Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Friday, October 24, 2003 19:17:13|
Central Asia 2003: 14 - Kyrgyzstan
Thursday, October 23, 2003
Our departure from Tashkent was on time at the horrible hour that we were threatened with. We said goodbye to Timur and Vallee, our guide and driver, at the airport and went through the exit formalities with no problem. The flight to Bishkek was on a Russian Tupolov 154 which I'm sure was flown by a frustrated aerobatic pilot. I'm amazed the stewardesses were able to stay on their feet, but perhaps they are used to him! The flight was totally full, as all flights in Central Asia have been so far. When we fell out of the sky and connected with the runway various goods and chattels leapt out of the overhead racks - there are no bins, just racks like buses only much narrower. There is nothing to restrain items placed in them.
Although the line-up was long for customs and immigration in Kyrgyzstan the formalities were very straight forward - no forms to fill out. We were met by our guide, a university student named Alica, and the driver Dimitri, who had a comfortable 22 seat bus that I could stand upright in. We headed into downtown Bishkek for a walking and shopping tour of this pleasant city of one million. It is the capital and a cultural city with several universities, theatres and other cultural and artistic centres. The city was built by the Russians in 1864 when the capital was moved from Osh.
Prices on goods in the shops here are mixed - some higher and some lower than we have encountered. One thing that is definitely cheaper is computer software - well packaged pirate software is readily available. Jim bought Windows XP Professional for $3 and Windows Office 2002 runs $2.50. All popular systems are available at similar prices.
The Kyrgyz people, who make up about 70% of the population, are of Mongol descent with distinctly oriental features. We are now among the Mongol hordes! People are very friendly and curious about us - this country has very little tourism so we are a novelty. There are certainly no group tours as we saw in Uzbekistan.
There is a much greater feeling of freedom and optimism here than we experience in the last few countries. I bought an English language newspaper which was openly critical of the government; something Alica says is no problem here. The president is in his third four year term of the two he is was allowed by the constitution. He had a referendum to change the constitution to let him stay on, which he won by 57%. Alica feels the referendum was fair as most people support the president, although she would personally like to see a change. He came into the job from being the top guy under the soviet system as did so many others in former soviet republics.
Land here is owned by the government, and collective farms are still functioning for potatoes and other staple crops. Land can be leased for farming, but the government dictates what can be planted. There is some discussion about leasing land for tourism development, but nothing has been done yet.
The first ten years of school are free - three years of primary, 4 years of middle school and 3 years of secondary school. About half the university students are on scholarships, and some scholarships provide for study in foreign universities. The annual fee for a good university is $1,800 if you have to pay the full shot.
Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country with two mountains over 7,500 meters in height. Over 91% of the country is covered by mountains, and mountain climbers are the largest tourist group.
When we arrived in Bishkek there were police all over as the President of Russia is here to open a new Russian airbase. In the same newspaper was an article announcing that the lease on the US airbase had been renewed for another three years. They are very cleverly playing both sides! The President of Turkey is here also - his procession went roaring down the main street while we waited to cross.
Alica's parents are both doctors, with her father a specialist in neurology. Neither practice medicine due to the low wages - a doctor receives about $25 per month, the same as a teacher. Her father now has a pharmacy and her mother brings in goods from China to sell. Life expectancy here is 58 years, which is largely due to diet and lack of proper medical care.
After a delicious lunch at a small café we headed towards Lake Issyk Kul, stopping along the way to explore the remains of a Silk Road ruined city and watch tower. There was a small museum, tower and graveyard, but not much else was visible. The view of the snowy mountains we were about to cross was beautiful.
Shortly after getting going again we started to climb into the mountains, following a glacial river. Keeping the road open is a big problem due to frequent rock slides. When we descended into the area around the lake it was dark and very cold. We had left an altitude of 800 meters in Bishkek and were now at 1,300 meters. We were all very glad when we finally turned into our hotel at 8 PM - it was a very long day!
The Hotel Issyk Kul is a monstrous concrete lump with hundreds of rooms on five floors looking out on the lake. It was built as a retreat for top level soviet conferences and as a resort to which top soviet officials were sent as a reward. If this is where they were sent as a reward, it would be horrible to see what they got for punishment! The place had all the character of an unemployment office, but was a lot colder. There was no heat at all in the building. We had to carry our own luggage up three stories in a tiny, creaking elevator then drag it about half a mile along a bare, dark corridor to the room. A surly guard in military uniform sat at the door watching us struggle up the entrance steps with no thought of assistance. The only good thing about the physical exercise is that it kept us from freezing to death!
The room was done in the standard Russian Intourist design, and happily included a tiny electric heater that worked. After a quick clean up we went to the restaurant for a horrible meal, most of which was inedible. We managed to get extra blankets and headed to bed. It sure is strange to see the housekeeping staff wearing toques and the male staff in parkas inside the building! We were sufficiently exhausted to get some sleep, though.
Friday, October 24, 2003
Breakfast was almost as delightful as dinner, with freezing cold omelette and freezing cold pancakes. You can read freezing cold here to be room temperature. The day started out drizzly, but it was easy to see the reason for the temperature - we are completely surrounded by snow covered mountains. The place really is beautiful.
Issyk Kul is a big lake, over 300 km long and 80 km wide. We drove along its shores to a field full of large rocks with petroglyphs on them, then drove the opposite way for 2 ½ hours to visit the tomb of the Russian explorer who first charted the area from here to Tibet and on through the mountains of China. We were only about 60 km from the Chinese border at that point. The weather then cleared to blue skies and sunshine, which provided some welcome warmth
An excellent lunch was served up by a local restaurant, during which the decision was made to abandon the included "food" at the hotel and go to another local restaurant near the hotel for dinner. After lunch we visited an old, wooden Russia Orthodox Church and the mosque of a Muslim sect from China. This group are apparently gradually being annihilated in China by the government. It was interesting, as there was no dome as with a normal mosque - it was totally done in the classic Chinese Buddhist shrine styling with upturned corners of the roof and dragons for decoration. Dragons represented evil in Iran and the other Moslem countries, but represent power in China and Japan.
After returning to the hotel I took a walk through the grounds between the hotel and the lake. It is a large area beautifully landscaped, with several rose gardens and other formal gardens. The beach was of golden sand, with a pier for the lake cruise boats which ply the area in the summer. There was also a tall water slide which dumped riders into the lake at the end of the run. This part of the complex would be great in the summer! The only question would be where to stay and eat!
We headed off in the van with no destination restaurant in mind. When we spotted a small café Alica went in to inquire as to what they had to offer. It was limited, but we were all stuffed from lunch anyhow, so decided to give it a try. It was a great choice - the food was delicious and the proprietress a lot of fun. Tom had purchased three bottles of Kyrgyz wine for the princely sum of $1.66 for all three earlier in the day, so we had those for dinner. They were somewhat under gourmet standards, but certainly got everyone going. It was a good time and good food, so we decided to abandon the included restaurant breakfast as well as we were assured a fine breakfast would await us if we returned in the morning.
The three table restaurant also had two computer stations for an internet café, and karaoke. Having been without Internet for a bit I'll take the opportunity of the breakfast stop to send this off, if possible. It will be a long driving day tomorrow - likely about 10 hours to Almaty in Kazakhstan. Our current guide and driver are going to accompany us right to the hotel in Almaty.