Off the beaten track in Kyrgyzstan
There are parts of the Silk Road which are well trodden – or rather, driven – by international tourists: Bokhara, Samarkand and Xi’an are crowded with visitors from around the world. Others are less frequented, except by local tourists and the more adventurous.
Most of Kyrgyzstan comes into the latter category. Why is this? After all, it does not require visas from most countries; it is spectacularly beautiful and its people are laid-back and friendly.
Well, there are two reasons why Kyrgyzstan will never be a mass-tourism destination. Firstly, the infrastructure for tourism is very basic. The country is 95% mountainous, roads are poor (but being improved) and there are few hotels. Some of the most spectacular destinations are only accessible for a few months of the year when the snows have melted. When faced with the prospect of wild unspoilt beauty which can only be experienced if you are prepared to accept outside long-drop loos, extremely basic washing facilities and fairly monotonous food, most tourists will probably say ‘no, thanks’!
Here’s what they are missing!
After a brief stay in the southern city of Osh, where our hotel (the Sun Rise – its new building, not the original one) was modern and comfortable, we set off with our driver and guide, Vichislav and Barchin of Ak-Sai Travel, towards Son Kul, a high-altitude lake set in an open plain surrounded by mountains. This is more than a day’s journey, so we overnighted in a homestay in the isolated village of Kazarman, which our agent had arranged through the excellent Community Based Tourism (CBT) programme. This has enables hundreds of villagers to make money from tourism by opening their homes to visitors.
Our homestay was basic but welcoming. The bedroom was in the main house and was reasonably comfortable. Meals were taken in a yurt in the back-yard. The food was fairly standard Kyrgyz fare: dumpling soup, salad and fried potatoes, accompanied as always by a disc-shaped loaf of bread. There was an outdoor shower – if you used it in the early evening, the water in the tank was just about like-warm! Wash-basins were rather disconcertingly public – and outdoors. And most challenging of all was the outdoor loo at the far corner of the yard. This configuration is pretty common and was mirrored in the two yurt camps we stayed in – except that there we slept in yurts.
Next day’s drive to Son Kul was spectacular. Increasingly high mountains, some bare, some wooded, with breathtaking views. We pull off the road and stop in a small wood beside a stream for a picnic lunch – a magical setting. Then more zigzagging roads and high passes. The temperature drops. At 3,346 metres, we cross the final pass and descend gently into the ancient volcanic caldera that holds Son Kul lake.
The weather has closed in and although not actually raining, the clouds are low, the wind is blowing and it is bitterly cold. We worry that our cold weather clothes will not be warm enough. The yurt camp is set right out on the open plain a few hundred meters from the lake’s edge. We are shown into our yurt which is spacious and attractively decorated with colourful rugs on the floor. It is also very poorly insulated. The small wood burning stove does not make much impression on the cold and we retire that evening into down sleeping bags with thick covers on top. We are barely warm enough!
Next day the sun comes out! Things improve – even though there is still a bitter wind blowing. There are vast herds of animals everywhere: sheep, horses, cattle all roam freely across the plain. They are looked after by farmers who bring them up for the short summer season, living in yurts dotted over the wide expanse of the lakeside plains. It all seems quite biblical.
We walk, my wife rides a horse, I opt for a mountain bike. It’s good to get the blood circulating – and the sense of space is exhilarating.
From Son Kul we head for Tash Rabat, the ancient stone caravanserai set high in the Tian Shan mountains bordering China. We leave Son Kul valley by way of a pass called 33 Parrots – not sure why ‘parrots’, but it does have 33 S-bends.
We stop for lunch in Naryn, the main town in the region but not somewhere to linger for long. Just long enough for me to pick up a singularly virulent tummy bug, but we won’t go into that!
We stay at Yuri’s yurt camp in the river valley leading up to Tash Rabat. Another stunning location, this time enclosed by mountains with a river running by. We spot 18 eagles circling the peaks overlooking the camp. Yuri speaks little English but is an excellent communicator. He has constructed a basic but effective sauna, whose use he demonstrates to us at high speed and with flamboyant gestures. We follow his instructions to the letter, including hitting each other with birch twigs and plunging into the river to cool down. Very refreshing!
Tash Rabat is probably the most atmospheric and exciting building we have visited on the whole trip. It hums with life. Exactly when it was built and for what purpose is not clear, but for hundreds of years it was an important caravanserai on the Silk Road and, as wander through some of its 44 rooms, we can imagine the traders exchanging information and ideas in this remote haven.
From Tash Rabat, sustained by Yuri’s above-average cooking, we head for the Chinese border over the Torugart Pass – and thereby hangs another tale!