Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

28 May 2013

Trading London for Bishkek

Posted by Will

Early May.  Luke comes to visit.  Here’s his on take on Kyrgyzstan…

It’s not every day that you get to write a guest post on someone else’s blog, especially one that is as well written as this one. However, following my recent return from Kyrgyzstan I was encouraged by Will to share my experiences, so here goes:

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Not much more than a week ago I touched down in London Heathrow Airport. Upon reaching immigration I handed over my passport to a smiling man who asked me where I had come from, to which I replied ‘Bishkek’. His smile was promptly replaced by puzzlement – He’d never heard of it. Nor had he any idea where Kyrgyzstan was on a map. Now I write this not to jest, but to illustrate that I have just returned from arguably one of the most remote ‘holiday’ destinations available to the British public. Why did I choose here? One very simple reason – to visit an old friend, who for 14 months has been on a fascinating journey eastwards.

After arriving at Bishkek airport at 3 am in the morning on the 3rd May, knowing none of the local language and possessing none of the local currency (which is Som – there are about 70 Som to £1), I was unbelievably happy to see Will waiting for me in arrivals. One big manly hug later (I had promised his Mum I would give him one), and we were in a dodgy taxi cruising along the potholed road in to Bishkek City Centre; both suffering acutely from verbal diahorrea. After not seeing each other for 14 months it was impossible to stick to one topic of conversation – he wanted to tell me (and I him) everything at once, and I was already eagerly anticipating the full daytime versions of stories merely touched upon during this twenty minute ride.

Once in Bishkek, we had the first trial of the trip – trying to find Will’s flat, which he had moved in to only one day ago. This being the middle of the night, in a foreign city trying to find a newly acquired home, and me having around thirty kilos of luggage (much of which was bike stuff for Will and his fellow cyclist Kaleb), this was no easy task! After knocking on someone else’s building for a good couple of minutes trying to figure out why a door that wasn’t there in the afternoon had somehow appeared, we eventually made it in to our own building and up to the house on the top floor. It was here that I had the great pleasure of meeting the three travellers Will had been spending the last few weeks and months cycling with. After half-asleep introductions (and a few sips of single malt Whisky for Will – the first he’d had in a very long time), it was bedtime to get some rest before exploring the city the next day. Little was I to know that over breakfast the following morning I was to have my proper introduction to them all over an apparently ‘traditional’ morning double shot of Vodka….

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Walking around Bishkek it’s hard to miss that Kyrgyzstan is a country with a Soviet history – you can see it in the old, uniformly grey and exclusively-rectangular buildings, the gridded road system and the huge statues of important Soviet leaders – now somewhat hidden away since the country’s independence in 1991 (A statue of Lenin was the focal point in the central Ala Too square until 2003, when he was banished to a much less conspicuous location behind the nearby museum and replaced by a statue of Erkidik – symbolizing Kyrgyz freedom). However Bishkek is also surprisingly green, with plentiful parks, shrubbery and trees lining the road making the whole city feel somewhat suburban and peaceful. This is greatly helped by the fact that over 90% of Kyrgyzstan is classed as mountainous, meaning that practically wherever you look (even from right in the heart of Bishkek) there is always a snow-capped mountain in the distance somewhere adding to a glorious view.

We, somewhat appropriately, spent much of our first day together sat in ‘Friendly’s’ Cafe where Will introduced me to Central Asian black Chai tea. This ubiquitous, cheap and warming drink is best sipped from small bowls. One brilliant thing about Bishkek was the price of the cafes – indeed during our whole time in the city we hardly ate in Will’s flat, instead choosing to sit down at a multitude of (varying quality) cafes sampling a random selection of dishes based on our rudimentary understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet. For more on central Asian cuisine I refer you to the below post by Will – highly accurate in dish descriptions and relative scorings, apart from Gan-Fan (my winner by far), and Piroshki (a saviour during long, hot minibus trips where anything more experimental may have disastrous on-the-road consequences).

After having walked through the city on the first day, and armed with a few Russian and Kyrgyz phrases from Will, we took a Marshrutka to Osh bazaar on the West side of town on the morning of the second day. I was interested in finding out more about Kyrgyz Shydraks (felt-like ornaments hung from a wall that must appeal to a more refined taste than mine) and Will was still trying to get the flat’s kitchen stocked with the essentials – it is seemingly very hard to find wooden spoons in Central Asia! The bazaar itself is massive and it is estimated that annual trade amounts to something near $100 million. We spent a good few hours walking around and stocking up on dried fruit, trousers (for Will) and of course more Chai.

