Thursday, October 11, 2007

Saimaluu Tash

No one told us it was a good idea to try to get to the Saimaluu Tash petroglyphs. Everyone said that it was way past the season, and way too cold. But those who know me, know how much I love petroglyphs and that I would not be too easily deterred. Saimaluu Tash is a collection of over 100,000 ancient petroglyphs high up in a mountain bowl. To get there, Tim and I would have to take a taxi from Jalala Bot over a mountain pass to a small village, then a four wheel drive up a jeep road, and finally hike 12 kilometers into a mountain bowl. The morning we had arranged to take the taxi brought bad news. The pass we had to drive over was closed due to a storm. Tim looked at our map and found another possible route. We would take a taxi to a small village this side of the mountain range, hike 35 kilometers up a valley and go over a pass by foot. After this, we would drop back down into the bowl where the petroglyphs are located. We reached the village and the taxi driver offered to take us as far as he could up the narrow road, ultimately shaving 15 kilometers off of our journey. We then began walking. The nomads were on there way out of the high country with their sheep, horses, and cows while we were on our way in. They kept saying to us "mnoga snic, mnoga snic". Much snow, much snow. We did not see that much snow, so we kept hiking. A Russian lady invited us for tea and fed us lunch, with chickens running around our feet begging. Yes, begging! The next morning a snow storm moved into the valley. Hoping that it would stop snowing and melt off, we hiked a miserable three hours before setting up camp, where we remained that day and the next. The fourth day dawned bright and clear, and hope began to return. We hiked to look at the route and saw that the snow was melting fast. We decided to give it the day to melt, and hike to the petroglyphs the next day. The following day we climbed up the pass, and back down to the petroglyphs. There was a foot of snow on the north side where the petroglyphs were, but they are carved on black rocks so they were partially melted out and visible. We trudged around in a foot of snow for three hours in our tennis shoes looking at them and finally hiked back to camp when we thought our feet would fall off from cold. The snow covered boulder field was treacherous, and we spent much of the time post holing with one leg, while the other banged forward onto the rocks. The petroglyphs were wonderful, though, and very well preserved due to the remote location. We saw mountain sheep, horses, dogs, Ibex, plows, people dancing, shooting bow and arrow, and other various carvings. Leaving the valley the next day with hardly any food left, we got lucky again, and caught a ride out of the valley with a Kirghiz nomad family moving into town for winter with everything they owned in a huge truck - including a donkey. We helped them load up. All of their worldly belongings consisted of the donkey, a puppy, a bunch of quilts, a hand made wool rug, several huge wooden crates of apples, a wood burning stove, a few buckets, pails, and pots, and a plastic clock wrapped carefully in a towel. They did not ask for money, but we gave them 500 som (about 15$). Way too much, but we were happy to get a ride, and I am sure that the truck they drove ate up petrol like crazy.

Looking up the valley towards the pass we went over

Shepherds on their way to winter grounds

Looking down the bowl towards the petroglyphs

The petroglyphs

Me in the boulder field

Tim in the snow covered boulder field. Is that love or what?

The truck and home of the family that brought us out of the valley

Mom, this rock was to heavy to bring back but I photographed it for you

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A day traveling

Armed with our forward visas, Tim and I were ready to leave Bishkek, and headed for the bus stand to catch a shared taxi to Jalala Bot. We have moved up in the world since India's buses! A shared taxi is a comfortable, inexpensive way to travel. They charge per passenger, and leave when full. After picking up a lady with her two kids, one boy and one girl, we started off. The boy is riding in the hatch back.

Within a half hour of starting out, the taxi driver asked us "Americanski", followed with a shouted "Boosh, Boosh". This was starting to sound familiar! Then using very simple language we could understand "nyet, hrusho! nyet hrusho." Not OK, not OK! He softens his opinion of our current president with laughter. We are laughing to, and agree with him. Soon the whole car is filled with the chorus "nyet hrusho, nyet hrusho." The driver says "Iraq" and then his hands are off the wheel as he is driving down the road. He is shooting off an imaginary machine gun, to the right, the left, the right. This is familiar, too. The sounds he is making are not quite as accurate as the machine gun fire that the nomads son made in the yurt back up in Jetty Oguz valley.

