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Old 13th August 2013, 21:29   #76
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Thoroughly enjoying this one. Great read. A fantastic journey indeed. Cheers.
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Old 14th August 2013, 00:11   #77
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Great travelogue, really a pleasure to read, waiting for more.

Really well written, rated a very well deserved 5 stars
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Old 14th August 2013, 02:32   #78
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Good Job both of you... The place which avid travellers themselves might have not thought of venturing so much deep, you have made a remarkable journey through its core. Indeed it is what makes this travelogue a unique piece of experience. Amazing description, well captured images... Now, which is your next "not so well known for tourists" destination???
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Old 14th August 2013, 11:38   #79
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Originally Posted by Porschefire View Post
What makes this travelogue special for me is that,i work in Azerbaijan and i can relate to everything that you've mentioned in the thread. The Russian monologues,people requesting to take pictures with them,the "jimi jimi",raj kapoor, mithun da, the warmth of the people,the rudeness - everything!!!The sad part of my job is that it does not permit me to travel and explore the country(i work on rotations-35 days continuously here in AZ and then i head back to India) so i haven't seen much apart from a few places in the capital,Baku.
So, the next time you plan on exploring Central Asia,come to AZ and you can do Armenia,Georgia,Turkey and Moscow all at once!!!

Waiting for the rest of your story!!!
Giveny our nature of work and Azerbaijan's economy I would only assume that you must be on an oil rig somewhere near Baku. There are so many places to explore and yes, it would make much more sense to cover Armenia and Georgia while one is visiting Baku. Maybe sometime in the the future.

Originally Posted by An1 View Post
But I must say, you're quite cruel to your fellow TBPians.. A number of times in your thread I find reference to beautiful encounters from the region, but even after trawling the thread multiple times I just could not find their pictures mate.
My additional motivation to travel to CIS countries !!

Any chance you will be uploading the pictures soon?

Beautiful encounters.. I meant this.

I feel now I must have to visit the CIS countries soon..

Just the other day I was reading a blog on 'ADV Rider' forums the travel blogs of 3 guys who travelled the BAM road, an almost Non-existent road in Russia on their bikes crossing rivers and ready-to-go-down bridges. That was EPIC !!!

& now your blog on travel through KZ & KG.. Man, I am so inspired now to plan a travel to Central Asia.

That place is raw beauty..one that you would want to explore off the beaten path. & people I have read are generally very warm and friendly.

I would wish to do this on a Bike though.. Wonder if it will be feasible to get permits within reason!!
Regarding the hottie, what can I say, did not have the chance to click her. :(

Have you seen the Long way round and down series. It inspired us to visit Kazakhstan in the first place!

Originally Posted by amtak View Post
This picture just reminded me of our beloved Yeti. RIP Sam. I never had a chance to meet you but promise to meet you in heaven whenever I am there.

Originally Posted by myashu View Post
Now, which is your next "not so well known for tourists" destination???
As soon as the budget allows, which might be anytime in the next decade , a road trip to the interiors of Mongolia is something that I'm dreaming about.
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Old 14th August 2013, 19:45   #80
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Awesome thread sir. Am thoroughly hooked to it. The photographs too do justice to this beautifully written up travelogue. Your opening paragraph kept me glued to your thread. Eagerly waiting for the rest to come. And definitely a much deserved 5 star rating from my side too!
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Old 19th August 2013, 19:30   #81
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Default Day 7: Ala Archa NP - Osh Bazar (Bishkek) - Tamchy (Part 1 of 2)

Introduction to offroading in Kyrgyzstan

There was no rush to start the day early since there was no place we could have gone to with our passport still stuck with the tour operator. Since we had crashed early, naturally we were bound to wake up early too, but despite the early beginning to the day, we started off only by 9 am without having breakfast at the hotel. The employees had mysteriously eloped and the kitchen was absolutely empty. We had our supplies in the form of juices and biscuits and for now they would have to do.

To kill time and enjoy it at the same time, we decided to go towards the canyon adjacent to Ala Archa by the name of Alameddin canyon, situated about 15 km east as the crow flies. There was a possibility to take the longer and easier route to this canyon, however we decided to take the tough route just for the fun of it. It had rained the night before and the dirt track over the mountain was partially slushy at places and there were deep ruts formed at many such stretches. The road climbed steeply towards east on a broad dirt track as soon we exited the Ala Archa canyon and soon enough we were in open, lush green meadows, bordered by towering snow clad mountains. There were no villages on this route, only shepherd settlements all along the track. The distance was hardly 30 km and we thought despite the bad roads we should be able to cover it in an hour or so. But we were highly mistaken - those 30 km took us a bit more than 2 hours to cover and we were introduced to the subject matter ‘Off-roading in Kyrgyzstan 101’. The drive itself was very pretty, and we were constantly accompanied by cattle and horses grazing in vast lush meadows. The most amazing part is that the place itself is a stone’s throw distance away from Bishkek. Imagine having something like this next to Mumbai or Delhi!

If one off-roads frequently, one must be aware of the strength and the weakness of one’s vehicle. My mind had been tuned to the limits of the off-roading vehicle I own, if one can call it that, a 2010 model Tata Safari 4x4. However, here I was riding one of the better off-roading vehicles on the planet, a Toyota Land Cruiser (TLC). Initially I was pleasantly surprised on how the vehicle could pull on on inclines, despite its enormous weight. It was pulling effortlessly on stretches where the Safari would have howled. However, the problem came when the off-roading limits of the Land Cruiser extended beyond the limits I had taken my Safari to. There were stretches on which the articulation of the TLC was way better that what I was used to, and those stretches formed lumps in our throats.

