So my trip from Dublin through Istanbul to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was a relatively smooth flight, although I will say that Istanbul’s International terminal could use a few more signs. What a complete mess. (I did, however, have enough time in Istanbul’ airport to find a box of Turkish Delight, which I hope will make it back to Seattle. However, the last time I was in Istanbul, the Turkish Delight disappeared within a week.)
My flight from Istanbul to Bishkek was a short 4 hour flight (knocking almost one hour off the scheduled time due to tail winds) allowing us to arrive at 4:45 a.m. I made my way through immigration in record time (no visa needed), found my luggage and exited customs to find my guide “AK” and driver “Ferhat” waiting for me with a sign. Poor guys had to be exhausted having to get up in the middle of the night.
By the time we exited the airport parking and began the drive towards the city, the sun was beginning to peak out over the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountains, which is part of the Tian Shan Mountain range. As we drove, I could just make out the snow capped peaks in the distance. And what I learned from AK as we drove is that Bishkek is actually situated at 800 meters (2,600 feet), and the Tian Shan Mountains rise to a height of 4,855 meters (15,928 ft). We would be heading into the mountains on Saturday to a height of just over 3,000 meters (approximately 10,000 feet) so it was back to hiking around in altitude. Greaaaaat!
Now a couple other things I learned from AK. Bishkek is a relatively young city having only been founded in 1878 on the site of a Russian garrison. Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan became part of the Soviet Union in 1926 and remained under Soviet control until 1991, when Kyrgyzstan gained independence from Moscow.
Anyway, we reached the Park Hotel by 5:45 a.m. and by 6:15, I was in bed with a plan to sleep until 10:15 a.m. and then meet AK at 11:00 a.m. for a walk around Bishkek. Of course, AK was right on time, so we set off towards Ala-Too Square where the Independence Day celebrations were ongoing. It took us forever to reach the main square as the police had all of the access points cordoned off and only people exiting could leave from the main access points. As a result, we had to do a complete circle of the square to find the ingress point in order to enter the square.
As we wandered around to reach the ingress point for the square, we passed a massive Lenin statute that was apparently moved from Ala-Too Square in 2003. It was a typical Lenin statute with his arm outstretched in pointing manner. We then walked past the equivalent of the Kyrgyzstan White House with its enormous fountains, before finally reaching the square.
As we entered the square, the first thing I noticed was a massive statute of Manas on a horse. (Manas is a very lengthy Kyrg poem dating to the 18th century that purports to tell the story of Manas as he joined together 40 tribes to create Kyrgyzstan. It is not entirely clear how much truth is in the poem.)
We continued walking around the square, and I made the mistake of asking AK what was in the enormous blue, red, green and yellow containers at the stands we kept passing. AK advised me it was the Kyrg national drink. The blue container held “tham” a fermented yogurt curd drink. The red container held “maxim”, a fermented wheat drink. The green container held tea. And the yellow container held “kuvas”, a fermented drink made with bread. Now AK immediately suggested I try a couple as the eager seller began to pour. Uh oh. I had immediate flash backs to that wretched yak butter tea I forced down in Tibet. And once I had a taste of “maxim” I knew my instincts were correct. This stuff was horrid. I literally gagged as I took a drink.
I then tried “tham” and it was equally brutal (think spoiled milk). At this point, I was wishing for some tea, but apparently that was not in the cards. I passed on the “kuvas”, gagged down the tham and immediately wanted to spit it out. As this was going on, AK was in fits of laughter at the look of horror and bitter beer face as I tried to swallow the tham. GACK! This stuff was beyond gross. Never again!
After the awful encounter with the “national drink”, we wandered around the massive (and very typical Soviet style) square as musicians performed sounding very much like they were right out of the Soviet Union. Lots of military sounding music and patriotic song. It was actually very fitting to hear as we wandered around the square.
