‘Is it Kool?’ Post-Expedition Travelling: Lake Issyk Kul and Beyond
Day 1: ‘All aboard the bus’ – The journey begins, on the road to Cholpon Ata
Following a much appreciated three-course dinner in an Italian restaurant and a nice evening walk through the centre of Bishkek, we had a relatively gentle start to our first full day since returning from the mountains. After enjoying a very tasty breakfast at Fatboys, saying goodbye to Michael, sorting out some last-minute logistics with ITMC, buying some food from the supermarket and devouring two tubs of ice cream, we boarded a minibus heading to Cholpon Ata, on the northen shore of Lake Issyk Kul. After a bumpy but very fast journey, we arrived in the busy resort town, found our way to the small but comfortable Pegasus Guest House and enjoyed an excellent dinner.
Day 2: Horses, beaches and pot-bellied men
With our host a locally renowned equine expert, we spent much of the day on horseback in the foothills north of Cholpon Ata, with great views down to the lake below. Though none of us had much prior experience of horse riding, we soon picked it up and a fun time was had by all. In the afternoon we took a quick dip in the lake and observed Russian men ‘sunbathing’ standing up on the crowded beach, before visiting the local hippodrome for the Equine Games, where highlights included ‘rugby’ with a dead sheep and wrestling on horseback.
Day 3: Yurts and Yak Tours
With time against us it was time to board a minibus again, this time taking us to Karakol, a large town at the end of the lake. Today marked the end of Ramadan, and the entire town’s population seemed to be inside, presumably feasting after a month of daytime fasting, leaving the town somewhat deserted and a little eerie at times! Nonetheless, we visited an unusual wooden church, found a very nice, though slightly out-of-place, café and made a somewhat vague arrangement with the infamous Yak Tours for transport the following day. Crossing off another ‘Kyrgyz experience’, we slept in Turkmenistan Yurt Camp.
Day 4: Bumps, breakdowns and hot-spring bathing
Following another Lonely Planet recommendation, we planned an excursion from Karakol up into the mountains once more to the tiny settlement of Altyn Arashan, renowned for its hot springs. Though the trip up the ‘road’ was about the roughest any of us had ever experienced, in a vehicle which could easily have been destined for the scrap heap several decades ago, the hot springs were a great reward. We spent over an hour sitting in the 40° water, which wasn’t even too pungent, and made several sporadic dips into the icy river rushing by outside. Our planned accommodation was full, so we were put up by a friendly local family, whose bright and playful and son made friends with Matthew over juggling balls and an MP3 player.
Day 5: Two buses, two taxis and a walk
Not fancying another trip in the ancient minibus we decided to make the 14km trip back down to the main road head on foot. Though rather dusty and hot at times, the views were nice and it was a pleasant and relatively easy walk. We boarded a passing minibus to take us back to Karakol, and after buying some lunch at the market made our way to Karakol’s South Bus Terminal where we jumped onto yet another minibus to continue our journey around the lake, along its southern shore. This time the destination was the small town of Kadji Sai, where we stayed with the family of local eagle hunter Ishenbek.
Day 6: Completing the circle – back to Bishkek
A final minibus ride completed our trip around the shores of Lake Issyk Kul and after returning along the bumpy road through the dramatic Shoestring Gorge, we shortly arrived back to Bishkek. Here we spent a long time attempting to find suitable accommodation, but unfortunately to no avail and we eventually decided to split up, with half of the group staying at the Hotel Alpinist and the remainder at a flat-cum-hostel on the 7th floor of a Soviet tower block.
Day 7: To the mountains once more…
Our final excursion took us up the Ala Archa valley to the south of Bishkek, a widely used mountaineering area. We were pleased to find a seven-seater taxi, but somewhat less pleased to find the vehicle seemed to be runnning short of petrol, resulting in us travelling at 20mph for most of the trip. Nonetheless, in spite of this and a brief diversion when we missed a turn, we arrived at the road head in good time, and booked into a cheap and satisfactory hotel. We spent the afternoon walking back up into the Tien Shan mountains for a final time, and a few of the group made it up to the alpine hut at the base of the glacier. The cloud cleared just enough on the descent to provide brief glimpses of several dramatic granite north faces and glacier-clad slopes.
Day 8: Back where it all began…
It was fortunately only a short wait until another 7 seat taxi appeared to take us back down the valley to Bishkek, rather more quickly than the taxi on the way up. Our final afternoon was spent back where the trip began, in Osh Bazaar, but this time seeking souvenirs rather than expedition supplies. We enjoyed our last Kyrgyz meal in an outdoor restaurant in the centre of town, and toasted a highly successful and truly unforgettable trip. All too soon, though, the evening was over, and just a few hours later the minibus arrived to take us back to the airport for our early morning flight to Moscow.