October 2017: The Journey through central Asia continues overland, crossing into Osh through the Fergana valley.


It's a short hop to the city of Osh, the second city of Kyrgyzstan (not a difficult moniker to achieve in this almost exclusively mountainous rural republic), still in the Fergana valley. I don't have the impression that I have changed countries in any great sense as the culture here is pretty similar to Fergana. In fact the Uzbeks in this town form a slim majority. However, we begin to see a few more Kyrgyz faces, not present in Fergana. The Kyrgyz look strikingly different from the Uzbeks. They are much more Oriental, Mongolian almost, with slightly swollen eyelids, and a yellower complexion compared to the darker skinned Uzbeks. It's quite a fun game to look at all the people in this city and try to guess if they are Uzbek or Kyrgyz, with a little practise it's quite easy, and it's perfectly acceptable in this part of the world to ask people this question.

Osh has a great big sprawling market which is great fun to wander around. I pick up a thick winter jacket here, as it looks like it will be cold from here on in. Osh has a number of parks and unusually a huge statue of Lenin in the centre, where I take the mandatory picture, to go with my Stalin selfie. In the centre of the town there are a series of five rocky peaks which seem to rise from nowhere. Another of the towns touted attractions is a three story Yurt, inside you can pay a dollar to have you picture taken in front of a blue screen and have yourself superimposed onto one of a number of famous landscapes; I can't bring myself to go in, I think the excitement might just tip me over the edge. I have a couple of lazy days in the town, and I'm again met by a group of students who all want to take a selfie with me, and chat to me for a while. One group of them all speak pretty good German for some reason, so I stop for a while to practise my German and chat to them. After asking me where I am from, the next question is always "are you married?" and the inevitable shock in finding that I am so old and yet without wife and children. "Aren't you lonely?", "Don't you want children?". I imagine to myself what the reaction would be if I stopped a stranger on the streets of London, took a picture of them and asked if they were married and if they were lonely. It all seems quite normal here. Nica, the guide from Uzbekistan, tells me that age and marital status are very important in this culture, and people often ask these questions to try to ascertain how to address you and how much respect to show you. Of course being a man affords you more respect, as does being older and being married.

Hill side view overlooking the small city of Osh; more Uzbek than Krygiz.

The hostel I am staying at is run by what look like very conservative muslims, sporting the Bin Laden beards, but incredibly friendly. A sign on the door says that it is forbidden to bring pork products or alcohol into the hostel. I talk to them for a while, and coincidentally, there has been an election in Kyrgyzstan today. Perhaps predictably the guy with the most money won, and everyone I talk to seems not to have backed this candidate. Kyrgyzstan is a very poor country, but with big natural reserves, including a large number of gold mines. Everyone complains that none of this money ever goes towards improving anyone’s life or building any infrastructure. There is money here, but it seems to be in the pockets of a very privileged few. On my trip so far I have visited no fewer than eight former Soviet countries, and three former communist ones aligned with Russia, and this story seems to be a very common complaint that I hear everywhere (except, it should be noted in Uzbekistan, where everyone gushes unconditionally about how wonderful the government is, looking manically over there shoulder and trying to change the topic).


The next day I head to the mountain village of Arslanbob. A small town at a height of 1,500 meters, and situated in a vast walnut forest, indeed the very same walnut forest that I glimpsed in Uzbekistan. There is one direct shared minibus to the town a day. I get on and soon it becomes ridiculously full, with every seat occupied, and a further 7 or 8 people standing in the cramped isles. The road is surprisingly good until we make the turning off the main highway up the hill, then it begins to look more like the expected Central Asian affair. The scenery becomes more open grassland with distant mountains and a roaring river, and I begin to see a more traditional rural life, and lots of young boys riding horses, this is more of the Central Asia that I had in mind. It's quite sunny up here, but a little chilly, in the distance of the town there are some grand snow capped peaks, but this is rather small fry when compared to the giant peaks in the heartland of the country. Still it is beautiful in the fading light. I find the tourist office here and they arrange for me to stay with a local family for a few nights, the man of the house is an English teacher, so I am able to speak with him at a good level and he asks if I will come and speak to his students about England and my travels, which I am happy to do. The house is in a beautiful setting by the river, but is basic. There are no chairs or tables, and everyone sits, in the traditional style, on the floor on cushions. The single toilet is simply a hole in the ground in the garden, and there is, of course no wifi, but there is at least electricity, and a big stove which pumps hot water into the radiators of the house and keeps it snug in the cold mountains nights. I'm quite happy here and have everything I need.

The next day the sun has given up and it's cold and overcast. I look around the town, and luckily it's market day, and the small town is surprisingly bustling with life, and it's great fun to simply wander around the market and people watch. This feels like such an alien world again. It's difficult to communicate with these people, but I want to ask them about their lives and what they are thinking, but it is impossible, so I simply watch them go about their basic alien lives for a while. I try to do a small hike to a waterfall, which is close by the town. I make it to the top, and there is a family there having a picnic and they offer me some tea which I happily take, and I try to give them some money, but they refuse quite firmly. None of them speak english, but they wave at me warmly as I head on my way. On the way down there is a fairly sudden and violent storm, with harsh almost horizontal rain, so I abandon the rest of the hike and rest for a bit back at the guest house and fall into a sleep. When I wake up the garden is covered in a thin sprinkling of freshly fallen snow and I run out to admire the view and take some pictures. Almost all of the trip so far has been in baking heat, or at least pleasant mild sunshine, and this is an abrupt and startelling change to the climate of my trip. I spend most of the day inside by the fire with a book and write some more of my diary. Tomorrow I will talk to the children at school.

