After flying for eight hours with a connection in Moscow in between, we arrive on the 12th of June, 2011, in Bishkek, which is the capital of Kyrgyzstan, for a two-week trek. Lying notably next to China and Kazakhstan, this former soviet republic is an essentially mountainous and rural land. Its economy is largely based on agriculture.
On the day of our arrival, we visit the city and especially its market, in which everything can be found: dairy products, meat, vegetables, dried fruits, carpets, clothing, made-in-china trinkets… The next day, we leave for the beginning of our trek with Murat (guide), Salamat (assistant guide), Nurlan (cook and talented singer) and Constantin (driver).
The first stage is easy and we meet nomads for the first time (including a little girl who seems frightened by our cameras), all of them being very warm and welcoming. Later the trek gets harder as we have to walk much longer stages and through passes at altitudes higher than 3000m (10000ft). But then we discover landscapes unusual to us, very unlike the Alps: as far as the eye can see, we face wide grassy valleys and vast pastures. As a result of the humid climate, everything is green up to a very high altitude, with the boundaries of vegetation above 3400m (11100ft).
Every day we meet nomads; and every family welcomes us and offers bread with fresh cream, wild black-currant jam or arbutus jam, but also a local specialty, kumiz (fermented mare’s milk) which has a very strong and bitter taste. Nomads live under yurts during the summer to take their cattle out to graze, which is no more than an ordinary living in the mountains. The language barrier notwithstanding, it is a real pleasure every time having exchanges with them.
During our trek, we also discover horse riding, and spend an amazing evening thanks to our sweet and talented Kirghiz friends: they managed to improvise a birthday party for Béatrice, who is taking part in the trek. Outstanding dinner, birthday cake and songs for everyone, presents for Béatrice… and vodka, cognac and pastis for Constantin.
Kyrghyzstan is also a poor country, and this what we got to see at the Kyz-Art road pass. Small traders live there in caravans, selling dairy products from the nomads for the most part, but also alcohol and a bit of food. Unlike nomads who always are warmly welcoming in clean and spotless yurts, these small traders seem to really mistrust us, and the dirt place makes the whole place look extremely poor.
On our last walking day, we need to reach the Turz Achu pass. 3200m high (10500ft) and 700m (2300ft) to climb, it doesn’t look like the most difficult of what we’ve done so far. Hiking up there is still exhausting because we have to walk against the wind, and the finish seems to hide itself at each turn of the road. However, what we see once we’ve reached the top is a genuine reward for our efforts: the view is breathtaking. The Lake Song-Kul appears as though lying in a casket made of surrounding mountains, and it is definitely not by chance that this lake is nicknamed the Pearl of Kyrgyzstan. While hiking down to the lake, rain adds to the wind and we need to shelter under a yurt, staying there for a while, taking the time for lunch, tea and pictures of the children. Among members of the family is a sixteen-year-old boy; Béatrice and I realize that he really behaves like any European teenager. It is funny to see that no matter what the difference in culture and way of life, a teenager is still a teenager.
After two days spent next to the lake, resting, walking and riding horses, we go off to Lake Issyk-Kul, which lies further east and is much larger. On the way we stop in Koshkor at the women’s cooperative where felt for yurts is produced from sheep wool.
The end of the road to Lake Issyk-Kul is a canyon carved in the sand and looks like the sandy hills of the Badlands in South Dakota, USA. Further away we can see high snowed-up summits. We spend two days resting by this lake.
Finally, back to Bishkek, to the market, the post office and the souvenirs shop. Last evening at the restaurant with our Kirghiz friends; Nurlan looks a bit sad as he says goodbye to us (he is going home and will not come with us to the airport). We go to sleep and a few hours later, Salamat wakes us up, Murat meets us and Constantin loads our luggage in the bus. Then we go to the airport.
I know we’re going back home to go off again some day.