Monday, September 23, 2013

Capturing Kyrgyzstan in 18 days

Our trip to Kyrgyzstan has come and gone in a flash.  We spent the shortest amount of time there than in any other country that we've visited.  I think that it was just the right amount of time though.  We had intended on staying at least a week longer but after the advice of both locals and other travelers- we decided to book our flight for Nepal a week sooner.

I have to say that a year ago, when Nate mentioned that he wanted to go to the 'Stans- I was nervous.  I had visions of being cold in a Soviet block neighborhood with no heat, unfriendly people and our being out of our element.  Actually, I felt this way until about two months ago :).  But as the time approached, I felt my nervousness shift into excitement for exploring an area that I knew very little about.  Krygyzstan does not disappoint and I've left with an appreciation for a country engaged in an active transition from it's Soviet history.  

Our arrival into Bishkek was met with a stunning view of the surrounding Ala-Too mountains, the northern end of the Tian Shan range.  Warm summer breezes blew through the open windows of the taxi as we passed through a surprisingly lush, tree-lined city.  Yes, we were suddenly enjoying yet another month of summer weather!  I immediately saw elements of the city that I would have never expected.  The city is full of parks, trees and flowers.  Snow capped mountains rise dramatically as the backdrop. The street corners are overflowing with fruit for sale- strawberries, watermelons, apples, pears, several varieties of grapes- along with an equal astounding selection of vegetables and herbs.  After a fairly bland diet in Mongolia- this was almost too much to bare.  Oh, and ice tea vendors abound to quench your thirst as you enjoy strolling through the city.


Staying in Bishkek
Unfortunately, our hostel was a bit more of what I had feared.  While in a good location, the hostel was actually a privately owned apartment outfitted with numerous bunk beds and cots.  The owner checked in daily on her lunch break- but there was certainly not 24-hour reception, as advertised.  We were lucky enough to have a reservation still in their files and two beds available at check-in- unlike quite a few other unlucky guests.  There were days when getting into the kitchen was difficult because of a cot that was set up for guests who's reservation had been forgotten about.  It's not the hostel experience that we've been grown accustomed to (which is hardly 5 star).  But, since Kyrgyzstan is still being discovered as a tourist destination, this hostel is one of the only budget options in the city.  

We stayed several days at the hostel, spending our days exploring the city.  Then we happily packed up our bags and high-tailed it over to stay with a good friend of Nate's and his family (a fellow Peace Corps volunteer from his time in Bulgaria, his wife and their amazingly cute 1 1/2 year old son).  They have an apartment on the south side of the city with a guest room.  The transition felt great.  Having a private room with an incredibly comfortable mattress is now a luxury and we slept better there than anywhere I can remember!  

Sightseeing just outside of Bishkek
They took us to the Burana Tower and Ala Archa National Park, both of which are within an hour of Bishkek.

Burana Tower
The tower was built in the later part of the 9th century and is one of the few remains of the ancient city of Balasagun.  


Ala Archa National Park
We took a day hike up a very steep trail leading to a waterfall.  As we struggled up the loose ground while in the hot sun- we learned that the waterfall was still several hours further along.  With that, we stopped to enjoy the stunning view from our vantage point and slid our way back down the trail.  Little Max didn't seem to mind- he was sound asleep :) The fall colors and scenery had Nate and I hooked- and we agreed that we would come back for a longer visit.


Lake Issyk-Kul
The following week, we caught a marshrutka (small mini-bus) from the East bus station in Bishkek to Lake Issyk-Kul- the second highest alpine lake.  This is a great way to travel if you're not in a rush and don't like/need personal space.  If a space is available, it's yours for a very reasonable rate and the bus leaves when full (as full as they can).  It cost 350 som (~$7) to go to Karakol, on the east side of the Lake which took about 6 hours.  So it's worth the squeeze if you can stand it! This photo is about 3/4 full of passengers.

(yes, that's my bag resting on about a 100 pounds of garlic...)

Our first destination was Karakol, a town on the east side of the lake.  There wasn't much to the town but we went there because it is a start off point for trails up into the mountains.  When we really started to learn about the hikes- they required more time than we had.  Actually, this may have been one of the more difficult things about Kyrgyzstan- the lack of information on trails, even for those within the Natioal Park.  The info might be on the web, but if so, it's in Russian.  So, we made the best of it with day hikes and relaxing at the local coffee shop- which was cheap and had a French press!

My daily ritual at Karakol Coffee.

A photo taken at our hostel with a yurt in the background.

Our next stop was Cholpon-ata- just on the north side of the lake.  Our marshrutka driver hadn't heard of the place that we had wanted to stay- so dropped us off at another place.  It was a large apartment with a kitchen and bedroom with three uncomfortable beds (Nate's was unusually squeaky and obnoxious but like probably all the other guests we didn't dare tell the very stern Russian owner).  Nor did we mention anything about the broken window in the kitchen or get upset when the owner walked in at 8:30 and unplugged the tv that we were watching for no reason).  But, the flowers were beautiful- and this may be the most incredible rose that I've ever seen (which I did tell Ms. Grumpy). 

