most of Kazakhstan, where everything was so spic and span. Also, we and many travelers we met had mild stomach problems the entire time we were in Kyrgyzstan, something we hadn't experienced anywhere else on this trip.

We also found that, while Kyrgyzstan obviously has a lot going for it in the scenic beauty department, for us, the sights were a bit thin on the ground. We missed the history and cultural stimulation that we had experienced earlier in the trip, especially in Uzbekistan, and found that aspect somewhat lacking. Of course, we stayed quite a long time in Kyrgyzstan, and probably were becoming a little burned out, but all that nature got a bit much!! Maybe the grass is just always greener on the other side- in Kazakhstan we were gagging to leave and move to the mountains and cool, fresh air, and then when we got to Kyrgyzstan we missed the history and culture!!

Kyrgyzstan is alive with tourists, more than we were expecting, and many more than we saw in the other Central Asian countries we visited (although that may have been to do with the time of year), and although local people were friendly and costs weren't too high, we had feeling during our time there of an undercurrent of a less than genuine experience. The best time by far we had was at the homestay we stayed at, due to the lack of "sights" and our close contact with an average family and their habits. But travelers are pouring into the region, particularly around Karakol, and it seems it's becoming a new "in" place to be.


Jeti-Oghuz Sanatorium, Kyrgyzstan


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


*Here is a more detailed summary of costs for Kyrgyzstan for those who are interested (AUS$1= 53 som):

Accommodation

Accommodation in Kyrgyzstan was a decent standard on the whole- the basic guesthouses, homestays and hostels where we stayed being clean and comfortable. An oddity was often having to make our own beds- the staff would leave the clean sheets on top of the bed freshly laundered, and we made up the beds ourselves! A bit strange, but perfectly acceptable to us! Again, we felt the accommodation prices were high, considering the cost of living/average wages in Kyrgyzstan. Examples of these: 4,800 som (AU$87) per month for a government worker, 200 som (AU$3.60) per long day for a waitress,  a teacher giving private lessons 100 som (AUS$1.80) an hour, a disability pension 3000 som (AUS$55) per month.

Bishkek, Hotel Viva, 1400 som/AU$25 with breakfast
Kara Koo, Asel B and B, 400 som/AU$7.30  with breakfast
Bokonbaev, Gulmeira Guesthouse, 1200 som/AU$22 with breakfast
Tosor, Tosor B and B, 1500 som/AU$27 with breakfast
Karakol, KbHostel dorm 400 som/AU$7.30 per person, double room 1100 som/AU$20, no breakfast
Karakol Valley village, A frame hut, 1250 som/AU$22.70 no breakfast
Jeti-Oghuz, Emir Guesthouse 1233 som/AU$22.50 no breakfast
Jeti-Oghuz sanatorium, 1480 som/AU$27 no breakfast
Cholpon-Ata, Guesthouse on Akmatbay-Ata, 680 som/AU$12.40, no breakfast


Great room in Karakol

Homestay in Kara-Koo room

Our tiny A-frame in the Karakol valley

Room at Jeti-Oghuz


Transport

We sorely missed the trains in Kyrgyzstan!! Most travel was done by either marshrutkas (minibuses) or share taxis. Both were equally uncomfortable, due to death defying drivers and us fearing for our lives. Typical smells on marshrutkas in Kyrgyzstan were usually overwhelmingly fermented cheese, followed by garlic, salami, sweat and vodka. We were lucky enough to take one train- the summer only slow-mover from Bishkek to Issyk-Kol, but it had finished it's run by the time we returned from the lake. Transport was not expensive, but we became annoyed with the greedy attitude to tourists, and the drivers' constant need to try to overcharge us for trips. This never happened in Uzbekistan, or Kazakhstan (to our knowledge!).

Shymkent - Bishkek big bus, 2500 tenge, 8.5 hours
Bishkek east bus station – Issyk Ata, marshrutka, 70 som, 90 mins
Bishkek west bus station – east bus station, marshrutka, 11 som, 15 mins
Osh Bazaar, Bishkek - Bishkek train station, 150 som, 10 mins
Bishkek train station - Balykchy, train, 70 som, 5 hours
Balykchy - Kara Koo, share taxi, 150 som, 35 mins
Kara Koo - Bokonbaev, share taxi, 70 som, 30-40 mins 
Bokonbaev - Tosor, marshrutka, 100 som, 30 mins
Tosor - Karakol, marshrutka, 100 som, 1.5 hours 
Karakol - Ak Suu sanatorium, marshrutka, 30 som, 30 mins
Karakol - Jeti-Oghuz, share taxi, 150 som, 45 mins
Karakol - Karakol Valley, marshrutka, 10 som, 30 mins
Taxi anywhere around Karakol, 70 som
Jeti-Oghuz - Karakol, marshrutka, 100 som, 45 mins
Karakol - Pristan, marshrutka, 15 som, 30 mins
Karakol -  Cholpon-Ata, marshrutka, 150 som, 2.5 hours
Cholpon-Ata -  Bishkek, marshrutka, 300 som, 3.5 hours
Bishkek to Almaty, marshrutka, 400 som, 4.5 hours



Marshrutkas lined up ready to go, Karakol

Marshrutka interior

NOT our transport, but very cute!

Blocking the view of the road! Kyrgyzstan marshrutka



Food

Sadly, our un-love affair with central Asian food continued in Kyrgyzstan! The usual suspects of beshbarmak (greasy noodles, usually with horse meat), plov (greasy rice and meat dish), mantys (dumplings), shashlik (greasy meat and lumps of fat on skewers) and laghman (greasy and tasteless soupwere on offer, as well as such local variations as ashlyanfu (cold gelatinous noodle soup) and gyanfan (lean meat and vegetables with rice). It was the same few unappetising dishes that we saw everywhere in Central Asia. The food taste and quality at restaurants and cafes was awful, and so we used the fantastic bazaars for buying produce and bread. The exceptions to this were in Kara Koo, where our homestay provided delicious meals, and in the hostel in Karakol, where we had the luxury of a kitchen and could cook ourselves basic meals with fresh ingredients. All restaurants had at least 10% tax added, which really got up our noses.

bread 20-30 som
1 kilo strawberries 50-120 som 
big bag grapes 45-70 som
1 kilo plums 50 som
1 kilo pears 50 som
3 large tomatoes 15 som
1 kilo nectarines 80 som
small bucket raspberries 150 som
small bucket blackberries 130 som
bunch spring onion 15 som
100 g almonds 70 som
chunk cheese 73-80 som
smetana 60-90 som
whippy ice cream 20 som
snickers bar 55 som
meal restaurant with drinks 500-800 som
meal fast food  140-200 som
guesthouse breaky 150-200 som
1 litre beer 50-60 som
1 litre milk 84 som
1 litre juice 53-95 som
1 litre water 20 som
fermented drink/ice tea at street stand 10 som



(Petrol was roughly 38 som/AUS$0.62  a litre)



Typically meat heavy dish in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Dumplings in the market, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz beer

Mantys at our homestay, Kyrgyzstan 

A common Russian brand here in Kyrgyzstan, this item is chocolate