Issykul to Kochkor

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

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Where I stayed
Homestay in Kochkor

Flag of Kyrgyzstan  ,
Sunday, May 31, 2009

The next morning we headed off to nearby Chalpon Ata, a pleasant township situated right on the northern lakeside of Issyk-Kul. It felt like a beach resort and apparently it is in the summer season when the town is besieged by local, Kazakh and Russian holiday makers. Above the township is a vast and lonely rock splattered field. At first glimpse it looked just like an abandoned pasture covered with glacial boulders of all shapes and sizes, with no fences or buildings of any significance.

But it is indeed a famous sacred site that was once used by the ancient Saka priests for sacrifices and for rites to the sun god. And it is home to many truly fascinating petroglyphs, ancient drawings or carvings etched into the boulders, some of which date back to the 8th century BC. They are in fantastic condition given their huge age. Many are of the long horned ibex but there are some wolves, foxes and deers. Under one petroglyph the caption on a plaque read "Hunter with Assistance from Snow Leopard". We were astounded that in early times hunters used domesticated snow leopards for hunting.

It was astonishing to us that there was absolutely no fencing or other security surrounding this site, nor was there any around the Burana Tower we visited the day before. And what's more, there was no apparent vandalism or rubbish. Vita told us that there was a security person who collected money for our visit but we did not see her that morning. Surely we thought someone would have fancied one of those petroglyphs as a garden piece?

Happily for us heathens, the Issyk-Kul Museum was closed and we used the time foraging through a local bazaar. The bazaar was bright, colourful and busy, and hummed with sellers of fresh produce, lots of smoked fish (from Lake Issyk-Kul), chickens and livestock - and lots of local buyers. We did not see any tourists at all, certainly no-one with blond hair like me or anyone as tall and white haired as Alan. And no-one seemed to take any notice of us either. Although the local people dressed conservatively – loose, brightly coloured gowns and scarves for the women and long sleeved shirts and trousers for the men – there were no women in full head dress and bare arms were common. A number of older men wore the traditional and highly distinctive ak kalpak, the traditional Kyrgyz white felt hats.

During our travels in Kyrgyzstan we were continually fascinated by the many different ethnic faces. Some people looked so western European, others look more Greek, some had red hair and green eyes and others looked slightly Mongolian in appearance. Apparently, there are 80 different ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan; the main ethnicities being Kyrgyz (66%), Uzbek (14%) and Russian (10%). Minority groups with sizeable representation include the Uighurs, Ukrainians and Dungan peoples.

We were familiar with the Uighur people of Xinjiang Province in far west China but we had never heard of the Dungan People. Apparently the Dungan, also known as the Hui are a minority Muslim group (like the Uighurs) who fled from China over the Tian Shan Mountains after the Hui Minorities War between 1877 and 1878. And like the Uighurs, they view themselves as a separate ethnicity from the Han Chinese. There are about 52,000 Dungan people in Kyrgyzstan. Others reside in nearby Kazakhstan and Russia.

Luckily for us, there was not a lot we wanted to buy at the market, although I excelled myself in finding some cotton buds. It was Sunday and of course we could not change any money. And our local som and US dollars were looking a bit thin.

After the markets we visited a massive Russian resort right on Lake Issyk-Kul. It was a bizarre empty place with seemingly few guests. The architecture was pure Russian, a large ugly concrete block of a building but it had surprisingly stunning and ornate gardens. Carefully designed paths lined by old conifers led down to the lake’s sandy wide beach. Lilacs of all colours were in full bloom and deciduous trees were shooting. The creator of this beautiful and extensive garden obviously knew what they were doing. It was truly lovely. The resort toilets were too. Once again I had a bout of the old Bukhara Belly…

At a seafood restaurant Slava finally decided to take control of my stomach situation and ordered a jug of vodka and a container of salt. To our surprise he made up a super-saturated solution of salt and vodka (we thought it would be vodka with just a sprinkling of salt), handed it to me and with a big grin said “Drink!” Whether it was the vodka solution or whether I just got better I will never know. Who cared? It was just such a relief to feel better especially as we knew only too well that that our accommodation that night was in a homestay in Kochkor. And who wants to have an embarrassing dose of diarrhea in the house of someone you don’t know?

I felt so much better that I even enjoyed a meal of fish for lunch. Was the fish fresh from the lake we asked. “No, it’s imported from Norway” Vita told us. Nothing surprised us any more.

A drive of some 50 km led us to our next stay of Kochkor. The road took us through some very arid valleys surrounded by snow capped mountains, shaved green corduroy hills and some huge and geologically fascinating rocky outcrops. The countryside became increasingly desolate with very few settlements and few, if any livestock.

