Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. View from the Silk Road

Hitchin’ A Ride Along the Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan

My friend Argen in Bishkek had suggested that I should try hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan. He told me it would be easy. As I was a foreigner, I would get picked up in no time. I’m always up for new experiences, so why not? What better place to try than the Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan?

Kadji-Sai to Balykchy

It was only about a minute before the first car driving through the small town of Kadji-Sai stopped. The driver’s name was Asmut and his English was excellent. I have a knack for finding the English speakers in places where other people can’t, apparently. Asmut was probably the first decent driver I’d come across in Kyrgyzstan. He slowed down for towns, which I hadn’t seen any other drivers do. I found out he was on a business trip and lived in Bishkek. He took me to Balykchy, the town at end of the Lake Issyk-Kul.

I noticed a lot of stalls along the side of the road in Balykchy selling dried fish. I was told by a local in Kadji-Sai that there was no fishing allowed at the lake, so I really had to wonder where these fish came from!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Dried Fish in Balykchy

My good luck with finding English speakers continued when I decided to check if a local service station in Balykchy had a toilet. It did! There was also WiFi and the staff spoke some basic English. It seemed like a good place to rest and refresh. As I walked out of the service station, I saw a huge Kyrgyz flag in the middle of an intersection and stopped to take a photo. It was then that my second ride stopped and asked if I needed a lift.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Giant flag at Balykchy

Balykchy to Tokmok

In the car was a family of four and a grandmother. None of them spoke English, except the primary school-aged son, but he only really knew a few words. They took me to the town they lived in. It was called Tokmok and it was quite small. But there was plenty happening on the side of the road on the way.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Scenery between Balykchy and Tokmok

There were a few cars stopped with flat tyres. Other cars had stopped to help them out! How nice of them. Locals apparently love to make word or picture formations on the sides of hills, out of stones. I’m not sure why, but someone had gone to the trouble of making the FedEx logo on a hill in the middle of nowhere. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess?

I also saw quite a few people with small barrel barbecues on the side of the road selling cooked corn. They waved their corn-grabbing tongs above their heads to get the attention of passing motorists.

One of the most interesting things I saw on the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan was the unique domes of mosques in the area. In every other place that I’ve seen mosques, the roofs have been smooth domes. The domes in Eastern Kyrgyzstan have raised bits on them that almost make them look quilt-like. I actually think they look pretty cool!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Quilt-like mosque Dome in Tokmok

When we got to Tokmok, the driver dropped his family off then said, “I’m taxi, give me money”. I said, “Take me to Bishkek”, then he said, “Haha, okay goodbye”. Cheeky git. As he’d dropped me in the middle of town, I had to walk a bit to get to the outskirts.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Tokmok Town Sign K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Tokmok Airplane

Tokmok to Bishkek

My next ride along the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan came from Jazmek, a security guard at service station in Ivanovka. Ivanovka is actually only about 10 minutes from Tokmok. It started to get difficult to get a ride there. I don’t know if it was because I was getting closer to Bishkek, or because it was getting late.

While I was on the side of the road, a local boy called Hazhik came to my rescue and waved a car down for me. It was a relief to finally be on the road again. I soon noticed that the driver and the other woman in the car weren’t talking to each other. Furthermore, they had angry looking faces. Had I just interrupted a fight?

The woman actually spoke to me, via a translation app when the driver stopped to get some fuel. She was really nice, but as soon as the driver got back into the car, her angry face reappeared and she didn’t say another word all the way to Bishkek. So that was probably the most awkward things got on the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan.

Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek to Osh

Argen had told me that I would only have to go just outside the city centre in Bishkek to pick up a ride. So that’s what I did and it did not work out as I would’ve hoped. I figured that I needed to get further out of town, so I jumped in a Mashrutka (van) to a town called Kara-Balta at the intersection of the Osh-Bishkek Highway.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Kara-Balta Town Sign K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Kara-Balta Roundabout. Start of the Osh-Bishkek Highway

That did the trick and I was on the move along the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan within minutes. The first car that picked me up was only going to a small town about 20 kilometres down the road. From there, I flagged down a van with a very excited driver motioning for me to get in.

