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........