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Kyrgyzstan – a long weekend hiking and exploring

May 7, 2017

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

The lady in the headscarf stands over us, wagging a finger indicating firmly that it is time for us to go to bed. We crawl into sleeping bags, donning hats and fleeces in response to the rapidly lowering temperatures, and soon there are eight bodies all in a row and the sound of deep breathing. I lie on my back, wide awake, despite a day of strenuous hiking, the hard ground making every position unbearable for long and unable to relax sandwiched between my gently snoring neighbours. A little later, the woman and her daughter come back, announcing their presence through low mutterings and a lot of clanging and scraping as they clean the little stove and restock it with slabs of dried animal dung. Fire relit, the bustling activity continues outside as a canopy is thrown over the roof hole and secured with ropes so we are hermetically sealed inside.  Later,when I decide to brave the cold and relieve myself, I discover that the door is tied shut and have to snake my hand through a forced gap to unloop the string. The stove has done its work and the icy cold and breezy environment turns to boiling hot without oxygen; my face blazes as I try to breathe deeply and combat the feeling of intense claustrophobia. As romantic as it sounds, my first night in a yurt is not the most comfortable of experiences.

It does mean, however, that as soon as dawn light glimmers through the thin patches in the canvas I’m ready to be up and watch the early morning mist swirl around the surrounding mountains and catch the first sun rays to burn through. I’m on Tes-Tor in Kyrgyzstan, a country I know very little about, for a long weekend of light hiking in April 2017.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Landing in Bishkek

Our journey starts from Dubai with a FlyDubai flight taking four hours through the night to the capital Bishkek. For most of our group it’s an easy process with no visa needed, but the group one for the Indian nationals has a problem and they have to remain at the airport for most of the day to sort it.

Our Kyrgyz guides ferry us in mini buses through the streets of the capital in the early morning light. Bishkek is named after a paddle used to make kumis, the national drink of fermented mare’s milk.  The city centre is dominated by soviet-style angular buildings and heavy-hewn black statues of Lenin, Pushkin and Mikhail Frunze (a Bolshevik leader in the Russian revolution).  This country emerged from the USSR in 1991 after 70 years of Soviet rule.  The Kyrgyz were nomadic in the past, and there’s a mix of cultural backgrounds as the country was part of different empires over the centuries.  Many of the unique and ancient traditions have been preserved in this small landlocked country surrounded by mountains which was a part of the Great Silk Road.

The first people we see out on the streets have attractive round ruddy cheeks and rosebud lips. Many women bind their heads in coloured scarves and coats and dresses are covered with bold embroidery. Some men wear tall sculptural white felt hats (called kalpaks), also embellished with navy embroidered patterns .

We head East for a couple of hours through farmland dotted with brown sheep, budding fruit trees and square houses. The mosques are square too as if fashioned from a similar frame, with a painted jagged, metal sphere, placed on top as a minaret. They remind me of the shape of cut glass.

Burana tower

After a couple of hours we reach our lunch stop at the site of the ancient city of Balasagun. A medieval minaret is about all that remains. At the peak of its wealth, during the reign of the Karakhanids (955-1130), it was an important place on the Great Silk Road and had over 200 places of worship. The Karakhanids were the first people in Central Asia to accept and practice Islam and the Burana minaret, constructed inside the ancient city, was the first to be built in this part of the continent.

We’re welcomed into a yurt, its walls and roof covered with brightly painted wooden struts and embroidered cloth. The first of many feasts that we’ll enjoy over the next few days is laid out on little tables.
After we cannot drink another drop of tea from flowery painted metal teapot we wander in the sunshine to see the ancient burial site. The open grassland is dotted with curved petroglyphs (carved stones) called bal-bals – the name may be derived from the Turkic for ‘grandfather’ and these primitive pieces of ancient rock do look more like people than gravestones.

