From Kochkor to Tash Rabat

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

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Yurts Stay, Tash Rabat

Flag of Kyrgyzstan  ,
Monday, June 1, 2009

The journey south from Kochkor to Naryn was spectacular. We passed through flat grassy alpine valleys with grazing cattle and horses. In the distance, as seemingly always in Kyrgyzstan were massive snow capped mountains. Enormous eroded loess hills appeared like lunar outcrops just dropped into the grassy valley settings. As the road neared Naryn the countryside became more arid, hostile and cold. Storm clouds loomed over snow covered mountains. Nomads and their animals camped along the road. Some had yurts; others appeared to live in portable trailers. At one lonely trailer house, Slava stopped to buy some kumys. Kumys is fermented mares milk. It is mildly alcoholic and is available only in spring and summer when mares have foaled. Vita said she found it disgusting and it certainly looked horrible to us. We gave poor Slava a hard time about buying something that would deprive the poor foals of a meal. The kumys was for a friend, he said. And the horses were pathetically thin, probably because summer was late in coming and the cold and windy pastures were very patchy.

For a tiny nation, the Kyrgyz peoples have an immense amount of national pride. Kumys (as well as the ubiquitous vodka!) is a national drink, plov the national food and laghman, a spicy noodle based dish is well loved everywhere as are manty, or dumplings. For special occasions we saw men and women wearing the national dress of a high clothed hat and long gown for women and a turban like hat and long elaborately embroidered gown for the men. Similarly, the Kyrgyz people regard the horse as their national animal. And most rural Kyrgyz people are skilled horse riders and proud singers of national songs.

And when Vita asked us what the Australian national food was, we were stumped. And we still are unable to come up with an answer. And neither have our friends.

We arrived at Naryn late morning. Well, Naryn may be a good place to break a journey from Kochkor to Tash Rabat but that it just about all that is going for it. Dusty streets, poor housing and poor looking people were about all we could identify. We were obviously filling in time and visited the local museum and a strange looking art gallery. It was Children's' Day public holiday and there were children everywhere. We were soon adopted by three cheeky urchin like children who were dressed in what looked like their best clothes, although they were pitifully poor looking. They were really nice kids and were delighted to have their photos taken. It’s a hard life for the people of Naryn or in fact for many of the rural townships we visited in Kyrgyzstan.

Wandering around the gallery looking at hundreds of photos of former Kyrgyz politicians was certainly not our idea of a fun hour to spend in downtown Naryn. As we wearily plodded around the endless run down gallery rooms we idly noticed that the politicians had each been in authority for a very long time, some for fifty years or so. "How could this be?" we asked Vita. She laughed and told us that the years documented were actually their life spans. We were stunned to realise that these men (there were no women) all died in their early to late fifties. Vita was not at all surprised and told us that the average life span of Kyrgyz men today was not much more than late fifties to early sixties. She also said that she was really surprised when she saw our passports prior to our arrival and realised that we were SO OLD!

Over a huge oily meat filled lunch we wondered if the Kyrgyz high fat, high meat diet were contributing factors to such a short life expectancy. It would not have helped.

From Naryn we travelled down through arid cold green mountains, the road passing through brilliant red soils cuttings for 24 km before we reached Kyzl-Bel Pass with stupendous views of the At-Bashy range. We passed turnoffs to the village of At-Bashy and started our journey along the bone crunching gravel road leading to Tash Rabat.

Storm clouds were again looming but this time we didn’t avoid them. The storm swept across the mountains in front of us and suddenly we were in the midst of the wildest hail storm we had ever seen. Slava turned his car to avoid the hail but it thundered down mercilessly on his prized van. And for a good half an hour we remained transversed across the gravel road that was now no more than a track. Luckily no other vehicles met us on the road.

We followed this storm the whole way to Tash Rabat, our next destination and a yurt stay for the night. Oh goodie, we thought…

It is not possible to describe the countryside into Tash Rabat as we couldn’t see anything for the hail. It was an incredibly rough journey and we were pleased that Slava was such a steady and unflappable driver. When we reached Tash Rabat, we couldn’t see much either. Well, there wasn’t much to see – we thought it was about the most desolate and forbidding place on earth. It was bitterly cold and blizzarding, the hail froze on the ground and slushy snow began to fall. Through the blasting hail and snow we could just make out four grim yurts nestled in the mud. Surrounded by massive snow capped peaks, this tiny retreat with its ice covered leaking yurts was hardly a welcoming sight. “Whose idea was this?” we groaned.

