Turkistan

ignore the strike through. I’ve no idea where that came from or why…The  train trip from Shymkent north to the new regional capital – Turkistan – is uneventful. The scenery is the same yellow, dry, flat, dusty land. We pass through a few tiny dusty dilapidated villages. It all seems a bit grim. We are excited about seeing Turkistan as it is promised to have many glorious sights for tourists. The train arrives an hour late into a dusty crumbling depressed looking town. We negotiate for a taxi. There’s the usual yelling men jumping in our faces “Taxi. TAXI.” Pat hates these guys and gives them the stink eye. They back off. We eventually pick a fellow we can communicate with – in German – he can’t read a map but we assure him we can give him directions. We booked our accommodation through booking.com. We direct our driver to the address given. OMG it’s a dreadful looking slummy part of town. We can’t find the address. The driver talks to various passers by – shoulders are shrugged. Our negotiated fare climbs. Finally we are practically shouting at him to just let us out at an Internet cafe. He stops and asks again and almost by magic a fellow in a shop produces the business card of our accommodation. We recognize the place from its picture on the card. We are on the wrong side of town.

The driver drives us back past the train station to a location as far from the address given by booking.com as one could get and still be in Turkistan. One of the most alarming things about this whole business is that we have now driven around town quite a bit and it is ….. simply awful. A dusty, run down town of small shops and dilapidated dusty streets of dilapidated dusty badly maintained homes.

Our hostel tops the scale of dilapidated.

A young boy admits us and shows us up rickety, loose, wobbly stairs to our room. Our room is really just an open space at the top of the stairs. No door and one wall open to the stair well. We ask to see other rooms. They are disgustingly filthy tiny closets jammed with the most rickety tiny bunk beds I’ve ever seen. It is appalling. We check out the one shower toilet room. It is clean. The boy manages to assure us that no one else is coming. We take the open space at the top of the stairs. Of course it’s not true, others do arrive. They cram into the gross closet rooms. The boy disappears. There is no front door key. There is no room door or key. Pat and I leave Helen on guard and go out to find a grocery store. There are very slim pickings but we manage to bring back water, beer, Lays potato chips, stale bread, barely passibe cheese and yogurt for dinner. 

At about 8:30pm a young man arrives. “Make yourself at home. My home is your home.” Blah blah. He’s an optimist. However in the morning he will drive us out see the atmospheric ruins of Sauron about an hour out of town. We hunger for some indications of the Silk Road history so accept his offer.

The beds – cots really – are atrocious. Metal framed, with rusty worn springs. Helen’s is like a hammock. Pat and I have random boards stuck under ours so we only sag between the rock hard bits. Surprisingly, we sleep well.

Our young man drives us out to the ruins first thing in the morning. The cool air is pleasant as we tramp around and admire the crumbled remnants of ancient walls. The space within the walls is vast – and largely un-excavated. No interest? No money? Kazakhstan is a rich nation due to vast oil fields. Our guide exudes delight in the burgeoning tourist industry that is going to bring thousands of tourists here. We don’t really share his optimism.

Back in town he wants to continue his guide role to show us around an enormous mosque and mausoleums complex. We assure him we’d rather explore on our own.

First we go to an Internet cafe because our accommodation has such limited internet it could only cope with one of us being online. That problem was blamed on our devises. Of course we were able to get online with no trouble at the cafe.

The complex grounds are getting a major facelift. Three pilgrimages here are said to equate to one pilgrimage to Mecca. In an attempt to create a pleasant visiting experience the weedy wastelands between all the mausoleums is now being park-scaped. The result is mausoleums sitting in a dust bowl with metal fences, machinery and sweating labourers surrounding them. We pick our way through the dust, which in places is several inches thick, to see mausoleums, an underground mosque, and an ancient hammam. Without the dust and construction it would all be lovely. At 2 we hear the call to prayer. Men come streaming from all directions into the mosque. We see no women going there so just watch from the shelter of a latticed porch by the hammam. So it has likely been for hundreds of years.

We stop for a meal along the Main Street then walk the several kms back to our hostel, buying a few snacks along the way for our dinner.

