During last night’s sunset, I told Matt that we should try to wake up early enough in the morning to catch Blue Hour, the short period just before the sun rises when the sky is a deep blue and all the colors are very vivid. He is a little hesitant at first, but I remind him that all we would need to do to take a photo of the incredible scenery around us is literally to unzip the fly and stick the camera out of the tent. With almost zero effort required, it’s hard to say no, and we set the alarm for 4:30, hoping for good light in the morning.
We do manage to wake up when the alarm goes off and unzip the tent fly. Unfortunately, the light isn’t in our favor this morning, so, even though we do take some photos of the mountains in predawn light, it’s not as spectacular as we hoped it would be.
The scene actually gets more impressive an hour or so later when we are packing up. We catch the first light on the snow-capped peak of Tashtambek and the wall of mountains standing guard at the end of the valley. We eat breakfast enjoying this view and watch with curiosity as the South Korean hiking group breaks down their massive group camp to move onto their next destination. We wish them well on their trek, but we are quite happy to be moving on in the opposite direction.
Today is our last day of this trek, so we are eager to get moving. We break down our tent as soon as we are all packed up and help Urmat with his. When all that is left to do is pack up the horse, we grab the boys for a group photo and take off down the valley knowing the boys will catch up to us in no time.
It’s a beautiful morning with clear blue skies as we set off. The birds are chirping. The sun is shining, but thankfully it is at our backs as we begin the 15-kilometer walk to our pick-up point in the village of Jergez. We keep the river to our left and climb up and over little rises to avoid some soggy and grassy areas. It’s our great hope that our shoes that have been soaking wet for the past three days may actually dry out today, especially with this bright sun.
We pass a few small herds of horses and cows, but there seem to be far fewer animals in this valley than in the others we have been in. And we don’t see any yurt camps either. It may be because this valley is much narrower than many of the others. The river takes up most of the flat space, and we have to contour up, down and around hillsides where the mountains pinch in.
After the boys pass us up, we step off the trail for a bathroom break. Matt has been dying to get one last look at a Himalayan Ruby Throat, and this is when he finally gets his chance. There he is, a mere 15 feet away, perfectly perched on a low-lying bush, posing with his beautiful ruby red throat patch on full display as he sings his melodic song. It’s the perfect photo opp. Unfortunately, this dream close encounter comes while Matt is answering nature’s call, and he is in a bit of a compromised position with his camera nowhere in sight. This is definitely the one that got away!
We have seen a lot of valleys so far in our treks around Jyrgalan, but we both agree that this one may very well be our favorite. The combination of chiseled grey peaks, rushing river, giant boulders and tall Spruce pines reminds us so much of being on the Colorado Trail. We can’t help but love it.
After a few hours of walking, the valley opens up, and we come to a fancy-looking yurt camp that is the Kyrgyzstani equivalent of a Colorado dude ranch. If we ever get tired of trekking, this would be the perfect place to hang out and enjoy the mountains without all of the work.
As beautiful as the scenery here is, we are all feeling the lure of civilization and all that entails. We rarely stop for breaks today, and, when we do, we try to make them as quick as possible, gobbling down a handful of nuts to keep our energy up or stopping only briefly to peel off layers or change into a floppy hat that will provide a little more sun protection on this very warm day. It seems somewhat ironic that even with all the trees around, we just can’t seem to find any shade.
The constant downhill starts to take a toll on our knees and feet, especially as we transition from the jailoo with its soft grass to the dirt trail of the forested area and finally to the hard, rocky trail of the open, scrubby meadow. We drop 4400 feet over the course of the day, and the change in vegetation is quite notable. It’s interesting that we see the most birds and flowers down in the driest, most arid part of the valley.
Urmat is not feeling well today. He waits for us to catch up to him whenever we can find some shade, but we can tell that he is really dragging. After a while, we finally catch up to Adis and Bob, and they change positions. Urmat takes charge of Bob and gets to ride down to the trailhead while Adis has to stick with us.
We have no idea how much walking we have to do today, but the trail is definitely playing with our heads. We figure we must be getting close when we finish with the jailoo. Surely, we’re almost there when we hit the open meadow. When we can see the deep blue of Lake Issyk Kol far off in the distance at the end of the valley or when we start to see villages and farmlands, the trailhead must be just around the corner. Adis keeps moving, close enough ahead to stay in our sight, but never close enough to ask Are we almost there yet? He’s a moving target, and we never catch him until the very end.