In the evening the power went off in the whole village and we were reduced to torches and candles in the home stay, but this was no matter as there is no internet or television in the house so it made little difference. When I woke up there was still no power but the people in the house assured me that the school was still open so I made my way over to the school to do a morning of "teaching". The school was well hidden off the main road, but luckily they left a child out on the street to greet me and to show me the way. The inside of the school looked of reasonable quality, not too different from a school where I come from. I was shown to a small classroom, mixed with both boys and girls, who were aged around 15-16. As I entered they all stood bolt upright and chanted "good morning sir" in unison. They all seemed very pleased to see me and we spent an hour asking questions to each other in English. There was quite a range of abilities in the class and some of the more gifted children would translate what I was saying into Uzbek for the others. We talked a lot about England and what the difference between Britain, England and the UK was, which caused much confusion, even for me. I asked the children what they wanted to do when they grew up, the most popular answers were to be either a teacher or a doctor, where they would like to travel if they had the chance, and most said either the US or England; I also asked them about their families and many said that they had siblings who worked in Russia for a time, which seems very common here. The future of the English language in Kyrgyzstan seems pretty good though, as many of the kids already have a decent grasp of the language, so I predict that within 5 years or so English will become fairly common place amongst the younger people. At the end of the session the teacher offered some warm words about the future of the human race, saying that we are all one at that he hopes the world would live in peace, “Although we are different people and different religions we are one. I hope there will be peace in Europe, then there can be peace in Central Asia. My mother is Eve and your mother is Eve and my father is Adam and your father is Adam”, at this point he seemed to lose confidence, and he worriedly asked me “is that right?”, “yes”, why not. Words which would sound terribly kitch if I said them, but came deep from the heart. I came out of the class feeling very happy, a great experience, and one that was more or less sprung upon me, and I headed back to the guest house for lunch. That evening the host family welcomed two more visitors, one woman from Australia, and another man from Singapore. We all had dinner together, it was nice to finally have some company after a slightly lonely few days.

Impromptu English lesson in Arslanbob.

The Australian woman wanted to do some hiking the next day so I decided to stay one more night and join her as we could split the cost of the guide. The excellent community based tourism centre was able to organise a local English speaking guide for us, they also pressed us into taking a cook, which seemed like a bit of an extravagance for a single day, but they were quite keen to provide as much employment as they could and the price was quite cheap in the end so we didn't begrudge them this. The tour took in a couple of waterfalls in the area, the second fairly impressive, beneath some heavily snowed over mountains. In the summer it is possible to extend this hike to 4 days and cross a high pass to an isolated alpine lake, but at the moment there was too much snow. Coming here in October seriously limits what can be done in terms of outdoor activities. We also crossed a portion of Arslanbob's famous walnut forest, and saw some people hard at work picking the walnuts. The usual method is for the man to climb the tree and to use his weight to vigorously shake the tree so that as many walnuts as possible fall from the branches. This is a fairly risky endeavour, and many people die or are seriously injured every year as the branches of the walnut forest are very brittle and snap easily. Our chef met us half way through our trip and already had an open fire ready for us and had cooked up some shashlik and fried potatoes. Over lunch we were able to quiz our guide a bit more about Uzbek traditional life. He told us that his parents had arranged his marriage with his wife, he had been 24 when they married and his wife only 20. Here the man must pay the family of the wife a large sum of money, but that the family uses this money to buy and make the things that the couple will need when they get married, carpets, blankets, tables, crockery etc. There is an Uzbek tradition that the wife must go to live with the family of the husband. Gradually the children move out of the parental house when they can afford it. The last born son must stay with the parents and look after them until they die, but in return for this he alone inherits the parents house. If the family has no boys then they can co-opt either a son-in-law or a grandson to perform this duty. Our guide told us that western ideas were creeping into the village, but that the traditional ways of life were still going strong for the most part.


