The idea of having a beach resort over a mile above sea level seems a bit odd. Though we’d seen plenty of small lakeside towns on the south shore of Issyk Kul (and saw plenty more on the north shore during our bus ride), we’d decided to head for the major tourist centre of the region, Cholpon Ata.
As it turned out, there wasn’t really anything wrong with this idea. Though it does get jam packed with Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Russian tourists during the high season, this doesn’t really start until July, so Cholpon Ata was still pretty quiet when we arrived.
The town formed a long strip of development along the dry, brown shores of the lake, with a small promontory in the middle forming the focus of the resort activities. Further inland, 10km or more distant lay more snow capped peaks and the border with Kazakhstan.
Me sitting on the beach enjoying a sandwich (Kyrgyz bread has an unusual shape: round with a puffy leavened ring on the outside and a thin flat interior to the ring, which makes traditional sandwich assembly tricky) and a Baltika 3.
We had a bit of trouble finding somewhere to stay, because the tourist information office was closed on Sundays (not a clever move…) but eventually we found the Pegasus Guesthouse. It was sort of a cross between a guesthouse, a hostel and a homestay, with two rooms at the back of the house separate from the rest and filled up with a total of four beds. The toilet was a long drop out in the back garden. But the garden was pretty and the owner, Tania and her son were pleasant people who greeted us with welcoming smiles (even if they did run a horse trekking company, which raised Sarah’s suspicious, given her dislike of those animals
That evening we went out for a wander around our immediate environs and quickly discovered there wasn’t an awful lot to see. People setting up their cafes/restaurants/bars for the coming high season, a pleasant town park with a collection of bouncy castles for the kids (these seem to be everywhere in Kyrgyzstan) and a few cows wandering around and mooing.
If our first day in Cholpon Ata was lazy, the second was a little busier. We set out fairly early for the town’s one non-beach sight, a group of petroglyphs in a field of boulders behind the town. Before we got there, however, we stumbled upon the town bazaar which was located, unusually but fun-ly in the old airport. So you could go and purchase your dried apricots or dill pickles in an old hangar, or your fresh fruits and vegetables in the former terminal building.
Me and Vladimir Ilyich striking mirrored poses near the bazaar. Lenin’s statue didn’t seem to be getting a lot of respect, sitting in a small, disused park strewn with broken glass and hidden from the main road by some bushes.
The old runway was still there as well, and still getting good use, as the major north-south thoroughfare in town. Cars, as well as trucks and public minibuses, would just turn off the road, bump over a bit of the grass verge and then zip up the runway which was wider, straighter and smoother than pretty much any other road in town. As we were walking up the runway ourselves a car pulled over and the passenger rolled down the window and asked us if we’d like a ride. We hesitated for a moment and he said “no money! no money!” They seemed nice, so we piled in and rode 1km or so up to the top of the runway and bumped out onto the road again. Our new friends even joined us in a bit of a stroll around the petroglyphs after we’d paid our admission fee (the guy at the rickety little ticket booth was fun as well. “Canada! Hockey!” he said after I’d told him where I was from.)
Looking up the old runway
The petroglyph site was actually more impressive than we’d really expected. It was much more than just a couple of faint scratchings on an overhang. The site was big, almost 1km by 500m, and there were images inscribed on the dark stained south faces of dozens out of the thousands of boulders in the field. Some were fairly faint (not entirely surprising that even the relatively new ones were well over 2000 years old) but others were clear and vivid with sharp constrasts between the drawing and background, and easily identifiable subjects. The most impressive was a 3m x 1.5m scene showing ancient Scythian hunters pursuing Ibexes (Ibicies?) using trained leopards(!!!)
Sarah and an Ibex. And a small person drawing back a bow to shoot the ibex. And some other stuff I can’t quite make out
Our visit to the market had left us so thoroughly provisioned with dried fruits, dill pickles and bread that we didn’t even need dinner that evening!
If our second day in Cholpon Ata was a little busier, the third was packed top to bottom with action. We started with a return visit to the market where we picked up some spicy-salty carrot salad, cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh apricots, bread, cheese and two beers. We carted these back to the centre of town where they formed the basis of our beach picnic.
