Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Ahhh Bishkek! How we'll miss the broken concrete, the heaving farting Mercedes minibuses, the charming Russian ex-pats, the hanging around embassy windows. We have finally met the elusive Mr. Ashad, Pakistan visa official. He's very nice and polite but cannot help us - there has been no response from Islamabad. We thank him and say farewell - not downhearted because we will try again in Delhi, where we think it's possible to get a visa in three days, not six weeks. We have a couple of days back at Nomad's Home Guesthouse. On our way back we meet Greg, another long-term inmate. "It's like a refugee camp" he warns. He's right. The overcrowding is rather alarming, but it's only for one night. There are tents covering all available ground in the backgarden. Happily, thanks to a General Amnesty on all visa felons, everyone is to be released this week. We are heading for Almaty in Kazakhstan in order to fly to Delhi.

There's a festival vibe at the guesthouse as everyone queues to use the toilet, the stove, the shower, the washing line, the kettle, the toilet again etc. It's a tricky business and despite the heat and the frustration there are no fisticuffs. However John has to make a 'forceful point' to some new inmates who cannot sleep and want to ensure the rest of the punters don't. His words are persuasive. Or was it his appearance in just his underpants that did the trick? There are farewells the next day, and some last minute panic attacks by some of the Old Lags who have become institutionalised. Our battle with Bishkek bureaucracy is over, we are free once again. Where's the vodka? Prost!

Sunday, June 22, 2008


We're out! Freed from Bishkek for good behaviour. I'm whistling 'Colonel Bogey' as we climb a track beside a torrent of water - a river roaring past us through the forrested narrow valley of Karakol. Up ahead there are clouds and what looks like rain. We suddenly emerge onto a flat stretch where the river is suddenly silent, snaking around green meadows where some horses graze. We can hear ourselves think. After lunch we climb higher and reach a brand new wooden bridge that leads into the woods below a steep side valley. We rest under a pine tree as the skies darken and a thunderstorm passes overhead. "Erm, shouldn't we be out in the open lying down, or something?" Huge hailstones start to fall, pelting the trees and ground around us, the earth turning white very quickly. We take a chance and stay under the tree. Just as suddenly the thunder and fork lightning passes. We start the haul up the slope and finally emerge by a pond formed by rockfall, blocking the small river coming down the valley. We camp in this silent spot with a view of the next day's route up ahead.

The morning brings better weather - perfectly clear skies - and we continue up a narrow twisty path that skirts the river, finally climbing up past a waterfall and out to a rock ledge overlooking Ala Kol, a large turquoise glacial lake surrounded by scree slopes dusted in snow. It's beautiful. We rest to admire the view. There's a faint trail traversing the northern slopes, climbing high above the lake and eventually leading to a pass at 3800 metres. It's a struggle at this altitude and on a tricky path, but we're following someone's footprints in the snow. The views are fantastic at the top, with views of all the big mountains around and the glacier feeding the lake. This is why we are here in Kyrgyzstan. We feel a bit giddy looking over the cornice on the pass and down a vertiginous slope that leads to a huge bowl of a valley. We follow the footprints again, sliding and slipping at an alarming speed, down to the bottom. The weather is still good and we continue downwards, eventually reaching a wider valley where there are a few herders' tents. Nine hours after striking camp we arrive at a clutch of houses where we can camp and bathe at hotsprings. The baths are simple concrete tanks but the hot water is delicious after a thrilling and tiring trek. Sooo good.

The next day we start to head down to the town below but change our minds and return. We don't want to rush back and instead walk up another side valley and spend the afternoon sunbathing and reading in a field of wild flowers.
We meet some other Bishkek parolees - this is a justly popular place to walk - and walk out with them the next day. We get the usual sinking feeling of returning to "civilisation", in this case a dreary little town that seems impossibly deserted. We visit the Russian Orthodox church and the local mosque which was built by Chinese muslims in a pagoda style - a new one for us. There's nothing to keep us here and we return to Issy Kol lake, at a place called Tamga, with David from Canada. There's a small beach here which has a few locals relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. The village is fairly grim though - there is no running water, the locals collecting water from a murky stream running down the gutter of the main street. We stay in a pleasant B&B with a choice of beds (i.e. rock hard or super saggy), a luxuriously carpeted pit toilet with seat, and a garden bursting with flowers. The local cafe is shut so Valentina rustles us up some tea while we bathe in the sauna.

Sadly our parole is rescinded and we have to return to Bishkek once more to make a final attempt at getting a Pakistan visa. Here goes then........