Our hearts sank as we entered Kochkor. At an elevation of 1,800 m, this forlorn looking alpine township is best known as a base for treks to the surrounding jailoos (high altitude pastures) or to nearby Song Kol Lake. In fairness, the Kochkor’s setting is beautiful and surrounded by stunning snow capped mountain scenery. And we did not get the opportunity to explore the township on our own. But we were too worried about our homestay to take too much in. “What are we doing this for?” we moaned. Many times. Slava had a lot of trouble finding our house for the night but eventually we chugged up a dreary, dusty and bumpy road to find our homestay and Gujin the warm and friendly owner waiting for us.

It would be fair to say that the Gujin’s house was the best in the street, and inside it was spotlessly clean and comfortable. The wooden floors were painted bright orange and there was an abundance of felt rugs or Shyrdaks. Traditionally, the highly decorative shyrdaks were (and still are) the rugs used to line the walls and insides of yurts. We had our own room with comfortable beds – and thankfully a flushing toilet next to our room. Our shower was in a washroom at the back of the house. An amazing set up with just boiled water, the shower was a faucet attached to the ceiling that turned on and off to produce one of the hottest showers we could bear. We declined the offer of the sauna. The washroom soon became one.

Gujin told us that she was a mathematics teacher at the local Kochkor school and that her husband taught economics. Although she spoke mainly Russian, she treated us warmly and made our stay at her house very welcoming and friendly. We were rather taken aback however that during our stay she and her family had moved out of the house into a shed behind. It was hard not to feel guilty.

Homestays are a widespread form of accommodation in Kyrgyzstan and are a useful way for poor rural families to boost their very low incomes. In fact without homestays it would be virtually impossible to find accommodation in the rural parts of the country. They are mainly organised by Shepherd’s Life and Community Based Tourism (CBT).

We would have liked to have taken some time to walk around the village of Kochkor but as part of the tour we had an appointment with a local felt making family. And there we stayed for some hours being part of the entire process of making a felt rug. Alan and I are not great tourists in the traditional sense and although it was undeniably interesting to see how these rugs are made, we were stuck there. There was no escape and we knew it.

The felt making process began with teasing out some raw sheep’s wool – so raw it still had some unmentionable internal body bits still in it – then layering it into a square. A design was made with some brightly dyed wool strands placed on top and the whole thing was wrapped into a cylinder in a rag soaked with water. Then the stomping part started. Music was turned up full volume and the unsuspecting tourists - us - had to stomp in tune on this blessed rug. In hindsight this may have been quite funny but the water splattering out of the rug was putrid and we began to look with dismay at our only shoes. And these were the ONLY shoes for our entire 35 days! We soon gave it away.

It was with great relief that the felt rug making process was finally over and to our surprise my felt design actually stayed put. It would not have won any prizes but it at least looked like a rug. And we were free at last.

Well, that was not to be. The felt making workshop became the restaurant and we spent the evening dining in a yurt in their garden. The felt makers however went to no end of trouble in providing us with a traditional meal of huge serves of plov, fried meats and fried breads. A family of musicians entertained us with traditional music and dancing and a young boy seriously and energetically recited a rather lengthy part of the Manas. It was quite fun and the entertainers and hosts were wonderfully friendly. But we were glad to get back to Gujin’s house and to climb into bed…

The Manas epic is a cycle of oral legends. It is of great length and tells of the formation of the Kyrgyz people through the adventures of the super hero Manas. Those who can recite the legend of the Manas are the revered manaschi. The whole recital sounds almost like a song and in parts can be very loud and dramatic. We were told that our young Manas reciting boy had received a “gift from God” for his exceptional manaschi abilities. We were pretty impressed too, although of course we could not understand a word of it.

We woke up early and walked down Gujin’s street. We were very sorry that we did not have time to walk into the village but the road was interesting in itself. A roughly graded wide dirt track, it was lined with open drains and leaking water taps that were the local water collection points and littered everywhere with donkey manure. The very modest houses were built from stone or mud bricks and the peaked roofs were crudely covered with rusting metal sheets. Some of the more up market houses such as Gujin’s were covered with a pseudo brick cladding. At the end of her street was a huge dismal apartment block, an ugly reminder of former Soviet crude concrete constructions.

It was a bitterly cold morning and the road was icy. In the distance were the massive snow capped mountains that drained cold air down into the village. It felt even colder when we saw what basic living the local inhabitants had. How could this country be so old and yet so poor?

Later that morning we talked with Vita about wife kidnappings and were horrified to learn that this still happens in and around Kochkor. Again, we asked the same questions. In a country so exposed to westernisation for so long, how could these practices still be tolerated?

There was no bank in Kochkor where we could change money so we resigned ourselves to making do and hoped like crazy that we would be able to change money at the Chinese border so at least we would have some money in China. I felt particularly badly that we were not able to buy some little tourist trinkets from Gujin before we left. Vita kindly explained to her and she was very gracious to us. They were a lovely family and despite all our concerns, we had a very pleasant and comfortable – and warm – stay at her house. We would highly recommend Gujin’s house as a home stay. She is located at 33 Shopokov Street, Kochkor.

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