We finally round a bend and can see Urmat, Bob, Adis and a car waiting for us below. Our driver Farkhat from Destination Jyrgalan is there, and he welcomes us with open arms, a big smile and a hearty Good job! said with his thick Russian accent.
We pose for a final group photo and thank the boys for a wonderful ten days on the trail together. With limited English between them, it’s a quick but heartfelt farewell, and we drive away waving goodbye to our trusty trail companions, who will return to Jyrgalan as we go on to Karakol, where we will base for the next few days.
We get into the backseat of Farkhat’s SUV and he turns on the air conditioning. What a concept! Moving under motorized power and air con. What a country! Seriously, it feels so strange to make the transition from mountain life to modern life. It all happens so quickly. One moment we’re walking down the jailoo, the next moment we are cruising down an asphalt road toward Karakol.
It’s a quick 30 minute trip to the bustling village that we’ll use as our base for the next few days. We are hot, sweaty, dirty and exhausted, but when Farkhat asks if we are hungry and do we want to stop on the way to the guesthouse, the answer is a chorus of two resoundingly saying “YES”! We are excited to try the Dungan specialty—ashlanfu, a bowl of noodles in a cold, spicy, vinegar-based broth. Farkhat says Yes, no problem!
We see a gas station, a supermarket, an old Russian Orthodox Church and even a traffic light of all things, though Farkhat says people here are terrible drivers. Oddly we see banners strung across the road advertising FedEx and YouTube.
We turn a few corners and park, and then walk into a one story warehouse-like building. Inside there are small stalls selling felt hats, fresh butchered meat and cafes selling ashlanfu. But Farkhat walks us right past these cafes, which are largely empty, to his favorite.
This is the best one he proudly announces. The place is absolutely stuffed full of customers, and there is a line that moves quickly. As customers leave their chairs others take their place while the women who work the room quickly clear dishes and wipe the table clean for the next customers.
Farkhat locates three seats and then orders three bowls of vegetarian ashlanfu along with three peroshkes, Russian fried potato bread. In no time, the bowls arrive, and the feast begins. Ah, how to describe this culinary miracle. It’s sweet and tangy because of the vinegar, spicy and oily and full of chewy noodles. It’s cold, and it goes down easy. It’s like Central Asian gazpacho. Absolutely delicious and totally worth flying halfway around the works to get it!
We are sitting across from a son and his father with a full row of gold teeth who smile and then go about slurping their noodles and raising the whole bowl to drink down the broth. When in Rome, right!? We take the cue and do the same.
The scene is totally chaotic and such fun. Before we know it we are downing the last drop of this amazing ashlanfu. It’s the ultimate Kyrgyz fast food, and the whole meal runs us 170 som for 3 people (basically $2.50). Just like that we are walking out of this tiny cafe, sated and excited to come back for more.
Outside we decide to try the two drinks we’ve seen hawked on the corners in Bishkek and other towns—maksym is a fermented wheat drink that’s slightly fizzy and, well, wheaty; chalap is a yogurt drink that’s slightly sour and slightly sweet. Both are interesting, but better when mixed together, according to Farkhat, so we try that as well.
Fed and refreshed, we drive to Guesthouse Ala-Kol, which is outside the center of Karakol. This is the other of two guest houses run by Gulmira and Emil, with the help of their daughter, Kima, who is “on holiday” from Bishkek. We are shown our room and told to make ourselves at home. It’s so pleasant to land in a comfortable place where we can make use of the laundry, grab a cup of tea and a hot shower and unwind between treks.
After taking care of our “chores” and catching up on email, we take a cab into town to dine at Ethno Cafe Dastorkon, which was recommended to us. We laugh when we walk in because the place is full of foreign tourists, most of them trekkers who are wearing their best hiking chic: men in rumpled shirts and women in skirts, but everyone in hiking boots or shoes.
There is a group of four musicians playing traditional Kyrgyz music and the place is decorated with traditional items. We think Oh well, I guess we have to go for this sort of thing once in awhile. It turns out to be a great experience. We order a few cold beers and have an excellent plate of lagman (noodles with spicy vegetables) along with an appetizer and a salad. The food is so good and the servers so friendly that we are thinking about returning in a few days when we are back in town.
On top of that, there is a TV playing various Kyrgyzstan tourism videos interspersed with Kyrgyz music videos that are clearly inspired by Bollywood and Britney Spears. At one point our attention is arrested when we hear a familiar theme. Click here to see why we were blown away:
Our energy fades quickly and so we catch a cab back to the guesthouse for the evening. Tomorrow, we will begin Kyrgyzstan’s most famous trek, and we are already excited to hit the trail again.