After the mountain resort of Altyn Arashan, we had one night at a homestay in Karakol. Little did we know this would be the start of a week of slaughter (sheep, rabbit, sheep)! When our homestay hosts offered to cook us a lamb dinner, everyone readily agreed since the meals on top of Altyn Arashan had been vegetarian and we were craving meat. Then we found out that our innocent dinner was bleating away happily in the barn! Yup, we had front row seats to the selection and preparation of our evening meal. Our host deftly handled the fat-tailed sheep from start to finish and we found the entire process morbidly fascinating. Nothing went to waste…even the bountiful “J-Lo” bottom was sliced up and thrown in the mix. Some of us who witnessed the entire process were now borderline vegetarian wanna-bes! From Karakol, we made our way to Jeti Orguz where we were supposed to cross 5 precarious wooden log bridges. However, Kate got word that the border between Kyrgyzstan and China was going to be impacted by an upcoming Chinese festival, and if we didn’t readjust our schedule to the left by 2 days, we would have an extra week in Kyrgyzstan (which would shortchange our itinerary in China). After voting, we opted to skip the mountains of Jeti Orguz and instead, spent lunchtime hiking around the red sandstone cliffs at the base of Jeti Orguz which are locally known as the “Seven Bulls”. Then it was off to a bush camp where we watched the nomadic tradition of eagle hunting. A poor bunny rabbit was the unsuspecting victim and it didn’t stand a chance next to the talons of the eagle. Pretty brutal stuff but the eagle left satisfied! Our last few days in Kyrgyzstan were spent at a yurtstay near Lake Son-Kul. There, we got to ride horses for a few hours in the morning and in the afternoon, we were lucky enough to witness a match of traditional goat polo (also known as “buzkashi” or “ulak-tartysh”). However, since there were no goats roaming about in the “jailoos” (summer pastures) of Lake Son-Kul, the players opted to sacrifice a sheep instead, thus ending the animal killing spree of the week. The chosen sheep was summarily beheaded and its headless carcass was used by opposing members of a team to score goals in a game that can best be described as a fierce version of rugby on horseback. And then, just like that, our time in Kyrgyzstan came to an end. This stunningly beautiful country ended up being our favorite of the ‘Stans…we definitely saved the best for last! Next up is China for about a month or so. Not sure how reliable internet will be or if our VPN will work so we’ll find out together.
30 Jun – The Karakol homestay family prepared an early morning breakfast for us and we were packed and ready to go by 8:30 am. Our first stop was in Karakol itself where cook group went shopping and the rest of us were told to buy our own lunch. Andy had scored some delicious paratha at the Karakol bazaar on our first trip here, and we were keen on having that for lunch so we followed him to his source. Unfortunately, the paratha was sold out so we had to settle for some flat onion bread instead which ended up being OK but not as yummy as the paratha. Since we still had some time to kill, we decided to squeeze in a bit of sightseeing around Karakol, stopping at both the Holy Trinity Cathedral (fantastic woodwork, worth a visit) and the Dungan Mosque. Back on Habibi, SCUBA Gill discovered she had inadvertently left her shoes at the homestay so Kyle had to backtrack for them. Then we were off, with the destination of the Tien Shan mountain range (Issyk-Kul). Unfortunately, Kate got a text message advising her that the notoriously difficult Torugart Pass into China would be closed on our currently scheduled crossing day. Armed with this new information, she had Kyle pull over where she could get phone reception and then proceeded to come up with two courses of action. Option A was to continue to the Tien Shan mountains but skip out on eagle hunting and goat polo at Son-Kul Lake and Option B was to skip the famous wooden