The route plan towards Bishkek from Ala Archa
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After crossing the Ala Archa river, the track detoriates
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Quite a catch for this lucky bird
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Horses meander next to the river
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Some horses run up above in those hills
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A pretty place to have a house, is it not?
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Out there is Bishkek, one can notice a layer of smoke. Out here in the mountains the air is cleaner
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The dirt track climbs up ahead and with recent rains it was not a good track to drive upon
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But thankfully it was wide and dry at certain places
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A young horse drinks milk from its mother
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The TLC stands in the meadow with snow-capped peaks behind it
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Since I was operating outside my comfort zone, I half expected the TLC to turn turtle if the rut was too deep on one side and flat on the other. I was scared out of my mind on stretches where, apart from Marsimik La’ish inclines, there were ruts on either side of the road, which made me stop and study the stretch before I could move on. There was one particular decline which was very scary. The track was hardly used as one could figure from the growth of the grass. The decline compelled me to engage the 4L mode and to crawl slowly downhill carefully tackling some deep muddy traps which were a danger for the car. Aarti was practically hanging out of the car this entire 300m stretch and guiding me since I was still getting used to the width of the vehicle.

Very slowly and steadily we made progress and after a good 2 hours or so made it to the other side - the Alameddin canyon. I had never thought that I would ever buy a vehicle such as a TLC as it would be a waste of my money. BUT, this trip has changed my perspective entirely. The things that the vehicle can do at a flick of a button/ lever is beyond belief. Too bad it is so expensive that I might never buy one, but at least now I can dream. Also, we now understood why people say that one needs a 4x4 jeep to cover Kyrgyzstan. The offroads there are seriously offroads, and not the ones we call off-roads on the Manali-Leh highway or even Ladakh. It is some serious stuff out there, and more light will be shed on that topic as we move along.

Notice the dip in the road up ahead and the climb after it. It was one of the trickier parts.
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There were some settlements as well, and what a place to settle I say.
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Switchbacks. Note the yellow bus chugging up them.
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It was already 11:30 by the clock and we were super hungry but there were no shacks to be seen. In the summer months, shepherds who rear horses make ‘Koumiss’ and sell it near their shacks. It was here that we had our first sip of the infamous drink at a roadside stall. For those who do not know ‘Koumiss’, it is the traditional beverage of Kyrgyzstan and is prepared by fermenting mare’s milk. It tastes very much like ‘sour lassi’ or ‘chhachh’, but the comparison ends here as it is much more sour and actually mildly alcoholic. One would probably not like the drink on the first sip but after sipping it slowly, it did make an impression on me. As for Aarti, after one sip, she knew that that is one beverage she would never taste again.

The Alameddin canyon was a disappointment and we turned around after driving for 5 kms or so inside it. We headed back towards Bishkek for lunch and then to get on with our actual trip. It was noon already and a call to Maratt was made to inquire about the status of our passports. He said that we would only get our passports by 3 pm, so we decided to head to Osh Bazaar in the meanwhile to get souvenir shopping out of the way and also to buy a quilt.

The crowded Osh Bazar
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The parking lot at Osh Bazaar was jam packed and it was with much difficulty that we were able to finally find an empty space. At Osh Bazaar, one can find all types of goods - from vegetables to fruits, to dry fruits or clothes or kitchen appliances. Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar would be the Osh Bazaars of Delhi. It was there that I finally found what I had been craving for ever since I reached Kyrgyzstan - a ‘Samsa’. A ‘Samsa’ is nothing but our very own ‘samosa’ but instead of a spicy mashed potato filling, it has minced meat with onions and is typically baked. I, being a die-hard ‘samosa’ lover, immediately bought one while Aarti saved her hunger for ‘proper food’. Too bad it went down too quickly for Aarti to click any photograph of it. Lunch was at a busy restaurant at the market where the waitress was super sweet and even spoke a bit of English. She seemed very excited to meet us, and despite her super busy job, found time to make small talk with us.

Lunch consisted of two typical Kyrgyz dishes, Manty and Ashlan Fu. The name Ashlan Fu had always aroused my curiosity while reading guidebooks and seemed that it must have something to do with Kung Fu. In a small way it actually did. Ashlan Fu is a Dungan dish, with origins in China. The Dungan people are Muslims who live in Central Asia and have a Chinese origin. They are referred to by the same name in their province in China. So Ashlan Fu did have a Chinese connection, and hence a long connection with Kung Fu. Q.E.D. It is actually a cold, vinegary, spicy dish with loads of chilli flakes floating about. To balance the spicy vegetables, typically cucumber and tomatoes apart some weird gelatine noodles are added to it. It actually tastes very nice and is a typical dish of Karakol region of Kyrgyzstan. A region by the lake Issyk Kul. Manty on the other hand are actually momos with a minced meat filling. One can find Manty in any one of the Afghan restaurants located in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi. Since we are regulars at these restaurants, we knew what Manty was.

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Ashlan Fu
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The walk around Osh Bazaar was fun. We bought some further supplies and also bought hazelnuts. It was quite cheap there, probably 400 INR a kg and was fantastic to eat. While searching for a quilt, we chanced upon an entire row of shops which sold souvenirs and the lady at the first stall spoke English. Aarti spent about an hour there buying souvenirs of all shapes and sizes including a heavy Shyrdak for her sister. Shyrdak is a hand-made rug made of sheep wool and the process is quite labor intensive. The wool is dyed and dried and then begins the slow and tedious process of threading the rug manually. The one we bought was small in size and yet it was for a good 3000 SOM (3600 INR). The best part of the shopping was the fact that these Shyrdak were stored in an underground nuclear shelter right beneath Osh Bazaar! The quilt was found at a nearby shop for 800 INR.