My new friend, Ulan was eager to chat and knew a small amount of English. He gave me some курут or Kurut, a local hard, salty milk snack often eaten when taking long trips. He advised me that it goes well with beer.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz Kurut
кыргыз курут – Kyrgyz Kurut

Waterfalls and Horse Milk on the Silk Road

After several hours on the road, I’d been drifting in and out of a sleep state, until Ulan stopped on the side of the road. He pointed to my right and encouraged me to get out of the car. I thought he meant for a stretch, but there was a cute little waterfall in front of me! The waterfall ran into the Kara-Balta River. The Pamir Highway (Silk Road) follows this river for several hundred kilometres.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Roadside Waterfall into the Kara-Balta River K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Roadside Stop - Kara-Balta River

When we were getting close to a yurt village, Ulan asked if I wanted to drink some horse milk. As it’s a popular drink in the region, who was I to refuse? I’ll try anything once! He stopped his van in front of a yurt and asked an old lady near it if she had horse milk. She did, so we went inside her yurt, where we sat down on the ground near a table in the middle.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. View from the Silk Road

Suusamyr to Pelmennaya

Unfortunately, Ulan had to drop me off not long after that. He wished me good luck on my travels and left me at Suusamyr. I’m not even sure if this place counts as a town, because I could only see one building. I guess it serves as more of an intersection for the road going to Osh and the road going to Talas, where Ulan was heading. Of course, there was a statue there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. Suusamyr

When I looked around me and saw almost nothing, a small thought that it might be difficult to get a ride crept into my head. It was chased away seconds later when a green truck stopped. The driver opened the passenger door for me and I saw that he had a mouth full of gold teeth. His name was Latim. He was also eager to chat with me, although he didn’t know any English at all. He showed me a photo of his granddaughter on his phone, then used the calculator on his phone to tell me his age.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. View From the Truck
View From the Truck

Time for Dinner

It was slow going in the truck as the road is super windy. Plus there’s a lot of up and down because of the mountains. After several hours, we stopped at a place called Pelmennaya. It had the first non-yurt structure I’d seen in hundreds of kilometres. Latim told me to take a seat at one of the tables outside, while he went inside to organise our dinner.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. Truck Stop at Pelmennaya

He came out maybe 10 minutes later with some other guys, who were going to have dinner with us. They told me their names, but I forgot almost instantly as I’d had a long and tiring day, that was still far from over. Another man named Andre came over to speak to Latim. I found out later that Andre lived in Jalal-Abad, about 100km from Osh. Latim had asked Andre if he could take me to Jalal-Abad, because he was worried that the truck was too slow. What a sweety!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. Pelmennaya
Pelmennaya

I had definitely gotten the gist of what was going on but Andre called his daughter, who spoke English, just to make sure. Andre’s son Vlad was also travelling with him. Neither Andre or Vlad spoke more than a few words of English, but they were armed with a translation app.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. Scenic lake on the way to Jalal-Abad
Sunset Scenery on the way to Jalal-Abad

Pelmannaya to Osh

It was almost dark by the time we got back on the road. Vlad was asking me many questions through the translation app. Perhaps the funniest moment was when he guessed that I was around his age when I’m clearly much older than him. I’ll take the compliment anyway.

We stopped at a place called Isabelle Cafe at about 1am for a food and toilet break. I’d fallen asleep during the ride, so I was surprised that we were still several hours away from Jalal-Abad. Osh was still another few hours from there. I’d originally thought I could make it to Osh by midnight, but now it was looking more like 4am.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. Isabelle Cafe
Isabelle Cafe

We ended up getting to Jalal-Abad around 3am. You would think that there was very little chance of getting a ride at that time, but surprisingly, Mashrutkas were still running! Andre and Vlad found another guy that spoke a little English and was also going to Osh. They told him to look after me.

