AK (whose real name is Aktilek) and Farhat arrived right at 9:00 a.m. to begin our day long trip to Son Kul Lake. Son Kul Lake is southeast of Bishkek in the central region of Kyrgyzstan. The lake sits at 3,016 meters (about 10,000 feet), is almost 20 meters across, and between May and September, nomads and herders yurts are found all along the shoreline. Because of Kyrgyzsan’s community based tourism, many of the herders and nomads host tourists during the summer season. I was going to be on of those tourists.
As we set out from Bishkek, AK suggested we stop at a store to pick up some “supplies” for our trip. I soon found out that “supplies” meant picking up a bottle of Kyrg vodka. Uh oh … I wasn’t sure I liked where this was heading. AK assured me it was only for a few night time shots. Yea sure.
Anyway, as we wandered around the store, what should I find but Christmas ornaments. Seriously? I had to do a double take, but there they were … a few little ornaments with the name Kyrgystan written on the bottom of each. I found one that is in the shape of the funny little hat that men wear in these parts and called it good.
With our supplies (and my surprise ornament) in hand we piled into the car and began the long drive to Son Kul Lake. Now the roads in and out of Bishkek were surprisingly good the day before when we went to the park, and these roads were no different. Two lanes, well paved roads with police at every crossing. I soon realized that the heavy police presence was not to monitor traffic. Nope. The initial part of our drive was in the direction of Chopan Alta, the site of the World Nomad Games, which had their opening ceremonies today. Now when I planned my trip, I had no idea these games were going on, but as luck would have it, we are going to be in Chopan Alta on Monday so rather than do the touristy things in Chopan Alta we were going to take in the games. Now I have no idea what events I will be seeing, but have heard we may be taking in a sport similar to American football, but instead of carrying a football they carry a headless sheep. I AM NOT JOKING! Obviously that blog will be interesting.
Anyway, we continued our drive out of Bishkek and through a lot of flat farmlands. Kyrgy people love their meat so there were a lot of cattle and sheep farms along the way. And as we passed through village after village, I saw all the school kids dressed in their uniforms (girls in dresses, boys in slacks, shirt and tie) heading off to the first day of school. A number of the younger girls had this peculiar large white flower adorning their pony tails and pigtails. I have no idea if this is a style trend or has some kind of meaning, but I did not see the flowers on older girls.
I also found it peculiar that the children were going back to school on a Saturday, but apparently all children in the former Soviet block countries as well as Russia begin their school year on September 1 (no matter the day on which September 1 falls). And the first day of school is a big celebration. We even passed one school that was festooned in balloons and teachers leading the children in cheers. (How different from Washington State right now where the majority of school districts are voting to strike.)
About an hour and half into our drive, we took a detour to visit the Burana Tower. The Burana Tower is located in a field east of Kegeti and is last vestiges of the ancient citadel of Balasaagun. The tower reportedly dates to the 11th century, but the remains were actually restored by the Russians in the 1950s.
Anyway, we stopped for a quick look, opted not to climb the tower and instead spent the majority of our time in a little museum that housed 9th to 11th century pottery, stone work, coins, and tools. I also made a quick trip to the tiny little souvenir shop next to the museum where I purchased a handmade silk and embroidered scarf. Just as we were leaving, a massive Chinese contingent, apparently associated with the Nomad Games, arrived so we counted our blessings that we were able to enjoy the tower in relative peace and then were able to skedaddle before the hordes took over.
As we continued our drive, the rolling farmlands were now surrounded by mountains that were mostly barren of any greenery. In addition, the little villages we passed through seemed to become more religious as we headed further south since I began to notice more mosques and more women in conservative dress.
In addition, the cattle farms were replaced by fields of corn. At one point we stopped by a roadside stand where a young man was cooking corn for those driving by. We purchased one ear for me and I all I can say is YUM. The corn we incredibly sweet and as good as it comes. I actually would have opted for another ear of corn if we had stuck around, but instead I ate on the go.
Shortly before 1:00 we made a lunch stop in the little town of Kochor. The restaurant was purely local, and the food was terrific. We were served bread (as seems to be standard with all meals) and copious amounts of tea (also seems to be standard). For the main course, I opted for the dumpling soup and for the table AK ordered chicken with vegetables (which turned out to only be onions) and beef and two different salads. Although both the chicken and beef were good, they couldn’t hold a candle to the kebabs we had the day before at the pub.
After lunch, we begin to drive through very hilly terrain that passed through a series of lakes and rivers in an area known as the Boom Valley. By 2:30, we made the turn at the sign for Son Kul Lake where it read 56 km. Unfortunately, this is where the road turned from nice paving to gravel roads. We bounced along as the road took us up, up, up into the high dessert mountains. And the scenery became more and more magnificent with bright blue sky overlooking brown dessert mountains. Periodically we would come across a pasture where herds of horses were grazing on green fields indicating a river nearby.
There were very few villages now with only the occasional farm house and the occasional horse and cart that we passed on the road. At one point, as we began the climb towards the high mountain pass, we encountered a broken down vehicle. We pulled over and AK and Farhat pulled out some tools from our car and helped the elderly gentlemen. Turns out the problem was only a flat, but the blowout had cause the van to veer into a slight ditch so with everyone pitching in, the van was moved back onto the road and the tire changed. As AK noted, good karma will now follow us.
After the tire change, we hit the mountain pass, with spectacular gorges and incredible scenery. As we started a slight descent towards Son Kul Lake, we passed a number of nomad yurts and small herds of horses and cows. It wasn’t long before we could see the lake sparkling in the sunshine.
The land surrounding the lake could best be described as wide open grasslands. We saw the occasional group of horses and a few cows as well as small groups of yurts. We arrived at our little group of yurts around 4:30 and were immediately invited to sit for tea. And this wasn’t just tea. There were cookies, candies, nuts, breads and the most wonderful concoction called chuck chuck (no idea if that is how is spelled, but that is how it is pronounced). It was made with honey and I could not stop eating it. However, amongst all the goodness was a plate full of little white oblong shaped somethings. AK insisted I try one. I took one bite and almost puked. It tasted like chalk. It turned out to be fermented horse milk cheese. GACK.
In fact, after finally dragging myself away from the table (and more tea than I thought I could possibly drink), Farhat and I took a walk to the shore of the lake. By now, the wind had picked up and the sun was beginning to set making it even more cold.
Anyway, in order to reach the lake, we had to cross a grassy stretch that looked like green moguls. It was a very unusual sight. Once we reached the lake, we both confirmed that the water was freeeezing and coupled with the wind and setting sun told us it was time to head back to the yurts.
Now each yurt is conical shaped and covered in some sort of animal skin. I was assigned a yurt that had four beds was slightly raised off the floor and included a stove that was filled with charcoal for heat. The yurt was lit by one light that came on after sunset, was solar powered and was turned off at 10:00 p.m. And where were the bathrooms you ask? About a 2 minute walk from my yurt, which I am sure will make for a pleasant experience in the middle of the night.
We had dinner at 7:00 p.m. and were joined by a lovely coupled from Germany who were driving themselves around Kyrgyzstan. Very unusual and rather daring. Anyway, during dinner, AK brought out the vodka and it was shots time. Ugh. Oh well …. When in Rome. And the hysterical part …. AK didn’t partake. He only drinks wine.. Thanks AK!
Now I will say that my lovely little yurt was incredibly warm and toasty with a burning fire and very heavy blankets. In addition, I had the yurt all to myself which made it even better. And I got a great great night of sleep so I would be ready for Day 2 at Son Kol Lake.