Our last blog ended in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan and that’s where we start this one. Kyrgyzstan’s mountainscapes come in various appearances. One is the more Alpine variety that can be found around Karakol. One of the most popular treks here is a three day hike starting in Karakol valley to the Ala-Kul mountainlake and back through Altyn-Arashan.
Altyn-Arashan by 4×4 UAZ
We didn’t do this though. Instead we took an old Soviet 4×4 UAZ minivan to drive us up to Altyn-Arashan. Normally it’s a bit pricey, but we were lucky to be able to share to costs with two French travelers. It took 1,5 hours to negotiate the most horrendous road we’ve ever been on in a vehicle, the UAZ bouncing back and forth and stalling about five times. But it was great!
Because Eugénie has been having some problems with her ankle we decided on an easy walk along the river into to valley. We overnighted in one of the camps where many multiday hikers have their last stop and the possibility to soak their tired muscles in scalding hot springs. We decided on sleeping in a dorm instead of a yurt. It ended up being a private room as we were the only ones choosing this option and it was definitely warmer than the yurts we stayed in previously.
The next day we hiked back the same 15 kilometers of bad road we’d come up in the UAZ. Since it was mostly going slowly downhill it was not too hard, so we could really enjoy the scenery. The trip back took about five hours (we took our time….) plus a short marshrutka trip to Karakol, where we stayed an extra day for some downtime.
Loop through Kazakhstan – Charyn Canyon
From Karakol we left Kyrgyzstan for a short loop through Kazakhstan. We took the little used Karkara border crossing in the northeast of Kyrgyzstan that only is open from May until October. No public transport ventures out this way and on the Kyrgyzstan side the last 50 kilometers is only gravel road. Because there’s no public transport to the Charyn Canyon anyway and we wanted to visit two other nearby canyons that are only accessible by 4WD we decided on hiring a very expensive 4WD for the day.
Looking back we are asking ourselves if it was worth all the expense. With a Kyrgyz driver who was not very well acquainted with the region, missing or misleading signposts and our trusty guide maps.me being entirely wrong for once we drove around a lot without ever finding the two other canyons and had to satisfy ourselves with only Charyn Canyon.
It was nice to walk around this mini-version of the Grand Canyon and it was scenic enough for a detour, but not for the money we spent now, including a very much overpriced stay at a basic bungalow with really gross communal toilets in the canyon’s Eco Park. Eugénie ripped her pants hiking/gliding down into the canyon on what was called a walking path to the Eco Park. There was hardly a path and the gradients were steep, so she did most of the descent on her behind….
Without any public transport going to the canyon and little other traffic we were lucky to hitch a ride to a nearby town with a Kazakh lady living in Germany, brushing up on our German language skills at the same time (she actually thought we lived in Germany too…..). After some shady transfers and transactions we got a taxi to drive us the 250 kilometers to Almaty.
The former capital of Kazakhstan (it lost this title in 1997 to newly built Astana) is the second biggest city in Central Asia after Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent. Unfortunately in downtown Almaty a lot of (road) construction was being carried out. Sometimes we had the feeling we were walking some kind of obstacle course. We guess we were here in the wrong year. We’re sure it all will look very nice in the future.
Despite this we found Almaty with its tree-lined broad boulevards a pretty agreeable city to spend two days in. Real touristic highlights are missing, though, except for the sugary colorful Zenkov Cathedral, which – as you may have guessed – was being renovated on the outside. To rub it in they had huge pics of what the cathedral looked like before they started working on it hanging around the site. To be fair: the cathedral was indeed in dire need of some touching up.
We walked a lot to get a feel for the city, see how working class Kazakhs live (there are also many new rich), look out for some Soviet architecture, eat at a McDonald’s (probably the only one we will find on our Silk Road itinerary) and take the cable car up Kok-Tobe for some incredibly hazy views of the sprawling city and the Alatau mountain range to the south of the city (the snowcapped mountains barely visible).
What struck us most was the enormous diversity of faces we saw, a reflection of Almaty being a melting pot of cultures and people originating from as far as Germany in the west and Korea in the east. Really fascinating to see.
Visa hunt in Bishkek
From Almaty it was a very cheap marshrutka ride back to Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. The main reason to stop here for a few days was to secure some visas to the other Stans and Iran. We’ve got three of the four visa we were aiming for in the pocket. Tajikistan was easy: an e-visa that almost never gets refused. We’ve also got our visa for Iran and Uzbekistan. We came well prepared with all the necessary documents in order (the Letter of Invitation being the most important one).
Still it was time consuming: going to the embassy, handing over all the paperwork, go to a nearby bank to pay (a lengthy process with many receipts being printed out for the visa payment itself and for the bank fee – times two, for the Iranian visa we left the bank with no less than eight receipts) and going back to the embassy to collect the visa (for Iran this was the next day).
For Turkmenistan we’ve applied for a 5 day transit visa. We don’t have much hope we’re going to get this one. From what we understand the refusal rate is a whopping 90% (!) and for October they are worth their weight in gold. At the end of the month is independence day and they hardly approve visa applications in the weeks leading up to the celebrations.
At the Bishkek embassy it was already clear that Turkmenistan is playing hard to get. The embassy is at the outskirts of the city and we had to go there in person to collect the forms from a very uncommunicative employee who then told us that he wanted the Uzbek and Iranian visa copies in color (instead of our black and white copies) and that we had to pay a US$ 10 consular fee at a KICB bank.
Of course there was no bank or copy shop nearby so we had to go all the way back to the city, find a copy shop and KICB bank and get back to the embassy (which has limited opening times) to hand in all the documents. After a cursory glance at them he said we could pick up our visa in Dushanbe (Tajikistan) “if it is not denied”……. That does not give much hope, but we keep our fingers crossed.
In between our visits to the various embassies we had a look around Bishkek. It does not have many noteworthy sights but somehow we liked the city: it’s pretty lively and has a nice vibe – central Asia with a retro Soviet touch. Somehow a lot of Soviet structures, monuments and other relics have survived almost thirty years after the CCCP started falling apart. We could actually live here for a longer period of time, we think.
We even stayed in one of the old crumbling down socialist era apartment blocks for five days. We ended up here by coincidence after the hotel we’d originally booked appeared not to have wifi and the manager just left after he said that he’d make a call to fix this. “Get back to you in five minutes”, he said. But he just split and staff couldn’t reach him, so after an hour we packed up our backpacks to take a taxi to the local CBT office.
They called a hotel within our budget but they were full for the period we wanted, but they also had this one apartment in an adjacent apartment block. We couldn’t be happier: lots of space, close to the city center (everything in walking distance) and great wifi, so we’ve been able to catch up on our weekly blog updates that we were so far behind on. On top of that it was nice to have some kind of home away of home when traveling for a longer period of time, if only for a few days. Now we head back into nature again!
Some more pics of Bishkek below.
And some pics from Osh market.
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