Kyrgyzstan

After our amazing time in the Pamir’s we had arrived in Osh. This is one of the major cities in Kyrgyzstan home to around 300000 people. It was hot when we arrived which made a nice change from being half frozen in the mountains for the last week.

Hanging out on top of Sulayman Too in Osh

The highlight of Osh was definitely Sulayman Too. Although, the quintessential soviet era theme park would be a close second. This has been a historic pilgrimage site for centuries. Panoramic views were mixed with the call to prayer of several different mosques, making for a great place to take in the evenings. An interesting rock slide on the mountain is used by the locals to increase fertility. There were also claims it could cure back pain, though it seemed more likely to cause it.

A quick flight to the north landed us in the capital city Bishkek (previously Frunze) where we spent a night, including one last trip to a stolovya which had become our principal source of delicious but excess calories while in Russia and Central Asia.

A 4000 year old field of petroglyphs in Cholpon Ata

We set out on a two week tour of lake Issyk-kul (or as issy likes to put it, Issy’s cool). A marshrutka took us to our first stop of cholpon ata. This place was known for being a soviet holiday destination.

Since the fall in the late 80’s it has gone to seed, leaving behind massive abandoned hotels and a eerie feeling around the town It was a nice place to relax, and provided a more than adequate remedy to our long standing beach cravings, even including the traditional sunburn.

The beaches aren’t too bad for a landlocked country.

Karakol beckoned with the call of the mountains. We were surprised to find a new take on our favourite food noodles . Karakol is the home of Ashlan-fu, a cold noodle dish consisting of two types of noodles (rice and wheat), some spring onion, a little scrambled egg and doused in vinegar. These tasty bowls were everywhere, and went down a treat with a fried potato pancake. By the end of our time we had eaten more bowls of this than one lifetime needs.

Ashlan fu

After returning battered and bruised from our hike (see other post)we headed out to KolFest. This was a three day music festival located on the south shore of issyk-kul. The festival location was amazing.

Looking out from the main stage over Issyk-Kul

This was put together by some Germans, Japanese and locals, which made for a fun mix of cultures whilst double parking lagers and sake. We our time in the sun, swimming in the lake, drinking, eating and enjoying the music.

The acts were a mixture of local talent and international DJs. Notable acts were Alina, Kyrgyzstans premiere female beat boxer, Steppefish a Kazakh indie band (the best act of the festival), and Dj Dawee with his afrobeats. One memorable moment was on the final night when the entire festival sang a spirited rendition of ‘All you need is plov’ (The Beatles all you need is love, reimagined).

After the hike and Kolfest we were pretty beat up, notably Issys hiking wounds, and had to spend 4 days recovering around Karakol Here we went to Jeti-oguz, and managed to catch the 150th anniversary celebrations of the city, and demolish another 10 bowls of ashlan-fu (each)

Hanging out with the 7 Bulls in Jeti-Oguz

Leaving Karakol behind we went to Bokonbayevo for 3 days. This is a small village located on the south banks of Issyk Kul. From here we went to the fairytale (skazka canyon) and swam in the lake which is just incredible, clear, cool, deep. Perfect.

Issy looking cool with Isssyk-Kul in the background
Skazka canyon

We joined a locals picnic on a beach, and were plied with bottles of vodka in the early afternoon. Everyone we met in Kyrgyzstan lived up to their reputation of incredible hospitality.

Hanging out with the locals.

The following day we went to a traditional eagle hunt, where our new mate Lightning showed of his skills, including a particularly gruesome scene involving a rabbit.

Lightning, with his cap.
Lightning reaping the rewards of a days labour

Song-kul was next on our list, this is a high altitude lake is one of the major features in every Kyrgyz guidebook, blog, and travellers tale. We decided (optimistically as it turned out) to do a two day horse trek to reach the lake. About 1 hour into the day we both agreed that we had had enough.

Unfortunately for our bums, we had to ride another 8 hours over the next two days. Our horses seemed to understand our reluctance and took the chance to assert their authority, going at their own pace no matter how much we insisted otherwise. The yurt camp at the lake was pretty, but pretty cold, thankfully we had a constant supply of hot tea and bread.

Our camp for night one.
Issy with the family goat.
Looking back from the top of the pass.
Looking down into the valley, Songkul in the distance, rain on the way.

We got back to Bishkek, a leafy, modern city, just in time to watch New Zealand edge out India in the cricket. The ensuing celebration wrote off the next day.

Our final adventure after a month in Kyrgyzstan was white water rafting, The weather was getting seriously hot (38C) so the cool river was a welcome change.

Sadly, due to the nature of white water rafting, good photos don’t occur in the fun spots

We then spent a week in Almaty in Kazakhstan. A modern, european city, where we forgot to take any photos. we weren’t able to get out too much due to illness. But had a lot of fun exploring the city on the metro, and swimming in lake Sayran. The highlight was a crazy roller coaster in the dark on the hill above the city.

