19:09 Thursday, July 07 2019

Central Asia (1/3)

This post is part 1 of the "central-asia-2019" series:

  1. Central Asia (1/3)
  2. Central Asia (2/3)
  3. Central Asia (3/3)

I recently returned from a trip to central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan & Kazakhstan). It was a fascinating corner of the world, that sees relatively little foreign tourism.

Day 1

Despite multiple claims that we'd board the flight to Dubai at 4:30pm, in reality we didn't start until 4:45pm (an hour late). The seats in biz class were nice and spacious. I was in 14k, which was against the window. I had a somewhat nicer blanket, a somewhat larger pillow, a thin foldable mattress, a mini bar with an assortment of beverages, 2 storage cubbies beside my seat, noise canceling headphones, and socks. The crew also distributed 'fancy' gender specific amenity bags. Mine had hand lotion, toothbrush & paste, shaving cream, and disposable razor, tissues and, deodorant. They gave out champagne before take-off. Then we sat at the gate forever. Eventually the pilot explained that the catering truck's hydraulic lift was stuck, and they were waiting for a mechanic, so that it could be backed away from the plane. 20 minutes later it backed away and we finally pushed back at nearly 6pm.

The crew came around to take everyone's food orders. I got the arabic mezze app, tikka paneer for the main, the cheese plate for desert, and steak & eggs for breakfast. They also had veurve cliquot which i had with a warm mixed nut plate. I had a glass of an italian red wine with my dinner. The mezze was yummy. The rest of the food was ok, but nothing special. The cheese plate had 3 unnamed cheeses (a soft brie, some kind of blue, and a hard aged cheese). I spent most of the flight watching netflix shows or trying to sleep. In theory, i should have been able to sleep well, as my seat folded flat into a bed. But even with the thin mattress it was hard and lumpy. Eventually i figured out that if i didn't recline the entire way, i could lay relatively comfortably and sleep. Overall i think the biggest disappointment was that the crew didn't behave any differently than in economy, and seemed miserable. It still was way better overall than economy, but not as amazing as i was expecting.

We landed at 7:43pm, about 25 minutes late. I had to clear security and then walk forever to my connecting flight gate. Its currently 92F outside, and rather warm and stuffy in the terminal. At 9:53pm they screamed Bishkek a few times to announce the opening of the gate seating area. There's quite the eclectic crowd on this flight. Arab men in dishdashas, vaguely east (or central!) Asian looking families, random westerners who look grizzled, russian speaking men, and a few women in niqabs. They announced boarding at 10:35pm, and it was complete chaos as nearly everyone rushed the gate. I pushed my way through, and the gate agent wasn't even doing passport checks, or scanning barcodes, just glancing at tye boarding passes and waving people through. I got to my seat, and eventually this woman in the aisle started talking to me in russian. Eventually she realized that i had no clue she was saying, and switched to broken english. Apparently she wanted to trade seats with me, as he sister and toddler were currently beside me. Of course her seat was several rows back, on the window, so i told her no thanks. She got angry at that point, and seemed to suggest that the toddler was going to be extra obnoxious. I shrugged it off. We didn't get airborne until 11:30pm, nearly 45 minutes late. The plane was quite warm for nearly the entire flight. Other than that it was uneventful, and we landed at dawn.

Day 2

I was early off the plane, then remembered that i left the black bag on the plane, and had to turn back and fight my way to get it. Of course at that point nearly everyone else had deplaned. I sorely regretted my mistake when the line for immigration was massive. It was a unique experience to say the least. First, almost none of the signs was in english, it was nearly all russian. Then, so many people getting into heated arguments in russian in line. people were yelling at the guards and each other, plus random people cutting the line. After an hour, i finally got stamped in.

I went into the restroom and the toilet paper was basically sand paper. After that i finally exited customs and found my driver holding a sign with my name. Then i stopped at an ATM to get Som. As i was looking for the atm a person was handing out free sim cards. After a ridiculous amount of effort i got the sim card working. I paid about \$1.30 for 15G of data. Finally we exited the terminal and walked to the car.

Once in the car the driver introduced himself as Ibek, a Uighur who splits his time between kyrgyzstan and kazakhstan. His english was pretty good, but he also spoke russian, kyrgyz, uzbek, kazakh and arabic.

Almost immediately as we drove away from the airport i saw the snow capped mountains in the distance. The mountains were covered in green grass with lots of snow at the summit. That was the dominant theme for the entire day.