The tandoor-style oven at the bakery in the Cholpon Ata bazaar (and a fine illustration of the bread shape discussed in the top photo.)
The beach was one of two public beaches in town, and was surprisingly well maintained, with pretty much no litter (or broken glass) on the beach. While it wasn’t Bondi or Miami Beach, but across the bay we could see a private beach at one of the big resorts with two big waterslides leading down into the lake. We also saw (thankfully only two, thankfully far away) jet-skiers. Cholpon Ata even had a scuba diving centre, which is rather a feat for a town several thousand km from the nearest ocean!
The sun shone brilliantly as we arrived and we both stripped down to our togs, opened the first beer and set about making sandwiches. Unfortunately the weather in Cholpon Ata was just as changeable as it had been in Karakol and within about 15 minutes it was firmly raining. Fortunately, the weather in Cholpon Ata was just as changeable as it had been in Karakol and within about 20 more minutes it was hot and sunny again. Hot and sunny enough to tempt us into swimming. The lake wasn’t quite as cold as Wellington Harbour in December, but it was still plenty chilly and both of us just had a quick splash before returning to the golden sands.
Sarah putting on a brave, smiley face (and looking gorgeous while doing it!) as she tests out the Issyk Kul waters
While we were at the beach we were joined by a succession of other guests. They ranged from a pair of bikini clad sunbathers there when we arrived, a couple out for a walk and a raucous group of teenage boys (who splashed and wrestled in the water for a few minutes before disappearing as quickly as they’d appeared) and a couple of women with young children who braved the water themselves and came to the same conclusion we had, running back out after doing little more than dipping their toes.
We whiled away the next couple of hours at the beach, eating, drinking and reading. Thankfully the skies remained clear, though dark clouds constantly sat over the mountains further inland. We could easily have spent the whole afternoon there, but other business called.
We seemed to have hit the jackpot in terms of timing for our visit to Cholpon Ata. As mentioned earlier, Tania, our host in Cholpon Ata ran a horse trekking company. Which meant she owned several horses and was a very experienced rider. Because of this, she was one of the Kyrgyz participants in the 2012 Kyrgyz-American friendship rodeo. The event brought four or so professional rodeo riders over from the US and had them tour around the country meeting up with Kyrgyz horse people where they’d take turns trying out each country’s traditional horse sports for the entertainment of happy audiences.
We took a mashrutka the 5km or so out to the Cholpon Ata Hippodrome and got there just in time for the start. Over the next ninety minutes the riders competed in such events as Tiyin Enmei (attempting to pick up coins or small packets off the ground while riding past at speed), saddle bronc riding, horseback wrestling, barrel racing and ulak. Ulak, also known as buzkashi, is a game vaguely like polo, and vaguely like rugby, but not really like anything else at all. Essentially two teams of riders attempt to pick the ball up off the ground, ride around a post at the far end of the pitch, then return to the start and deposit the ball on the goal. Nothing about this sounds THAT odd until you learn that the “ball” is actually a sheep or goat carcass with head, feet and blood removed, that the riders pick it up off the ground and stuff it under their legs as they ride, and that it’s full contact, no holds barred. So riders are frequently knocked off their mounts, elbowed, stepped on and otherwise abused. Broken noses are a fairly common ulak injury. The American riders gave it a brief try and then left it to the experts to play an actual game. The game we watched was something of a “friendly,” so violence was kept to a minimum, but the whole thing still usually looked like a giant dusty rugby maul, but with horses involved as well. It was very difficult to see what was going on. Then all of a sudden someone would manage to secure the goat, and set off at a blazing pace while others pursued, trying to dislodge the carcass (or, indeed, the rider) before he could score a goal.
The crowd in the grandstand at the hippodrome. All of the American events were announced and explained in English by a “rodeo hall of fame” announcer, then translated into Kyrgyz. Although I couldn’t understand the translations I have a feeling it can’t have quite worked as intended
The battle for the goat carcass, which if you look closely you can just make out on the ground amongst all the hooves
An ulak player wheels with his horsewhip between his teeth and the goat carcass stuck under his leg.
