Our second week in Bishkek was just as pleasant as the first one. And we actually got up to much the same sorts of things as well. So effectively this entry is going to be me discussing stuff about Bishkek that I didn’t get around to mentioning in the first half, plus the story of our second short journey out of the city.
A woman and five children collecting flowers in the hills behind the town of Suusamyr
In the last entry I went on at some length about the food we ate while in Bishkek. We also took advantage of our down time by sampling popular Kyrgyz beverages as well. Me being me I’ll have to begin with a discussion of beer. We often had a beer or two while cooking or with dinner, or sometimes while watching football matches with our housemates (the European championship tournament was on and with the variety of nationalities in the house there was, of course, significant interest. Many of the beers were unbalanced, oversweet and not pleasant tasting, but there were a number of perfectly palatable pilsners as well. There was even a brewpub where Sarah and I celebrated obtaining our Uzbek visas one afternoon, trying their Pilsner and Munich lager, both of which were fine though nothing spectacular.
Sarah enjoying a beer at a shashlik (kebab) restaurant/bar in Bishkek’s Osh bazaar. We were joined by everyone from a father and his 10 year old son to a group of four female shopkeepers stopping in for a lunchtime pint.
There was of course more to drink than beer. We drank sodas from vintage Russian machines that sat on the street corner (5 Som per glass. The glasses sat on a tray beside the machine and were rinsed by the attendant which made the whole experience fun if (not perfectly hygienic.)
Sarah with an apple soda
Also on street corners were big 40L insulated containers with taps at the bottom that dispensed hot coffee or iced tea. You could buy them by the glass or in 1L bottles to take away. When we first saw them we figured they were quaint little mom and pop businesses, but eventually realized that they were actually big chain operations that were filled in the morning by a fleet of trucks.
We drank kvass! The fermented beverage made with stale bread and grain had fascinated me ever since I first learned of it, and it seemed to have been following us around on this trip. We found bottled kvass in the shop near home, on tap from a big, trailer mounted insulated container in the main bazaar and even from one of the street corner drink coolers.
Me and my cold, half litre glass of kvass fresh from the tap at the Osh Bazaar
We even drank water. Bishkek’s tap water is free from biological contaminants and entirely safe to drink (for short periods anyway… there’s still uncertainty as to whether it’s 100% free of heavy metals.)
The one thing we DIDN’T drink was vodka. In a theoretically Muslim country it was a bit surprising that vodka was so popular, but given Kyrgyzstan’s connection to Russia it does actually make sense.
The wall of vodka at a typical Bishkek supermarket. Even in towns where the shops sold nothing but a few stale biscuits and some bread, vodka was always available
Speaking of Islam, vodka wasn’t the only way Kyrgyzstan was less than fundamentalist in its practice of the religion. Indeed from what we saw in Bishkek (and admittedly big cities are usually the most liberal places) Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country in the same way that Britain is an Anglican one. Most people identify themselves as Muslim on census forms, etc., but for many of them that’s about as far as it goes. People regularly drink to excess, attendance at mosques didn’t seem to be particularly heavy, and women in Bishkek often dressed quite revealingly.
Which was, from my perspective at least, no bad thing. Kyrgyz women were generally quite pretty and an astonishingly high proportion were absolutely beautiful. It must have something to do with the mixing of genes. People in Kyrgyzstan ranged in appearance from 100% European/Russian to others that were almost entirely Mongol looking and as pretty as some of the ladies at either end of the spectrum were, it was the ones in between that were prettiest of all.
We also managed to do some actual sightseeing in Bishkek. As noted in the previous entry there isn’t all that much to see in Bishkek, though that doesn’t mean that there’s NOTHING.
Bishkek’s lovely Russian Orthodox cathedral
The Kyrgyz parliament
Kids playing and swimming in the fountain in front of the state museum of history
And as noted in the introduction we actually did get out of the city for a while as well. On a Thursday morning we headed out to the Osh Bazaar to find a mashrutka (minibus) headed east to the town of Kara Balta. It wasn’t easy to manage this, but eventually a man who spoke a bit of English led us through the bazaar and down the street to the appropriate stop. TO Kara Balta was a short trip of 80 minutes or so, from where we picked up a taxi headed south to our final destination, the town of Suusamyr in the valley of the same name.
