“Welcome to Kazakhstan!” Those were the first words I heard in Central Asia – spoken with a big smile at passport control in Almaty airport, just seconds before midnight on the last day of June.
Central Asia, what made me choose such an odd destination, you ask? Well, this blog is about the world’s curious places, after all. If you’re interested in the ‘stans – and want to know if a small group tour might be for you, read on for a review of this journey with G Adventures.
I don’t often travel with groups; the only other I’ve taken in recent years was to North Korea. Normally, it’s just me and the kids – or just me. Nothing against group travel, you understand, nothing at all – it just hasn’t been my mode. But the idea is growing on me. As it turned out, 6 days on my own and 9 days with the group was an excellent mix of freely exploring Kazakhstan’s former capital, and having fun with newfound friends.
On to the G Adventure:
Day 1 – Almaty
17 of us meet on the third floor of Otram hotel in Almaty one early evening: 16 travellers and Guli, our friendly young CEO (Chief Experience Officer, G-speak for guide). Guli takes us through the journey ahead, and how it all works. It appears I’m the only G first-timer. That’s promising.
I’m curious about my fellow travellers, of course. Amongst us, we represent 10 countries: Australia, Austria, New Zealand, Norway, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA and Uzbekistan. After the introductions, we go for dinner together. Horse meat features heavily on the menu. I’m vegetarian for the duration, and so are three others. Fortunately there are several options even for us eccentrics.
Day 2 – Almaty
Auezov Theatre metro station in Almaty
The next day begins with a tour of Almaty – which I skip, having wandered about the city for several days now. The afternoon is on your own, which means work for me. As the electrical outlets in my room aren’t co-operating, I’m writing in the lobby. People come in and out, some sit down to chat, and I get to know some of my travel comrades individually. About half the group spontaneously pop around the corner for dinner later on.
Day 3 – Charyn Canyon and crossing the border
View over Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan
Early next morning we’re split into two busses, eight in each. I’ve my own room, as do two others. The rest are sharing, either with their travel mate or with a stranger. G pairs up strangers, and then ensures these random room mates are put on different busses, so they’re not together all the time. Probably a clever move.
I’m in bus no. 2, which has an excellent mix of personalities on board. We discuss Brexit (with both leavers and remainers on the bus) fox hunting (both sides represented on this issue, as well), the Israel/Palestine question, and much more. All very interesting; everyone is respectful – and interested to hear the views of the other side. Bus no. 2 should probably rule the world.
Pausing to purchase food for lunch along the way, our first proper stop is Charyn Canyon, about 200 km east of Almaty and very close to the Chinese border. It’s a vast valley, about 90 km long, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. We’re in the area known as Dolna Zamkov – Valley of Castles – and wander the 3 kilometres to the bottom of the gorge, where we picnic by the Charyn River.
Valley of Castles, Charyn Canyon
Our Serbian traveller has bought a bottle of kumis, fermented mare’s milk. It’s nutritious, full of energy and vitamins, and the drink of choice for Genghis Khan and his ilk. I try a little, and conclude it’s like Vegemite for anyone who isn’t Aussie, or grape soda for anyone who isn’t American, or salt liquorice for anyone who isn’t Scandinavian; an acquired taste. Think acidic, pungent, alcoholic milk: foamy, fizzy; a yeasty flavour with just a hint of rotting apples. Of course you’ll try it. That’s part of travelling! (You could argue that for horse meat as well, I see that. I suppose I’ve just known too many horses in my life…)
The hike back up the valley is a bit more challenging in the blistering sunshine, with hardly a spot of shade along the way. And as this is the height of summer, there are mozzies. Thousands. Fortunately, repellant does the trick. For most of us.
Border-crossing in the middle of nowhere
Crossing the border to Kyrgyzstan is quick and straightforward. Driving along the highway (and not just any highway, but the fabled Silk Route!) we come to the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border crossing at Kegen-Karkira, essentially in the middle of nowhere. Queuing to exit Kazakhstan, two guards examine our passports. ‘Anna-Sophia?’, mine asks while deciphering an alphabet that isn’t his. Big grin on his face. ‘Norvegija?’. ‘Yes.’
That’s it. A minute at most. And good thing, too. It’s freezing, with clothes kept to the minimum from the Charyn Valley scorchio. Shivering all around.
