Karakol has a reputation as being perhaps the most Russian place in Kyrgyzstan. Constructed almost from scratch by settlers in the Tsarist era in a part of the country that had seen no real permanent settlements before. It sits roughly equidistant between huge, slightly saline Issyk Kul and the towering peaks of the Tien Shan, each 6km or so away. The lake wasn’t visible when we arrived, but there was no missing the towering snow capped peaks off to our right as we approached the city. The mountains would make surprise appearances throughout our time there, reappearing and reminding us of their proximity whenever we caught a snatch of the horizon through the buildings.
Perhaps I’m stereotyping, but perhaps it was something related to the Russian-ness of the town that gave it such an odd feeling.
We arrived at the main intersection and managed to find the one budget hotel/hostel in town. But when we found it, it was, like much of the rest of the town, a bit strange.
Mountains on the way to Ala Kol Pass in the mountains behind Karakol
Sergei, the attendant who opened the thick wooden gate for us was very friendly and introduced us to his even more friendly dog, Linda (as I’ve noted here before, I’m not a huge dog fan, but Linda was delightful. Friendly without being overly so and jumping/slobbering on you ). But he also smelled powerfully of vodka, and addressed us in a mixture of Russian, English and German as he took us on a tour. The garden of the Yak Tours Hostel was overgrown, but very pretty and peaceful. The inside of the house looked as though it had been furnished for a reasonably well off Soviet family to live in thirty five years before and not renovated since. It was a marvelous place, dark, the tiniest bit musty and filled with stained hardwood, velvet, satin and near-antiques on the shelves and walls. It certainly makes it onto my list of the most characterful places I’ve ever stayed.
The lounge room outside our bedroom at the Yak Tours hostel
And the downstairs dining room. Pam (a handicrafts dealer who you’ll meet later) wondered at some of the stuff in the house and imagined what it would sell for in the US
The garden behind the hostel and the gorgeous mountains on the horizon
The oddity of Karakol didn’t finish with the hostel. Not by a long way. The architecture was strange (or at least unfamiliar.) The central business district was made up largely of small, tightly bunched sheet metal buildings, many of them looking more than garden sheds than businesses. Contrasting this were the hundreds of beautiful old painted wood Russian style homes that lined every street to the south of the centre, their flower gardens overflowing with springtime blooms (and often uncut grass.) In contrast to THIS, were the inhabitants of the neighbourhoods. We took a forty minute walk through the old part of town and despite our best efforts to project a friendly demeanour didn’t get a single smile, wave or greeting from the dozens of people we saw. The best we managed was curious stares from some of the children.
A pretty old Russian style home with its garden running wild in front
This old Russian mansion was pictured on a postcard we’d picked up just the day before!
Sarah and the python. Good thing for the young man there that the snake had obviously eaten recently (you could see the bulge in its middle!) No photo of the dead body in the sidecar I’m afraid…
The mountains rising up behind the town just beyond the southern suburbs
And while this on its own wouldn’t quite have qualified the town as odd, consider that we also saw a 4m long python being taken out for a walk near the university and a dead body cruising past in a motorcycle sidecar feet protruding stiff, pallid and lifeless over the edge.
That said, there was plenty to like about the place as well. The amazingly friendly and helpful tourist information office run by student volunteers, the friendly vendors in the constricted alleys of the main bazaar, the tiny cheese shack on the ain street, the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church and the animal market (more to come about these last two) to name a few examples.
Our first couple of days in Karakol were spent discovering the above, wandering around the town, reveling in the ready availability of bread and cheese and even doing a bit of home cooking (fried potatoes, onions and peppers… mmm…)
We also made plans to explore the mountains outside of town a bit, so day three in Karakol began with a mashrutka (minibus) ride out to the town of Ak-suu and up into the valley behind the town. We were crammed into the 19 seat minibus with as many as 30 other passengers at some time, but we managed to muddle our way to the trailhead anyhow. The driver set us out by the roadside at the right stop, and even corrected me when I gave him a fifty Som note to pay for our ride instead of a fifty.