We have been underwhelmed by Turkistan. Tourism here is really pilgrimage. Expectations are clearly not the same. However the expectations for receiving thousands and thousands of pilgrims will not be met without improvements to all forms of infrastructure. Roads, accommodations, grocery stores, restaurants……

The next morning we happily get a drive to the train station. Our visit to Kazakhstan started out in Astana – now called Nur-Sultan. We were impressed. We found Almaty a bit rundown but still a vibrant interesting city. Shymkent and Turkistan have been completely different experiences. It’s all part of travel, the glorious with the mundane but we’re glad to be moving on from Kazakhstan.

Shymkent

Our night bus ride from Bishkek to Shymkent is without excitement although not overly comfortable. The border crossing is quick. A young soldier helps us with the paperwork as we can’t read the Cyrillic scrip.

We arrive in Shymkent at 5am. This seems a bit early to be waking up our hostel hostess so we hangout in the bus station for a while then a young woman at a coffee shop phones for a taxi and negotiates the price for us. The hostel is on the edge of town, maybe not in the best location. About a 1 km walk to the nearest feasible restaurant.

Once at our hostel – shortly after 6am, we snooze for a while, then set off in 30 degree heat to the train station to book onward tickets. That done, we check out coffee shops and a large rose garden park. The park seems to commemorate 20 years since independence from the Soviet Union. We think.

As we leave the park we see a Big Red Bus and decide we will ride it the next day. We wander – find a restaurant for lunch – wander – find a grocery store and buy dinner snacks and beer and return to our hostel. It has a somewhat rundown but pretty garden with table and couches so we settle in for a picnic and then an early night.

We spent some of our wandering time looking for an elusive tourist info place without success.

The next morning our hostess tells us the only tourist info in town is at the Hotel Shymkent, right across the road from where the Big Red Bus departs. Perfect.

We haven’t been able to find a bus schedule so take a taxi – cheap – out to a regional museum at the other side of town. Getting a taxi here is a mysterious process requiring an app. We always have to get someone else to order one for us. Once ordered the person monitors the taxi’s arrival on their phone, they can see where the taxi is. The destination and price seem to be negotiated at the time of ordering – maybe. Taxis seem to be just about anyone driving just about anything. Another taxi takes us back into the town centre to the Hotel Shymkent. We melt into seats and have lunch after discovering that the tourist info desk is no more.

Who needs tourist info? Various people we meet wonder what we’re doing in Shymkent. 

“We’re tourists.”

“Why are you here. There’s nothing here.”

They are right. There is little of touristy interest in this town. Until last year it was the regional centre but that title has been moved to Turkistan. Infrastructure here is a bit on the crumbly side. Many of roads, buildings and parks are showing signs of neglect. Neglected or not, the city’s parks abound with roses. The shrubs crowd together in profusions of bight scented blooms. deep red, orange, yellow, white, pink. The shrubs are strong hand healthy and covered with blooms.

The Big Red Bus only runs in the evening. We bide our time in a convoluted search for a tour company with which to travel a few kms out of town to see some local sights. We could have flown around the world with greater ease. Finally we find an office where the women are willing to help. They call another office and get us a taxi to take us there. At that office we manage to cobble together an excursion to a cave and a couple of mausoleums and a Silk Road important town of Sairam for the next day.

Once on the packed with local families Big Red Bus – where we have assigned seats – we realize we’ve already seen most of the highlights. The commentary is only in Kazak. 

We have four more days here. Yikes. Our vision of seeing ancient historical walls, buildings or even ruins are dashed. 

Our tour day. Hmmm. Despite being assured the drive out to this amazing cave would only be an hour, it was longer. The countryside makes our Canadian prairies look hilly. Flat dusty expanses of sparse brown grass land. Our guide tells us this is where the Soviet cotton fields used to be. The cave is really just a massive underground cavern with a fallen in roof. Trees grow in the huge hole and we climb down some metal steps into the cool space. The hole is enormous. Birds fly around and nest in crevices. We’ve driven a long way to see this. 

Our next stop is the mausoleum of a holly woman who was a healer. Or was it the mother of a poet? I forget. The memorable part of the visit is sitting in the cool of the interior listening to a man with a beautiful voice chant a Muslim prayer. We don’t need to understand the words to feel the peaceful message. 