I finally arrived in Osh at 5am. It had taken more than 18 hours to get there from Bishkek. As you could imagine I was super tired, so I found myself a bed and got some much-needed rest.

Osh, The End of the Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan

Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, after Bishkek. It’s about 20 times smaller than Bishkek though, population wise. I think it’s main claims to fame are the river that runs through it and the mountain in the centre of it. You would be correct in assuming that I made my way to the top of that mountain.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Osh. Sulayman-Too During the Day

Sulayman-Too (Сулайман-Тоо)

I decided to head up to Sulayman-Too, or Solomon’s Mountain at night. I’d figured it would be much cooler, as the daytime temperature was 35 degrees. My main reason for doing it at night was that I thought it would be much less busy. Boy, was I wrong! It seems to be a super popular spot at night too. I’m talking at about 9 or 10pm. It doesn’t get dark in Kyrgyzstan until after 8pm in the summer.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. Osh. Sulayman-Too at Sunset

I spied the Ак-Буура Ak-Buura River on the way up. This river starts in the Alai Mountains and is 148km long. The first part I saw didn’t look too bad, but down near the city bazaar it looks pretty horrible. There are actually pipes spewing brown liquid into it. I’m not even going to speculate on what that liquid is and where it’s coming from.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Osh. Ak-Buura River and Sulayman-Too K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Osh. Ak-Buura River Near the Osh Bazaar

Back to the mountain, I found a shortcut up via a dirt trail. That dirt trail intersected with the stairs that the city had installed. The stairs were fairly irregular and the rocks underfoot in some areas had been coated with a strange shiny, slippery substance.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Osh. Stairs on the way up to Sulayman-Too K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Osh. Slippery Surface on the way up to Sulayman-Too

The Top of the Hill

Once I got to the top, I encountered a fairly sizeable crowd of people hanging out, taking selfies and such. I pretty much ignored them as realised that I had a 360 view of the city below. It had only taken 10 minutes to get to the top for the awesome view, so definitely worth it!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. Osh. View From Sulayman-Too

There was a huge Kyrgyz flag at the top and the constant wind meant that the noise of the flag moving could be heard for quite a distance from the peak.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Silk Road to Western Kyrgyzstan. Osh. Kyrgyz Flag on Sulayman-Too

I noticed stairs going down on the other side of the mountain, so I went down that way. I found a cafe, then a park at the bottom. People in the park were hiring out motorised toy cars for kids to drive around. As I’d also seen that in Bishkek, I guess it’s a Kyrgyz thing?

Keep an eye out for the next installment of my adventures in Unbelievable Uzbekistan!

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The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan

K in Motion Travel Blog. Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Lake Issyk-Kul from Kadji-Sai

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!

Entering Kyrgyzstan/Кыргызстан

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kyrgyzstan Border. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan

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!

Bishkek/Бишкек

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek City Centre

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!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek City Centre. 3 Som Coins

City Centre

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!

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek City Centre. Flower Butterfly K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek City Centre. Horse and Flag

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek City Centre. Motorised Toy Cars K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek City Centre. Train

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek Road to Issyk-Kul. Mountain Views

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. On the Way to Issyk-Kul. Welcoming Statues at Ak-Zhol

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Kadji-Sai Town Near Issyk-Kul. K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Kadji-Sai and Mountains. Near Issyk-Kul.

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek. Kadji-Sai Town Near Issyk-Kul. Omelette with 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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek. Kadji-Sai Town Near Issyk-Kul. Hand-Written Food Bill
560 Som/US$8 for lunch and tea for 2.

