The scenically beautiful Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan was once a major stop on the trade routes of the famous silk road. Things are much different these days. Continue reading to find out all about the quirks of eastern Kyrgyzstan!
After a 3 hour drive in a Mashrutka (minvan) from Almaty, we arrived at the Kyrgyz border. There was no line on the Kygryz side and the immigration officer was quite lovely. He welcomed me to Kyrgyzstan and I was out of there in about 2 minutes! On the walk from the immigration building to the next Mashrutka, I was offered at least 20 taxis.
I’ve gotta say at the point that Kazakh drivers could be pretty crazy at times, but I think Kyrgyz drivers have them beat. I tried not to pay too much attention to our position on the road until I realised at one point that our van was passing a car on it’s right, that was already passing the car to it’s right. On a two-lane highway with cars fast approaching from the opposite direction. Who needs rollercoasters, eh?
The Mashrutka dropped me off at the Western Bus Station in Bishkek and the driver kindly called my friend Johny, before driving off. Johny is a friend of a Kyrgyz friend I met while travelling a few years ago. He answered my million and one questions then helped me get some money changed. Then he had to go off to work. He dropped me off at a cafe to wait for my host Argen, who was also busy working late. After 2 hours in Bishkek, I was convinced that everyone in the city worked way too hard!
Once Argen arrived, it was fairly late, so he drove me to his place and brought me some local food to apologise for his work taking longer than expected. He was eager to hear about my adventures around the world, so we stayed up talking way later than we should have, despite the fact that we were both very tired!
I made my way to the city centre the next day to do some exploring. I noticed that things were much cheaper in Kyrgyzstan than they were in Kazakhstan. That was great, considering that Kazakhstan was already a lot cheaper than other places! One thing that was weird though, was the 3 Som denomination of coins. When you got 5 Som change, it would be a 3 Som coin with two 1 Som coins. In 81 countries, I had never come across this denomination before!
The city centre is very open and clean. There seems to be a lot of sculptures, statues, fountains and flowers. The fountains only seemed to run at certain times of the day though, so you had to be in the right place at the right time.
The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek
Some fun things I noticed around Bishkek were happening in parks. There was a general carnival kind of atmosphere with music, bubble blowing and fairy/candy floss. In addition to that, there were lines of bikes and scooters being hired out. Perhaps the cutest thing was the motorised flashing toy cars available for kids to ride around in. Then possibly the most gimmicky, was the ‘train’ driving around the city centre.
While I was wandering around, I needed some help to find a place I was looking for. Luckily I had a phone number for the business. I asked a local couple if they knew where the business was. They didn’t speak any English, but still helped me by calling the number and waiting with me until someone from the business to come and get me. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing that for me back home, even though I can speak the language!
Getting to Issyk-Kul/Ысык-Көл
I met an interesting Australian lady named Jenny in Bishkek. She was retired and spent a great amount of her time travelling the world. I only hope I’m still doing that when I’m in my 70s! Jenny was heading to Kadji-Sai, a small town near Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake, Issyk-Kul. She invited me to join her and we were on our way.
After walking around trying to find the Mashrutka to Kadji-Sai, Jenny and I ended up getting a public bus, number 53 if memory serves correctly, to the Western Bus Station for 10 Som/US$0.14. From there, we got a Mashrutka (minivan) to Kadji-Sai for 300 Som/US$4.30 each. Kadji-Sai is a small town near Issyk-Kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world. We stopped at a place called Ak-Zhol for 30 minutes on the way. This place had awesome mountain views and some interesting statues.
Perhaps one of the less appealing quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan was the driving. Our driver was pretty erratic and there were more than a few close calls. I think the only thing that stopped him having a major accident was the police few cameras set up along the highway. We had initially wondered why the van kept suddenly slowing down. But once we spotted a camera and saw some cars on the other side of the road flashing their lights to warn others, we knew what was going on. From then on, whenever the van slowed down drastically, we’d have a peek out the window to look for the camera.
The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan in Kadji-Sai/Кажы-Сай
The first thing you notice about Kadji-Sai, besides the huge lake and mountains surrounding it, is that it is very small. The whole town consists of about 5 cafes, a resort and about 3 small magazins. Magazin is the local name for a store. The second thing you notice is that no one speaks any English, which is a little strange for a place that has a pretty big summer tourist season.
The Quirks of Eating in Kadji-Sai
Eating in Kadji-Sai was an adventure! Only one place had an English menu, but the translations were so bad that an omelette with meat, turned out to be an omelette with meat dumplings.
At other cafes, we had to rely on people who didn’t speak English, to translate Kyrgyz menus into English. Of course, that worked out super well! Nah, it meant we ended up with liver shishlyk, (шашлык, barbecued meat on skewers) when wee had ordered lamb shishlyk.
What was even more amusing was the hand-written bills given to us at the end of the meal. With a 10% service charge added, of course! That seems to be standard throughout Kyrgyzstan though.
We finally noticed a hut by the lake that had Shishlyk, so we decided to give it a try.
They’d actually made some effort to decorate it inside and it all looked very welcoming. They even gave us blankets to use when it started getting a bit cool. Unfortunately, they only had chicken shishlyk at the time, which was fine, because that’s exactly what we were in the mood for.
The chicken did take quite a while and was still a little undercooked, but this hut still seemed to be the best food option in town. At under 200 Som/US$2.80 per skewer, it wasn’t bad value either
The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan – Chipboard For Construction
Apparently, the cheapest wood composite material known to man is used to build houses in Kadji-Sai. Considering the extreme temperatures of the area, 30 degrees plus in summer and 20 or below in winter, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be the best choice. It would make the whole building process a lot cheaper though.
The chipboard used for the walls is then coated with a concrete veneer, so it doesn’t look like it’s made from chipboard when it’s finished. The place that we stayed at didn’t bother with the veneer though, so both the outside and inside walls, plus the floors were all just chipboard. It didn’t smell great. It also looked like someone had just given up halfway through construction.
Lake Issyk-Kul was the reason that we had gone to Kadji-Sai and it did not disappoint! Issyk-Kul means warm lake in the Kyrgyz language. Despite the below-freezing temperatures the area is subject to in winter, the lake never freezes over.
What’s even more interesting, is that archaeologists have discovered artefacts of a 2500 year old advanced society in the lake. I just liked the fact that it’s quiet and you can sit down with a book and contemplate the big issues of the world. Or just clear your mind and breathe in the tranquillity.
The adventure continues in my next post when I attempt to hitchhike along the Silk Road from Kadji-Sai in the east to Osh in the southwest. Stay tuned!