We were headed up the valley to Altyn Arashan, a popular spot both for tourists and herders, the former because of the hot springs nearby, the latter because of the lush green fields that replace the winter snows in May and June. The walk up was pleasant, following the roaring river tumbling down from the mountains. On either side hillsides rose steep and high, cloaked in thousands and thousands of spruce trees, giving the hillsides the appearance of being covered in a forest of cathedral spires. As we walked up the rough jeep track we met up with a handful of other hikers, as well as plenty of herders, riding their horses and driving their herds of cattle or flocks of sheep up to the high pastures for the summer. The weather alternated quickly between short, sharp rain showers and brilliant sunshine, a pattern that we’d later learn was typical of Kyrgyz springtime weather.
In fact the trip up the valley reminded both Sarah and I a lot of New Zealand. Were it not for the slightly different vegetation you could have convinced me that we were walking up, say, the Caples Valley near Queenstown.
The trail up to Altun Arashan
Horses galloping past on their way up the meadows. We had to quickly step aside to make room for them on the road!
After three hours or so we crested one final hill and saw Altyn Arashan spread out in front of us, a collection of small buildings sitting in a beautiful emerald green pasture. The pasture formed the bottom of a wide valley with steep, hillsides rising up past the treeline on either side and two big snow covered peaks at the far end. We popped in to the Yak tours lodge, one of two in the valley, hoping for a bit of advice on further walking routes. In the end we didn’t get the advice (the lady caretaker just shrugged and said she didn’t know when I asked about a popular route up to an alpine lake) but we did get a generally friendly welcome, a cup of tea, and for 100 Som (about NZ$3) a key to one of the private hot spring huts a little further up the valley.
The camps at Altyn Arashan
The inside of the hut, built of logs, concrete and some ceramic tile for the bath, was a bit rustic. But the 1.2m deep pool was just hot enough for me to enjoy it and just cool enough that Sarah could stand it. We spent a blissful couple of hours there snacking on some of the food we’d brought along, lazing about and talking about how every tramping track ought to involve hot springs (I’ve been meaning to do the Welcome Flat walk in NZ for ages, but STILL haven’t got ’round to it. This may well have been enough motivation to push me over the edge.)
Sarah peeking out over the edge of the hot pool
The hot spring huts (ours is the one with the blue roof) as sunset neared
Many patches of ground were covered with these little “cup-leafed” planes that collected huge quantities of dew or rainwater in their cups
Bathing done, we crossed the river and walked upstream to a nice flat section of the bank where we set up camp and bedded down for a very comfortable (and surprisingly warm) night in the mountains.
The next morning Sarah and I parted ways. Sarah’s usually good enough to accompany me on shorter walks, but for anything more strenuous or lengthy I’m often left on my own (which is fair enough… she never says she doesn’t want me to go on longer tramps, just that she’d rather do something else while I did.) Sarah headed back down the trail towards Karakol town, while I carried on up the valley, then into a side valley, headed for Ala Kol, a beautiful turquoise alpine lake. I was ever so slightly nervous about Sarah heading down on her own, given the historical (and still current to some extent) practice of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Essentially young Kyrgyz men would often grab some friends, bundle up a desireable young woman and drag her off to a home in the hills for a few days, after which her honour was irretrieveably sullied and there was nothing for it but to marry her kidnapper. At least that’s the way it was supposed to (and often did) work. There were always women who resisted the marriages vigorously enough to escape (often against the wishes of their own families whose honour was tied up in the business as well.) As it turned out, I needn’t really have worried, both because the area we were in was modern, Russian and touristed enough for it to not be a major issue, and because while bride-napping is still practiced, those doing it know well enough not to bother with foreign women who won’t have the same pressure to go through with the marriage and will probably raise an even bigger commotion if they’re abducted.
As Sarah made her way down the (not so) treacherous road, I headed up on a decidedly more exciting walk. I knew it was going to be tricky, as I didn’t have a map, and really had only the vaguest idea of where I was headed. But I knew how long the walk was, and was very prepared to turn around if I reached a point where I wouldn’t be able to return to Altyn Arashan, either because of potential trouble navigating or lack of time before dark.
