Тамга and Cка́зка Canyon
Following your harrowing helicopter evacuation from Inylchek Glacier, sleeping in a soft bed with a fluffy pillow was a huge comfort. It was a relief to stop feeling like a sausage: stuck in a sleeping bag. As comfortable as it was, your feet still touched the end of the bed. Are big beds such a novelty?
We set our alarm for 8 am but, out of habit, couldn't sleep past 7 am. Shu still didn't believe he was off the glacier: ‘I'm going to wake up in Base Camp any moment now’. Nothing would be done in a hurry today... appart from perhaps breakfast. Everyone had lost weight during the trek, so you hurried down for breakfast with Switzerland (they were at the Guesthouse too by some amazing coincidence) and ate everything that wasn't nailed down.
Tamga Guesthouse was a chill place run by a friendly mountaineering couple. Inside their bright blue fence were a few buildings full of bedrooms, and a huge garden of fruit trees and flowers out the back. The palace had an organic feel to it — a bit messy but in a natrual way. The hostess was super-kind: she went out of her way to be helpful and ended every conversation with ‘you're welcome’, no matter the context.
After breakfast you went for a walk towards the lake, where you found a fighter jet propped up on a hill. According to the travel guide, Tamga was used by Russian cosmonauts as a Sanatorium where Yuri Gagarin prepared for the first cosmic flight ever (acc. Wikipedia). Behind the jet monument (which was an actual jet by the way) were some runis strewn with garbage — nothing spectacular to behold.
Below in the bay people were out swimming, sunbathing and fishing in the sunny weather. A pair of old ladies stood upright, eyes closed facing towards the sun — it wasn't clear if they were trying to tan their wrinkles or if they were following the sunshine diet. Three old blokes in their rubber boats floated about the bay with fishing lines hung over the side — they didn't seem especially focused and one looked to be asleep. Walking along the pebbly beach did wonders for your blistered feet.
Your next mission was to stock up on snacks. The village had two shops located on opposite sides of the road, with near-identical supplies — fishing lines, motor oil, chocolate bars, bottles of vodka, etc. — with about half the stock being alcohol (only a minor exaggeration). Their cache of biscuits was behind the counter, displayed in big open boxes. Placing your order was done by pointing and counting with fingers and payment was communicated with the help of a calculator — easy enough. On the way back you met drunk-as-fuck guy who was a bit too touchy-feely for your liking.
Today's big plan was to visit Skazka Canyon (Fairytale Canyon) — this area's major tourist attraction. The lady from the guesthouse explained how to get there by public bus (‘you're welcome’) which seemed like an adventure in itself. In the end it wasn't too tricky: you waited at the bus stop below the fighter jet monument for half an hour and took the second van that came along (the first was too full). The driver didn't understand why you kept saying ‘fairytale, fairytale’ (Skazka, Skazka) but a passenger picked up on what you meant. Payment was an utterly arbitrary number of Som.
From the turn-off, you walked a short distance up a dirt road to the toll gate (150 Som) and another two kilometers up all the wrong paths to the canyon. The sun was blazing and you had stupidly forgotten to bring a hat. Your extra short haircut, while convenient for trekking, was no good as sun protection so you refashioned your day-pack into a headwear of sorts.
Skazka Canyon was a series of eroded landforms stretching out in all directions: pretty, colourful and full of tourists. The tall rock formations looked like medieval castles, which you could climb all over. Meike did a handstand atop the tallest point, you wandered about for a while, then headed back. It was worth the walk.
Beside the road were many flowering desert trees with lots of big bumble bees buzzing about. There were also things that looked like hummingbirds which piqued Shu's interest. He went into nature photography mode and whipped out his monster lens (70-200 mm 2.8 IS II + 2x extender) then ran around like a maniac trying to get a stable shot. The hummingbird thingies were so erratic and fast that Shu actually ran out of breath (he was holding it for stability) — amusing. These kind of non-planned adventures are the best kind.
Back at the guesthouse the lady had already hung up your washing for you (‘you're welcome’). Later at dinner you ran into some old lads from NZ (who didn't seem all that worldly) and some more Swiss friends who recognised you from skitouring and playing Ligretto in Spitzmeilen Hütte. What are the chances of that?!
Come Monday morning that night's accomodation was still yet to be arranged. The travelguide listed some options in Bokonbayevo, so you picked one at random and gave it a try. Clara of Clara's Guesthouse answered the phone; she didn't speak a word of English, but as luck would have it a friendly Spanish guest was standing near her at the time. The Spanish bloke took the phone and helped you communicate ‘one night, three people’ to Clara with hand gestures — whatever works!
The Tamga lady seemed a little flustered when you asked about a taxi — she couldn't comprehend why someone would pay more than 50 Som (a few cents) for a cramped public bus ride. While waiting she chatted about some of her mountain adventures. She had apparently almost made it up Kan Tengri, but turned back as someone had fallen ill. Impressive.
Thirty minutes of driving along the lake later, you arrived in Bokonbajevo and couldn't find Clara's Guesthouse. Asking locals didn't bring immediate results, but our driver eventually found it. You piled out with your now significantly lighter bags and met the lady of the house. She spoke little to no English, but understood your sleepy-head-on-pillow and eating-with-spoon pantomime to mean ‘one night with a meal please’.