We are supposed to be having a picnic, but the guide and our horrid-old-man driver get into their fourth argument of the day. He clearly doesn’t like taking directions from a young woman. He wants to stop at a garbage-infested beach along a filthy river in the broiling sun. She says otherwise. So do we. We eventually stop at a seedy restaurant and sit outside on mats at a low table by the river. Garbage floats by while filthy once-pink gauzy draperies keep most of the sun at bay. We enjoy our picnic and just before we leave, half heartedly nibble at undercooked bits of barbecued beef. 

Once back at our hostel, we dismiss the driver with no tip and invite our guide in for a tea. She needs the reassurance after yet more arguments from the front seat. We call the tour manager, extol our guide’s virtues and suggest the driver be fired. 

I’m deliberately not using our guide’s name because she told us some interesting things that likely go against the grain of what a tour company’s representative should have been telling us. 

“Don’t bother with more tours. There is nothing to see.”

She explained that the mausoleums are really places of worship, not tourist stops. She had clearly not been comfortable parading in and out with three poorly scarved tourists in tow. The other places listed as sights of interest are all further than advertised or not as advertised. For instance Sairam – a must see for us due to what we’d read about it’s history – had absolutely nothing to see except a few dusty streets of rundown homes tucked in behind dilapidated fencing.

We do manage to enjoy the rest of our time in Shymkent. We explore a little deeper and meet many friendly people. No one understands why we are visiting. We visit every park in town, thus see thousands of glorious roses such as we’ve never seen anywhere else on any of our travels. As our expectations fall, the sights seem less shabby. We stroll along a pretty – and clean – canal through the centre of town. We visit several shopping malls. I know – hardly our style, but as I said, we were digging for interesting moments. In so doing we discover an art museum with some dreadful and some wonderful paintings. The staff follow us around, seemingly stunned that someone is visiting. 

By the time we leave Shymkent we are glad to see it fade into the distance but feel we’ve had more than a surface view of the place. As for its ancient history? Read about in books. As the locals insist – “there is nothing here.”

Kyrgyzstan part 3 – 16 to 19 Sep

We’ve just spent the last week back in Kazakhstan. More about our adventures there in a bit.

I was unable to blog from there, so here is the final episode of our fun time Kyrgyzstan. More will follow over the next couple of days – I hope.

16 September.. We departed the freezing high country with mixed feelings. The romance of staying in yurts receives a hard dose of reality when we’re making the midnight journey, way lit by headlamp, to outhouses far across frozen open ground, and when a bitter wind nips nether regions from under the seat. There is a sense that these high wild pastures and mountains, inhabited by hardy shepherd families and their livestock, are timeless and immune to modern pressures. The modern world is creeping in. We, the tourists, now stay in yurts and ride horses, thus supplement income. Yurt camps are moved by truck now, not by animal drawn carts. Traditional clothing is giving way to cheep imports from China. 

We stop in a small town down in the flatlands and Nazgul picks up some supplies for a picnic. We’ve been told we are going on a more than 8 hr ride. It is already well past mid morning. Do the math. When’s sunset? Ludicrous idea. We point out this obvious fact and the plan is reluctantly changed. We will ride for two hours up a valley and other two hours back down. Everyone is happy with the logic of this plan.

Soon our van stops in the middle of nowhere on a dusty track and from across a stream come a couple of horse men with some horses. The meet’s been arranged but seems almost magical. We’re soon mounting up. The horse tack is in deplorable condition. A few of the reins are just thin bits of rotting twine. The saddles are worn and the blankets are filled with holes. We sit on moth eaten sheep fleeces thrown over the top. My horse barely opens his eyes, making it clear he’d rather be sleeping. I end up nudging him constantly for the entire ride. Thankfully, he responds to the continued pressure to keep moving, but it’s a bit wearing. After the previous horse, this one is dull. I feel he’s probably been over-ridden and is exhausted.

We ride up a steep sided valley, along a busy stream that leaps and burbles over boulders on it’s way to lower places. At one point we cross a small wooden bridge. The horses aren’t too keen on this, rolling their eyes, carrying on and balking like they’ve never seen it before.

