After breakfast at the hotel, we load up in the minibus at 9:00 am for a full day. Our guide, Ulan, is reputed to be the best and most famous guide in Kyrgyzstan. Even without those credentials I'd be thrilled -- he's flexible, inquisitive, informative without being a gasbag, and fun. He's fluent in Kyrgyz, Russian, and English. Alexandyr is our very nice Russian driver, skillfully managing to get his beautiful Mercedes transport vehicle through the tightest spots with ease. He only speaks Russian (correction: he does say "bon appetit" very nicely) and his voice sounds a bit like he is being strangled.
Our first day agenda includes 2 textile workshops, one high end textile shop, and a walking tour of the monuments in downtown Bishkek. Traffic is crazy and the first studio is on the outskirts where we can see the suburban sprawl of private homes that came after the Soviet collapse. This is more what you would expect to see in Mexico or other developing nations -- there are horses and donkeys and occasional commercial establishments.
First studio is Aidai Asangulova's who innovated the art of fusing traditional felting with silk. After a couple of hours seeing the process and shopping through seconds, we have stop for lunch. Next we visit the home and studio of a master weaver whose father was a revered shephard who helped maintain the role of sheep in Kyrgyz agriculture after the Soviet collapse. Onto Tumar in downtown Bishkek -- nice and expensive -- before we drive to the main square where the main government buildings, monuments, and parks are. Every hour there is ritualized changing of the guard with goose-stepping soldiers advancing with precision, balancing rifles and swinging their arms looking a bit like a Monty Python parody. Later we head to dinner at a Turkish restaurant. Food's good but the bright sport is a group of well dressed older Kyrgyz women (our age) having their monthly dinner out, sharing vodka and singing traditional folk songs. We clap and cheer, toasting them. Kind of like book club!
We head out at 8:30 am to start our trip to Lake Issyk Kul. First stops are in Tokmok: home of a military training center -- an old Russian MIG is displayed on the way into town. They are amazingly small, not at all what I imagined. Next we go to an archeological site featuring the first minaret in Kyrgyzstan along with a small museum of artifacts and an open air display of stone funerary monuments from the 6th century called "balbals." More driving to visit one of the most esteemed felt artists in Kyrgyzstan, Mairam. After lunch at her home we are able to see how wool is processed to become felt as well as the dyeing, design, cutting and stitching of the traditional designs. Then a long drive through the mountain pass to begin our circumnavigation around Lake Issyk Kul. We pass through some very depressed towns that have neverrecovered from the Soviet collapse on our way to Cholpon-Ata where there are numerous lakeside resorts catering to Russians and Kazakhs. We spend the night in one where the very short tourist season is coming to a close. It kind of has the feel of a family camp combined with a cheesy disco incongruously placed in a spectacular setting surrounded by the snowcapped Tien Shan mountains. Dinner and breakfast are the culinary low points.
I'm trying to upload photos but having trouble with the slow connection. There's no wifi tomorrow so I'll try the day after to sum up the remaining days in Kyrgyzstan and attach some images.