The next day I booked a spot in a shared taxi to Bishkek, the drive takes roughly 10 hours and passes two spectacular mountain passes of over 3000m on the way. The other passengers were all locals, including a woman with two young children who were both quite violently sick along the winding roads to Bishkek. The road is gently beautiful for the first 4 hours, until one reaches the Toktogul reservoir, at which point it becomes stunning. The two passes wind over mountain roads which are far above the snow line at this time of the year, and look like they might well be for the whole year. The scenery is a beautiful desolate blanket of thick white snow and imposing rocky mountains, a few very brave cyclists are tackling this route, which provokes much disbelief from the locals. I imagine life here is quite hard for a lot of people, and there doesn't seem to be much understanding of why people would leave their comfortable lives in Europe and subject themselves to such unnecessary hardship, and looking at these cyclists chuntering up the mountain side in the near zero temperatures I have to say they might have a point. After the mountain passes the scenery gives way to a flatter more open grassland, more evocative of the classic image of Central Asia; here there are many young men on horseback going about their daily business of tending to their livestock. After the steppe comes the unending gray smog of Bishkek, which starts a good 20km away from the centre of the city, not a big city but one that seems to have no real boundaries, bleeding freely into the surrounding step land. Bishkek is an ugly place on first impressions, especially in the fading light when the thick smog hangs heavily in the twilight air and the grey repeating concrete blocks seem cold and unfriendly. The conservative Islam of the hinterlands gives way to a more uneasy cosmopolitanism. Bishkek is much more Russian than most of the other areas of Kyrgyzstan, it is also here that the deep poverty of the country is at its most striking. Rural poverty can seem almost romantic, but urban poverty is never anything but ugly. Many alcoholics glug desperately from vodka bottles, another of the Soviet Union's parting gifts to the natives of Central Asia, and one that they seem to have taken to with a vengeance. It's pitch black by the time I reach the centre of town, and the suburb where I am staying is poorly lit and feels a little sinister. Luckily the taxi driver takes me right to the iron gate of the hostel, and I am buzzed in and the gate slams reassuringly behind me. I'm locked into my little oasis of home comforts within the grime of Bishkek. I share a beer with some French and Swiss people who have been travelling for years on their bikes around the world. Bishkek, and particularly this hostel, seems to be a place where the serious backpacking nomads congregate as they try, often in vain, to collect that Chinese or Uzbek visa to continue their trip. Many finally give up their battle with Chinese bureaucrats and opt to fly to Bangkok to continue their journey overland from there. I meet one such cyclist with that very story who, coincidentally, is from a town only 20 miles away from where I was born. Apart from in the tour group in Uzbekistan he is one of the few British people that I have met on my trip among myriad Germans, French and other Europeans. Meeting a compatriot always breaks the illusion that one is a pioneering adventurer. In truth this is a well trodden tourist trail and I am one of many people that has done this route through the world. The hostel is nice enough, but the staff are definitely running on Central Asian time, all requests take many hours to complete. Rather than fight this, I feel overcome with a lethargy, I feel like I could live and grow old in this hostel; like many of the guests here who seem indistinguishable from the feral cats who clutter the courtyard. Just like Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan is a visa-free dead end, and these places attract tourists who camp for months outside the various embassies in hope of being permitted onwards travel through the world.

Mountain Pass
Heavily snowy mountain pass on the road to Bishkek from the south.

The next day I make the effort to explore Bishkek before heading on further east in Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek isn't greatly improved by the sunlight, however, I can't help but notice that Kyrgyzstan seems so much free than neighbouring Uzbekistan. The police men gathering in open spaces are replaced by the young and the old enjoying their city. There are young people taking pictures and skateboarding in groups, unthinkable in Uzbekistan. Boys and girls mingle and exchange numbers. However, despite Kyrgyzstan's efforts to dismantle the Soviet political system, soviet kitsch remains at large. Statues of Lenin, Marx and Engel and a memorial to the red army dot the central parks of Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan is perhaps the politically most free of the central stans, but has also done the least to dismantle the soviet trappings, perhaps because it has the least to hide. Uzbekistan, by contrast, has eradicated all mention of bolshevism and created a mythical Uzbek nationalism in its place, whilst doing almost nothing to dismantle the soviet's oppressive system of governance.

My walk takes me through the confusingly named Osh Bazaar, which would have been impressive if it were my first sample of Central Asia, but has little of the grandeur of Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent, or the vastness of Osh's central bazaar. I take lunch in a surprisingly cosmopolitan coffee shop, staffed by young Kyrgyzs with impeccable English. This seems to be a place where trendy locals and travellers congregate. Even here in this most un-cosmopolitan backwater of a capital little pockets of hip young people know how to find each other. The food and coffee are incredibly expensive by local standards, but it is comforting to have some small reminders of my previous life this far from home. Travelling for this long it is not possible to experience the authentic at every possible opportunity.

The walk takes me further to more statues, where Marxs and Lenin sit side by side with some unknown figure with Central Asian eyes astride a horse; and then to the mandatory soviet central square. Warsaw has one, Kiev certainly has one, Tallinn has one but wishes it doesn't, and Tashkent has one of the largest I have ever seen. Bishkek is no exception, the socialists loved their vast open squares which they could fill with their perfectly identical soldiers and sycophantic fans of their regime. Kyrgyzstan is the 8th former soviet country and the 11th former communist country that I have visited on this trip and these squares are beginning to lose their novelty. I snap a few picks, difficult as these spaces are to capture on camera, and move on.

Marx and Engel. Kyrgyzstan has not eradicated its communist past, unlike most of its neighbours.