The trail climbs steeply and is soon far above the stream and wending it’s narrow way along a cliff. As my horse strains to climb over a particularly large rock outcrop on the path, I hear a cling. His hoof hitting the rock? No, he’s not shod. The drop below is long and steep. Suddenly I feel myself leaning – with the saddle – towards the abyss. It takes less than a second  to realize my saddle is no longer attached to the bloody horse. I grab his mane and lean the other way, looking down, I see the girth strap hanging free. I call out to the horse man who is just ahead. He turns. I point. His eyes widen. He hops off his horse and hurries back to help me off mine. There is limited space on this narrow trail for all these goings ons. I hold his horse. He sort of fixes the girth on mine. I climb back on, swinging my leg out over the drop as I do so. We continue until the trail widens, then everyone takes a break while my saddle’s girth is replaced. Like I mentioned – crap tack. 

The rest of the ride continues without mishap. The trail passes through yak pastures, occupied by frolicking baby yaks and argumentative older yaks asserting dominance over each other. Our horses pay scan attention to them, but they all watch us with worry. Have we come to herd them? 

In places the trail is steep and slippery with mud. It begins to snow. We exit the tree line. We are making good time so will now ride all the way to the waterfall. A more than eight hour ride is now being touted as four. In the end it is about five.

The waterfall is one of the highest in Centra Asia. It drops in a vertical ribbon from cliffs far above. Now we have achieved our required destination we will have our picnic – freezing weather be damned. 

“Might we picnic in a more sheltered place a bit further back down the trail?”

“No. We are at the waterfall. This is our picnic place.” 

We eat as quickly as possible but Nazgul and the horse men are in no rush so we stand around while they devour meat and bread. “Why you no eat meat?” They want to know. 

It’s a continuous refrain here. Later we are told that local people have two main questions about tourists. Why are they so dirty? (Mostly referring to cyclists, we are assured.) and Why don’t they eat meat?

Our ride back down out of the snowstorm and into the warmth and sun is a little quicker.

Kelly’s horse has a wonderful fast walk that not all horses have – it covers distance quickly and smoothly. Eddy and I have one-speed slow walking horses so we trot along behind Kelly. Eddy hasn’t mastered not bouncing with every step so the poor man jars along in a certain amount of agony all the way back to the van.

That night we stay in a guesthouse. A warm building, en-suite warm bathrooms, hot showers, bliss. We love the adventures but our creature comforts are important too. The next day we drive back to Bishkek. A fabulous tour over.

Bishkek is a crumbling city. Some parks and buildings that were developed and maintained during the Soviet times are now overgrown and neglected. Our guesthouse there offers a pleasant garden and is in a quiet neighbourhood with shops and restaurants. We chill for two days then climb on the night bus bound for Shymkent in Kazakhstan. 

Kyrgyzstan part 2 – 12 to 15 Sep

We have another day of touristy visits. First we stop to meet a man who uses an eagle to hunt foxes, and presumably other small game. I’d envisioned us out on a pasture somewhere being treated to a show of flight. No. We go into his back yard garden where he’s dressed in traditional garb and his eagle gets to pounce on a very long dead fox skin being dragged across the ground by a child. Then there are the corny photo ops – in costumes of course. The young boy has a small hawk – he (the boy) is already learning this ancient hunting art.

Our next stop is more interesting. We visit a village wherein every family is involved in the yurt construction business. We visit one of the families – five people who take a month to create all the pieces – wood and wool – of a yurt. They showed us all the stages of the various aspects of yurt construction. Then we all had fun building a mini yurt in their living room. A yurt sells for between 10 and 12 thousand USD.

Speaking of yurts. The summer season is coming to an end and we saw many yurts being dismantled and loaded into trucks for transportation to lower elevations. Helen took a wonderful picture of a loaded yurt truck that also had a horse riding in the back. That picture will follow. It is interesting to see a nomadic population on the move: yurts packed up in trucks and huge herds of sheep, goats, cows, and horses being driven by mounted shepherds.

We drove over a 3400 m pass and down to a yurt camp on the shore of Son Kul – at about 3000 m. 