Vendors sell fruits and vegetables at the Osh Bazar
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A long stack of candies and dry fruits on sale
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Fried breads of all kind
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Grains of all kinds
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And spices of all kinds
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What a place to sell carpets, inside a nuclear shelter
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The heavy gate at the entrance of the shelter
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Old 20th August 2013, 03:45   #82
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Originally Posted by vardhan.harsh View Post
As soon as the budget allows, which might be anytime in the next decade , a road trip to the interiors of Mongolia is something that I'm dreaming about.
Oh Wow... to the roots of Genghis Khan... It will be nice to know the history.. I guess almost everyone you meet there would be a direct descendent of him hehe... Dont wait for the next decade, because we can't wait for next decade for your travelogue... hehe... Good Luck...

Note from Moderator : Please use only 2 smiles per post. Do read the rules before proceeding. Next time infraction

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Old 20th August 2013, 10:02   #83
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Checking again after 3 weeks to find some more beautiful shots. Travel tips are really helpful. Keep flowing.
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Old 20th August 2013, 10:53   #84
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Default Day 7: Ala Archa NP - Osh Bazar (Bishkek) - Tamchy (Part 2 of 2)

The drive begins

After finishing our business at Osh Bazaar, we quickly hurried to Marat to pick up our passports, and were off to begin our drive by 4:30 pm. The lake, Issyk Kul, was still more than 200 km away, but all guidebooks mentioned that the road was decent and it should take us about three and a half hours. We anyway had plenty of daylight left. The road heads out east from the city on a pretty wide highway, with no dividers. The traffic was heavy owing to numerous towns enroute. Pretty soon, we left what must have been a state highway and joined on the A365 heading straight towards the lake. The drive was fantastic, the roads really nice and Kazakhstan was to our left (we were driving along the border for the longest time). The river Chui runs between the two countries, forming a natural border.

After driving for about 2 hours we were about to enter the Boom Gorge when we decided to take a break at a roadside stall just before it. It was very similar to a set of ‘dhabas’ we find in India and there were many like us who had stopped for some evening snacks. We decided to have an early dinner which consisted of Shashlik and Hashan. Shashlik is the Central Asian version of our tikkas, grilled on hot coals over skewers. In each skewer this is one piece which is only the fat of the sheep. Kyrgyz people relish this piece but it might be disgusting to many others. Hashan was a very weird preparation. It was large in size and made of dough and filled with minced meat. To prepare Hashan, I saw the lady pan-fry them for a while, then lined them up in a pan and topped the pan with water. It was cooked in its own steam for about 20 min and was then served hot and fresh.

Route map for the drive to Tamchy, for the most part the route runs parellel to the Kazakh border
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Tokmok announces its arrival
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A terrific highway is a rare commodity in Kyrgyz
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Kyrgyz countryside
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A bus stand in the shape of a 'Kalpak', a traditional hat worn by many
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Chui river forms the natural border with Kazakh
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Pit-stop at a dhaba set
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A woman prepares those delicious 'Hashan'
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Tea is made in one of these contraptions. Being wood/coal fired adds a certain smokey aroma to this tea
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The Boom Gorge cuts across the Tien Shan mountain range north of the lake and is the only direct access point to it from Bishkek. They have built an excellent highway through the gorge now and one can rip at 120 kmph easily, traffic and cops permitting. Such roads are few in Kyrgyz, so they do deserve special mention here. We had planned to take a detour to visit the Konorchok canyon from the gorge, which apparently has a very Mars like landscape. However, with the sun lowering in the west, we thought it would be best to skip it and head straight towards the lake.

By 8:30 or so, a good 4 hours after we had begun from Bishkek, we managed to reach Tamchy, our halt for the night. I went to the best homestay as mentioned in the guidebook and negotiated a room for 900 SOM a night, but when I came back to the car I found a Kyrgyz lady sitting in the back seat. She had already convinced Aarti to check out her homestay. Needless to say, she hardly knew any English but I do not think a salesperson anywhere on this planet requires a language to sell. Her homestay was much better than the one mentioned in the guidebook and was for the same price, so we decided to stay there. We quickly put away our luggage and rushed to the lake and barely managed to catch it at twilight.

There were some shacks near the beach and only one of them was open. We had some snacks there which included a dry salty fish. I had no clue on how to eat it so immediately dug into it. The owner rushed to me and explained on how to peel the skin of the fish first and then consume it. The follow up question was: “Don’t you have fish in India?”. I was left blushing by that question and felt quite stupid. We all had a hearty laugh though about it. The evening spent by the beach in the dying light was fantastic, the bed was comfy and so was the room.

The Boom gorge
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Just in case one forgets that they are in Kyrgyzstan
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Balykchy announces its arrival
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One of the more unique garages around, certainly an eye-catcher
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Stink of dried fish fills the air at Balykchy
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And the first view of the lake Issyk Kul
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Twilight at the lake
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The shack, the dried fish, the pizza and all gone in 60 seconds.
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Old 21st August 2013, 14:39   #85
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Wonderful log, as always, Harsh!

This is a dream come true - I am living the experience of traveling through the ex-USSR through your logs and photos.
I still remember a Doordarshan programme telecast in the 80s when they connected a studio full of Soviet students in Alma Ata (that was Almaty's earlier name) with a similar bunch in the DD studios at New Delhi. That was probably the first time I heard of this place.

I keenly await your next installment and your next Mongolian plan. Ulaan Bataar should be one heck of an experience.