The trip started inauspiciously. There was no one else headed that direction, so we had to pay for the whole taxi ourselves. And then a couple of km outside of town our driver asked for payment when we stopped for petrol, then, after having pocketed 1000 Som, insisted (wrongly) that we’d agreed to pay 1300 and refused to budge until we paid up. Things brightened after this however. Our driver happily stopped for photos whenever we wanted, which was often. The road first wound its way along the bottom of a narrow, steep sided valley, taking up almost every centimetre that wasn’t taken up by the river.
At the end of the valley it started winding its way up a towering series of switchbacks to the 3586m Ashuu pass. All the way up the pass were spectacular views back over the mountains until we reached the 2km long tunnel at its top. The tunnel was barely 2 lanes wide, dimly lit, bumpy and unlined, making it a bit of a harrowing journey (our friends Frank and Martja did it on bicycles! Fortunately for them the tunnel was under maintenance and closed to vehicular traffic at the time.) It had been a bit cloudy on the north side of the pass but we emerged into brilliant sun shining over the wide green expanse of the Suusamyr Valley.
Looking back at the canyon of the Kara Balta river. You can just make out the snakelike form of the road near the valley floor in the centre-left of the photo
And in the other direction up towards the top of the pass
The tunnel at the summit
As we wound our way down the equally large number of switchbacks on the far side we passed dozens of conical white yurts by the side of the road with big bottles of white liquid and containers full of white balls, Kymyz and Kurut, the fruits of the animals in their flocks. Finally down on the valley floor were still more yurts, and a small road leading off to the east and, 18km later, the town of Suusamyr itself.
The town spread out on the floor of the valley with. Most of its buildings were single story, stuccoed (or mudded perhaps?) with corrugated metal roofs. On the main street were four or five small Magazins (shops) and a mosque. Our taxi driver delivered us down a side street to a house with a blue “Tourist Information” sign outside. It looked a bit unusual in this out of the way town in an out of the way country. But the old lady in the house was very welcoming, even if she herself didn’t have much information to offer (in languages other than Russian or Kyrgyz anyway.)
The Sheep Welcoming Committee (three sheep plus a goat that seemed to follow us everywhere) saying hi to Sarah and nibbling her fingers
Suusamyr’s mosque. Almost all mosques in Kyrgyzstan were modern, architecturally uninspired structures like this one with sheet metal domes and minaret tops
The yard in a typical Suusamyr house. Note the piles of cow dung being dried for later use as fuel
We set our bags down in a spare bedroom where she indicated we could sleep that night if we liked, and joined her, her husband and brother in law in the kitchen for tea and bread, both flavoured with delicious fresh strawberry jam from a bowl on the table. After tea I took a walk up and around the hills behind the town, climbing up to the top, then wandering around the oddly flat tops. The view out over the town and then over the broad valley were lovely, as was the lemony-lavender smell of the low green-grey-silver plants that made up most of the vegetation on the sparsely vegetated hillside.
I loved how Kyrgyz cemeteries looked like little towns in their own right
I headed back to town past the cemetery and mosque, and woke Sarah for dinner. Our host’s son, a student and taxi driver in Bishkek, had arrived home in the meantime. He spoke reasonably good English and joined us for dinner in the kitchen. As we ate our laghman (central Asian noodle soup with potato, onion, peppers and meat) we talked about his life as a student and his hopes and plans for the future. His dreams weren’t so grand as many young Kyrgyz who we’d met, almost all of whom were keen to leave the country. Instead he simply wanted to finish his studies, find a job in Bishkek and marry his longtime girlfriend.
After dinner he and I took a walk around the town, hoping to watch a football game at the local school. There was no game on, but we met plenty of his friends and relatives, each of which was greeted with a soft handshake and a Salam Aleikum.
