Kyrgyzstan / Uzbekistan Tour
This section covers the start of my holiday and the first country of my tour which was Kyrgyzstan. Followed by Uzbekistan, I would start a 2nd tour and that would cover Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Link to Photos on my Flickr Page
Why these countries
The inspiration for this holiday flowed with vigour, from an avid reading about the Centra Asian region during the first year of Covid lockdowns in 2020 when I was not working and feeling less than my normal self likes to be. My first choice of destination prompted by history and culture including poets of Shiraz (city, not the wine) was Iran but by late May 2022 that was looking improbable as civil unrest was beginning to kick off and then later, that became far more uncivil as I write in October.
Looking at the map including Tehran, the cities of Bishkek and Tashkent did a jig upon my tongue and my interest became keen-keen. A neighbouring 3rd country of Turkmenistan was removed from potential itinerary due to its borders been locked down for covid reasons. I did add a second “holiday tour” of Azerbaijan and Georgia to compensate. However, Kyrgyzstan – Uzbekistan became “official” to my plans. I used the tour company “Intrepid” having enjoyed previous tours (3) with them.
Getting there and please skip this paragraph if preferred.
My preferred airport of departure is Newcastle as it’s my closest. Flight options from there to Bishkek were considered and there are no direct flights as you probably suspect, and other possibilities kept throwing up cautionaries on the possible need to collect bags at the intermediate airports and hey ho in Summer 2022, many of these were struggling to get back on their feet post Covid, having dispensed with many of their workers. The option of a train to another UK airport was there (I’ve chosen not to drive here in UK). A low-cost Turkish airline from Manchester or Gatwick via Istanbul began to get my attention. My cousin Ali with a pod of pilots in her family added that they good at what they do, below the advertising radar. The curved ball alternative approach to getting to Manchester by train was Megabus from city centre Newcastle to Manchester airport was a bargain cost of £20 including fees and choice of seat. The return option was already fully booked. The bus was quickly filled, and we eventually arrived some 45 mins late at the airport (cautionary note for those who fine tune their travel). An airport hotel overnight probably reduced my getting-there “savings”, but my bag would be going to Bishkek direct. One of my first pictures is of my well travelled "bag", just in case it got "lost" and i needed to describe it.
Several friends had reported horror stories over the Summer of logistics at Manchester airport and Pegasus airlines had recommended at least 3 hours check in. I had completed 1 of 2 legs on-line and in my customary rule following with a “plus” I was at the airport 4 hours pre-departure. How efficient they all were that Sunday morning which was in the middle of a bank holiday weekend and with a wave of a magic wand, I was through to departure zone within an hour and that included 30 minutes when my hand luggage was selected for closer examination. My bag on a trolley would progress to top of queue and then someone else from Security would re-organise all the trolleys and mine would disappear to the middle again. Did you pack this was probed in my direction as a challenge and I felt proud enough to say yes rather than the tip of tongue response that my manservant had done it.
I then took myself to a cheap spot to watch people go to their planes and to start reading properly from my guidebooks. A sad observation was when 2 police officers appeared in my vicinity with a father figure and son (presumably) and whilst visible to me, then moved to a passageway heading to staff only zone and out of the busy walkways. All remained in my view and it appeared that the young lad, in early teens had been caught nicking something and after a long conversation a ticket of some sort (warning? Cautionary) was made out, by one of the police officers. There sure was a lot of talking, maybe 20 minutes and it all seemed so sad at the start of someone’s holidays. The other side of me, is that they make everything so tempting in airports with easily accessible displays and payment points, sometimes people free. Its too enticing.
Our flight boarding was delayed for about an hour, partly by a lack of an incoming flight and then I assume by the getting ready of our plane. Communications were minimal to none. However, I had enough time in Istanbul city airport which was heaving with multitudes that Sunday evening. Jammed and frenetic. The caged in veranda zone containing the smokers seemed so cruel and I was just looking for fresh air in the humid airport. The aroma was so stale that I did not go within 30 feet of that zone to the outside "air".
Onwards at what was now close to midnight. There were a few holiday folk on my flight, quiet at this strange hour as clocks and time zones moved forward with rhythm.
There was a strange on-board minorish disturbance with 1 passenger. There were initially some harsh words in a foreign language some 7/8 rows behind my second from front row. Sometime later that same female voice walked to the front of the cabin near me and told two Turkish male cabin crew who were in that part of the plane, that she wanted to “get off”, in very poor English. She clearly distressed, they drew the curtains and calmed her down, returning her to her seat. Later, as we were in the run-in to landing at Bishkek, she started off again and loudly asked in English that the pilot come to her as we were about to crash, in her opinion. All else was calm as faces looked at faces in silence around me. That was the end of her drama.