Following this introduction to Kyrgyzstan from the comfort of the somewhat cosmopolitan capitol city, it was time to experience the famous Tien Shan Mountain range firsthand, and so on the evening of the second day we boarded an overnight coach to the hiking base town of Karakol, situated near the shoreline of the second highest glacial lake in the world – Lake Issyk Kul. It might well have been mentioned that it was complimentary with our bus ticket, but neither of us were expecting to be sat directly in front of a drunken man that boarded soon after we did. This being an overnight journey on Kyrgyz roads, the little chance of getting any sleep quickly flew out of the window altogether as soon as our new best friend realised we weren’t local to these parts of the world.

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8 groggy hours later and we were dropped off at the edge of Karakol, where we checked in to Neofit guest lodge (which in itself was something worth celebrating considering the language barrier between us and the staff). The panoramic views from Karakol are stunning. The town sits at an altitude of 1438M (already taller than Ben Nevis), and is surrounded on all sides by snow capped peaks standing over 3000M tall. After catching up on some much-needed sleep we continued our cafe tour of Kyrgyzstan by sampling Luka’s, where Gan-Fan was discovered! However, this was nothing compared to the coffee and snacks available at Karakol Coffee. If you ever find yourself near Karakol (probably unlikely) and fancy a slice of home go here and you will not be disappointed – Will certainly wasn’t and I think he is going to remember it for a long time yet (especially for the staff). Luckily Karakol coffee also possessed a detailed map of the area around Karakol for walkers, allowing us to get planning our three day adventure into the mountains (needless to say the quantity of contours and presence of Glaciers on this map was excessive). With a route planned and a brownie for the road we headed for bed to get some rest before our first day walking.

The following day our bold plans were shattered when we learnt from the tourist office that our chosen route was still ‘6ft under snow’ as the walking season had only just begun. After questioning one of the local guides in the office how he knew this with such certainty, he said he had been up there last July (i.e. 10 months ago) and therefore knew that it was impassable now. This highlights a key downfall in tourist offices that Will and I have seen on multiple occasions before, and is what I like to call ‘Pigeon-holing’. If you are in a foreign country and want to do an adventure activity, far too frequently the local guides/advisors will take one look at you and spend the rest of the time trying to convince you that you either won’t be able to do said activity, or will need an excessive amount of support in order to get anywhere near achieving your goal. i.e. they pigeon hole you in to this standard European Tourist sized box, taking no consideration of prior experience, fitness, or skills, and this can lead to quite a negative experience for the tourist or traveller involved. I understand that tourist offices need to ensure the safety of all visitors, and also that they need to sell in order to make money, but I feel that in the majority of cases a certain amount of trip tailoring can be beneficial to both the tourist and the tourist office, making for a far more positive experience for all involved. For example, if the Karakol guide had asked us about our kit, our group size, and our walking experience instead of flat out denying our route with no actual knowledge of the current conditions, it would have made for a far more enjoyable and engaging conversation.

Needless to say, our stubbornness prevailed and after a short conversation upon leaving the tourist office we both decided that we would stick to the original route, and see how far we got. After picking up some last minute essentials from Karakol bazaar we set off in a tiger-print-interior taxi to the start of the trail.

What followed was a spectacular days walking up in to the heart of a valley that lay immediately to the South of Karakol. After passing a few houses and traditional yurts  we were completely alone, with the only sounds coming from the river alongside us crashing down the valley, and Will talking about how much he missed Haribo (his Mum had included some as a treat in the bike equipment I brought with me). Near to what became our campsite for both nights of our walk the valley broke out in to a large flat plain lined with pine trees, with the river running right through the heart of it. The scenery had been pretty amazing until this point but this was breath-taking, and having it to ourselves made it all the more special.