My next stop are the Russian baths, somewhat similar to the hamman, but more focused on the sauna aspect than being massaged. The Russian baths, or Banya, in Bishkek are an experience not to be forgotten. The building looks like the idle doodling of a gifted yet troubled child. Multiple brick dombs sit astride a complex of small towers from whose sides protrude a tangled mess of metal pipes that feed the saunas with their water and power. The foyer is a grand marble space, and I'm ushered in through a door, beyond which is the men only section of the banya. Here I'm given a sheet and instructed to change. The first room is an open space with many showers and taps in which people are washing themselves, and often their children too. Many people shave, and there is even an onsight barber here, should you wish to have an onsite haircut. Most people abandon their sheets in this room, there is little point trying to retain your modesty in this place. I don't know anyone here so I follow suit and abandon my sheet and embrace the experience head on. I've never in my life seen such a concentrated collection of naked men. Once again on my trip I am the only foreigner, and I am somewhat of a novelty, but the people are very friendly and show me what to do. After the shower there is a choice of two rooms, one incredibly hot and dry, and the other slightly less hot but as humid as it is possible to be without being underwater. Both are an extreme test of endurance, one is to stay as long as one can in either room, which in my case is seldom less than 3 to 4 minutes, and then either dose yourself with cold water, or plunge into the icy pool in one of the adjacent rooms. I repeat this ritual 5 times, as much as I can stand; the heat is almost physically painful. If you are from the anglophone world and you want to push your comfort levels to the absolute brink of breaking point I can suggest nothing better than to be confined in a small hot space with many fat bulky asian men, naked, sweating and grunting heavily. I enjoyed the experience in the end, and it felt far more authentic than the touristy affairs of Istanbul and Bukhara. Many locals may not have hot water in their houses, so use this space simply to wash themselves, others use it as a place to gather and to gossip with their friends. Many people try to talk to me in Russian, and I know enough by now to recognise, but not recreate, some of the basic questions that they ask of me, "Where are you from", "Anglia", "What are you doing here?" "Ya tourist". That is the extent of my russian, I really wish that I had invested more effort in cracking this language, it could open some many doors in this enigmatic and confusing country, but as it is I am forced to play the role of confused observer, drifting through and observing passively without being able to engage in the theatre unfolding around me.

Refreshed, and in somewhat physical shock from the repeated overheating and freezing of my body, I head back to the hostel. I meet some more travellers back at the hostel, and also bump into my Singaporean friend whom I met in Arslanbob. Together we get dinner at the local canteen, uninspiring food, but unbelievably cheap and the combination of lard and salt is comforting and bracing against the approaching Central Asian winter winds. We head to another bar, inside a few locals look at us with curiosity and bewilderment, we are a strange bunch in our hiking gear and duffle jackets, counterposed to the impeccably chic dress of the locals. Almost without punctuation the stares go to timid introductions, to offers of drinks, to warm welcomes of friendship, to generous offers of a place to stay. Within a few minutes of sitting down I am given more phone numbers and assured that I have a place to stay should I ever need it in Bishkek. "I'm a dentist, do you have any problems? maybe I could look at you teeth?", such is the semi-religious desire to help the traveller here, but alas no more offers of marriage; I'll have to make do with the free dental treatment for the moment. Offers of late night vodkas and Karaoke are gently declined, I've pushed my British reserve to its very breaking point today and I need time to recover. I return to the sanctuary of the hostel and sleep deeply and without interruption.

Karakol and Cholon-Ata

Issyk Kul, my next stop, is Kyrgyzstan's largest lake situated on the West side of the country, Kazakhstan to the North and China to the West. Literally the name means "warm lake"; it's October and all things are relative: here warm refers to the fact that due to volcanic action this lake never actually freezes over, it's still a perishingly cold place to swim at this time of year so I give it a miss. I go to the bus stop and take a shared taxi to the town of Cholpon-ata, a holiday resort of sorts on the north coast of the lake. The taxi ride is cramped as I'm wedged into the middle seat with my large hiking boots on, shoes I always wear when changing location as they don't easily fit into my bag. The scenery is enchanting, not as stunning as the high mountain passes between Osh and Bishkek, but formed of trance inducing rolling green hills which begin as soon as the smog of Bishkek is left behind. The town of Cholpon Ata is as dead as towns can be; a holiday resort that relies on three short months of racking money from rich Russians and Kazakhs before it packs up and gives in. The town’s three cafes and restaurants all seem to be closed, as does its one youth hostel. There is another hotel on the outskirts of town, I hitch a lift with a passing bus in the hope that it is open. As I arrive it looks open but the doors are all locked, I ring the number on the side of the gate. A woman answers the phone but doesn’t speak any English, from context she gathers what I want and I'm able to pick out the phrase 10 minutes in Russian, so I wait on the doorstep. Half an hour passes when a woman pulls up in a 4x4 with three young children in tow. The small children run screaming from the car in excitement to see me and the woman opens up the hotel. I can't quite gather what exactly is going on, but it looks like the family actually live on the ground floor of the building and let the rooms above. The hotel is actually beautiful, almost unbelievably nice given its location on the dusty outskirts of a nothing town in a country not inundated with visitors. The woman shows me to the room and informs me that it will cost £8 a night, and that breakfast is £1. She also invites me to have dinner with her family at no extra cost, I feel almost guilty and think about protesting, but I'm far too tired and hungry, it's nearly dark and the nearest shop is 6km away so I sheepishly join them. Her kitchen looks like the kitchen of any middle class family back home, it is the first instance of affluence that I have seen in Central Asia. Accompanying our dinner of fried fish and chips (maybe they knew I was coming) is MTV coming from their satellite onto their widescreen television. All the while the children play with their phones. It all seems too westernised, and I feel no culture shock whatsoever in this place. It could easily be a scene from back home, but for the indecipherable tongue in which these people communicate with each other. Still the family is nice, and it's great to see another, quite different, example of Kyrgyz life. Coincidently the TV is showing a Russian programme about travel in London, the mother looks at me in disbelief as the host describes the cost of staying and moving around our capital city. I had intended to walk down to the lake and explore a little, but it's pitch black outside now, and getting late so I thank my host as best I can and head upstairs for an early night in my king size bed, I still can't quite believe that I have a private room and two meals for under £10; my mind casts back to the travel documentary that the family was watching earlier. A visit to England for one of the locals is an all but impossible dream but for the tiny rich elite of this country.