The red brick Burana tower just begs to be climbed and I tackle the steep narrow winding stairs in order to take in the panoramic view of the mountains. Earthquakes, marauding Mongols and pilfering Russian immigrants lessened its height and it’s been given a rather neat restoration job, but it’s still impressive for something that’s been around since the 9th century.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

View from Burana tower

Once my feet are back on the ground I spot a large party of Chinese girls swarming up the driveway so I make a dash for the loos but balk when I get there.  The concrete stalls with no door and a just hole in the ground are clean but ridiculously basic and exposed – and a hint of things to come during our stay.

There’s a lot of nodding off on our next leg of the journey as our bus winds its way through miles of countryside, climbing higher to meet the clouds that roll in over the towering hills.

Homestay in Karool Dobo village

Through a metal door down an unmade country lane is our home stay,  consisting of a couple of long buildings with many rooms. It’s clean, comfortable but icy cold inside the rooms. We’ve barely digested our vast ‘breakfast’ but we’re led into another yurt where we sit on blankets to eat at low tables that groan with dishes. Platters of fried wide pastry ribbons with jagged edges are formed into rolls like crowns and arranged into towers. Baskets of bread, biscuits and wrapped sweets  are dotted among large bowls of white sugar and several varieties of homemade jam.
We start with a salad of potato and beetroot and another one with carrots and thin noodles. A soupy stew of hard chewy beef and potatoes follows. Black tea is served in abundance of course.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Outside our homestay in Karool Dobo, Kyrgyzstan

The urge to curl up in a ball and snooze is strong but once we don hiking boots and many layers (uncertain of the temperatures) it’s a wonderful feeling to be striding up the nearby hill. We are guided by a local with no English who is clearly fitter than the fittest among us. He strolls with ease leading us upwards, stopping periodically and crouching on his heels, while we catch up panting (well it might just have been me doing the heavy breathing). The Kyrgyz are a horse rearing nation and we walk past many herds on the hillside. After ascending for well over an hour there are patches of flattened, damp brown grass recently liberated from a blanket winter snow. A little higher up we discover a remaining snowy patch and this discovery brings a delight that only desert dwellers can really understand, especially when we spot a snowdrop raising its tiny, new fragile head in a clearing.

Back at the homestay, the yurt is laid with the exact same spread of pastries jam and bread but this time supplemented with a slightly different beef stew and rice. It’s hearty fare made for extreme temperatures. We’ve bought whisky on our way out of Dubai and get to know our neighbouring room mates over a few hot toddies before sinking gratefully into comfortable beds.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

With our homestay hostess

After welcome hot showers, we dodge the pouring raid from veranda to yurt, to sit on low cushions once again for breakfast. There’s a tangy, slightly fizzy (i.e. fermented) yoghurt which I love but is too strong for some. Traditionally this might have been made from mare’s milk (kumis) but I think this yoghurt is from cow’s milk. A semolina porridge transports me back to infant school dinners, in a good way. The teapot circulates endlessly as always and the same bread, biscuits, bowls of sugar and crenellated pastries fill the table (do they dust them?).

Our host and hostesses wave us farewell and I pose for a picture with the lady of the house who smiles with lips firmly closed, hiding her many gold teeth. Rain lashes down but eventually clears as we head further East through dramatic green hills.

Lake Issyk-kul. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

We stop by a lake which gleams flatly below us. During the summer, crowds flock to these vast stretches of water and, by the largest called Issyk-Kul, bask on the only beaches in this landlocked place. Today we see no-one.

Kochkor livestock market

The streets of Kochkor are lined with vehicles as it’s livestock market day. We enter through the sheep area with woolly beasts of all sizes and ages being shown by their owners. We thread our way among the beasts and men, fawning over curly-headed calves that hide behind their protective mothers. Horses are cajoled and whipped further along, interspersed with the odd clutch of poultry, food stalls and other random items.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

At the Kochkor livestock market

People are mildly interested in our presence but mostly we’re ignored or observed with a gently smile.  The range of vehicles also reflect that horse power of four legs is still relied on heavily. Ladas of various vintages mingle with pick up trucks and slightly newer models of makes I’ve never heard of. Gleaming four-wheel drives are nowhere to be seen.