The remnants of agricultural collectivisation lay below us as we approached Bishkek, in an arid landscape with large zones of ground under varied use and building grouped more as I might imagine a collective rather than as individual farms as in Western Europe.
The airport building was an uninspiring block of soviet architecture and at 7am we were quickly disembarked. I chose my immigration / Passport control official, and they all appeared the same, big blocky build face and shoulders and cloned from the same block as the building. I answered yes to question of speaking English and confirmed I was on holiday. I could not imagine myself fitting any other profile.
Baggage collection was quick and perhaps the lack of any other passengers the reason. That morning, the arrivals board showed 3 flights scheduled from Istanbul, 2 from Moscow and 2 other flights from where I did not recognise. Customs was hassle free and the blokes in charge appeared harsher than the Passport blokes. Glad to avoid them. In the next 8 days in Kyrgyzstan, I did not see any other facial make ups that came close to that of these blokes at Bishkek air border. They were unique, or so it seemed to me.
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Interesting but not exciting. Thats it in a nutshell - I think.
Clearing the soviet style airport within 30 minutes of landing at 7am or so, I was driven (prebooked with Intrepid) with variable speed as we responded to intermittent speed traps / police checks. It was rush hour, and the roads were busy with cars and few commercial vehicles. The mountains were fascinating to view filling the skyline. Intriguing and appealing in their magnificence.
The hotel at 8am were welcoming even though Id not requested early check in, and my bag was propelled rapidly to my room as I jogged behind to catch up. I tried to sleep, but childlike eager excitement pulsed my veins. Out and at the city with its Cyrillic named streets. Later on, I downloaded “maps.me” which provided a handy offline tracking and positioning service. For a day, I would proceed to get lost regularly in this quaint city using a guide book map in English scrip. In many ways it reminded me of Pretoria back in the mid-1980s as to pace or non-pace of life. Horns were beeped but commerce was scarce on the street. Garages and pharmacies were the busiest. The city layout was organised, it been a new city rather than one with a long history.
The market called “Osh market” was dishevelled in layout, disrupted in ground surface and cautiously curiously friendly.
Bishkek tour officially started Tuesday evening with some admin formalities and a dinner between the three of us, i.e., a tour leader and a fellow traveller from London and originally Greece. It was fewer than I had expected but worked well over the next 2 weeks. A “Korean salad” on the menu was in fact from North Korea with cucumbers flavoursome and tomatoes a tantalising sweet delight. UK shop tomatoes are tasteless in comparison. Influence though was from North K and not South K.
Ala-too square, formerly Lenin square, a relatively boring slab of concrete.
Manas stands proud as a statue to a broadly fictional character from history ancient and there is strange trade off between the Soviet past, the very old past and the modern. The streets are broad in width. Often tree lined and with a proliferation of parks.
Dubovy park, open air cafes, space. Marx and Engels in statue form, sit together but the names have been removed. A city coming to grip with its past and visibly uneasy in reconciling the strands of its nationhood.
Snow-capped mountains in background peaked in wherever possible and teased with the snow-capped silence. Why spend longer here.
I enjoyed the Fine arts Museum, and it was quiet, perhaps too quiet. Lots to see and admire both modern and less so.
Writing this after my visit, confirms what I felt at the time. An excitement for the start of my holiday, and a sense of frustration that Bishkek was simply the gateway to the natural beauty of the country that was to follow. It was difficult to feel much for this city then, as it is now. The green spaces were the best part.
Drive to Kochkor: a full day travelling with multiple wonderful stops
Breakfast is between 8 and 9 and rarely starts earlier even though the sun is up. I suspect more in respect to cold winters than warm summers.
First stop was “Burana tower” a minaret from the 11th century standing forlornly where the city of Balasagun once stood, before it was erased from the map by Mongols. The current tower reflects a partial rebuild and surveys out and over a flat landscape. Since my return home, Ive seen multiple articles linking the original Bubonic Plague to the results of archaelogical excavations of buried bodies in this area.
Then onwards to the village of Don Aryk where we firstly got to observe a display of horsemanship from 2 teams (4 a piece) of blokes including some from a neighbouring village. The horses are smaller than our western horses and adapted to the harsher life. The first display consisted of two horsemen arm-wrestling each other whilst mounted until one was forced off his horse. It seemed very competitive and not showy as I had feared.
The second display involved a man in saddle of a galloping horse attempting to pick up a “coin” or in our case a small strip of fabric from the ground. Perhaps one in 6 attempts was successful. The final display involved the two teams having a full-on contest over the legless headless carcass of a goat which was to be eaten later after cooking. Our tour notes and tour leader explained what was going to happen in advance and we had the option not to view this part. I appreciate this approach but was definitely keen to witness what was a full-on competition for what appeared like a large pillow being fought over by the 2 teams of 4.Each round started with the goat on the ground and the lads some distance away who would on umpire signal charge forward to try and gather up by hand the carcass. Horses were used to block and obstruct. The “winner” of this phase must then try and get to the opponents’ “goal” area to deposit the carcass. There were multiple “wins” until time out was called for half an hour. It was clearly physically demanding for riders and horses and no apparent let up in the competitiveness of the game.
