Authentic Traveling

Stories from off the beaten path

Category: Central Asia (Page 1 of 2)

Getting from Tashkent to Bishkek

I recently made the journey from Tashkent to Bishkek overland and I am writing a short guide to help others planning to make this journey. In order to help people on Google: the journey could be called Getting from Tashkent to Bishkek through Kazakhstan or Getting from Tashkent to Shymkent or Tashkent to Taraz or Chernyaevka border crossing guide.

I made the journey on September 11th, 2014 so this information is up to date as of then. It took about 13 hours door to door and can be done in a day. My total transportation cost was 12.50 USD. I used all public transport and avoided shared taxis after bad experiences with them before.

1. Spend the night in Tashkent at Gulnara Guesthouse near Chorsu Bazaar. Get some dinner at Chorsu Bazaar. Try the Sashlyk or kebabs, and get it with bread and tea. Get to bed early because you have a long day ahead of you.

2. You should have all your things packed ant ready to go at 7:00am. Gulnara guesthouse starts serving breakfast at 7:00am so make your way into the common area and get some breakfast. As soon as your done with breakfast make sure to go to the bathroom and get ready to go.

3. From Gulnara, walk down to Chorsu bazaar and get on the metro (1000 cym). You’re going to want to take the metro from Chorsu to Habib Abdulayaev. You’ll have to change trains once to get to a different line. You technically want to go to Yunusabad, but the train as of September doesn’t go all the way there. After exiting the Habib Abdulayev station, you’ll be on a main boulevard called Amir Timur. You’re going to want to walk north along Amir Timur for 1km to Yunusabad market. See this map:

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You’ll cross under the street in an underpass to get to the other side when you reach the final intersection before the red circle. As you come out of the underpass, immediately to your left on the corner are marshrutkas that will take you to the border. There was a man right on that corner yelling Chernyaevka. The price was 1,500 cym. If there is no one there when you get there, just ask around for marshrutka to Chernyaevka. They come back and forth often and pick up at the red dot.

4. The driver will drop you off about 200 meters short of the border. Once there, ladies will try to sell you immigration papers which is a scam. They’re free at the border. Walk about 200 meters north to the border. If you still have some extra cym, buy food or drinks at the shops where you get dropped off. Cym is worthless once you leave Uzbekistan.

5. I got to the border at 8:50 am which apparently was good because I’ve heard there is a big crowd by 9am. The entire process to check out of Uzbekistan took me 20 minutes. Very fast and efficient. You need to fill out a new white form and give your original form with the new one to the guard. They scanned my bags on x-ray but didn’t bother to search them. Nobody asked for my hotel registration papers but I had them just in case. I’ve heard very bad things about this border, but honestly, I cleared everything flawlessly. I got asked by the guards which state I was from every single time they saw my passport. They really like America.

6. The Kazakhstan side is very straightforward and took me 10 minutes. Once leaving into Kazakhstan, there is a small doorway through a large metal gate with a guard that checks your passport once more time before you enter the country. On the other side of that gate will be a bunch of taxi drivers shouting locations and asking where you want to go. I’ve found these people aren’t trying to scam you because you’re a tourist, but just want to fill up there car and get going. I took a mashrutka instead though out of cost concerns. As soon as you walk out, walk about 10 meters straight then to your left there is a parking lot filled with mashrutkas. I asked how much to Shymkent and the drivers said there was a big white one for 500 TG and a small minivan for 600 TG with 2 people already in it. I opted for the minivan as it would be 100 TG more but leave much sooner than the big empty white van. FYI: You loose an hour once you cross into Kazakhstan so it was an hour later when I crossed the border. I also already had some tenge, but if not there are many exchanges at the border. Secure transport then ask the driver where to exchange money.

7. Two hours later we arrived in Shymkent. The driver was dropping people off wherever they requested, and I said I wanted “Samal Avtovakzal”, but then specified that I wanted to go to Taraz via marshrutke next just in case Samal wasn’t right. One of the ladies in the van said she was also going to Taraz and I could go with her. The driver dropped us off at an avtovakzal which I assumed was Samal but it didn’t have a name on it. There weren’t many vans there, but waiting was a mashrutka that said Taraz on it. It was 800 TG. I got in and waited maybe 30 minutes for it to fill and then we left for Taraz.

8. About two hours later, our mashrutka made its final stop at the Taraz avtovakzal. There were several vans there heading in different directions, but one said Bishkek on it. It was 1,200 TG. I put my bags in the back and waited another hour until we got going.

9. Two hours later we arrived at the Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan border or the Chaldovar border. It was about 8pm now and the sun had already set. The border was open though and my group crossed through without an issue. No lines at this time. On the Kyrgyz side I found some people from my van and waited with them another 15-20 minutes for our actual van to clear customs then got back on.

10. Another two hours later we made our final arrival into Bishkek Zapadnee Avtovakzal and from there I could take a marshrutka to my hotel. Make sure you book a hotel beforehand as you get in late at night (10pm).

In summation, the trip was incredibly easy and cost 2,600 TG and 2,500 cym or about 12.50 USD at today’s current rates. If you’re going the other way there is an overnight bus from Bishkek Zapadnee Avtovakzal all the way to the Uzbek border near Tashkent. I met someone that did this in Uzbekistan and can confirm it exists. Just go to the bus station in Bishkek earlier in the day and buy a ticket for the evening bus. With the ticket, you’ll then know where it leaves from and exactly at what time. Lonely Planet does a really bad job explaining this process so I hope this information helps!

