Lake Issyk Kul lies in a valley in the Tien Shan range bordering China. Some of the snow capped peaks exceed 16,000 feet. The beauty is breathtaking; the lack of development is incongruous from an American perspective but the summers are brief and winters are long and cold -- and there's little in the way of infrastructure. The wreckage from the collapse of the Soviet Union is evident everywhere with abandoned buildings, half completed factories, and tired monuments to the revolution. Ulan says the Kyrgyz people still respect Russia althought it is very clear that their departure caused major economic hardship for the citizens, especially the older ones who worked for the State and expected pensions.
Our destination for the day is Karakol at the eastern end of the lake. Along the way we stop at an archeological site with petroglyphs dating to the Scythians and then at the museum and gravesite of Prejevalsky, the Russian explorer and geographer who was funded by the czar to reach Tibet before the English. While he ultimately failed, his expeditions into Kyrgyzstan's mountain passes secured his acclaim among both the Russians and the Kyrgyz.
Karakol is hard to describe. The fourth largest "city" in the country (popn 70,000), it has a strong czarist Russian heritage combined with crumbling Soviet decay and an Asian Wild West sort of feeling. There's a beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox Church built entirely without nails that is a few blocks away from a Dungan mosque for the ethnic Chinese muslims. There are B&Bs and Internet cafes for the summertime trekkers and winter skiers. There are horses, sheep, goats and cattle tied up grazing say, next to the post office. Homes are a combination of falling apart and half built modern structures. Our guest house is lovely and for both nights we dine at the home of a Uiyghur family who use part of their home as a dining room/B&B. The food is good and the portions are enormous -- a dilemma since we don't want to insult our hosts. The first night a performance of traditional Kyrgyz folk music has been arranged including a special recitation of part of the epic legend of Manas, the ultimate mythical horseman leader of the Kyrgyz tribes. I was sort of dreading an endless spectacle calling for polite attention while fighting off a noodle-induced food coma -- in fact, it was spectacular!
A Soviet troop transported picked us up at 8:30 am for a 30 km drive into one of the mountain passes for a visit to some hot springs and hiking. Fortunately it was not an open truck with benches that is used in films. Due to the nature of the "road," the trip up took about 2 hours during which we passengers were jostled and bounced fairly violently over boulders, through streams and mud. The secret is to relax and allow the bouncing. Resistance is not only futile, it is exhausting.
The scenery is staggering, the baths are primitive and sulphurous (but nonetheless pleasant), and the journey back allows for an hour of exhilarating walking down the road. I keep thinking, "we are about 100 km from the Chinese border" -- it blows my mind.
Loading back up in our nice Mercedes mini bus is most welcome after yesterday's journey. We will travel west along the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul to Tamga after another excursion in nature. First stop is to see eagle hunting wherein a trained eagle will be released to hunt and catch a domestic rabbit for its master. While seeing a "bunny" become dinner didn't top my list of things to do, I was quite captivated by the relationship between eagle and her master, the training and beauty of the bird. The master comes from a long line of eagle hunters and is teaching both his son and daughter. He captured the eagle when she was one, after her mother had trained her. Now four, he expects to keep her for another 5 or so years before releasing her into the wild.
We continued on to another valley with fascinating rock formations, along a river to a high meadow approaching the mountains that just cried out for Julie Andrews in a dirndl. A picnic lunch was planned but the weather was cold and spitting rain. Ulan, as we hiked, made arrangements to lay out our picnic in the yurt of a local family preparing to shortly depart their encampment (where they'd been grazing horses) for the winter in town.
Perhaps Tashkent (tonight) will offer better Internet access -- loading text and pictures is painfully slow...