As it turned out it was probably good that I was so cautious. The walk took me up along a stream, first through forest, then popped me out above the tree line into some beautiful high pasture that was scattered with yellow and violet wild pansies. Rugged, bare rock peaks surrounded this higher valley on all sides, and there was snow on the tops in every direction. A few horses and cattle were all I had for company as I walked still higher and took my best guess as to which of the tree valleys before me would lead to the Ala Kol Pass.
Horse and wild pansies in the high meadows
As it turned out I guessed correctly (the most obvious route was the correct one) but didn’t know this until the next day when I (quite belatedly) got a good look at a topo map of the area. I climbed over an old moraine and out of the meadow, now on bare rock and dirt as the head of the valley came nearer. As I climbed higher and higher, puffing under the weight of my pack as I crossed 3500m, the weather started to turn poor. Snow started to fall and within half an hour the brilliant flowers of the meadow below were covered in a white blanket. A right turn and a steeper climb at the end of the valley took me up to a bowl at about 3700m, where the intensity of the snow reached its peak. Though the snow slowed as I neared the top, it was replaced by a net of cloud, making it no easier to try to find the pass in the whiteness ahead. It was at this point that I decided it was foolish to continue. There was no pass in sight, and to go much further was to risk being unable to find the way back. As I later learned, I was only a few hundred metres away from the pass, which was clear of snow on the far side (though there was a large patch of waist deep snow on the way there.)
The sky in a less friendly mood near the pass
Looking back down towards the moraine as the weather begins to clear
The snow starting to melt on the way back down to the main valley
Heading back down, now with plenty of time to spare, I took it slowly. After the weather cleared I headed up one of the other side valleys. By the time I reached the top of this one, the sun was out again and the wind had died to nothing. I sat on a rock amongst the fresh snow-melt induced mud and listened. The air was completely still and the only sound was the tiny bubbles and pops of the thawing ground around me. The only movement to be seen anywhere were a few moths and spiders, bringing life back to this remote corner of the mountains just released from the grip of winter.
Another view back down the valley, this time from my second uphill walk
The walk back down was, unsurprisingly, much quicker than the way up. I found a campsite on a bench 50m above the river and, while there was no water source, it looked idyllic enough that I was willing to do without until the next morning. I went to bed, defeated in my original aim, but almost entirely satisfied with both the physical challenge of the walk and the beauty of the landscapes it had taken me to.
I was wakened by an animal nosing at my tent. I popped my head out and discovered that there were cattle and horses all around. It was still early, but I’d slept well so I packed up and headed back down the trail. At 09:00 I stopped for breakfast at a small stream just below Altyn Arashan, enjoying the sunshine and lazily reading a few dozen pages of my book while I ate. I waved at an older (than me at least) woman who walked past, also on her way down.
An hour or so later I caught up with her, and spent the rest of the walk down keeping her company. Pam was an American woman who’d lived in China and now made a business of importing handicrafts to the US, combining trips back to China with visits to the nations bordering it (of which there are plenty: 14 all told. China borders more other countries than any other nation.) We made our way slowly down trading travel stories, discussing similarities between this landscape and those nearer our homes, and trying to make the best of the changeable weather (we had more beautiful bright sunshine, but also thunder echoing off the valley walls and a ten minute spell of pea sized hail.)
A rather brighter, more pleasant scene from my final morning in Altyn Arashan
Back down at the road we waited for the Mashrutka. After twenty minutes or so one passed, but was headed in the wrong direction. But since it had just started to rain heavily (AGAIN!) the driver pulled over and beckoned us aboard for the last bit of the outbound journey up another valley to an old Russian spa town. We turned around and were back in Karakol no more than 40 minutes later, the sun shining brightly once again.
