Friday, August 01, 2008

The TRI-stan trek!

- Your going where?
- The stans
- Huh?
- Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan
- Why?!?!

So, I couldn't believe that this part of the trip finally came! Jane and I had schemed up the stans back in February. She wanted to go to Mongolia, but I wanted to stay more clear from Asia proper having been there the last two trips. Jane was coming from Asia. I was coming from the Mediterranean. So... why not some place in between, like the stans? Sure! Why not?! Adventure, unchartered territory, beautiful nature, off the beaten paths and treks. This seemed right up our alley. Especially since we both spent a lot of the summer in more first world countries, we didn't mind roughing it a bit. And that is how we decided on the stans.

Kazakhstan - the first of the stans

When I landed in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at 2 am in the morning, I was so anxious to see Jane and start our tri-stan adventure!

We decided to fly into Almaty, Kazakhstan, simply because it was the closest entry point to Kygyzstan which is really where we wanted to go, but couldn't find reasonable flights to. It ended up being wonderful because my dear friend who I grew up doing gymnastics with is actually living in Almaty with her husband. So, we got to stay with them and catch up on the past decade of life and get the inside scoop on the city and country. One of my former grad school classmates also grew up in Almaty so she was giving me pointers too. Who knew I had all these connections in Almaty, Kazakhstan, half way around the world?!

Hotel Kazakstan
The landmark building with the crown, and random person with balloons.

This was my first time being in a former soviet block. The city, which probably once had much character, is now marked with nondescript concrete buildings, flashy neon signs, numerous squares with commemorative statues and carefully manicured water fountains.

In front of the Cathedral, one of the few hallmark buildings in the city with character.

Lady posing with her meat at the green market.

Meat ranged from cow to chicken to horse. There were also lovely vegetables, fruit, dried goods, pickled dishes and any random thing you could want. We managed to convince the lady to give us 1/2 kilo of apple and plums. They are only fond of selling large kilo size buckets of things. Almaty actually means apple in Kazak.

Jane in front of the Kyrgyzstan embassy.

At last we found it! We walked a LONG time ... turns out it was a little yellow swiss house hiding behind this gate and small sign.

Our main goal here was to get our visa to Kyrgyzstan. We arrived on Friday night, chilled Sat and Sun, taking the bus and walking around town, while trying to keep breathing in the dry heat and high altitude. Monday we went to the embassy in the early morning, picked up our visa in the afternoon and headed off to Kyrgyzstan Tuesday bright and early!

Jake, Abby and I taking a break while walking around town. It was sooo hot!

Thanks to Abby and Jake for being such wonderful hosts! We really appreciated it! It made our stay here so enjoyable and memorable. It was great to catch up with you guys, hang out playing hand and foot, chat and see your heart for this bizarre city and its wonderful people.

We took a marshuka (small white mini bus) from the station in Almaty the scenic 4.5 hours across the border into Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Smooth ride and no problems crossing the border. Whew!

We basically winged our itinerary in Kyrgyzstan, using our lonely planet book and the amazing CBT (community based tourism) offices in each town. You can't really plan in advance (buses leave when they are full, treks go when you can find a guide, etc). But, it was actually amazingly easy country to travel because of this well built network of community tourism. Our main goals were to trek the country side, stay in a yurt and ride a horse.

The concrete square and water fountains in the center of the city.
We were getting used to these sights in the stans. We thought this one may pass for a Lincoln Center type place, but not quite.

Spooky! Weird things in the main park.

We happened to walk through this park while trying to find our B&B so naturally we had to come back and explore. Why are there all these scary looking rides and why are they wrapped up?

We were only in Bishkek for the afternoon to get our flights out of Bishkek to Tashkent, and also figure out how to get to our next destination in Kyrgyzstan.

This small town was a mere 8 hour bus ride from Bishkek. The route went along Lake Issykol, the most famous and beautiful lake in Kyrgyz. We stopped many times along the way picking up locals and their cargo and dropping them off a few towns away.

When we arrived at around 4pm, we headed to the CBT office who put us in touch with the local guides to organize treks. After a night in a guesthouse, the next day, we were off with a small group, our own personal local guide and porter on a 3 day trek to the glaciers and alpine meadows.

Day 1

A soviet van.
We rode this not so comfortable but durable van to the base of the trek. It bumped along precariously. We were asked, "Is this your first time in a soviet van?" uhh... yes!

Mitlan (our porter), me and Ikuloo (our guide)
Our first night we camped by Lake Aloo. It was COLD! Thankfully we were able to by hats (domas) from the local market before the trek.

We set up tents each night and cooked and ate food that we packed - nutella, bread, dried fruit, rice, and the infamous meat stick! (When asked if we eat meat, Jane automatically replied, "Is it horse?" Turns out we don't eat horse, nor do we really like mutton.)

Day 2: the Glacier pass
The Glacier pass
I saw it and thought, "how are we supposed to get up that?" But we did. I just kept thinking the whole way up, "I'd rather be dancing! I'd rather be dancing!" I am so not an endurance person. I am all about short, sweet and powerful, hence gymnastics, diving and dance and not running and swimming! This was definitely trying for me!

