Greetings, everyone! It’s summertime, and that means we are off on another hiking adventure. This year we are headed to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia of all places where we will do some trekking in the Tian Shan and Alay Mountains. Kyrgyzstan is said to be the Switzerland of Central Asia, and we are excited to spend the next five weeks exploring a brand new destination that is totally off the beaten track.
But before we begin our trekking, we have three days to explore Kyrgyzstan. First, we spend a day bumbling around the capital city of Bishkek. On Day 2, we drive clear across the country to our basecamp of Jyrgalan while visiting some of Kyrgyzstan’s premier cultural destinations, and finally, we spend a day in this tiny village acclimatizing and decompressing far away from the hustle and bustle of Chicago. So, here, a la United Airlines Hemispheres Magazine, is three perfect days in Kyrgyzstan!
Day 1: Bumbling around Bishkek
Our arrival in Kyrgyzstan isn’t exactly perfect. We have flown here from Rome (via Istanbul), where we spent a lovely week touring the classical sights of Italy with Matt’s high school students and then a few days visiting relatives in the delightfully small and relaxed lakeside town in Trevignano, just an hour north of Rome.
Our flight from Rome to Istanbul left about 30 minutes late, but we had a 2-hour connection to make our next flight to Bishkek, so we weren’t particularly worried, that is until we spent the next 45 minutes taxiing around the terminal. After our third lap around the airport, we finally came to a complete stop and had to run at a full sprint to make our next flight. Luckily, the gate was fairly close, and we made the connection by the hair of our chinny, chin chins.
When we land in Bishkek, it’s no surprise that our bags have not made it. Farkhat, our driver from Destination Jyrgalan, is there to meet us. The plan is for him to drive us six hours east to the small village of Jyrgalan near the Chinese border where we will base for the next two weeks while we do a couple of multi-day treks in the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, the next flight from Istanbul doesn’t arrive until the following morning, so we have to scrap that idea and stay in Bishkek for the night.
The guy at the Turkish Airlines office wants to know where we are going to stay tonight, so he knows where to send our bags in the morning. In an effort to reduce weight we photocopied the Kyrgyzstan section of the Lonely Planet Central Asia and loaded the pdf onto our phones. We start looking through the accommodation section—old-school style—for Bishkek while they pull up Booking.com. Oh yeah, the Internet! We’ve heard of that!
We decide on a private room at the InterHouse Hostel. The Turkish Airlines guy gives us an overnight kit, promises us our bags will be delivered by 7 am and sends us on our way. We are crossing our fingers that he is true to his word because all of our trekking gear is in those bags, and we aren’t hiking anywhere if they don’t come.
The airport is quite far from town, and right away we are impressed with the wide, four-lane paved roads and the impressive views of the snow-capped Kyrgyz Ala-Too range.
We find our hostel in town with no trouble and quickly discover that Kyrgyzstan is a shoes-off culture. We are provided with slip-ons and little blue plastic bags to cover our feet before being shown to our room. All looks good, so we check in for the night, say goodbye to Farkhat for the day and head out to grab some lunch.
We walk a few blocks away to Cafe Faeza, which is located on Jibek Jolu (Silk Road) Street, which coincidentally is the name of the Kyrgyz restaurant we have back in Chicago. The restaurant is packed with locals from the nearby university eating plates of typical Kyrgyz food served by an army of attentive young waitresses in traditional dress.
Lucky for us, the picture menu lists the names of the dishes in English and our waitress understands “vegetarian” enough to steer us away from the meat dishes. Our choices are limited, but we settle on the carrot salad, borscht soup, fresh bread, mashed potatoes, and crepes with honey. Everything is served super fast, and, before we know we have paid the bill and are headed back to the hostel for a nap during the heat of the day.
Feeling rested, we head downstairs for an afternoon tea in the breakfast room, where we find a trio of 20-something Americans recording a podcast. They are Peace Corps volunteers stationed here in Kyrgyzstan for the past two years, and they are creating short audio segments introducing the Kyrgyz language for the next set of Peace Corps volunteers coming to replace them in a few weeks.