This was a more humble camp. We were surrounded by horse herds, grasslands and snow on the nearby hills not much higher than our camp. We were supposed to have an acclimatization hike but instead were dropped off from the van about a 30 min walk from the camp that we could see in the distance and told we could walk the last stretch. On the way we passed a woman milking a mare. I’ve already sent that picture. Fermented mare’s milk is a favourite alcoholic drink in this area.The wind was screaming down from the snowy hills and it was cold. Soon a fire was lit in the stove in our yurt. The fuel – dried sheep dung. It burns reasonably well once it’s hot enough but creates a fair bit of stinky smoke before it really gets going. It wasn’t long before our yurt felt like a sauna. Unfortunately the fire went out during the night and by morning it was freezing. None of us wanted to climb out of our warm blankets.

There is a custom here of setting the tables with fairly permanent settings of candies, cookies, fried bread strings, several sorts of jams in open dishes and fruit. This stuff stays out all the time and gets added to from time to time. Flies buzz around lighting on the food inside and the animal dung outside. Some of this food looks like it’s been around for a while. 

After breakfast – greasy eggs and delicious fresh baked bread plus any of the table condiments we risked eating – we set out for a ride into the hills beyond the camp. Wide open grasslands with firm footing for the horses. We could ride side by side if we wished. We weren’t confined to one behind the other. The broad  brown grasslands climbed into steep snow covered slopes above. We watched a shepherd on his horse chase two naughty cows. This was what I’d imagined my  birthday ride would have been like. Blue sky. Friends. Warm temperature with no wind. Perfect.

In the afternoon we went for a second ride, this one along the shore of the lake and along a narrow stretch of land that separates a much smaller lake from the larger one. By now the afternoon winds were strengthening so waves pulled at the stony shore line and lake gulls swirled around in the eddies. My horse was curious about everything – pausing, looking, twitching his ears. It turned out he is only three and was still leading the ropes. I was impressed that he was so responsive and easy to handle.

Each ride was a little more than two hours so we all felt we’d had a really good day. 

That afternoon Pat’s stomach had been a bit upset. In the evening I felt dinner wasn’t going down that well. Once in bed my stomach was upset. Suddenly Kelsey was up and running from the yurt. We could hear her vomiting onto the frozen ground some distance away. Pretty soon I was doing the same thing…..then Pat was off to the outhouse. It was a long night of frequent outhouse visits for the three of us. It was a long rush to that damn outhouse especially with butt cheeks firmly griped in terror. In the morning we discovered that Eddy too was similarly unwell.

When our plight was brought to Nazgul’s attention she denied at first that it had anything to do with food. It was because of running in the cold or not wearing a hat or whatever. Pat used her MSF – “I know what I’m talking about” voice and assured Nazgul that food poisoning was the most likely scenario.

Poor Nazgul. She is a kind and compassionate woman and four clients were down for the count. Kelsey was definitely the sickest of us, so she was selected for what Pat termed the “sheep dip” treatment. The shepherd’s wife rubbed Kelsey’s abdomen with warm sheep grease, wrapped her in a towel and made her lie on the ground – now warm – in the sun – for a while. The rest of us were just grateful Kelsey had taken one for the team.

That day’s drive was rough figuratively and in reality. Every once in a while we stopped and everyone piled out of the vehicle to take pictures. Helen enjoyed the scenery for the full trip. She assures the rest of us – who did our best to sleep – that it was spectacular.

That evening when we arrived at our third yurt camp, Kelsey and I dove into bed and didn’t emerge again until the next morning. All of us were reasonably recovered.

Our ride that day was spectacular! We rode high into the mountains. The weather was cold and increasingly cloudy but even so the wildness of the place was stirring. We were passed by two large herds of horses being driven down from above. They surged by, startled wide horse eyes and flailing hooves. After about two hours we asked Nazgul for a rest. This was when she informed us that our four hour ride was going to be six because we weren’t going fast enough. Everyone except Helen mutinied. The weather was closing in. Only Helen felt well enough to continue. She carried on with the horseman and the rest of us returned for a two hour ride back down to camp. We’d barely started our return trip when it began snowing hard, then there was nearby thunder. We all know that where there is thunder there has been lightning and  the dangers that can pose in high places. Our horses hurried along through a cold whitening world, seemingly unperturbed by the weather. We arrived back in camp, safe and sound, Helen not far behind. It had been an exhilarating ride. My horse was an unkempt looking fellow, but was a skilled route finder and lead horse who responded to the slightest cues. He gave me a wonderful canter as we arrived in camp. Kelsey got a great couple of pictures – will share on with you in a bit. 

