After our brief stint in Kazakhstan, we negotiated our way through the easiest border crossing yet (Ben didn’t even have to get off the truck due to his broken leg…the friendly and helpful Kazakh and Kyrgyz border officials came on board to stamp him out of and into country), and soon we were in the lovely city of Bishkek. Our guidebooks (Lonely Planet and Bradt) made Bishkek sound like a horrible city but we were pleasantly surprised. Cool architecture, funky bazaars, Soviet statues, fantastic restaurants and cheap vodka. Yup, we enjoyed Bishkek for a few days! Sadly, we had to say goodbye to quite a few members of our group (Chris and Tina, Bjorn and Conrad/Coen, Michael, Ben, Brian, Gunji and Kevin) but we did welcome a few new additions to the truck (Molly, Greg and Kevin from Seattle and Papa Chris – Kate’s dad from the UK). That put us back up to a group of 19 passengers for the final leg of the trip with Habibi to Xian/Beijing. Since we had plenty of time to explore Bishkek, a group of us decided on a day trip to Ala Archa National Park. Luckily, we were blessed with gorgeous weather for our hike up to the waterfall, which was a steep 2 hour hike from the main trail. After leaving Bishkek, we had several bush camps in a row – yay! First we hit up Lake Issyk Kul (the world’s 2nd largest alpine lake after Lake Titicaca in South America) where Lars and Robby took a dip in its surprisingly warm waters. Then we drove onward to Karakol where we dropped off Habibi for a few days. The reason? An optional excursion “monster truck” (ruggedized Russian trucks built for off roading) ride up to the mountain resort of Altyn Arashan, complete with hot springs and snow leopards. Sign us up! We enjoyed a long hike up in this lovely corner of Kyrgyzstan which was quickly becoming our favorite of all the ‘stans. Soaking our weary bones in the natural hot springs was a bonus – good times. We still have another week in this country before we hit China so stay tuned.
23 Jun – After crossing the Chaldovar border from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan, we were stamped in and on our way to Bishkek. And not a moment too soon since Ben was still in tons of pain with his broken leg. Kate was anxious to get him to a hospital in Bishkek soonest but first had to get the rest of us settled in to our respective rooms at the Interhouse Hostel. We were split up into dorms, with Becky scoring a room with young Gill, SCUBA Gill and Dya…yay! Robby ended up on the top floor with Andy, Lars and Warner. We had a brief reunion with Kevin and Daniel who had bypassed Kazakhstan due to the lack of a visa and gone directly to Bishkek. It was obvious from the get go that Kevin was still disgruntled because he immediately started in on Kate about his visa ordeal when he first saw her. Poor Kate had other priorities though since she was worried about getting Ben to a hospital asap. It made for an uncomfortable reunion. Daniel was actually super pleasant about the whole ordeal and we didn’t hear him complaining or running his mouth at all. With Ben still stuck on the truck and Kate trying to arrange a taxi big enough for him to recline in, Kevin marched down to Habibi to offload his belongings. Helen wasn’t having any of it and bullied him into waiting for Ben to get offloaded first. Kevin was super pissed but Helen won the battle…we are quickly realizing that Kevin is a selfish, inconsiderate person and none of us will be sad to see him depart the truck in Bishkek. Good riddance to the grumpy git! To escape the drama, we linked up with Ichi for a quick walking tour around Bishkek. Our guidebooks had warned us to be especially careful around the city but we found the warnings to be a bit too dire! People were friendly and we experienced zero hassle. After checking out the main square and surrounding parks as well as the city’s only Lenin statue, we had worked up an appetite for dinner. Back at the hostel, we saw that everyone was still trying to decide what to do for dinner so we figured it would be faster and cheaper to just head out and find a bite to eat. Chris was raving about the best burger ever so we figured that would hit the spot for dinner. A hungry Andy joined Ichi and us on our quest to find a decent burger joint. The burgers were OK but definitely not worthy of the “best ever” title that Chris had bestowed on them. Since tonight was the last night of the trip for several members of the group, we were keen on a basement party but it was hard to get everyone together. Luckily there was a decent supermarket next to the hostel so we were able to load up on cheap booze while we waited around for everyone to show up. Gunji, Chris & Tina, Bjorn & Conrad/Coen, Michael, Brian and Kevin were leaving the group and we were supposed to get 4 new additions to the truck tomorrow. The big group party never materialized, but we enjoyed chilling in the basement with friends and music as we said our goodbyes to everyone. Poor Kate and Ben were missing the fun as they were now back from the hospital and working furiously with Ben’s travel insurance to get him out on the first UK bound flight so he could have surgery there.
