Chillin’ Out on the South Shore of Lake Issyk-Kol

Today we are beginning a two-day journey from Karakol to Bishkek that will allow us a stop in Bokonbaevo on the south shore of Issyk-Kol and a chance to see a bit of the non-trekking/cultural side of Kyrgyzstan. After breakfast, we bid farewell to our comfortable guesthouse in Karakol and meet Anwar who we have hired to drive us all the way to Bishkek. While it is possible (and very affordable) to take marshutkas (mini-buses) all the way to Bishkek, we want to maximize our time and minimize the hassle of travel. Read this as: we are too old for that s**t!

So, off we go heading west out of Karakol. For the first hour we have the Alai-too Mountains to our left with its endless view of snow-covered peaks. Then, beautiful Lake Issyk-Kol comes into view to our right with views beyond toward Kazakhstan.

Anwar is pleasant, but we soon realize he speaks virtually no English. We find we can go along way with hand gestures and charades in asking and answering simple questions. Google Translate would be even better, but neither of us has it downloaded onto our phone. Whenever we hit an impass, Anwar calls his friend, Anastasia, who does speak English, and she translates as we hand the phone back and forth to each other. It’s all rather comical, but it solves the puzzle.

Our first stop is Skazka or Fairy Tale Canyon, a red rock desert-like expanse about halfway across the southern shore and 20 kilometers east of Bokonbaevo. It’s a perfect time to stretch our legs and a very different landscape to explore.

Here, there are interesting sandstone formations to climb and narrow canyon trails to walk that look like they were plucked straight out of Utah.

When we arrive there are some dark clouds looming on the horizon, and the lighting is quite dramatic, making for some fun photography. We grab our cameras and head off into the maze-like canyon in search of interesting compositions.

We see more tourists in an hour and a half here than we have in the past two weeks combined, including some sort of a model shoot!

We feel like we have been released in an adult playground climbing around the rocks, looking for interesting shapes and cool colors in the rock formations.

The dark clouds come closer and closer, and soon the first raindrops begin to fall. We scamper back to the car just in the nick of time, and off we go down the road.

We are staying tonight at Almaluu Yurt Camp, a few kilometers east of Bokonbaevo. We pull off the tarmac road and head down a dry, dusty road toward the lake past a farm field and pull into the main gate. We are greeted by a young man named Erzhan who shows us around the property. The word “Almaluu” means “place of many apples” in Kyrgyz, but, at this time of year, we find many apricot trees bearing fruit.

There is a dining yurt with complimentary wifi and coffee and tea at all hours. There are also outdoor showers and A-frame outhouses as well as hammocks and swings in the shade. There are a dozen or so yurts of different sizes scattered throughout the property. We are shown to #10 where we deposit our bags. The peaceful little camp with its round yurts reminds us a bit of the campgrounds we stayed at in Southern Africa on an overland truck trip years ago.

The quiet and laid back atmosphere at Almaluu is just the sort of relaxing afternoon off that we are looking for. But, before we can get to that, we need to head into town to find an ATM, get some lunch and perhaps find some ice cream. The first two are easily found, though lunch does prove challenging. We head to the main cafe in town, where the menu is not in English. With Anwar’s help (he knows we are vegetarian), we manage to order some food, and most of it comes without any meat.

We discover that we all enjoy photography, so we show him some of our Instagram photos, and he shares some of his photographs of his favorite places in Kyrgyzstan. There are so many more beautiful areas here that we need to see. Anwar also enjoys snowboarding and skiiing and shows us a video of himself doing all kinds of fancy tricks on the slopes around Karakol. It is shot with a drone and looks gorgeous. We have heard that Kyrgyzstan is a great place for winter sports, and we make a mental note to try to get back here sometime in the future during the ski season.

After lunch we go in search of ice cream but have to settle for frozen ice cream treats from a small convenience store. Both are rather plain but better than nothing on this warm summer day near the lake. We pick up some fresh fruit from the market and head back to camp.

We spend the afternoon relaxing and writing in the shade before retiring to the yurt for a cup of tea. In the early evening, we take a leisurely walk down to the lake and find many locals swimming and enjoying a Saturday at the beach. It’s surprising to see no boats on the lake, and we wonder why.

On our way back to the yurt camp, ominous dark clouds begin to appear on the horizon. We pick up the pace, hoping we can make it back before the skies open on us. We see several birds including, somewhat surprisingly, a pair of hoopoes and a European roller, birds we are accustomed to seeing in South Africa! The wildflowers in bloom all along the road must be good feeding grounds for these attractive migrants.

Just before dinner, we meet an Australian family who work in Kazakhstan and are visiting here for a week-long vacation. We chat about what it is like to live in Central Asia while we wait to be let into the dining yurt for dinner. All of a sudden the wind picks up and creates a swirling dust storm that forces us into the yurt. As soon as we enter, 30 young children who are attending a summer camp at Almaluu take this as their cue to enter for dinner, too. Suddenly it’s a madhouse as children scramble for seats.

Luckily, two tables have been reserved for us and the Australians. We sit on the floor with cushions at our backs and colorful textiles all around us. The table is filled with food: bread, jam, cookies and chocolates (which the kids grab dig into right away), salads. We order two beers and continue chatting with the Australian family. Soon dinner is served—laghman, our favorite noodle dish!

The owner of the camp is a cheerful woman in her late forties with a cheerful demeanor. She comes out of the kitchen to introduce herself and ask how are meal is. She offers us kymyz which we accept and explains that every summer Almaluu hosts a summer film camp that brings children of various ages from all over the country together. She also mentions that there will be a few special visitors this evening.

A short while later she introduces us to a man in a traditional felt hat, who is a manasji, a performer of stories from the Epic of Manas, the founding hero of the Kyrgyz people. He is in town for a festival that starts in two days but has been kind enough to stop by to offer a performance. A space is cleared for him at the back of the yurt in the place of honor, and the room grows quiet as he prepares to preform.

Manasji are said to be born into their talent. It’s not something that can be taught or memorized. The performance he gives is mesmerizing and lasts for approximately 20 minutes. Listen for yourself! It looks exhausting. Afterward we are able, through the help of Erzhan, to ask questions and interact a bit, which feels like a special honor to us.

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Four newcomers arrive, and we are introduced to them as well. They turn out to be well-known Kyrgyz filmmakers who are running the film camp for the teenagers. Over the course of the week, the students are taught the principles of filmmaking and learn how to produce, direct, write, film, act and edit. By week’s end, they will produce a documentary and even a short film with an original script.

We speak for some time with the director and his producer/wife and the cinematographer and his wife about the Kyrgyz film industry. This creative team produced a film entitled The Song of the Tree last year which has received some international attention at various film festivals. We see the trailer and wonder about its distribution in Chicago where there are many Kyrgyz immigrants.

It’s a very pleasant evening on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kol as we brush with both ancient and modern Kyrgyz culture. Tomorrow we will continue our journey to Bishkek where we will meet up with Rob and Amy, our hiking buddies from Colorado, who will be heading down south to the Pamir-Alay Mountains for our next trekking adventure. Hooray!

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