Of course, kyrgyzstan has quirks too. The police are corrupt and randomly sit at the wide of roads pulling people over to demand bribes. We were never pulled over, but i saw lots of others who were. Also, their music is stuck in the 90s. Perhaps its just the station we were listening to, but anything they played that wasn't in russian was from the 90s.

As we drove, we passed 2 border crossings for kazakhstan. Later in the day we were driving south on a road that led to china. I also saw a bunch of russian and chinese license plates. Around 9am we stopped for breakfast. It was basically a cafeteria with all sorts of random stuff, like lasagna and meat dumplings. I got beef goulash with buckwheat, hot tea, and a yogurt drink. The yogurt was yummy. The rest was ok.

The scenery was almost always spectacular. There were snow fed streams running through broad green valleys with horses, sheep & goats. I saw tons of nomads were yurts. There's still a lot of communist era monuments along the road side. Some were random statues of animals. Others were propaganda slogans with the hammer & sickel. I even saw a huge best of Stalin.

The roads were mostly in good condition, although as we drove further south there were lots of speed bumps. There was rarely much traffic. Around mid-day we crossed a pass that was 9850ft. The jetlag and sleep deprivation was hitting me hard. i kept nodding off in the car for a few seconds, until we went over a speed bump.

finally just before 3pm we turned off the highway to drive the last 15km on a dirt road to Tash Rabat. Tash Rabat is a 15th century stone caravansarie. To call it remote would be an understatement. There was no cell reception. There were 2 guesthouses in the general vicinity, with yurt camps. Also, the elevation is 10,127ft. We checked into the guesthouse, and Ibek decided to take a nap. I walked the remaining 2km to Tash Rabat. There a steady stream of kyrgyz tourist, but i was the only westerner. The building is in fairly good condition. As i was exploring, i kept hearing a weird booming noise. Finally i realized that it was thunder, as a storm was moving in over the mountains. I started to walk back, but the elevation was making it difficult to move fast, and the storm caught me. It was a cold, windy rain, and i was soaked by the time i got back. I changed my shirt, but hoped that my pants would dry on me. they were dry a few hours later.

It was barely after 4pm, so i decided to take a nap, since dinner wasn't until 7pm. It was pouring rain outside at this point. I managed to sleep for about 2 hours. At dinner i realized that this place is packed. Lots of germans, and a few others. Dinner was beef soup, and then rice with tomatoes and salted beef chunks. There was hot tea to drink. At my table was a couple from Finland, although the woman was originally from Spain. I had a nice long conversation with them about travel. They kept saying how amazing Ivory Coast is. at one point a group of germans passed out shot glasses of some crazy fire water which burnt all the way down.

Just after 10pm i decided to call it a night. However that meant hiking to the out house in the dark/cold. It was maybe a 10s walk, but it felt so much longer. It went ok, but squat toilets in the cold & dark are quite possibly my least favorite type. then i had to go all over again at 2am. At least the sky had cleared and i saw a billion stars.

I am attempting to learn the Cyrillic alphabet since every country on this trip uses it for russian. But jebus, its confusing. About 75% of the characters look identical to roman letters. But some of those are not pronounced the same. For example P sounds like R and C sounds like S.

Day 3

I woke for the day at 5:10am. The cows & roosters were already making noise. There was frost on the grass. Breakfast was hot porridge, flat bread, hot tea, holey cheese, and raspberry jam. They also offered this fermented barley drink which tart and had the consistency of runny yogurt. It was pretty good.

We departed just before 8am. After about an hour we turned off the highway into a small town, and drove about 3km to the ruins of an 8th century mud walled fortress called Koshoi Korgon. There wasn't much left other than huge chunks of the 20ft tall perimeter wall. Still, there were dramatic views of the green snow capped mountains in the distance. Afterwards, we continued driving towards the destination for today, the town of Bokonbayavo.

About mid morning we pulled onto the side of the road where a nomad had a booth selling fresh(?) horse milk out of a small wooden barrel. He grabbed a large plastic ladel and filled 2 small bowls. All i can say is that its an aquired taste. It was sour and watery. Then Ibek purchased an old 2l coke bottle of milk and we left.