24 Jun – Free day in Bishkek! After having breakfast in the basement, we were told that Ben finally got word back from his travel insurance approving him to fly back to the UK so he was already at the airport trying to get on the first available flight. Thank goodness his ordeal will be over soon…he was in so much pain these past few days and poor Kate was right by his side every step of the way. She was due for a little break before having to greet the new arrivals this afternoon (Molly, Greg & Kevin from Seattle and Chris, Kate’s dad). When word got out that Kate was planning to do a mini truck clean by herself, Becky pitched in and several of our remaining group helped spruce up the truck. Of course we discovered Kyle was already in the middle of cleaning by the time we showed up but with a bunch of extra hands, it didn’t take too long for everything to be completed. Afterwards, we decided to hit the city for a bit more sightseeing. Osh Bazaar was our first stop and it was extremely photogenic. Robby scored a new pair of flip flops for 220 Som. He’s been going through a new cheap pair every 2 weeks so he definitely needed to stock up on extra footwear. Unfortunately, while at the bazaar, one of the scams mentioned in the guidebooks materialized. Robby was approached from two different guys dressed in plain clothes to show his passport. They wanted to demand money but Robby got super irate and started addressing them loudly. Rather than make a scene in public, they slunk off the same way they came and left him in peace. From Osh Bazaar, we made our way over to the Ala Too Square because we wanted to see the changing of the guard. Unfortunately, there was a massive renovation project ongoing so no changing of the guard for us! While wandering the streets of Bishkek, we befriended 3 girls who were super eager to talk to us but only knew a handful of English words. They were so happy to hear that we were from the US and expressed their desire to learn more English. Nice girls and of course we took some selfies. It had been a hot afternoon so we cooled down with some drinks from the supermarket and hung out in the hostel for the rest of the afternoon. The group was keen on a dinner at a nearby Georgian restaurant (Purpur). We joined along and had a fabulous meal. The bill was one of the most expensive of the trip thus far so that put a slight damper on our enjoyment but overall it was a nice way to say hi to Kevin, one of the newbies joining the truck (and newly recruited member of Becky’s new cook group with SCUBA Gill).
25 Jun – Another free day in Bishkek. We had decided to escape the city for nearby Ala-Archa Canyon Park and were joined by Kate P, Connie, Warner and Gunji. Cost was $20 per person including park entrance fees and a bag lunch. At the park, we opted for the 3.7 km hike to a waterfall and our driver told us it could take several hours (he agreed to wait in the parking lot for as long as it took). We had a spectacular day hiking the mountains of Ala-Archa…brilliant sunshine, phenomenal views and gorgeous alpine scenery. The hike did kick our butts though, so we took plenty of breaks along the way. Connie hung with the group at the bottom of the hill but took her time getting up the mountain, so the 5 of us continued on and were gasping for air during certain segments of the hike. About halfway up the mountain, Gunji called in quits as the terrain was quite steep and he didn’t want to overexert himself. Little did he know but he had completed the hardest part as the terrain leveled out to the waterfall which was the turnaround point of our hike. After stopping for a break and some photos, we hiked back down the mountain and soaked in the gorgeous scenery. Simply stunning and only 30 minutes away from Bishkek! It was a great day excursion and we were glad that the group was kept small. Back at the hostel, we relaxed for the rest of the day, grabbing a delicious paratha and curry for dinner. Since wifi at the Interhouse hostel was the fastest we had experienced in weeks, we tried to stay up late doing some admin work – gotta take advantage of good internet when you get it!