We finally noticed a hut by the lake that had Shishlyk, so we decided to give it a try.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Makeshift Restaurant By Lake Issyk-Kul at Kadji-Sai

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Inside Makeshift Restaurant at Kadji-Sai. Near Issyk-Kul.

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Chipboard for Construction at Kadji-Sai. Near Issyk-Kul.

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

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan. Sunset at Kadji-Sai. Near Issyk-Kul.

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!

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Jakarta

As it was New Year’s Eve, this leg of the trip started with a lovely serenade of Auld Lang Sine by airport staff, just before the gate was open for boarding.

In order to get back home in time for the first work day of the year, I had to opt for a one night stop over in Jakarta. Knowing this, I had gotten in contact with some locals beforehand and one of them had generously volunteered to pick me up from the airport and show me around.

Jakarta was certainly a lot different to the cruisy little Indonesian island I’d just left. For a start, the roads were much bigger and had a lot more traffic on them! I guess that makes sense when you realise that Indonesia’s capital city has a population that is more than 5 times bigger than the population of the whole of West Timor. The traffic seemed to get more intense the closer we got to the city. When I commented about this, my friend advised that it wasn’t normally that bad at that time of night. Apparently, everyone comes out of hiding on New Year’s Eve!

That, of course, meant that the place was bustling. Every time we stopped at a set of traffic lights, someone would walk in between the lines of stopped cars trying to sell all kinds of things, from fireworks, to hats and scarves, to glow in the dark stuff and newspapers. Again my friend assured me that this was just a sign of the season and not an indication of how things normally are in Jakarta.

The festive mood also meant that copious amounts of food stalls, that would normally close earlier, were still super crowded, even at 1am! These roadside food stalls were quite simple. Many had only been constructed with tarpaulins, ropes and metal poles. I guess that means they can move to an area with more people if business is slow. They also only offered a small variety of foods, but still proved to be a blessing for all the hungry people roaming around before, and after, celebrating the start of the new year.

Party Like It’ll Be 2019!
Eventually, after an epic mission to find parking, we found our way to a rooftop party at a hotel in central Jakarta.

Rooftop party

I spent the last few hours of the year talking to many interesting strangers from around the world while watching drunk people dance hilariously. Seeing as it was the middle of the wet season, there was also a bit of rain lurking. At the beginning of the night, every shower sent people scattering inside, or to the limited amount of shelter outside. As the night went on, however, people seemed to have given up on trying to dodge the rain and just kept doing what they were doing.

Things went on like this until just before midnight, when everyone realised that it was almost time for the countdown to the new year. Things went silent for a short while, until everyone started shouting excitedly. Despite the shouting and general mayhem, the sound of fireworks exploding all over the city could be heard. It seems that many people, including some of the attendees of our party, had bought fireworks from a set of traffic lights. So as you can imagine, it got loud!

Happy New Year!

West Timor

Gunung Fatuleu – Mount Fatuleu
As the public transport timetable was quite restrictive, my friend Jeff was kind enough to let me borrow his bike to get myself up to Gunung Fatuleu, or Mount Fatuleu, which is situated in Oelbiteno, about 50km northeast of Kupang. The roads were good most of the way up, except for a 100m stretch, where it looked like the road had been attacked with jackhammers, leaving it in a very rocky and uneven state. Even with the mostly decent state of the roads, riding up there was indeed an adventure. It took every ounce of concentration I had to keep out of the way of cars, trucks, mopeds and dirt bikes driving on the wrong side of the road while overtaking. It seems that even solid lane markings are only suggestions that are to be ignored when you want to pass someone.

Deserted Mountain Road

The constant cat and mouse game was very tiring, which made it all the more lovely when I found myself on a deserted mountain road. Thankfully, that would be the road I’d be on for what was left of the journey to Mount Fatuleu. Even though I was following a map, the entrance to the mountain trail was not easy to find. I initially rode straight past it!