bridge crossings at Issyk-Kul and head directly for Son-Kul Lake instead. We were gutted…this portion of Kyrgyzstan was supposed to be spectacular. But Kate was adamant that we not mess around with the Torugart border crossing as it is one of the toughest in the world. So after taking a quick truck vote, we decided to cross the border into China 2 days early (thus skipping Issyk-Kul’s Tien Shan mountains). Since we were already pretty close to the red cliffs of Jeti Orguz (seven bulls rocks), the plan was to have a quick lunch there before backtracking and heading south towards a bush camp. The cliffs were pretty spectacular and made for a nice lunch stop. We were able to squeeze in a quick hike (got to see a Kyrgyz family shearing their sheep) before joining the lunch munchers by the truck and polishing off the remainder of Denise’s roasted chicken. Kate called ahead to organize an eagle hunting show for us later that afternoon so we drove directly from Jeti Orguz to Bokonbaevo where we linked up with the eagle hunter. Then it was a short drive to a field where we got to see the eagle hunt in action. We were given the option of watching the eagle hunt a rabbit or sparing the rabbit’s life. Needless to say, the group voted to see a live hunt much to the disgust of nearby Europeans who angrily voiced their opinion and told us that Europeans would never wantonly vote to end life so needlessly. Umm, actually our truck was predominantly European so there goes that theory! The poor bunny rabbit actually had no chance. It was set free upon the field and didn’t have the wits to run away and hide. It just started munching on some shrubbery and the eagle made a quick meal out of it. We were able to take photos with the eagle and marveled at the close relationship the eagle hunter has with his bird…overall a cool experience! Afterwards, we set up our bush camp in the area. Several locals were using a nearby makeshift track to race their horses and the leader yelled at a couple of people to move their tents (they had been erected way too close to the track). After dinner, the skies opened up for a couple minutes and rain poured down but luckily the rain only lasted a few minutes. Kate fed us some chocolate treats and we snuck off to our tent to watch the remainder of 13 Hours before calling it a day.
01 Jul – Up early and on the road by 7:30 am. We drove along the southern shore of the Orto-Tokoy Resevoir and stopped in Kochkor so that Becky’s cook group (Becky, SCUBA Gill and Kevin) could do some shopping. Kate had also coordinate to pick up Abas, the yurt camp director, for the upcoming couple of nights at Son-Kul Lake so we had to wait for him to show up. Ben had thoughtfully given Kate $50 for the group to use to buy some goodies (for helping him out with his broken leg ordeal). Thanks Ben! We loaded up on all sorts of booze, mixers and snacks…$50 went a long way in Kyrgyzstan. From Kochkor we had a long drive towards Son-Kul Lake. The scenery was phenomenal and everyone was hopping from one side of the truck to the other to capture the sights. At the top of a mountain pass, Kate and Kyle spotted a snow bank and stopped to fill the coolers so that our drinks could remain ice-cold. Then our long, bumpy ride continued. About 8 km outside of the yurt camp, we had to buzz to stop the truck so we could put the flaps down. There was simply way too much dust that was coming in from both sides of the truck and we were choking on it. And finally, our home for the next 2 nights came into sight…our Son-Kul Lake homestay, yurt style. Of course we immediately volunteered to pair up with Ichi and Lars for the party yurt. And it didn’t take long to bust out Ben’s liquor and snacks! Son-Kul Lake….we love you already. A fantastic afternoon of drinking ensued. Since we were at altitude, it took forever for Dya, Denise and Kate to prepare dinner (or so they claimed…we think Ben’s beverages may have played a role!). After dinner, the party moved to our yurt until the campsite shut off electricity at 11 pm. Fun day today!