We then adjourned for lunch, a 5-course lunch and my first example of “hospitality” in this part of the world. Restaurant meals are less onerous on the waistline. The set table includes jams and fruits and stacked trays of nuts, dried fruit, biscuits and sweets. These are the permanent display and for use at start or end of meal. Sometimes bread was on the table already and sometimes fresh bread would be produced as part of the meal. The danger with the addictive fresh bread was to tuck in immediately. Of course, if you had been in the saddle for a couple of days that would be totally rational and understandable, but our tourist diet was and is different.
The second course then appears of a simple salad where the tomatoes have the juiciness of a quality small orange. The 3rd course was the soup and my mistake at this, my first meal, was to move my finished soup bowl to one side and to continue chatting. Out of my eyesight the soup bowl was filled up and returned to me. A good lesson in course-control. The 4th course (after a double 3rd) is the main course and the equivalent of nearly one and half times a main meal in a western restaurant. There was opportunity for seconds too. Meat is plentiful but more noteworthy was the freshness of the vegetables. That concluded the hot food, and we could now return to what had been on the table when we commenced to fill up any gaps in our innards.
Onwards to Issyk-Kul Lake some 170km by max 70km oval shapish, thermal lake, below the snow-capped mountains which appear bolder than at Bishkek.
We stopped for some booze, because the planned accommodation was for homestays and a yurt camp over the next few days. Our “supermarket” as a bare bones modern and functional shed, shorn of anything decorative. Inside front door was a separate area for bulk food basic products. Of note in the main store itself was the fridged area for a 30-foot-long fridge display of varied flavoured sausages primarily for consumption with vodka.
I purchased some Kyrgyzstan wine for the yurt camp and our tour leader some beer for shared consumption. Wine cheap and drinkable, although not a great range.
Onwards on our journey stopping for what turned out to be, a personal highpoint. Parked on the roadside was an old sedan car with two facially distinctive young men. They retrieved 2 golden eagles from the back of their car and commenced an explanation and demonstration of these majestic birds who as juvenlies possessed wingspans of 6 feet. The two guys had been returning from a competition for nomadic people where the lead bird had come 2nd in a competition in her class. She was majestic in wingspan and was said to be about 6 years old. Taken from at least a 2-hatchling nest soon after birth, only the females are considered trainable. The nest normally contains a max of 2 eggs which may be FF/MF/MM. Only 1 female is taken if possible and then reared for the next 20 years when sexual maturity is attained. At that stage it can be released back into the wild for a further expected life of 50 years. The demonstration consisted of the “helper” guy ascending a nearby large mound / small hill with an eagle hooded. The main guy would then start to run with the furred coated of a rabbit attached to a thin rope. The eagle was released and from 200 metres away would swoop down fast, and pounce on the neck to stun and quick kill, with minimal damage to the fur.
A slightly more possibly controversial part of the demonstration which was checked with both myself and fellow traveller involved a rabbit that had been in the boot of the car. I said “yes” because I considered the rabbit to have endured enough being in the boot with both eagles on the back seat. Secondly, the eagles are fed on live meat for training and the life of the rabbit was not going to be for much longer. I also wanted to see if there was a difference between the dead fur and the live animal. The swoop and pounce of the eagle (the 2nd of the 2) was as fast as previous and the bird was fed on the flesh of the rabbit.
Onwards to the small town of Kochkor to our first homestay, arriving before 7pm. It had been a long day but with multiple and varied stops, a real pleasure. Another large multi-course (5, I reckon) meal with fresh vegetables being the dominant flavour.
Day 4 of Official tour: Ascent to Song-kol Lake.
We started the day by visiting the local women’s co-operative for a hands on demonstration of "felt making", From the raw wool, dyed, wettened and beaten. Decorated, rolled wettened again and trod upon to a shared beat. I bought a sample of course.
This pristine yurt camp was at about 3000m and we climbed a peak of just over 3,400m en route before circumnavigating what seemed like ¾ of the lake. The climb took us most of the morning through a landscape increasingly mountainous with smaller remote villages and even more remote scattered single farm dwellings.
In early September the hay was largely harvested and was in the process of being collected. Cow dung were also being collected and dried. Below the clear autumnal skies there was a clear readiness in preparation for winter. Indeed, some two weeks later from our visit, the yurt camps were closing, and herds were being moved towards valleys and away from the 3000 metre mountains where snow would be the next season. Our tour leader shared some personal photos of a prior trip by him and some mates in October where the lake was frozen enough to be driven upon.