The drive to Jalala Bot is about 4 hours, and goes over a 3500 meter mountain pass. The pass is covered with ice and snow. No one has chains and as we climb we see trucks stuck on the road, tires spinning on the ice. Drivers are shoveling dirt from the ditches to try to get going again. Next we start passing cars that are stuck. Thirty or forty of them. It seems we are the only ones still moving, dodging around all the obstacles in the road. If we have to stop, we are finished! A sand truck goes by. Not a sand truck mechanically spitting out sand like we have in the US, but a truck full of sand and men, tossing it out with shovels as fast as they can.

We reach the tunnel at the pass and the driver is proud of his car, laughing and patting his dashboard and making spinning motions with his hands as he points back to the other cars. "machinya hrusho" I say. Car good. Tim is afraid that we will be jinxed because of our laughter at the other cars. We come out of the tunnel to more steep grades and ice. For once, we are driving slow. Everyone is nervous. We pass three cars that have been in minor accidents on the way down. Later we will pass a horrible wreck, with a truck on its side burning so hot we can feel the heat as we drive past. There were no medical vehicles, so we think the driver probably made it out of the vehicle before it burst into flames. Finally we are down from the pass and normal driving practices resume. In Kyrgyzstan, people prefer to drive on the opposite side of the road at high speeds. We pass several completely wrecked cars displayed on concrete posts. These displays are throughout the country, Kyrgyzstan's most visible efforts at combating drunk and/or wreckless driving.

Later we stop for lunch. Tim stays outside eating leftovers while I go in with the taxi driver and the family. "Borscht?" I ask the waitress, who brought no menu. She is wearing a headscarf and a long, red, crushed velvet robe. "Nyet. Palgmi" She answers. "Lagman?" I ask hopefully (its a dumb question. I know all she has is palgmi). "nyet, nyet. Palgmi." She is irritated now. Everyone in the restaurant is eating the same greasy dumplings filled with mystery meat. The boy has been riding in the back of the hatchback tells me it is goat meat. Well, he does not actually tell me; he puts his hands to his head like horns and makes goat like sounds.

After the meal, which was as bad as I thought, we started off again. We slow down every once in a while for the herds of animals going past. Sheep, goats, cows, and big, beautiful horses. The taxi driver is teaching me all the names in Russian. He is being incredibly funny about it, shouting and pointing and laughing. When a dog runs out in front of the car he points and shakes his fist and screams "Sabuca." I can't stop laughing. Tim is in the backseat, oblivious, listening to Mandarin Chinese. We can hear him every so often say something like "ne how."

Scenery races by. Mountains, grassy expanses, a large lake. Villages, yurts, railway cars converted into homes. Men in tall white and black Kirghiz hats. Women in bright colors with handkerchiefs tied around their heads. Children in black and white school uniforms. Finally we reach Jalala Bot and it is time to find a new home for the night.

When traveling, it is the small experiences that happen every day that I love. Occasionally you will have an experience, such as seeing a wedding in Zanskar, that opens up a huge window into the culture. But usually, the day is filled with tiny things-small kindnesses, things that make you laugh, and experiences that open up just a tiny peep hole into a culture and lifestyle different from your own, and show you a bit of how your own culture looks through the eyes of others.