The next day I hungrily woolf down some breakfast. I feel profoundly sorry for the young woman who serves me pancakes and porridge, as she juggles looking after this hotel's soul guest with the child care of three young children. I thank them profusely and go on my way, I'm going to hitch hike to the largest town in the Issyk Kul region: Karakol, on the very eastern shore of the lake and less than 150 km from China, this is as far East as I'll come for the moment before I head back to Almaty. I stand by the side of the road heading east, there is only one conceivable place these cars could be going in this otherwise empty land. I'm waiting for less than 40 seconds, as the second car picks me up, he wants a little money, but I'm happy to pay what he asks, which is a pittance, as we set off together to Karakol. It seems that this form of getting around is common, and the man picks up another couple of local travellers along the way. They excitedly try to talk to me, but unfortunately my Russian is just not up to the task so they give up after a few failed attempts. We arrive at the town of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan’s 4th largest city, not a difficult title to acquire in this mostly mountainous land still combed by horse riding nomads, the Kyrgyz don't really do cities I’m beginning to see. This one is also nothing special. One remaining hostel is yet to give up for the winter; there is only one other guest: a young guy from Germany. Together we go for a coffee and talk about what there is to do in the town, it seems he is one of a small number of English teachers who stop here for a short while to teach English, there are one or two English speakers in the town and he takes me to a small coffee shop where they are known to hang out. I walk a little more around the town, there are only two sights of any note, the first is a mosque built by the Dungans. These are a muslim people who reside in China, the mosque is architecturally like nothing I have seen before, and looks decidedly oriental, in almost chinese style and brightly coloured but still unmistakably a mosque; this region is indeed a melting pot of many cultures. The other sight is the Russian orthodox church, built from wood and without nails, much like the wooden monasteries of Romania. Both sights are curious enough, but consume little more than an hour of traipsing. Otherwise the city is a drab affair, a place that is easy to get lost in as it is so without feature. It's endless low repeating unremarkable buildings give the feeling that one is on a treadmill, with the same set of buildings simply going round and round on an endless loop whilst one walks simply to stay still. I go back to the hostel and write some more of my diary, trying to formulate a plan for the next few days. Hiking is the thing to do here, but the lateness of the season restricts what can be reasonably done by yourself and without serious gear. Many of the advertised walks are not possible now, which seems to be a repeating theme for the traveller who is foolish enough to come to Kyrgyzstan outside of summer, but there are a few lower ones that still seem viable, so I plot a route for the next few days which takes in some of the natural beauty spots in the region.

The next day I wake up at a fairly late hour, and in the kitchen I hear a woman talking about what she should do that day. I hear from my bed that she wants to visit the nearby rock formation (jeti-ozgu) and a waterfall. I emerge bleary eyed into the kitchen and suggest that we go together and share the cost of a taxi to the rock formations and pay the driver to wait for us as we hike to the waterfall. This will cost us 1,000 som or roughly £10, which gives us more than an hour's driving and 6 hours of the taxi drivers time, labour is cheap here, and split between the two of us this is nothing at all. The guy at the hostel calls us the taxi and we set off for the rock formations, nicknamed the seven bulls. The girl joining me for the trip is a remarkable character, she is dressed in the hijab, but she tells me that she is travelling the world by herself. So far she has managed to backpack through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. A young Muslim woman confounding all stereotypes to travel through such dangerous regions all by herself. Behind this quiet shy exterior lies a deeply brave and inspiring young woman, and so we set off on our day trip as she tells me about her adventures in Afghanistan and beyond. The taxi driver stops at the famous rock formations, seven red sand rocks that rise from the grassy steppe land, so out of place in this land of harsh granite. We stop for some pictures but the sun is blazing behind them and the light plays so badly with the lens of my smartphone so I am unable to take a good shot. The taxi driver stops in a car park with boarded up kebab stands, this looks like it may be a tourist hot spot except for the fact that this is October in Kyrgyzstan and everyone has given up and gone home, only the foolish obstinately insist on hiking here at such a late juncture. The taxi driver repeatedly say the word "sheteray", four, four, informing us that he will wait for four hours before we need to return, nervously thumbing the eleven marlborough he has in his pockets, as if to wager with us whether he can smoke his way through the rest of the packet before we make it back from our hike. Our surroundings are more like the Central Asia I had in my mind before we set off. Wild steppe land, grass and towering mountains in the background. A blazing sun but a brisk chill in the air. Beside the road, everywhere we go in this country is a mountain of plastic waste. The locals, indifferent to the beauty of their surroundings discard plastic by the side of the road, blightling an otherwise untouched beautiful wasteland.

The walk is quiet and gently beautiful, crossing a number of streams, and yet more former shashlik stands that have packed up for the winter. All the while the snow capped Tain Shain calls to us in the distant background. I can't help but feel blissful peace in this empty and haunting land of endless open sky. We follow the river and criss-cross it several times, until we reach the base of the hill. Our map tells us that we are only a few kilometers from the waterfall, but it is nowhere in sight, and there is not a soul to be seen. As we round the final hill the waterfall exposes itself to us at the last possible moment. I've seen many waterfalls on my travels, and this one will win no prizes, but the way that this waterfall is so well hidden from view until the last possible moment gives this place a certain magical charm; a special secret spot that only we know about. We snap a few pics, and look nervously at our watches; we left the taxi two and a half hours ago, giving us only an hour and a half to get back to the car park. On our way home we meet a group of locals who approach us excitedly and ask us in Russian "Kuda? Germania?". "Niet, Anglia". To be repeatedly mistaken for a German is one of the indignities that a western backpacker must repeatedly endure in this part of the world. He wants to quiz us more, but this is the extent of my Russian, and the light is fading, and no doubt our taxi driver will pressure us into paying more if we are late so we press on. We make it back to the car park just within the allotted four hours and return to Karakol. A quick dinner of super noodles and a cheap beer and I'm ready for bed.

