The moment I flew out of Korea, even when I was waiting at the last gate of Incheon International Airport (gate number 135-and I was late. I’ve never run so fast in my life) I completely abandoned everything that I was and tried my best to start fresh. It didn’t really work, but I tried. All I knew was that I was in a completely different landscape and that’s what I was looking for. If my eyes saw completely different things then maybe I would have completely different luck. So far, I’m just seeing different things.
As I moved closer to Europe I noticed customs, habits and smells starting to morph into something familiar, but almost forgotten. These kinds of rituals were vague notions which rested in the back of my mind, and the more I looked around the more I remembered the things I grew up with. Rules that were beginning to seem normal again when I made a move back to Canada (after a few years of backpacking and teaching) faded once again when I hastily took myself on a return to the other side of the world: the place that gives me comfort, the place where I can navigate, the place that usually makes sense. And also a place that annoys me sometimes. It’s like a good ex-boyfriend, really.
My first day of wandering through Kyrgyzstan I was shocked with things I hadn’t seen in a while, but things still recognizable-things vaguely familiar. Jam on toast. Babies in strollers. Waiting in lines. Slices of bread as your appetizer. Before landing there I didn’t know Kyrgyzstan had such a Russian colonial history but as I saw pairs of moms chatting the afternoon away, while walking their kids in the park around with a stroller (why are they so big?!) I realized that I was getting closer to the West side of the world and I wasn’t super excited about it. There’s a ton of parks in Bishkek and all adorned with statues of some sort of Russian intellectual or dictator (same same, but different). It’s also super easy to find pasta. It’s super easy to find a breakfast with coffee, eggs and bread. And a lot of gassy water. You can find fresh dill in some soups. Maybe even some sour cream. For North Americans and Europeans who live in Korea, you can understand how exciting those things are.
Day two (maybe it was three) consisted for a 4-hour bus ride eastbound. With the snow-peaked mountains in the distance as the marshuka rolled out of the city and through the part of the country which borders Kazakstan I couldn’t believe I was only minutes away from what the Kyrg countryside had to offer. Through some pointing at pictures, trust in our navigation skills and GPS, help from lovely guesthouse owners, lots of delicious local food along the way, and a few free (and paid) rides in cars and vans, we made our way through the western side of Kyrgyzstan and it’s two main lakes in six days. And a little over 100 dollars each. You can get some good bargains, in Kyrgyzstan. Independent travel, local guesthouses, restaurants and cafes are easy to find in Central Asia.
Some of our highlights:
-Walking by the secluded Lake Issyk-kul in the morning and eating at a small bakery for breakfast.
-Finding over 1000-year old petroglyphs up on a hill in Cholpon-ata, overlooking the lake. There were only a handful of tourists there. So old. So beautiful. So historic. Who knew?
-Literally pointing at a picture, telling the owner at Apple Hostel in Cholpon-ata that “I want to go to there” and we found our way to a peaceful, hilly valley somewhere in northern Kyrgyzstan. We stayed in a yurt, ate fresh fish, and played with the kids in the morning on giant swings.
-Finding the backpacker haven that is Karakol Coffee, after a long marshuka ride and a few long walks under the hot sun. We sat, charged phones, ate food, drank and didn’t do much else for a few hours. We went back there for breakfast the next day. The menu consisted of what seemed like endless amounts of homemade cakes and pies, different styles of coffee and milkshakes. The drinks cold and the pizza great. It’s like heaven. And the owners are so nice. Definitely recommended if you ever find yourself in Kyrgyzstan :).
-Riding donkeys near Song-kul Lake.
-Finding ourselves in an old house near the main square in the city of Kochkor, before an overnight trip to Song-kul. The place was definitely pre-Soviet era.
I didn’t know if Kyrgyzstan was West or East. It seemed like a mix of both. Things are changing in that country, just like so many other places in this world. The capital is modernizing but the pace still slow.
It was about the 10th yurt I’d stayed in so far that month when I checked into my last one while up by Song-kul, on my last day of exploring the Kyrg countryside. Walking through the front door of a yurt there’s always that element of curiosity-how big is it? Will it be cozy, cold? Where’s the tea? When all of the guests (for that day) sat down around the table we were served freshly whipped butter and strawberry jam in sparkly, maybe imperialist-era glassware in a yurt in the middle of Kyrgyzstan by a beautiful, Muslim practicing Kyrg family.
A ton of yurts are set up by the blue marine Song-kul Lake, an alpine lake in the middle of the country. The hardcore adventurists (badass German mountain bikers) make the trek up to the 3000 metre elevation from the town of Kochkor to Song-kul, where in the summer yurts get built and locals farm and get back to nature, away from the more industrial cities. The rest are lots of Community Based Tourism camps where the lucky travellers who make it to Kyrgyzstan get to stay. The wander to and from the city to the mountain, I got to see some of the most breathtaking, peaceful scenery I’ve ever seen in this entire world. It’s worth it to go somewhere that you may think is the middle of nowhere-it’s always the most rewarding. It’s always the most life changing. It’s always the most beautiful and the lifestyle centuries old, the religion new, the food just cooked. So many different levels of culture shock, and new things to learn about in so little time.
One of my favourite travel moments though was on the bus ride back to Bishkek. After Song-kul and lunch in Kochkor, Jean and I stopped at the well-known Burana Tower and then found a ride back to the capital city. I knew Bishkek had two bus stations. I knew our hostel was next to one of them. I figured they were both a little far away from each other. I had just spent my last 5 som using the toilet at the bus station near the Tower. It was getting late and this bus needed to get us as close to our booked hostel in Bishkek as possible. I tried asking him which station we were going to, but I couldn’t. A few “hellos” and “thank yous” in Russian was all I could muster. So a few hundred kilometres later, as we rolled into Bishkek, the bus eventually stopped at the other station and let everyone off.
"Last stop. This last stop." The bus man said.
“Um…west bus station?” I tried to pronounce the name of the street where we were staying.
“No. No. Last stop.” He said again.
So I just pointed to the paper where I wrote down the street name and the other bus station’s name. Then I just looked at him and said, “please?”
He turned around, shrugged his shoulders, and took off again, with only Jean and I in the car. We drove a few kilometres until we eventually reached recognizable territory, and I knew how to maneuver through the touts and marshukas and make our way around the corner to Apple Hostel. The bus driver nodded, smiled and let us off the bus without charging us any extra. He even watched us for a few moments making sure we were safe in the crowds of Bishkek.
Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.