It's been a fun week.
I left Karakol behind in a minivan that, for once, wasn't jammed with people along the south side of the huge Lake Issyk Kol and then onto a drab town and into a Lada that bumped over roads and into a small town called Kochkor. Kochkor was a happy smiling place and the people seemed content and friendly enough but unfortunately they couldn't disguise the fact that their town was in fact a shithole with quite a few drunk men who insisted on stopping me and speaking Russian. The first thing i did was make plans to leave the next day. The next thing i did was find a tiny old hotel that was owned by a hairdresser and she proudly showed me a cold bare room, an outside pit toilet and a sink in the car park that used water from a old oil drum.
I'd arranged to leave to Lake Song Kol the next day with a jeep and a driver. The driver was huge Kyrgyz man and the jeep was a Korean 4x4 which had to be push started by two taxi drivers who were stood around doing nothing which seemed to be the main source of employment for the men of Kochkor. The 4x4 rumbled over dirt roads and mountain passes covered in snow until we arrived at the edge of the lake where i stayed with a family in a yurt for a few days. We arrived to find half the family packed and ready to leave the lake shore for the winter and head back to the warmer valley so there was a farewell family feast laid out in the large white felt yurt. Nobody even blinked when they saw me. It was as if i was a member of the family and they looked and talked to me as if they were saying, "Sit down, we've been waiting for you, have a cup of tea, here's a plate, munch on some goat meat and potato, wash it down with some vodka, do you speak Russian, don't worry, here's some fermented mares milk, it's tangy and it'll make your stomach bubble for a night, have some more vodka, have you got a camera..."
I was humbled and amazed at the landscape at Song Kol and the people. There wasn't a tree or a sign of human life for as far as you could see apart from a few yurts and a dirt road. The family had no electric, gas or running water and slept on snug warm blankets on the floor of the yurt being kept warm by a stove fuelled by dried cow shit. I was kept entertained by watching an old man and his grandson patch the holes in a boat, the mother milk the cows and a little ten year old ride around on a donkey herding cattle. I spent the next day wandering and hiking by the lake, taking too many pictures, eating great food, getting my nose sun burnt and seeing an amazing sky full of stars.
The next day i headed south to a town called Naryn with the help of a manic taxi driver who drove like he'd just robbed a bank and kept stopping at rivers and streams to refill some water bottles and would then pour them into the engine to stop it from overheating. Naryn was a town that made you want to instantly leave. I stayed in a hotel that was either half built or half destroyed, it was difficult to tell which. It made Jack Nicholson's place in The Shining look like a theme park. The surly ugly woman in the office at the entrance showed me to a room and i gestured that the large window wouldn't close but would just gently swing open. She just walked out into the dank corridor and called the handy man who was scraping stuff from the floor. After a brief conversation the handy man walked into the room, took out two nails and a hammer and nailed the window shut. He looked at me as if to say, "Happy now?" and walked out.
Thankfully i found a B&B and a Spanish couple, Jaoquin and Issabella, who also wanted to leave Naryn quickly. The following day we spent 12 hours traveling to the wonderful town of Arslanbob through some ridiculously awesome mountain scenery. We started in a Japanese jeep driven by a friendly tour guide and then after lunch managed to find an old 1980s Audi (of which there are thousands in Kyrgyzstan - they all got sold to central Asia by Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall) which took us over some grizzly mountain passes on hobbled, cobbled and battered dirt roads. The driver only stopped twice during the whole journey. The first time because we got flagged down by some old men who were hunkered down by the side of their Audi. I thought they'd broken down. After a brief conversation the driver rummaged around in the glove box and found what the old guys needed. A shot glass. He handed it to them and we flew off again. The second time we stopped was because the axal, transmission and steering suddenly and quite abruptly decided to separate itself from the front right wheel which caused a bit of a noise and a slight panic as we were zooming along at about 120km/h at the time. Thankfully the wheel managed to stay attached to the brakes and suspension. The driver made some phone calls and told us somebody was coming from the nearby city of Jalal-Abad to fix it. We hitched a ride to a taxi rank in a village with the help of a BMW which seemed to be part powered by rap music and then a minibus and a another taxi eventually got us to Arslanbob and a cute little guesthouse.
Arslanbob is a great little village nestled in a valley between yet more Kyrgyz mountains and waterfalls and is most famous for the fact that it is home to the largest walnut grove on earth which locals harvest every autumn in huge amounts. I did a hike yesterday morning into the walnuts and the hills and met an old Canadian woman called Dianne. As a result i managed to hitch a ride to Osh with Dianne, her friend Judith, who was a former parole officer, their tour guide from Bishkek and a Russian driver who looked like a Bond villains right-hand man. We saw all sorts of places on the way (they were spending huge money on a 20 day trip through central Asia) and last night i stayed at a guesthouse in Osh with them, where a large group of Czech hikers couldn't understand why a young English man was traveling around Kyrgyzstan with two slightly eccentric elderly Canadian woman in an expensive German jeep. Neither could i. I like Kyrgyzstan.
And now i'm back in Osh which was the start of the Kyrgyz journey. In the next day or two i'll head west across the border and spend a few weeks in Uzbekistan which seems to be home to deserts and huge amounts of Muslim architecture. Kyrgyzstan has been a great country to travel in. It has amazing mountains and lakes, fantastic people, shit roads, knackered vehicles, more livestock than humans, its name has ten letters and only one vowel and as an independent country it's younger than me. It's been a very memorable place.