Ala-kul to Altyn Arashan (4 days, 3 nights hike)

Krygyzstan turned it up for us on this trek!

From the first few hours into this tramp we knew we were in for something special. We had done a bit of research on hiking before coming to Krygyzstan, with every traveller we had met in central asia telling us we had to have a go at trekking whilst we were here. In the end this 4 day hike won. The gorgeous valleys filled with idyllic meadows with grazing horses, glaciers, high-altitude Ala-kol lake, rivers, blizzards, and one near death experience made this the most amazing trek I’d ever been on. Not to mention the hot springs at Altyn Arashan to soak our tired legs at the end of day 3!

I’d never done much tramping in my life, with my first (and only) ever overnight trip being to Te Rereatukahia Hut in the Kaimai Ranges last year (which was awesome BTW if you are looking for a tramp to do in NZ), anyway, never to let inexperience and fitness get in the way of an adventure- we were going to do this 4 day tramp. We hired a tent, sleeping bags, and a gas cooker from ECOTREK company in Karakol town (our base town), and bought coffee/tea bags, oats, prunes/dried apricots, instant noodles, and 250g each of snickers and mars bars- now we were set.

Day One

We took a mashrutka (shared minibus) from the centre of Karakol town and were dropped off at the end of a road and told this was our stop.

Glacial waters raging

The day of the trek was easy and pretty chill with absolutely gorgeous weather, we walked up a 4 wheel drive track for 16km alongside a raging Karakol river, passing majestic horse filled meadows.

We stopped for lunch in a meadow listening to Nesian Mystic on our speakers as we ate some pastries we picked up that morning in town and Chris even managed to squeeze in a mid-afternoon siesta.

Chris pre siesta

After rousing Chris, we headed further up the road crossing the river and finally hitting the off-road track through bush.

I found a walking stick, despite making me look like someone who treks all the time sadly it did not make the walking easier

At 4pm we arrived at a nice clearing in an alpine meadow- campsite numero uno!

Camp spot for tonight!
GOOORRRRRMMEEEEEYYYYY

We played some cards, read our books, and tucked into the first of many instant noodles meals.

Day Two

The next day we started early, we walked up a steep incline and past a yurt camp where we bought a bottle of juice to reward ourselves. We found a gorgeous spot by a stream for breakfast- porridge, coffee, juice, and prunes. Gourmet!

We headed up and up the mountain after that, over an hour of climbing up along the river.

Stopped for a break to enjoy the view, and pose for a photo!
Chris doing his yoga on a rock

We arrived at the fabled Ala-Kul alpine lake by lunch time, and had about 10 minutes to eat our packet soup heated over our gas cooker before it started snowing/railing. The frozen lake was beautiful and massive (we couldn’t fit the whole thing in any of our photos), but when we started to snow harder we knew we had to get a move on so we wouldn’t get stuck there.

We had to walk out of the “crater” to reach a the top of the pass which would lead us to our next camp spot. Unfortunately once we hit the top of the pass the weather turned into a blizzard, the sky became very dark, the mountain top next to us was covered in cloud that was thundering and lightning was striking nearby. To make matters worse the path that people normally take down the pass into the other valley was non-existent, covered in snow and had disappeared. We couldn’t stay at the top with the terrible weather, the only way down was to try and scale the very steep, snowcovered “ridge”. So in our runners, shorts, and raincoats, with socks on our hands we climbed down backwards hitting our shoes into the snow then our hands into the holes we had made to grip on for what felt like dear life. After about 15 meters of this the ridge became less vertical and we figured our best bet was to slide the rest of the approx 200meters to safe ground on our bums. So thats what we did. Afterwards Chris said he had a fun time on the ridge and it was the highlight of the trip- I sadly developed an ice burn all over my bottom which would continue to burn, wept, graze up and then unheal again for the next week. If I was to do it again- I would probably wear pants.

Said ridge- the shot doesn’t really do the height or incline justice, just know I really did fear for my life.
Chris had a great time

It continued to snow and I was pretty miserable as we walked the last 2 km to the spot we planned to set up camp. We jumped straight inside the tent, ate noodles made in luke-warm water and the rest of our little chocolate bars we brought with us as the weather raged outside.

Day 3

The third day was quite leisurely compared to the previous day, we left our camp around 9am (after porridge and coffee) and walked down along this valley to Altyn Arashan, some rain, a very small town with about 6 guesthouses all boasting their own natural hot spring. By the time we made it in the afternoon we were completely soaked from the rain and pain the $5NZD for an hour in a private hot spring at a guest house to improve our spirits and wait out the weather.

Altyn Arashan

We made camp just out of town, gorged on some biscuits we had bought from a guesthouse, and later found these amazing river side pubic hot springs in the evening.

