This time we have some panoramas for you from 2 countries, one of which is the 9th biggest in the world (Kazakhstan). We spent a total of 6 weeks here, about 3 in each.
The 2 nations are very different, and even within one country the scenery changes with every few hundred kilometers, making it fascinating areas to explore. As usual, our route changed as soon as we got there and started reading about the many interesting places we could go to.
The vastness of the Kazakh steppe in the north, some might think it boring country, we thought the emptiness mesmerizing.
First glimpses of the famous Silk Road, an ancient adobe caravan-serai. After 3 days driving to get here, we felt as happy arriving here as travelers must have been back in those days.
We stayed overnight inside the old carava-serai and were rewarded with a stunning sunset.
Horseriding through the mountains of this stunning national park was rewarded with some seriously sore bums (and amazing views).
We add another world heritage site from Unesco to our list when we visit the Tamgaly petroglyphs. More than 3000 petroglyphs from the bronze and early stone age can be found here, as well as burial mounds, graves and remains of settlements. You can see a party on the left, and just to the right of the middle you can see some sun gods.
The stunning, red rocks of the Charyn Canyon make it very impressive. We were treated to some serious gale force winds during our overnight stay, making us a little grumpy the next day due to lack of sleep.
A little further the Charyn Canyon creates little oases along its icy waters, the contrast stunning (we think).
Every Sunday the locals gather to sell or buy livestock at this huge animal market. No reading descriptions, no checking out a photo, no entering of credit card details and no clicks with a mouse. Here they hand over real cash to buy their next sheep or walking hamburger after a bit of prodding, lifting, squeezing and serious negotiations about the price.
The Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan provide plenty of opportunities to snap panoramas, it was hard to pick ‘the best ones’. This was the glacier at the top of the Uch Tor valley.
The view from (near) the top of the glacier, looking back down the Uch Tor valley.
Looking back up the Kul Tor Valley on the second day of our hike. We descended from the right, and the Karakol Glacier is on the other side of the snowcapped mountains, which we reached via the 4020m pass.
The final scree slope before we get to the beautiful blue Ala Kol lake for our campsite on day 4 of our hike. The waterfall comes straight from the lake.
The last day of the hike, on the final ascent up to the Ala Kol pass (directly above Jude’s head) where it was snowing. Then a long way down to the hot springs in the next valley.
View from the Ala Kol pass at 3860m. Just stunning isn’t it?
A wind-still evening on the shores of Lake Issy Kul with a gorgeous sunset. We had a swim and enjoyed reading our books until the natural light disappeared.
On our way to Lake Song-Kol through another beautiful valley. The road followed the glacial river for dozens of kilometers. A little earlier we had met the hardcore Russian rafters paddling this grade 5 / 6 river.
A deserted track next to a little creek makes another perfect campsite. We haven’t had any problems finding great campsites in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Our standards have definitely improved since China!
Driving from Tash Rabat (the historic caravan-serai) to Arslanbob (the biggest walnut forest in the world) we drove through this type of landscape for 2 days. The snow on top of the mountains is fresh. On the higher passes we had to plough through 10 cm of fresh snow.
Another issue caused by the terrible Mongolian roads or is it too late to blame those now? The back brake protection plate cracked and had to be removed. We had it welded in Osh a couple of days later for $5. This was the only rainy day during our 6 weeks in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Our first view of the Pamir mountains as we approach the border with Tajikistan. Peak Lenin at 7,150m is visible towards the right, and the Pamir Highway cuts through the middle of the chain. This was one of the most magnificent views of the trip so far.
Normally we would have headed south from Bishkek, but we needed to go back to Almaty to pick up our visas. This meant crossing the border back into Kazakhstan and after doing all our jobs we drove straight back the way we came. Our objective was Tash Rabat, and we decided to cross central Kyrgyzstan on minor roads, firstly over the Tor-Ashuu pass with its dodgy tunnel (3,586m), through the Kokomoren River valley, past Lake Song-Kol and over another 2 mountain passes (both 3,000m+), finally crossing the main road to China from where it was only another 20km or so on a small road to Tash Rabat. Got it?!
It turned out to be a great decision to go this way, and not just because it avoided more police checks. The Kokomoren River valley was sensational with its incredible mountains and fast flowing bright blue glacial river. We bumped into a group of hardcore Russian rafters, using catamaran rafts to go down this grade 5-6 river. We had never seen the amount of protective gear they were wearing. We were very jealous.
We then found the perfect campsite at the bottom of a stunning red cliff, right next to the icy cold river, to top off another beautiful day. The next day was a bit colder and windier, and we drove on to lake Song-Kol where semi-nomadic families spend the summer with their cattle on the high-altitude pastures, called ‘jailoo’. Around October they start heading down the valleys to warmer pastures. We stopped at a single yurt with a row of foals attached to a line outside. This is a simple way to ensure the mares don’t stray very far and can be milked. We just happened to drive past as the lady was milking them.
Whilst taking some photos and filming a bit, we were invited back to her yurt. Even though the yurt is used in different countries, there are some subtle differences between for example the Mongolian and the Kyrgyz yurt.
The Kyrgyz yurt doesn’t have a full door, only the bottom half has a solid door and a layer of felt is rolled up or left hanging depending on the need for warmth. It also doesn’t have a full floor, but only about ¾ is covered with sheepskin. The section near the entrance is left barren. This is where the oven / heater is and you also take your shoes off in this area.
The Kyrgyz nomads sleep on this sheepskin, take their meals on it and relax in that area. Also the frame of the yurt is slightly different. The Kyrgyz yurt doesn’t have central support beams. As it is a little smaller and has more roof beams connecting the latticework to the round window in the roof, it can do without the central pillars. The Mongolian roof beams are straight, whereas the Kyrgyz beams have a curve at the end, about 30cm long, which meets the latticework, making the yurt a little taller.
We were given chai, kumiz (fermented mare’s milk – we still hadn’t ‘acquired the taste’ for it) and homemade bread and jam. A treat! We left them with some biscuits and a bag of crisps, the 2 older kids were very happy.
As the weather wasn’t great we didn’t linger around the barren lake for very long, instead deciding to continue driving over the pass into the next valley. The pass down was straight out of Top Gear, zigzagging back and forth down this steep mountain. It was a bit dodgy in a few areas, but we loved it. Again a bag of crisps was opened for us when we reached the higher altitude (straight up from 700m to 3200m), simply exploding under the decreasing pressure. This time the bottom had exploded out of the bag – a bit of a mess as you can imagine.
We finally made it to Tash Rabat at lunch time the next day. We weren’t the only ones there, as a school class of 30 boys were exploring the ancient caravan-serai too. Some spoke very good English so we were bombarded with questions whilst looking around. The historians aren’t sure if it was a caravan-serai, a fort or a monastery, but it was beautiful and unique and we enjoyed wandering through all its many rooms.
We then faced about 80km back on the same track back before we could turn west towards our next destination: Arslanbob – the world’s biggest walnut forest. To get there we had to cross the Kaldamo Pass, yet another high mountain pass. This time it started to snow a long way before we reached the top, and soon the rocky and narrow track became a pretty scary affair.
When we finally reached the top at 2985m, we were driving through 15cm of fresh snow and we had to rescue quite a few locals who were driving their small trucks and 2WDs. After pushing several cars out and even getting the shovel out for one who had managed to get himself seriously bogged, we very, very slowly continued through the snow with some apples, given to us by locals as our reward. It was a bit hairy at times, but Lara managed the snow and slipperiness like a pro.
As soon as we reached the valley below (in the sunshine) we found a field to camp. This time a sheepherder and his son came over for a ‘chat’. They gave us a freshly baked loaf of bread for our dinner, it tasted delicious.
We were now in a completely different Kyrgyzstan, one with a lot more people, villages and fruit and vegetables for sale everywhere along the roads. They were also drying plumbs after kids had pitted them. When we went for a look (we couldn’t work out what they were from the car) we were given a kilo of the best plumbs ever. Yet again when we tried to pay for them, the money was refused. Instead she added another couple of handfuls of plumbs to our bag…
In Arslanbob we hired a guide to show us around. Almaz told us everything about his village, the walnuts and his future plans. The harvest was about to start and some people had already moved to the forest, with animals and everything, to camp the coming 2 months in amongst their patch of walnut trees. On the 2 of October, everybody would start the harvest. Climbing trees and shaking each branch so the nuts would fall out. This is pretty dangerous as the trees are big and vigorous shaking can cause branches to break. Every year people are injured during harvest time, sometimes even fatal!
We were there as the first skins were bursting and managed to find some nuts, even climbed one tree to shake it (not much came out yet, but it was fun nonetheless). We ended up buying some walnuts from last year’s harvest – great for in our salads – and our guide also had a bottle of honey for sale we couldn’t resist.
Stocked up with goodies we camped by the river that night, very cold, but with amazing views of the freshly powdered mountains. Yes, we definitely loved Kyrgyzstan!
We need your vote on the title for this post as we couldn’t agree which of the above is better for this story.
It all started after we entered Kyrgyzstan via the Karkara Valley, a high-altitude border crossing only open in summer. We crossed here as it was close to Karakol where we did our 5-day hike with Onno and Tamar, before driving west towards Lake Issy Kul and Bishkek (the capital).
Before reaching the lake we stopped at Jeti Orguz, another beautiful valley in the area with dramatic red rock formations where we enjoyed lunch next to a babbling clear stream. We reached the lake around 4pm, early for us, and found a perfect campground right on the wind-still water’s edge. We were expecting the lake to be head-numbingly cold, but actually found it a lovely temperature for a proper swim (and wash of course). The rest of the afternoon we read our books and did some little jobs around the car.
The next morning we reached a tiny town where we enquired about the local eagle hunters. We were lucky, later that day one would be happy to show us the ancient skill of the mighty eagle catching and killing a sweet innocent bunny rabbit. We were all ears and decided to hang around.
Talgar (the eagle hunter) and Tomara (the eagle) were amazing. Tomara is a 10 year old female golden eagle, weighing 6kg and with a wingspan of 1.5m, she can see pray at a distance of 8km with her razor sharp eyes. She also happens to be twice the champion of Kyrgyzstan and is even capable of hunting wolf. The eagles (always females) used for this traditional way of hunting are caught from the nest after they have just learned how to fly. They are then trained by one master only and used for 20 years hunting in the winter months before being released back into the wild. They kill by grabbing the snout of their pray and then breaking their neck. She feels for the pulse of the animal with her very sensitive claws and when she no longer senses any life she will start to eat.
We saw this all demonstrated within a few minutes as she was released from a hill top to spot the rabbit in the middle of the valley (near where we were standing) instantly. A few seconds later she was sitting on top of the rabbit and was happily plucking away at her treat. Simply amazing to watch.
After a while we said our goodbyes and she was popped into the boot of the small car again to drive home. I guess not only sheep and goats are transported that way, also a stately eagle finds herself in the back of a boot when she needs to travel anywhere.
We continued our journey further west along Lake Issy Kul and as the Lonely Planet raves about a small salt lake, close to the shore of Lake Issy Kul, we decided to have a quick float before setting up camp on a nearby beach. The salt lake didn’t rate high in our books, but we did find some very tiny interesting fish whizzing around using their bright red tails. Anybody have any idea what they are? (see photo)
After successfully having managed to avoid being stopped at all of the many police checks and even more speeding cameras in Kazakhstan, we were enjoying the smooth new tarmac road towards Bishkek and must have missed the speed limit sign. Even with road works all around, Jon thought 30km/hr was just too slow…
They were hidden around a long sweeping bend and the orange baton came out, pointing at us. We pulled over and after a while the policeman came over to our window, indicating to Jon he should follow him. Jon was shown the video footage of him doing 83km around the corner. Luckily for us the speed limit hadn’t been 30km, but 60km. After filling in some ‘official’ paperwork as his commander was sitting in the car too, the fine was set at 500 som (approximately $10). No licence was checked and only a surname and signature were needed on the half-completed document.