Getting stranded in the middle of the desert in Uzbekistan

I’ve traveled a lot, been to a lot of places, had many good and bad experiences but nothing really compares to my time in Uzbekistan.

Just take a shared taxi to Bukhara they said. It will be fine they said. Friday morning I woke up in Khiva and spent the morning drinking tea and slowly repacking my bag for my trip to Bukhara, the second stop on my three city tour or Uzbekistan. At around noon, I made my way over to the shared taxi stand and managed to secure a quick 20 minute ride to Urgench where I could get another shared taxi to Bukhara. Once in Urgench, I wanted for approximately an hour, got shifted between several cars, before the drivers finally organized the Bukhara group together and sent us on our way. I managed to get the front seat and there were three other Uzbek guys around my age in the back seat.

My first mistake was paying the driver upfront, but I couldn’t have foreseen what would happen next and I knew the driver needed gas money so it seems like a normal thing to do at the time. I won’t be paying drivers anymore until all services have been rendered aka I make it to my destination. We left Urgench, made a quick stop at the driver’s home to pick up some iced tea, and were on our way through the desert making good time. The driver really liked Persian electronic music or at least it sounded Persian so we spent the first hour or so listening to that.

The area around Urgench has a fair amount of irrigated farm lands and is somewhat populated, but as you start going further east, the Karakum desert begins. This sparsely populated sandy desert runs from southern Kazakhstan through Uzbekistan and into Turkmenistan. The road to Bukahara goes right through this desert as it hugs the Uzbek-Turkmen border.

About an hour or two in to the drive, we see a gas station on the left side of the road which was apparently the last gas station for quite some time. There was a divider between the road meaning we couldn’t get to the other side to the gas station without driving way down the road until we could U-turn; however, we had recently just passed a U-turn point about 200 meters back. Our driver turned the car around and started driving the wrong way down the road to get back to the U-turn point. He then drove the wrong way on the other side to the gas station. There was also one other car with us doing the same thing just ahead of us. This gas station was really in the middle of nowhere. It was surrounded by drifting red sands and the occasional bush. When we were about to turn into the gas station several police appeared out of nowhere and made both cars pull over. It was very surprising because we were in the remote desert and these police just showed up almost out of thin air.

The driver grabbed a few notes from his wallet, got out of the car, and went to talk with the police. I guess his bribe didn’t work because we spent an hour waiting on the side of the road and then at the gas station while the driver talked with the police. When the police looked like they had finished up their business we went back over to talk with the driver. He said he needed to go to the police station and fill out some papers. A few officers accompanied him on his drive there which is why we didn’t go with him. He told us to take our bags out of the car and wait for him to return. It shouldn’t take long.

Two hours later and the taxi driver is nowhere to be seen. His phone was dead so we couldn’t call him either. Fortunately one of the three other passengers speaks Russian so I had a little chat with him while we waited. After a while the sun started to go down and we began to think that the taxi might not come back. What do we do? You can’t just find another taxi in the middle of the desert so our best bet now was to try and find another ride with one of the passing cars. All of them were going to Bukhara because there aren’t any cities along this road in the desert. Two of the Uzbek guys went across the road and started trying to flag down a car that would take us to Bukhara, but no one was stopping and cars didn’t even come by that often maybe a couple every five minutes. Another hour of this went by and I was getting worried. Eventually a car did stop and the one Russian speaking guy from the group came over to talk to me. After a few hours with these guys, I had begun to see them sort of as friends through our struggle in the Karakum desert. I thought by this time we were buddies – through thick and thin, right? Apparently not though. It’s every man for himself in the Karakum. The guy told me that the car had only three seats and they were going to take it. Sorry, dude. No worries though – I’d be able to catch the next one! It’d be no problem! I just about went white when he told me that. Here I am in the desert, my Russian isn’t that great, and I’ve got to try and hitch a ride by myself. I didn’t have much of an option at this point though and protesting their decision wasn’t going to help. I knew I would eventually find someone and Uzbek people are very kind, but I was worried about how long it might take based off previous tries. Thank God I speak some Russian because without those classes in Bishkek, this situation would be even worse.

Somehow I got lucky and perhaps the third vehicle, a huge semi-truck, stopped and offered me a ride. Jamir, the truck driver, on his way from Urgench to Tashkent was going to take me all the way to Bukhara. When I asked him if he wanted any money he laughed and told me to stop. I explained what happened with the police and he got a kick out of it. We chatted a little bit to the extent my Russian ability allowed me and then spent the rest of the time listening to ‘80s Russian music. The view from the truck cabin was quite impressive as we slowly navigated through the potholed roads. Driving a truck is much slower than a car so it took another six hours to finally reach Bukhara. After talking to some people in Bukhara, I found out that it’s actually pretty easy to get a ride from a truck here especially if you’re alone because they only have one seat, and they’re always looking for company on their long trips.