We learn a lot as we listen in. Kyrgyz is a Turkic language written in the Cyrillic alphabet. There are three main dialects spoken in the country: the northern, southern and China. The northern is the most influenced by the Russian language, while the southern is the most pure. It can be challenging to learn Kyrgyz because you often have to learn Russian alongside it, so you feel like you are learning two languages at once. Since we don’t know either, the next few weeks should be interesting!
Once Matt is properly caffeinated, we head out for a walk around the downtown area. Almost immediately we come across a large square where a stage and several yurts are being set up. Even though it is almost 5:00 pm, it is still beastly hot. It looks like they have been at it all day. It must be terribly tiring under these conditions.
Eventually, we make our way to Alai-Too Square, passing many Soviet-style buildings along the way but also a host of cute looking cafes and wineshops as well as a few spots that look like they were made with Instagram in mind.
At one local park, we meet two young Bishkekians (15, 21), fresh from their English class who are quite eager to practice their new language with native speakers. They take us on tour of the square, pointing out the various monuments we pass along the way. They seem to be very sweet young men, who want nothing more from us than the opportunity to talk.
When we reach the edge of the square, we bid our new friends adieu and thank them for the tour. We continue on through a series of leaf-green parks filled with statuary dedicated to important historical figures and the Manas story-tellers who are considered folk heroes here in Kyrgyzstan.
On our way to dinner, we pass a football stadium. There is a soccer game tonight at 8:00, and a woman is selling tickets for 200 som each ($3.50), which seems like a steal of a deal just for the cultural aspect of it. The game is starting soon, but, hungry for dinner, we head to Pur-Pur for Georgian food first. Here we find lots of vegetarian options, homey decor, a host of female servers, and delicious food, including mushroom dumplings, spinach and cheese bread, fried cheese, and a tasty bean dish with cumin and fresh herbs.
From there, we backtrack to the stadium to catch the second half of the football game—Dordoi Bishkek vs Khujand from Tajikistan. We can sit anywhere, except the front row which is all occupied by members of the Kyrgyz army. We aren’t sure if they are there for crowd control (official attendance is given as 1015) or as a special evening out, but, with no beer available for purchase and Pepsi and water the beverages of choice, the crowd is rather subdued and respectful. We grab some seats in the upper deck, just above midfield, and join the crowd in cheering on the home team. Bishkek wins 3-0! And the crowd disperses without incident.
We grab a post-game beer at Pinta Pub, which is just around the corner from the hostel. There is a large area with outside seating focused around two large jumbotrons showing a soccer game on one and non-stop Ariana Grande videos on the other. Despite being outside the atmosphere is very smoky. We grab a table on the periphery, but, with chain smokers all around, it’s hard to get a breath of fresh air. It seems that craft beer has made it all the way to Bishkek, and we order two IPAs, which taste a bit more like a Belgian sour than the hoppy varieties that we are accustomed to back home. Once again our server is female, and, to our surprise, the beer is served with a straw but for the ladies only. Matt definitely feels slighted.
When it’s time for bed, we change into the cheap, bright white Turkish Airlines t-shirt and shorts that we were given in our overnight kit at the airport. It’s definitely nice to have a change of clothes, but the white on white ensemble makes us feel like extras from Leftovers, Season 1 on HBO. If you’ve never seen that series, it’s definitely worth a watch. You will recognize what we mean immediately.
Day Two: A Kyrgyz Roadtrip
We sleep well and don’t wake up until nearly 7:15. We change into our street clothes and head downstairs to find our two bags at the bottom of the steps. Hallelujah! Bishkek has been fun, but we can now go trekking!
We have breakfast in the hostel, wandering down to find a table amongst the other budget travelers, and all the feelings of backpacking across Europe over 25 years ago come flooding back. Like kids on the first day of school, we are a bundle of nerves: Where do we sit? Will anyone talk to us? Where is the food? Will there be enough? Should we try to make sandwiches and stash them in our bags for later?
