The preparation of my trip to Kyrgyzstan focused on three main points:
1- Book the flight to Bishkek, opting for the most convenient stopover in Istanbul rather than in Moscow to avoid visa problems;
2- Rent a jeep with which to roam freely for mountains and canyons;
3- Learn to write Kyrgyzstan.
We picked up our rented car at Bishkek's Manas Airport and we left for Suusamyr. The part of the country immediately around Bishkek is the only flat
and anonymous region of Kyrgyzstan, but in less than an hour you are already in beautiful mountains. Our goal was to reach the lake
Song Kul (Kul means lake) through this alternative route. It was a long journey, almost all day long,
but really fantastic. The rented car behaved very well.
Suusamyr is a quiet village, where we came across a curious ceremony. We asked for information, but not even his Google Translate
allowed us to communicate with a kind Kyrgyz person (Cyrillic is not our forte).
Finding an ATM or a currency exchange shop was impossible for 200 kilometers, but we solved the problem in Caek,
where we had lunch with mutton and vegetables and hot tea (a classic, in these areas, often the only thing available).
To enjoy our time at the best, along the way we also gave a lift to two German hitchhikers and a Kyrgyz woman.
An impervious dirt road finally took us to Song Kul, destination of our first very intense day of travel in Kyrgyzstan.
This lake at 3000 meters above sea level is surrounded by green meadows
on which horses run freely, and pristine mountains.
Here, the shepherds stay in the yurts, the typical tents of Central Asia, which can be easily assembled at the beginning of the summer season
(in winter these places are uninhabitable because of the freezing weather and shepherds and animals go downhill).
Among the shepherds' yurts, some are used for the few travelers.
Of course, do not expect nightlife on the Song Kul, unless you're a zoophilist.
For each person there are one hundred cows, one hundred horses and one thousand sheep.
The next morning we took a horseback ride, a bit of a touristy thing maybe, then we left again on the most comfortable jeep
following beautiful dirt roads in the mountains. Continuing on our journey to Issyk Kul, we arrived at Kockor and shortly afterwards at Lake Orto Tokoy.
When we saw Lake Orto Tokoy we did not know what lake it was, but the landscape was perhaps even more beautiful than the already wonderful places admired during
the day... or at least it was different! We parked and we walked towards the lake shore, where camels were resting.
After two days (which seemed to be 50 for the emotions lived) of horses, sheep and cows, the sight of these exotic wild animals surprised us.
So we approached the docile camels and we did them a photo shoot that not even a paparazzo when he meets a top model.
It was late afternoon when we arrived on the huge Issyk Kul lake and began to walk along the road that runs south.
After a few kilometers a dirt road frequented by Russian tourists heads towards Kyzyl Tuu and then a salty lake (known as
Salty Lake or Solenoye Ozero) which is the Kyrgyz response to the Dead Sea. This small salt lake, a few hundred meters from Issyk Kul,
allows you to float easily and to be covered with black mud with highly healing properties (I do not believe it much, but so they say!).
We dined with a good lake fish in the yurts at the Salty Lake, then we drove to Bokonbaev, looking for a hotel.
It was not easy, but in the end we found the umpteenth superconomic arrangement of the holiday.
The next day we explored a dirt road behind the main road on the lake. This dirt road passed in one
beautiful valley in the mountains. At one of the villages, there was a panoramic Islamic cemetery (the inhabitants of Kyrgyzstan are
mostly Muslims, but the application of religion is very different from the Arab countries: no woman wears a veil
or has trouble walking around alone, for example).
We then reached the "Birds of Prey Festival" organized here every year in August by the CBT, the Kyrgyz tourism agency. This festival is a kind of summa of festivals
of the Kyrgyz country aimed at showing travelers all the peculiarities of Kyrgyzstan traditions. It is certainly
a touristy event, in which a presenter speaks English (something that seemed incredible after those first days
of impossible communications), but it is also authentic, spontaneous and well organized, as well as extraordinarily photogenic. Games and food are typically
Kyrgyz and the locals do their best to demonstrate their skills.
