a new beginning in Kyrgyzstan


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when i arrived in Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan’s capitol city, i felt like i was starting all over again.  i reserved a bed at a basic hostel on the 7th floor of a crumbly concrete building.  there seems to be a lot of buildings like that here.  i guess you could say it’s got that ex-Soviet charm.

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what surprised me the most upon my arrival in Kyrgyzstan were the hoards of Russian-speaking Asians.  i honestly didn’t even know that was a thing.  pardon my apparent ignorance on the matter by my ignorance is after all one of my main motivations for traveling.  after spending more than a year in Asia i have become very accustomed to being surrounded by its people.  their ever reliable warmth and intrinsic innocence has become like a security blanket to me.  but to suddenly, after all this time witness Slavic sounds spill out of their mouths brings upon me a particular kind of culture shock that i don’t think i could quite put into words.

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though Bishkek is chalked full of ex-Soviet charm, it has a fair amount of natural charm as well.  for every crumbly concrete building, there is a pleasant park to even the score.  along the main drag, there are quite a few interesting statues and monuments to see.  i, however spent most of my week in Bishkek couped up in my room dealing with every aspect of my current situation.  this may or may not have involved standing in front of the mirror and saying to myself over and over again – “hi, i’m in Kyrgyzstan now”.

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as soon as i was good and ready to make a move, i reserved a seat on a minibus bound 390 kilometers east to Karakol at the far east end of a giant lake called “Issyk-Kul”.  this is where my true Kyrgyz experience began to take full effect.

Karakol is a rural town of just over 60,000 inhabitants as well as the jumping off point for endless mountaineering opportunities.  monolithic mountain ranges span the horizon on all sides and seem to beg any traveler to explore them.

this is the road in front of my guest house

this is the road in front of my guest house

early every Sunday morning at the north end of town, a giant animal market is held.  here, thousands of people show up with their prized sheep, goats, cows, horses, etc to turn a profit.

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now that i got a nice dose of local culture, i’m almost ready to hit the mountains.  but first, it’s time to beat this here rabbit to death…

getting closer to my food

getting closer to my food

unfortunately for little Masha here, the above statement is not a joke.  during my hopeless attempt at locating my guest house after arriving in Karakol i wandered into a small cottage and was quickly greeted by a very friendly Russian woman named Kate.  to my luck, she spoke English and set me on the right path.  the next day, i decided to pay her a visit to thank her.  this sparked an interesting sequence of events.

i accompanied her and her husband to a small rabbit farm where a good friend of theirs breeds and sells rabbits out of her backyard.  Kate’s husband is a rabbit expert so i let him do the choosing.  this one ought to do it – a four kilogram mother of two with scared eyes and a soft white and gray fur coat.  on the way home in the car, Kate dubbed her “Masha” – a proper Russian name.

when putting a rabbit out of its misery it’s important to understand that the quicker it dies the less chance the meat will have of spoiling.  in this case, sharp objects to the throat are not the preferred method, but rather one well aimed hard blow to the head is just ticket for a swift death.

Kate’s husband bound Masha’s hind legs then had me grip them like a handle bar in my left hand as the rest of her body hung straight and calm.  then he placed a thick section of tree branch in my right hand, directed me out into the yard and then gave me the go ahead.

i don’t know when Masha finally met her demise but i’d like think it was on the first blow.  by the third blow her neck snapped causing her head to wiggle free from the rest of her body.  by the sixth blow, blood quirted from her ears and spattered my swinging arm.  by the tenth blow Kate’s husband yelled “stop!”.

he quickly took the now dripping carcass away from me, unbound her hind legs and hung her upside-down from a branch.  this is where the real lesson began:  to properly skin a rabbit you must first make shallow incisions around the ankles, down the inseam of each thigh and then very carefully cut around the groin area.  once you pry the skin loose from the muscle you can then peel it all the way down in one fluid motion much like removing a wet t-shirt.  now to remove the skin fully,  detach the head and snap off the front paws.  next, saw your way down through the front of the rib cage, reach in and scoop out the entrails, heart, bladder and lungs.  then rinse and soak in worm water for four hours.  now, she’s ready to be handed off to the chef (grandmother in this case).

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ok, now that we got that out of the way it’s time to do some trekking!

after a fair amount of research and some careful consideration, i decided to embark on a ~48 kilometer / 3-day / 2-night trek through the Tien Shan forest that would take me up to a 3560 meter-high lake called “Ala-Kul” then over a 3860 meter-high pass and then down into a steep valley where a hot spring will be waiting for me at the finish line.  and what’s more, i would be dokyrg1-ala_kul_trek3ing this all by my lonesome.  i had done a fair amount of trekking before but this would be the fist time i would have to lug all my own equipment, as well the first time i would be going solo.  even though it was going to be a relatively short trek on a well treaded path, i wanted to make good and sure that i was over prepared.  i printed out a high level travel guide i found and this picture i took of a map from someone’s guide book.  then i purchased some cheap supplies and food from the local market.  then i located a stout Russian man named Igor who runs a gear rental shop out of his house. there i procured a tent, sleeping bag, stove, boots and additional warm clothing.  then i strapped it all onto my backpack and by the next clear morning i was ready to embark.

 

Day 1: Karakol (1800m) -> Sirota Camp (2800m) = ~20 km / 6.5 hrs

i was blessed with clear skies and a four hour cake-walk along a dirt road that followed the Karakol River up a gradual slope to an open meadow and a bridge.  i stopped here for lunch and stared at the bridge.  i anticipated that once i crossed it, my cake-walk would soon turn into a painful ascent.