Monday, June 16, 2008


Alas, and so it comes to pass, that we return to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan Bishkek Open Prison again in search of visas. We renew acquaintances with the Old Lags and make new passing friendships with the other inmates staying at Nomad's Home guesthouse, John playing Norman Stanley Fletcher to Gayle's Godber. We pitch the tent in the back garden and swap sad tales of visa applications, whilst taking it in turns to cook our meals over the little gas stove. Greg, a Hungarian cyclist/philosopher, declares he is now waiting for his Kyrgyz residency permit - he has been waiting here so long. On our first day back we get our Kazakh visa at the embassy. We meet again the Englishman who upbraided us on an earlier visit for queue-jumping. He spots us first and makes sure he's ahead of us, but ironically his visa is not there. (Ha ha! How much pleasure we take in another's misfortune....) Next day we go to collect our Indian visa, but the consul official is off sick and they tell us to return tomorrow. "Why didn't you come yesterday? You could have had it then." Red rag and Bull. Gayle has to restrain herself from verbally assaulting the idiot.

Bishkek is not an awful place to hang around. It's very hot now, hitting the mid-thirties nearly every day, but the streets are full of big trees offering some shade and hiding the ugly buildings. But there are no cultural highlights here, the parks are overgrown and tatty, and we just can't find any quality ice cream anywhere. We can do a bit of 'maintenance' - repairing things, laundry, haircuts, etc. and we have access to good fresh food and a handy supermarket. Happily, the guesthouse provides a comfy refuge from the boredom, and there is the chance for John to catch some of the Euro 2008 matches, even though the late games begin at 1am local time.

Finally we get our Indian visa. Our joy is tempered by a request from the Pakistan visa official who asks us to come in the following Monday to "answer some questions". What's your favourite band? Which football team do you support? Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? Who killed Benazir? Why does it take more than five visits in person and over six weeks for the Pakistan embassy to issue a tourist visa??? Where is this beautiful house and who is this beautiful wife? Same as it ever was.....The Multiple Visa Psychosis symptons are rapidly resurfacing and occurring more frequently. Whilst Gayle can happily pass an evening chatting about journeys and visa application processes with new inmates who are fresh-faced and innocent, some of the Old Lags are starting to fray at the edges. Anssi, a quiet Finnish man who looks and talks like Willem Dafoe, quietly sips his beers whilst learning tricky Russian phrases such as "But I brought the photocopies here last week with the photographs and was told to come back today". Greg, who neither drinks nor smokes, cooks wonderful vegetarian "full English breakfast", and has a shaved head and bushy red beard (quite an impressive list of institutionalised inmate attributes), has started to whittle model animals out of raddishes. When a wave of hysteria sweeps over us he tells jokes about Russians and smiles wistfully as he remembers his time on the Andaman Islands. To the new inmates we seem a little offkey. Of course, we would behave more normally if it wasn't for the Hope. It's the Hope that's killing us........

Greg's Bishkek breakfast

It is clearly Time To Leave. I'm digging the escape tunnel with a French guy whilst Greg carefully distributes the fresh soil by pacing back and forth around the garden, shaking it out of his trouser leg when no-one is looking. Amazingly we finally meet Friedel and Andrew, two Canadian cyclists whom we've been following for almost 10 months. Gayle found their blog, and our paths have almost crossed before - we met their bikes in Yazd, Iran whilst they had gone to Tehran for onward visas. The cyclists form a bond quickly, checking out each others bikes, swapping road stories, walking flat-footed and making more of an effort to cook good food. It's a good opportunity for all to gain some weight whilst there's a period of stasis.

Monday comes and we dress smartly for our appointment at the Pakistan embassy. Mr. Ashad, who asked us to come in, is not there. We are asked to provide dates for our proposed travel itinerary in Pakistan. I point them out on the application form which we submitted 20 days ago. They ask us to write them out again. In a desperate attempt to force their hand I douse myself in petrol and, with a box of matches in my hand, threaten self-immolation if a visa is not forthcoming. "Come back next week" the man says, before closing the hatch. Actually, that bit's not true - the man says nothing..........

Friday, June 13, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Singing to Song Kul

The minibus leaving Bishkek is slow to fill up. It is the proverbial oven inside, and the sweat is pouring off us. One of the waiting passengers foolishly has 'chut chut' vodka to while away the minutes. It is clearly not his first, and he has the determined countenance of a man intent on prolonging his drunk. He gives it a good shot, so to speak, but by the time we set off, he has removed his shirt and shoes, his fly is down and he's slumped unconscious on the floor in the aisle. Before he passed out we managed to catch his name: Ahmad. For some reason a man seems equally determined to make sure he doesn't just sleep it off. Ignoring the maxim "Let sleeping drunks lie", he shouts at Ahmad, tugs and pulls him up and awake, and shouts some more. Never a quiet moment on a Kyrghyz bus. Five hours later and we stop for a Kymyz break. Kymyz is a drink of fermented mare's milk, and this is the season for it, as thousands of horse herders set up stall beside the road, with yurt or old railway wagon, and flog the foul fizzy milky stuff that tastes a bit like the school milk I had as a child, after it had sat by a radiator for half the day. We all get off to stretch our legs and Ahmad appears looking rather spiffy and quite literally a New Man. Was it the kymyz??He is chirpy and laughing and joking and wants a photo of us all in a group. When we set off, he launches into a folk song that gets some of the older men singing along. It is awful, but kind of entertaining.