Games with horses were particularly interesting, like
wrestling and kokboru. The latter is similar to basketball, only that there is a beheaded goat instead of the ball, the players are on the horses,
the field is of clay and the baskets are old truck tires. This sport is also widespread in other Central Asian countries
(in Afghanistan with the best known name of Buzkashi) and watching a match was one of the most characteristic moments of our travel itinerary
We left the festival and headed for the Skazka canyon, or Fairy Tale Canyon for foreign travelers (these English-language leaps on the Issyk Kul lake
demonstrate the serious intentions of opening up to tourism). The canyon is really beautiful, with an unexpected landscape of yellow and red rocks
and strange pinnacles among which you can walk in search of even more beautiful landscapes.
We left the Skazka canyon in the late afternoon and we were driving towards Karakol when a suspension of the 4x4 exploded. We had to
stop in front of a house with a chicken coop. We saw a grandmother with her granddaughter and we waved for help: our Kyrgyz SIM
did not work and if we called the rescue with our Italian phone we would spend like 2 billions euros.
The young Sezim and her sweet grandmother immediately gave us tea, milk, biscuits, ice cream and cucumbers (inevitable). Explaining ourselves by gestures and
drawings, we managed to borrow a cell phone with which to call our rental company. Sezim was kind enough to activate the internet and then she
donated us the card.
After hours of discussions on the phone, we went to sleep in a jeep. At midnight the tow truck called by the car rental agency arrived.
They dropped us into a nice hotel in Karakol and took the car for repair.
The next morning we woke up at dawn to admire the Karakol animal market, which takes place every Sunday. Thousands of shepherds find each other
here to sell, buy or exchange animals. Wrecked vans and old Lada accompany cows, sheep, bulls, goats, and horses.
You walk among thousands of beasts and people who are dealing, you notice fleeting exchanges of banknotes and you jump fresh shit. An experience
absolutely to be lived, even if that was a rare rainy day that spoiled the liveliness of the place (and the photos).
We went back to the hotel, we slept a bit, we had breakfast and considered what to do. We did not have the 4x4 and it was raining, so we decided
to walk to Altyn Arashan, a tiny village of shepherds with some tourist accommodation located in a valley above Karakol,
between wonderful mountains.
We were walking towards the bus station when a jeep honked. It was ours, already repaired despite it was
just Sunday morning. We thanked the mechanic, we regained our 4x4 but we kept the program. By bus, or better, in marshrutka,
we went to Ak-Suu and from there we walked in the rain to Altyn Arashan along a dirt road impassable with our jeep.
The walk takes about five hours, but in the last stretch we were accompanied by a Soviet 4x4 pickup truck, among the few vehicles able
to get away with it in those conditions. The landscapes were beautiful, despite the rain.
Altyn Arashan is located about 2500 meters above sea level and is known for its thermal pools, which we immediately took advantage of to warm up. The fun game
was to get cooked in a hot tub and then plunge into the icy glacial river, only to return to the warm water immediately after that: a very invigorating activity.
A few hikers stop in the thermal baths and the few guesthouses: we met several French people, in particular.
The day after the sun returned to shine, as expected from a trip to Kyrgyzstan in the summer. Among the various trekking itineraries of several days,
we obviously had to opt for something shorter, because in the evening we wanted to return to Karakol. We set off along the splendid valley
of Altyn Arashan, among green mountains, rivers, fords, waterfalls, pastures, horses running free and glaciers in the background. It was
a beautiful and scenic walk.
Returning to Altyn Arashan for a late lunch, we opted to go down to Ak Suu on horseback. An unhealthy idea, with uncomfortable
and disobedient horses. It was the most painful moment of our travel itinerary, especially for our lower parts, but it was also fun.
At Ak Suu we immediately found the marshrutka 350 with which we returned to Karakol and to our 4x4. After a night in the hotel and a breakfast
based on eggs, salami, fried dumplings and jam accompanied by the inevitable tea, we left early to Kazakhstan.
The road leading to the border crossing of the Karkara valley (open only in summer) between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is
a holiday in itself. The landscapes are green, bucolic, fantastic. The road, unpaved, is in poor condition and not at all busy:
more than a border crossing, it seemed to go to a shepherd's house.
In a few hours we arrived at the customs, a checkpoint in the middle
of nothing. There was no one except a Kyrgyz boy on foot, whom then we gave a ride. The custom officers of Kyrgyzstan were
very kind and funny (of course they joked about Italy and mafia), those of Kazakhstan were harshest, but we passed the border without problems or requests
for money, which is a good thing!
The report of this travel itinerary continues in the page dedicated to Kazakhstan!
For many more photos of Kyrgyzstan, click on the images of the photogallery:
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