Remember everything that i said yesterday about good roads? I take it back. Apparently the road from the capital to the Chinese border is great, but everything that i was on today was horrible. The last 2 hours of the drive today was awful, with non-stop potholes. I got to the guesthouse a bit before 1pm. after showing me to my room, they served me a crazy huge lunch that included hot tea, bread, 3 types of jam, a bowl with strawberries, cherries and nectarines (i assume from their garden), a salad with carrots & cucumbers, & 8 huge meat dumplings with a spicy chili paste.

after lunch i walked into the center of town. Since its both saturday and school is out for the summer, there are kids of all ages everywhere. Most of them were super friendly, greeting me as i passed. Also some super old dude attempted to start a conversation with me, in what i assume is kygyz, as it didn't sound anything like russian. First stop was a bank atm to get out a bit more cash. That went smoothly. Next i found a market, and attempted to buy drinking water. For whatever reason both places that i've stayed thus far don't provide any water, other than the hot tea with meals. I found a small market easily, and walked up to the counter with a large 6L jug. Behind the counter was a boy that looked, at most, 10. Apparently no one buys water, and he had to call someone to ask the price. It was a whopping 55 Som (so about 75 cents). After that i hauled my jug back to the guesthouse and spent the remainder of the afternoon resting.

I ended up taking a nap before dinner. The woman running the guesthouse has her daughters working here. When i arrived they were doing laundry. Later they were vacuuming, and they were ironing as i ate dinner. If david thinks his chores are such a burden, we should point out how much more he could be doing.

Day 4

I had a rough night. I was warm, and had a bunch of bad dreams. I woke for the day at 4:30am. Breakfast was at 7:30am, and it was tea, homemade yogurt, french toast , and the same fruit from lunch the day before.

I was supposed to be picked up to go to Jeti Oguz at 8am. Yesterday, the lady who runs the guesthouse asked me my plan for today, and i told her that i needed a driver, and asked if she could arrange it. It seemed like she agreed at the time, but apparently she didn't understand me. Her english isn't great, which became apparent this morning when i asked when the driver was coming, and she grabbed google translate because she didn't understand the question. After a bunch of questions we finally got it sorted out, and a driver arrived about 15 minutes later.

Jeti oguz was about 110km further east, and google claimed it should take just over an hour to get there. Google is a fat liar. It took nearly 2 hours just to reach the turn off. Partly because we stopped for gas on the way, but also due to the road being crap. Much of the drive was along the southern shore of Isy Kul, which is a huge lake, that runs for about 100 miles. Finally we reached the turn off, but then it was another hour driving up into the mountains on a road that was paved initially, but later was a rocky mess.

Jeti oguz is known for 2 things, the forest preserve, and a communist era sanitorium. The sanitorium is still operating, with russian massages and radium(!) water baths. But i came here for the nature, not a risk of cancer. It was worth it though, as the scenery just kept getting better. there was a river with fast rapids, snow capped mountains, and tons of conifers. Once the driver parked in a field, i got out, and started hiking. There aren't any marked trails, its just go in whatever direction looks good, and watch out for cow & horse poop. There were tons of wild flowers too. at one point i came upon a boy on horseback who seemed to be offering me a ride, but i turned him down. I also saw a family of 5 collecting water in huge jugs from a stream. In the end i spent about 3.5 hours exploring. Thankfully the elevation topped out at about 7600ft, so i didn't experience any issues with headaches or breathing like i had at Tosh Rabat.

The drive back took about 2.5 hours, including a brief delay for a huge wedding parade. Dinner here has been disappointing. yesterday, i figured i'd just eat at the guesthouse because i hadn't figured out what the options were in town. Tripadvisor literally has no restaurant listings, and google maps has a total of 4 places, 1 of which has mostly very bad reviews. Anyway, last night's dinner was a huge mound of fried rice with soggy carrots and rubbery pieces of beef with some dill bits mixed in, and a small plate of salty cucumbers & tomatoes. It tasted super bland. for today i figured that i'd just eat in town, except that google claims nothing is open on a sunday. There's also the side issue that everything is a solid 20+ minute walk, as the guesthouse is literally on the southwest edge of town. I ended up eating at the guesthouse again, and they literally made the exact same menu, only substituting potato chunks for the rice. I get that this part of the world isn't known for their vibrant food, but its really starting to verge into Mauritania campsite food at this point. also weird is that i'm the only guest here, even though they have enough beds/rooms for 15 people. tripadvisor has nothing but glowing positive reviews, so its just odd. I don;t mean to sound like i'm miserable, i'm really fine. Just was hoping for some food that was at least not the same thing for consecutive dinners.