Vita, in her usual fun loving way at least saw the funny side of it and frolicked around the snow making light of the situation. Slava sat in the car with motor running and the heater on. Sensible fellow, we thought. I tried to take photos of the absurd situation but snow and ice stuck onto the camera lens. The situation didn’t improve when we found the toilet block, some 100 m away from the yurts and a perilous journey through ice, mud and frozen yak poo. The toilets were long drops but thankfully for us they had just been dug and were not yet at the stage where you passed out from the stench. During the night one of the toilets actually caved in – luckily no-one was inside it when it blew down.

The owners of the yurts lived in an ancient trailer house quite some distance from the yurts. They obligingly carried masses of firewood (where would they find firewood in this desolate place?) and lit an oven that doubled as our heater for the night – or so we thought… Slava arrived and we sat down to some snacks inside the (then) warm yurt. We shared the remains of our bottle of J & B scotch with Vita but Slava was into the kumys. So much for his friend, we joked. Dinner was carried in by the owners. It was hearty and for the time our spirits rose with the heat of the stove and the good food.

If uncomfortable and freezing cold conditions, no electricity or water, a 100m walk in the dark across the perilous yak poo fields to the drop toilets and being enclosed in a sheep’s stomach in total darkness doesn’t bother you – then a yurt stay may be the very thing for a whacky night’s accommodation. But, it sure wasn’t for us. The yurt night fell into the category of travel stories that you tell for years.

They yurt walls sadly for us didn’t quite meet the ground and so there was a quite a large gap between the felt rugs and the yurt “walls”. The gale force winds during the night actually blew the snow INTO the yurt through the gap at ground level as well as into the yurt through the chimney vent. The stove gulped up its fuel in no time and when all the covers were pulled across the top yurt vent we knew that the complete darkness signaled A Very Cold Night. And it did. Vita curled up in a cocoon of clothes and rugs and seemed to pass out for the night. Slava slept in his van. We constantly awoke during the night to hear him start up his motor, presumably to get some heating. The van was sounding good. Several times I made poor Alan get up with me to find somewhere in the freezing total darkness for bladder relief. There was no way that I was going to attempt the 100m walk to the toilets. Thank goodness we remembered to take a torch. Even still my only shoes got caked with yak poo.

The next day dawned clear and cold and we emerged from our yurt stiff, sore and disheveled. But the scenery was perfect. Our yurts were nestled in the prettiest green valley and we were surrounded by picture perfect snow covered mountains. In the distance was the romantic old Tash Rabat caravanserai watching over us. It was just a blur in the storm of the night before. Snow was still on the ground (as was the yak poo) and the only water tap was frozen. Astonishingly we discovered that the three yurts next to us were inhabited by English and South African tourists who were here for eight days on a trekking tour. We shared times for breakfast in the owner’s trailer house.

The owners of the yurts were a very friendly man, his wife and family. He was also a mathematics teacher and they told us that they spent their summer months hosting tourists in their yurts under The Shepherd’s Life community based program. His wife made beautiful fresh bread and we had a very pleasant hot breakfast. These people were great hosts, friendly, generous and extremely hard working. Even though their trailer house was full of children trying to do schoolwork and tourists eating, they offered for Alan to use their family bathroom to shave (he politely declined but was thankful to get some hot water to take back to our yurt). We decided that mathematics teachers in Kyrgyzstan must be very poorly paid.

Tash Rabat (Kyrgyz for stone fortress) is the site of an ancient caravanserai. Some sources suggest that this building dates back as far as the 10th century. Over the years it has undergone significant Russian restoration and is in splendid condition. That morning with a backdrop of snow specked green pastures and the glossy white peaks of the Tian Shan against a clear azure blue sky, the old stone caravanserai looked truly magnificent.

Although there are various theories about the true history of Tash Rabat, it was undoubtedly a significant resting place for merchants, ambassadors and other travellers along the Silk route between Central Asia to China. It is notable not only for its size (it was the largest known stone building of that era) and building materials but also for its special layout, based on perfect symmetry. While we explored the dark chambers within this fascinating building we pondered over the cold and harsh conditions that the travellers of the Silk Road faced over the mountainous terrain between China and Kyrgyzstan. The place certainly had an atmosphere of great history and Tash Rabat for us was a very special part of our travels in Central Asia.
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