26 Jun – Goodbye Bishkek and hello Lake Issyk-Kul. With the new members of our group (Chris, Kevin, Molly and Greg) joining us, it was a pleasant drive out to the second largest saline lake in the world (after the Caspian Sea). Kate stopped to buy some bright red cherries from a roadside vendor (super tart..not sweet at all!) and we pulled over for lunch by the lake near Toru-Aigyr. Robby & Lars opted to go for a quick dip and they quickly pronounced that the water was surprisingly warm. Our quick lunch break became unexpectedly long because Kyle discovered a couple of broken wheel lugs he had to fix before we could hit the road again. Kate decided to kill some time with a game of “malteaser”, rolling a chocolate covered malt ball down a measuring tape into someone’s awaiting mouth…the trick is to not allow the ball to smash into your teeth and of course not to choke on the high speed treat! Several hours later, we were on our way and the afternoon was spent driving to a bush camp (quarry near Kyrgyszkoe Vsmorje on the northern side of Lake Issyk-Kul). Kate P was wearing a colorful watermelon pant print and Connie took some great pics of her silly poses. Actually, tonight we discovered a little known secret that Connie is a fabulous photographer who had been capturing a lot of candid moments of the trip. Becky was super impressed after checking out a selection of her photos of the trip thus far.
27 Jun – After breakfast, we drove to Karakol where Robby’s cook group (Robby, Ichi and Chris) went shopping for food supplies. We were going on an optional excursion to a mountain camp in Altyn Arashan via “monster trucks”. But first we had to drop off the sole member of our group, Daniel, who opted not to partake in this optional trip and wanted more time to hang out in Karakol. The hosts of our grey 2 story homestay in Karakol welcomed us with open arms and Kyle expertly maneuvered Habibi into the tight parking space. Everyone had to pack an overnight bag with all their snivel gear since Habibi wasn’t joining us on this portion of the trip. After lunch at the homestay, we piled into the monster trucks and took off up to Altyn Arashan. The scenery was spectacular and we stopped for a couple of photos along the ride up there. No way Habibi would have made the bumpy journey…the ruggedized 4WD Russian trucks were very impressive and we were awed that they made the journey look so effortless. After about 2 hours, we pulled up to the Arashan Travel campsite where they directed us to a field where we could set up our tents. And not a moment too soon since rain came pouring down once we managed to erect our tent and put the rain fly on. Cook group made a delicious dinner of veggie soup and meat dumplings which we ate in the communal kitchen area. Afterwards, we grabbed our swimsuits and went for a dip in the hot springs. Touted as one of the highlights of Altyn Arashan and reputedly excellent for a wide range of skin and health issues, we enjoyed our long soak. Even though the facilities are basic, the piping hot water felt awesome, and no shower was necessary before climbing into our warm sleeping bags afterwards. We slept well knowing that tomorrow we were heading out for a morning hike.