As entertaining (or perhaps astonishing would be a better word…) as the ulak was, our favourite event was Kyz-Kumay, a one-on one race where a series of male horsemen tried to kiss a female rider who was set off ahead of them with a 1 second or so head start. Then in the return leg, the women would try to pluck the hats off the heads of the male riders. Tania was one of the female riders, resplendent in her traditionally styled yellow satin dress. I got the impression that she took great pride in her riding and in her horses (hers was clearly the most handsome animal at the event.) When her turn came to take part in the race she didn’t even need the head start, as she accelerated away from the American rider behind her leaving him in the dust of her horse’s gallop. In the second half she closed the gap in moments and neatly, daintily almost, plucked the cowboy hat from his head, much to the delight of the local crowd.
Tania and her horse in full flight
Once the rodeo ended, we caught a share taxi back to town for our final activity for the action packed day: a visit to the Turkish-Kyrgyz Manas University talent show that was on at the town movie theatre. We’d heard about the event from the gents who had given us a ride up the runway the previous day (they were on their way to put up posters when they picked us up.) We missed the start, but the hour or so that was left was surprisingly fun. The dancing, singing (sometimes lip synching) were hit and miss. But the last two acts of the evening were great. The first was a standup comedy group. It’s a testament to their talent that they managed to have us smiling constantly and laughing out loud frequently when the whole act was in Kyrgyz! All we had to help was the translation of every fiftieth word or so by a lovely sixty year old English speaking Kyrgyz lady who we’d run into a few times over the course of our stay in town. The second was a group playing Kyrgyz folk music on Komuz in traditional costume. (The komuz is the three stringed Kyrgyz national instrument, that we’d already heard played solo at our homestay in Karakul, China, and is featured on the 1 Som note.)
The Komuz group at the talent show
With such a full day behind us we slept very soundly indeed that night, waking nice and early to find a mashrutka headed for Bishkek the following morning.
We bid adieu to Tania (congratulating her on her performance in the previous day’s event) and headed down to the bus stop.
We found a ride with only a few seats left to fill and were on our way in a matter of minutes. The trip wasn’t QUITE as dramatic as the other long rides we’d so far had in Kyrgyzstan, but the views of the lake, followed by the wide, bone dry river valleys were still pretty. And our fellow passengers provided some entertainment as well. Most notable was the lady in front who, at one rest stop told us pretty much her whole life story (and, in fact her whole genealogical history all the way back to Genghis Khan) in a combination of snippets of several spoken languages and a lot of sign language.
Stopping in the town of Balykchy, which is Kyrgyz for “fisherman,” for what else, smoked fish. We were kind of dreading how the minibus might smell with a few dozen of these inside. Thank goodness the odour was more restrained than we’d feared!
Pretty scenery on the road to Bishkek
As we neared Bishkek the land changed to a wiiiide valley, flat, green and fertile looking with high rugged peaks far away on the horizons to the left and right of the road. As we pulled into the city we anxiously looked for street names, and by doing so, we actually managed to figure out where we were on our map and frantically signalled for the driver to stop and let us out when we reached the appropriate cross street. We grabbed our packs and rolled out onto the street corner, ready to start exploring Kyrgyztan’s largest city and capital.
Our first restaurant meal in Kyrgyzstan (other than some spicy-vinegary cold noodles that we’d eaten at the nearly empty Karakol market.) We thought we’d been drastically overcharged for our meal, though upon reflection it was expensive but not completely over the top. So we’re now unsure exactly how to feel about the fact that the lady running the place gave us back 100 Som (20% of the bill) after we balked at the final tally.
An official building whose exact purpose we didn’t quite figure out. With cows in front and mountains behind
Sarah on the beach in the late afternoon
Sarah tucked in snugly with Yaksley her yak puppet who joined us in Zhongdian, China
Tags: Cholpon Ata, Issyk Kol, Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan, Llew Bardkecki, Travel