Visiting a cemetery

On our drive we’d caught intriguing glimpses of ornate looking tombs, interspersed with etched marble markers, all arranged haphazardly and overgrown with long grasses bleached from winter temperatures. At last the bus stops by one on the outskirts of the town and I leg it out of there as fast as I can, camera already clicking in the eerie stillness.

Cemetery. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Cemetery. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

The people of Kyrgyzstan were nomads until the 20th century and were buried very simply wherever they died. The practice of erecting ornate mausoleums to the deceased started when they adopted a more permanent lifestyle. The graves made of mud bricks and metal frames (resembling yurts) are adorned with ornaments from Islam, Shamanism and symbols of the Soviet Union. There is no tradition of visiting the dead so the cemeteries are overgrown, crumbling, serene, ramshackle and beautiful. I would return to this country for a tour of the graveyards alone.

Hike to Tes-Tor

The hustle, bustle and teaming life beckons us to stay, but our bus is waiting. We stop at the bazaar in Kochkor for provisions; the business are inside brightly coloured converted shipping containers.  One houses a little cafe where every table is full, bowls of steaming stews and dumplings keep emerging and a tantalising scent of slow cooked onions make us long to stay. However, we are committed to climbing a mountain and soon we’re standing at the bottom of a path by a farm, strapping on boots or mounting steeds. Our hiking group starts together but the younger fitter ones surge ahead and the rest of us spread out.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Soon R and I find ourselves walking alone, trudging up the long, slow, ascending path. The view of a high range of snow-capped mountains behind us becomes more distant as we climb higher, the steep green granite hills around us resembling sections of Dartmoor. We ford a few rocky streams and eventually a swathe of slowly melting snow. A beaten up transit van is parked just before this and a huddle of men wave from the small windows – daytime drinking or just shooting the breeze? The only litter we see on the hillside are empty vodka bottles.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Hiking upwards

With a sense of achievement we enter our camp of four yurts. Three hours was predicted to finish this stretch of about 10km but at this altitude ( the camp is 2800m) and gradient, and as 50+ aged hikers, we’re more than satisfied to have done it in 4 hours 20.
We enter the welcoming warmth of the yurt to join a late lunch of beef stew, salad, homemade jam, bread and tea.

Higher up to Lake Köl-Ükök

A hike to a lake is on the cards but R and I are both still feeling the effect of the climb up. I try to determine whether there are any really steep ascents. The main guide speaks French and Russian but through translation assures me that it’s the same as the journey up. R joins the horseback gang while I elect Shank’s pony. It’s good to be hiking with other people to take my mind off a few aches and slightly less fresh muscles. The group all have interesting backgrounds and their professions range from banking to radar engineering.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Some of the speedier hikers have left us behind, the predicted time of an hour and a half has been exceeded and the lake is still not in sight. Some of my group accept the offer to continue on horseback as we’re all feeling a bit weary. After traversing a very narrow slippery snow and mud covered path we meet the speedy gang on their way down. The lake lies at the top of a very steep climb (over 3000m). I take a couple of steps and reassess. In summer the Lake Köl-Ükök is brilliant blue, meadow fringed and reflects the surrounding mountains, right now it’s frozen and snow-covered, plus the sun is getting very low. I don’t fancy risking the walk back in the dark. I join the speedy gang for the journey back through the valley and love striding out down hill at pace. There is not one regret at missing the frozen lake which will be breathtaking in summer full of meltwater, with blue skies and wildflowers, but is a sea of white right now. This decision also rewards me with the view of a spectacular sunset behind further mountain tops at the end of the valley.

More feasting, a frenzied game of Uno, a fair few nips of warming whisky and the aforementioned early night dictated by the formidable matriarch put an end to the day.

Coming down the mountain

I’m up way before our Kyrgyz lady alarm clock at 6.30am and there’s more finger wagging at 7 to encourage the last few stragglers out from under their blankets. Within a short time we’re all eating fermented yoghurt, semolina porridge and drinking a vat of black tea, then packed up to walk back down in the sunshine. Some go by horse and our heavy bag does too.