Dinner was of course, noodles again.

Day 4

Sick of being rained on and injured by this trek we woke up early, packed up the camp, and headed off on 15 km hike along the dirt/rock covered road along the river to escape back to civilisation.

I almost made it out without another injury, then I slipped on the road and landed on my leg- it later turned into a big graze which ran down my shin. We needed to get out of here, I was one more slip away from needing a Westpac helicopter rescue and lift out.

Eventually we hit the road! Happy day! In reflection it was an amazing trek, 4 days of hiking, alpine lakes, cooking on a little gas cooker surviving on noodles and porridge was a great experience, probably the highlight of our time in Kyrgyzstan- but as soon as we got out all I was thinking about was a shower and a beer.

We did it!

The Pamir Highway

Without a doubt travelling along the Pamir Highway has been one of the highlights of this trip from me. It was the ultimate road trip from Dushanbe, Tajikistan to Osh, Kyrgyzstan over 7 days in a 4 wheel drive with views you wouldn’t believe.

The highway cuts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan border and then into the infamous Wakhan Valley, flanked by the Pamir Mountains on one side, and the Hindu Kush on the other.

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Heres a map of our route from Dushanbe to Osh

The Prep

Before leaving on our trip (organised through the company VisitAlay) we were lucky to have our friend Christian from Germany who we had met when we were in Turkmenistan join us! It was great for the extra company and also meant the cost of the tour (which you pay for by the car) was now reduced by a third (yes!!!).

We were told by the company to bring water and snacks for the next 7 days (breakfast and dinner would be provided by the guesthouses we would stay in, and lunch could be picked up along the road). See below for what we took:

The beans and noodles were brought incase no vegetarian food for me was found, luckily they went uneaten on our trip. Surprisingly the alcohol also went undrunk!
28 litres of water together for Chris and I!

Day One

We set out with Christian and our driver Nabi in his white 4-wheel drive the next day from our hostel in Dushanbe. Just a note- We had a pretty cool hostel in Dushanbe with a cool view, below is a picture of Chris’ evil-looking silhouette in our room (he’s definitely planning something terribly evil here).

It did not take long until we started to see some of the beautiful vistas we were told to expect…

Before long we stopped at an archaeological site in Hulbuk. Destroyed by the Gengis Khan and his crew, the remnants of this fortified palace have been undergoing excavation since 1951 and recently they have started reconstruction of the palace walls and even a minaret. The real highlight of this stop was the very enthusiastic curator insists on showing us around the museum, letting us hold thousands year old artifacts and showing us the best way to pose for photos with them, feeding us fresh apricots from the trees on the grounds, giving us flowers, and letting me hold the keys to the palace and unlock all the gates and doors (I felt very lucky).

Then an hour or two later- we made it to the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, which as you can see from the map above we would drive along for the next few days alongside the Panj River which was the divider between the two countries.

If you look under the “A” Afghanistan you can see a little NZ flag, clearly we are not the first kiwi travellers here!

We stayed the night in Kalaikhum village in a guesthouse right on the river.

Day Two

The next day we were off again. The road continues along the Afghan border with beautiful views and widens up in the Vanj valley with mountain views along the river, ending that day in Khorog City.

Funny story our friend Christian went off walking when we got here, taking pictures of the Afghan side of the river at the “river beach” he was apprehended by the local military and taken away for a few hours for questioning. He managed to sweet talk his way out of it, apparently he bonded with his captors by lifting weights and doing pull ups. In the end all he got was a slap on the wrist, a ride back to the guest house, and a cold dinner.

Issy, Chris, and Christian under the Tajikistan flag
Chris riding a goat, it was very tame.

Day Three

We visited two Fortresses the next day- one was sitting on the river, and the other a 12th century Yamchun Fortress rising from a platform of natural rock quite high up in the valley, walking to the edge of the fort and you had an amazing view of the Wakhan valley.

Chris doing “the worm” at the first fortress
The second fortress
Taking off, I decided to fly the rest of the way getting a little sick of the boys at this point

Further up the hillside are located the hot springs of Bibi Fatima with its crystal waters rich in minerals. We were told people travel from miles around to go to this “hot spring hospital”. I was expecting pools smelling of sulfur and outdoors like a small Hanmer Springs, however I was surprised to find these beautiful natural pool with green and white mineral formations. Gentle cascades of hot water spilled into the pool and there was no sulfur smell. Men and women are separated into completely different areas/pools, and you must go in naked.

So naked it was! When I went in there were some local women, and a mother with two children. One of the young woman was trying to climb into a little cave and grab some stones…

I took this sneaky photo of the spring, you can see the little cave on the right side

I later learned that this wasn’t your ordinary hot spring, Bibi Fatima springs is the place to go to boost fertility, and to double down after your soak you should go to pray for pregnancy. No wonder that young lady was trying so hard to grab some of the stones.

