It was an early start for breakfast in the hotel in Almaty, ahead of a long nine hour drive to our guest house in Karakol in Kyrgyzstan.
The drive was a bumpy one, where there were roads they were littered with pot-holes but for the most part in was dirt tracks. We stopped every two hours for the toilet and/ or photos but the Kazakh country side is relatively bleak and barren.
Our first scenic stop was at Charyn Canyon, where we descended down into the valley and followed a dusty winding path down to a camp. The topography and geology resembled that in Utah and Arizona – a mini Grand Canyon with hoodos and stunning rock formations on all sides, which provided a kaleidoscope of colours.
After a two mile hike to the bottom of the Canyon we reached a small eco camp with a couple of tents and Yurts. The camp was built on a horseshoe river bend, with a fast flowing mint green river looping around.
While others enjoyed lunch, I sent LARS up to survey, first taking photos from the middle of the river before rising to 500m and taking photos back up the Canyon and overhead shots of the bends.
If the hike down had felt like hard work, the one back left most people exhausted. After a wait for the stragglers we climbed back on board the minibuses and headed for the Kyrgyzstan border.
The border crossing was a friendly and reasonably efficient affair – the guards seemed to buck the global trend of stern faced officials and instead seemed fascinated by our multi-cultural group and were full of questions.
On the Kyrgyzstan side, the red flag, with yellow emblem, representing the pinnacle of a yurt (a traditional roundhouse) flew over the small wooden hut. It took just over an hour for the seventeen of us to get our passports stamped out and in, but we were soon underway.
Within minutes of the border the landscape had changed from dust and low scrub to the yellow fields of fertile farm land. There is no real change in the topography, but a remarkable change in the landscape, as though the Kyrgyzs are a farming nation while the Kazakhs rely on oil wealth. Some 90% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous – with the economy mainly reliant on agriculture but with a growing tourism industry.
Kyrg we were told means ‘the forty tribes’ so Kyrgyzstan is the ‘land of the forty tribes. It is poorer and less developed than its larger neighbour with a population of 8 million, with the capital and largest city being Bishkek with 800,000 people.
Apart from a brief stop at a bee keepers so the driver could buy some honey, we breezed through Kyrgyz countryside – passed local cowboys heading their cattle and sheep along dusty roads.
Eventually we arrived at dark at our hotel in Karakol the third largest city in the country. Kyrgyz food, like that in Almaty was full of carbs, meat and sweets – after dinner I headed to bed a stone heavier.
Our first stop the next morning was the Przhevalsky Museum, dedicated to one of Russia’s most famous geographers and explorers who mapped much of the region. The quaint museum was packed full of relics and documents – further down the Grand gardens was przhevalsky’s gravestone and a monument.
As we drove out further into the countryside the landscape changed once again, steep mountains rose from the slopes of Issy-Kul Lake, the second largest mountain lake in the world after Titicaca and the tenth largest overall.
On the lakes shore grew bright coloured orchards with red and yellow leaves, while just a hundred yards up the mountain were barren sandy slopes. On top of one tall peak sat the carved figure of Manas, a popular literary and musical figure in local folklore.
We pulled off the road and down a small driveway that lead to a deserted beach. The sand was a light pinky colour, while the rocky waters were an exotic turquoise blue for around 100m out into the lake before turning a dark cold blue.
While one member of our group opted to swim in the 14c water, the rest enjoyed lunch and I sent LARS out to explore and get photos of the Manas and a nearby abandoned building complex. I hadn’t counted on it being windy and over 4km to the figure – meaning I was running on empty with warnings flashing as I brought him back in to land.
From the pink beach we headed to a local small business who make yurts – a traditional roundhouse made of a wooden frame and wrapped in several layers of felt. The whole process of assembly can apparently be done in just fifteen minutes to complete a yurt that sleeps up to eight people – our efforts took significantly longer.
We again hit the road, stopping only briefly at a roadside toilet that overlooked a stunning mountain lake – a pee with a view.
With sunlight fading it was on to our guest house where for the first time I had to share a room with two other travellers…it would be an awful nights sleep.