Entering Kyrgyzstan takes a little longer. For me, that is. But not much, perhaps three minutes. My passport gets a thorough going through, page by page. Not that there’s much to see. I’ve only had it a few weeks and the only stamp is Kazakhstan. The Brits behind me only warrant a cursory glance. A more familiar passport, I expect.
Then we’re off. Continuing along the Silk Road, we pass picturesque icy green lakes with the jagged peaks of the Tian Shan mountains towering on the horizon. Then onwards to Karakol, where we stop for dinner before reaching our guest house for the night (which feels more like a small hotel).
Day 4 – Przhevalsky, a timber cathedral and Issyk-Kul
View over Karakol and Issyk-Kul
Our first morning in Kyrgyzstan begins with a visit to a museum dedicated to Nikolai Przhewalsky, a 19th century explorer and scientist, a Russian Marco Polo, whom, I’m ashamed to say, I have never heard of. The name does ring a bell, though – and all becomes clear when I spot a model of a Przhewalsky’s horse, a rare, endangered wild horse I’ve seen in a few wildlife parks.
Przhevalsky’s main goal was to reach Lhasa. Sadly, he never did, despite several attempts. (Sadly, I probably can’t either, my fellow Norwegian reminds me. Norway and China has had a complicated relationship ever since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo in 2010.)
Przhevalsky is buried here at the memorial in Karakol. Behind his grave, we slip through a hole in a fence for panoramic views of Karakol village below – narrow streets, gingerbread houses, horses grazing – and Lake Issyk-Kul in the distance.
Afterwards, we have a look at the pretty Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral, all solid timber…
…and then set out for Kizil Tuu for a yurt-making workshop. But first, a stop at the legendary Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s most famous, well, anything: the lake that never freezes, the world’s second biggest high-altitude lake, and a favourite holiday spot during Soviet times. Bright sunlight on the beach, and I have been lazy with the sun cream. So begins a proper sunburn.
At Kizil Tuu, we try our hands at yurt-making. It looks deceptively easy. For a professional, a yurt normally takes 3 hours to set up. A bit longer to make from scratch: 15 days to dry the wood and 15 days for painting and decorating.
Yurt-making workshop in Kizil Tuu
We spend the night at a CBT (community-based tourism) homestay in Kochkor. For some reason, I had envisaged the group being spread out with several families (I might not have been paying attention when Guli explained this bit.) But we’re all staying in Mila’s home. The homestay has 10 rooms/20 beds, and feels more like a guest house. Mila and her family are lovely, serving us meals and being available for whatever we need, but not intrusive. A precocious little girl of 4 is a particular delight.
Day 5 – Going up the mountain, and celebrating a birthday
Next morning, a few of us wander about and discover this quirky, derelict Soviet track field just up the road from the homestay. Not ideal running conditions nowadays perhaps, but look at the backdrop!
Track field in Kochkor
Kochkor is essentially a gateway to the mountains, but the town has a few things to offer in its own right. We stop at the food bazar (and not for the last time). If you’re there, look out for the delicious bread made in stone ovens (similar to the Caucasus bread); get it while it’s hot!
We have a look at a woman’s handicraft cooperative, where we learn the ins and outs of felt-making, and create our own communal masterpiece…
…before heading up in the mountains to Ozero Sonkël’ – Songkul Lake – where we’ll stay two nights in yurts. We drive along ridges and stop to play along the way. Here and there are patches of snow. Behind us, the Tien-Shan mountains loom 7000 metres high.
On the way to Songkul Lake
About 10 family-run camps are spread out on the jailoo (grassy meadow) along the lakeside, each with 5-6 yurts. The yurt-owners are mostly Kochkor farmers – and mostly women – that move up here for the summer to graze their flocks as the Kyrgyz have done for centuries.
I adore the wide expanses up here. You just can’t help but want to run. And I do. For about 10 seconds. Until my heart is about to jump through my chest. A reminder I’m 3200 metres above sea level, and not acclimatised.