Sarah, our homestay host and her (our host’s of course, not Sarah’s) granddaughters in Suusamyr
Sarah and I slept well that night and after a breakfast of bread, jam and fried julienned potatoes we set out to explore the expansive valley on foot. We followed roads the whole way, but as soon as we left the main road down the valley they rapidly became rougher and less trafficked. We crossed the river, passed by a few farm houses and a couple of kilometres further along we were truly out on our own. At around 10:30AM we picked a flat, grassy spot near a small stream and set our bags down at what would be our campsite for the evening.
But there was time for plenty more walking before evening came. Sarah had had enough walking for the day, especially given that I was planning a strenuous climb up to Sandyk, a jailoo (summer pasture) high above the valley floor. I followed the road to its end near a few isolated farmhouses. Outside one of these a Kyrgyz man on a horse told his dog to stop barking at me and greeted me with a smile. The way up a side valley seemed obvious and he agreed when I asked if this was a good way to head up there.
Partway up the valley were a few yurts. I passed one with an old green Lada and a baby stroller outside. Both of these were somewhat surprising as the only road there looked to be a rough track suitable only for four wheel drive vehicles. The yurt’s sole occupants appeared to be a young woman and her baby who she held to her chest, waving as I walked past.
Further up I stopped in amongst the small trees that lined the river banks at the valley’s centre and ate some of the bread, cheese and dry sausage we’d brought along on our camping trip. This turned out to be poorly timed, as almost immediately afterwards I crossed the river, emerged from the trees and came across another yurt, this one surrounded by a large herd of sheep and several horses. I walked along near the trees, keeping away from the flock trying not to disturb them, so it was only when I was already well past the yurt that I noticed the people sitting in a small circle outside the yurt. They’d obviously seen me though, as one of them immediately waved and beckoned me over to them.
Around the table in the middle of the circle sat three women, one older man and five children. The moment I sat down one of the women poured me a cup of tea and virtually everyone encouraged me to eat from the tray in the middle of the table. Especially as I’d just eaten, the food wasn’t the most appetizing I’d ever seen. The tray was filled with fat-heavy mutton, slices of thick, dark coloured sausage and fried onions. But with the one of the children handed me and several cups of tea it actually ended up being fairly tasty.
Given our limited skills in one another’s languages it wasn’t easy to learn or tell much about ourselves, but I learned that the three families had been up at the camp for a couple of weeks and that two other men were away with the rest of the flock (which must have been quite a size given how many sheep had been left behind!)
Me with my lovely hosts at the yurt camp on the way up to Sandyk Jailoo
Lunch was followed with a bowl of kymyz. Kymyz is the national drink of Kyrgyzstan. It’s made of mare’s milk, fermented rough in a bucket. Most foreigners who try it seem to find it dreadful. I think my taste for sour beers and fermented foods came in handy here, as I actually quite liked it. It was fizzy, sour, salty, a little creamy and had a faint “ferment-y,” lightly alcoholic flavour. I was offered a second bowl and by the time this one was done lunch was over. We took some photos of each other and then I headed on up the valley.
A walk up a side valley, then a scramble up a steep ridge and I was at the top, on the wide flat jailoo. Backed by snow covered mountains, the plateau was filled with new grass that hadn’t quite grown enough to cover all of the reddish soil. There wasn’t a soul (or, indeed, even a sheep) up on the jailoo yet, presumably because the grass hadn’t grown enough yet to make it worth bringing animals up to graze.
I took an hour or so wandering around the plateau amongst the reddish boulders that were scattered amongst the grass. From there I followed the slight slope of the plain down to the top of the main valley. Here things were a bit more lively, with a few sheep just below me and brightly coloured seas of flowers, white, purple, yellow and pale orange brightening the foreground in front of the brown and white mountains.
