Saturday, August 30, 2014

And some more...

Prins op het bruine paard

3 August - walk up the mountains, thunderstorm

4 August - national horse games, buy two shyrdaks, take busses to Balikchy and Kochkor

5 August - go up to Song-Kul Lake

6 August - back down from Song-kul, taxi to Bishkek

7 August - up early for flight to Osh, visit market

Monday, August 25, 2014

More on our trip to Kyrgyzstan

Our yurt camp at Song-Kul

29 July

After a wet night, we wake up to bright sunshine and decide that there is nothing for it but to go off for a walk up the mountains which are surrounding us and sure enough, off we go after a hearty breakfast, taking what looks to be the gentlest slope, which soon becomes steep. We feel the altitude in our legs and go up in short spurts, as there is no rush and there are plenty of beautiful views to look at. Underneath our feet are masses of wild flowers, grasshoppers and butterflies, while eagles soar above.

We pass a family milking a group of mares and a couple bringing back firewood from the forest. Up and up we go and eventually we reach the top of the mini valley we are walking up and it widens out into a jailoo, a summer pasture, surrounded by even higher mountains. The jailoo was full of flocks of sheep and goats whilst a few cows stood around watching the goings on. A yellow wagtail was fluttering from rock to rock and later a herd of horses came our way. A total delight.

We were told that there was a lake further on but we had walked far enough and the weather the other side of the main valley looked threatening so we decided to return down to the guesthouse, by which time the rain had already started and Fred realised all of a sudden that the skin on his legs was all burnt because the silly chap had not bothered to put any suntan lotion on.

We waited our turn to return to the hot baths and it was certainly very relaxing.

30 July

Our host at the guest house brings us back down to Karakol with the Spanish chap we had met the evening before. The young man who was travelling for four weeks and who  had less in his rucksack than Fred had in his toiletries bag (well, almost).

We are dropped off at the Eco-Tours office in the centre of Karakol and ask the nice young girl who works there if she can help us find a nicer place to stay than the yurt camp and she pointed us towards the Altamira Hotel which just happened to be next door. This was an altogether different proposition, a modern, family-run hotel with a normal bedroom and so on. Perfect for Fred to take the rest of the day off for a snooze whilst I set off for Jeti-Ögüz with a view to look at the amazing rock formations there and to go riding into the mountains and get a good view of a glacier.

So off I go in the taxi, taking an easier road up the valley to where a group of young people were waiting with horses to take people further up. I was assigned my horse and was a bit surprised to find out we were going tandem on the poor beast. I tried to explain that I wanted to go up to see teh glacier but it was clear that the message was not received properly as we set off along the floor of the valley, still with beautiful views of the forests and mountainsides.

I decided to walk back to the Jeti-Ögüz village and was pleased to see an old taxi waiting there when I arrived but first I wanted to get closer to the sandstone rocks to take some photos. Just as I was walking back, I saw the taxi leaving and had a feeling that this might have been the last taxi of the day and, as I had not seen any minibuses either I began to feel that I might have got myself rather stuck. Fortunately, an Intourist bus arrived into the village and stopped to let the passengers take some pics and the young tour leader must have seen me looking rather despondent and asked me if she could help. I explained my situation and she immediately offered me a lift back to Karakol, standing room only. All goes well until, amazingly, as we are on the best stretch of road I have seen in Kyrgyzstan, we get a blow-out!  Out we all get and find a verge full of  blue sage flowers, cannabis plants and crows feathers. Very odd.

I get back to find Fred just showered and ready to go out and enjoy a nice cool Efes at Karakol Coffee house and a hot plate with our friends at Stealth, but not before a walk around the Communist parks of the town, taking a video of the council offices whilst Whitney Houston sings her classic ' I Will Always Love You'. Quite surreal.

31 July

 Time for a quiet day. We have been hanging around Karakol for a few days now but haven't spent too much time wandering around the town and we know there are some things that are worth seeing. So, we have a late start and a delicious breakfast served by the charming owner of our hotel and then  set off to find the Dungan Mosque. This was built about 100 years ago by the Dungan people from China who moved into Karakol at the time. it is made of wood and without any nails and looks more like a Chinese temple than a mosque. Very beautiful, well worth the effort of seeing.

