Kirghizstan – Tips & figures


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Thanks to the CBT – Community Based Tourism – traveling throughout the country and rubbing shoulders with locals is quite easy. They connect tourists with a wide network of guides, drivers and families willing to take in guests, either in villages or summer meadows, across the country.

The CBT tour I had for 6 days included a driver, 3 nights in towns guesthouses, 1 night in a yurt, 1 night in a mountain hut…


D250. May 9. A prayer in Karakol

Under the Soviet times, of nine mosques (founded by Tatars, Dungans and various Kyrgyz clans), all but the Dungan’s were wrecked. And its elegant Orthodox church lost its domes and became a club; only one small church on the outskirts was allowed to remain open. Of course, since 1991, everything has changed. And today is Friday, a holy day for Muslims.

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What looks for all the world like a Mongolian Buddhist temple on the corner of Bektenov and Jusup Abdrakhmanov is in fact a mosque, built without nails, completed in 1910 after three years’ work by a Chinese architect and 20 Chinese artisans, for the local Dungan community.

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Like the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz adopted Islam relatively late and limited it to what could fit in their saddlebags. Northern Kyrgyz are more Russified and less observant of Muslim doctrine than their cousins in the south (in Jalal-Abad and Osh provinces). One consequence of this is the high number of young women boasting hip-hugging jeans on the streets of Bishkek with nary a head scarf between them.
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Not far from the mosque, the holy trinity cathedral, an amazing piece of art.

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The yellow domes of this handsome cathedral have risen from the rubble of Bolshevism at the corner of Lenina and Gagarin.

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Karakol’s first church services were held in a yurt on this site after the town was founded. A later stone church fell down in an earthquake in 1890. A fine wooden cathedral was completed in 1895 but the Bolsheviks destroyed its five onion-domes and turned it into a club in the 1930s.

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Serious reconstruction only began in 1961. Services are again held here, since its formal reconsecration in 1991 and again in 1997.

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But here in Kirghizistan, Friday is not only the day for prayer, it is also a day when pupils don’t have school. Everyone goes on picnic around, and on our way back from the mountains we’ve met many groups of teenagers having fun, and asking me to take pictures of them.

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D250. May 9. A night with Kirghizes in a mountain hut

Our mountain “resort” is next to the Arashan River, 20 km southeast of Karakol mountain, situated in a picturesque forest landscape at an altitude of 2350-2435 metres.

The resort has numerous wooden sheds which contain hot sulfurous pools to cure various ailments… The baths look creepy, I’m not sure I’m gonna plunge my body into that… Well, after a couple of hours, quite cold after a nap, I will finally try it. And it’s gonna be great.

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Even the moment when I discovered that a local shepherd was spying on me at the window was entertaining !

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Though, I’ll make my best not to go to the bathroom over the night, far too demanding ride… And the water from the ‘sink” is like ice on my hands…

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Our cook. Tonight we will have a bouillon with noodles and sheep pieces. Tomorrow morning we will have three salty grilled eggs. Like every other morning during this trip in the mountains.

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We will have a candle dinner, a very nice atmosphere, next to the samovar… Over the night, I will not be cold, as the stove is just on the other side of our bedroom wall. Nice to wake up in such surroundings.

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While Nick is packing and David watching birds with his binoculars, I try to interact with the owners of this place…

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As I try to thank Bartagül for her hospitality,  awkwardly repeating my “spasiba” (thank you) with a smile, she answers as awkwardly with a “cream, cream”, showing me her dry face, burnt by years of sun and cold. I give her my moisturizing cream and she introduces her entire family.

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Capture d’écran 2014-05-10 à 16.48.59Tabulde, her father, who doesn’t want to speak Russian. Though, when Nick and David tell him they come from England, he answers “football, Arsenal, Arsenal”.
As we shake hands, about to leave, he suddenly raises his arm and chants, out of the blue : “Heil, Hitler”.

Waouh… how does he know that sentence ? Does he know what it means ?
During the Soviet era, Kant and its surrounding area (20 km East from Bishkek) were home to a large number of ethnic Germans who had been forcibly relocated to Central Asia in 1941 from the Volga region when the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was abolished. Could he know from them ? I will never know. Though, it leaves us with a weird impression…





D249. May 8. Trek in the Altyn valley, an alpine paradise

map trekThe Altyn-Arashan valley is set in a postcard- perfect alpine valley at 3000m, with 4260m Pik Palatka looming at its southern end…

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At the end of the day, we should reach our destination : a mountain hut for the night, and hot springs as a reward for our efforts.

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An avalanche-prone road, strewn with rocks and winter debris, makes for a slow crawl up to the springs by 4WD.

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It’s a steep six-hour (14km) climb south on the 4WD track beside the Arashan River, through a piney canyon full of hidden hot and cold springs.

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On my way, I meet Dorek on his horse. His friend would like me to give him water but I don’t have any left. I give him an empty plastic bottle, that should at least help him in storing additional water when he will pass by a source.

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Indeed, when we stopped for lunch, our guide and cook used the river water without even boiling it.