Sarah and I spent the afternoon collecting supplies for dinner, which we shared with Pam that night. We were a little surprised to be ushered peremptorily shooed out of the kitchen before we’d even got started. It took a while to figure out, but Sergei’s invitation had been to use the kitchen any time to make tea or coffee, and it was actually his own kitchen, not REALLY the one for the hostel (this was an easy mistake to make. As I’ve explained earlier, the whole place looked like it was actually a lived-in home.) Eventually Sergei was won over and allowed us to use the kitchen just once more (not a problem as we were departing the next day) so Sarah, Pam and I shared a lovely dinner of scrambled eggs with stuff in them (simplified from omelettes to get us out of the kitchen faster) fresh bread and (another thing that was hard to find in China) good dark chocolate.
With dinner (and I’m being a bit misleading here. It was with our first dinner in Karakol, not with this one, but it fits better into the narrative this way) we also had our first couple of Kyrgyz (or were they imported Russian?) beers. I’m sad to say that they didn’t come off too well. While China’s beers were bland and uninspiring, these were over-sweet with a fairly hefty alcoholic bite to them. I’m rather surprised to find myself saying that I preferred beer in China!
While we ate, Pam shared stories and advice from her earlier travels, we talked about where we’d been in China, and we were all rather surprised to realize that it was 23:30, and time for bed.
The reason we were keen to get to bed early was so that we’d be in time for our final Karakol activity: a visit to the livestock market the “Mal Bazaar” in Kyrgyz, same as in Uighur!) It was supposed to start at 05:00 and continue until 10:00.
We walked through the slightly rougher, less charming, northern half of town and by dint of following the heaviest traffic (surprisingly little of it with obvious animals in tow) we found our way there.
It wasn’t as big as the Kashgar market, but I reckon I actually liked it better. Kyrgyz men in their high felt hats haggled over the sale of fat bottomed sheep, while their sons restrained the animals held by ropes tied ’round their necks. Moos and whinnies came from the over the wall in the “large animal” part of the market (though the sheep were actually very big themselves… Far bigger than NZ sheep, some of them almost the size of small cows!) Noisy and messy though it was, it was actually a pleasant place, and the earthy but bearable smell was a strong argument for holding all livestock markets outdoors!
Old Audis and Ladas bumped along the rutted muddy roadways through the market. There was plenty of peripheral business being done as well, with blacksmiths plying their wares in one corner and a truck full of huge hunks of rock salt (for salt licks) in another (in a parallel to the hay-purloining sheep in Kashgar, it was fun to watch some goats stealing licks of rock salt in Karakol.) At one point the mystery of why we saw so few animal trailers when we heard/saw heavy thumps coming from the rear of a red Lada and realized that there was at least one (and probably more) sheep stuffed in the trunk!
The main road through the sheep and goat section of the market
Cows and horses for sale on the far side of the wall
The ultimate fat bottomed sheep! Watching their bums joggle and sway as they walk is a very amusing sight. Almost as good is when they bounce as they stand in the back of a truck on a bumpy road!
The infamous red lada with the sheep in its trunk
Sarah and her favourite sheep of the day. Sarah gave him a bit of a pat and the owner immediately handed her the lead and insisted the three of them have a photo taken together
I think our preference for the Karakol market wasn’t in spite of, but because of the fact that it was smaller than Kashgar’s. There was no one there with a hundred sheep, as had been the case in Kashgar. Instead of major professional wheeler-dealers, Karakol’s market was entirely made up of people who looked like they had a few extra animals to sell, or others who just thought they’d come down and have a look, and if they found a good deal on a goat, well they just might buy one. It was a more PERSONAL animal market.
As it turned out, we didn’t find any particularly good deals on goats ourselves, so we headed back to the centre of town empty handed. We packed up our stuff, said farewell to Pam (and Sergei, and Linda) and made our way BACK out towards the animal market, where we caught a Mashrutka headed counterclockwise around Issyk Kul to the town of Cholpon Ata on the lake’s northern shore.
Karakol’s Russian Orthodox Church
The inside of the church was strewn with fresh sweet-smelling grasses and herbs. Beyond this antechamber, in the main hall a choral service was underway (but visitors were asked not to take photos.) The hall was filled with head-scarved women and girls and young men in t-shirts and track suits (but surprisingly few older men.)
Tags: Issyk Kol, Issyk Kul, Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, Llew Bardecki, Travel