When we finally made it to Bukhara at 130am, Jamir dropped me off by some taxis along the main road and I was fortunately able to phone up a guesthouse in Bukhara and get a taxi there. While I was initially afraid to hitch a ride in the middle of the desert from a complete stranger (I also didn’t have a choice really), I learned a lot about Uzbek culture through this experience. Uzbek people will go out of their way to be welcoming to a guest or to help someone in need. They’re incredibly kind people. Additionally while Uzbekistan and most CIS countries sound like unsafe places, they’re really not. Because of the oppressive hand of former dictators, people here don’t even think about breaking the law in any form even without their dictator’s presence. When they see someone in need they’re much more willing to help them rather than drive on as we would in the west for fear of the stranger being a criminal. While I see Central Asia as being much safer from crime than other places, I don’t want to call it all entirely safe. There still is some crime, but more often it’s unsafe because of lax safety regulations, poor roads, and crazy drivers. It’s unsafe just in a different kind of way. I think in the end, this whole experience has really taught me that good people still do exist and are more than willing to help you when you need it. All you have to do is ask.

Getting to and from Manas International Airport (FRU – Bishkek Airport)


Getting to and from Manas International Airport to the city of Bishkek is quite easy. Bishkek has one of the best public transport systems of most cities I’ve been to. Its not exactly the most modern, but its the cheaper and more convenient than almost all fully developed countries.

The airport (FRU) is located ~35 km from downtown Bishkek. If you arrive during the day time, you have two options at the airport – taxi or public bus. Many flights arrive at night leaving a taxi as the only option. A taxi should cost 500 som, but drivers will certainly try for more – potentially 2,000 som. There are many drivers that will come up to you so just bargain hard.

If you come during the day (7:30am-6pm), you can take the public transport and save a bunch of money! They call their “buses” marshrutkas and they’re basically vans that act like buses. You flag them down at bus stops and get on and off like a normal bus, buts its just a large van. From the airport, exit the terminal and cross the small parking lot to the main road. The terminal is very small. Look for the bus stop and try to find #380. It will list the number in the front of the window. It may be waiting there already until it fills up or you may have to wait a little bit for it to come. Ignore the taxi drivers pestering you while you wait. It will come no matter what they tell you. The marshrutka costs 40 som to the city. You ride this marshrutka all the way until it stops near Osh Bazaar. Once at Osh Bazaar, you can find a cheap taxi to your hotel – no more than 150 som maybe 100 if its closer by or use public transport again if you’re familiar with Bishkek or just walk. Bishkek is a very safe city.

To get to the airport, find any marsthrutka to Osh Bazaar written on it and ride it there. Once at Osh Bazaar, you need to go to the corner of Molodaya Guardiya and Chuy which is only one block from Osh Bazaar. Just north of this corner (about 10 meters) on the left side of Molodaya Guardiya (if you’re facing north) is where marsthrutka 380 picks people up. See this info from lonely planet.The marsthurka actually parks on the side of the road and waits until it fills up before heading off on the journey to the airport. The van has a clearly marked “Airport” sign in Russian on the front with the number 360. It was again 40 som and you pay when you get to the airport. The driver lets you put your bags in the back.

Make sure to get a seat in the very back of the van if you can so that way you can sit down all the way to the airport without having to surrender your seat to a babushka. Random people will get on and off the van as it makes it way to the airport that live or work somewhere along the journey it takes out that way.

 

My Rat Race Across Central Asia

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My journey from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Khiva, Uzbekistan was a quick dash across most of Central Asia in just under two days. With some quick decisions and a lot of luck, my trip just fell together allowing me to make it out here so quickly fortunately giving me the time to work my way backwards to Bishkek through Uzbekistan without having to miss any of the major sites.

It all started off Tuesday morning when I got up at 6:30 at my hostel in Bishkek. I had a 10 am flight to Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan so I made my way to the airport (see post about getting to/from Manas International Airport) and got on the approximately 30 minute flight down to Osh.

Osh is a city on the edge of the Fergana valley which due to Soviet border carvings has been placed in Kyrgyzstan though the majority ethnic group of the city is Uzbek. Generally Kyrgyz people are nomadic mountain men and Uzbeks and Tajiks are more settled farmers in the valleys so the Kyrgyz population historically lived up on the edge of the valley in the mountains and the Uzbeks and Tajiks lived in the valley. The Fergana valley is the site of a lot of recent ethnic tensions which can be attributed to the way the borders were designed much like many of the problems in the Middle East these days. Stalin wanted to prevent an uprising so he purposely drew borders to split ethnic groups between nations so that no one area could have a majority and challenge Moscow’s rule.

With that being said, Osh really is an Uzbek feeling city with Islam being far more important and central than it is in the more secular north. Women are much more covered in the south, but unlike the much deeper south (Afghanistan/Iran), women have bright floral dresses and headscarves. The change in attitudes towards religion is really interesting between North and South Kyrgyzstan. In the north (and Kazakhstan as well) things are secular due to the heavy Soviet influence, but in the south religion plays a more important role in daily life, and as one goes even further south away from Russia religion becomes even more important until it turns into fanaticism as it did when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan or when the Supreme Leader took over Iran. I imagine Southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to be much like what Afghanistan used to be like.

After landing in Osh, I was easily able to take a mastruka right outside the airport to the center of town. It was #107 and it cost 10 som. There is an actual stop with a 107 sign on it right after the small airport parking lot directly in front of the terminal. After getting to the center, I made my way to Osh Guesthouse and spent the night there. While there I met some Israelis and we went to this large rock/mountain near the center of town called Soloman’s Throne. It was a nice view from the top, but really the only thing to do in Osh besides walk around the bazaar. There was a mosque just down the street from Osh Guesthouse called Osh New Mosque and to the left of the mosque (if you’re looking at the entrance) was an amazing tea house and cheap too! It almost looks like its apart of the mosque or built on to the side of it. They have samsi with spicy sauce, tea, coffee, swarma, and really really good swarma burgers. It was so good that I ate there again the next day for breakfast.