Mount Fatuleu Tourist Map

Luckily I realised quickly that I’d overshot the target and eventually found the entry. I should mention at this point that it had been misty for the entire trip up and I had been hoping that it might clear by the time I got to my destination. It was not my lucky day. I had stopped a few times enroute, when the mist had moved enough to see the top of the mountain. Unfortunately, the mist managed to return to its perch on the mountain top before I could get a picture of it. You’ll just have to imagine that it was there!

After a quick stop at the park map, I found my way to the start of the trail up the hill. My map was telling me that it was only 400m to the peak. I must admit, I was a little disappointed, as I was dressed for a proper hike, not a stroll! At the beginning, the trail seemed to consist of your average run-of-the-mill stairs, but that escalated quickly into a chunky uneven concrete nightmare, that had me wondering what the workers who constructed it were drinking when they did it. At least I was getting a workout!

It seems the workers gave up when they hit a rock outcrop a little further up the trail and figured that if people made it that far, they were on their own for the last 200m. That left me literally in the middle of the mist with no trail to follow. You’d think I’d turn back at that point, right? Not a chance! I found my own way through the rocky forest! By the time I made it to what my map told me was the top, I was completely engulfed by the mist. I was quite glad when I’d made it back to the crosses at the rock outcrop, which indicated that the stairs were nearby and I’d be out of the mist momentarily.

Goa Kristal – Crystal Cave
So onto another day and another adventure! My friend had generously allowed me to use his bike again; this time head to Goa Kristal, or Crystal Cave in Bolok, 20km west of Kupang. On the way there, I ended up on a 4 lane highway that had a strip of land running through the middle of it, separating it into two 2 lane roads. I had figured that this was done to give both directions of traffic their own road. I found out I was wrong when the occasional truck going in the opposite direction ended up on the same road as me. So it’s really just another Indonesian ‘drive where you want’ deal.

Highway

At the end of the highway, I found myself on a road that followed the coast for a while, before making its way into the town of Bolok. I had to ride through the town for a bit to reach the dirt road that led to the cave. I was lucky enough to see some local cows just hanging out, eating grass. The town also seemed very proud to be Christian, as there were many crosses on the side of the road throughout the town.


Cows and crosses

After a short drive down the dirt road, my map was indicating that I was right near the cave, but I couldn’t see any signs to indicate exactly where it was. I did see a small trail that seemed to be going in the general direction I needed, so I followed it for a few minutes to a fence with a small gate that was locked from the other side. I was hoping that I hadn’t gone all that way to be stopped by a fence! While I was there, contemplating my next move, a young man appeared from nowhere inside the fenced area and began running toward the gate. My welcome wagon had arrived!

The young man, who introduced himself as Bo, enthusiastically welcomed me and beckoned for me to come in. Upon walking through the gate, I could see a cute handmade wooden sign, but still no cave. Thankfully Bo knew exactly where it was and had me at the cave entrance almost instantly. The opening was so small that it would definitely be difficult to find unless you knew exactly where it was.


The cave entrance from both the outside and the inside

Bo then asked myself and a family, that had gotten there just before I did, if we wanted to go inside. You can imagine what my response was, but only one of the people from the family was eager to have a look. I almost had a bat fly into my face on the way in, then heard some squeals behind me as the younger members of the family caught a glimpse of the bat. After giving my eyes a second to adjust to the darkness, I realised that the lake was still a considerable distance below me and the ‘path’ down was full of slippery rocks. It was totally worth it to see the lake close up and dip my hand in though!

Not long after I’d made it to the lake at the bottom of the cave and was letting the serenity of the place wash over me, I heard a huge splash. Bo had jumped in for a swim! As I hadn’t realised that swimming was allowed, I’d not brought a change of clothes with me. So sadly, I had to decline Bo’s invitation for a swim, but at least he looked like he was enjoying himself!