The next day I set off for Altyn Arashan. This is a small village, a rather grandiose term for the collection of six buildings at the top of the next valley east of Karakol. Someone at the hostel recommends a guest house in the village and I ring them to check that they are still open. They are still accepting guests and will be happy to see me, I tell them I should be there before dark. I set off alone this time, the Malaysian girl thought about joining me, but at the last minute changes her mind and so I go by myself, a relief as, interesting as her company is, she is a painfully slow walker and I fear that I won't make it before sun down with her in tow. I catch the marshrutka (aka minibus) from the side of the road to the small village of Ak-Suu, 15 km from Karakol. From here the people at the hostel inform me it is a six hour walk to the village of Altyn-Arashan. The path is a dirt track that is just about passable for a skilled 4x4 driver, but otherwise there is no official road upto the village. Those who cannot afford a hardy vehicle must content themselves with bringing supplies up to their home on horseback. The walk is another gentle and beautiful hike that follows a small canyon along the route of a river, never challenging, but never quite giving one restbite from the constant gradient. After three hours I bump into another tourist coming the other way, by coincidence this is an Austrian man that I chatted to in Tashkent. He fills me in on what has happened to him since we last met. Apparently in Osh, the border city between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, there was some ethnic tension between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz, which lead to a Kyrgyz police officer being shot by a local Uzbek. This said Uzbek happened to be hiding out in the hostel where my Austrian friend was staying, which lead to the hostel being raided by the police. The door of his room was rammed down in the middle of the night as he was pinned to the floor by three police officers with AK-47s. They soon realised their mistake and were quite apologetic about the whole affair, my Australian friend recounts. This sort of misadventure is all par for the course for this man, and he happily laughs it off. Oh to travel and to meet so odd people and hear their stories, this is what it is all about. As I walk on I chuckle to myself, happy to have had this chance encounter and to be privy to one of these odd little stories.

The approach to the hamlet of Altyn-Arashan. Great place to spend the night!

Finally the canyon opens up, the path veres away from the canyon and emerges to a wide high plateau at 2,800 meters to a collection of little houses improbably scattered along the high valley. Only six buildings in total, all of them small farms opportunistically doubling as guest houses in this most dramatic of settings. All but one of them closed for the winter. The backdrop to the idyllic grassy valley are the high peaks of the Tain Shain. China is tantalisingly close, one or two high mountain passes and I'd be there. As I scamper down to the guest house a young couple welcomes me in. Both have unpronounceable, and regrettably un-memorisable names. The woman is a beautiful young thing, only 24, and the man much her senior. Both speak impeccable English. I'm 3000 km from home, in a country that was once part of the Soviet Union, in a country that the vast majority of my compatriots would be unable to locate on a map, 2,800 meters above sea level in a town with a population of 20 or so people, and yet I am able to converse with ease in my own native tongue. I warm instantly to this young couple, and their 18 month old son. He is one of the cutest little things I have ever seen, and obviously used to strangers in his own town, within minutes we are engaged in a serious game of peekaboo. The young chap’s name is Azimat, but I christan him, out of earshot of the parents, Genghis, as he has the thick swollen eyelids of the central asian, and, I sense, a deeply adventurous spirit.

The house is a wooden chalet of sorts, with an iron corrugated roof. The entrance opens out into a shared area with a wood burning stove which also pumps hot water into the several adjoining bedrooms that fork off from the main communal living space. My hostess plies me with tea. By now the script is well rehearsed and I can predict the oncoming questions, "Are you married?", "How old are you?" "29 and still single, why!?". She then suggests that I take a hot bath in one of the nearby springs. The village of Ak-Suu and the surrounding areas is famous for the natural hot waters. There is no running water in the guest house, except for a hose that is connected to the nearby stream, but higher up in the valley are a series of hot baths, housed inside impromptu wooden structures. One belongs to a nearby guest house which is now closed, but she has the key. I scamper up to the tiny wooden shack by the stream and submerge myself into the hot water and lounge off the aches of the day. Back at the guest house dinner is served, the local speciality of lagman. Noodles in broth with chunks of lamb. Here it is delicious, cooked on the stove that heats the house, washed down with more black tea. There is no internet in the house, nor is there any phone signal, but there is electricity, which the family generates from the stream that runs through the village.