Rated 5 stars.
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Old 26th August 2013, 16:13   #86
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Originally Posted by Samba View Post
Awesome thread sir. Am thoroughly hooked to it. The photographs too do justice to this beautifully written up travelogue. Your opening paragraph kept me glued to your thread. Eagerly waiting for the rest to come. And definitely a much deserved 5 star rating from my side too!
Thanks a ton Samba. You can drop the 'sir' bit please

Originally Posted by aryasanyal View Post
Wonderful log, as always, Harsh!

This is a dream come true - I am living the experience of traveling through the ex-USSR through your logs and photos.
I still remember a Doordarshan programme telecast in the 80s when they connected a studio full of Soviet students in Alma Ata (that was Almaty's earlier name) with a similar bunch in the DD studios at New Delhi. That was probably the first time I heard of this place.

I keenly await your next installment and your next Mongolian plan. Ulaan Bataar should be one heck of an experience.

Rated 5 stars.
I did not know that they change the name of Almaty recently. I thought it was always that, and not Alma Ata. The next update is coming shortly and the Mongolian plan, well that is just a wishful thinking as of now.
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Old 26th August 2013, 17:24   #87
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Default Day 8: Tamchy - Kok Airyk Pass - Gregoriveka - Karakol (Part 1)

A pass that did not let us pass

The route map for the day
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But the orizinal plan was to cross over the Kok Airyk pass and go as close to Ozerny as possible into Kazakhstan
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The day before had been long and tiring but still I wanted to live in a utopia and fantasized about waking up to catch the sunrise on the lake. Aarti had no such aspirations and was content in resting. While the sun rose in the east, I kept sleeping soundly with my head pointing towards west. It was only by 7:30 am that we managed to get up and about. Outside our room, I bumped into a young lad selling some baked goodies. A couple of tense ‘Russian translation’ moments later, I figured that it was bread stuffed with sweet, fresh apricot jelly. Priced at 20 SOMs a piece, this was one of the most delicious local delicacy we chanced upon during our stay in the country. The dish is called Piroshki, a generic name given to bread stuffed with sweet fillings such as apricot, cherries or berries. In its salty avatar, it could be filled with meat or mashed potatoes. Later at Karakol, we even had a fried version with a potato filling. It is typically a breakfast dish preferred by the locals.

The bakers who sold Piroshki, notice the motorbike and the cart attached
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And the home-stay where we spent the night. It was more like a hostel than a homestay
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It even boasted of a garage within the premises
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Although it is not marked as a homestay from the outside
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Elves partied in the hotel lawns
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A quick visit to the Issyk Kul lake
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The lake, Issyk Kul, is located at about 1600 m above sea level and is surrounded by a 2-3 km wide plain area dotted with various towns. Beyond this plain, the lake is surrounded by different mountain ranges with peaks higher than 5000 m ASL. Our plan for the day was to check out the road going towards Kazakhstan and Ozerny pass. It was said to be complete but sadly not frequently used. If the road was open, we were planning to spend the night camping in the valley beyond this mountain range. On crossing the Kok Airyk pass at about 3800m ASL, one can descend into the next valley.

We approached the cut for the pass at about 9:00 am. The tarmac gave way to a dirt track which climbed straight up for a few kms after which the switchbacks began. I was half expecting to be stopped by the Kyrgyz army once the switchbacks began, but there were no such posts. Heck, there wasn’t even a single man in sight. As we gained height, the road condition deteriorated. It was steep but the more troublesome aspect was the presence of numerous boulders and deep ruts throughout. The incline was steeper than the one to Marsimek La! One gains about 1200 m in 19 km as one drives from Phobrang to Marsimek La. Here we gained about 2100 m in the 28 km we climbed!

At one switchback, we took a wrong fork in the road and came up to a large open meadow. The track ended at a shepherd settlement in the meadow below. I looked up and saw the ‘road’ to the pass at my right, and it was then that I noticed a tiny speck crawling down the mountain face. At first I could not believe it, but after having a closer look at the speck with the zoom lens, it was evident that it was a Lada 4x4 (a vehicle of Russian make) trudging down a sheer mountain face. It was a bruise to our ego. Here we were, climbing at a snails pace up the mountain in a super expensive off-roader, while a little Lada was taking the mountain head on.

We took an about turn, deciding not to climb the path that the Lada was descending upon. No sir, there was no sense in taking unnecessary risks in a rental car. Once back on the fork, the climb began again. We marched on to reach another settlement quite near the pass. The shepherd must have been rich as he had a huge collection of sheep, cows and horses, grazing in the meadow. We hollered to catch attention of any living soul nearby to ask for road conditions ahead, but there was no reply. There was no one there.

The road winds up towards the Kok Airyk pass, as can be seen up ahead
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The path was quite rocky and hence the progress slow
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A pen located in a vast meadow, we had missed the correct fork to Kok Airyk
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This Lada 4x4 did not believe in using roads, but to directly roll down a hill!
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A steep climb ahead
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The sheep angry at our intrusion at its turf
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Horses and sheep dot the landscape
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Kok Airyk is just up ahead
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We marched ahead, hoping for the road to improve, but our prayers were not answered. On the contrary, the track kept getting narrower and the boulders on the road kept getting bigger. It seemed as if the track had not been used in recent times. Further up, the track became extremely narrow barely allowing the TLC to pass and there we saw huge boulders blocking our path ahead. We walked a bit to see what lay ahead, but it was the same, and it was evident that the TLC would not go any further. With a heavy heart, we let go of our plans and reversed. Ozerny and the valley below would have to wait until the next time. It was with much difficulty that I was able to reverse the car on that narrow 500 m stretch, taking multiple attempts and narrowly missing those boulders. The descent was straightforward and took about the same time as the ascent. We were back on the highway by 12 pm. A good 3 hours were wasted in the attempt to reach a lesser explored valley. A small price to pay I say.

