In order to get to the airport by 7 am, we determined to wake up at 5 am. Without an alarm clock we woke several times to check the watch. At the first check, we realized that the lights would not come on because the hotel turns off the electricity from midnight to 8 am. So Carol found her flashlight, we determined that it was 1 in the morning, and Mike did some stargazing from the hotel window. (Because Osh, like most cities in this region, has very few street lights, and no sodium lights, the stargazing, even in the middle of the city, is quite good.)
At 4 and again at 5 the stargazing was great. At 5 we saw the last bats and heard the morning call to prayer. By 5:45 am, there was finally just barely enough light to collect the wash from the lines. So out Mike went.
Showering and packing by dawn light is not easy. However, by 6:55 we were on the street to get the taxi, and by 7:10 am we were at the airport.
The Osh Airport may be the smallest international airport from which we have ever flown. As we were waiting for our flight, we saw a crowd gathered around a truck with a large metal cage. On the bed of the truck were two men handing down luggage which had probably come in on an earlier flight. Who needs a baggage carousel?
We checked our baggage (limit 15 kg), and found out that our packs were 13.5 kg each (apx 30 lbs) so we were OK. We finally learned from the check-in receipt that our airline was AVIA Traffic Company.
As we waited for the flight, we pondered whether it was safer to fly on this flight, or ride12-15 hours on the road. The statistics are not good either way. On Aug 24 or 25, there was a flight from Bishkek to Iran that crashed 2 km from the Bishkek Airport, killing 60 of the 90 passengers on board (in all fairness, this was the first crash of the Kyrgyz national airlines, not our carrier). On the other hand, a bus recently crashed into another car near Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, killing 10 people. Nothing is safe about traveling in this part of the world, what with drivers going 160 kmh, and driving on the wrong side of the road, if the wrong side of the road is somewhat smoother.
Our airplane was a 50 seater, an AN-24. As we loaded, the stewardess walked the aisle with a cheap roll of baggies, tearing off one for each passenger if requested. After checking the contents of the seat-back pockets, Mike figured this was their version of the barf bag, and so he requested one for his friend who collects barf bags from all sorts of airlines. Of course, it had no logo, but it is the thought that counts.
The flight took off uneventfully at 8:15 am and landed uneventfully at the Bishkek Manas Airport. We waited at the door for the luggage 45 minutes. Apparently they couldn't unlock the baggage claim door, so finally they showed us where they had piled the baggage, and we claimed ours. It was now 10 am.
We ignored the taxi drivers who wanted $15-20 US (500-600 sum) to take us to town. We finally found the 380 bus, which, for 30 sum apiece, took us into town to the Osh Bazaar.
We didn't go into the bazaar. We were dropped at the side of the road in one of the most chaotic traffic situations we had seen on this trip. We were only about 2 km from the West (Long Distance) Bus Station, from which the shared taxis and buses depart. Finally, we caught a taxi (100 sum) with the assistance of an English speaking local, who told the driver our wishes.
First, the driver had to get out of this traffic jam. This took great driving skill and maneuvering, but was finally done. By this time, the taxi driver was caught up in our cause. When we reached the long distance bus station, he plunged between the aisles in search of a bus to Kochkor, the jumping off spot for outdoor adventure trips.
A bus going through Kochkor was just leaving. There was barely room for two people and their bags. As the unlucky final passengers, we took our places in the rear of the bus, with our backpacks inside against our knees. The fare was 300 sum apiece, at the high end of the guidebook's suggested price, but the bus was leaving immediately.
There is beautiful scenery between Bishkek and Kochkor, as the road climbs a river valley, and crosses a small mountain pass. We had no way to see out of any window, and no ventilation. We could sense that we were the odd people out in this bus, and there was no move to communicate with us or befriend us.
The bus stopped twice, first to take on a number of watermelons and two boxes of tomatoes. We had no idea where this extra baggage was going to fit, but somehow it did. We eventually realized that the bus was going past Kochkor to the mountain town of Chayek, where this fresh lowland produce would be a real treat.