It’s a glorious morning and we pass several mounted herdsman shepherding flocks, some old and wrinkled, some young and shy – the latter guffawing with laughter after I take a picture. Our faces are glowing with slight sunburn by the time we reach the edge of Isakeev village after three pleasant hours of hiking downhill.

Kochkor – another feast

There’s a relaxed Sunday air as we peer out of the bus windows onto country lanes as we wend our way towards Kochkor. Children sit at the roadside, an elder girl cuddling a cheeky looking toddler. There is cherry blossom everywhere and houses with wooden eaves and window sills carved and painted blue.  We stop at a smart-looking homestay with yellow shutters and a huge table laid for lunch. Explaining dietary requirements (several vegetarians and one dairy-free) takes some doing especially in a culture where meat is prized, but we get there eventually and there is more than enough food for everyone (this is an understatement).

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

There’s a five-hour bus journey back to Bishkek, where we stare out at endless green meadows, rushing rivers, roadside fruit sellers and, at one point, the border with Kazakhstan, under the spring sunshine and post lunch drooping eye lids. The only jarring note is the non-stop Kyrgyzstan pop music that the bus driver tunes into, worthy of the most testing Eurovision song contest entry.

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Warned to hang onto purses, our group snakes along the edge of the pavement in Bishkek. In crocodile formation we dart down rabbit warrens of alleyways in the slip stream of our guide. At the start we skirt bodies passed out on pavement, evidently senselessly drunk.  Think too much about crossing the road and you’ll never set foot on it; the cars career out of nowhere at speed. There are some very dodgy looking meat skewers on a dirty grill, sold by glowering dodgy looking men but some jolly folk music floats from a pleasant-looking courtyard; this is a place of contrasts.

We are led to souvenir shops selling felt hats, wooden instruments and mini replica yurts, among other things.  Above our heads, several loud speakers blare, competing, strident, and unintelligible (to us) cacophonies above our heads. I brave the public loos and recommend that if in the Osh Bazaar, however urgent, you never, ever do.

Threading our way to another part of the market, we are soon surrounded by stalls piled with food. Refrigeration isn’t valued much here it seems and chickens, meat and intestines are displayed in the open air. A cool hall is lined with high tables and women selling various dairy products and the famous Kyrgyz raw honey.  Their ladles drip thick cream and golden honey and the famous pure white variety made by bees from the nectar of wildflowers in the mountains – and none of the sellers can resist sampling their own wares from time to time, with undisguised relish.

Folk night at Arzu in Bishkek

When a folk night in restaurant in Bishkek was mooted I was sceptical but most of the group were really keen. This sort of event is usually quite predictable and aimed at giving tourists what they want rather than something really authentic. Arzu is a smart restaurant (compared to what we’ve seen to date) and almost empty.

The waiters flap and if ordering wine is a slight challenge (beer is much easier), explaining what vegetarians and vegans eat seems an impossible task (given the fish that arrives). Caesar salad as one of the starters makes my heart sink – but I cheer up when the manti arrive. There are dumplings in the cuisines of most cultures along the Silk Road, a Chinese influence, from Nepalese momos to Georgian khinkali, and I’m always keen to try them. The filling is dense and beefy, the thin pleated dough wrapper silky. They are the culinary highlight of the whole trip for me.

Traditional musicians. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

The musicians arrive. Two beautiful women with serene expressions dressed in intricately embroidered clothing with a fountain of soft, grey feathers on their fur-trimmed hats, carry slender pear-shaped wooden stringed instruments with long narrow necks (called komus). One man in splendid traditional dress complete with tall hat plays a side-blown flute (a chopo-choor) and another in similar dress sings. A younger, solemn looking chap in a bright blue coat stays in the wings until he takes centre stage. Sitting at the end of the table he sways rhythmically from side to side as, in a strong nasal chant he recounts a historic and moving tale of tragedy and valour. We cannot understand a word but there is no doubt about the subject matter or the amount of feeling it evokes.

