Sometimes it’s not the places we visit that make a trip memorable; rather it’s the people we meet. Don’t get me wrong. Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk Kul, or ‘Hot Lake’ in the local tongue, is a very beautiful place. It is by volume one of the top ten biggest lakes in the world and its location within the Tian Shan mountain range makes the landscape breathtaking to say the least. The region also has a lot of history, the southern stretch being a stopover in the ancient heyday of the famous Silk Road, and the northern shoreline begin popular with holidaymakers during the Soviet era. During my three-day journey around the lake, I wasn’t expecting much in terms of sightseeing but was pleasantly surprised by the interesting people I met along the way.
I started my journey around the lake from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The route from Bishkek to Karakol goes along the northern shores of the lake. Public transport is very easy to get and the roads are decent enough to cycle on. Once travellers reach the Tian Shan mountain range and the lake comes into view, the landscape is spectacular. The barren alien rocky formation stretches as far as the eye can see. From the inside of a mini bus going at breakneck Kyrgyz speed, it’s quite a sight, but it was only when we made a quick pit stop that I got a chance to really appreciate the huge colorful layers of rock and the breathtaking scenery of which they are a part.
I arrived in Karakol and could immediately tell that this city had definitely seen better times. The mini-bus dropped us passengers off at what passed for a bus station, which was really just a large, dilapidated concrete building no longer in use; the last time the roads were paved was probably during the Soviet era; and, the typical Soviet style square concrete-tiled sidewalks had become rather uneven as they fought a losing battle with the waist-high fauna growing between the cracks. As I made my way to my accommodation, I passed by one closed down shop after another. Karakol was definitely poor. Even their city’s Lenin statue was slowly eroding away as he was already missing fingers. My bed for the night was a typical Soviet-style springy bed frame with a roll-up mattress. From my window, I literally could see where the city ended and where the wide-open rolling, grassy hills began. Despite its poverty, there was something about Karakol that was comforting.
I walked around Karakol doing some sightseeing. The city itself is not on the coast of the lake, so there isn’t any beautiful lakeside sunset. Its most famous landmarks are the Durgan mosque, a colorful wooden mosque built by the Chinese, and the Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral, an ornate affair restored by the Church after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The main tourist season is in winter when people come here to ski, so things were quite quiet and laid-back during the warm June day. As evening set in and I started thinking about dinner, I realized that the choice of eateries were very limited, and even the cafes I found had a very select menu. Although they lacked food, however, I wasn’t faced with the unenthusiastic indifference that I was used to from travelling around other old Soviet establishments. The café workers were friendly and I also met some locals who made me feel right at home. Our dinner wasn’t particularly healthy, mostly snacks and alcohol, but I happily joined them as their apartment above the café took on a party atmosphere. What could have been a lonely night of soggy salad and sausages on buttered bread ended up being quite enjoyable with good company and a variety of nuts, chips and sweets. I went to bed feeling satisfied and happy.
The next day, I headed towards Balykchy on the western end of Issyk Kul taking the southern route. On the recommendation of one of the locals I met the previous night, I stopped along the way at a place called Kadje Sai, apparently a very special place for the Kyrgyz people. I was surprised to find not much more than a shop, a small hotel and a ‘shashlik’ shish-kebab café, along with a handful of sunbathers lying in the red sandy beach, but other than that, there wasn’t much here. I walked back a couple of kilometers to an interesting complex we had passed earlier, an enormous and strange complex in the middle of nowhere. I’m not even exactly sure what to call it; it wasn’t exactly a palace, or a garden or a monument. It was basically about a kilometer of wall with beautiful paintings depicting desert life, boasting a bolted gate around the midway point. Looking inside the gate I could see what looked like an alter depicting a kingly figure at the end of a plot of land, and on the opposite side of the highway was a huge monument with what appeared to be a flying man overlooking the highway from its rocky vantage point. I later learned that Kadje Sai is believed to have been the midpoint of the Silk Road.
With no proper bus stop in Kadje Sai, I managed to stop a driver and negotiate a price for the rest of the way to Balykchy. , I could see that it was in a similar state of deterioration as Karakol. Once I booked my lodging for the night, I decided to burn of a little road steam by going for a jog. Securing a place to stay, I decided to go for a jog. On the way back, I ran along the lakeside where dozens of beachgoers, mostly ethnic Russians in various states of nakedness were enjoying the mild overcast June weather. Old Ladas and Volgas were haphazardly parked on the grass-and-dirt shoreline with doors open, some blaring Russian pop songs, others with various water sport and picnic equipment spilling out. The entire shoreline had the potential to be developed into a dazzling, café-filled promenade with pristine beaches, but for some reason, keeping things in its natural state gave this area some character.
Back in the five-storey Soviet apartment block where I was staying, I again met with some locals. I ended up getting invited to a birthday party and though I felt more than a bit awkward tagging along to someone else’s apartment with people I didn’t know, I was welcomed as if they had been expecting me all along. Within minutes of arriving, all awkwardness melted away. Nobody treated me like an unwanted guest, or a weird stranger who happened to be there, or even like the superstar foreigner being bombarded with all kinds of curious questions. I felt every bit like a part of their group.
The next day, I met up with some of the same locals from the previous night and they proudly showed me around the city before seeing me off at the bus station on my journey back to Bishkek. Honestly, there isn’t much to see in Balykchy. But the locals’ enthusiasm as they showed me around town made the plain boring town come alive as if it were the most interesting place on earth. They made a simple earth-toned shop wall sound exciting as they explained to me how there were plans to use it as a canopy for a beautiful mural. They explained how an area of brown rusty old machinery used to be a large and successful factory. Everywhere we went, the town came alive with past events and future plans.
I rode the mini-bus back to Bishkek and reflected upon my last few days. By western standards, these people I had met in Karakol and Balykchy were financially very poor. Most had no heating or hot water, and some had no indoor plumbing. However, they were genuinely friendly and welcoming and were prepared to share what little they had. The cities were old and run-down, but they were still places thousands of Kyrgyz people proudly called home. Would these people that I met be happier if their economic situation were better? Maybe. But they proved to me that if you don’t have what you want, at least you can want what you have.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.