Run down park near the university

Livestock and locals at the Sunday market

Sheep and a pastel Lada

The commotion at the Sunday animal market

Carrying a lamb to market

Asleep at the wheel in ancient car

Lovely exterior of the Jeti Oghuz Sanatorium

Looks inviting doesn't it?

Faded hallway of the sanatorium

The Seven Bulls and a grazing cow

Old Mosque

Doorway of an abandoned building

Old Soviet Bloc apartments

Wooden Orthodox Catherdral

Old colonial house

Old colonial house

Creative store design

The path to Altan Arashan

Altan Arashan nestled in the valley

Steam inside the thermal bath at night

Picturesque alpine valley

Horses being herded through the valley

Pine trees cascading down the hillside

Sheep grazing in the valley

Horses resting on the grass

Riding horses through the valley

Norsultan, our guide

Car and driver for the ride back to Karakol

Inside the car and the miserable road ahead

Steep drop from the edge of the road to the river below

Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

Into the Mountains

May 16, 2012

I'll sing my song to the wide open spaces

I'll sing my heart out to the infinite sea

I'll sing my visions to the sky high mountains

I'll sing my song to the free, to the free

- The Who

Eastern Kyrgyzstan is a picturesque region with Lake Issyk Kul, the tenth largest lake in the world, sandwiched between two mountain ranges. In the early Spring the snowcapped peaks of the Tian Shan mountains rise up to form a dramatic backdrop on the lake’s southern shore. Karakol, the largest city in the region is situated just off the southeastern edge of the lake. Perhaps because of its location or because of its history it has a much different character than other Kyrgyz cities.

The city sprawls over the flat plains at the base of the mountains and except for a few of the main roads there is little asphalt to be found. That is somewhat surprising since with 70,000 people it is the fourth largest city in Kyrgyzstan. The side streets are dirt roads and the lack of any street signs make navigating the back streets a challenge. At night the complete lack of street lights only adds to the confusion. It must be interesting in the cold darkness of winter when wealthy Russians and Kazakhs flock to the city for its nearby ski slopes.

In the past the city served as a Russian military outpost and you can still see this influence. Aging colonial houses are scattered around the city, their faded pastel colors and chipped paint serve as reminders of past glory. These so called Gingerbread Houses are in stark contrast to the dreary concrete Soviet bloc apartments buildings that are punctuated with splashes of color from graffiti. The city still has a military base and shortly after arriving in town a major in the Kyrgyz navy with only one eye offered to take us vodka drinking in the afternoon. Why a small landlocked mountainous country even has a navy is even more baffling.

The city shows its age in other ways as well. There is a wooden Russian Orthodox Cathedral and a wooden mosque, which has a Chinese style and features a minaret built without nails that still stands, albeit barely. The mosque is across the street from an abandoned movie theater where the locals seem to hang out and drink vodka. All throughout the city Russian Ladas plod along the streets, running on barely refined 80 octane gasoline; their bright colors are no doubt an attempt to divert attention from the quality of the vehicle. At the Sunday animal market the locals bring their livestock into town in these ancient vehicles, with sheep being crammed into the back seats and trunks. Next to the animal market there is an automobile market where many of these decaying vehicles are sold. The romantic idea of driving one of these around the Kyrgyz countryside sounded appealing but I knew that sooner or later I would end up on the side of the road tending to a broken down vehicle like everyone else.

Around Karakol are numerous mountain valleys with towns like Jeti Oghuz, a small village tucked away at the end of a dirt road. The town is famous for its red rock formations known as the seven bulls which jut up from the ground and have been worn away by erosion. Also located here is a crumbling sanatorium that was built in the 1930s. The place is something of a cross between a decrepit Soviet style bath house and the bleak and isolated mountain hotel in Stephen King’s “The Shining.” The dark corridors feature peeling paint, tattered and torn carpets, and elevators that haven’t been operational in decades. This being Sunday, no massages were available, but after a lukewarm bath in one of the tubs, which could easily have been the set of a horror movie, that was probably for the best. I wouldn’t be surprised if Soviet ghosts haunt the hallways in the depths of winter.

A much better alternative to Jeti Oghuz was the trip to Altan Arashan, a high mountain valley with a few camps and hot springs. From the road to the camps it is about 18 kilometers and usually it is possible to ride horses there but since it was still too early in the season no horses were available, meaning a four hour walk up to Altan Arashan alongside the river. At the crest of the final hill the valley opens up before you with a tall pyramidal peak in the center and a few ragged buildings. Year round people live up here and raise the animals amidst the beautiful mountain scenery, now in the spring the green valley was filled with grazing animals including young horses and lambs.

The gray and cold weather was frequented by light rain and a chilling wind, making the natural hot springs a refreshing respite from the cold, both during day and in the darkness of night. The cloudy weather meant that the views were not as breathtaking as they should have been but at least in the morning the rain had subsided and we were able to find some horses to ride. In summer there are various trails to lakes and glaciers but at this time snow still blocked many of the mountain passes needed to reach these so wandering around the valley was the only option. Our guide was a little boy, Norsultan, who at 12 years of age already knew more than I will ever know about horses. He knew how to actually talk to the horses and direct them to do exactly what he wanted, rather amazing considering the power of the animal compared to his small size. It was also a reminder of the nomadic culture that used to dominate much of the country but has now been relegated to these upper mountain regions.

With rain still coming down and having walked 18 kilometers the day before it was much easier to get a ride back down the trail to Karakol. The ride was in the form of an old Soviet van which was still miraculously operational after traversing this rough road so many times. The extremely poor quality of the road and the vastly inadequate tires meant that we had to drive with chains on the front wheels for traction. It is impossible to convey how terrible the road is but to travel the 18 kilometers down took one and half hours of bouncing, sliding, and bone rattling discomfort. Looking out the window at the sheer drops to the river valley below made you appreciate the skill of the driver and the value in the $7 for the ride, even if you can walk down in only 3 hours. While it was nice to have the entire valley all to ourselves, in another month, in the middle of Spring I’m sure it will be even more spectacular.