After that we went to the main Karakol market, where the stalls are largely made out of old metal containers. A very lively place where we bought some salted almonds and pistachios and where I posed for my two-melons photo, whilst outside the meat market we see a decapitated horse's head.

1 August

After another good night's sleep, it is time for breakfast, where we se the same couple who were there the day before. Time to be sociable, it turns out that the one is Italian and the other Indian, both working in Kabul. They are going to Bishkek and are wondering whether to take the north or the south route. We persuade them to take the south shore and rather cheekily wonder if they wouldn't mind giving us a lift in their Toyota Land Cruiser.

So off we go and we have a very interesting journey with our new travel companions and on the way to Bokonbaevo we stop off at Jeti-Ögüz, on the shores of Issyk-Kul for a quick swim and then to the sandstone fairy castles of Skazka.

At the CBT office in Bokonbaevo, which is housed in a yurt on the side of the road, Fred decides that he wants to stay at Clara's Guesthouse, which is quite handy as that is just around the corner. The food serves by Mrs Clara is delicious and includes bread and raspberry and black currant jams, tea and a dish of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and bits of mutton. Very very tasty. The Kyrgyz jams are amazing.

Before we go out for an evening stroll around town we are asked to join the family for a small prayer, which we are happy enough to do, until we see a sheep being brought along into the porch, ready for slaughter... time to be going. Ramadan has just ended and they seem to miss out on the first celebration of Eid and go straight to the slaughter festival. When we come back, the sheep has been cut up into various pieces and everyone in the family has a sharp knife, working on one or another part of the ex-sheep.

2 August

We are thrilled that the Apricot Festival which we had seen advertised in our hotel back in Bishkek is actually taking place in the nearby village of Ton today, the day after we had arrived in Bokonbaevo.

It is a real treat, taking place on a grassy field next to a lovely sandy beach on the shores of Issyk-Kul, views to snow-capped mountains both ahead and behind, a few yurts and stalls set up and a small number of tourists like us including a young Dutch couple, with whom we spend the rest of the day.

We are treated to further renditions of the Black Steed dance, recitations of the Manas myth by some very young children, singing, more dancing, jam making displays, games, a golden eagle display, including the killing and eating of a rabbit and plate loads of food inside the yurts.

On arriving back at Clara's, we are surprised to see the dining room full of people, all guests of Clara, with two places set for Fred and myself. And so began an evening full of toasts where we were encouraged to drink the whole glass of blackcurrant flavoured vodka we were being served. Fred had told Clara we were vegetarian, which was just as well because after we had been served with mutton bouillon, along came the innards and intestines of yesterday's sheep, all grey.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The last days in Kyrgyzstan

10th August

A later start at 6 to catch the return flight to Bishkek, starting off with a light breakfast in the courtyard before our host doubles up as a taxi chauffeur and brings us to the airport in good time for our flight. Lots of confused scenes at Osh airport but all is fine and after a short flight over the mountains we land back in Bishkek. Now I have my bearing right and I note that we have arrived north of the city and are heading back down south towards the snow covered mountains. The taxi driver brings us first to Asia Mountains hotel where we pick up our bags before  heading off to the trendy Futuro hotel, where we are greeted by a  very apologetic manager who tells us that something went wrong with his reservations system, that there was no room for us and  that he had arranged for us to stay at the Golden Dragon hotel, whilst first offering us breakfast. We meet a Dutch lady there who has just returned from a three week tour of Tajikistan which she says is even more beautiful than Kyrgyzstan. What a recommendation! But, it is also far more primitive and basic and would be less easy to travel independently. So, off we go to the Golden Dragon, a large Korean 5 star hotel which becomes the fourth hotel we have visited today and it is not even11 am!

Our last day in Kyrgyzstan and we do not have much more ambition that buying a few souvenirs and presents and visiting the Kyrgyz national museum, both of which we do in the afternoon, Fred getting quickly tired of seeing the same woollen sheep, felt angels and silk scarves! After freshening up back at the hotel we walk into town for our last dinner, a rather disappointing affair at a place with water splashing off the roof into a pool, the recommendation of a Slovenian chap we had bumped into on the way to the centre. How little did we know how fed up we would be of the sound of splashing water within a couple of days…

11th August

Another day and yet another flight and again a couple of hours later than the one the day before. We eat a five star breakfast at the Golden Dragon and are soon on our way back north to the airport, where we are one of the last to check-in. Unfortunately, the ladies serving us were two of the last friendly and least helpful people we have met in Kyrgyzstan, which is a pity and they seem to make it a sport to split us up on both flights back. The first time I don’t mind so much as they upgrade me to business class but in Istanbul we make sure that we get new seats for the return home on the Monday.

