Monday, September 1, 2008

Aug 31 - Bishkek

We were in no rush this morning, so we spent some time watching a 2004 movie "The Terminal." This movie, starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, involves a man who becomes stateless and trapped in a New York airport. Since it was dubbed into Russian, we missed the entire subplot of Tom Hanks speaking with a foreign accent.
Teaser: this will all become very personal for us later.

At 8 am, there were two other couples already at breakfast in the patio. The Tom Hanks movie ended at 8:10 am, and we soon joined them. One couple was from Vienna. They had just finished leading a trekking group through Kyrgyzstan, and were flying out that afternoon. They had previously led trips in the Himalayas and elsewhere. They had been on vacation for approximately 6 weeks.

The second couple, our age, had just finished a 4 day trip by train from London to Bishkek. They had spent a few days in Bishkek, recovering from traveler's tummy, and were getting ready to start horse-trekking from Kochkor. Their plans were to make it across the Irkeshtam Pass by the end of September, and to go from Kashgar, across the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan, and thence from Lahore into India. When we asked them when they were returning to England, they replied "June, because our daughter is getting married in July." 10 months on the road!

Our plan this morning was to go to Ala-Archa Park. Bishkek is one of the few cities in the world, and may be the only capital, which adjoin mountains taller than 14,000 feet. In this case, Bishkek is at 800 meters (2600 feet) and the tallest peak in the Ala-Archa Range is close to 5000 meters (16,500 feet).

To get to Ala-Archa Park, you go south from Bishkek. About 20 km out is the small town of Kashka Suu, which is reachable by public transit. 7 km farther is the gate to the park, where you pay admission. 12 km further in is the end of the public road. You are now at 2180 meters elevation (apx 7000 feet).

We took a bus over to Osh Bazaar, from where the bus to Kashka Suu was supposed to leave. As usual Osh Bazaar was a total madhouse, but Carol had a wonderful epiphany. Here, at last, for the first time since the beginning of the trip, we had regained the blessed state of anonymity. We looked like many of the other people, and we dressed like many of the other people, and we were engaged in the same activities. No little kid said "Hello."

After 15 minutes or so, we spotted a bus to Kashka Suu (265) and got on. The fare was 21 som, and when the bus finally filled, we went south through the suburban southern towns. It was after noon when we got to the end of the line, 7 km from the gate, and 19 km from the starting point of any hikes, called the "alplager."

There were three of us at the end of the line. A couple of private cars stopped, but wanted an exhorbitant amount to get us to the alplager. Finally, a taxi stopped, and the third, a local woman, explained to us that the taxi would take us to the alplager for 150 sum apiece (300), plus 80 sum apiece for admission (160). We all hopped on, and she got off before the gate, having gotten a free ride for her role in arranging this deal.

We got to the gate, and the driver motioned to Mike to pay the admission. For the car and three people, it came to 200 sum (not 160). On we went to the top of the road, where the driver left us off and we paid the 300. The total was 500 sum, or about $14.

It was now noon. The weather was in the 60s, with a nice wind. The sky was clear, and we had views of snow capped mountains. We were back in the Alps, and loving every minute of the first breath of autumn in Ala-Archa, part of the Tian Shan mountains we had first met in Hami and Yiwu, a month ago.

We had our pick of several hikes, and chose to go to some waterfalls, a 3.75 km hike. This trail climbs relatively steeply, perhaps ascending 1000-1500 feet in that distance.

The hike was lovely, rising above a spruce forest and two roaring streams, but rocky. We were wearing sneakers and had no hiking poles (there is only so much that one can carry n a six week trip). About 30 minutes in, Mike decided that the elevation and steepness were too much, and sat down. Carol went on; her experience leading hikes finally reluctantly convinced her that continuing without proper gear was folly, and she too turned back. We got down to the alplager at 1:45 pm, having enjoyed another glimpse of the natural beauty of Kyrgystan, an ecotourist's paradise.

We anticipated great difficulty getting down the first 19 km from the alplager, but less than 5 minutes after we started hitching, we were picked up by 3 Russian tourists from near Ekaterinburg, who were on their holiday. They took us to the bus stop and would have gladly taken us into Bishkek. They spoke no English, but we communicated through hand signals: thumbs up for Obama, and thumbs down for Bush.

The 265 bus took us back to the Osh Bazaar, where we had seen a number of eateries. We picked out one, filled mostly with men, but with a few families sitting on the right side. We sat down and ordered plov, pelmeny, nan, and a skewer of shashlik, accompanied by two half liter mugs of beer. The whole bill came to 204 sum ($6 US).

Our appetities were satiated, and Carol was a bit buzzed. As we headed back to the city center, Carol was WWI (walking while intoxicated).

It was time to change a little money, to hit the internet, and to discover if there were any festivities related to Independence Day. While at the internet, we attempted to reserve a room at the Kazzhol Hotel in Almaty for the next night. We swallowed hard when we learned that a standard room at that hotel, recommended by Lonely Planet as a good midprice choice, was 10900 tenge. A tenge is now trading at 119.8 to the USD, so this would be $90 USD. We filled out the internet form, submitted it online, and got a message that the reply would arrive in 48 hours.

While we were at the internet, we watched an Israeli couple (the first of our trip) upload the contents of their camera. These included some spectacular nature pictures and human interest studies of their time in Kyrgyzstan.

Afterwards, we wandered into Beta store again, got a 1.5 liter bottle of tomato juice and a large water, and walked to the fountain in front of the Philharmonia Building, where we saw a large crowd appreciating the fountain and the amateur violinist serenading them with Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag.

It was 9 pm, and time to drink the tomato juice and watch a folkloring song contest, being broadcast on Kyrgyz television. Happy Independence Day, Kyrgyzstan! (17 years)

The song duel (aitys) would have made more sense to us if we had been able to understand the lyrics, but basically it was as follows: Contestant one plays the qobyz (a two stringed primitive fiddle) or dombra (a two stringed lute) and recites some complicated poetry. Contestant two listens, and when it is his turn, he replies with more poetry, in the same style. And so it goes back and forth. Occasionally, the audience responds with laughter or applause for some particularly witty bon mot by the akyn (bard). There were judges to declare the winner.

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