At the yurt camp, there was some other travellers who left shortly after our arrival and a couple who arrived on their own i.e., without driver etc. Then there was the stillness, an amazing powerful silence except for some mooing cattle including calves, some chattering water birds and some mischievous horses. Well one certainly had his hind legs tied together to restrict running away but did not restrict catching up with his grazing mates. The skies were clear of birdlife, and a major absence of trees or bushes. Few insects. And when they were quiet, a feature that increased as the afternoon drew to a close, the softer silence fell around us to a night time stillness.
Day 5 of Tour and drive to Kyzl Oi.
Herds of cattle goats and sheep were meandering on the remainder of the grazing under the visible or often invisible control of a shepherd. They are said to make good money in the summer months as little to distract them and few spending opportunities.
En route as we ascended and descended a good quality gravel-earth route we encountered multiple trucks of 20-ton size carrying coal. Eventually a steep vertical strip of surface extraction was visible, and we stopped to photograph. Poses an environmental question conflicting with a pristine wilderness. Tree planting presumably by the Operators was obvious as too was a significant landslide in close proximity running over 80% of the slope.
Our 2nd homestay was Alpine prettiness although in September without any snow. A single road led into this village and a road led out. Whilst there was a valley off to one side of the village, it otherwise nestled like a pebble in a near wrapped fist. Our hostess spoke no English although by sign language found a way to compliment my perfume spray. Her husband spoke less. Friendly smiles all round.
Sitting in a pretty flowered garden with fruit tress and a large vegetable patch, I saw our hostess emerge from the latter with a bunch of carrots. Needless to say, they featured in our evening meal of 5 courses. Jams and bread on the table for pre and post meal filling out of the waistline.
The village included a pedestrian crossing and why I asked. At 1 vehicle per 15 minutes, it was very much out of place. For the youngsters to practise on, we were told for when they would go to bigger towns and cities. Of smart appearance were multipurpose hard surface playing grounds, unused. Young people of teenage years were as scarce as the snow during our stay.
Day 6 of tour: Suusamyr Valley, to Kok-Bel reservoir
Our exit from our alpine village ran along a busy river of fresh vibrant waters. We stopped several times for photos and gradually our narrow valley opened out to the Suusamyr valley a plateau of 2,200 metres elevation. Poor roads, and a regular run of coal trucks extracting coal from the coal mine of the previous day.
Late afternoon we arrived at our destination of Kok-bel upon a large but slightly depleted reservoir. The hotel was in the prettiest of settings but lacked all signs of love and care, Clean? Yes, or I would have complained but faulty as to sockets, uncared for and a half emptied pool. Multiple areas for partying indoors and outdoors, there had been a recent wedding, and still not cleaned up after. The sunset more than made up for the unkempt management unloved venue,
We did a roadside stop for a honey seller who explained and allowed tasting of his produce. The bees were in nearby hives atop a trailer. The honey from earlier in the year was a different colour and taste to that from more recently as it has been influenced by the local walnut season and that more recently by the raspberry season. I’ve never been a honey eater, but this would encourage me to love and devour honey. Unfortunately, the available selection here at home is unappealing with that of Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps a reason for a visit to a farmer’s market.
We also took a diversion off the main road, up a gorge of wonderful beauty where small rivers bustled below up, and mountains dwarfed from above. So empty of people. See photos for more.
Day 7 to Osh
Off in the morning after an 8-9am breakfast along a busy road. It’s the main road between the capital Bishkek and the 2nd city of Osh.
For lunch we stopped in a busy truck and van filled town at what from the outside looked like a UK greasy spoon café. Inside was aitconditioed comfort opening out expansively and highly decorated in a traditional style.
After lunch as the heat mounted, we stopped as Uzgen a previously earthquake devasted town although a minaret and 3 ?? have survived.
Osh was a complete contrast to what we had experienced in the mountains and even in the capital Bishkek. I found the people more purposeful and outgoing.
There was a bustle and urgency to the traffic, not just in beeping horns but a sense of purposed activity. Bishkek seemed more like a place of politics rather than of commerce.
Day 8 in and about Osh
First up was Solomon’s throne or the Silaiman-too sacred mountain, the only world heritage site in K. Climbing even small hills better down earlier in day, me thinks, but the country starts no earlier than 9. The city of low-level high rises maybe a max of 8-10 stories and most buildings of 2-3 stories.
Then on to the national heritage and archaeological centre.
The city market of Jayma Bazar had a far busier feel to it than that at Bishkek, better organised and greater variety.
A stroll along the heat-soaked pavement towards the city centre, its Soviet past, and most pleasurably the expansive and shady park.
Day 9 – Morning trip to Uzbekistan border—Please see Uzbekistan