a revived Ahmad stands to the left of John (in the silly hat)

At four in the afternoon we are dropped off and start a trek to Kyrghyzstan's second largest lake, Song Kul. There's plenty of light these days and we walk beside a river until about seven thirty when we climb above the path and out of sight, onto a grassy ridge. It's a lovely camping spot, with great views on all sides, and it reminds us yet again what a joy it is to camp out in the wild. The next day we cross fold after fold on the mountainside and hit the track to a high pass that looks down on Song Kul, at 3000 metres. Looking back, the valley we have climbed out of sits far lower, which seems a little odd. The lake is huge, and on the far side the mountains are still topped in snow. We drop down to the lakeshore for another great camp spot, a quick bathe and an early tea, no-one but a few horses and cows to share the place with. In the morning the good weather seems to have gone and we have to shelter in our tent from a thunderstorm almost as soon as we begin our return journey. Thunder and lightning leave me a bit twitchy after the incident in Romania last year, but there are no nasty shocks for us, and the horses nearby continue to graze unperturbed. But the rest of the day continues to produce cold nasty showers that appear suddenly and then melt away just as quickly. Amazingly we end the day dry and in another sunny spot, and despite having forgotten the cheese, the instant mash is still pretty tasty. Ymmmmm. The whole walk has been great therapy for our visa-addled minds. We get up early to catch a bus from a nearby village. It's a sleepy quiet place - not much happening and not many people out. A couple of young lads trot past on their sleek horses. A man in a Lada pulls up to buy petrol out of a jerry can. We're told in the little shop that a bus comes at 9am and, amazingly, we see it trundling towards us, right on time. It stops short to deposit two passengers and then goes straight past us. Charming. We sit around for almost another hour before we finally find a car with space going our way.
We continue the visa therapy with a couple of days on the beach beside Issy Kol, the largest lake here. It is getting hotter every day now and the chance to swim in a freshwater lake is to hard to resist. This is a popular spot for Kazakhs too, but it's early season, and the place is quiet. Regrettably though, it's back to business the next day, as we return yet again to the capital for more embassy frolics........

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Kafkaesque Pantomime

A man and woman enter from the side and approach a small window in a large wall. It is unclear what the building is or what the window is for, as it is low down and shaded in black. There are no signs. The man presses a tiny button next to the window and waits. The man presses the tiny button next to the window again and waits. The woman looks at the man and the man looks at the woman. The woman presses the tiny button. After another long pause the window opens inwards. We can't see inside but there is some movement. The man and woman bend down to peer through the window. They appear to be talking to someone. They both hold their hands up to the window sill, and wave a pen in the air. The window closes. They sit down.

Another man from the other side approaches and, seeing the couple, shakes their hands and then turns to the window. He presses the tiny button and waits. After a pause the window opens and this man also bends down to peer through into the dark square. The window closes. He sits down next to the couple. They wait. It's just another day at the Pakistan embassy in Bishkek.

We've made lots of new friends in Bishkek. They are other travellers who are stuck in Visa Limbo. On our fourth visit to the Pakistan embassy we met the same Japanese man who has been there on all the other occasions. We are back at Nomad's Home, which should possibly change its name to something more appropiate, like Hanging Around For Visas House. Our first day back we have to get a visa extension to stay in Kyrgyzstan longer. It seems we only need this to give us the time to get the visas to leave. We are required to fill out a form in duplicate and write a letter explaining why we need another 30 days. Fools. What do they think tourists want to do here? (One traveller considered mentioning killing the president. He did have a weird look in the eyes when he said it too, but then he'd been queueing all day and had also been shaken down by police on the street.) The policewoman who dealt with us spoke quite good English, which came as a shock to us because the last time we called in she only spoke Russian and made no attempt to communicate in English. Must've felt shy I suppose. Fortunately we got the extension. At last, something has worked here.