Next morning I caught minibus 107 to the Uzbek border and crossed into Uzbekistan with relative ease, sort of. The Kyrgyz side took a couple of minutes to clear, but once in Uzbekistan there was a lot of waiting to be done. It took about 2 hours to get through the entire process. Uzbekistan is essentially a police state so I wasn’t surprised. There weren’t that many people there though, but they spend a lot of time searching everyone’s bag individually and asking questions so that’s why it took so long. I had to declare all of my money including all my little bits of random currency I’ve picked up along the way in places from Vietnam to Dubai. The guard was very concerned about by 30,000 VND which I explained was worth about 1.50 USD. They were also very concerned about what could possibly be on my USB stick… could I have Christian music on there? They searched my laptop and phone for potential religious music as well. I guess they have a point, though. The internet is so slow in Uzbekistan that it would be easier to smuggle Christian music in on a USB rather than download it. I think I probably got off easier than the actual Uzbek people though. Besides my electronics and medicines, they didn’t really look at the rest of my stuff.

Once across the border, I easily found a shared taxi to Tashkent. I probably waited 10 minutes and the driver came back to me and proposed leaving with three people rather than four and having us all pay a bit more but be more comfortable. I instantly said yes and ended up paying $45 for the trip. The extra 15 dollars was worth not being stuck in the middle of a hot car for the 7 hour trip to Tashkent. The drive was beautiful, going through cotton fields and farms in the Fergana valley before passing over a mountain range and ending up near Tashkent. We stopped for lunch about an hour into the drive and had sashlik, tea, and bread. The passengers were really nice and interested in me because I was an American. We tried our best to communicate but my Russian is only so-so. They gave me a lot of free food too on the trip, mostly bread and apples. Several times during the drive we stopped at police checkpoints and sometimes had to show our passports. Usually when we stopped random Uzbek women tried to sell us fruit. The passengers liked to tell these vendors that I was an American and they all got wide eyed and smiled with their golden teeth. I guess they don’t get very many Americans out here.

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We finally got into Tashkent at around 6:30 pm and the driver dropped me off at the train station. The original plan was to spend the night at the train station hotel and catch a morning train to Samarkand, but when I checked the train schedule, I noticed they had a train in an hour for Urgench getting in at 1pm. Urgench is the city closest to Khiva and Khiva is one of the top three places to see in Uzbekistan. I didn’t think I would have time to get there because it’s quite out of the way, but this fortunate night train allowed me to fit it into my schedule. After a minute of thought, I decided to skip the hotel and take the night train. I’d figure out the details later, but here was my golden opportunity to get to Khiva so I better take it. Sweaty, gross, and tired I got on that night train bound for Urgench.

The sleepers were surprisingly not that bad and the passengers were really orderly and behaved. Usually on a SE Asian train, the bathroom is ruined in the first hour, but I noticed that Uzbek people are courteous and keep things clean. I chatted with some of the passengers near me and they were again all interested because I was an American. My small talking ability is probably my best in Russian so I got along well with them. When I pulled out my American passport, they all wanted to see it. All of a sudden I was the coolest kid at show and tell again. I showed them all my visas from various countries around the world, and they really enjoyed it.

I spent the next morning reading and waiting for the train to stop in Urgench. Once in Urgench, getting a taxi to Khiva was quite easy. I met some foreigners on the platform back in Tashkent and knew they were going to Urgench so I looked for them when we got off the train. They found two more foreigners and the five us had good bargaining power to get the 20 minute taxi to Khiva for about a dollar each. If you’re alone, there is public transportation as well but it’s much slower.

I’m currently staying in a 4 person dorm at Lali-Opa guesthouse just on the west side of the old city of Khiva. I’ll follow this post up with a post on Khiva once I’ve had a chance to explore the city.

Final Thoughts on Bishkek

Tomorrow morning I will be flying out from here to Osh in the south of Kyrgyzstan. I’ll be there for a day and then onward to Uzbekistan. I’ve been in Kyrgyzstan for 38 days now, and I’m going to try to reflect on my time and offer advice for anyone interested in coming here.

Russian

I spent 5 weeks studying Russian at London School and I am honestly quite happy with the progress I have made with the language. I have exceeded the goals that I originally set — I can order in a restaurant, get a taxi, arrange transport, shop etc. Over the past few weeks I’ve even been having full on conversations with my conversation teacher on a wide array of topics. We sometimes have to use Google Translate for the nouns I don’t understand, but besides that I get on pretty well in very basic Russian. While I am happy about all of this, I found that I actually don’t like studying Russian. Certainly its a difficult language, but it wasn’t the language that was the problem. I’ve found that I am just not that interested in this region and unmotivated to communicate with the people here. Without that motivation, studying Russian became very difficult. I’m impressed by how far I’ve come, but had I been more motivated I’d certainly be better. The next language I choose to study has to be spoken by people I am genuinely interested in meeting and conversing with then I’ll be more motivated to continue my studies. Additionally intensive language study is by definition very intensive. Waking up to three hours of one on one grammar lessons every morning really doesn’t make anyone excited to continue studying that language. The London School has great teachers, but the program is extremely intense. I’d recommend to anyone studying a language to not take more than 4 hours of lessons a day. At London School I was doing five.

