8. 2 August to 11 August 2011 – Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and the Drive Towards China
8. 2 August to 11 August 2011 - Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and the Drive Towards China
We met up with our China travelling companions back in Bishkek - Clive and Ann from England, Richard from England and Maggie from Ireland. We camped together in the grounds of the Silk Road Lodge Hotel for four nights while we applied for our Chinese visas, which we managed to secure within a day. The Chinese Embassy in Bishkek is a huge compound right on the edge of the city and no longer just a few blocks from our hotel campsite, as we soon discovered. All other arrangements for China were also finalised.
We had stayed in Bishkek previously for a couple of nights after we had crossed the border from Kazakhstan, so all in all we had time to explore the city, though our second stay was incredibly hot. We found a couple of pleasant restaurants, one with a good selection of traditional Kyrgyz dishes which feature a great deal of mutton with potatoes or noodles and some vegetables - but very tasty. Bread is a feature of every meal and Kyrgyz nan bread is excellent, especially fresh out of the oven. The other restaurant aimed more at the ex-pat population, but still served delicious shashlik and had a great outdoor eating area along one of the many tree-lined streets, perfect for a nice cold beer after a hot day. Water is plentiful in Kyrgyzstan and in Bishkek gushes down deep gutters throughout the city. We also managed to find a delightful coffee shop with the best coffee we've had for so long, but definitely at expat prices - it didn't stop us going back a number of times, and the cakes were sensational and hard to resist.
We travelled from Bishkek as a group of three vehicles, with the two large overland trucks driven by the UK couples. They travel much slower than we usually do, but they warned us of this when we first talked about travelling with them, and we are not minding it at all. We camped back on Issyk-Kul for the first two nights, with beautiful cool weather after the heat of the city. Once again we met the Swiss cyclists, Corina and Philipp, on the road and we all had coffee together.
Our next stop was Kochkor, and yet another couple cycling through Kyrgyzstan from China. They were from Paris and on a tandem bike! Here we visited the Community Based Tourism office and organised a visit to a local home for a demonstration of felt making and other traditional crafts. The whole experience was enhanced by the generosity and hospitality of the family - mother and father, two adult sons, one daughter-in-law and a very engaging grandson, about 18 months of age.
We were shown the complete process of felt-making for floor rugs, and how to make the intricate brightly-coloured patterns of shyrdaks which decorate the walls of the yurts. The pattern is cut out with scissors these days rather than the traditional sharp stone or knife, and no felt is wasted as they are reversible with a negative and positive side. We were also shown kuraks which are basically patchwork of collected pieces of silk made into a variety of useful articles.
And finally, in accordance with Kyrgyz tradition, we were invited to eat with the family in the yurt - chai, different types of bread, jams, salads and bowls of fruit, and we tried the yoghurt made from cow's milk which was actually quite delicious. The parents ate nothing as it was Ramadan, but the young man of the family, Azamut, who spoke very good English and had been our translator the entire time, assured us that this was no problem, and through him we were able to converse with the family over the food they had provided. Azamut was studying linguistics in Bishkek and was learning languages to enable him to be involved more in the tourist industry. He told us that his mother had learnt her crafts when she was a very young girl, despite the Soviet regime regarding any traditional practices as being 'reactionary'. Remarkably, Lenin was revered in Kyrgyzstan and she showed us the 'chee' she had made at the age of ten which was a portrait of Lenin. A chee is a mat made by spinning wool around reeds which are then joined with string, and this one hung proudly in the yurt.
After a night at Naryn, and meeting once again the backpacking couple from Israel, Dana and Alex, the final highlight of our journey south to the Chinese border was to camp at Tash Rabat, a caravanserai or inn on the Old Silk Road. It was built to protect caravans to and from China from weather and bandits before the time of Genghis Khan. It had an eerie feel about it, with 30 or so dark, damp rooms, one of which was long with shelf-like communal bedding for the garrisons of soldiers, and two others with holes in the ground which served as dungeons. Opposite the entrance at the back was the khan's quarters. We camped near Tash Rabat for one night, followed by another night closer to the road ready for our 'border day' into China.
That day started very early because we still had quite a few kilometres before we reached the Kyrgyzstan border, along with our Kyrgyz guide, a compulsory formality on this road. It was very cold when we left at 6:00am, and not long before we were noticing new dusting of snow on the bare hills. In 'no man's land' between the two borders, very light snow began to fall, followed shortly by snow up to one inch deep right across the landscape - no longer actually snowing, but the road was quite slushy. Trucks were coming towards us from the border mid morning still with snow on their bonnets - they would have had a very cold night! This was the Torugart Pass into China, a branch of the Silk Road, and apparently the most spectacular route in or out of Central Asia. Huge excitement at reaching the Chinese border about midday, and finding our Chinese guide, Lydia, later to be known by her Chinese name Ping, waiting with a huge smile ready to lead us back down the mountain into China.