Progress halted. Too many boulders to negotiate
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The path ahead was worse. Seeing the futility of passing the pass, we returned
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Horses galloping in the meadows
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The shepherd and the dog follow
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Old 27th August 2013, 22:14   #88
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Default Day 8: Tamchy - Kok Airyk Pass - Gregoriveka - Karakol (Part 2)

A missed camping opportunity

The routemap of our detour, A google earth snapshot
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After descending from Kok Airyk pass and upon reaching the highway, we headed east towards the town of Cholpon Ata. This particular town is one of the biggest on the lakefront and is frequented by many tourists, local and foreign alike. A lot of Kazakh ‘bizznessmen’ descend here during the summers to enjoy sun and sand with their families, or even without ;-). One can find all kinds of amenities and thus the place tends to get pretty crowded in summers. The Almaty - Ozerny pass - Kok Airyk pass - Cholpon Ata route was high on the government’s agenda some years ago to entice more Kazakh tourists to come here by reducing the travel time from 7 hrs currently to about 3. However, as you read in the last post, the route is far from being complete.

Lunch was at the Uroos cafe which came highly recommended by the travel guide and boasted of an English menu. The food we ate was simple and consisted of Ashlan Fu and some Manty. We also had to visit the bank and exchange a torn 1000 SOM note. Thankfully, that happened without a fuss. Post-lunch, we decided to check out an open-air petroglyph site that was on the must-to-do-list in this town. The road to this site was poorly marked and it was with much difficulty that we finally managed to reach it.

Recognize this car, anyone?
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Tell me if you have seen a more beautiful building housing a bank
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Uroos cafe, a pleasant lunch spot with an English menu
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The site was cordoned off by a fence and seemed abandoned. As we entered a guard came out of nowhere and asked us to buy an entry ticket. It was not much, about 50 SOM per head. As he could not speak any English, taking him for a guide was futile. We had meandered for hardly 20 minutes before we realized that the place was not worth the time. The site had been very poorly maintained with no signboards in English explaining the petroglyphs. Even locating these drawings was difficult and people had drawn over the petroglyphs at many places.The entire time we were at the site, we kept remembering the excellently marked and very informative tour of petroglyphs that we had experienced at Bhimbetka in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.

We were back on the highway by 2:30 pm and continued towards our destination for the day, Karakol. At a town called Gregoriveka, we took the cut towards a National Park by the same name. The guide books had mentioned it to be a nice park and I had marked two lakes inside it on Google Earth which could make for a very good campsite, should we be interested to break the night there.

The open-air petroglyph museum
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The blue Issyk Kul
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The road kisses the lake at multiple points, making it a very scene route to drive upon
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As we came close to the gates of the park, Aarti pointed to a statue of an eagle next to the ticket booth. Suddenly, the statue moved and we realized that it was actually a pet eagle and was there for the benefit of tourists like us. We were excited and sad at the same time. Excited to be so close to an eagle and sad for the bird itself which had to lead its life in captivity and pose for people like us. Its owner was a small boy who was quite bad at negotiating. He began with an asking price of 200 SOM and finally settled at 20 SOM for shots of his bird. The park entry fees was about 250 SOM for the car and 20 SOM per head for us. As soon as we entered the park, we came across more eagle tamers squatting on the road. We stopped and negotiated for 40 SOMs to take pictures of a huge eagle, much bigger than what the boy had. With our limited command over the Russian tongue, we were ganged up on by all the 5-7 eagle tamers with each one of them trying to make a quick buck. After the shots were taken, each of them demanded 200 SOM for each one of their birds. This meant a good 1500 SOMs! Aghast at the request, we negotiated hard but eventually had to shell out 200 SOM. Tourists everywhere face a similar predicament it seems.

As we started driving inside the park, we were greeted by the sight of many locals enjoying by the river in what would otherwise have been a tranquil park. There were many shacks which sold the Kyrgyz staple food and drink, Shashlik and Koumiss, but we gave them a miss. Several off-road vehicles, with ground clearance of more than 300 mm and splashed with fresh mud, crossed us leading us to speculate that the road ahead might turn for the worse.

The eagle with its budding tamer
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Surrounding by eagles, the way they stare at you, it's unnerving!
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The valley was narrow initially
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The narrow valley soon gave way to sprawling meadows which were lush green, and the melee of tourists were left behind for good. It was much more tranquil here in the meadows devoid of shacks. We reached a fork in the road, one which begun climbing towards the west and another towards the east. The lake that we’d spotted on Google Earth lay to our west, but we had to come back and climb the eastern road to the Kichi Aksu valley beyond. The dirt track now gave way to a somewhat marshy tract that cut across the huge meadow. There were some water crossings and some scary patches but nothing that increased our heartbeat. We reached the first lake by about 5:00 pm, and fell in love with it at first sight. It lay in a sort of a bowl, with the green mountains reflecting in its wavy waters, and horses grazing lazily in the lush meadows that surround it. Picture perfect is what came to mind. We met a Russian couple there and got to know that they had driven all the way from Russia to Kyrgyzstan for their holiday in their own car. That is one hell of a drive!