Yurt camps along Songkul Lake
We’re staying with Rahima and her family, and are very well taken care of. Meals in the yurt camp are substantial, a feast every time. For breakfast, there’s porridge, bread, honey, jams, pancakes and tea, lots of it. And large bowls of sweets. Lunch and dinner is always soup (lentil sup is quickly becoming a favourite), salad and a mains – either meat or fish from the lake just outside. The vegetarians amongst us are well catered for, too.
Spread out in 4 yurts, we settle in, then celebrate the birthday of two in our group, who happen to be the nicest Brits ever. They’re given presents from the guides and travel companions: Bishkek cognac, Kyrgyz hats, assorted sweets. The party lingers on, in a toasty warm yurt and outside in the cold, clear night with thousands of stars above.
Day 6 – horse riding!
On our full day at the camp, we’re given the option to ride horses. I haven’t been on a horse in 20 years, and although I’m around horses quite frequently (my 14-year-old daughter is a keen rider), I’m not confident in my skills. But no worries: at first, most ride tied together. We’re meant to turn back after half an hour or so, but some of us are enjoying it so much, we untie and continue on across the wide open landscape, along rugged ridges, up and down hills, and back to the lake the long way round. Three hours we’re in the saddle.
Horses don’t have names here. Rather sad, I think. A few of us try to remedy that, so there’s now a Vladimir and an Anastasia roaming around Kyrgyzstan’s craggy mountains. Anastasia, as it turns out, is a male. (A bit difficult to spot the details from the saddle, you know…)
I feel quite connected to my horse. When we finally return, I’m reluctant to give
her him up. My legs are ready, though. Also, I’ve gotten quite the burn and sun-chapped lips (unprepared again). Thankfully, fellow travellers are prepared to share sun cream and lip balm.
The morning has been enchanting, and easily my favourite experience of the entire journey. That seems to be the consensus as well. But the riding was invigorating, so after lunch, it’s time for a walk. along the unpaved paths: a 6-kilometre walk, according to an aqua FitBit. On the way, we pass abandoned buildings that look interesting. They’re mostly used by the free-roaming farm animals, so I’ll spare you photos from the inside.
In the late afternoon, our Aussie, a prison psychologist and yoga instructor, shows us a few stretches, good after the hours in the saddle. I now aspire to be as limber as she is.
As evening approaches, Kyrgyz men engage in the nomadic game of kok-buru on the lake shore, sometimes dangerously close to the yurts. Kok-buru (also known as Buzkashi) is the national sport. Here’s how it goes:
Two teams with about 10 men each participate. Formal rules require the field to be 200 x 80 metres, with two large goals (called kazan) on either sides of the field. A dead goat is thrown into the middle and the fight is on. Each time a goat is placed in a kazan it’s goal! In essence, it’s polo with a carcass.
Less formal rules seem to apply here at the lake, regarding everything: the number of participants seem to be closer to 100 (they’re not, of course, it’s just that’s they’re so eerily close…), the field is whatever’s available, and the kazan might as well be ‘that guy over there.’ Spectators (including kids) follow along eagerly, but must be prepared to run as fast as they can when the game suddenly takes a turn in their direction. The winner takes… the goat.
Kok-buru: playing polo with a goat carcass
Most seem to sleep very well up here. I don’t really, but through no fault of anyone or anything but my own preoccupations. I’m woken frequently during the night by donkeys braying, horses running, dogs barking. Too restless to sleep, I get up and wander along the lake, just me and the waxing moon, staying close to the camp, just in case. Rumour has it, wolves roam these parts. I never see – or hear – any.
Day 7 – coming down the mountain
On the last morning, just outside the yurt, herds of horses wander along the lake in the early morning mist. It’s the perfect farewell to a magical place.
Horses roaming along Songkul Lake
I’m not entirely ready to leave, but there it is. Today, we’re going back down to Kochkor, then to Chong-Kemin, where we stay at yet another CBT homestay. Again, it’s really a guest house, with very comfortable rooms. In the afternoon, it’s time for a hefty (entirely voluntary) uphill trek, strenuous in the heat. Good way to lose a kilo or two, then promptly regain it after dinner and drinks on the homestay terrace.
Day 8 – Burana Tower and Bishkek
On the way to Bishkek, we stop along the way to have a look at Burana Tower, a 25-metre tall minaret (reduced from nearly twice the height by several earthquakes through the centuries). The minaret, and a field of petroglyphs nearby, is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun. Burana Tower is one of 33 sites along the UNESCO-listed Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor.