We even made it to the lake.

Ala Archa National Park, again
After returning to Bishkek for a few days- we went back to Ala Archa for more hiking.  Public transport only takes you to a nearby town, a few km from the main gate.  We caught a taxi, with the intention of walking from the main gate to the trail heads- a 12km walk.  It's good that we already had that in mind, because the taxi was running out of gas as we arrived at the gate.  

It was a beautiful walk that followed Ala Archa River.  This was our view after wenarrived to the main part of the park.  

The above photo is of the Ala Archa lodge which, no, wasn't our lodge.  Rooms there ranged from $50-70 a night.  We stayed in a dump just behind this lodge for $10 a night- but it was warmer than camping (other than the broken window which seems to be a theme in the places we rent in KG)...

The second day there we spent hiking along the gorge towards a glacier.  The views, horses and fall colors were memorable and we are so glad that we went back to spend more time there.  Here are a few photos of the hundreds that I took that day with Nate.


Now we're in Nepal! 
We flew out early on Sept 21st through Dubai to Kathmandu.  We're settling in after our second full day in Kathmandu.  More on that in the future posts! 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Nathan's 36th Birthday!


Having a birthday on the road can be a bit tough.  Today, is Nate's bday in Kyrgyzstan and while we tried to make the most of it- we were doomed from the start after sharing a room last night with the loudest snorer known to planet earth.  We didn't sleep a wink until the morning when said snorer woke up and proceeded to crumple plastic bags and repeatedly bang the door as he went in and out of the room (for hours).  SO- both Nate and I dragged ourselves around town today with droopy eyelids- and decided that we will celebrate tomorrow instead- since it will be his birthday tomorrow in the States and by then hopefully, we will have recovered with a good nights rest.

I struggled for a while over what to give Nate as a birthday gift to remind him both of how much I love him and also to celebrate his birthday while we're on the road.  He's never cared much about possessions (at all actually) and now that we're traveling- that is even more so the case.

In fact, the only thing that I've seen him buy himself in almost 8 months of traveling is this teeny-tiny Mao memorabilia pin.

So- instead of giving him something that I know he doesn't want (which he'll feel forced to lug around), I would rather tell him how much I love him and how lucky and extremely thankful I am to have him as my partner.  Also- to draw some attention to the fact that he is the most amazing travel companion that anyone could ever ask for.  

So, without delay- here's a bit about Nate and what makes him such a wonderful travel companion (and yes, I feel this way even after our being on the road together 24/7 since mid-January- so that should also be testament to his awesomeness!).

Monday, September 2, 2013

Northern Mongolia: Paradise Found!

Fall has arrived in Mongolia. It was just a little over a week ago that I realized that along with the rain- the wind had become an ever-present element as well. I was enjoying our cool walks and truth be told- I was celebrating a reason to treat myself to a Mongolian cashmere scarf (which I love). But, my enthusiasm for the season waned after our flight from Ulaanbaatar (UB) to Northern Mongolia was delayed 5 times due to high winds and fog. The travel gods eventually took pity on us- and we departed for Moron a day and a half later.

I believe that even with these delays- we were better off flying than taking the 18 hour bus ride to Moron. Actually, 18 hours is optimistic according to the travel-weary passengers we met who said it took closer to 24 hours after getting stuck in the mud multiple times.  Incase you're thinking to yourself- mud? Why is there that much mud on the road? That is because there aren't paved roads in Mongolia.  Ok, there are a few blocks of paved roads in UB around the city center and a beautiful stretch from Moron to Hatgal- which was our destination. Other than that- the roads look like this---

So, even though we were delayed several times- our flight still only took 1.5 hours to arrive in Moron.  This town is the market center for the north- with the market operating every day but Monday.  So, there's a market shuttle for surrounding towns that runs for anyone going or returning to Moron.  Because our flight landed several hours after the market ended, we had missed that option and a private car would have cost much more.  So, we stayed in the busting town (ok, not really) of Moron for the night in a ger at Bata's Guesthouse (10,000 T/ ~$7 a night).

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The World's largest horse race in history- and that's a fact.

If anyone is going to win the Guinness World Record for the most horses to run a race- it's going to be the Mongolians.  And that's exactly what they did on August 10th, 2013 at Khui Doloon Khudag - about a half-hour outside of the capital, Ulaanbaatar.  The race needed to have at least 3,000 racers compete (at once!).  Mongolian families and their horses arrived from all over Mongolia to participate- registering 4,279 racers, far more contestants than the needed to win.  The race was 18 km (11 miles) with many jockeys riding bare-back!

We were very fortunate to learn of the event.  Angelika, also staying at the Golden Gobi hostel knew of the race only because she passed by the parade the day before (also now a Guinness World Record having had 11,125 riders from the ages of 4 to 80).

It was an incredible introduction to Mongolia- especially on our second day after arriving!  Pictures below: