Reluctant arrival (as with almost every city entry) very quickly becomes joyous immersion. Karakol is my kind of town. It’s small, old worldly presentation but modern as well – probably reflective of its increasing emergence as a place to be. Tourism is growing and buildings are rising like mushrooms in the forest.
It is easy to be here – Jalil and Aizada who run the hostel could not be more helpful. The recurring joy of a shower and clean clothes is never lost on me. It’s been a very dusty few days – I know the dust has found a way into every crevice. I stay in the shower longer than usual, scrub a little harder than usual – I am committed to keeping my white bath towel white. I wash hair and self thoroughly, twice. I fail. Despite my best efforts as I dry myself I see the white towel now has a new pattern of brown blotches as my dirt comes off on the towel.
There is plenty to do but we are only interested in being clean, having clean clothes and sorting out wifi and SIM cards. When that is all completed we feel our days work is done.
But of course there is also time to wander into town, to get our bearings, see the signposts of Karakol’s soviet past – little white gingerbread houses with blue or green shutters – mostly in various stages of decay. And also another wooden Russian Orthodox Church – not as big as the last but equally spectacular.
And in the park hidden away are small sculptures- like ones we have seen used as burial stones – though it would seem odd if that’s what they are – here in the edges of a public park with no obvious markings.
We have arrived just 11 days after the hostel has opened. There is a celebratory party planned – family on both sides, key people from the village – just a small party 40 of the closest – we are invited.
In our wandering we also manage to try Ashlan Fu – the local dish – a cold very tasty noodle soup. We order nervously then vacuum up the delicious soup that arrives. I add it to my growing list of tasty Kyrgyz food.
We also visit a felting workshop – though there is not much underway – here they make a lot of the felt for yurts. It’s an impressive outcome for the limited equipment.
There is much to be done at the hostel – we help, excited to be learning traditional Kyrgyz food. While I am doing the blog Adrienne and a team if women make bucketloads of chuchvara (small meat dumplings for soup) it takes hours and a huge team effort.
Around midnight the shift changes. Almost everyone goes to bed except Aizada, Adrienne and me. We make what seems like hundreds of sweet bread rolls learning how to knot them, twist them, turn them inside out – excited we were learning some traditional methods. As we finish around 2am we ask Aizada if her mother had taught her how to make this bread – no she informed us proudly – she had learnt all this from the internet. We all laugh and we go to bed happy we have learnt something new but with no idea of the originating country. We also go to bed full of Kyrgyz paklava – yes like baklava only better 😁
We are excited Anna and Pau are also on their way to Karakol and will also stay at Snow Leopard- they are also keen to do the Ala Kol walk – a 3 day walk up into the mountains and over a snowy pass. They arrive the night before the party. By the time the party arrives we are feeling a little caged in – a couple of days indoors and just wandering has us itching to be in the great outdoors. We have been invited to the party – but we still have time to head up to Jeti Orguz – to find an old Russian Sanitorium, amazing red hills and a beautiful river and waterfall.
Meanwhile Adrienne explores the sanitorium and the river…and we both tried the spring water – guaranteed to cure all ills. Not sure if it cured anything or not but it didn’t give us anything either so we were happy.
We arrive back to the party in full swing – two sheep have be slaughtered and cooked. – it was a deliberate goal to miss that bit of the preparations!
It’s an honour to be at the party – we arrive mid way through not wanting to be in the way – but as soon as we do we are made to feel very welcome – given seats, passed food and even watched over as we drank the almost mandatory nip of vodka to celebrate (we usually manage to refuse but for once I was happy to partake).
In addition to being present the other treat is chatting with Amelia – heading more about village life – though not surprisingly some of the gender issues are very familiar.
Shoe shopping wasn’t high on the list of Kyrgyz activities but neither was hiking over an icy pass with sandals. Shoe options were pretty limited and the weather was coming in. It was a very tough call but feeling a little underprepared- especially for bad weather we decided not to go and instead wished Anna and Pau well waving them off with just a tiny bit of FOMO. Then jumped on our bikes and headed west once again.
So we head off with no plans just a blue sky and soon enough an even bluer lake. The roads here are okay but definitely not smooth and even out of the mountains there’s gentle up and downs so the going is slower than other countries but the scenery rewards you for moving slowly.
Before long we see other cycle tourers stocking up on fuel – we recognise it well, fruit, jam, bread, biscuits, yoghurt, tea and this is just a mid morning snack. They have come from where we are heading though have mountain bikes and have gone off road much more. Still there is good intel to share, including a grassy campsite for the evening and water spot to top up our perpetually emptying water bottles. It’s stunning cycling though I could say that almost every day.
The water is just outside Hadjida’s place. She and her son are there him working on a car and Hadjida gardening. Before long my water is topped up and I am inside having chai and chatting. Hadjida is a teacher and keen to chat in English. I’m offered noodles which look a little bit like Ashlan fu so I say yes – ah well. Luckily I asked for only a small helping. There is no meat however it is clear it has been cooked in meat juices – the flavour is intense – I struggle through and make just enough of a dent to be polite.
The only trouble with chai (apart from the food) is the timing and having your touring partner whizz by while you are inside chatting. Not a problem for long – there is great signal along the lake. So we find not one but two campsites along the lake then converge in one to set up home for the night.
The campsite is dry, stony and dusty and it has the usual broken glass everywhere but it has one overwhelmingly redeeming feature, the lake. I can easily see an ocean before me – I can hardly see across it though if I squint my eyes I can just make out the snow covered peaks of the something range on the other side.
The only thing better than starting a day with a swim is ending the day with one as well. We had heard about Torso Yurt camp from a Swiss couple in Karakol- they couldn’t speak more highly – on the lake, lovely people, great food. We thought we’d give it a try. We thought we’d be there by lunch but after a late departure that didn’t quite work. The road is stunning – shadowing the edge of the lake curving around the hills and mountains.
We headed for small back roads – didn’t quite find the yurt camp but did find a gorgeous quiet lunch spot. Clear blue water one side, snowy peaks behind us.
Finding our way to the yurt camp wasn’t hard – we have maps.me a great app which tells us exactly where to go. It does not however tell us that the route it has planned for us is soft sand and will require much pushing and not much riding.
Finally we arrive – it is expensive by our standards, the greeting is not overly friendly though okay and the yurt has been set up for tourists- beds rather than quilted mats on the floor – (which are much more comfort than the beds!) it is however deliciously close to the beach. We had thought about staying two days but decide one will be quite enough. Before long we are in the water.
We head off in search or Bokonbaevo and a women’s felting cooperative – keen to both develop and expand skills. Ashlan fu arrives long before Bokonbaevo and a new plan evolves. The lake is so beautiful – especially immersion – we decide on one more night by the lake before heading in to a town.
You never know what to expect and sometimes you don’t even know what you are seeing. For kilometres I have been looking at the top of the mountain- trying to work out what was sitting atop. As we got closer it was clear it was a statue. It sat directly opposite some decaying amazing complex.
Along the road there are also apricot trees – I take my fill – though they probably need another week or two to be really enjoyed.
The beach arrives before the campsite – a Kyrgyz lakeside family holiday spot.
There are two significant differences- there are large gatherings of large women talking, laughing raucously and helping each other get changed behind sheets of cloth. Their joy and laughter is infectious. The other is the absence of the smell of sunscreen – the only obvious smell is cow pats from the cows grazing alongside us.
The afternoon wears on – the beach starts to empty and we head in search of a campsite. We know we have a small hill to start with so we are slow to leave. Soon enough we turn off the road is narrower, quieter and just a delight – it winds gently down and down. Then we arrive!
We are camping on a small Peninsula of the lake just near Bel Tam yurt camp. Spectacular doesn’t bring to describe it! The golden light of evening creates beautiful paintings across the landscape. We are also near Kol Fest – where a Kyrgyz festival was recently held – everything is still there, toilets, showers, hot water, power. We have struck gold.
It’s hard to leave every beautiful spot – especially those with water you can immerse yourself in – but we do and the ride into Bokonbaevo is short and sweet.
Here is a Chance to learn felting – at Altyn Oimok a UNESCO approved NGO. It’s expensive- I’m tempted but very unsure. We head off for lunch to give us both time o think. I think maybe I’ll just head to Song Kol and leave Adrienne to enjoy. Just as we return I change my mind – felting has been something I’m keen to learn for ages. Here is my chance – I do seize it.