Overall, learning basic Russian this quickly has been a good confidence builder for me. It’s a very difficult language, but I am able to converse in it in just five weeks which is very confidence building toward my next language endeavor.

Bishkek is bleh

I did not like Bishkek at all. It is a city built entirely by the Soviets and then left to rot by the Soviets. My best memories of Kyrgyzstan are everything I did outside of Bishkek. I’ve met lots of people here that really seem to like Bishkek, but it just did not click with me. I am very excited to get out and don’t plan on coming back. I can think of many significantly poorer cities that I would much rather live than here. The food is bad, the people aren’t very nice, and there is not much to do.

Kyrgyzstan on the other hand is a beautiful country. All of the hikes I went on were spectacular, but outside of the nature, do not expect much here. Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure is in terrible condition and most of the country is very very undeveloped. Its cool if that’s what you want to see, but it makes getting around very difficult.

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 Run-down depressing looking buildings – yep that’s Bishkek.

I fly out on the 13th in the morning so I’ll be back here again in a few weeks on the 12th to wait for my flight. My next destination is Istanbul then Europe. I’m very excited to get back to the West.

Kyrgyzstan Horse Games

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My second to last day in Bishkek happened to fall on a special day for Kyrgyzstan – National Independence Day. There were many celebrations going on around the city, but one that was particularly interesting was happening at the Hippodrome or horse racing stadium. They had a special sports game called Kok-boru or Ulak tartysh depending on which country you’re in. Simply put, this game is basically like polo except no sticks. You are supposed to drag the ball and throw it into the goal. The only thing is they don’t play it with a ball… Sticking with traditions of more barbaric times they prefer to actually behead a goat or sheep and use the headless body as a ball. The goal of the game is to gain control of the body and throw it into a goal made of a stack of tires. This is their national pastime sport and an extremely popular sport throughout Central Asia. In fact, next week the World Nomad Games will be held in Kyrgyzstan where teams from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and even Russia will be competing for the title.

The game is set up essentially like hockey with three periods of 20 minutes. There are five riders on the field at a time and they can switch out whenever they like. The game begins with and has periodic face offs in which two players ram their horses into each other within a small circled area, trampling over the goat body, and fighting each other in order to gain control of the goat. They’ll then try to carry it all the way to a goal but this proves quite difficult because the goat weights 30-40 kilograms and other players constantly ram their horses into the player with possession while trying to kick the goat out of his hands.

I don’t even find this sort of stuff weird anymore…

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My trip to Issyk-Kul

It was pitch black, not a light in sight, and we were driving down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Our car must of been at least twenty years old and was taking each rock in the road pretty hard as we kicked up dust all around us. Our “taxi” driver is softly muttering to himself in a language we don’t understand. I don’t know if taxi is even an appropriate word to use. Its really more of a paid hitchhiking kind of deal. My friend then turns to me and says “do you think he’s going to make us dig our own graves first or just shoot us?” This is Kyrgyzstan and this was my trip to Issyk-Kul:

Issyk-Kul is the world’s second largest Alpine lake and arguable the number one tourist attraction in Kyrgyzstan. It is believed to have special mythical powers because it never freezes in the winter. The actual name translates to “hot lake” in Kyrgyz. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t freeze because its a saline lake, but whatever.

I had always wanted to see this lake before I left Kyrgyzstan, but I was a little strapped for time as I am going to Uzbekistan next week. I was planning to go when my Russian courses finished, but decided to nix it in order to get to Istanbul faster and have more time in Eastern Europe. At my school in Bishkek, we get Wednesdays off from classes so I inquired with our activities coordinator about possibly organizing a horse riding activity Wednesday near Bishkek. She informed me that there was a group of students from London School already at Issyk-Kul (LS has a house up there where people can stay and sometimes bring their teachers out there to take a week of classes) and that I could join this group if I went up Tuesday night after classes then ride horses with them on Wednesday. I decided sure — why not kill two birds with one stone and see Issyk-Kul and ride horses. I mentioned my plans on Tuesday morning to a friend of mine at London School and by the mere mention, he decided that he wanted to join me on my trip up there. His home stay currently has no power and hasn’t had it for a few days so it was an easy decision for him to change his plans that day.

After classes we headed off for the lake house. First we took a marshrutka to Zapadni bus station and easily hopped on another 300 som marshrutka to Issyk-Kul. We told the driver we wanted to be dropped off at this specific village and after some hesitation he said it would be okay. From the village we would then just find a ride with a random car going down the 2-3 mile road to another smaller village on the lake itself. We didn’t make it to the village though and that explains how we ended up in the rather perilous situation at the beginning of this post. All marshrutkas to Issyk-Kul are usually bound to Karakol on the far side of the lake. There are two routes around the lake – the north and south road that eventually meet up again at Karakol. Our village was on the south road, but after a few hours when we got to the beginning of the lake, and our driver stopped and told us to get out and catch a cab to our first village. The driver gave us back each 100 som and carried on his way. We asked the cab drivers how much it would be to our village thinking we were close. We were told 1000 som and that we were 40 km from the village. I figured out how this happened once I realized where we were. The original driver must of known he was never going to take the southern route and planned all along to just ditch us at the beginning of the lake. He probably felt bad though and gave us some of our fare back. We obviously didn’t want to pay a huge price for the taxi so we figured we could possibly find another marshrutka going down the southern end. It was getting dark though and cold so we needed to find one fast. Our first taxi driver approached us a few minutes later with another sales pitch. He told us his friend here (random dude he must of met at the taxi stand) was driving his car down that way and could give us a ride for 500 som. That price seemed a lot better so we took it. Next thing we know were in the middle of nowhere with this guy taking to himself thinking we’re going to die. Fortunately he brought us right up to the lake house without a problem. Our western minds are usually so polluted by scary movies and horror news stories that we never want to trust someone we don’t know, but Central Asians do this all the time. Hitchhiking is the norm here because people simply trust one another.