Day 5

I slept better than the previous night but i still woke at 4:30am. Breakfast was a fried egg with dill, onions and tomatoes, and it was pretty good. I was told that my driver for today would pick me up at 9am. But then at 8am he showed up. No clue how that bit of communication broke down, but early is better than late.

The drive to Skazka canyon took about 45 minutes. The only interesting thing about the drive was that it was in a Lada, the Russian car company. When i arrived just before 9am, the parking area was empty. Again, there were no marked trails, it was another random exploration. Initially i kept going down canyons that were either dead ends, or ridiculously steep. Eventually i found better canyons with flowers and cool rock formations. Other tourists started to arrive too, including a few with loud drones. Once i climbed the higher hills, i had a nice view to Isyk Kul and the snow capped mountains on the horizon. I ended up spending over 3 hours in the park.

when i returned to the parking area, it was packed with all kinds of vehicles, including tour busses, suvs with european plates, and other stuff. I found my driver, and just as we were pulling out, these 2 French women flagged him down. They asked if they could get a ride back to the highway (basically a mile away), and i agreed. It was a mistake that i later regretted. When we got to the highway, then they started negotiating with the driver to take them to the next large town. Of course he agreed,so he could get more money from the same drive. When we dropped off the women, the driver then attempted to find more passengers. At that point i started screaming 'nyet' as i had enough. Thankfully he gave up at that point, but still its ridiculous when i was paying for a private driver.

It was about 12:30pm when we got back to town, and i was mentally debating what to do about lunch. I was still really angry with the driver, and as he was driving through the center of town, i had him drop me off. I figured i'd wander about and see if i could find lunch. I walked a bit and found a bread stand selling bread and assorted stuffed breads by some older burly looking kyrgyz women. I randomly pointed at one that cost about 35c. It was stuffed with diced potatoes, onions and chicken, and was decent. Then i found a 'fast food' stand that seemed to be quite busy, but the menu was only in russian. I worked my way down the menu, attempting to read it with my severely stunted russian. It wasn't going well until i made it to the word for shwarma. It was phonetically russian as 'shuu-arma'. I was so happy and proud. I order one for about \$1.50. It was not half bad. After that i walked back to the guesthouse in the mid-day heat. Other than passing a bunch of friendly children screaming 'hello' and 'bye' when they passed me, it was uneventful.

I got a quick cool shower, and spent the remainder of the afternoon relaxing. Dinner was both rice and potatoes with salty beef. I almost want to stay a 4th night just to see what they would serve now that they've exhausted the permutations.

Day 6

I woke up just after 4am (again). I showered, had breakfast, finished packing, paid the bill, and was waiting for the driver by 7:45am. I did the math and my 3 nights, 1 lunch, 3 (included) breakfasts, and 3 dinners worked out to a grand total of about \$17/night. I take back all my complaints, as it was well worth what i paid.

8am came and went, with no driver. When he still hadnt arrived at 8:15am, i called the guesthouse in bishkek (who arranged it back in february), and they seemed to have no clue what i was talking about. 5 calls back and forth, and eventually they acknowledged something went wrong on their end, but i got conflicting stories. Then they called the guesthouse that i was trying to leave, and told them to get me a taxi to Bishkek. Another 20 minutes, and i was finally picked up and on the road by 9am.

The first half of the drive was uneventful, although the driver kept futzing with the temperature. He didn't seem to understand that you can get a temperature between max cold and off. As a result he kept turning the ac up to max then off then back to max again so that it was either almost comfy & cool, or roasting. Around 2.5 hours into the drive he pulled into a highway rest area for 'five' minutes to use the toilet. 25 minutes later he finally returned, but after that i noticed he was driving erratically. he was drifting between lanes, or onto the gravel shoulder. When i realized that i could see his eyes in the rear view mirror, it became obvious that he was falling asleep. I started yelling at him to wake up. then he seemed embarrassed, and his solution was to roll down the windows to get blasted with the 95f hot air. It helped a bit, but he still almost rear ended a van. I kept yelling at him, partly to keep him awake, and partly because i was genuinely scared that he was going to kill us both. Once we finally got close to Bishkek, there was s ton of traffic congestion, and he seemed to stay conscious due to the stop-n-go traffic was distracting. I finally got to the guesthouse at 1pm, and let them deal with paying that moron.