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once across the bridge, the trail turned into a small dirt path that squirreled about before losing itself into a mass of fallen trees.  after climbing atop the mass i noticed two different paths that came out from underneath it, each leading in opposite directions.  this was confusing.  before i had a chance to panic and/or resort to more conventional navigational methods i was approached from behind by three Kyrgyz gentlemen.  “Ala-Kul?” i asked them and “Ala-Kul!” they replied.  from that moment i was relieved that i could follow them all the way to the first camp site.  from there, it was a two hour arduous climb more than a thousand meters straight up the side of a mountain.  my legs, lungs and back were not ready for this sudden change in treatment and by the time i reached the top of the ridge i was exhausted.  that’s when i turned around to fully appreciate how far i had come.

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from there, the trail followed along the ridge line as it transformed into a giant bed of boulders that cradled loose rocks.  down the other side of the ridge, it soon met up with a stream and our camp for the night.  there were a few other people there when we arrived and more would trickle in later.  i staked my claim, pitched my tent, fired up my stove, ate and then fell fast asleep before sunset.

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Day 2: Sirota camp (2800m) -> over Ala-Kul Pass (3860m) -> Altyn Arashan Hot Springs (2300m) = ~15 km / 8.5 hrs

i was awake, fed, packed and back on the trail by 7:30 the next morning.  today’s trail would make yesterday’s seem like a day at the spa.  the trail tightly hugged the left side of the next river up through roaring rapids and patches of glaciers.  the further it went, the steeper it got until i needed the use of my hands for support.  after about two kilometers of this i stepped over the ridge and realized that i was standing on the shores of Ala-Kul…  deep blue, cold and quenching.

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the trail continued all the way along the north shore of the lake before branching off and ascending another three hundred meters to the pass.  from up here i had a spectacular view of the lake and the snow-capped peaks behind it to the west and a deep valley with a backdrop of mountains as far as the eye could see to the east.

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the descent was a frightening ordeal involving steep and barely visible switchbacks down a landslide zone.  by the time i reached the bottom, my shoes were full of tiny rocks and a light hail started to fall from the sky.  from there the trail dropped gradually into the lush valley and followed yet another river, passing through grazing cows and horse trails for another seven kilometers until it reached a confluence.  by this time i had latched onto another group led by a guide who had instructed me to cross the river at a low point where the trail continued on the other side.  i took his advice then lost track of them shortly after.  at this point the horse trails multiplied into greater numbers and seemed to criss-cross in all directions.  i knew that at some point i would have to cross back over the river and according to my map the crossing point looked to be right before the confluence.  by this time i was growing weary and using most of my mental and physical capacity not to slip and fall in the mud.  i had also lost all faith in anything resembling a trail and was trying to do my best to follow the river and get to the confluence.  finally after several hours, the pines opened up to reveal the Arashan river valley in all its glory.  i had made it to the confluence and i was so happy that i could almost hear my very own triumphant score written by John Williams.

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i traversed the river bank until i spotted what i thought to be an adequate crossing point.  i rock-hopped across several deltas without issue and then quickly came to realize that i was actually standing in the middle of a swamp.  i could see solid ground only a hundred meters in front of me.  it was taunting me.  the swamp land between me and it was the last obstacle between me and the hot spring.  i was too tired and careless to backtrack so i kicked off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants and waded out into the unknown.  at first it was nice – feeling the warm mud squish between my toes, but then the swamp became suddenly deeper, consuming me almost to my waist.  underneath the warm layer of mud i could feel the earth as cold as ice but i kept going further.  once i felt the mud began to shallow, i knew i was in the home stretch until i was standing on dry land once again.  i took a long rest here while i attempted to remove the mud from my feet and legs with a stick.  this was the first time i had removed my socks since i first put them on before the trek began and getting them back on in their present condition was not a pleasant experience.  another one hundred meters up the hillside above me, i noticed a hiker happily plodding along in the same direction i wanted to go.  there must be a real trail up there!… and sure enough when i reached that same point on the hillside, there it was.  a real honest to god trail and not a deranged network of horse tracks.  i followed it effortlessly for a couple of kilometers until i came over a small hill where the first signs of civilization came into view.  there it was – a few houses and a bridge.  it could only mean one thing… i had arrived at the Altyn Arashan Hot Springs.

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after arriving at the encampment, i approached the first house i saw and played charades with the lady of the house.  after a brief conversation i learned that i could pitch my tent in her yard, get full access to the hot springs, be invited to a hot dinner and breakfast and consume a liter of beer all for slightly less than $10.  i became so happy and giddy at that point that i collapsed onto the grass.

Day 3: Altyn Arashan Hot Springs (2300m) -> Ak-Suu (1900m) = ~13 km / 3 hrs

by the next morning, the full brunt of the muscle pain i had accrued during the first two trekking days was in full effect.  after breakfast, i payed one last visit to the hot spring.  the water felt like 120 degrees fahrenheit and seemed to melt most of my pain away.  i maintained a slow and steady stagger all the way to the town of Ak-Suu where i then caught a taxi back to Karakol.  once i arrived i returned my rental gear to Igor, then limped back to my guest house and slept a full twelve hours.

  1. #1 by Julien on July 15, 2014 - 6:00 am

    What am I reading here? Did you loose all your stamina since the Annaporn mega-trek? Come oooon! haha

    Cant’ wait for the rest of this adventure. Please come back in shape for the next one, I’ll need partners in good shape for september ;)

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