To be very frank, the pollution in Astana has driven us, on all previous holidays, to find refuge in the clean air of western Europe or the USA. As we enter our last three months at post, we finally took our first (and last!) vacation within central Asia - Kyrgyzstan (or, as it prefers, the Kyrgyz Republic).
We rented a car and planned to spend several days driving the whole way around Lake Issyl-kul
- a major tourist destination - with just a couple of days of Bishkek at the end. Unfortunately for us, within our first hour on the road we got shaken down by a cop who didn't seem to understand that we were not going to go ahead and offer him a bribe. He told us there would be a fine about 5-6 times, and we kept saying OK, what is the amount - turns out we missed the sign telling us we were entering a town, which requires an automatic drop in speed, so OK we recognize our culpability - and he kept exaggeratedly working on the paperwork for the fine. After 45 miserably hot minutes he finally told us what the amount would be (and he wanted it in dollars, at which I basically pitched a fit and said no way, we have som and will pay in that). The problem is we then felt compelled to stay well below any speed limit for the rest of the time, which put a huge pall on the trip and added hours of car time.
But on to the good stuff. One of the main highlights of a trip around Issyk-kul is the stunning view. The mountains are always there, lower ones green and brown, behind them white tops rising above the clouds. It was a while before I was able to tear my eyes away from the view.
The place where we rented the car also can arrange lodging and our first night I finally checked off the one item on my central Asia bucket list - sleep in a yurt! The town of Kyzyl-Tuu is experiencing a resurgence of the craft of yurt making and the homestay place was essentially the yurt in the back yard of a family's home. They kept some chickens and a couple of cows. The back yard also hosted all the yurt making activity and we got to see the different phases of it, from stripping the bark off lengths of willow, to gently bending the willow poles into the frame and shanyrak, to the painting of each piece.
The yurt where we slept was surprisingly comfortable (the matting on the floor with a thick sheepskin layer was the most comfortable bed of our week). Because it was right outside the home it was hooked up with electricity - a chandelier light overhead and a portable heater to ward off the near-freezing night air. The only downside was the darned neighborhood dogs barked all night, and when they finally silenced around 2:30am the rooster decided it was dawn. It wasn't.
For breakfast there were fresh eggs from the chickens, fresh bread, strawberry, raspberry and apricot preserves, and this delicious thick, creamy, slightly sour dairy spread that I have never tasted before and went wonderfully with the sweet sticky preserves. We had heard rain in the forecast for the day so we wanted to get moving before it hit, and didn't linger long after breakfast.