We were never offered a copy of the paperwork, and with the fine being this small we decided to high-tail it out of there (at 60km an hour of course). Jon’s second ‘fine’ of the trip after being recorded on video. Not bad after the many kilometers we have already driven so far. Scores on the doors: Jon 2 – Jude 0. And then we’re not even mentioning the hush money paid when Jon reversed into somebody’s bonnet…
Continuing our way into Bishkek after this unwanted hold up, we stopped for lunch at the Burana Tower. The tower is the only thing left standing of what once would have been a very impressive mosque, the tower would have been one of its minarets. But for us the biggest appeal of the site were the many baubals grouped together. Finally we saw in the flesh many of the stones we had been looking for so hard in the Altai Republika. Many on display still had their faces very visibly carved into the rock, amazing when you think they are 2,000 years old. We had to wait until a young Kyrgyz boy-band had finished recording their latest video clip amongst the baubals before we were allowed to finally admire them from up close.
In Bishkek we had a few navigational issues before finally reaching our agreed rendez-vous point with Robert and Clary. They are 2 Dutchies traveling the world in their amazing, beautiful but massive 16-tonne truck. We had been in touch a few times over the past months and it was great meeting them even though it was only for one evening. Who knows, our paths may cross again one day.
Most important things first: happy birthday mum!! Hope you have a wonderful day, I’ll call as soon as I can. Love, jxxxxx
Khan Tengri is a 7000+m mountain situated on the borders of China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, with the huge Inchelyk glacier flowing down one of its flanks. Our plan was to hike to its climbing base camp (5-6 day hike) and then take a helicopter ride back. Unfortunately it was not to be.
We had already heard worrying news about a case of the bubonic plague in the area and as we arrived in Karakol our fears were confirmed. Yes, a young kid had died of the bubonic plague and the area around Khan Tengri was in quarantine. We had a chat with some local guides and decided on a ‘plague free’ hike in the Tian Shan mountains instead. The first 3 days we would require a guide as we would cross a glacier and a high pass on the second day. The last 2 days we would walk on our own.
As the first day was only a short hike, we decided to leave late, giving us time to visit the weekly animal market. This is reputedly one of the biggest in Central Asia and we watched as sheep, goats, cows and horses were prodded, pushed, squeezed, lifted and checked before negotiations started and eventually money changed hands. The new purchase would then under noisy protests be dragged into the back of a truck or dumped into the boot of a Lada.
We bumped into a Dutch couple Onno and Tamar when running around town the day before the hike. They had just arrived from Bishkek and also planned to hike and in the end decided to join us. They were keen, but had no equipment or (as it turned out later that night) means to get out cash as all of the many banks in Karakol would only accept Visa cards. In the end everything was sorted and at 11am we were ready to go.
We all loved the look of the 45 year old Russian jeep we were piling into with 4 big bagpacks and our driver / guide Dima. A little later on the steep, rocky and muddy tracks of the Karakol valley we weren’t quite so happy as the jeep kept breaking down (wouldn’t happen in a Land Rover). Dima had to spend some time under the bonnet each time to get the thing started again. Eventually the jeep gave up all together and our frustrated guide, a man of few words, stormed off back down the track on foot. He soon returned and declared ‘other car coming’, obviously his phone call back to the office had the desired effect.
An hour later a Russian van came flying up the hill. We decided this would make an awesome cheap 4WD campervan as there is loads of space inside, it’s simple, they go anywhere and only cost $3500 (a good secondhand one). Accompanied by loud Euro / Russian pop songs (none ever got to the end) we drove 10 minutes before we stopped again. Our driver must have been told to get going straight away as he now disappeared into the bush with a role of toiletpaper and a pack of cigarettes. Dima had to bring his lighter to him after a few minutes…
All this, and the fact that Dima still had to pack his bag when we got to their trekking base camp meant we had a much later start to the hike then planned. Around 7pm we finally reached our camp at the foot of the glacier and we quickly prepared dinner before it got dark. It was cold so we all retreated to our tents early, although we did spent quite a bit of time admiring the stars against the magnificent backdrop of the snow-covered Peak Karakol which emerged ahead of us.
The next day we left late again (9.30) as our guide preferred to spent time in his tent with the girl he had brought on the hike. His girlfriend was too precious to carry anything and certainly didn’t spend a minute outside as soon as the tents were pitched.
The hike was sensational, the scenery of deep glacial valleys surrounded by towering snow covered mountains simply stunning. The glacier showed all its amazing features to us throughout the day. The first section we walked with our crampons on and roped together, but that was only a small part of the glacier and to be honest it would have probably been better to rope up later that day as we reached the pass. That’s where the crevasses were still hidden by snow which we gingerly found our own way through as our guide was preoccupied with his girlfriend.