After a picnic lunch by the tower, we begin the final leg of the journey – to Bishkek. Our afternoon sightseeing in the city includes Soviet chic architecture, wide avenues, leafy green parks, a TSUM shopping centre, and statues galore, including Lenin, of course – though he has been moved to a less prominent place, to be replaced by local hero Manas, the namesake of Bishkek Airport and an epic poem with half a million lines!
I’m pleasantly surprised by the Kyrgyz capital; I think I could like it as much as I liked Almaty, given a few more days.
There’s a farewell dinner at night. Bishkek is the end station for about a third of us. The rest is flying on to Dushanbe the following morning, to continue their adventure in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
I have another day in the city. Luckily for me, my fave Brits are staying on as well, so the three of us hit Bishkek’s night life, i.e. Metro Pub, an atmospheric high-ceilinged bar, located in a former theatre, and always open! It’s relatively quiet on a Tuesday night. Returning to the hotel, we spot a large poster of Angela Merkel, but think no more of it…
Day 9 – Bishkek, post G adventure
Ala-Too Square, Bishkek
I spend much of my last day in Bishkek catching up on much needed work at Sierra Coffee on Manas Street, being very efficient n’all. I then wander around, getting a (little) feel for the city. Dinner is at the aptly named Obama Bar & Grill; a suitable end to all our political discussions. More night life, including a return to smoky, dark Metro, which is a bit busier on a Wednesday. We stay until it’s time for me to go to the airport at 3.30 am. Could you ask for better travelling mates? I don’t think so.
And Angela? She was in Bishkek at the same time. Shame we didn’t bump into her. We would have had a few ideas to share.
Thoughts and conclusions
Now, long after, I especially remember Songkul Lake and ask myself what the magic was all about. Well, normally, I’d want to tell the world I was in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. It’s that cool! You can’t wait until you get home to tell everyone about it; you want to do it here and now. Instant gratification! Also, you want to see how (and where) your friends are, maybe check the weather at home, wish someone a happy birthday, perhaps text friends about grabbing a beer next week. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Physically you’re in one place, mentally you’re in the great, digital
But not here: Lack of 4G, 3G, even mobile coverage meant I could just be there! Enjoy the experience of the moment: waking up in a yurt, a spontaneous three-hour horse ride, high altitude walks, wandering along the lake in the early hours, watching horses meander along the mountain-framed water, having tea alfresco on a rug thrown casually on the grass, getting to know people without the usual distractions, making friends. Just being there. Nothing else.
Central Asia, is it for you?
Central Asia is a fascinating region, unlike anywhere else. I recommend it without hesitation, especially if you have a curious disposition. Just go! Plans to see more of these unique countries are brewing here.
Almaty’s Green Market
Should you choose a group tour?
I normally advocate independent travel, mostly because that’s what I know best. And independent travellers have a tendency to think of tours as the very antithesis. You can easily visit the two countries independently. Both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan offer visa-free stays to citizens of a number of countries. Accommodation is cheap and easy to find, so is transport.
But independent travel also means a good bit of planning. I’m really more of a ‘forget the guidebook and let’s see what happens’-type, which isn’t always the best solution when you’re short on time and don’t want to waste any. Having the practical things organised for you sometimes makes sense. Tours have local guides adding invaluable knowledge, often showing you places you wouldn’t otherwise see. Furthermore, if safety is a concern for you, a tour will ease any fears you might have, as there will be guides to help you (and new travel mates to comfort you) if you get into trouble. Finally, in some parts of the world group travel is the only option.
All that said, what I appreciated most (to my surprise), was my fellow travellers: people to talk and laugh (and occasionally moan) with. I really enjoyed sharing the experience with this group of interesting – and interested – people, all drawn to this quirky part of the world, to the unusual journeys.
And G Adventures? Based on this Central Asian adventure, I’d choose G again, and wouldn’t hesitate recommending it to you.
What’s your take? Independent or group travel – or both?
Disclosure: On this tour, I paid a reduced rate for review purposes. As ever, editorial control remains mine, all mine. Mwahahaha! (Also, this would be meaningless otherwise.)
Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are more World Heritage sites around the world.