I dropped of my bags in my gloriously air-conditioned room, and then walked out to find lunch. The neighbirhood looks decent with a bunch of places to eat. I ended up going to a restaurant that had a bilingual picture menu, and was more than half full. The menu literally seemed to have everything from pizza to sushi, chinese food, korean, italian, salads, and other random things. I ended up ordering an orange lemonaide, beet salad with goat cheese, and some beef dumplings. I keep forgetting that in many parts of the world, lemonaide is code for sprite. So i ended up with a sprite with a few orange slices in it. The food was fine, and they even let me pay with a credit card.

After that i walked down the street to use an atm (it worked), and then attempted to use Russia's version of uber, Yandex-taxi. before i left home, was checking to see if uber was a thing put here, but its not. However yandex does work in the larger cities, and they have an app which is supposed to work about the same as uber. It actually worked. The driver showed up, drove me to my destination, zero issues. Also for 25 minutes of driving i paid just over \$2. My destination was Osh Bazaar (also known as Lenin Park bazaar). It was pretty much what you would expect, with a massive maze of tiny stalls selling everything from clothes to electronics, to horse saddles, to fancy felt traditional kyrgyz attire (google 'kyrgyz hat' for something truly unique), to barber shops, food stalls, fabric, cooking/baking tools, and on and on. There were 3 highlights for me. First, these old ladies were selling kvass out of huge coolers for 18 cents a cup. As it was literally 100f outside, i ended up buying 3 cups, and it was so refreshing. Second these 3 old guys were sitting on tiny boxes in a shady corner playing chess. I stopped to watch, and one of them attempted to strike up a conversation with me, despite him knowing maybe 5 english words. Once i told him where i was from, he started naming famous american presidents, and including a brief descriptor for each (abraham lincoln good, roosevelt good, trump very bad). Then he remembered that he had a phone with google translate, and he started telling me his life story. Apparently his family is originally from (east) germany. At some point in the late 1970s, the govt decided that his father had done something bad, and they gave him a choice between being sent to a soviet gulag (forever), or his entire family could be sent to kyrgyzstan (forever). It explained why he had almost blond hair and no asian features. But jebus, communists were evil. After that story, he pulled up photos of his boys, who now look to be teenagers. Then he joked with me about whether i could speak any kyrgyz, since my russian was so bad. After the chess game ended, we shook hands, and i wandered off. The third thing was a bakery making all sorts of ornate breads and stuffed things. I got this stuffed doughy thing that was easily the size of 2 fists, that was stuffed with ground beef & onions. it was like the world's best hot pocket.

At this point i was sweating like mad, and debated getting more kvas, or heading back to to the B&B for some glorious air-conditioning. I opted for the latter, and after a quick yandex ride, i was back. For dinner i walked to a burger place which had both an english menu and staff that spoke english. It was fairly busy too. They made a fairly decent burger and fries too.

Day 7

I woke at 4:30am again. Breakfast was pretty good. They had yogurt , granola, holey cheese, and another hot pocket like thing called a samsa.

Its rained today which makes hiking in the mountains a bit less enjoyable. Thankfully my driver actually showed up today. Ruslan, is a Russian, raised in Uzbekistan, but living in Kyrgyzstan. He was kinda horrified when i was planning to go hiking in the rain wearing a t-shirt (although i did bring a long sleeve shirt too), and offered me his rain jacket for the day. The drive up to Ala Archa NP took about an hour. It was raining steadily when we parked. My planned hike was about 6 miles to a waterfall. The trail was an awful mess due to the rain. Even without the rain, it would have been challenging. the first half was nearly all up hill, with large rocks. total elevation gain was nearly 1100ft. With the rain it was also slippery and muddy. Despite all that, the views were spectacular. Huge mountain valleys, with snow, and glacial rivers. At one point the fog blew into the valley below me, and it seemed like i was above the clouds. There weren't a lot of others on the trail, but i did see maybe 10 others. Thankfully i didn't fall, but i slipped a bunch of times. I finished the hike in about 3.5 hours.

the weather today (79f with rain) is quite the contrast with yesterday (100f with sun). For dinner i went to the 'best' pizza place in all of Kyrgyzstan. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't good pizza either. I also had the pleasure of drinking a Russian pilsner. It too wasn't awful but not good.

Hundreds of other photos from the trip are posted HERE.

This post is part 1 of the "central-asia-2019" series:

  1. Central Asia (1/3)
  2. Central Asia (2/3)
  3. Central Asia (3/3)