Brilliant pale orange flowers in the valley on the way up to the jailoo
The snow capped peaks that backed Sandyk jailoo
Many sections of the meadow were so filled with white flowers it looked like they were covered with a dusting of fresh snow
It was around 16:00 by then, so I headed back down the valley. When I returned to the shepherd camp I was once again urged to come and sit for a while. This time the rest of the men had returned, and three more Kyrgyz men from Bishkek had joined them. Two of them were in their mid forties, and one was rather older.
The two younger men spoke a little English, so we had a bit more conversation as I drank two more bottles of kymyz. The third was their father who they’d brought up to the camp for a bit of kymyz, mountain air and nature. Even amongst the city folk, it appeared you could take the Kyrgyz out of the jailoo, but you couldn’t take the jailoo out of the Kyrgyz. The two younger men were car dealers and did everything they could to ensure I was welcome in their country, asking eagerly what I thought, and smiling when I agreed that it was very beautiful and peaceful up high in the mountains. They also told me that there were wolves up on the high parts of the jailoo and I ought to have brought a rifle with me for safety. I’m not sure if this was just city folk exaggerating the wildness of the countryside, or if it was actually true, but I was still happy to have made it down without having met any of them, especially other Kyrgyz told us that people had been killed by wolves at remote bus stops during the winter time.
My new friends had seen Sarah and our tent on their way up. Since she hadn’t been up to the camp to try some kymyz, they insisted that I be sent on my way with some for her to try. One of the kids ran into the tent and came out with a 1L bottle which everyone, cityfolk and shepherds alike, absolutely insisted I mustn’t pay them for.
The walk down took longer than I’d expected, so when I got back to camp our shadows were long and we had a quick dinner as the sun set.
A far off mountain peak with the sun peaking out as sunset neared
Sarah peeking out of our tent on our first evening of camping in the Suusamyr valley. Free camping in Kyrgyzstan was incredibly easy: just wander a bit out of town, pick a spot and set up your tent. No one ever seemed to mind, and reactions ranged from a smile and a wave to an invitation for tea and food. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of yurts in the country?
The next morning we headed back to town, stopping to pick up some more bread and biscuits from one of the shops. As we walked we inquired after a game of ulak (the polo-like game played with a goat carcass) that we’d heard happened every Saturday in the area. We must have been misinformed, as neither townsfolk nor shepherds seemed to have any idea about where it might be happening. Indeed, one young man excitedly asked “ulak? where?!” when I asked “ulak today?” in Russian.
Having given up on ulak we headed out the other side of town, getting soaked by a half hour downpour as we turned off the road and headed up another small stream. By the time we decided to stop for the day, however the sun had been out long enough that both we and the ground had completely dried.
Setting up a yurt in the front yard in Suusamyr. Traditionally they’re made of bent wood and covered in felt and sheep skins, though metal and canvas sometimes appear in the construction of modern ones
Me with three old-school Kyrgyz men. Note the traditional high felt hats worn by the two on the ends
We set up the tent and sat outside enjoying the afternoon sun, the burble of the stream and the views up to the high mountains that surrounded the valley in all directions. A few hours later we retreated to the tent to escape yet more rain which stopped just long enough for us to pop out to admire the sunset.
Sarah with our tent at Suusamyr Valley campsite two. The double rainbow was a silver (multicoloured?) lining to the rainclouds
The valley floor in the foreground and the grassy plateau of Sandyk jailoo in front of the snowy peaks in the background
The next morning we followed the river briefly, but quickly decided that our best approach would be to walk straight across the meadow back to the main road. Mistake. Where the meadow wasn’t damp with dew, it was sodden from the previous days’ rains. On top of this, it was also often filled with low gorse bushes that were, thankfully, less nastily prickly than the ones in NZ.
Eventually we did make it to the road, boots and socks soggy and squelching. We dumped the water out of our boots and wrung it out of our socks before putting them back on and continuing our hike along the road. After we’d dried out a bit we decided that further walking along the roadside didn’t have any real advantages, so began trying to hitch a lift back to the main highway and (hopefully) over the pass to Kara Balta.