Nobody even notices us old folks, so all of our worry is for naught. Everyone we see is wearing headphones and dialed into the shows they are streaming on their devices. Times have definitely changed.
After breakfast, we meet our driver and load up the car. Farkhat has done some shopping with his extra time in Bishkek, and we are traveling with at least a dozen cases of beer he has been assigned to bring back to the guesthouse in Jyrgalan.
Stop #1 is the Burana Tower, an ancient minaret from the 12th century that is about an hour outside of town. It’s quite impressive even though only half of it remains.
Before climbing to the top, we wander along a trail lined with stone stele that were erected as memorials to the dead. Apparently this area was once home to a thriving ancient town. Giant stone wheels used to grind wheat into flour are also on view, and a tiny museum displays some Scythian goldwork found here.
The climb to the top of the tower is steep and not for anyone suffering from claustrophobia, but the commanding view of the Alay-Too Mountain Range makes it worthwhile.
We continue driving east down the highway, just in sight of the Kazakhstan border. We pass through a handful of small, non-descript towns, many with statues to Lenin, but the cemeteries are the main thing that catch our eye. They are small and filled to the brim with Islamic grave markers resembling domed minarets and miniature yurt skeletons.
For lunch we stop at a cafeteria along the highway where we sample some tasty Kyrgyz food: cabbage and potato pies, eggplant and tomato soy salad, cottage cheese stuffed bread, and cinnamon honey cake for dessert.
Outside, a woman is selling some round white balls called kurut that we ask Farkhat about. We assume they are eggs, but it turns out that they are a fermented cheese snack that the Kyrgyz people love, especially with beer. He insists that we try some, but the sour taste and chalky texture definitely takes some getting used to.
Our afternoon drive takes us along north shore of Lake Issyk-Kol. The lake is a deep, dark blue and shimmers invitingly beneath the snow-capped mountains. At 186 kilometers long, 58 kilometers wide and 700+ meters deep, this is one of Kyrgyzstan’s natural wonders, and it’s easy to see why so many Russians, Kazakh and Kyrgyz people choose to spend their summer holidays here.
Near the resort town of Cholpon-Ata, we make a pitstop to visit some petroglyphs on the outskirts of town. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, these rock drawings and chiseled pictures are spread out in a large boulder field, dating back from the 8th Century BC to the 5th Century AD.
As we are entering, our driver asks if we would like a guide, and, without even thinking, we respond yes. Within seconds, it’s clear that out guide barely speaks English as he leads us from boulder to boulder reading the interpretive signs to us. We feel like total rookies completely forgetting Rule #1: always ask if your guide speaks English!
Along the way, he points out the goats, hunters with bows, snow leopards, and camel depicted on the rocks. He tries to add some interpretation, but his English is so bad, it has the three of us cracking up. There’s something really good natured about this fellow, and it ends up being a hilarious multilingual exchange with a little help from Google translate.
From there we head to Rukh Ordo for a tour of the cultural peace park. Centered around chapels to 5 major faith traditions, it provides a good overview of many facets of Kyrgyzstan’s culture both ancient and modern. With good exhibits on Manas epic traditional story tellers and beloved writer Chingiz Aitmatov, Kyrgyzstan is definitely promoting itself as a friendly destination open to all but proud of its heritage.
On the way out, we pass a man in traditional dress holding a Golden Eagle. Matt can’t pass up the chance to hold it and dons the thick protective gloves to prevent the raptor’s razor-sharp talons from puncturing his arm. The bird is amazingly big so close up, and Matt is surprised by how heavy it is.
We still have a three hour drive to Jyrgalan. We try to fight nodding off to sleep as we make our way down the highway during golden hour, but this proves difficult. Occasionally, we pass sheep and cows being driven home and trucks piled high with fresh bales of hay lumbering along the road.
When we finally reach the Alakol Jyrgalan guest house at 9:30, we are exhausted and ready for dinner. We are greeted warmly by Gulmira and her husband, Emil, who have arranged our treks in the area. We are fed a hearty meal before retiring to our simple, sweet room for the evening.