There was an empty shack next to the lake, and an abandoned tea pot lay outside but not a soul was in sight. Our hopes of having nice hot tea with some snacks were dashed as soon as they had cropped in our heads. We debated amongst ourselves to camp here for the night.However, the weather seemed to be taking a turn for the worse and a wet camp did not excite either one of us. We spent some more time chasing horses and clicking pictures, and then decided that it was time to go back.

The valley opens up spectacularly
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With shepherd riding out and competing with one another
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And huge furry dogs, this one was just a pup
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A foal drinks from its mother
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The road meanders through the wide meadow
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A relatively rich shepherd with a huge flock to tend to
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The lake would have made for a perfect camp site
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It was all offroad country
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With horses grazing everywhere
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The abandoned shack with tea making appartus left outside
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On our way back, an old man flagged us down and requested us to drop his granddaughter to Gregoriveka, back on the highway. With much difficulty we explained to him that we were taking the longer route back through the Kichi Akshu valley and would hit the highway at Semyenovka, 15 km further from where she wanted to go. The daughter agreed and mentioned that she could catch a Mashrutki (bus) back to Gregoriveka once we reached the highway. Agreeing on the terms of the hitch, she hopped on the back seat. Too bad that she could not speak any English as it would have been fun to interact with her and to know more about her.

We were back at the fork in the road by 6:00 pm and the weather had now turned quite bad. We made haste lest the track turned more muddy. After climbing over a small hill we were treated to another wide meadow and this was much bigger than the one before. It also had some settlements in it, mostly of nomads who had set up their yurts there. It started raining heavily which limited our photo opportunities. In another half an hour we were back on the highway, where it had rained earlier but now the sun was out. We were greeted by two lovely rainbows - one full and the other half.

And we tumble back towards the fork, towards Kichi Asku valley
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The road climbs steeply ahead
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A last look at the valley left behind, it had started to rain where the lake was situated
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A 'Suslik' as the young girl called it. Mormot to us..
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Aah, the road up ahead
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The wide flat Kichi Asku valley below.
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The drizzle had turned into a downpour up ahead
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We had a good 2.5 hrs of sunlight left, but Karakol, our stop for the night, was still a good 100 km away from Semyenovka. We bid adieu to the little girl and pushed off. The highway was smooth, the progress fast and we reached Karakol in the dying light of the day at about 9:00 pm. The town wore a deserted look and it seemed the European hiking season was still not underway. Karakol being surrounded by lofty peaks is considered a trekkers’ paradise and most Europeans head towards this town. The homestays mentioned in the book were either not to be found or seemed a bit shady, while others had still not opened for the tourist season. We eventually found a hotel by the name of ‘Madanur’ and finalized the room at 1400 SOM per night, inclusive of breakfast.

Double whammy - a double rainbow
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Sitting pretty in the fields
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The lake and the mountains towards South. Towards Karakol we rush.
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After checking in, we looked up a Turkish restaurant in our book and headed there for dinner. Called ‘Noor’ and written as ‘Hyp’, the restaurant was at the center of town, about 3 km away from the hotel. The menu was not in English but we managed to order Borscht (a Russian soup made of beet) and what seemed to be a dal along with a kebab platter and a salad. The Borscht was quite ordinary, the lentil soup was really nice and so was the salad and the kebab platter. We went back to the hotel and crashed for the night. The hotel had internet connection, and so we checked our emails and logged into facebook as well. The next day was planned in the valleys around Karakol, and hence there was no rush to wake up early.
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Old 29th August 2013, 18:35   #89
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Default Day 9: Around Karakol (Part -1)

Church, Mosque and a U-turn

The area around Karakol. The valleys in the south and the museum in the north, next to a jut in the lake
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There was no great rush to begin the day as we had no definite plan. We intended to do some architectural visits in the town and then move towards the mountains into one of the two valleys south of Karakol. The plan was to camp there or stay in a shepherd’s yurt if available.

Our room rental in Karakol included breakfast which was actually quite nice. Apart from the usual bread, butter and eggs, it included a glass of Kompot. A sweet Russian beverage, Kompot is made from boiled fruits and is served cold. We knew this thanks to our fling with a Russian joint in New Delhi by the name of Bline. After hogging as much as our tummies could handle, we headed towards a market nearby to replenish our stock of supplies. This included some baked goodies, juices and drinking water. It was only by 10:00 am that we managed to head to our first destination of the day, an orthodox Russian church located near the town center.

The church is a sight to behold. It is made of wood with 4 striking green and yellow domes rising up over a big hall. It is surprising that the church still stands after more than 100 years of construction, especially since it is made of wood. It was a Saturday morning, and a prayer service was being conducted inside. We decided to give that a miss and after spending a few minutes admiring the church from the outside, we moved on towards our next halt, a Dungan mosque.

The Russian Orthodox Church at Karakol
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Yellow dome with a green base
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Wooden windows standing the test of time
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A side view of the church
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The lawns in the church were well maintained
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As we entered the mosque, Aarti was stopped by the guard there. He mentioned that only a ‘burqa’ clad woman can enter the compound. Thankfully, some of these ‘burqas’ were available at the entrance for people to wear on top of their clothes. Come to think of it, this was the practical thing to do, as burqa clad women in Kyrgyzstan are a rarity. In our few days in Kyrgyz, we were yet to come across a burqa clad woman, so I guess these burqas were meant for all to use, tourists and locals alike. This was actually one of the most surprising things about the country for us - 95% Muslim, yet hardly any Muslim traits visible. People drink freely, women dress freely and don’t wear burqas, men do not have beards, and many other smaller day-to-day things. The feminist within Aarti took objection of this necessity to wear a burqa to enter the mosque. I had to calm her down and only then did she decide to visit the mosque, but she remained unhappy.