Air Terjun Oenesu – Oenesu Waterfalls
Anyone that knows me is aware of the fact that I’m in love with waterfalls. I try to find them in each new place that I go to. It was rather convenient then, that there was a small set of falls in Oenesu, about 20km southeast of Goa Kristal. Again, the road was good for most of the journey, until I had to turn onto a bumpy dirt road about 5km before the falls.

My map was trying to guide me to an area that didn’t look very accessible, so I decided to just keep following the road and eventually found myself in an empty parking area. I swear there was no one around when I entered the area, but as I got off the bike, there was all of a sudden a young man behind me asking for money to see the waterfall. I was a bit taken aback as all sources had told me that there was no entry fee. It was at that moment that another young local appeared from nowhere and told the first guy not to charge me.

Standard path to the waterfalls

My new friend, Raymond, decided that he would guide me to the falls and show me the secret viewing places. This involved a bit of rock climbing, but I’m always up for a bit of an adventure!

The real fun started after seeing the falls. I saw a trail to the side of the falls and asked where it went. Raymond advised that it went around the back of the falls and indicated that we should take it. While we were on that trail, I noticed some fallen coconuts and may have professed my love for them. That caused him to say, “I can get you coconut. Would you like?”. So he took me to his house, which was nestled in the middle of a forest, where he proudly introduced me to his family. It was only a short stop so he could pick up his coconut carving knife.

Searching for the right coconut tree

From there we took a short walk through the forest. As we walked along Raymond would point out things and tell me the Indonesian words for them. After just a few minutes, he had spotted the tree he was looking for. He wasted no time in climbing to the top to ‘shake down’ a coconut for me.

I had noticed that most of the coconut trees in the area had foot and hand holds carved into them at intervals. That’s what the locals used to climb up and down the trees and make it look like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Once back on the ground, Raymond used his knife to open the humongous coconut for me.

As he handed me the freshly opened coconut, Raymond said, “Kelapu Oenesu”, which means Oenesu Coconut. After drinking the water from it, the coconut was chopped in half so that I could enjoy the delicious flesh inside.

Mmmmmmm coconut!

Sunset Over Sea
How do you end a wonderful day? With dinner and sunset at a highly recommended cafe down the road from the falls! I’d actually planned to go to Cafe Tebing for lunch, but was disappointed to find it closed at 1pm. It didn’t open until 4pm, just in time for dinner.

As with many places in Timor, this cafe is open-air, with a super relaxed atmosphere. Perhaps a little bit too relaxed when it comes to bringing out food in a timely fashion, but who’s going to complain when you get this view while waiting?

To say the sunset was stunning would be an understatement. I’d dare say this is possibly the best view in town. From almost anywhere in the cafe you have a panoramic view from port to coast.

All Good Things..
Unfortunately, my time in Timor had to end, but on the day I left, Jeff cooked up a local delicacy, Pisang Goreng, or fried banana for breakfast. And it was AMAZING!

I wasn’t the only one delighted with the meal! Apparently Matt also loves this dish, but Jeff only cooks it when people are visiting from overseas. I’d say it’s worth a trip to Kupang just to try it.

After an obligatory picture, to remind us just how happy Jeff’s food had made us, I headed off to the airport. Next stop – Jakarta.

Kupang

Welcome to Kupang
Of course, my first flight in 3 months departed more than an hour later than it was supposed to leave, but luckily my good friend Jeff, who I hadn’t seen in at least 12 years, was still willing to pick me up from the airport! The airport was tiny, so it took less than 5 minutes for me to step off the plane, clear customs and meet Jeff. Thankfully he recognised me straight away, possibly because I was the only redhead in the place! He whisked me away to a waiting car for the 10 minute journey to his business, which is located conveniently across the road from his flat.

Jeff and I settled in for a chat and he informed me that some of his friends would be coming around too. His friends arrived shortly after with some food and drinks for me. It turns out Jeff had figured that I might be hungry after the long trip and told them to bring some food for me. What a sweety! Everyone was super friendly and very interested in my travels, especially my African travels. While we were talking, Jeff’s friends constantly checked if I needed more food, or drink, or anything within their power to provide at that late hour. One could get used to this Timor hospitality!