When we arrived at the lake house there were five students from LS and their two teachers playing an intense game of Settler’s of Catan in about 5 different languages. Some of them are learning Kyrgyz, some of them Russian, a few speak French, a few Spanish, and everyone can speak English on top of all that.

The next morning we were up early for a breakfast of rice porridge and off to the mountains for a hike and horse riding. We all piled up into a van and drove up into the foothills down through an intricate network of dirt roads and villages with small children riding on donkeys. We finally made it up to this small yurt camp where all of the horses were grazing.

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The plan was to hike first, get lunch and then ride the horses. The hike was tough mostly because of the altitude, but quite a nice walk nevertheless. We didn’t really walk anywhere notable — just up a ridge for a nice view of the area where we could see Kyrgyz horsemen herding sheep and a big herd of yaks grazing on the mountain side. The horse riding was quite fun, and I even got a Putin-esque photo of me on a horse. I just needed to loose the shirt to make it perfect.

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After riding we all headed back on the 40 minute drive to the lake house and went out for a bone chilling swim in Lake Issyk-Kul. About ten minutes was my limit in that lake. Any longer and hypothermia would of definitely set in. We had some lagman for dinner – probably the most common Central Asian food – and spent the evening playing settlers again. No one rolled an eight for at least three rounds causing me to lose the game… I am still very bitter about it.

I was originally supposed to go back Wednesday night for my Russian classes on Thursday, but since I was having a really good time, I called LS and told them I’d be coming back a day late and miss my classes. That was a great decision. I spent Thursday morning reading and sleeping instead of suffering through Russian grammar. After lunch I made the journey back to Bishkek which was made much easier the second time around because I met two Russian ladies in our village also traveling to Bishkek. We shared transportation all the way back making the journey quite easy especially because I let them do all the talking.

 

 

Hiking at Ala Archa National Park

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This past weekend I went hiking in the Tian Shan mountains just a short drive outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

I came across this hiking opportunity through the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan which has an office in Bishkek and runs weekend hikes every Saturday and Sunday during the summer months into the nearby mountains for very good rates. They also offer several longer over night hikes throughout the summer with gear rental, and they list this information with dates on their website. I am not sure of their winter activities. My guess is limited, but I know that during the summer they usually have two options each Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes this includes rafting and other activities besides hiking. Vans meet in the morning outside their office, and they’ll take you to the mountains for the hike and bring you back at the end of the day. Its best to book ahead by visiting the office or calling them.

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I signed up for the Saturday morning trip to Ala Archa and we left at 8:00 am. We climbed a little bit in elevation up to the park which was perhaps a 30 minute drive from downtown Bishkek. At the base, our “guide” really just pointed to the direction we had to go and said be back at six. The trail up was pretty straightforward so it wasn’t really an issue from there. It took about 4 hours to summit passing through trees, then following a grassy ridge along the mountain river until we walked into a large cloud. I walked through the clouded area for a good 1.5-2 hours on mostly rocky terrain until reaching the top hut which was still in clouds at my arrival. The top is not technically the top as you can continue to go much further up into mountains, but it would have to be a technical climb beyond the hut. Many people bring tents and camp at the top for the night.

At the top, I found myself woefully unprepared for the weather because it was snowing! Snowing in August! I fortunately had a jacket, but I wished I had gloves and pants. I caught a few glimpses of the mountains through the clouds, but they were too thick to get a good view of where I was. I was waiting for the clouds to hopefully clear at the top of a ridge in the blistering cold for a good 15 to 20 minutes, and just when I was about to give up, the clouds cleared into a remarkable view of steep rock faced cliffs covered in snow and a massive glacier running down between two mountains. It was spectacular and completely worth the trip up.

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The way down wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I got to try some of the mountain water! I felt a little sick a few hours after drinking it, but I wasn’t sure if it was relaxed to the hike and altitude changes or the water. Since, I have water in Bishkek, I decided to not drink anymore stream water just in case.

In summation, great weekend getaway and I hope to hike again with TUK soon!