02 Jul – The yurt camp provided breakfast at 8 am. We had signed up for horse riding at 9 am. Becky immediately scouted out the gentlest pony and scored him for herself…he was a beauty. Poor Helen had selected the craziest horse of the bunch and was unable to control it so Robby agreed to swap with her so that she wouldn’t fall off and get hurt. He later agreed that the horse was completely mental – it wouldn’t obey any commands and definitely had a mind of its own. The ride was fun although a bit too short. We wanted to explore more of Son-Kul Lake area but only had about 3 hours total. Nevertheless, it was a spectacular morning and we thoroughly enjoyed riding our horses. After lunch, we had a short siesta until 2 pm. The locals had agreed to put on a game of horse polo (buzkashi or “ulak tartysh” in Kyrgyzstan), where a headless body of a sheep is used to play polo. But first, a couple of other challenges were tossed out. Challenge #1 was a simple game of tug of war, challenge #2 involved staying on your horse while reaching down to scoop up a bag of money at a full gallop (harder than it sounds), and challenge #3 was wresting for dominance while on horseback. The competitors did not take the challenges lightly and we got to see some furious action before the main game of sheep polo commenced. We had missed an opportunity to see buzkashi in Afghanistan so it was great that we got to see ulak tartysh in Kyrgyzstan! The bigger and brawnier red team dominated all the games and proudly held the sheep’s carcass overhead for a team photo afterwards. We wondered if they got to enjoy the spoils of sheep polo for dinner? The meat is sure to be tenderized! Back at the yurt camp, Becky’s group prepared dinner while everyone else had a low key night of drinking. We stayed up late in our yurt watching Dead Pool with Ichi and Lars. Another phenomenal day in Kyrgyzstan!
03 Jul – Our yurt camp provided an early breakfast for us and we were on the road by 7 am. Unfortunately, Habibi got stuck on a muddy uphill section of the track which required everyone off the truck. Out came the sand mats and we worked together to get the truck up the hill. After two sticky spots, success! Kyle felt confident that we could stow away the sand mats and reboard Habibi to enjoy the rest of our ride around Lake Son-Kul. It was another wonderful drive day with gorgeous alpine scenery. Leaving the lake area, we drove to Naryn so that cook group could do some shopping. Abas had hitched a ride with us until Naryn where we said our goodbyes. Robby promised to send him some of the photos we had taken of him with his family at Lake Son-Kul. While cook group did their shopping, we were keen on spending the last of our Som, so we partnered with Ichi and found massive bags of colorful toffee sweeties (Kate P had gotten us hooked on the sweeties a couple of weeks ago and we had been on the lookout ever since). Kyle went to gas up the truck so we patiently waited for him to return with Habibi by a central park in Naryn. Unfortunately, our group was a magnet for the drunken homeless who decided to descend on us. It was quite uncomfortable and we were thrilled to see Kyle pull up to rescue us from the situation. From Naryn, we drove as far as we could towards the border crossing, bush camping in a riverbed gravel pit past Ak-Beit. Since we had been driving all day and reached the bush camp pretty late that night, cook group made a simple meal of spaghetti with truck meatballs. It was cold out so everyone retired to their tents immediately after dinner.
04 Jul – Happy 4th of July! We had a quick early morning breakfast and were on the road by 7 am. Today we were conquering the Torugart Pass, one of the most notoriously difficult border crossings in the world. Our first checkpoint was near the border, not far from where we had camped. Last night everyone had collected their individual passports from storage and Helen had discovered that her visa to China was probably not valid anymore. What a horrible feeling! She was nervous about whether she’d be able to enter China or not and was extremely anxious this morning. At the first checkpoint, our passports were given a quick look-over and we linked up with our mandatory escort who assisted us with getting to the China border. The second checkpoint was near Chatyr-Kul Lake and again, we were all granted access through. Since Helen had successfully made it through the first 2 checkpoints, we were feeling confident that she would be allowed through. Disaster struck at checkpoint #3 and it didn’t just impact Helen. Dya was told that her visa was also invalid! The news came as a shock as we were suddenly in the situation where we had to bid farewell to not just one of our travel companions but to both of them! Dya and Helen could not proceed any further, but luckily our mandatory Kyrgyz guide was able to squeeze them into her car for the ride back to Bishkek. The rest of us had our passports stamped out of Kyrgyzstan and were on our way to China!