Over dinner I am quizzed some more, and, to try to deflect from my abhorrent lack of marital status to which the conversation inevitably returns, I try to ask my hosts something about themselves. I ask the man what he remembers of the Soviet Union. "How old were you when you gained independence", nine he tells me, but the atmosphere turns a little sour as he inhales deeply through his nose and pauses. "although there is no independence", more pregnant silence. "Russia still controls us". "How much do matches cost in England". "I don't know" I say. I have no real need to buy matches, but I hazard that they may cost between 20 and 30 pence for a small box. "In the soviet union they cost 1/100 of a ruble". More poignant silence. "Better we had never left". I've encountered much general nostalgia for the Soviet Union, mostly from the ethnic Russians, who now feel threatened in the various republics with their new found nationalism, but this is the first time I have heard this opinion explicitly voiced by an ethnically Asian person, though I suspect it may be a commonly held belief if I dug a little deeper. "Things are hard here" he continues, "yes we have more freedom, but it comes at such a cost". The words hang ominously on the air until the conversation jumps abruptly to the English premier league. "I can't support United now that Ferguson has left", he opines, with equal gravity, as if he were still discussing Gorbachev or Stalin.

A common theme of my trip in Kyrgyzstan is to be constantly told the things I could have experienced if only I had come in summer. Without much hope then I enquired about the walk to the lake 'Ala Kul'. To my surprise my host family explains that it is still quite possible to make the trip there and return to the guest house within the day. "Will I have enough time?" I nervously enquire. "Of course, simply leave at dawn.", "Won't it be cold", "You've got a jacket don't you.", "Will I get lost" "I'll draw you a map". And so I set off the next day at the crack of dawn, or thereabouts, to ala-kul, an alpine lake at 3,800 meters in the Tian Shan mountain range. I at first thought that the name, this being a muslim country, might refer to “god lake”, but this is etymologically inaccurate as ala is missing the 'h', instead it simply means, somewhat less romantically, variegated lake, owning to the fact that it is surrounded by rocks of many different colours. A german backpacker I met in Karakol had set off for this lake, and stayed at this very guest house, but by 1pm, still a good hour’s hike from the lake, he was forced to turn back. Thus reaching the lake had taken on an almost mythical status in my mind. I stubbornly refuse to turn back, I will get there even if it kills me. Flimsy paper map in my hand, and with a half charged phone I follow the river, until it reaches another river and begins to follow that one. The map shows a yurt camp, which of course has long since packed up for the winter, but I see the tell tale signs of circular discoloured grass and signs of a campfire, and know I am on the right path. The valley branches off and I begin to see more of the high mountain peaks, covered in a deep perennial snow. The path is not particularly steep, but is unrelenting. I must be over 3000 meters now, and I can feel a definite reduction in the functioning of my lungs. Around 11 I look at my GPS and see that I am only 4 km from the summit, an almost meaningless number on this kind of treck as altitude is everything. Still I'm making good time and I stop for a bite to eat. Onwards I go, every time I stop I listen to the nothingness, not a sound and not a soul in sight. The scenery becomes obscenely beautiful. The path forks off from the small stream that I have been following for nearly two hours, and continues across a field of knee breaking loose scree, and then I reach the base of the pass. I feel like there must be some mistake here, as the mountain looks insurmountable, a simple steep featureless field of thick snow with no discernable route onwards. My map informs me that it is straight on, so I begin to climb. The snow nears my knees, and underneath: a hazardous layer of loose rock. The gradient is near 45 degrees. I should sensibly turn back now but I am simply too stubborn, I have come this far and I cannot surrender. I cannot walk up the hill without using my hands, but I have no gloves or no pole, and the snow is painfully cold to touch with my bare hands. I fashion some makeshift gloves from my thin down vest, one hand in each pocket, this way the snow is bearable to touch. I move my right hand half a foot higher and make sure I am stable, then my left hand, then my left foot, then my right food and repeat. I nearly loose my footing on several occasions. What foolishness, just to see a lake, but I cannot turn back now, and before I know it I am more than half way up. I continue in this manner, counting 10 steps, then pausing for 20 deep breaths before I force myself to continue. The summit is inching agonisingly closer. After an hour of undignified bear-like clambering I reach the snow bank at the top. I haul myself over the meter thick layer of snow at the summit and raise myself up on my jelly like legs. I can't help but scream out in ecstasy, before me lies the lime blue lake ala-kul, and stretching into the far distance, the 5-6 thousand meter peaks of the Tian Shan, all the way to China. Exhaustion and elation overcome me, "bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven". A highlight of the trip so far, if only because of the suffering that I had to endure to get here. As cold as it is I stop and watch the lake and the snow field in the distance for half an hour. In a few weeks time this lake will be frozen solid. Maybe I am the last tourist to see this chillingly beautiful sight this year.

Ala Kul
The stunning vista of the nearly frozen Ala Kul

I scamper down the hill in an undignified fashion. I descended the snow field, which took me one hour to climb, in five minutes, the rest of the descent took me another three and a half hours. My legs screamed at me, I felt like I had suffered greatly for such an experience, but worth it. At the end of my walk I blissfully submerged myself into the scolding water of the hot springs. As Nietzsche said "But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected that he who wants the greatest possible amount of the one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other, that he who wants to experience the "heavenly high jubilation," must also be ready to be "sorrowful unto death"?". Well said you crazy German bastard.

Back at the guest house Gengis was keen to play some more peek-a-boo, unsympathetic to the creeks of my poor weary legs. Three Japanese tourists joined us for dinner as well and we swapped a few more travel stories over our chai and hot chicken broth. I crawled into bed and fell into a deep restorative slumber.

My host for the evening!