The women lighten the mood with fast and dexterous plucking and strumming of strings with dramatic arm movements and switching their instruments into different choreographed positions. Afterwards I ask how long it has taken them to become so expert; they began playing at the age of seven.  The whole programme is utterly captivating and when the group join us at the end of the table for a photo it’s revealed that they are a famous ensemble who make regular appearances on TV.  The whole evening including a sumptuous meal has cost us 10 USD per head.

There is no dessert (a relief after our days of feasting) and we catch a few hours of deep sleep at our clean, comfortable hotel before heading to the airport. It’s been a weekend of real immersion in a very different culture, a world away from our own, with many tales to tell. From spotting snow leopards and red foxes in the Winter to a profusion of wild flower meadows and more breathtaking scenery, there is much more about this amazing country tempting us to return.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Visiting Kyrgyzstan

Getting there:  There are four flight a week to the capital Bishkek from Dubai on Fly Dubai and the flight time is 3 hours 40 minutes. There are no direct flights from the UK.

Organising your trip: We signed up for this weekend with Trekkup Dubai via the Meetup app and I see they are repeating this trip. If you do a quick google search there are many companies who organise guides for trekking and hiking. Community based tourism, including homestays and yurts, is well set-up and Kyrgyzstan is very inexpensive.  There is some good information about arranging your trip from Goats on the Road here.

Staying in Bishkek: Rich Hotel

Visa info Foreign travel advice Kyrgyzstan for UK  General visa info

Thanks to R for spotting this trip and encouraging me to sign up. I’d love to return to hike through the wildflowers meadows in summer. Have I tempted you to journey off the beaten track?

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. Em Howle permalink
    May 7, 2017 9:27 pm

    Hi Sally. Love reading about your travels. This trip looks more adventurous than Georgia. You should organize a trip for your fans:) – Em (we overlapped in Georgia during the wine festival a couple years ago).

    • May 7, 2017 9:35 pm

      Hi Em, Thanks so much for the rapid and kind response. This was quite an adventure, although my girl’s weekend to Georgia which I’ve only half written up was pretty hairy at times! You are welcome to come with me anytime! KP thinks I’m bonkers – I’m off to Bucharest on a solo trip this month. Eek!

  2. May 7, 2017 9:47 pm

    Kyrgyzstan had never really been on my radar, but the landscapes look spectacular. Almost makes me think of the Wild West with the horses and mountains! It sounds like it would be impossible to go hungry there too, judging by the feasts you had – and I’m intrigued by the raw honey.

    • May 8, 2017 7:51 am

      The landscapes are what draws me back. The vast swathes of beautiful hiking – it really was unspoiled and dramatic. The raw honey benefits from the pristine nature of the countryside too. There is a type of pure white honey from the summer meadows in the mountains. It’s really thick and very floral. I brought some back although we are lucky enough to have a supplier of some of the best here in Dubai (Balqees). I’ve never been to the Wild West but yes I can see similarities of self-sufficiency and of course the horses! Thanks for commenting Rosie – it wasn’t on my radar either until this trip.

      • May 8, 2017 11:36 am

        It certainly looks like a hiker’s paradise – and probably all the better that it isn’t on everybody’s radar, as it means the landscape isn’t altered too much. I’ve never seen it for sale in Europe, though if I do come across it then I may have to buy some for my mum to try as she’s a honey fiend!

  3. glamorous glutton permalink
    May 7, 2017 9:52 pm

    I loved this post. This is a trip to a destination that is very undiscovered, whilst south East Asia is fun and India etc is amazing this is genuinely new – to me anyway. Fabulous to read, it sounds like an amazing trip. I’m not sure I could have slept on the ground, even in a yurt, way to knobbly!! GG

    • May 8, 2017 7:53 am

      It truly was the most uncomfortable night’s sleep as, yes, I’m far too knobbly now! A blow up mattress would have solved everything! The country definitely felt like a well kept secret and was a very unique experience.

