From Bishkek to Lake Issykul

Trip Start May 14, 2009
Trip End Jun 15, 2009

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Where I stayed
Royal Beach Hotel

Flag of Kyrgyzstan  , Ysyk-Köl,
Saturday, May 30, 2009

The next morning we completed our tour of Bishkek by visiting the State Historical Museum. I was sick again from recurring Bukhara Belly problems (an acute stomach disorder that we contracted in Uzbekistan) and neither of us was looking forward to another museum tour. But again we were pleasantly surprised and this excellent museum provided us with an invaluable insight into Kyrgyz history and culture and a great introduction to this interesting country.

And bit by bit we tried to piece together why we found this country such a contradiction. Vita explained cautiously to us about the riots, looting and burning of Bishkek in 2005. This was of course the so called Tulip Revolution that we had read about but somehow forgotten. Lonely Planet best explains this explosion of Kyrgyz peoples' pent up frustration with the corruption of the then government.

"In the early 2,000’s Kyrgyzstan democratic credentials were once again backsliding in the face of growing corruption, nepotism and civil unrest. The 2005 parliamentary elections were plagued by accusations of harassment and government censure. Demonstrators stormed governmental buildings in Jalal-Abad (southern Kyrgyzstan) and civil unrest soon spread to Osh (southern Kyrgyzstan) and Bishkek. On 24 March the relatively peaceful Tulip Revolution effectively overthrew the government amid bouts of looting and vandalism….."

And today, the current President Bakiyev has found himself in a similar situation, being openly accused of similar tactics to those of his predecessor Akayev. Perhaps a deep seated history of frustration with successive governments and the more recent controversy over the US military base at Manas airport underpins a current of tension in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city.

We left Bishkek late that morning for Lake Issyk-Kul, about 100km east of Bishkek on the edge of the Kazakhstan border and the Kungey Altau mountain range.

Vita bought some medicine for stomach disorders from a local chemist in Bishkek but Slava, who was particularly shy up until then, was very keen for me to try the Russian tried and true remedy of salt and vodka. I took the tablets - on this occasion. Fortunately for my stomach Slava was a very steady driver and we thoroughly enjoyed being driven in his big comfortable black van with the added bonus of air conditioning. Slava, like Vita was of Russian descent. He was a big young man with a ready grin and a devilish sense of humour. Although he said that he only spoke Russian he obviously understood a lot of English and often provided additional information to that given by Vita. Despite the language differences he was a great communicator and for some reason always made me laugh.

On the outskirts of Bishkek, gentle fields of ripening wheat and corn gave way to undulating pastures with lots of cattle and horses. We marveled about how geographically different Kyrgyzstan was from Uzbekistan. The two countries are chalk and cheese in terms of the countryside. Whilst the Chalk Uzbekistan we saw was scorched, hot and mostly flat, the Cheese Kyrgyzstan we were travelling through was soft and green and mostly mountainous.

The road from Bishkek to Issyk-Kul follows the Chu River and the Kazakhstan border and at one stage Slava stopped the van to let us know we were actually within Kazakhstan, well at least for ten minutes. Like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan’s absurd borders do not always agree with the actual roads. We passed through the quaintly named township of Tokmok, the administrative seat of Chui Province with its huge aircraft monument and turned south for some 15 km to the famous Burana Tower.

Burana Tower is an 11th century minaret located on the lonely grounds of the ancient walled citadel of Balagasun which was founded by the Sogdians and was later the capital of the Karakhanids. Sadly, today the ancient city is no more than an earthen mound. The original height of the tower was 45m but today it stands just 25m, with the upper section having crumbled during an earthquake in the 15th century.

Burana Tower may not look much today but the atmosphere around its grounds and ancient citadel mound was truly haunting. It was in fact a key mosque, watchtower and beacon along the Silk Road and must have seen an incredible history. It was a strange and eerie feeling to walk around the grounds amongst the bulbals (Turkic 6th to 10th century totem-like stone markers) that silently watched our every move.

We reached Lake Issyk-Kul late in the afternoon. The lake, more like an inland sea and measuring about 180 km long by 70 km wide, is the second highest alpine lake in the world (after Lake Titicata in South America). Interestingly it is fed by eight major rivers but none of the water leaves the lake. It is astonishing beautiful and is idyllically located between massive snow capped peaks of Kungey (sunny) Alatau in the north and the Terksey (dark) Alatau in the south which together form an arm of the Tian Shan range. The name Issyk-Kul means “warm lake” and because of a combination of extreme depth (668m at its deepest), thermal activity and salinity, it never freezes.

We have never been great fans of lakes but Lake Issyk-Kul was lovely and surprisingly unspoilt. Even the many resorts and tourist hotels surrounding the lake were relatively tasteful. The water was pristine and we were fascinated to see “waves” almost breaking across the lake surface. It is not surprising that Issyk-Kul is a very popular tourist resort both to Kyrgyz people (particularly politicians) and international travellers.

Late in the afternoon we were wandering peacefully on our own around the sandy lake shores when we came across a group of outrageously raucous and obviously inebriated businessmen. They excitedly introduced us to a particularly pleased looking member of their party who they said had just been appointed as a “Deputy” (a non-elected member of Parliament) and generously invited us to join them for a drink or probably many drinks. We politely declined but later rather regretted not joining them as they were having so much fun. No wonder, a foot into government is a pretty cool thing to achieve in Kyrgyzstan, especially for the family who benefits no end from the widespread nepotism and other benefits. The businessmen were staying at our hotel and we were to run into them many times. Like all the Kyrgyz people we met on our travels, they were amazingly outgoing, friendly and in this case VERY happy.
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