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Slightly further on from this we set up camp next to the river and set about collecting firewood for what promised to be a very gourmet dinner experience. Earlier at the market we had bought potatoes, onions, carrots, chorizo, chilli and tinfoil with the intention of making a parcel to place on the fire. This. Worked. Perfectly. Even with the dubious addition of condensed milk after we realized we didn’t have enough oil.  An hour and a half after putting it on the fire (by which time it was pitch black and our stomachs were audibly complaining) we retrieved our parcel from the burning embers and demolished everything inside in no time. It was absolutely delicious and completely worth the wait. What made this supper even more special was the rest of the Whisky I bought with me from England which we subsequently washed down over fireside stories.  Feeling very pleased with ourselves following a great day in the outdoors it was time for bed before our second day, where we would test ourselves by trying to reach Lake Arakjol; a lake that sits at an elevation of around 3800 M and accessible only via a steep scree valley.

The following morning, after rekindling the fire that had burned through the night, we dug in to a hearty breakfast of porridge with condensed milk and a MacCoffee (the extent to which this can be classed as coffee is dubious, nonetheless it quickly became the drink of the trip for its sweetness and instant warming affect). We hid our main bags to make us lighter and set up the valley with only our lunches. What we forgot to bring was sun protection, which because of our altitude and the weather conditions we would later regret big time (after arriving back in England I was pulling bits of scalp off my head for a couple of days due to sunburn!). About two hours in to the climb I was pouring with sweat and we were both struggling to stay on the badly maintained main path. This continued all the way up until we were practically in touching distance of the lake. By this time we were scrambling over what was little more than pure scree at a very steep incline, trying to find the next kairn to tell us where we should be. It was extremely hard going and after setting ourselves a deadline for getting to the final crest that seemed to pass far too quickly considering our progress, we both knew we weren’t going to make it. It was time to turn around and head back down to camp – a frustrating choice but an important one considering the time of day, the sun and our lack of water. Throughout our climb to the lake the snow was getting increasingly deep and encroaching on to the path. Although not being nearly as bad as the local guide made out, we could easily tell that in the heart of winter the whole area would be completely covered by a very thick layer. However for the way down this proved extremely useful, and Will pioneered the half falling/half running technique in the snow covered sections that allowed us to fly down a section of the climb that had taken us around 2 hours in the space of 25 minutes! After getting back in to the tree line nearer camp we heard strange sounds coming from further ahead of us that turned out to be long tailed Marmots. These meerkat like creatures were the only wild animals we saw during our three day trip, however with other wildlife in the area including snow leopards and Asian bears I was pleased this was the case.

Having somewhat failed at the main objective of the second day, we decided to reward ourselves by building the biggest fire possible and so set about collecting the wood to do so upon re-entering our camp (we’re not pyromaniacs, honest). One McCoffee and a fishy-pasta dinner later we both sat around the fire drying out our boots from the snow and telling stories whilst recovering from the hard climb. This continued long in to the night with the knowledge that we would soon be heading back down the valley towards civilisation, a hot shower and a proper bed.

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The following morning bought with it one of the best meals of my entire time out in Kyrgyzstan – the Champions breakfast. This had been something that had been discussed many times and eagerly anticipated during the trip. Now that the time for consumption had finally arrived the dish did not disappoint. Put simply it is rice cooked in streamwater with the addition of condensed milk, raisins and dried apricots. Put more accurately it is the stuff of dreams. Eating this out of a communal bowl whilst sipping at yet another McCoffee and taking a last look around at our stunning surroundings, it was a sad goodbye. Still at least we both have a reason to come back to this part of the world one day – to actually see Lake Arakjol…..

Having safely arrived back in Karakol and washed the last three days smokiness, sweat and grime off in a much needed shower at Neofit, we had a quiet evening at a local restaurant before ending back at Karakol coffee for more brownies and coffee. The following day we had a look around some of the buildings in Karakol before deciding it was time to return to Bishkek to see what Will’s flat mates had been up to in our absence. This meant a 7 hour minibus ride during a very hot day – clearly all the windows would be down to try and get as much air as possible for the passengers during this hot  journey right? Wrong. Seemingly Kyrgyz people hate air, and after trying to open windows and sunroofs repeatedly I resigned myself to the fact that I was probably going to melt through the floor before we arrived home.