Day Four

This was taken out the front of our guesthouse that we stayed in

We followed the river Pamir all the way to Kargush checkpoint with the chance to admire the Big Pamir of Afghanistan with nomadic Afghan Kyrgyz caravans. At the Kargush pass we did a 3 hour trek to Panorama Ridge at 4800 meters altitude with stunning mountain scenery of Great Pamir on Afghan border on the top of pass.

Afterwards we took a little side trip to see some more alpine lakes and the boys enjoyed a plate full of fish and onions each from one of the lakes. It was a smelly car ride after lunch.

Day Five

Day 5 was pretty chill, we had a bit of a sleep in and then the boys went for a half hour ride on yaks around a field haha.

Next we headed to Karakul lake with the highest pass Akbaital (4655 m) in Tajikistan.

Chris was not 100% at this altitude
Karakul lake

Day Six

After breakfast we headed to the border crossing to cross into Kyrgyzstan, and headed up to the Lenin Peak Base Camp in the mountains.

We found a sheep called Christian at the border crossing

Once at the base of Lenin peak mountain we walked from our Yurt camp up to explored the mountain area by going up to Traveler’s pass at 4130 meters, it started snowing then hailing then snowing but then it stopped and Chris jumped straight into the snow.

Made it to Lenin peak base camp!!!

Day Seven

Driving to OSH! We were done! It was an amazing week, and we have soooooooooo many photos, wow! 10/10 definitely recommend this trip, it was the ultimate road trip!

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

-Issy’s Book Club

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“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, prejudice, and tradition.

I enjoyed the multi-generation storytelling that Min Jin Lee uses to tell this story (in a similar way to Wild Swans) of an immigrant korean family displaced by war to Japan in the 20th century as they try to make enough to live whilst providing opportunity for their children hoping that they will have a better life.

It is a well told and engaging (though warning: it’s pretty sad most of the way through) novel, the historical context of this book was also interesting and prompted me to read more about Koreans living in Japan in the 20th Century, as well as having to google and watch some youtube videos on what Panchinko is!

Educated by Tara Westover

-Issy’s Book Club

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This book is the definition of a page turner. I have not read many autobiographical books in my life, most often favoring a fiction book, however I find myself leaning more and more into these memoir type novels. Educated shocked me.

Tara Westover’s book is a distressing & discomforting exposure of her upbringing in a Mormon fundamentalist family with a mentally ill, paranoid father. They grew up separated from modern society, Tara not stepping foot into a class room until she was 17 years old as well as struggling to align the doctrine she grew up with with a less conservative society.

I think education is really just a process of self-discovery—of developing a sense of self and what you think. I think of [it] as this great mechanism of connecting and equalizing.” – Tara Westover

Chris and I both read this book and really enjoyed it. It made me reflect on the privileged upbringing that I had and feel a bit guilty about taking my education for granted at times.


The Lost City of Z by David Grann

-Issy’s book club

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An adventure story that grabs your attention and will scare you from ever venturing into the Amazon. The novel is full of suspense and intrigue and lots of historical detail to keep you interested. You won’t want to put it down.

In 1925, Percy Harrison Fawcett, armed with information only he had unearthed, accompanied by his son, his son’s best friend, headed off into the Amazonian wilderness in search of a large, ancient, fabled city, the City of Z (The Amazon’s El Dorado) and disappeared forever. Like many before him the author of this book becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Fawcett and goes in search of the City of Z.

Part historical novel, part biography, part adventure journalism (is that a thing?) this book will ignite a sense of adventure in you!

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

-Issy’s Book Club

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Hello everybody! I have A LOT of free time to read now that we are travelling, with my Kindle getting fuller and fuller each week I thought I would take the time to write a short review about book that I loved, those page turners (and not bother with those I didn’t). I remember when I was working I was always on the lookout for interesting new books, the Whitcoulls top 100 lists can be a little uninspiring, so maybe this can inspire you to try out one of these books- you can tell me what you think too!

When I started reading Wild Swans I was hooked. It’s addictive- it makes you forget about eating and drinking whilst you’re reading it as you get lost in the story, reading quickly to find out what happens next, and when you’re not reading you’re thinking when you might be able to sneak away to get a few chapters in.

It’s a captivating historical novel told as a memoir spanning three generations of strong chinese women in a family- the author’s grandmother, mother, and then autobiographical of her life. These women live during the 20th century China before the Chinese communist party took rule under the boxer rebellion, during its establishment, and life under Mao and the cultural revolution up til the 1989 Tiananmen square incident.

“Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.” 

The book was first published in 1991 and was the top grossing non-fiction paperback in publishing history, it sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. In saying that, I had never heard of it before and reading the book whilst travelling through China, it shocked me and had a major impact in how I experience our time in the country.

Wild Swans is the best book I’ve read this year so far!