This couldn’t have been easier. The first car we waved at was a new 4WD with an empty back seat. We asked the drivers if they were going to Kara Balta and how much it would cost to get us there. The answers were “yes” and “nothing” (a bit of a surprise as hitchhiking in the western sense is unknown in Kyrgyzstan.
In the end they let us out at another town some distance before Kara Balta. We weren’t quite sure how far it was so we walked through town in the sun, picking sour cherries and apricots up from underneath fruit trees that grew on the side of the road. Partway through a man stopped and asked us a bunch of questions in Russian, most of them unintelligible to us. We managed to answer a few, and this pleased him. He brought us across the street to meet his neighbours, one of whom (the woman) was somewhat drunk and the other (the man) very drunk. Nonetheless they were very hospitable and offered us just about everything their obviously poor household could offer, including fresh raspberries, bread, instant noodles, tea, a shower, a tour of the garden… Despite our lack of common language we still managed to learn a little about one another. Given their condition, I suspect we might have had a little trouble communicating even if we had spoke fluent Russian. Despite their kindness, this made the whole exchange a bit frustratating and we eventually extricated ourselves, caught a share taxi back to Kara Balta, a mashrutka back to Bishkeok.
Nick’s place was full up that evening, but we had another “family dinner” nonetheless, spending the night in a hostel (curiously located down a series of labyrinthine alleys.) The next morning however, we headed back to his place and dropped our stuff off, ready to spend yet another night in our cozy Bishkek home.
This turned out to be our final day in Bishkek, though we hadn’t realized it yet.
We spent the morning shopping at the wonderful Osh Bazaar which we’d seen a little of when finding our ride out to Kara Balta. The place was a hive of activity and very fun to go shopping at. We ended up collecting a couple of souvenirs, two 1kg bags of kimchi (for the Korean dinner we planned to prepare that night) and a long skirt for Sarah in anticipation of visiting Iran.
The entrance to Osh Bazaar
The hot and sticky interior of one of the clothing sections at the bazaar
Dried fruit and nuts at Osh bazaar
Our anticipation of the Iranian visa have been ill founded, as the main reason we spent so long in Bishkek was waiting for our Letter of Invitation to apply for an Iranian visa to be processed. It was supposed to have been e-mailed to us no later than the evening we returned from Suusamyr, but there was no sign of it yet. That afternoon we telephoned the agency we’d been trying to obtain it from and learned the story. My visa had been approved but, very surprisingly given the feelings of the Iranian government towards Canada and NZ, Sarah had been singled out for further investigation before a decision could be made. This was frustrating, but we realized it meant that there was no way we could apply for our visa in Bishkek before we had to leave Kyrgyzstan. As such we concluded that the best course of action was to wait and see what they decided about Sarah’s visa and, if the answer was positive, pay the further (exorbitant) fee to have our visa pickup location changed to Dushanbe, Tajikistan (the Iranian Letter of Invitation is only valid for one specific embassy and has to be changed if you want to use it at another.)
With this settled we managed to enjoy one final dinner in Nick’s apartment, went to sleep on the living room floor one final time, then got up bright and early to head out to Osh Bazaar and find a shared taxi or minibus heading down the country’s main highway towards southern Kyrgyzstan.
Martja, Frank, Maurice, Judith, Simon, Irene, Helen, Judith, Katie, Sarah, Matteus, Zayneb, Stephen, Saule, Anya and, most of all Nick for keeping us company during our time in Bishkek. They managed to turn what could have been a miserable, draining experience into an absolute joy.
Helen serving up kimchi jeon at our final “family dinner” at Nick’s. To Nick’s (and our to the extent we’d thought about it) surprise the Korean fare suited the Russian and Kyrgyz diners just fine
Clockwise from bottom right, Sarah, the back of Martja’s head, barely visible Sarah, Matteus and Frank
Bishkek was full of public art, much of it uninspired Soviet era sculpture but some bright, fresh (in appearance if not age) and interesting relief mosaic in a public park
Kyrgyz Yak stamps
An old Bishkek apartment building in evening light
Tags: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Llew Bardecki, Suusamyr, Travel