When the morning came, I walked across the road to Jeff’s place and had a bit of a catch-up session with him and his partner. I had met them both many moons ago when we all worked in a small remote town in Central Australia. Right next to the world’s second largest monolith, Uluru. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? After reminiscing for a bit, the boys gave me some really useful information about places to see and things to do in the area in the coming days. So with that, I was off exploring.

First Impressions

Normally the first thing I notice when I’m in a new place is the height of the buildings. From the air and the ground, I could not see any buildings that we more than 4 storeys tall in Kupang. I think this is great, as it creates more of a homely, country kinda feel to it. What’s even nicer is that there seems to be a lot of greenery around and unlike other cities in the world, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of construction going on. They do seem to like putting structures on roundabouts though, including crocodiles and concrete trees!

Another thing that makes Timor different to other places, is that tourism isn’t a huge industry, so there are almost no tourists on the island. This means that locals are often caught off guard when there’s a foreigner in their vicinity. I definitely got the feeling that I was a bit of an oddity as I was walked along. There were of course, a lot of innocuous stares and exclamations of ‘hello’ as I walked around. Then there were the not so comfortable local versions of a wolf whistle, which was men calling out, “Woo woo”, or “Woah”. As if that wasn’t fun enough, guys on bikes would stop in front of me, or slow down and ride beside me, to try to get me on their bikes.

I must admit that this all seemed a bit creepy at first, but I soon realised that these reactions came from a genuine fascination with seeing a non-local walking around. There were no ulterior motives, as there often is when men act this way in other regions. It’s also possible that the lack of tourism in the area means that locals really have no idea how to conduct themselves around foreigners and therefore don’t realise how their actions could be construed by people from other cultures. Aside from this, I would say that locals are extremely friendly and helpful.

Rain
As Timor is located in the tropical equatorial region, it has 2 distinct seasons; the wet season runs from December to April and the dry season runs from May to November. I, of course, had found myself here during the wet season, which meant I got to see rain every day! Somedays there would just be a small shower, that did a great job of cooling things down, then the skies would clear by the afternoon. Some times there would be heavy overnight rains that caused low-level flooding.

I got the impression that locals tend to alter their plans according to the rain, as the only time it was hard to get transport was when it was raining! The amount of traffic on roads decreased dramatically during a shower. Often, important works would be delayed if the rain was deemed to be too much of a nuisance. Locals are pretty laid back and don’t seem to worry too much about projects running over time.

Getting Around
For getting around town, most locals use mopeds or motorbikes as their main form of transport and sometimes their main form of income. That means there’s never a shortage of transport when you need it, although given the relatively small size of Kupang, it’s actually quite easy to walk around.

There are also local numbered bus services that take various routes around the town. These are known as Disco Buses due to their loud music and often flashing lights. But just in case you don’t hear them coming, the ticket boy hanging out the door will call out the destination several times as the vehicle approaches.

Disco Bus

There are also slightly bigger buses, that run on intercity routes. If booked in advance, these buses will actually offer a door to door service!

Laid Back Locals and Cheap Food
When I got back from one of my walks, my friends were busy installing a window in one of the flats in their complex. Someone else had originally been tasked with installing the window and a door, but once they installed the door, decided to leave without installing the window. This left my friends with a situation where they had to install the window as someone was ready to move into the flat the next day. Apparently this kind of situation isn’t all that uncommon in Indonesia, as people sometimes become disinterested in doing the work they’ve promised to do. Perhaps they’re a little bit too laid back!

