Silk Road, Kyrgyzstan 2009

© Leslie Ann Williams, 2008

Silk Road May-June 2009


        165 miles from Kashgar is the Torugart Pass (almost 13,000 feet above sea level), famous for Silk Road caravans and marauders like Genghis Khan, and one of the most difficult (described as “unpredictable” in guide books) border crossings.  Only open from 11 to 2 Beijing time, Monday through Friday, unless it’s a holiday or snowing or raining or if short-staffed and it was lunch or break time or team building.  After two hours of waiting after the door officially opened, 20 or so tourists submissively passed through to Kyrgyzstan.  I met our guide, Artem, and saw the miles of semis and mega trucks waiting on the Kyrgyzstan side for admittance into China on a road that was barely wide enough for the trucks, let alone space for our little bus to get by.  Intrepidly we boarded and collectively held our breath as some of the semis made an attempt to move closer to the mountain while I sat on the side of the abyss to see how close our wheels came to the edge—no fence, not even a few big boulders.  Since no one wants American tourists to die on his watch, I had little fear and excitedly bounced in my seat as a few rocks tumbled down the cliff as I announced, “Wow, look how deep that gorge is,” endearing myself to my fearful bus companions.

        Although I am glad to have seen and gone through the Torugart Pass, it’s a l-o-n-g rugged ride over barely graded dirt roads pitted and gutted from heavy trucks moving raw materials from Kyrgyzstan to China for manufacturing and back again with the finished goods.  The mountain scenery was stunning and next time I would prefer to view it from a plane that had a toilet in the aft section.  We passed by Chatyr-kul, a lake that was still frozen in the warm May sunshine, that Artem assured me would melt for summer fun in July even though this area gets below 50 Celsius (-122 F) in winter, temperature beyond my ken.

        Kyrgyzstan multiple checkpoints each with its contingent of surly bureaucrats (it was the Bolsheviks, after all, who brought the region into the “modern” world in the 1920’s, installing a unified government and building infrastructure to exploit the natural resources). The multiple checkpoints are an attempt to curb graft and bribes, which, frankly, I would have paid to avoid the annoyance of driving, stopping, waiting.

        About the size of Wisconsin, dominated by the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains), Pamir and Alai mountain ranges with 6,500 glaciers, Kyrgyzstan, called the Switzerland of Central Asia or the “Land of Treasure, Wonder and Mystic Awe” by its Chamber of Commerce, greets you with stunning lake and mountain spectacles at every turn.  I spent several days on the shores of Lake Issyk-kul (meaning “warm lake”), which does not freeze in the winter because of its saline content and sits at the base of the Tian Shan.  Although Issyk-Kul is fed by 85 rivers of mountain snow melt with no rivers running from it, the increased saline content comes from the massive evaporation that takes place throughout the summer.  Issyk-kul is the second highest lake, 1,600 meters (over 5,200 feet) above sea level (after Titicaca in Bolivia), 177 kilometers (109 miles) long, 60 kilometers (37 miles) wide and 702 meters (2,300 feet) deep with twice the cubic capacity of the Aral Sea, but it’s the deep azure and turquoise clarity with the surrounding snow-crested ridges (Han Tengri 7,010 meters [23,000 feet], Pobeda Peak 7,439 meters [24,400]) that’s dazzling.  The cruise on the lake was a relaxing afternoon respite; boon companions and I had learned to always have a bottle of local wine on hand to taste at these opportunities.  I did stick my toes in Issyk-Kul one morning while strolling about the grounds looking for the elusive cuckoo that I could hear, but never see, and watched while a hearty group of hefty German women went for a morning swim.  It may be a warm lake, but not heated enough for this delicate flower.

        Land of Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Stalin is 90% mountains and the least populated of the Central Asian Stans, it’s the staggering views of heart-breaking beauty—lofty, ice-crested peaks blending with velvet green rolling hills and plains of purple, yellow and red wild flowers with herds of horses, sheep, goat, and yak grazing, wandering, running with men in their traditional dress tending their charges, and ancient 2,000 BCE petroglyphs and balbals that make Kyrgyzstan worth visiting.  Their paper money immortalizes historic singers and poets, not dead white political guys.  Many of the “healthful” hot springs have 15-minute limitations because of the “natural” radiation in the water.  A rich Saudi visiting Kyrgyzstan thought it appalling that a predominantly Muslim country didn’t have many mosques, so he had one built in the very plain Saudi style, many with pressed tin domes, in every burg and village.  The Kyrgyz describe themselves as “mild” Muslims—don’t pray 5 times a day, nor wear repressive dress; they just believe in Allah and being a good person.  Sounded sensible and Zoroastrian to me.

        Kyrgyzstan is gearing up for tourism.  Health spas with non-radiation hot springs are developing around the lakes like tribbles on the Enterprise.  The hikers, trekkers, horseback riders, and bikers are making a bee-line to be the first in the pristine wilderness to sleep under the Milky Way or in a nomadic yurt.  Until the yurts become like the African “tents,” with toilets, hot showers and morning mocha brought to my door, I’ll be staying at the health spas having massages while others enjoy the game kok boru where young men on horseback playing a kind of polo with the corpse of a headless goat—they grab it with their hands—yuk and revel in sleeping on hard dirt under pristine skies. 

The trained eagle demonstration I thoroughly enjoyed; way better than Raptor Flight at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson.  To be able to pet a Golden Eagle and even hold her on my arm was amazing.  Her trainer took the eagle about ½ mile away in the hills from where we gathered and his assistant let a little black and white rabbit loose.  I got my camera ready to capture the female eagle nailing the bunny, which she did with a screech, then using her wings protected the half-dead bunny until her trainer came.  The male eagle was confounded by a gray bunny, that when let loose ran right toward me.  Quite harrowing to have a full-grown eagle flying right toward me as the bunny headed for my feet.  Fortunately the eagle turned away; I learned he was trained not to attack people, only deer, small rams, and bunnies.  After the eagle made two unsuccessful attempts, the group gave the thumbs up for the wily bunny, who knew to huddle at the foot of a tourist, and let him live.

        The city of Karakol at one of end of Issyk-Ku reflected the Soviet influence with a wood Russian Orthodox Church and old Russian gingerbread buildings.  In the Karakol Valley National Park I hiked along a river path, relishing the outdoors.  Visited a Chinese Mosque (whoda thunk?)—a mosque completed without the use of nails in 1910 by a Chinese architect, closed for ten years by the Bolsheviks, now again a place of worship for the Dungan (Hui Chinese Muslims) community.  For the suggestion box: they need to work on the pigeon poop problem as it detracts from the antique ambience and quiet spiritualism.  Another park of balbals (Turkic totem-like rounded stone statues which I need for my yard art collection) and petroglyphs for me, the Burano Tower for those who hadn’t already had enough of old Islamic architecture.  In Kochkor we stopped at Altyn Kol, a local women’s cooperative with beautiful woven rugs, pillows, fabric and felt products—slippers, belts, hats, decorative tchotchke.  Since it was a women’s cooperative I exhorted everyone to buy more (happily Artem said our little group bought 5 times as much as larger groups).  The ladies had a good day.  Having had a felt-making demonstration, I appreciated the back-breaking work that went into making felt rugs, let alone a whole yurt.  Creating intricate patterns and designs with recalcitrant handfuls of wool still mystifies me.  My hands turn red just thinking of handling the hot wool and scalding water.

© Leslie Ann Williams, 2008