Despite all the news of storms and tornadoes, we arrive to a bright and sunny, if humid day, which is also the day of the first direct election of the Turkish President. The taxi driver is proud to tell us that he voted Erdogan. He is responsible for the economic health of the country, the new motorways, the extension of the metro, new bridges, new airports and even the attractive flower beds along the side of the motorway. Our Arif, when we see him is also proud to tell us that he voted for Erdogan, giving him credit again for the healthy economy. The grocer next door agrees. Meanwhile the young man working at the reception in the hotel complains that he has to work all day until after the polls closed and cannot cast his anti-Erdogan vote. Such is democracy.

What to do on a summer’s afternoon in Istanbul? A walk down Istiklal (now crowded with Arab holiday makers), down to Galata and across the bridge to Eminonu to catch the first ferry out which takes us to Uskudar. It is essential to get onto the water when in Istanbul and to catch the vistas of Topkapi, Aya Sofia, Suleymaniye, Galata, the four massive cruise ships at harbour, the Dolmabahce Palace and past the Bosphorus Bridge to Uskudar and Kadikoy on the Asian side. Perfect!

The Mimar Sinan mosque has now been fully renovated and gleams in the sun, whilst the narrow strips of park along the waterside are full of families, couples of groups of friends, sitting in the shade and picnicking.

12th August

Today the flight is two hours earlier, so another early rise at 6 just in time to catch the full moon before it disappears behind the early morning mist. The flight back seems to be very long (and bumpy) and the wait for the bags (all arrived) at Schiphol even longer but the sun is shining and it doesn’t seem to be too bad a day to return home to our flooded house. The plants look well outside the house and the grapes are already turning colour. The smell of two weeks damp greets us even before we open the front door.

The basement looks relatively dry and it was certainly a help to have almost everything stored either inside or on top of the plastic containers we bought after the flood of three years earlier. Just some nastiness, smells and puddles of water in the spare bedroom and mould growing up to about two feet of the ground. Doors and windows stay open as we try to move the damp and the wet things upstairs to dry out properly.

13th August

Waking up at 4 am to have a pee, I am surprised to hear water splashing down onto the balcony at the back. It does not seem to be raining but the water is streaming down. I have a look downstairs in the basement. The light does not work and fearing the worst I tread down the stairs and, sure enough, the water has streamed back into the house. Ankle deep.

So here we go again, Fred doing most of the work phoning and e-mailing one person after another. By the time I leave the house at 4 pm to catch my flight, the men have been round to suck all the water out (for the astronomical fee of EUR 1,450 for two hours work performed by a very simple looking machine which pumps water off the floor and through some tubes to be run through our bath where the water enters the drains properly. Fred has accessed the roof and has cleared up the blockages in the gutter and the drains which has caused all the water to overflow from about six roofs onto our balconies and into the garden and then into our basement. We learn that we have to replace the gutters and drainage pipes with bigger ones, we have to replace the balconies which are now rotting away having become so damp, we have to redesign our garden so that the water runs not into our basement but elsewhere, we have to replace the flimsy door at the back of the basement, we have to completely dry out the basement and recover/replaster the walls and lay down new carpets and make sure that everything stored downstairs is either in a plastic container or at least 15 cms higher than the floor (including our spare fridge freezer, which is already a good 20+ years old). A lot of work in other words…

Friday, August 08, 2014

Welcome to Kyrgyzstan

We are nearing the end of our two weeks in Kyrgyzstan, most of the time spent well away from any computers with access to the internet which means a bit of a catch-up blog from our guesthouse in the southern city of Osh where we are spending a couple of relaxed days.