The guesthouse seemed the kinda place you'd stay when travelling through, rather than holidaying. Your room was decorated with a massive rug hung up on the wall, several smaller rugs covering the floor and had three beds decked with pink blankets. It felt like you had wandered into someone's bedroom rather than a B&B. If only the beds had been different sizes it would have been a scene from goldilocks.
You three buggered off into town with a river crossing! (over a drainage ditch) along the way to the main strip. It was much bigger than Tamga and had a CBT (community based travel) office, where you asked about local activities. The young bloke running it was energetic and helped you book a horse-trip while stumbling for words and making exaggerated droopy-head motions every time he couldn't quite finish a sentence.
In search of food you followed your nose to a small kitchen. Pointing at some pictures and Kyrgyz words (written in Crylic) on the menu gave the desired response: the lady dished out some tasty meaty-pastry thingies. Shu had to collect his meat skewers elsewhere, and in the mean time two Kyrgyz gentleman joined your table with some food and a big plastic bottle of beer. They were very interested to chat to you about all manor of topics — ‘how old are you?’, ‘where are you from?’, ‘do you like Kyrgyzstan?’ — all of which was communicated by hand gestures and less than ten English words, all the while offering you beer and food from their own lunch. Kyrgyz people were becoming evermore friendly with each encounter, it was almost embarrassing.
Wandering about the town was interesting. There was a wrestling competition in a sports field to watch (Shu went into sports photography mode) and lots of school kids in very neat uniforms (street-photography mode). On the way back you picked up a huge watermelon and devoured half of it in Clara's driveway. That night she served up a huge pile of lamb and potatoes. It was the best tasting dish you had eaten in recent memory. Her shower with ‘fancy settings’ was nice and hot, and had enough pressure to remove the last of the trekking dirt. The combination of good food and a good shower were what you had been dreaming of since coming off the glacier. So impressed.
Таштар-Ата by horse
The CBT people picked you up from Clara's Guesthouse, drove via the office where an eagle-man was waiting, and then dropped you a short distance somewhere up the road near two horses. The horse-man trotted up, introduced himself and then rode off again to round up another horse — most likely going house to house asking if anyone could spare one (community based travel worked like that). You saddled-up and learnt the most basic of horse riding techniques: chuu! (Kyrgyz for giggy-up) — ghrr! (Kyrgyz for wooah) — and whack! (with a stick on the bum). Under the scorching hot sun, the four of you (and a dog) trotted off up the dirt road leading out of town towards the hills.
Riding a horse was surprisingly painful. The saddle was rock hard and your stirrups put your knees into an awkward position — neither a problem in themselves, but after dismounting it left you stiff and sore. Everyone's horse took life at a leisurely pace, paying very little attention to chuu!, ghrr! or any other command anyone but the horseman gave. Shu's hungry horse stopped to munch grass every time he came close enough to get away with it; this led to some horrendous horse farts.
Atop a small grassy knoll beside a crystal-clear stream the horseman laid out a picnic. Since he didn't speak English the conversation was very limited (basically non-existent) but he was a smiley bloke who seemed nice. In fact, it felt better that way: CBT outings were run by locals and so this was as close as you could get to a real Kyrgyz experience.
The horses maintained their slow, uninterested pace all afternoon. You went up a steep hill and along a narrow trail while eagles circled above. The horse-man's dog was still running around, despite the heat and lack of food — he must have been solar powered. At the top you could see all the way back into Bokonbajevo and out to the lake. You took the descent by foot, trying to lead the horses by the reins but it was clear your horse was having non of it, and flatly refused to move. The horse-man took over two extra horses, but Shu kept his — he really wanted a horse selfie.
At the bottom where the path became easy again you mounted your horse and rode the last part to the small yurt camp. Five yurts were set up on a wide, sloping field covered by short, neat grass and horse poo. The yurt camp was actually a family farm with sheep and horses and, of course, they only spoke Kyrgyz. Inside the main family yurt there was a wood fire stove, a low table and the floor was covered in colourful felt blankets. You went inside for tea served in small bowls, and had some bread with cream while Shu photographed the grandmother. Their homemade kumis wasn't entirely disgusting.
The evening was spent sitting on the grass relaxing while watching the horses wander about and small mole-rat things popping in and out of their holes. At one point the father arrived in his old Audi with supplies from town and then set about rounding up the horses on his disproportionally small mule. Sleeping that night in the yurt using Kyrgyz sleeping bags (a.k.a. blanket folded in half) was cold.
The next day you set off across the wide field to the opposite mountain towards the lake. The horses laboured up the slope and along the narrow paths, while you defended yourself from overhanging branches. The top had such a nice view and good weather that Shu decided it was time to pose on a horse topless which, according to Alex, was the best way to get a Kyrgyz/Kazak girl. The horseman humored him but Shu's horse wasn't being especially cooperative: he just wanted to eat.
Heading back into town was slow and hot, and the road seemed to drag on forever until the horseman drove all the horses into a gallop. For those unaccustomed with horse riding, there are several stages of discomfort: walking is wobbly and bobbles your back, trotting is terrible and shunts your spine, while galloping is great and generally glides but you have to hold on. The galloping part lasted a few hundred meters, during which Meike's bag opened and things went flying. It was fun but you were happy to dismount in the end. Knees were sore.
Back in Bokonbajevo you got some grub and spend the afternoon recovering in bed at Clara's. The guesthouse was a calm place to sip tea, read and finish off the second half of the watermelon. So much tasty watermelon.