I can't leave the Silk Road alone - here we go!
We touched down in the huge ex-Soviet city of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It is reminiscent of the grand old days and the main street is overpowered by huge state buildings. Fortunately there are still a few lovely green parks. The streets are very wide, obviously for all the parades that took place. The top boundary of this country is the Tien Shan Mountain Range. It is capped in snow for most of the year. Ak Kalpak is what the Kirgish people call their white felt hats after the white mountain peaks. (A peak cap!) It is ornately embroidered and worn proudly by the men. 70 % of this country is mountainous so all the towns are situated in the valley between the two major mountain ranges. Just to think, we shared the same mountain view of ancient merchants as we took a journey along the original Silk Road.
This section is a small yet important part of the original route that stretched all the way from Shanghai in China to Venice in Italy. I had goose bumps! After visiting Venice 20 years ago and spending time in China between Shanghai and Xian Jim and I were keen to link up to this, the central region of the Great Silk Road. We also have been to the south of India, Turkey and Trabson. So this explains why we were keen to explore the Central Asian region including Kazaksthan, Bukhara and Khiva. But for now, let us share Kyrgyzstan with you. Please watch the movie we made at the end of this article because it is hard to explain in words the sights and sounds albeit not the tastes and lashings of crisp fresh air.
We stayed overnight at the charming Hotel Asia Mountains. The beautiful and carefully tended garden was ablaze with spring flowers and bees were buzzing about. Bees! From our hotel window we could see the bee hives in the neighbour’s garden. Over 100, I counted so at least here the bees are safe and well-tended. I am a great believer in bee products, especially propolis. We found many of these, plus other natural agricultural products freely available in huge city markets. Al home in South Africa we love our organic fresh produce but here it is just common practice. Even in the parks one can collect ample fresh herbs to make home remedies. Dandelions, plantain, camomile - even cannabis is grown on the street – free for the picking.
The first day walkabout around Bishkek
Soviet Street is the Main Street of Bishek but it is now called after Baytik. The Historical Museum - Ala Too Square. It was originally called the Lenin Museum and some older residents still refer to it as such. The ground floor houses temporary and more topical exhibitions but the permanent exhibits depict the natural and political history of the country and the Soviet heritage. There is a statue of Lenin leading the revolutionary masses and a ceiling mural of a wedding party attended by the melting pot of the nationalities of the Soviet Union. The building is massive, heavy and dark as is its history of Communism and oppression.
Panfilov is the classic Russian park in the midst of the state buildings and monuments to nowhere. Due to the abundance of Soviet construction projects, the park remains a charming central piece to Bishkek's downtown area. With areas for walking and a large amount of fair style attractions, it is a favourite place for people to relax and roam about. A Kiddie’s paradise with plenty of fun rides and places for Mom and Dad to enjoy the outdoors. We saw a lot of children riding electric cars that were remote-controlled by their parents. Here the people are friendly and seem quite happy at first glance. But there is an undertone of resentment because “back in the old days” a lot of the citizens had regular jobs and the state cared more about social services, health care and the maintenance of roads and buildings. The apartments especially are in serious need of a coat of paint.
Ala- Archa Mountain tour of the National Park
We boarded the bus and headed for the Tien Shan Mountains. It was a beautiful sunny day in Bishkek and our charming guide reminded us to bring hats and sunglasses. But up in the mountains it was dark and gloomy. Grey clouds had piled up and a boom of thunder warned us that we needed jerseys, rain coats and umbrellas. Too late for that, so we headed up the valley along a gushing river of icy water. Down came the heavens and we got soaked to the skin. At the end of the hike we were greeted by a warm dry abode called a yurt. It is a portable shelter, still used today.
The yurt or tent is carried in sections on the camels’ backs and becomes a circular hut covered in felt. This design has not changed since 600 BC. A wooden circle, radial struts that rest on a circular trellis. This framework is draped in fitted sheets of felt for insulation. A circular hut made from a light timber frame and draped in pieces of felt that somehow kept out the rain.
The juniper trees in the area are regarded as sacred and could protect us from evil spirits. (But not the freezing rain!)
The Silk Road from Bishkek to Lake Izyk – Kul
We joined a small tour party to visit the northern region of Kyrgyzstan along the Tien Shan mountain range to end at Lake Izyk-Kul. This long ride is only a small part of the Silk Road but we shared the same view of these snow-capped mountains as the early travellers had for centuries. Our ride was very different - we sped along in an air-conditioned bus on a brand new dual carriage way called the New Silk Road. It is a joint project, mostly sponsored by the Chinese government. But not all the roads are this slick and efficient. Most of the rides so far have been on worn out relics of a bygone semi-efficient Communistic era when potholes were repaired for the common benefit of all.
Our lunchtime stop at a local Kurdish fast food joint explained the need for a regional cardiac unit in Bishkek. Fried dumplings, meaty stews, bread, pies, chips and greasy battered fries were piled onto the plates and consumed by bulky truck drivers and local travellers. For a vegetarian who does not eat wheat the only option was a plate of vegetables.
Words cannot describe the greasy garlicky undertones of this sorry mass of cauliflower, aubergines, tomatoes, red peppers and courgettes. All we could find was a blob of sour cream and some slices of lemon to cheer up the plate.
We stopped at the historical site of Balasagyn where an ancient city had been flattened by invading Mongols as well as an earthquake. All that remained was a section of a 40 meter high red brick minaret now called the Burana tower. Spring in the countryside is blissful. It was a warm, sunny day without any wind. The spring flowers are spectacular, especially the red poppies with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains keeping constant watch over the Great Silk Road as it stretched across the valley.
Final stop at Lake Izyk – Kul
The Tien Shan mountains mean sky-high or Mountains of Heaven and the lake is known as the Pearl of Kyrzykstan. At the end of our journey we stayed at the Raduga resort at the water"s edge - the Rainbow hotel. A plunge into the cool deep lake was a fitting end to our pilgrimage. The water was pleasant and slightly salty. It is known as the warm lake because it does not freeze in winter. It is 70 km wide and 170 km long and twice as deep. On the lower slopes of the mountain near the lake there are a number of prehistoric petroglyphs (carvings on rocks). The name Izyk – Kul refers to a reindeer, clearly depicted on one of the rocks. According to the legend an abandoned baby was adopted by a female reindeer and was nurtured and protected by her. As a result the inhabitants in this region are called the reindeer people.
Now enjoy the movie!