Jon and Jude shake a tree
Normally we would have headed south from Bishkek, but we needed to go back to Almaty to pick up our visas. This meant crossing the border back into Kazakhstan and after doing all our jobs we drove straight back the way we came. Our objective was Tash Rabat, and we decided to cross central Kyrgyzstan on minor roads, firstly over the Tor-Ashuu pass with its dodgy tunnel (3,586m), through the Kokomoren River valley, past Lake Song-Kol and over another 2 mountain passes (both 3,000m+), finally crossing the main road to China from where it was only another 20km or so on a small road to Tash Rabat. Got it?!
It turned out to be a great decision to go this way, and not just because it avoided more police checks. The Kokomoren River valley was sensational with its incredible mountains and fast flowing bright blue glacial river. We bumped into a group of hardcore Russian rafters, using catamaran rafts to go down this grade 5-6 river. We had never seen the amount of protective gear they were wearing. We were very jealous.
We then found the perfect campsite at the bottom of a stunning red cliff, right next to the icy cold river, to top off another beautiful day. The next day was a bit colder and windier, and we drove on to lake Song-Kol where semi-nomadic families spend the summer with their cattle on the high-altitude pastures, called ‘jailoo’. Around October they start heading down the valleys to warmer pastures. We stopped at a single yurt with a row of foals attached to a line outside. This is a simple way to ensure the mares don’t stray very far and can be milked. We just happened to drive past as the lady was milking them.
Whilst taking some photos and filming a bit, we were invited back to her yurt. Even though the yurt is used in different countries, there are some subtle differences between for example the Mongolian and the Kyrgyz yurt.
The Kyrgyz yurt doesn’t have a full door, only the bottom half has a solid door and a layer of felt is rolled up or left hanging depending on the need for warmth. It also doesn’t have a full floor, but only about ¾ is covered with sheepskin. The section near the entrance is left barren. This is where the oven / heater is and you also take your shoes off in this area.
The Kyrgyz nomads sleep on this sheepskin, take their meals on it and relax in that area. Also the frame of the yurt is slightly different. The Kyrgyz yurt doesn’t have central support beams. As it is a little smaller and has more roof beams connecting the latticework to the round window in the roof, it can do without the central pillars. The Mongolian roof beams are straight, whereas the Kyrgyz beams have a curve at the end, about 30cm long, which meets the latticework, making the yurt a little taller.
We were given chai, kumiz (fermented mare’s milk – we still hadn’t ‘acquired the taste’ for it) and homemade bread and jam. A treat! We left them with some biscuits and a bag of crisps, the 2 older kids were very happy.
As the weather wasn’t great we didn’t linger around the barren lake for very long, instead deciding to continue driving over the pass into the next valley. The pass down was straight out of Top Gear, zigzagging back and forth down this steep mountain. It was a bit dodgy in a few areas, but we loved it. Again a bag of crisps was opened for us when we reached the higher altitude (straight up from 700m to 3200m), simply exploding under the decreasing pressure. This time the bottom had exploded out of the bag – a bit of a mess as you can imagine.
We finally made it to Tash Rabat at lunch time the next day. We weren’t the only ones there, as a school class of 30 boys were exploring the ancient caravan-serai too. Some spoke very good English so we were bombarded with questions whilst looking around. The historians aren’t sure if it was a caravan-serai, a fort or a monastery, but it was beautiful and unique and we enjoyed wandering through all its many rooms.
We then faced about 80km back on the same track back before we could turn west towards our next destination: Arslanbob – the world’s biggest walnut forest. To get there we had to cross the Kaldamo Pass, yet another high mountain pass. This time it started to snow a long way before we reached the top, and soon the rocky and narrow track became a pretty scary affair.
When we finally reached the top at 2985m, we were driving through 15cm of fresh snow and we had to rescue quite a few locals who were driving their small trucks and 2WDs. After pushing several cars out and even getting the shovel out for one who had managed to get himself seriously bogged, we very, very slowly continued through the snow with some apples, given to us by locals as our reward. It was a bit hairy at times, but Lara managed the snow and slipperiness like a pro.
As soon as we reached the valley below (in the sunshine) we found a field to camp. This time a sheepherder and his son came over for a ‘chat’. They gave us a freshly baked loaf of bread for our dinner, it tasted delicious.
We were now in a completely different Kyrgyzstan, one with a lot more people, villages and fruit and vegetables for sale everywhere along the roads. They were also drying plumbs after kids had pitted them. When we went for a look (we couldn’t work out what they were from the car) we were given a kilo of the best plumbs ever. Yet again when we tried to pay for them, the money was refused. Instead she added another couple of handfuls of plumbs to our bag…
In Arslanbob we hired a guide to show us around. Almaz told us everything about his village, the walnuts and his future plans. The harvest was about to start and some people had already moved to the forest, with animals and everything, to camp the coming 2 months in amongst their patch of walnut trees. On the 2 of October, everybody would start the harvest. Climbing trees and shaking each branch so the nuts would fall out. This is pretty dangerous as the trees are big and vigorous shaking can cause branches to break. Every year people are injured during harvest time, sometimes even fatal!
We were there as the first skins were bursting and managed to find some nuts, even climbed one tree to shake it (not much came out yet, but it was fun nonetheless). We ended up buying some walnuts from last year’s harvest – great for in our salads – and our guide also had a bottle of honey for sale we couldn’t resist.
Stocked up with goodies we camped by the river that night, very cold, but with amazing views of the freshly powdered mountains. Yes, we definitely loved Kyrgyzstan!