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.
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.
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.