Visas, Tents and Dehydrating Food
Preparing for adventurous holidays in exotic locations should ideally be done well in advance. One year out you knew the country, six moths months out you knew the activity, and several weeks out you had your gear ready. The last thing on the list was a visa for you travelling companion... which takes three months to get. Bugger.
Turns out that Kyrgyzstan issues visas to everyone but the Chinese and those from PNG. To apply for a visa, such people must apply in person at the embassy, and the closest embassy to Sydney is in Malasia. You found a Kyrgyz trekking company willing to lend a hand right at the last minute, right before holiday-motivated Shu was about to jump on a plane to Turkey. That was close!
The treck was a ten day hike up a glacier, so you bought a new expedition-appropriate tent for three. It cost as much as a small suite in a luxury hotel, but comfort above 4000 meters is pricey. To save weight you planned to take only dehydrated food, all of which you prepared before departure. You cooked and dehydrated meals every night for the two weeks leading up to your departure. It was not exactly a relaxing lead-in to your holiday.
In-flight movies are the saving grace of long flights (excluding business). The problem is staring closely at bright screens gives you a nasty headache. Forgetting this was inconvenient; your lady commented that you were an idiot, as you moaned about aspirin.
You landed in Bishkek at sunrise and entered visa-free Kyrgyzstan. The boarder official was wearing an oversized green hat so humorously large it could almost double as an umbrella. You wondered if Shu — the third adventuring party member — would get in as easily with his HK passport (Kyrgyzstan doesn't like China). Bartering with the taxi drivers at the airport was never going to work after asking for a lift to the Hyatt Hotel (thank you business points). You just accepted the 20€ taxi charge as it stood.
The Soviet-style roads leading into the city were wide and lined with tall trees. You imagined a battalion of tanks in military parade rolling down the road, cheered on by red flag-waving comrades. Said tanks may as well have driven here considering that shattered-state the road was in. Beside the road the misty yet dry landscape spanned far into the distance, almost desert-like in appearance. As you drove towards Bishkek huge mountains came into view. So far everything in Kyrgyzstan had a very large scale.
After passing many monuments, you arrived at the hotel and had a nap. The view over the city was impressive: it was clear and bright all the way to the mountains in the south. Adventuring forth in a t-shirt and thongs seemed like a good plan. Outside was lively with lots of people wandering about and noisy traffic rattling past. Beside the hotel was a huge hall surrounded by gigantic Greek columns where men in Kyrgyz hats were running around. Said hats were not just something for tourists apparently.
You wandered along the main road towards the city centre. Your first stop was into a tiny bakery where the raspberry tarts caught your eye. A smiley, round lady served you and ushered you to a window-side table. Communication was limited to pointing, miming and nodding but your conversation amused her so everyone was happy. Continuing along the road led you past the banking strip, the lighting strip, the clothing strip and several other strips with near-identical businesses all lined up in a row. It was nice to just wander. Everyone looked like Alex.
According to your map the city centre was off to the east — or at least it appeared that way based on the streets' concentric-circle bullseye layout. After a long hike to the middle you founding a slanted telegraph post and a rusty old car. So much for Soviet planning and your interpretation thereof.
Following some leads online — most of which written in Cyrillic, so unreadable — you found the Red Fox camping equipment shop with a sign on the door: ‘we moved’. In a small backstreet you found the adventure shop shop, got gassed-up and were set to go trekking. On the same backstreet was a K.F.C., but not as you know it. King Of Chicken (with the right font and all) was a highly amusing copyright infringement. You tried getting stamps from the post office on the way back, but the don't sell them on Sundays apparently.
That night you visited Victory Square, which had a monument shaped like a yurt with only three supports and a fire burning in the centre. Traditionally, when a person dies in Kyrgyzstan one of the forty poles are removed from the family yurt. The skeletal monument symbolised the huge number of war casualties, but the square was full of life. It is Bishkek tradition for newlywed brides to lay their flowers at the moment. Between the skateboarding kids, chilling teens, drinking friends and chatting oldies, one bride walked up with flowers.
The next day you followed the travel guide (rather than your instincts) through the chain of public parks to Osh Bazaar. Soviet city planning had its benefits: bold architecture and massive public spaces dotted with monuments were beautifully impressive. With so many people outside enjoying the sunny weekend weather, Bishkek had a friendly and pleasant atmosphere, which was in utter opposition to the cliche image of drab, cold Russian-block countries. Neat flower beds filled with blooming red roses, people chatting and smiling everywhere, warm and sunny weather, and no one pestering you to buy souvenirs. Tourism seemed to be a new thing for Bishkek.
Osh Bazaar was a typical market: mini stalls piled high with Chinese plastic crap, shampoo and soap, random metal utensils and rows of colourful dried foods packed on racks. It was interesting, but its only unique aspect were the locals selling kumis from the boot of their cars. No where sold lighter fuel. The search continued. After moving your bags to the Bishkek Boutique Hotel, you went for dinner at Faiza. Good food, whatever it was.
Shu arrived super-early the next morning and napped for a bit. ‘Most expensive nap I've ever had’ he commented, having paid $50 for four hours sleep. You met for breakfast and waited around in the lobby for Evgeniy, your Kyrgyz tour contact, to arrive. Shu wanted to charge his phone but knew the second he did something tedious, like rummaging through his big bad bag, things would get moving. You suggested that Shu try finding his charger and sure enough, less than ten seconds after Shu plugged in his phone, Evgeniy was there.
Crowded around a small table in the lobby with trekking maps spread out, Evgeniy gave you the low down about your trek. His accent was a Kyrgyz-Russian mix with slippery English gramar, but he was easy to understand. He pulled out official-looking boarder permits with official-looking stamps, and then proceeded to explain about the taxi to Karakol, the 4x4 into mountains, officiating papers at the military base and something about a missing bridge. It all sounded totally doable, so you jumped into the chop-shop Audi taxi and off you went.
The taxi navigated the heavy Bishkek traffic and escaped into the desert. Many different vehicles were underway but none one of them were entirely original — everything was a chopped together somehow with questionable roadworthiness. There were lots of 80's cars made of 90s parts, jeeps with truck parts, and the occasional shiny Mercedes which stuck out like a sore thumb.
You had a break after a few hours at a small roadside restaurant, where the menu was only available in Cyrillic (of course). Assuming the word Apna leant towards the latin aqua, you ordered half a liter of something and two plates of something else. It turned out Apna was a brand of beer. Shu turned red.
Seven hours driving along the north short of Issyk Kul dodging potholes, cattle and farming machinery brought you to Karakol. The big adventure begins tomorrow.