Some scenery along the way

The burning truck

Our taxi driver

Tuesday, October 2, 2007



We arrived in Kyrgyzstan via the Torugat pass and headed to Issykul Lake, where we did a beautiful seven day trek over several mountain passes into parallel valleys. Our hiking ended at a spartan hot springs resort, where we had two days to relax. Next we went to a beach town, about as far away from an ocean as you can get! Here, there were also many petroghlyphs to look at. Finally, we headed off to Bishkek to apply for visas. While waiting, we trekked up to a high glacier valley. Allthough the sun was shining when we arrived, we woke up the next morning to full on winter! Most of this day was spent in the tent. The following day we hiked out during a brief clear spell in the early morning, escaping just in time before the snow started coming down again, even harder this time.

There is not much English spoken here, and I am enjoying using the little Russian that I know. It is enough to get by, and occasionally even surprise someone with. Almost everyone speaks Russian when they are communicating with each other and the children still learn it in the schools. The language barrier makes it difficult to ask people my usual nosey questions. It's very interesting to me, having grown up in the cold war, being in a former soviet republic and I really wish I could communicate well enough to learn more about this period of history from the people here.

The people here are knowledgeable about current politics, even those that live in yurts in the mountain valleys. Despite the fact that little English is spoken, most people can say the words "Bush" and "Iraq" and make motions to show their disapproval, such as thumbs down or machine gun sounds and motions. But these people are very friendly to us, feeding us fresh milk products in the country or buying us beer and vodka in the cities. We were having fresh milk products in a herders yurt on September 11th this year, and the family pulled out their calender to show us what day it was.

Kyrgyzstan is pretty modern in the cities, but with some nice third world type features, such as lively bazaars, little shoe fixing stands, and tailors who will fix things dirt cheap. In the mountains, people still live in yurts and raise cattle and horses. However, now they are more likely to move the yurts from place to place in four wheel drive jeeps than on the backs of horses or camels, as in the past. In some rural areas along the roads, people have made homes out of old, abandoned train cars. In many ways Kyrgyzstan reminds me of my home in Alaska. Some of the old Russian built cottages look like the old cottages in the smaller towns in Alaska. And many of the Kirghiz people look very much like the natives peoples of Alaska. Walking down the streets here is a bit nostalgic for me.

The first trek we did was from Jetty Oguz to Altan Arashan. This crossed two passes and went through parts of four different valleys.

Heading into Jetty Oguz valley

The middle valley, just before going over our first pass

Fall colors along the trail


An absolutely wonderful campsite by the lake. Views, shelter from wind, soft grass, and a fresh spring pouring out of the mountain close by.

At the top of our second pass, before heading into Altan Arashan

This trek is to Ak Suy Glacier, near Bishkek.

The sunset the first clear, cold night was fabulous.

The next morning we woke up to a water bag that was frozen solid!

Ibex came around our camp in the early afternoon, as it was beginning to snow

The morning after the storm dawned clear, and some snow melted. We could see the clouds and fog moving back in from the mountains, so we packed up and left.

By the time we reached the bottom, the snow was falling thick and heavy

School girls in the black and white school uniform, complete with huge white bows in their hair

A couple in front of Tash Rabat, a caravansary originally built about 500 years ago

The traditional Kirghiz yurt

A train car turned into a home

Osh Bazaar in Bishkek

The Sunday Bazaar

The Sunday Bazaar in Kashgar

The Sunday Bazaar is a pretty wild place, with nearly everything you could want for sale. I spent most of my time at the animal market, while Tim slept the morning away. Following the advice of the guidebook, I went to the bazaar at 6:00 AM. Big mistake! People did not start showing up until 7:00. By 9:00 it was a mad mess.

Sheep cost about 50 $ US

Average looking donkeys were about 175 $ US

A sorry looking horse was about 270 $. The nice, fat, healthy one was not for sale!

Camels go for about 500 $

A big, strong monster of a cow sells for 530$. When I asked the price on this one (by pointing at the animal and rubbing my fingers together, money style), the man would not tell me until he had shown me it's fine looking teeth, by shoving the cows head nearly in my face and pulling back its lips. I was, unfortunately, too shocked to think of taking a photo.

The most expensive animals in the market were two strong Yaks, at about 800 $ a piece.