  4. May 8, 2017 1:30 am

    Not that I would want to poo poo bloggers but … but this is not a ‘mere’ blog post. This is writing evocative of Karen Blixen. This is a beautiful traveloque. And, for me, a vicarious thrill.
    You are made of sterner stuff, Sally, than I … and what you recount as adventure and inspiration (I can’t believe you’d want to return there and go through all that physical challenge all over again!) translates as pure torture for me. That said, I read your recap of the trip all in ‘one go’, with bated breath. Your adventure was genuine and real, and your writing about it was too. Thank you. Hats off to you!

    • May 8, 2017 7:55 am

      I’ve really struggled to write my blog of late. The will is there but, with so much out there on the internet, my confidence is a bit lacking. I can’t tell you how much this comment means to me. It’s given me the lift that I needed and a lump in my throat. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be introduced to your blog too – love that you quote classical mythology along with recipes!

      • May 8, 2017 11:40 am

        OMG Sally! I think yours is one of the best blogs around! You know how to cook, for a start ! and you travel and have lived abroad, etc, and your ‘eye’ and palate are always maturing and learning something new. I love that you like your vino and cocktaiils too (tee hee). And, what is always refreshing, there is nothing pompous about what your write (tone). I think you are a little younger than I am, but still … we are more or less of the same generation. And you know what? I think we are a really ‘nice’ generation … and that shows through in your blog too. So … no more talk of confidence slacking, okay? 🙂

  5. sarahhedonista permalink
    May 8, 2017 5:56 am

    What an incredible weekend. Brave to step out of the norms of what we consider an acceptable holiday.

    • May 8, 2017 7:58 am

      No Champagne on this trip! Worth it for the utter silence in the mountains, and not seeing a man made thing for miles around. And for being introduced to a completely different culture. The bed at Rich hotel on the last night felt like the best of any 5 star property in the world!

  6. May 8, 2017 9:53 am

    What an amazing read, seriously fuelling my wanderlust! Need to book my flights asap, what an adventure!

  7. May 8, 2017 11:49 am

    Wow you are intrepid Sally, I’m totally in awe of your experience. While I love the thought of off the beaten track travel, I’m no longer comfortable with immersive cultural experiences that mean sleeping on the floor and having to face primitive bathroom challenges. My loss but I can enjoy the experience vicariously

  8. May 8, 2017 12:04 pm

    Such a beautiful place and a perfect holiday destination! I’d love to visit Kyrgyzstan.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  9. May 8, 2017 10:01 pm

    WOW that was an adventure and a half for sure. You’ve definitely not tempted me though. The food sounds good but the rest sounds far removed from my idea of back to basics!

  10. May 8, 2017 10:16 pm

    When I was traveling in 2010 I thought I’d end my travels in the Stans and go home but I got caught up in South America and never made it. These photos made me realize that I need to put them back on the list.

  11. May 9, 2017 12:51 am

    This brings back such happy memories for me – I visited in 2008 and would so love to go back. Such a beautiful country filled with wonderfully kind, friendly and generous people and I just loved exploring their cuisine (except for the fermented mare’s milk). Wonderful post Sally and gorgeous photos (as ever). Greetings from DC!

  12. May 10, 2017 10:46 am

    I must admit that I don’t much about Kyrgyzstan. Reading about your experience has been enlightening.

  13. May 10, 2017 12:24 pm

    I was waiting for this post after seeing your Instagram stories. That homestay looks gorgeous and those Mantis are calling my name! Bravo on visiting untouched places and telling your story so beautifully!

  14. May 11, 2017 6:42 am

    Wow.

  15. May 13, 2017 7:13 pm

    Breath-taking pictures. I would love to hike this place soon enough!

  16. Pete permalink
    May 19, 2017 7:45 pm

    Hi Sally,
    Only just saw this after reeling back through the group chat on WhatsApp. Very good blog that captures and describes the trip so well. A really enjoyable read. Thanks for the memories and descriptive stories.

    • May 22, 2017 7:09 pm

      Thanks Pete – much appreciated. Such an enjoyable weekend in a very different place – a real adventure.

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