Our itinerary has been as follows:

24 July - flight to Istanbul with onward connection to Bishkek

25 July - arrive in Bishkek, Fred without his luggage, taxi to our hotel - Asia Mountains 1, with ots charming gardens and swimming pool, not to mention very friendly staff. Walk into the city where we spend most of our time at the Oimo cultural festival, full of handicrafts, song, dance and traditional costumes. Beer and dinner with a French lady at Edgar's, sitting outside in the nearby park

26 July - we arrange a lift to Karakol in the east, which is about 400 kms away, leave a bit late after a refreshing swim. Stop off at the Burana Tower near the city of Tokmok and follow the Chui valley to the lakeside town of Balikchy. Lunch at Cholpon Ata (but not near the lake, so no swim) and then a rushed drive through to Karakol as it was getting late and the driver did not want to stop anymore. Arrive at the disappointing Turkestan Yurt Camp where we sleep in a yurt. Look around for money but all the ATMs only take Visa and we only have Mastercard, eventually change some Euros for Som at a hotel which is enough to buy us some dinner. Meet some friendly people working at the Karakol Coffee House and they tell us that the Demir Bank has just opened near the Post Office and that this uses Mastercard, as well as advising us to go to Stealth for a good meal, which we do.

27 July - early rise to go to the weekly livestock market (sheep, cows and horses), the most impressive, of course, being the horse market, well worth making the effort to being in Karakol on a Sunday morning, which explains our rapid exit from Bishkek the day after arriving. We find the Post Office and the Demir Bank and stock up with Som (70 to the Euro) and then go looking for a festival which I had read about on Facebook before leaving, supposedly in Ak-Suu. We take a taxi there and it is a pleasant ten minute drive along the valley to Al-Suu but when we arrive there is no sign of a festival and no-one knows anything about it. We walk around the villlage and find the impressive wooden Russian Orthodox Church and meet some German speaking religious fanatics from Kazakhstan there and then  take the minibus back to Karakol. There we go to Karakol Coffee and borrow the chap's i-pad and find out that the festival is in Box-Uchuk in the municipality of Ak-Suu, so thanking him, we take a taxi to Boz-Uchuk but still no festival. The taxi driver asks one person after another and is finally told that we need to head for the hills to find the festival and after 15 minutes on bumpy and dusty roads we finally find it. Here was the Kyrgyz village festival in a beautiful valley, with a number of colourful yurts, twenty colourful horsemen, a number of handicraft stalls and a number of people in traditional costumes who would sing and dance. And, even better still, no other tourists. A wonderful relaxed atmosphere, with plenty of time to take photos and be dragged into the yurts to taste the food which had been prepared. This consisted of pieces of fried dough, bread, fresh fruit jams of mostly raspberries, fermented mare's milk, lamb's intestines, soup and so on. The horsemen rode around and performed various tricks, including standing in their stirrups. The highlight would have been the performance of the black steed song, with young and old dancing away with the weirdest movements we have seen since Eritrea. I will upload the charming video I took.

28 July - After leaving our yurt, we went along to the Eco-Tours office on the main street where the charming young lady arranged for a vehicle to take us up the Ak-Suu valley to Altyn Arashan. This was an old military vehicle, all battered and bruised with holes in the floor, driven by the Russian Sergey. It had to be tough as the two hour journey was along some of the toughest roads we have ever had to deal with as the road followed the fast flowing river coming down off the snowy mountains, along a valley floor surrounded by pine trees and wild flowers. Up and up and round and round we went until we finally came to our destination, a few buildings on the riverside, in a clearing in the forest. We decided to stay in the middle guesthouse as we could have a room to ourselves as well as have use of the local hot springs ( a bath of very hot water in a shed by the river)

8 August - After our early start of the day before we decided to treat ourselves to a later start, breakfast at 8.30 plus a couple of hours on the computer in my room writing up this blog. We then leave the guesthouse without much of a plan and go first to the right along Lenin Street to have a look at some Commie buildings. The Kyrgyz are quite pro-Russian and are quite proud of their Communist past with its Lenin statues and hammers and sickles, so a lot to be seen. Eventually we wind our way back to the market and we meet up with our honey man Evgeny, who asks if he could bring us to a beauty spot outside Osh where he likes to go swimming in the river. We meet up again at 4, expecting to go for a swim, but it was just a nice drive up the valley to take a few pictures of the gorge and the fast flowing mountain river before stopping off again on the way back to get our feet wet and splash some of the cold mountain water on our faces. Back for some more blog and now it is time to have a shower and go out for dinner at the same place as we ate last night.

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