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Bishkek is a terrible place

I just got to be honest about this one, Bishkek is just awful. This city does not offer much, and I am already looking forward to getting out of here. I got to keep this in perspective though because I initially did not come for Bishkek and knew it would be a bad city from the beginning. I came to see the great outdoors of Central Asia and not the run down cities of soviet times. Unfortunately, I have to live here while I get my Russian up to speed. Its certainly been an eye-opening experience to see how people live here, but its definitely not a place I would ever come again. The biggest draw would be the very cheap Russian courses — far cheaper than in Russia and you don’t need a visa to come here. I’ll run through some of the funny and just terrible aspects living in Bishkek. So if you want to know what Bishkek is really like:

Bishkek looks like nobody has bothered to fix anything in 20 years. Bishkek looks like a city that had a bright future and lots of potential up until 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. After that people literally stopped bothering to repair anything and let the city fall into a state of disrepair. The city is maybe not even 100 years old and was almost entirely built by the Russians and originally named Frunze. It has a very Soviet feel with wide sidewalks, large emotionless plazas, and plenty of parks. Bishkek probably was pretty nice back in the day, but now it feels stuck in 1991 with the only new additions being computers and cell phones.

One of the first things I noticed here was which side of the road the cars drive on. All of them adhere to driving on the right side, but about half of the cars are actually meant for driving on the left side. I think this is pretty common in Central Asia. I was told its because some cars are imported from left drive countries so if you want a certain type of car, you get version that the host country makes it in. They don’t bother making them for the other side when they ship the off to sell in Central Asia. Aside from your odd little things like this, there is a surprising amount of order here compared to other places I have been. Stop lights actually mean something here to the drivers and sidewalks are mostly meant for people.

If you don’t want to pay a lot of money for food, you’re not going to get good food. Lots of destinations around the world have good cheap eats and they’re often one of the biggest attractions of those destinations. Not in Kyrgyzstan. If you don’t want to spend a whole lot, you can, but its going to be bland. On the other hand, there is quite a variety of actual restaurants that are pretty good. Service is generally pretty bad and slow though.

The malls are a joke, really. I’ve been to the best malls in the city, and they’re just old run down buildings selling knock-off clothes. Right by London School is Vefa Center, apparently one of the best malls in Biskek, but most of the stores look like they’re out of business. Usually a mall is a place to hangout out, but these malls just make you depressed. The bazaars aren’t much better. I went to Dordoy Bazaar — the biggest market in Central Asia — recently. It actually was really really big, but it sold nothing but cheap Chinese products and most shops appeared to be selling almost the same thing as the next one. Osh and Orto Say aren’t much different either. They do have really good fresh fruit and vegetables at these bazaars though which I have been eating quite a lot of.

The national museum was entertaining, but that’s because of how bad and weird it was. It was a very dark, old marble stone building mostly paying homage to Red October and Karl Marx with futuristic bronze statues depicting the proletariat rising up. There was a little bit of information on Krygyz culture, but everything was entirely in Russian.

The people aren’t particularly friendly. I mean, I would be too if I lived here. Generally when I meet Russians while traveling, I haven’t found them to be the nicest people and its really no surprise here. They particularly like to sit me down and tell me how great Putin is and that the media — or rather all objective journalism — is just lies.

On a positive note, Bishkek does have a good night life. I went to a very good nightclub the other night. Clean, upscale, and great music. Krygyz women are also stunningly beautiful. I have been told that they aren’t very interested in foreigners and most are interested in getting married as soon as possible, but nevertheless, its nice always nice to go to a nightclub with beautiful women rather than without.

I have been told wonderful things about the mountains just outside of Bishkek which I am just dying to go see. I hope this coming weekend London School will organize a mountain trip. If not, I found a local outfit where I can go with a group on a hike nearby. I’ll post those details on the trip(s) if/when they happen.

As for the classes, Russian is hard. My god, it is hard. There are just so many rules making it very difficult to even say the most basic of things. The classes are quite intense and really leave me feeling worthless at the end of everyday. I am thinking about talking to me teachers to hopefully change my courses a little bit or at least understand their rationale for this current method. I feel that it might not be as necessary to learn to talk about what I will have or have not done in the future (future perfect) when I am more interested in learning how to properly order at a restaurant, negotiate a price with a taxi driver, exchange currency, etc. I have one class of conversation a day which addresses these interests, but its only one class or 25% of all the other things I am studying.

I love Kazakhstan

I initially thought Kazakhstan was going to be the worst country I’ll ever visit. There would be nothing but farms and small villages with a few sparse over-priced hotels in their main cities with not a lot to do or see. I was very wrong about this. Kazakhstan is awesome.

I went to Almaty for the weekend, and I was blown away by how modern the city was. Kazakhstan certainly has its rural villages out in its wide expanse of plains and deserts, but the cities are much like any city in the west and nicer than most cities of comparable size in America. Even with all the modern amenities, it still has that Russian/Soviet/Kazakstani vibe which makes it truly unique. The reason for the modernity is largely due to recently discovered large oil reserves near the Caspian Sea in Eastern Kazakhstan which have helped to develop and modernize the country. All of this influx of cash has helped to create a upscale culture in Almaty with fancy cafes and bars throughout the city. Walking around Almaty felt like walking around any nice European city.

We left Friday afternoon from Bishkek and took a taxi to the border with Kazakhstan. This took about twenty minutes and once I arrived I noticed that you could even take a marsrutka (local bus) from цум right to the border. Visa laws recently changed allowing Americans to come to Kazakhstan without a visa. This made the border crossing hassle free and within 20 minutes, we cleared both checkpoints and made it to the taxi area on the other side. Our options for the 2-3 hour journey to Almaty were either a shared van which would stop frequently and take a while for maybe $10 or pay $15 for a shared taxi and they’ll drop you off at an address in downtown Almaty. Ask to be taken to a specific place or hotel or they’ll drop you at the bus station and you’ll have to get another cab to your place. Its just a waste of time and money to get two cabs. We took the shared taxi and they go when full. Fortunately there were two spots left and two of us which made that easy. We had a group total of eight people but we were traveling separately because some wanted to leave a few hours earlier.