We made it!

View of the Glacier and the lake from the top.
It was definitely worth it!

What goes up must come down. The opposite of the pass was just as tricky. I kept thinking I should invest in some hiking shoes! I just kept sliding down the pebbles and rocks!

Jane resting after lunch.
After the pass we were exhausted and hungry!

Alpine meadows.
The rest of the afternoon was peaceful as we strolled through the rolling meadows mingling with the livesotck.

It was exactly what we imagined.

Our second night, we pitched our tent near a little house and camping ground which actually had an outhouse and some water running out of a pipe from the river.

Day 3:
Headed back to town. We were pretty dirty and tired of the meatstick, dried fruits and bread that kept appearing at the meals. It was fun, but a shower was much needed!
Me pointing to the sign that said New York in the middle of nowhere Kyrgyzstan.
There were also signs to Tokyo and the local Yurt.

Back in town:
We showered, got our clothes washed, ate a nice dinner and slept well in our leopard print beds. We arose the next morning before 7 to check out the animal market.

Lady and her bull.
Cows, goats, sheep and horses. All for sale. We saw many transactions being pondered.
Mitlan and his friend.
Mitlan, our porter for the last 3 days, found us since we obviously stood out from the crowd. His family was trying to buy a horse. He introduced us to his friends and let me take their horse for a ride.

Now, we were off to the next destination: Kochor.
Kyrgyzstan take 2: by horse.

After another 6 hour marshuka ride, 4 hard-bargained apricots and a bag of apples, and a one hour taxi ride, we arrived at Kochor, the base town for our second trek. We found the CBT office, arranged a lovely home-stay and a 4 day horse trek.
Our room at our home-stay in the town of Kochor.

Our home-stay was at the edge of town, about a 30 minute walk. We got beautiful views and and wonderful room which we spent a lot of time vegging in, and the best meals we had in this country cooked by the grandma. There was no mutton involved (after I said "moo" to ensure that we got cow and not "baaa" sheep).

Day 1: Horse trek from town, over the mountain to a lake to our first yurt stay.

Leaving town on horse.
It was just Jane, me and our local guide, Aipek, who spoke no English but loved humming songs.

Me on my horse well into the mountains.

Coming upon Lake Song Kol that we've been yearning to set eyes upon.

Our first Yurt stay at last!
After 4.5 hours on horse over a mountain pass, we arrived at our yurt at around 4:30.
There were two guest yurts and one which the family stayed in and cooked out of. Our meals were all cooked by the family and served in the yurt. There were 9 of us staying in this yurt. We watched the locals play ball and milk the horses. I tried some fermented mare's milk - gross! Goat yogurt on the other hand was quite delicious. The mutton, not so much.

Look! Two boys on a donkey!

They came by to say hello.

Day 2: A cold brutal day by the lake.
Sure. It looks peaceful.

The FALL! Our guide had to go use the toilet and by toilet we mean duck behind a bush or a rock (We don't know why we keep saying toilet; there are none out here) . So we continued on. Suddenly my horse sprung into a gallop! Jane's horse followed gleefully. The command for stop unfortunately has a rolling "R" that I never quite mastered in Spanish class (who knew it would come back to haunt me!?). So we were going faster and faster, attempting to yell "Drrrrrrrr - ack! Drrrrrrr - ack!" ("STOP! STOP!"). Ugh - Why couldn't the stop command have been the simple "CHU!" which means go. Alas, that is NOT what I needed at the moment. Of course the horse only picked up more speed. I couldn't feel my hands or face because it's so cold.

Then my foot bounced out of the stirrup... and it was all over. No hope of staying on. I slow mode swung my leg around and made sure I can free the second foot so I don't get drag. Then I rolled off the horse and onto the hillside and after a few side tumbles, I ended sitting up. And my horse galloped off as I sat on the ground pondering what just happened.

Thankfully this day was only 2.5 hours to our next yurt stay. We arrived at 1 pm to a nice warm meal of fresh fried fish in the cold yurt. We stayed clear of our horses, needing a break.

Jane bundling up in the yurt. Mattresses and blankets are interchangeable. We just got under it all! And did basically nothing until we went to sleep at 8 pm.

Day 3: Into the mountain side to the isolated yurt.

We were off to our final yurt stay... It was a beautiful ride high into the mountains.

A local sheperding his flock.
These pastures are called, jailoos. It is where families bring their livestock, set up yurts and let them graze in the summer. It is way too cold to stay in the winter!

Inside Yurt #3: a four star yurt; the most elaborately decorated.
Felt walls inside. It stays warm in the cold and cool in the hot.
We had it all to ourselves too!

We arrived at 1, with nothing to do until sunset. Aipeck spent a good two hours trying to teach Jane and I a popular Kyrgyz card game, which we finally learned after Aipeck just kept saying either "yes", "no", "man" (for jack), "woman" (for queen) and six. Meanwhile, a goat came into our yurt. It was a hilarious fun-filled afternoon!