The next morning, as stiff as I felt, I forced myself to make the three hour trek back to the village of Ak-Suu. I met a few more tourists along the way back and showed them the pictures of the lake, describing how they could get there, but I secretly hoped they would not make it. Ala-kul is my lake, and I want it to be my little secret, not to be shared with the riff-raff. Back at the town I caught the mini-bus back to Karakol, and sat in a coffee shop and reconnected to the matrix. Three days away from the world without news or connection. No nuclear wars, seems everything is ticking away as it was as I left, without my input. Back at the hostel I was reunited with my bag, and I bumped into Sky, the Singaporean who I first met in Arslanbob, again in Bishkek, and for the third time here. We shared a beer or two and I regaled him and a few other tourists with the story of Ala-Kul and told them to set off for the lake the next day, which they did. Who knows if they ever made it …


The next day the people I was chatting to had already disappeared from the hostel, so I awoke as the one remaining guest. My next stop was Kaij-Say, a nothing town on the south shore of lake Issyk-Kul. Getting there was simple enough, as I know the drill by now, walk into the bus stop, which is usually an unassuming parking lot by the side of the road, find the minibus that has where you want to go written on the front and wait inside until it is full, look how much the locals are paying and hand across the same amount of money and be on your way.

The southern route of the lake Issyk-kul is less frequently travelled than the northern road, which is popular with Russians and Kazakhs. However, Kaji-Say is a beach resort of sorts, with a few kebab stands and a pebbled beach. But for the lack of waves and the salty smell it almost feels like being by the sea, as the other side is frequently not visible. I explore the town and the beach, there is really nothing here of any note. The main tourist attraction of the town is a large metal cutout of Lenin on the top of a hill. As I pass the sun shines through his outstretched hands as he glowers down onto the town. There are no cafes here, nor restaurants, nor bars. There aren't really any people here either, apart from a few young children who shout hello to me, and the ubiquitous drunk old men who swig openly from cheap vodka bottles. My guest house is run by a middle aged Krygs lady by the name of Dinara. She speaks no English but is well versed in the art of using google translate via her tablet. The house is nice, if a little rustic. Dinara is an inveterate force feeder, and over the few days I stay here I put on some pounds. Unusually for a woman she also likes to drink. I'm plied with vodka, and through her tablet she tells me that we must down three shots of vodka to honour the holy trinity. "Are you Christian?" I ask her. She sways a little and rubs her reddening cheeks and looks confused. "No, I'm a muslim." The incongruous reference goes unexplained as she forces more assorted foodstuffs down my throat.

Issy Kul
The shore of Issy Kul, the other side is not visible from this massive lake.

The main tourist attraction here is Kazkha, or the fairy tale canyon. The tourist office of Kyrgyzstan has arbitrarily designated a section of the rock formations along the south shore of Issyk-Kul as a tourist destination, and the lonely planet has colluded in this deceit. In truth any section of the red sandstone rocks in this region could be explored at leisure, only here there is a kebab stand and a car park. In any case wondering amongst the red rocks is an entertaining few hours. The geology is starkly different from the areas I was exploring only two or three days ago 40 km east of here. One set of rocks looks like the great wall of China, another like a camel, I can sort of see it but I am beyond caring at this point. The rest of the day is spent on the beach wrapped in my warm coat with a book, building up the courage to go back to Dinara and the force feeding, the longer I stay away the less I will have to eat.

Out of sights that can easily be seen at this time of year it is time to go back to the shiny lights of Bishkek. The guide book tells me that I could have ventured further to one of the world’s highest canyons, or the world's highest alpine lake, but both have already been rendered impassable by the early autumn snows, so back to the smog of Bishkek it is. I can't find a bus so I hitch along the road, and once again I am picked up in a matter of minutes, I get back to Bishkek with ease and find the hostel that I stayed in the first time that I was there.

Bishkek Again

Two more nights in Bishkek and I spend the time doing close to nothing once again. Only hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop and reading my book. I by chance meet a girl who speaks German, but not English. After two hours of trying to speak in German my head feels fried and I politely extradite myself and escape back to the anglophone world of the hostel.

In the evening I meet with Nica, our tour guide in Uzbekistan, once again. Without the burden of herding middle aged westerners around she seems far more at ease and relaxed. We share a good few drinks and stories, and head home.

My final day in Bishkek I spend in a lethargic stupor, utterly void of any idea of what to do. I've drunk all the coffee I can possibly drink, and finished my book. By chance I bump into Marice from the hostel in Karakol. He was the one who told me to go to the Ala-kul lake, although he himself did not make it to the top. I triumphantly brandish the photos of the summit to him, and we share a beer in the hostel. He is another lost soul who seems to have been in Central Asia for forever, without aim and without purpose; simply diffting.

The next day is a trip to Almaty. I share a taxi to the border with Kazakhstan and walk across the border. I've heard so many horror stories about the borders in central Asia, but this one was straight forward enough, albeit with almost an hour of queuing. The locals, polite and friendly as they are, cannot entertain the idea of queuing, and so your only hope is to elbow your way along with the other, it's a dog eat dog world and I need to cross into Kazakhstan. I am lucky as only a few days earlier the newly elected president of Kyrgyzstan, a renowned drunk, said some not too kind things about his Kazakh counterpart, and as retribution the Kazakhs closed the land crossing between the two countries, only a few days ago was it re-opened, but with a backlog of people trying to get across. Still I'm through without too much hassle, and into another country: Kazakhstan.