Our arrival in Bishkek was rather brutal. After a sleepless night in the glum terminals of Novosibirsk, Russia, our plane landed in the cold and damp capital of Kyrgyzstan at 3am. We were still wearing our light summer clothes after the glorious Armenian weather and spent three hours shivering in the tiny arrivals hall, waiting for the buses to start.
A “bishkek” is a wooden utensil resembling a spoon, traditionally used to stir fermented mare’s milk, the nation’s favourite drink. The capital is most definitely the heart of Kyrgyzstan in terms of economy, but it is not entirely representative of the country’s total population. Indeed, Bishkek retains a strong Soviet vibe, with glum grey concrete buildings and a significant population of Russians. Equally, all signs and street names are in Russian. This made navigating our way around the buzzing city quite difficult! We immediately regretted not learning the Russian alphabet!
After hours of roaming endlessly like zombies, our couchsurf host Aibek came to the rescue. Unfortunately in Kyrgyzstan couchsurfing and wwoofing are not popular and finding a host can be difficult. Aibek was a lovely young kyrgyz who had previously studied in America, so he spoke perfect English and knew many expats in Bishkek. We were therefore lucky to meet many of his friends who gave us travelling advice and shared their stories of how they found themselves to be living in Kyrgyzstan. Most expats appear to stay merely a few months to a year, teaching English or doing internships with foreign NGOs. Kyrgyzstan is not the easiest of countries to live in given its vast cultural differences with Western countries. For instance locals can be hard to get to know and the food very limited. Vegetarian options in particular are non-existent!
After the delicious food we discovered in the other countries we travelled through, Kyrgyzstan’s cuisine was admittedly unappealing. We found it to be very limited and greasy, with mutton or horse meat featuring in just about every dish! Nevertheless, when well cooked some traditional dishes could be quite satisfying! “Lagman” a plate of fat noodles fried with vegetables and meat, and “plov”, similar to a pilaf of rice, vegetables and meat, are two dishes you will find on any menu! Another traditional meal is “five fingers “, noodles and various cuts of horse meat. This is one dish we couldn’t really get used to!
Although we found ourselves enjoying Bishkek thanks to Aibek and his friends, the city itself isn’t much of an attraction and we didn’t delay leaving to explore Kyrgyzstan’s renowned countryside. We began by heading North East to the region of Issyk-Kul. Famous for being situated upon the second largest alpine lake in the world, this is THE place to come to experience traditional Kyrgyz lifestyle, yurts, trekking and breath-taking scenery. Considering our limited time frame we chose to explore only the Southern side of the lake, more rugged and rural than the north shore.
Unfortunately we came a little too late in the year to enjoy Kyrgyzstan at it’s best. With winter approaching and temperatures dropping, most yurt camps were beginning to close. Although kyrgyz were originally nomads, since the Soviet invasion shepherds no longer live in the jailoos (meadows) during the winter and return to the villages. As a result we were lucky to reach Bel Tam yurt camp one week before its closure. A remote setup right on the lakeshore, Bel Tam provided us with the authentic Kyrgyz experience we had been waiting for! Everything was done in the traditional way: we assisted the family in the skinning of a goat for dinner, cooking on an open fire, and spent our evenings singing kyrgyz songs. It was an amazing experience but the cold weather was a slight drawback! We were not equipped for the cold evenings and biting wind. With only a jumper and a pair of jeans each we needed the thick sheepskin blankets!
We travelled across the Southern shore, constantly awed by the stunning landscape. Although the villages could be quite charming most were mere dust streets with concrete bungalows. This is quite understandable considering the history of the area. Nevertheless we did find some sweet houses in the little village of Tamga, as well as a beautifully located cemetery. Here some of the headstones are in the shape of a yurt.
We spent our time in Issyk-Kul hiking and wandering around the villages, taking in both the scenery and local life. Most houses had no running water and in the evenings we could see families out with numerous water pails transporting water to their homes.
A particular highlight of our trip was the day we splashed out on a guided horse trek in the mountains. We left our yurt bright and early and set off to a local shepherd’s house to collect our horses. Kirsty chose a stubborn mare (naturally) and John got handed the laziest horse of the bunch – quite fitting! We spent our morning trekking up to the panoramic viewpoint where we stopped for lunch and to admire the view. The lake is surrounded by majestic mountains and vast plains decorated with gigantic red rock. The mountains and meadows are themselves scattered with beautiful greenery, and as it was autumn, the trees were at the height of their glory in varying shades of yellow, orange and red. Despite the cold winds, the sky was clear blue and once again, we were in heaven!
In the afternoon we trekked across dry and arid hills to lush green meadows and streams. We came across a shepherd and his sheep, and were invited to join in the herding- with limited success! Our galloping skills weren’t much better when it came to racing our guide across the meadows. Kirsty couldn’t control her horse who decided to gallop off in the opposite direction whilst John struggled to stay on his horse. Needless to say, we didn’t win any races, but made it home in one piece!
This horse trek was a perfect end to a glorious few days in Issyk-Kul. Although there was so much else to see we needed to move South and explore the regions near Osh. Fingers crossed for warmer weather!
Have you ever been to Bishkek or Issyk-Kul? Or have you ever stayed in a yurt? Please comment below, like and share. For more photos visit our Flickr.