Jam. Jam. Jam.
This is what we survived on in the yurts! It was a staple, while some of the other food was questionable. So sweet and good. Sour cherry here was our favorite. Apricot was a good standard. When we asked what each one was, we were just told, "jam. jam. jam." I did OD on jams and have not been able to eat jam since then.

Our host family. The little girl (age 5), her uncle, another Kyrgyz, and the family goat, who peeked into our yurt!

The view from the yurt.

Our Kyrgyzstan host family at the last yurt. They were so friendly and hospitable, much like most of the locals we met.

Day 4: We trotted back to town, which was painful for me. At then end, the 4 days on horse were great, but I had enough horsey to last me for at least another 5 years.

The next day: back to Bishkek
The biggest problem we ran into in Kyrgyzstan? Cars! We heard or saw fatal car crashes everyday! That's what happens when there are no rules, seat belts and you buy your driver's liscence.
A nice local man enlisted an entourage to help find us a safe illegal taxi to get us the 3 hour drive back to Bishkek since there are no marshuka mini-busses that go. We were told to only get "audi" or "mercedes." The other cars would not make it. We got an audi, with a cracked windshield (that was not a requirement) and the car had to start with a jump wire, but it got us to our door in Bishkek alive!

One more night in Bishkek, where we finally secured our much searched for vernicke (potato dumplings; we got many other interesting things before), then off to the airport to the last stan!

Kyrgyzstan was absolutely amazing!!! Jane and I highly recommend it. It's definitely up there on our favorite traveled countries (and that has been a lot for both of us!). The country was breathtakingly gorgeous and the people wonderfully welcoming. It was everything we came for!

Now, for the last of the stans...
Uzbekistan: the last of the stans!

We flew Kyrgyz Airways which had two propellers and improvised reclining seats, but safely got us the 2 hour flight into Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. We heard that Americans should be extremely careful in Uzbekistan, so we did register with the embassy, but we had no problems.

A 4 hour layover in Tashkent

After figuring out where to leave our bags and how to get Uzbek money, we grabbed a cab and headed into the city for a few hours.
First stop: Khast Imon.

This is the most prominent Medressa is an Islamic seminary and school. The culture and history of Uzbekistan is extremly rich, unlike Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan which has many nomadic people. Here, culture was rooted and fostered for hundreds of years.

Eating a chicken sandwich at the chorzu bazaar.

A little side note on FOOD if you are curious:
This was our FAVORITE meal in all of Uzbekistan, and maybe all of the 'Stans! It was under a $1 at the market and absolutely delicious, and also not mystery meat. Overall, Uzbekistan had the best food of all 3 stans. Their national dish is plov (an oily rice pilaf mix). Jane and I got burned with some seriously bad plov in Bishkek, and were hesitant to try it here, but every place we went to, all the waiter would say is "Plov?"

The meat skewers were a good staple and something Jane and I learned to say (shashylyk). Thank goodness for the cucumbers, tomatoes and dill salads.

Overall, the food in the 'stans was not easy to digest; lots and lots of OIL! The ice cream was a rather disappointing. I tried very hard (and made Jane try with me). The best was a sunflower seed one. The one with the camel picture - not so much. Maybe if we could read the packages we would've done better. We ate at a lot of local restaurants and managed to get rice in oil, noodles in oil, potatoes, dumplings in oil, meat skewers, oil and oil. It was a bit difficult. The best meals were definitely at our home-stays.

We flew an hour local flight on Uzbekistan airway to Bukhara, a major (for this area) tourist destination. We were in a huge probably 1/8 full 2,4,2 seat plane. Weird. A bit shaky. As Jane said, "Well, I wouldn't give it a 10 on the safety scale." But again, we made it.

A cute minaret that we found weaving through the local neighborhood.

Our B&B. It is practically a museum.
The B&Bs drew us to this town, rather than the other famous one, Samaarkland. Ours was amazingly peaceful and such a treat to the end of our trip.

Camel-ing around town.
In the main square, around a water pond of course.

Some local crafts. There were a lot of ceramics.
Miri-abab Medressa, an Islamic school opened in the 16th century.
The sunsets here were amazing! A fellow traveler, Rodrigo, from Spain that we met at our B&B showed us this place, and a lovely roof-top restaurant.

Jane and me in front of the medressa before climbing its tower.

Though it took us a $200 visa to enter this country, and we were only here for 2 nights, it was well worth the trip.

Beautiful sunset behind the town from the tower.

A perfect end to our trip.
Our last night in Uzbekistan and Central Asia.

The 'stans were amazing. Jane appropriately nick-named it Absurdistan. It was everything we hoped for and more. I still can't believe that we planned to go there, went there, and just absolutely loved it! So many good adventures, wacky scenarios, crazy stories, and wonderful memories! It was well worth the difficulty and price of getting there with flights and visas. If there was only one leg of this entire summer that I could do, I think it would have to have been the 'stans with Jane!