2-3 hours later and after a little struggle finding a hostel with space, we made it to a place called “74/76” which had rooms with 6 beds (three bunks) for $10 a night. We went out for dinner, walked around a bit, and went to bed after a long afternoon of traveling.

The next morning, we all went to the столовая (cafeteria) down the street for some Russian breakfast. We had a group of eight originally, but we split into a group of 5 and 3 to see some sights in the city. I went with the three — John from San Diego and Andrew from Texas. Both of them speak really great Russian so that made the day a lot easier. We walked around the city, saw some of the sights and by 1 pm, we made our way to the National Museum. We got the student discount and paid something like 50 cents for entrance to the museum. Usually I think most museums suck (because most genuinely do), but this one was quite interesting. They had a lot of information about old Kazakh herders and nomads and a really interesting bit about Kazakhstan’s involvement in WWII fighting alongside Russians. It was almost all in Russian, but the pictures and model exhibits were cool.

2014-08-02 12.37.09-2Famous statue and square in Almaty. You can make a wish by placing your hand in a special gold hand print at the bottom. Kazakh people love wishes.

On our way out of the museum, we stopped off in the gift shop and were looking at some of the items when two guys said “woah are those guys speaking English?”. We ended up starting up a conversation with them, and we learned that these two guys are acting teachers in Almaty for the summer. They had a friend from graduate school in NYC that was Kazakh and she recruited them to come back to her country to teach for a summer. These guys made pretty good money and frequently brushed elbows with the rich and famous of Kazakhstan who were taking acting or voice lessons from them. I guess if you teach acting, you’re in high demand in Kazakhstan. Anyways, there experiences made for some pretty great stories about Kazakhstani and Russian culture. We ended up going to lunch with these guys and spent the rest of the afternoon with them going around and seeing the city. These guys were really funny and entertaining, and their odd stories about living in Kazakhstan were absolutely hilarious. It made for a very fun afternoon. We made plans to meet up again later that evening to go to some of their favorite bars and clubs in Almaty.

That afternoon, we rode an old and extremely unsafe gondola to the top of a nearby mountain where they had a roller coaster/luge ride, carnival games, and a petting zoo. The view was quite nice and the strangeness of the carnival place at the top gave us more than a few good laughs.

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The view from the gondola

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This is one of the many Kazakh families that wanted a photo with us. I asked for one as well!

Later that night around 9:30 we went out to a place called Jeans Bar which was a upscale denim themed bar with a live band. We ended up getting pretty rowdy on these corona-ritas and shots of some random homemade Kazakh liquor — at least that’s what the bar tended told us in Russian. After a few hours at the bar, we grabbed a cab and headed over to a night club, but unfortunately I cannot remember the name. It had a live band downstairs and a DJ upstairs and a pretty half/half mix of Russians and Kazakhs. One of the funniest things in Kazakhstan is the taxis. There are actually no taxis in the normal sense of the word. When I think of a taxi, I think of a vehicle that says “Taxi” on it and drives people around as its primary purpose. Almaty has none of these. Rather if you want a taxi, you flag down a random car and tell them where you want to go and name your price. You don’t have to worry about a random car not stopping, they always do. Its usually 500tg to go anywhere. You tell them 500 in Russian, пятисот (peet sot) or pizza as our new American friend said. He told us you can just get in a cab and say “Go to x, pizza”, then pay 500. Our friends speak no Russian by the way. Its close enough to пятисот that it actually works. Any car can be a cab if the driver feels like it so when you flag one down, it might be someone who is actually trying to drive people around or it might be a guy on his way to the grocery store not in any rush who sees a quick opportunity here to make a few extra dollars.

I think the funniest part about the night club was when we met this incredibly racist Russian guy. There’s making racist jokes and then there’s honestly believing everything you say. This guy honestly believed himself. He started off by telling us that BBC and CNN were “shit” and we should really get the true story and watch some RT (Russian state television). Someone can make reasonable arguments against BBC and CNN compared to other news sources, but to then argue for RT as a suitable replacement? Are you kidding me? He then asked me if I liked Kazakh women more than Russians. I told him I did, and he responds “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!”. How could I like such an inferior people to the Russians? Then when we told him we live in Bishkek, he yells “YOU LIVE IN VILLAGE!” I mean, Bishkek is pretty shitty, but its not a village. This guy just loved to hate on Central Asians. It was pretty funny until you realize he means everything he said. Oh, Russians…

The next morning was pretty painful, but around 12, we took a cab to the bus station and hopped on another shared taxi back to the border. It was another 15 dollars back to the Kyrgyzstan border — all bribes included. When we got closer to the border, a police officer was stoping random cars and told us to pull over. I watched our taxi driver place 1,000tg into his registration papers before he handed it to the police man. A few seconds later we were on our way. We weren’t doing anything wrong, just a legitimate taxi service between Almaty and Bishkek, but when the police want bribes, you have to pay up even if you aren’t doing anything wrong. We crossed the border again with ease and took a marsrutka back into town for 20 som. Once I got home, I hit the books and tried to catch back up on my language studies.

All in all great weekend. Another set of stamps in the passport and another country checked off the list.

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