That evening we went down to see an ancient caravanserai built sometime between the 9th and 15th c. Once a place where Silk Road traders sheltered on nights just like this one – cold and windy – on their way to and from China. It certainly offers no cozy shelter these days but it was fascinating to explore the maze of rooms and conjure the international babble of those long ago traders as they ate their meals and likely drank some form of vodka to stave off the chill.

Pat, Helen and I are now off for a walk around in Bishkek. We catch the night bus to Shymkent this evening. Will continue this saga later. If by chance I disappear off the radar again for a while, it may be because of being back in Kazakhstan where blogging seemed to be problematic.

Kyrgyzstan Part one – 10 and 11 September

EPIC.

We are back in Bishkek after a spectacular tour around Kyrgyzstan. Our experience here has generally been memorable for all the right reasons.

I’ll get into the food poisoning that affected four members of our group of six in a bit. I’ll not moan too long about there being no hiking, despite the tour offering four hikes. This seems to be a refrain in this part of the world. I’m not sure the term hiking is understood here the way we understand it a home. There was a couple from Malaysia with us, and their concept of hiking agreed with ours.

The trip delivered on all other counts so I’m not too disappointed.

The scenery here is outstanding. High snowy mountains, large blue lakes, dunn hilly grasslands, forests, meadows, gorges, waterfalls. In some areas the landscape rolls gently into the distance, in others it rises up in rugged spires and jagged cliffs and peaks. On any given day we had the opportunity to experience four seasons. 

Details – 

For me, the highlight was the riding. It made up for my disappointment in Mongolia. We enjoyed four rides. Each one different, and becoming progressively more challenging.

On two of our rides – to elevations above 3100 metres – we experienced cold wind and snow. In both cases, we happily rode down to a warmer zone at the end of the ride. Riding in this country provides the opportunity to explore extraordinary scenery, even in blizzards it was beautiful. We had a variety of horses, mostly good ones although a couple were a bit tired and slow. On one of the rides I rode the best horse I’ve ever ridden. On another I rode a three year old with little experience under his saddle. The selection of horses for any given ride seemed random and as we rode in three different areas there was no chance for continuity.

There were six of us on our tour. The intrepid courageous Kelsey from north of Boston. Happy adventurous Eddie and Kelly from Malaysia. The three of us. Our guide, Nazgul, an English professor at the Bishkek university and our wonderful driver Sheker, a retired police officer.

On our first day we visited an ancient city site of Balasagun – once a place of interest on the Silk Road. Now just a minaret called Burana tower still stands among grass mounds marking where there were once mausoleums and palaces. We climbed up the tower – the staircase was extremely narrow, steep and dark. Pat was the smart one of the group with her headlamp in her purse.

Pat’s purse is worth mentioning – she has just about everything you can imagine in there and then some.

Of particular note were the curious stone face carvings called Balbals which are ancient grave markers. Each one is unique but they all depict the person holding a chalice.

Pictures will follow.

That night and the next we stayed at a yurt camp by the vast Issyk Kul – Hot Lake. So called due to the many hot springs that feed into it keeping the temperature pleasantly warm.

The camp and the others we stayed in were much more homey than the camps where we stayed while in Mongolia. This one had a Mexican beach adobe vibe and the food was delicious. Another difference between Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan. The food here is much more varied. A national meat dish here is horse. We all vehemently declined.

The next day was supposed to include a 3.5 hr hike. We managed two short walks however both were in stunning locations. It was hard to complain.

First we climbed into a summer grazing pasture called the jailoo of Boz Salkyn. From a small peak we looked down across Issyk Kul to the snow capped mountains beyond. Between the green pasture where we were the lower hills reaching towards the lake were reds and browns. The colour palette was astonishing.

Our next walk was in an area called Fairy Tale Canyon. Red and yellow striated rock formations sculpted by wind and water. We spent some time scrambling around and enjoying the unlikeliest rock formations. I’ve already sent a couple of pictures of both the walks.

Later we visited a very developed hot springs – pools and a shower room. As this would be our last hot water and shower for several days, we all took advantage.

More Kyrgyzstan stories to follow. I know you’re all curious about riding in the snow storms and mad freezing dashes to the outhouse in the middle of a sub zero night.