Surprisingly, the mosque looked more like a buddhist temple than a traditional mosque. The guidebooks mentioned that it was made of only wood without any metal nails, and yet it has stood for more than a 100 years. It is said that the Chinese architects built this for the Dungan people (Chinese Muslim) in the region. The wooden tower standing in the middle of the courtyard reminded me of a similar tower I had seen at a mosque in Turtuk a couple of years ago. The resemblance was uncanny. It was almost noon now and we decided to rush to our next objective of the day, the Altyn Arashan valley.

The Dungan mosque, looks more like a buddhist monastery
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The courtyard in the mosque
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A similar wooden tower stands at the mosque in Turtuk, Ladakh
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Aarti flaunts her purple burqa
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Another shot of the mosque.
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The road ran eastwards out of Karakol for about 10 km or so and then one has to take the dirt track heading south towards the valley. It was said in the guidebooks that the track is generally used by a lot of trekkers but sometimes old Russian 6x6s ferry tourists back and forth from Karakol. It also mentioned that the track is bouldery and quite rocky at places, making it a pretty bumpy ride. Armed with a TLC, we were pretty sure that the track was doable for us. The entry to the park was free. A slightly steep and rocky ascent greeted us on which Aarti had to dismount so that I could avoid ripping the tyres on pointy boulders. Even after the ascent, the road never got better and we were crawling in the first gear, climbing ever so slowly through the canyon.

It was a narrow canyon, much like to the one we had visited the day before. Many trekkers were on their way back from the Altyn Arashan valley. Thankfully, one such couple spoke a bit of English and we could inquire about the road condition ahead. He mentioned that the road was quite bad at certain stretches and just about okay at some. A 6x6 had gone into the valley the day before, he mentioned. With a prayer on our lips, we marched ahead.

A bouldery welcome to the park

Trekkers hike towards the Altyn Arashan valley
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At places the road was not bad actually
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The road condition kept turning for the worse and made the crawl quite irritating. On a bend in the road, a tree had fallen but had been hacked away so that vehicles could pass, although narrower ones. The TLC has a wide body and limited ground clearance, at least if you compare it to 6x6 vans! The TLC’s underbelly scraped a stone and that made us finally realize that even a vehicle such as this could be stopped in its tracks. 100 m ahead, the stretch seemed much trickier than before, and on dismounting and inspecting the stretch closely, we realized the boulders would definitely hit the underbelly should we decide to continue. The choice was limited, it was either taking a hit on the underbelly or risk toppling the vehicle over with one tyre on the slanted bank next to the river. It was there that we decided to turn around and drop the plan to visit this valley. It was too much of a risk to take in a rented car in a foreign land.

Taking a U-turn was a pain, but what was perhaps worse was the smirk on the faces of the trekkers as we crossed them on our way back. With a heavy heart, we trudged back to Karakol for lunch. We decided to go to a fancy restaurant, but on reaching found that the inside seating at was reserved for a marriage party. The place was nice, so we decided to sit outside, since we also could observe the guests coming in for the party. The customs of post-marriage functions seemed strikingly similar to those in the West (as seen in different movies).

Taking a U-turn on a narrow road is quite a task
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Just about wide to let the TLC pass
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A rocky track behind us
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The fields were pretty with snow towering peaks towards South
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A swanky place to have lunch
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Old 31st August 2013, 16:18   #90
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Default Day 9: Around Karakol (Part -2)

The first scary experience in Kyrgyzstan

The region around Karakol - from Google Earth
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After a good lunch, we decided to head out to the Aksu Arashan valley just south of Karakol. It was around 2:30 pm then. The guidebook had mentioned that the valley was as beautiful as the one we tried to visit earlier in the day, but being closer to Karakol it was more frequented by locals as well as tourists. We reached the gates of the park by 3 pm and unlike the other park, entry was not free. A guard at the park gate made us wait for at least 10 minutes before he let us pass. He was excited to know that we were from India and wanted to show us an Indian movie he was watching on TV - Sita aur Gita, with Russian subtitles.

The valley was narrow again initially and had a denser forest as compared to the other one. It was overcast and the region had been lashed with heavy rainfall recently, making it look very green. There were many locals out there enjoying their weekend, and they came in all kind of vehicles. The sedans had parked early on, not wanting to risk the dirt track while the SUVs had parked further up where the track crossed over to the other side of the river over a wooden bridge. The track climbed steeply beyond where the SUVs were parked, and the condition of the road deteriorated considerably thereafter.

The road climbed up from the river bank, across the bridge and for a small stretch it opened up in a meadow. It was slippery, slushy and the track was not level. It was slanted and the vehicle was now at an angle, ascending the meadow at times, descending at times. My heart was in my mouth, fearing the vehicle would topple over on a slanted descent but I kept reminding myself that it is not a Safari but a TLC with much better articulation. We trudged slowly off the meadow and into the woods again.

The road upto Aksu Arashan Valley was a tarmac till the park gates
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The track was thankfully wide after the meadow, but it was ridden with deep slush as far as the eyes could see. We ambled along very slowly in 4H, trying not to break the momentum lest we get caught in one of those mud traps with all 4 wheels spinning. A particular ditch seemed treacherous up ahead. On the left, there was a fall towards the river while the track itself had a deep mud hole with ruts made by trucks. Driving with both wheels in the rut with speed could have meant hitting the underbelly as the ruts looked deep. I decided to mount one wheel at the edge of the road and keep one wheel in the deep rut.