Next day we head off to the Indian and Kazakh embassies. We're feeling lucky. We put in our applications with the Indians who make us sit around for an hour and a half before telling us to come back to collect in a week. We trot down the road to the conveniently located Kazakh embassy and hand in a pile of paperwork and photocopies there too. We have to fill in an immigration card and write a little cover letter. The man there wants to keep our passports. "Come back next week" he says. He always says this to us. Maybe he thinks it means goodbye. We don't have any more visas, but we feel like we have actually accomplished something. So it's chicken kebabs and triple vodkas all round. And tomorrow back to the mountains!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Joy of Treks

We have walked for a day up a good track climbing up a narrow valley and reached a turquoise lake, at 3000 metres, surrounded by peaks. It's mid-afternoon, we have pitched our tent at the far end of the lake with a view of snowy peaks in the upper valley behind us and the lake in front of us. It is perfect and worth the sweat and toil. There is no-one around, just cows and horses grazing on the grassy slopes around the lake shore. We have walked past several yurts and herders' huts lower down, and met lots of boys and young men riding to and from the town of Kochkor in the main valley below. The tea is brewing and we're enjoying the view when we notice someone walking along the lake towards us. As they get closer we guess it's another foreigner, a woman, and then we think about the other tent we saw at the head of the lake and realise just before she arrives that it's Evi, the Austrian we met in Arslanbob. Small country, Kyrgyzstan.

We catch up on news and the next day we head further up the valley looking for either a pass over to the next valley or a glacial lake, whichever looks the likeliest - none of us has a map. Eventually we return to the lake, having failed to reach either objective, but the scenery is lovely and very peaceful. Before tea it rains and snows. When the clouds finally lift the landscape has completely changed - the slopes and mountains around us now wrapped up in a quilt of fresh snow. As the sun sets the peaks glow orange. Good stuff this. We retrace our steps to Kochkor the next day and return to our homestay, making the most of the sauna on offer to steam ourselves and give our clothes a good scrub at the same time.

Kyrgyzstan has a network of community based tourism offices dotted around the country. They provide tourists with homestays (or yurtstays in the mountain pastures), horse treks, guides, transport etc. The principal idea is to increase income for local people and it's a great idea. This is our second homestay. We have a room decorated with shyrdaks (felt rugs) with bedding on the floor. The family ply us with tea and yoghurt, fresh salad and there is always a supply of fantastic homemade raspberry jam on the table. The sauna is a bonus. There's no shower and it's a simple concrete room with an open tank of hot water heated by a wood fire, plenty of buckets and a cold tap. Basic but priceless after three days walking.

We decide to leave some things here and trek over the mountains in the north and down to the big valley where Bishkek lies. There's a pass of 3500 metres to cross. Evi comes up with a cunning plan to get us to the trailhead at Shamshy. We know it costs about 60 som each in a shared taxi, but that if a taxi driver sees three foreigners the fare will reach a ludicrous 1000 som. So Evi goes off in search and negotiates a decent price for the whole car alone. When she calls us over the taxi driver looks a bit miffed, and his friends all laugh at him. It's a rare day when you feel you've got one over on a taxi driver in these parts.

We set off up a track that climbs onto a jailoo - the summer pasture for grazing the animals. It's here that the herders and their families move to for the summer months May to September. The tradition is to put up a yurt or two, a circular tent made from a wooden frame and covered in felt. The yurt has a hole at the centre of the roof for light and to allow smoke from the stove to escape, the wood frame arches across it. This hole has become the emblem of the Kyrgyz flag (although it still looks like a cricket ball to me). We walk up to the highest yurt. We know that one or two of them take tourists in, but we don't know which and we want a good start for the next day's hike. It turns out that the family we talk to are happy to have us even though they're not set up for tourists. They have family from Bishkek visiting, but they are extremely welcoming and the young mother takes it in her stride. We are fed well and she bakes fresh bread for the evening and morning meals, in between milking the horses. (We never see the cows being milked, so we think they are just kept for the meat.) There are lots of young children around and Evi turns into entertainer, organising games around the table during a rain shower. Finally the visitors say goodbye, the table is taken out, and the bedrolls and quilts are laid out over the floor for us all to sleep. The sheep are brought back to the pen, and the horses and cows huddle close by. Just before we nod off the father takes his shotgun outside and fires off a couple of rounds. That'll keep the wolves at bay........

Next day is perfect - clear skies and bright sun. We set off along a good track and up a narrow valley, finally reaching a barren pass of stone shale at lunchtime. The way onwards looks long but interesting, and Evi, like any good Austrian, leads us running down the scree slopes below the few remaining snow fields. The wild flowers are coming out and the path cuts through swathes of forget-me-nots, buttercups and cowslips, yellow poppies and more, as we follow the river down. At a pretty little spot at the junction with another river we pitch our tents and rest our weary legs. The next day takes us down through the twisting valley and out to pastures where animals are grazing. We have to wade the river three times, and huddle inside the tent occasionally when thunderstorms pass over, but find a hidden camping spot on the riverbank for the night. On our fourth day we reach a village with a bus stop, and eventually get a ride into a nearby town where we can pick up a taxi to Bishkek.