The second stop was at a roadside service center, with a store and a saray which functioned as a restaurant. 30 minutes, and a fast meal later, the driver was ready to go. During our stop, Carol saw a woman approaching wearing a tee-shirt that said: "Hooray!! You Suck." She wonders to this day what the appropriate response to that message should be.
At 3 pm or so, we were left off at the Kochkor Bazaar, a small street market in a small town. Getting our bearings, we walked a block or so to the CBT office. (CBT = Community Based Tourism, the original ecotourism entity in Kyrgyzstan). Here we met Aidai Osmonalieva, the coordinator for the Kochkor district, and a model for everything that a coordinator should be. In a little less than an hour, we arranged a yurt stay in Song Kul (lake) for that evening, transportation there and back, and a guesthouse stay with a family in Kochkor the next evening, and all necessary meals for both sites.
For the record, the costs are as follows: B& B in Song Kul (300 x 2), Dinner in Song Kul (100 x 2), Lunch in Song Kul (120 x 2), Transport (200 km x 10sum/km = 2000), Driver's Time (200), and Driver's Food (145). (Our driver goes up with us, stays in another yurt, and drives us back the next day.) Total 3385 sum, or approximately $100 US.
At 4 pm we were off. Our driver, Seitek, is a history major in a university in Bishkek. Home for the summer, he makes some money driving for CBT. It was a pleasure to have a cautious driver, for once. As we started, he took 650 sum of the money and bought gas for the trip. (Gas in Kyrgyzstan is roughly 95 cents per liter, or about $3.70 US per gallon).
Our minimal Russian and Seitek's somewhat better English made conversation difficult, but we talked somewhat of the politics of the region's countries. At some point, Mike asked if people drank the water of the fast river we were following. Somewhat offended, Seitek replied that we must understand that local people lived in houses like our own, and were not subsistence dwellers. Mike had merely wanted to know how silty the water was, when he asked the question.
The first 50 km is on the main road south to Naryn and the Torugart Pass. The road is filled with dust covered Chinese trucks, going to and fro with their immense loads of cargo. After this, we turn off onto a reasonably flat, washboarded and rutted road. 25 km or so later, we crossed a river. At this point, our driver stopped to pour water on the car's radiator, and let it cool off. We enjoyed the opportunity to get out in green countryside, as four shepherds on horseback with their flocks of sheep came over. Mike shared half of the melon we had bought in Kochkor with the shepherds and Seitek. Wispy clouds became heavier and more frequent, the further we drove.
At this point, the road starts to climb at a 12 percent grade, eventually crossing a pass at 3300 meters (Kochkor is at 1800 meters). On the way up and then down to the lake, we saw a large number of yaks (topoz in kyrgyz). These big shaggy beasts with their curved horns are quite a sight.
As the road comes slowly down from the pass, you see the lake in the distance. After a while, the driver left what we had regarded as a road, and turned off onto a track. We followed the track, fording a stream, and after perhaps 10 km, came to our set of yurts.
It was after 7 pm, the sun was setting, the wind was picking up, and it was cold. We put on our sweaters, jackets, hats, and gloves, and set up in the yurt. Finally, about 8:15 pm, dinner was served by our hosts Rosa and Ishen. We had hot mutton shorba, mixed vegetable salad, bread, tea, and a cup each of variniki (sour cherries in heavy syrup).
So to bed at 9 pm on our pile of cloth mats, wrapped in layers of duvets, still fully dressed. The outhouse was 20 meters or so away, a cold and windy walk. Carol slept through the entire night, hat on her head. Mike got up once at 4 am to some of the best stargazing he has ever seen (even though the sky was one-third clouded over).
So in the time that a bus ride from Osh to Bishkek would have taken, we were established in our alpine lakeside home, at 3000 meters, by a beautiful lake.
This day was brought to you by the letter Y for yak and yurt.