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Six hours later, birds of prey seems to show the way.

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Around Five, we catch sight of the Arashan camp…

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The white summits seemed so far from us this morning, and now we are only a few kilometers from them.

The night is gonna be cold though, so let’s hope the hot springs are real…

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D248. May 7. A night in Karakol

Karakol is the administrative centre of Issyk-Köl province, and the best base for exploring the lakeshore, the Terskey Alatau and the central Tian Shan.

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Karakol is a peaceful, low-rise town with back- streets full of Russian gingerbread cottages, shaded by rows of huge white poplars. Around the town are apple orchards, for which the area is famous.

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It’s not quite paradise for those who live here – the economic stresses since independence and the decline in spa tourism have led to considerable hardship, thinned out available goods and services, and returned a kind of frontier atmosphere to this old boundary post. 

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We will spent the night in a guesthouse a few blocks from this street. On our way, we were silent in the car, wondering where the driver was about to drop us. From the outside, the house was grey, almost creepy. But then, once the front door opened, we were welcomed by a wonderful house and a wonderful host.

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We slept in cosy bedrooms, had hot water in the tubes, and wonderful diner.

She prepared porridge for our breakfast, knowing we would be walking six hours in the mountains over the day…

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The golden age of Central Asia exploration : Let me introduce you Przewalski

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The first geographical information about Central Asia come from Chinese travelers, around the 6th century. Much later, in the 13th century, new reports came from an Italian ambassador named Plano Karpiny… Then, 1867 : Przewalski, young Russian passioned with travel, proves  the Russian Geographical Society and his senior officers that he would be a good explorer.

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He persuaded the Society to sponsor his first expedition, to the Ussuri River region in the Russian Far East in 1867 (below, Irtkusk, that you might remember from my trip last September).

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The results impressed everyone, the Society agreed to help financer future trips, and the army gave him the time he needed, insisting only that on his return from each trip he be debriefed first before saying anything to the Society – Making him, in effect, an army agent.

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Those starting in Mongolia were devoted to finding route into Tibet. On the one non-Tibet trip, he discovered the tiny steppe-land horse that now bears his name. here below, his Kirghize guide through the region.

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On the last of these trips, he arrived via the Bedel Pass at Karakol. In 1888, he was in Bishkek outfitting for its next expedition. While hunting tiger by the Chuy river he unwisely drunk the water, came down with typhus and was bundled off the Lake Issyk-Kol for rest and treatment. From here he wrote to the tsar asking to be buried beside the lake, dressed in his explorer’s clothes. He died at the military hospital a bit later – Hereunder the Karakol hospital.

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So here I will be sleeping tonight, in Karakol, East of Bishkek, East of the Issik Kul Lake, not far from China and its Takla-Makan desert…

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D248. May 7. Driving along the legendary Issyk-Kul Lake

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The two days I have spent in Bishkek enjoying Constitution Day have also been needed to organize my exploration of the country, starting with the Issik Kol Lake, east Bishkek, just below the Kazakhstan boarder.

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The train only carries goods…

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I don’t ride horses…

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So I’ve decided to explore the region on a 4WD. At the tourist information center, I’ve met one Scottish guy and one English guy who were about to organize the same trip, so we have decided to travel together to share the costs. In the last 4 days, we will drive 1000 km around the lake, spend a couple of afternoons hiking in the mountains, will sleep in a guesthouse, in a mountain hut, in a yurt…
Let’s the journey start…

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The western road access to Issyk-Köl is a 40km-long canyon called Shoestring Gorge (Boömskoe ushchelie), which climbs into the East, with a howling wind funnelling up it most of the time.

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Then you discover the lake… Lake Issyk-Köl means « « warm lake ». A combi- nation of extreme depth, thermal activity and mild salinity ensures the lake never freezes; its moderating effect on the climate, plus abun- dant rainfall, have made it something of an oasis through the centuries.
Over 170km long, 70km across, its isthe second-largest alpine lake in the world (after Lake Titicaca in South America).

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After tsarist military officers and explorers put the lake on Russian maps, immigrants flooded. Health spas lined its shores in Soviet days, with guests from all over the USSR, but spa tourism crashed along with the Soviet Union, only reviving in the last few years thanks to an influx of moneyed Kazakh tourists.

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On the North side of the lake, the Kunnggoy Ala-Too mountain chain. Just behind it: Almaty, former Kazakhstan capital city.

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Even the birds look surprised about it.

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After discovering the lake and passing the mountain valley, we enter an agricultural plain…

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Agriculture is a major sector in the country: 35% of the GDP and 5% of the employment in 2002 (I don’t have a speedy internet, research are tedious, so no more recent data to offer today). Main crops include wheat, sugar, beets, potatoes, cotton, vegetable and fruit.

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As the price of imported agrichemicals and petroleum are so high, much farming is being done by hand and by horse, as it was generations ago… It reminds me of Romania, where I was three years ago and where the situation looks even worse than that…

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The country suffered from the collapse of the USSR, on one hand because it meant the loss of a vast market, on the other hand because state farms collapsed… The economy has been improving since the turn of the century though…

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