We left the main square and began to walk through a park. Now one of the things I have already noticed about Bishkek is the enormous number of parks, green spaces and flowers that are literally everywhere, along with a plethora of statutes. And right on cue, the next statute came into view. This one was of a woman. Her name was Kurmanjan Datka, a the 19th-century heroine who was the leader of certain klans in southern Kyrgyzstan and who ultimately acquiesced to the annexation of her region by the Russians. By doing so, she was permitted to have her people participate in governing the region thus preserving the Kyrg heritage.
Another thing I have noticed about Bishkek is the large cement apartment buildings. There is certainly no mistaking that this city was once controlled by the Soviets. However, what I found unique was the overriding Central Asian/Islamic influence that was everywhere from the the mosques throughout the city to the style of dress worn by women (a headcovering, but far different from any I have seen with the scarf being tied in the back).
We ended up wandering out of the park and hopping into a cab for a short ride to a restaurant for some lunch. I was promised no more of the fermented stuff, but immediately upon sitting down, I was served a shot glass full of chalub (no idea if I am spelling this right), another fermented drink of horror. It was equally gagsome. For lunch, we had boorsok, fried doughy bread with a hint of sweetness, a lovely spicy tomato based soup, salad and beshbarmak, (which translates into “five fingers”, since it is traditionally eaten by hand). The dish included flat noodles topped with lamb in vegetable broth. The meal was topped by copious amounts of tea (and at no point was my glass ever less than half full).
After lunch, we wandered over to the World War II memorial which dominated yet another square. The monument had three large curves (that I was told were intended to look like nomadic yurts) surrounding an eternal flame. While we were there, a bride and groom appeared and proceeded to place flowers at the base of the eternal flame. Apparently this is a tradition for all brides and grooms in Bishkek.
From the memorial, AK and I walked back to my hotel to meet Ferhat who was going to drive us one hour outside the city to the Ala Archa National Park, an alpine park in the Tian Shan mountains. The park has glaciers, waterfalls, hiking and horse trails and is a popular picnic destination for the people of Bishkek. As we drove, we stopped by the side of the road at a natural spring and filled up our water bottles. Best tasting water I have had in some time.
Once we arrived at the park, PK, Ferhat and I hiked the main trail back to a bridge leading over the fast moving Adygene River. The path was mostly uphill and our elevation increased to almost 3200 meters during the hike (oh that dreaded elevation). As we hiked along, we passed families picnicking, massive juniper trees, wild flowers and evidence of the occasional land slide. The hike only took about 40 minutes. At the bridge, we took some time to enjoy the scenery for a bit before starting our hike back out (which was much easier considering it was downhill). And while the park apparently has snow leopards, marmots, wild mountain goats and roe deer, we did not see any wildlife.
Once back at the car, Ferhat drove us back to the city. Along the way, we stopped at a little pub for some snacks. The “pub” was unlike anything I have ever seen. It was a series of little tents with table and seating areas inside each tent. There was one large tent covering an open courtyard, which is where we chose to sit. Apparently these “pubs” are only open during the summer months as the winters are far too cold.
I ended up drinking an “Arapa” beer, a Russian beer that goes back to Soviet times. It was remarkably good. Our “snacks” included a baked smoked cheese, home made potato chips that were absolutely delicious and two kebabs (chicken and beef) that were coated in spices and grilled. Sensational.
As we were leaving the restaurant, we ran into a Kyrg fellow wearing …. a Vancouver Canuck jersey. Seriously! The guy had apparently gone to Vancouver, saw a hockey game (the only game he has seen) and adopted Vancovuer as his team. (I did not have the heart to tell him that he is in for a lifetime of heartache and disapppointment). After a high five and a picture, we walked to the car.
By now I could hardly keep my eyes open (and AK wasn’t helping because he kept yawning) so we called it a day. I would see both of them bright and early at 9:00 a.m. for our three day trip to Son Kul Lake and Issy Kul Lake. (And oh yea, I ‘m staying in a yurt with nomads. THAT otta be fun.)