One of the things I had promised Will as a special treat in Bishkek was that I would take him out to a dinner at a restaurant of his choice during my stay. Having not melted during our minibus journey we both agreed that tonight would be the night that we would reward ourselves by going to the Hyatt Regency hotel. Now I imagine many if not most of the you have not had to try and dress someone who has been on the road for 14 months appropriately for a top notch hotel dinner, so let me tell you it’s not easy and involves a lot of borrowing. Will possesses one shirt which by this point in our trip he had been wearing all week long, no smart trousers and a footwear selection of either biking trainers or walking boots. After squeezing him in to a pair of my slim trousers (spray on skinny fit for Will) and deciding that his trainers were the best footwear available, we set of hoping the hotel would let us in. Apparently Bishkek is rather relaxed about attire as one taxi ride later we walked straight in to the hotel and restaurant, and were seated next to a group of Russian ladies that were ordering extremely expensive champagne. The restaurant was fantastic and the staff were very friendly throughout the night. After choosing an aperitif each (Will obviously picking the one with the most outrageous and unknown ingredients) we devoured our chicken and beef mains that were cooked to perfection, before savouring our beers and post dinner teas and coffees. Before leaving we couldn’t help but wonder in to the toilets and see what they were like (I’m sure Will could write a whole post dedicated to his various toilet experiences since leaving Europe!) and after walking out of the hotel we both had the biggest smiles on our faces – A thoroughly enjoyable evening after what had been a grizzly day’s journey back.

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And with that the end was nigh. Our last day was spent as most were in Bishkek – wondering around and enjoying the atmosphere of a country and culture so different to our own. During our time in the city we had become very fond of a small table tennis club very close to Will’s apartment and had spent many an hour in closely fought rallies with each other trying to put as much spin as possible on the ball. It only seemed right that before I fly home we return there one last time to do battle. Before leaving I also wanted to introduce Will to a drink that I myself had only discovered earlier this year – Martini Rosso. With this in mind we headed to a local bar and proceeded to drink them dry of their Rosso supply over the course of a very enjoyable two hours. Knowing that there was a house party arranged at Wills flat later that night, and that clearly more Martini Rosso was required, we stumbled out of the bar and in to a nearby supermarket, before heading to the flat armed with a bottle of our very own. This bottle, Will’s flatmates, and the great atmosphere when we got in made for a very memorable and hugely enjoyable last night of my trip in Kyrgyzstan – so thank you to all that were there!

Waking up the morning after, it was with a heavy heart (and a pounding head) that I packed up everything ready to head back to the UK. Having spent the last 8 days with Will, who I have previously travelled to Cameroon with for over 2 months, it seemed wrong to be leaving him after such a comparatively short time. Having heard many of his fantastic stories over the course of the week, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat jealous of his current lifestyle and it’s made me think more about how big a role I want travel to play in my own life (answer – BIG). The things I was going to miss the most from Kyrgyzstan were the Mountains, MacCoffee, and watching Will trying to become best friends with literally every taxi driver we used during our trip (always highly amusing especially when considering the language barrier and willingness of taxi men to match Will’s engagement).

And so, following a very plain breakfast (we were both feeling extremely fragile from the night before) it was with a sad goodbye that I set off back along the same potholed road I’d arrived on to the airport and home. Will is staying in Bishkek for a month or so teaching English, and following this I wish him all my luck with the next stage of his trip. I know I’ll be seeing him again before he finally returns home to Gloucestershire, and for now all I can say is: Carry on Cycling!

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5 Comments already on “Trading London for Bishkek”
  1. Will

    4:56 pmpermalink
    28 May 2013

    Will

    Quite…….long. Nice job Luke.

    ps. 10am vodka shots have been phased out. MacCoffee definitely hasn’t!

  2. 5:21 pmpermalink
    28 May 2013

    Mumsy

    Really enjoyed reading Luke’s take on his visit, you hadn’t told all! Love the idea of trying to dress up for the Hyatt Regency, wish I had been there! And to Luke, Will was over the moon that you went to see him, thanks for doing the hug thing! xx

  3. 6:07 pmpermalink
    28 May 2013

    k

    Well well well. Doesn’t make me miss you horrible lot at all. Love from Semipalatinsk.

    Oh and cheers, Luke. Less typos than usual! x x x

  4. 9:56 ampermalink
    29 May 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Fantastic blog from Luke. Sounds like he’s a good drinking buddy!! Hope the teaching is going well! XXXX

  5. 6:23 ampermalink
    21 Jun 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY FOR TODAY WILL! XXXX