The pass into the next valley was a very steep, scree covered slope of small and big rocks which Dima thought best to race up, all close together without any attempt to stop rocks sliding and rolling down onto the person behind. We quickly realised it was better not to be anywhere near our guide as avalanches of rocks came tumbling down, luckily most of them didn’t hit anybody. Slowly we worked our way to the top of the pass at 4020m and we all enjoyed the view of the next valley until the adrenaline had subsided and we ran down the glacier on the other side through the slushy snow.
The speed didn’t last long as we soon reached the boulder field of the glacier and hour after hour we rock-hopped our way down. Onno was struggling with his well-used rented boots and eventually put his crampons on again to get down a bit more comfortably. It was a long, difficult hike and leaving late meant we reached camp again early in the evening (6.30pm) instead of late afternoon. We joined Onno and Tamar for cooking and even Dima emerged out of his tent to share some cheese, salami and home-brewed vodka, brewed following his grandfather’s recipe – quite tasty.
Even though we had told him we wanted to leave earlier the next day, there was no sign of life from his tent at breakfast so we decided to head off early and wait down the track in the sun. It was pretty cold in the mornings and gloves and hats were worn until the sun reached the bottom of the steep-sided valleys. Then it was back to shorts and t-shirts. Today we were mainly going downhill and we saw some oversized marmots before they ran for cover. With the buggers spreading the plague we weren’t too unhappy about them disappearing when we approached.
Walking through pine forests, through massive boulder fields and along glacial rivers, we quickly descended and traded the glacier for high altitude pastures with cows and their nomadic herders. It wasn’t a long day and we enjoyed a lazy lunch spot next to the river. Back at the base camp we pitched our tents and actually enjoyed some sunshine whilst getting cleaned up. We had a little shemozzle with our guide as he failed to tell the ranger we had paid our park entrance fee and where we were allowed to pitch our tents, but soon we were eating a fantastic meal in the big dining tent.
Then it was Russian sauna time! They had a gipsy style wagon in their camp that was set up as a sauna, complete with outdoor plunge bath filled with glacial waters. It was just what we needed. The sauna was heated up by a wood fire underneath a big water drum and got things pretty hot inside. We washed, scrubbed, sweated and plunged until our bodies were clean, relaxed and glowing. And then we poured a beer into them as a reward whilst staring at the stars and satellites flying past.
The next day we were on our own (the four of us that is) and we crossed a river to get to a bridge to cross an even bigger river. That was all of the level ground we would be walking on that day. Our hike went up, up and up a bit more. But it didn’t feel like hard work as the trees, marmots, rocks, woodpeckers, mountain streams and flowers all took our minds of the long ascent we were on.
The last section was pretty much a scree slope and we had to follow a tiny goat track zigzagging up the hill. But when we finally reached the top we were rewarded with an awesome view over the beautiful turquoise glacial lake Ala Kol, our campsite for tonight. Later we were joined by 2 Czech hikers, Andrea and Viktor and we enjoyed cooking together and playing bingo, a game they had never heard of.
In the morning 3 ibex made a joke of our hard work to get to the next pass by bouncing over the scree slopes like they were flying. It had taken us a couple of hours to get to the top, they covered half the distance in about a minute! At the top we watched the snowflakes come down – the first snow of the trip! – and we munched some chocolate biscuits as our reward for reaching the Ala Kol pass (3860m). From here it was all downhill to the hot springs.
After the first downhill section, which we covered cm by cm (scary!), it became a lot easier and around 4pm we reached the eagerly anticipated hot springs. And they were definitely hot. A treat for our tired muscles, followed by another treat, this time for our stomachs: plov, salad and bread washed down with some beers.
The next day we bounced up and down again in an old Russian jeep, this time we made it without any mechanical issues, but the ride still took more than 3 hours on a very rough, rocky track. All too soon we were back in the hostel where we were greeted with a pile of clean clothes, great. Time to pack up the car, say goodbye to our new friends Onno and Tamar and head towards Issy Kul for our next adventure.