After they were done, my friend took me for a ride around on his bike to show me a bit of the town, get some food for dinner and satiate his craving for cheese and crackers. That led us to one of the 2 malls in the area, Lippo Plaza. It qualifies as a mall in Timor because it has a huge supermarket inside that stocks a lot of imported food. I was amazed at how cheap most things were, when compared with prices back home. It’s easy to see how Indonesians that work for a few years in other nearby countries, come back home with enough money to start businesses and build apartment blocks.

It’s also surprising how cheap it can be to eat at fancy hotel restaurants. I generally stay away from hotels when I travel, but you can get a buffet brunch, with amazing views, for just 80,000IDR at various hotels in the city. That’s under US$6! They also don’t seem to have many patrons at any given time, so it’s almost like your own private dining experience.

A Sign of the Season
Being in a predominantly Christian country around Christmas meant that there weren’t many options for things to do, so while my friend went to spend time with his family, I ended up at the only place that was open; the mall. While having tea in a cafe there, I saw a disco train, with a very disinterested driver, taking kids, and some parents, around the centre.

Mall Disco Train

Outside the mall there were 3 Christmas trees, all made of different materials. In fact, on my many walks around the area, I saw Christmas trees made from whatever materials were available, like wire, plastic water bottles, paper, chairs, pipes and firewood. What a great way of personalising Christmas traditions. It certainly beats the idea of cutting down actual trees or using ugly fake trees.

Another interesting thing I spotted while walking around, was that many men had a thick strip of the hair on top of their head dyed a bright colour like red, green or yellow. I had originally thought that this was just a fashion trend, but my friend informed me that it only happened around Christmas time. I guess that explains why they all seemed to be festive kind of colours.

Colourful Kupang
Locals in Kupang aren’t afraid to add a splash of colour to their dwellings. In fact, many bright or pastel coloured houses and roofs can be spotted from both the air and the ground. Blue and green seem to be firm favourites, although there are also a lot of pinks and whites as well, with some red and yellow also thrown in for good measure.

Besides colourful homes, Kupang had its fair share of colourful animals wandering around. From possibly stray cats and dogs that seemed to spend a lot of time hanging around the rubbish collection areas, probably looking for food. To random hens walking around with young chicks following close behind them, to the occasional goat and the odd pig here and there.

Shelters for the Departed
There seems to be an abundance of cemeteries in Kupang and most seem to occupy prime positions on the waterfront. Many of the graves are very colourful and ornate. Almost all of them have an image of Jesus somewhere near the front of the grave and look like they would have cost a fortune to build. There was one cemetery where a cluster of graves had added features that piqued my interest. They had their own shelters! Not the makeshift, tin shed type, but nice shelters that could shield you from one of the city’s numerous downpours. I’m not sure why long dead people would need shelters, nor what they would need sheltering from. Unless they don’t like the rain. It does rain a lot in Kupang.

Sights in the City
As I mentioned earlier, tourism isn’t really much of a thing in Timor, which means that the idea of charging entry fees to special areas just doesn’t exist. This is great if you really like to see different things but don’t like paying to see them! Most of the tourist attractions in Timor are outside of the capital, but there are still some areas of interest within the town.

The waterfront near the town centre contains a bustling market area, with some open-air eateries. While there, I found my way to an open-air ‘Bar and Resto’ with river views, where I settled in for a late lunch. I must admit, this was not the nicest river I’d ever seen, but I did notice some caves on the opposite bank, that had revealed themselves at low tide. Who doesn’t love hidden caves revealing themselves?

While I was there, my lovely friend Jeff had managed to borrow a car and came to pick me up for a late afternoon, early evening cruise around town. We headed down to the cafe strip, which is an area on the beach where makeshift cafes are set up. I guess they’re makeshift due to the sometimes unpredictable weather of the monsoon season. The area looked very vibrant and some stalls even had garden swings for customer use. Doesn’t a gentle swing while sipping on coffee or tea sound divine? My friend informed me that it was the place to be on New Years Eve, but unfortunately, I was leaving on New Years Eve morning, so I wouldn’t get to witness the spectacle.