Day 3: Day Hike from Jyrgalan
After a decent night of sleep beneath heavy comforters, we wake up to the sounds of cows mooing and the Muslim call to prayer. When we glance out the window we see the village is already up and busy with morning chores. The men are getting ready to take their cows and sheep out to pasture for the day. Children are sitting on their mother’s laps while they sip tea and chat. It’s a rather peaceful scene to greet the day.
The guesthouse is a collection of buildings and yurts, both traditional and modern, where up to about 35 guests can be accommodated. The building we are staying in is barely two years old and appears brand new.
This is a family affair, and Gulmira and Emily’s grandchildren are here for the summer to get out of the city and help out around the guesthouse. The kids clearly love it here, and it’s easy to see why. Farm animals, cats and dogs abound, and there are always new people arriving to give them attention and the opportunity to learn English.
We shuffle downstairs to the dining room that acts as a common area, where tea and coffee are available throughout the day. Sturdy pine wood tables and benches look out through casement windows across the farmyard to mountains dotted with pine trees rising impressively behind the village of Jyrgalan. Breakfast is ample: bread, butter, jam/honey, hot porridge, crepes, cheese, cucumber, tomato, and a light sweet pastry. Clearly, we will be well fed at this guest house!
Today, our plan is to day hike up to Chaar-Jon Peak and down to Turnaluu-Kol Lake and then back to the village. James, a volunteer from England, will join us and act as our guide. James came here three years ago as a tourist and loved it so much he’s returned now for the past two seasons to assist in the development of hiking routes and to promote tourism for Destination Jyrgalan, the tourist office here in the village.
Kyrgyzstan, with the help of USAID, has set up local tourism organizations to attract travelers, improve services and, most importantly, keep the profits within the community. As an English speaker, James is able to answer emails from potential clients and advise travelers on activities in the area, from horse riding and mountain biking to day hikes and multi-day treks. He has also scouted routes and provided photographs for advertisement. We feel lucky to have him for the day.
We set out at 10 am (it seems that slow starts to the morning are the norm here!) and walk through the village before leaving the dirt road to climb through green pastures. The rise is fairly steep and the single track, although not marked, is easily found.
We can see the ridge where we intend to stop for lunch, but it takes us several hours to reach it. We’re OK with this, since today is intended to help us acclimatize and get our mountain legs. Besides, the conversation with James flows as we chat amiably about the culture and customs of the Kyrgyz people, which he has become quite knowledgeable about. The wildflowers are in bloom in this alpine setting, and we stop occasionally to take in the scene.
At the top of the ridge, James explains the two 5-day routes that we will trek starting tomorrow. We are in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains which stretch from here to the border of China, and we can see the higher snow-capped peaks off at the horizon. We can also see to the border of Kazakhstan. It’s easy to imagine this Kyrgyzstan as a crossroads at the heart of the ancient Silk Road.
After lunch, we set off downhill to see two different mountain lakes, cutting our own path as we see fit. We pass a group of horses with their young foals grazing in the meadow, their mothers keeping a steady eye on us. We see a few birds along the way, including Everman’s Redstart and several Lesser Whistling Ducks on the lower lake. In the late afternoon we feel a few sprinkles from a grey cloud overhead but not enough to don our rain gear. For most of the day we have sunny blue skies with big white clouds that add drama to our landscapes.
The last hour or so we hike down through green meadows, known as jailoos, with cows quietly grazing. Finally we come down to the road, cross the river and stroll through the village back to our guest house, passing children who each in turn say “Hello, what’s your name?” Everyone is eager to practice their English.
Back at the guest house, James shows us on a map where we will be trekking and encourages us to do a third trek from Karakol, explaining where to catch the bus and how to do it. After a shower, we enjoy a delicious, home-cooked dinner with a dill cucumber salad, lentil soup and a green onion and spinach pancake called oromo.
By 10 pm we are tired and head up to our room to get our gear sorted before our trek tomorrow. Today was a great introduction to life in the mountains of the Jyrgalan Valley. We are ready to hit the trail. Stay tuned!