That was the error on my part, I should have dismounted and inspected the depth. Taking my chances with one wheel on the bump and the other in the rut, I marched on. The rut was much deeper than I had thought it would be. The left tyre remained on the hump while the right one went deep into the ditch and since I was moving to keep momentum both the right wheels were in the rut. The vehicle had come to a halt and was now at a very precarious angle, much more than our poor Safari could ever take. When I looked at Aarti, I had to actually look DOWN, such was the angle! She was terrified and so was I. The vehicle was in a very dangerous position and I could feel that should it tilt furthermore, it would topple ever so slowly. I could feel that all the 4 wheels were well grounded despite the tilt. The TLC had articulated extremely well. The first reverse lurch did not get us out of the bog, but the second one with 4-low and the center differential engaged did. It flew out of the ditch in a jiffy and returned to its natural untwisted position. It had all happened in a span of 10 - 15 seconds, but the fear of toppling over had shaken us. I was visibly shaking but thankfully Aarti was braver than me. We spent the next 10 minutes gaining our composure standing outside the car while it drizzled.

Beyond the river, the valley opened for a brief while.
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Notice on the bump on the left, that's where the left tyres were. The rut in the middle was DEEP!
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Another view of the slush pit which scared the living bjesus out of us
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Needless to say, we decided not to take any further risks and took a U-turn as quickly as we could. We got stuck in yet another spot right after that, where the car was skidding horribly, but managed to somehow drive through. The ride back thereafter seemed like a cakewalk as compared to what we had been through. It would take a big ditch and quite a hump for this monster to lose its articulation. When we reached the wooden bridge where the other SUVs were parked, we stopped too and rested by the river. We made tea and ate some cookies while we rested. Our plan to stay in either of the two valleys had crashed and the day had been unfruitful.

Tea time
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By the river
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Deciding not to camp in that damp weather, we returned to Karakol and spent the rest of the evening north of the town. There was a museum there which was said to be located next to the lake Issyk Kul and a torpedo research center. During the cold war days, Karakol was off limit to tourists as this was the hub of secret Russian naval exercises and one of them included testing new torpedos in the waters of Issyk Kul, next to this museum. Aarti’s espionage fascination was kindled by the place while I looked forward to spend the dying light of the day next to the lake.

It had started to drizzle again when we reached the Przevalski museum, probably half an hour before its scheduled closing time. Two marriage parties had descended on the museum and were celebrating wildly outside the gates. As we walked inside, a young bride and her groom crossed by us. The groom wore the traditional Kyrgyz felt hat, Kalpak, while the bride shone in her white gown holding her new husband’s jacket over her head to keep off the rain. As they crossed us, the bride realized that I was trying to take a picture of her. Graciously, she spun once and gave us a very nice dazzling smile. It was heart warming.

Groom's men (or maybe bride's) partying away
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The neat park at the Prezelvask museum
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We did not go inside the museum itself though
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The lovely and happy bride, and the chivalerous groom in his Kalpak
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This must be the person, Nicholas Prezelvask, on whose name Karakol was named earlier. Bascially an explorer and a Russian spy
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Aarti would not let go of the iron bars beyond which lay the torpedo testing site. She must have been a spy in her earlier life. There were few things on this planet that excited her as much as borders and secret facilities. I had to literally pry her fingers off the bar, and we then returned to the car, where another surprise was in store for us. The TLC gave us a scare as it would not start on the first try or the 10th after that. But eventually, after about 10 minutes, it did yield. The steering lock had been activated and it was only a matter of turning the steering and then trying to turn the key clockwise at the same time. A new vehicle always takes some time getting used to and even a simple thing as this was not as intuitive as it should have been.

Since there was still a lot of daylight left, we decided to take a short spin near the lake, and wandered about aimlessly for a while. Aarti wanted to go near the secret facility, which we did, but she could not get anything substantial out of that recee. We spent some time at a place which gave us a nice view of the lake as well as the mountains to the south. We also spent some time closely inspecting a cemetery nearby.

I had to pry Aarti's hand from the iron rails to get her away from where she could see the Torpedo research center
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The test facility is located where the cranes are
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Taken while roaming around the lake, no idea who this man was
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A panorama for what Karakol stands for, lake, and the mountains south
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This is how Kyrgyz bury their dead, in a yurt shaped gravestone
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Some are buried with pictures engraved as well
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The graveyard look gloomy under overcast skies
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On our way back to Karakol, a young woman and her boyfriend/ husband hailed us for a lift. Both of them reeked of cigarettes and vodka, and the woman would not shut up. She was grilling us with many questions in her local tongue while all we could do was smile, shrug and excuse ourselves for not understanding her. She did manage to convey that she knew SRK and Hrithik, and that made us smile. Thankfully, her stop was closeby as it was getting difficult to bear her stench or her constant yapping. I had half a mind to pull over and let her out.

The evening was spent at a cafe at Karakol - Karakol Coffee. The cafe is a great hangout for those who wish to interact with English speaking folks. It is a foreigners’ den, especially Europeans who gather there every evening to exchange tales of their experiences in Kyrgyzstan. The coffee was not bad either. We had dinner at a local restaurant where we ordered Manty and Ashlan Fu. This was fast becoming the staple diet on our trip as it suited our palate much more than other things. A point to be noted here is that Ashlan Fu, being a Dungan dish, tasted much better at Karakol, which has a large Dungan population, than it had anywhere else so far.

We checked into the same hotel we had stayed at the night before and crashed early. For tomorrow, we had to get up early to visit the much talked about Sunday animal market.

Back at Karakol Kafe
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day09_0130.jpg

Last edited by vardhan.harsh : 31st August 2013 at 16:20. Reason: Changed Title
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