Saturday, 1 September 2012

Day 152 – Life as a nomad. (Kyrgyzstan)

After meeting up with Josje and Remco at Isik Kol (also spelt Issyk Kul), we decided to visit a nearby salt lake before heading to Song Kol (kol or kul means lake) all together. The salt lake was pretty incredible, so salty that your body just floats on the water. It is a bizarre sensation not needing to tread water to stay afloat. When we got out of the water the hot sun dried our skin quickly and we could see the salt oozing out of our pores. We crossed the car park to Isik Kol, the fresh lake, to rinse the salt off our bodies, and set off South towards Song Kol.
To get to Song Kol we had to cross two unbelievable mountain passes, before sweeping into the vast valley where the lake is, 3,400m above sea level. The roads in Kyrgyzstan leave a lot to be desired – most of the mountain roads we’ve taken (including this one) are wide enough for one car, sometimes barely, right on the edge of the drop with no barriers, and completely unmade. The road surface is often just rocks from landslides.
The plan was to stay in a yurt next to the lake, which is apparently a thing. We’d gone to the CBT (Community Based Tourism) office in a nearby town where we were given directions and told just to rock up at the yurts with CBT flags and arrange with the owners.
When we got to the lake though we had to turn off the “main road” onto our choice of several 4x4 tracks and horse tracks, negotiating our way through chunks of mud, crevices, dried up river banks and small but fast moving streams. We passed a handful of yurts and tents scattered across the hillsides, and inadvertently drove up a few of their driveways. Mostly we were met by confused looks and a couple of angry gestures, but we came across one group of children who wanted to talk to us and asked to play with Pinchie, the plastic lobster hanging in the back of the car that was gifted us on our departure from Melbourne.
A few ridges and crevices later a large group of yurts appeared over the horizon and we realised that they were probably the CBT ones we were looking for. Before we got there though we came across a small group of four yurts and a tent with a CBT flag flying out front, so we stopped there and were pretty content with the offer of 350 Com ($7) per person per night including breakfast and 250 Com ($5) per lunch/dinner (we’d been expecting about 650 Com pp pn and 200 Com per meal). While we were arranging our stay, we got talking to the owner of the Lada that was parked in front of the yurts. It turns out he’s the French Deputy Ambassador in Bishkek which explained the diplomatic plates on the car, and we gladly took him up on his offer of taking the Lada out for a quick spin. So now we have not only driven any old Soviet built car, but a Lada; and not only any Kyrgyz car, but one with diplomatic plates.
Yurts are made from a wooden frame, often brightly coloured although ours wasn’t, held together by a variety of vibrant materials. Over the frame are layers of handmade felt, each section held onto the frame by colourful ropes tied around the other portions of felt. The emblem in the centre of the Kyrgyz flag is based on the point at the top of the yurt which is a circle with three crosses through the centre. Vividly coloured velvet quilts and tapestries were hung around the inside walls, and the floor was laid out with patterned rugs and sleeping mats. A pile of folded up bedding at the side and a small poo fire stove (essentially the same as a wood stove, except the fuel of choice in this neck of the woods is cow poo) were the only pieces of furniture. They’re basically sturdy, more permanent tents and we even had the pleasure of witnessing the moving of one which involves removing all the felt, and because it was only being moved a couple of hundred metres, the frame was literally picked up and carried to the new spot. There are funny circles all over the ground where there used to be yurts and all the grass is dead.
We waved goodbye to the French Deputy Ambassador and his Lada and spent our first afternoon exploring the hills surrounding the lake. We drove across the flat (ish – it was all crevices and river beds again) land to where the mountains jutted out of the landscape. There we parked Trevor at the top of a ridge with a spectacular view over the surroundings, and from there the plan was to go for a bit of a trek before dinner. I decided to keep Trevor company while the others climbed up and down uneven slopes and rocky inclines, making their way to a cave in the side of one of the hills before returning to Trevor and I.
The meals were interesting. We really weren’t sure what to expect, but we had anticipated that there would be a large meat component in the dishes, considering the land is really quite barren in the area and there are herds of cows, yaks, sheep, goats and horses all over the place. This wasn’t really the case though. Each meal was along the same lines as the others. There was always a stand of bread or some sort of bread product and a handful of dainty crystal bowls full of homemade butter, solidified lard, sugar and delicious homemade jams (no idea where they find the berries for the jams – we guess they buy them in). Then there was the main part of the meal for which we were served a very tasty vegetable soup with one chunk of tough meat on one occasion, a whole small grilled fish on one occasion, and pancakes and flavourless porridge for breakfast. And chai (tea). Lots and lots of chai, which is served in ceramic bowls, and topped up with ferocious regularity by the host.
The meals were served inside the tent which we gathered is where the family actually live. There was a small cot in the corner which the baby was sometimes asleep in, a pile of bedding, a poo fire stove, a one ring portable gas cooker and a small wooden cabinet. We were seated around a rectangular table in the centre of the tent, surrounded by rugs to sit on, and always bizarrely with four of us squeezed along one side of the table, one on each end, and the other whole side empty except for the girl who came to serve us more chai.
It was hard work partly because of language barrier and partly because nomads don’t seem to be too concerned with the concept of time, but we managed to organise ourselves a horse ride. Our guide wasn’t exactly great, but it does feel like quite a fitting way to explore a small yurt village in the hills.
Everything was going swimmingly until our lunch was interrupted by a dozen French people who just rocked up and decided they wanted to have a picnic directly behind our car. This of course meant that their view was blocked by our monstrosity of a vehicle and they required us to promptly finish our meal and remove it from their otherwise perfect view. The next day was spent flitting between enjoying relaxing in the fresh air, swimming in the lake and taking in our surroundings, and attempting to deflect the continuous stream of arrogant and unreasonable demands from the French people. But what’s a holiday without a bit of conflict anyway?
French tourists aside, this was still one of the most memorable places we’ll probably ever go to.

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