28 Jun – Breakfast at 7:30 am before a morning hike to Ala Kol Lake an hour later. We had been given vague directions on how to reach the lake (considered a challenging hike) and were enjoying our morning trudge around Altyn Arashan. Eventually the well laid trail seemed to disappear and we were at an impasse. Turn around and return to camp, hike to higher ground on this side of the river bank, or make a precarious river crossing via some fallen logs. We weren’t interested in option a so we took option b. Twenty sweaty minutes later, it soon dawned on us that we had to turn around and take option c which was the scary river crossing. Kevin, Greg and Molly opted to return to camp, so that left the 2 of us scrambling after the majority of the group. Becky scraped her leg big time on a mossy rock and had rivulets of blood streaming down her leg. The hike was not going according to plan at all! After managing to cross the tumultuous river, we managed to stumble upon the rest of the group taking a short siesta. The hike was hard going from this point onward since it kept going higher and higher in elevation and we were winded. Eventually the trail opened up into a grassy field with several dozen horses grazing about. It was a spectacular scene and well worth the effort to get to this point. Becky was petting a foal which was acting super friendly until it unceremoniously bit her bicep! Little did she realize it was such a nippy horse! Thankfully the bite didn’t break through the skin but it did leave a large welt. We continued on to a river crossing and met up with the group again. From there the weather was looking ugly but we thought it would hold off and continued to hike up hill. It was a grueling hike and our energy was sapped. Finally, Becky called it quits and decided to turn back. Good thing too because it started thundering and lightning on the mountaintop – not the best place to be in a thunderous rain storm. Ichi and Lars caught up with Becky at the river crossing and they made it across safely as a group. Kate and her dad decided to hike on, which sounded crazy so Helen and Ant decided to wait for them in a local’s tent to make sure they were OK. Robby teamed up with Dya and the two of them managed to cross the engorged river safely. All was going well until we ran into another group of tourists who were still hiking up the mountain. One of their members, a Spanish girl, was freaking out big time and screaming her lungs out. Amazingly, her partners pretended not to hear her and literally abandoned her at the river crossing! She was super scared, blubbering and hysterical and we didn’t really want to let her join our group but thought it would be cruel to abandon her like everyone else had. So she ended up accompanying us on the return hike to our campsite. Thankfully we found a better river crossing for the return trip and the weather improved as we pulled up into camp. So we celebrated by grabbing some drinks to go for a soak in the hot springs. The perfect antidote after a tough wet hike. During nap time afterwards, Robby discovered to his dismay that this Thermarest mattress had a puncture in it, so he took it down to the hot springs to find the leak…success and he managed to patch it up before dinner. No late night for us after dinner as we were exhausted, so we crashed early.
29 Jun – Departure at 11 am so we slept until 8 am and had a late breakfast. Played with the campsite puppies before one final dip in the hot springs. Our gear from yesterday’s hike was still drying on our tent so we wanted to delay tearing it down until the last possible moment to allow it to dry for a bit longer. Becky scored a front passenger seat for the monster truck ride down the mountain and loved the amazing vantage point…phenomenal! A couple of crazy tourists were attempted to bike their way up the mountain…boy we felt bad for them since most had long abandoned the effort and were pushing their bikes uphill. It would be a tough enough hike, let alone bike ride! Back at Karakol, we pulled into the homestay and everyone grabbed a bed to sleep in. We scored one of the double rooms (Greg and Molly got the other one), and the family slaughtered a sheep for our dinner. We got to witness the entire process (from choosing the animal, slitting its through, skinning and cutting the meat to kitchen prep) and learned that nothing on these fat-bottomed sheep goes to waste, not even the fatty butt! The vegetarians in our group felt a bit queasy which was understandable. Karakol was having a water issue which did not bode well for our shower situation. Everyone was keen on taking a nice shower since it had been days since the comforts of Bishkek. But without running water, it was an impossible task. We managed to squeeze enough water for a birdbath and then recycled the used water to wash our laundry…talk about an efficient use of a scare resource. Kinda gross but at least we felt clean! Our group dinner consisted of boiled lamb, carrots and potatoes prepared by the guesthouse plus some veggies that Kate made for the vegetarians. We had anticipated that our Kyrgyz hosts would have added a bit of spice or flavor to the sheep meat but they simply boiled it with some onions and potatoes and viola…dinner! After dinner, we lounged around with some drinks and conversation before ducking out to watch 13 Hours…Lars had managed to download a copy in Bishkek and we were keen on watching it especially after having read the excellent book. We managed to watch half of it before calling it a night…our eyelids could barely stay open.