Kyrgyzstan feels much further than it actually is from China. Chinese faces, food, architecture, chopsticks and culture all vanished as we crossed the mountains into the Kyrgyz steppe. Instead the Soviet legacy is immediately apparent and Kyrgyzstan is a fascinating blend of Russian and Central Asian influences. In the northern towns there are as many Slavic faces as there are Mongoloid and Central Asian; tracksuits and trainers are as common as headscarves; battered ladas compete for space on the roads with herdsmen on horseback; Lenin statues continue to stand proudly over central squares; the food is a combination of shashlik, noodles, borscht and mashed potatoes, with weights as well as prices listed on every menu just as in Russia, and the first leavened bread we’ve seen since Moscow. The streets are a mixture of mud brick houses, Siberian style wooden cottages and monstrous dilapidated Soviet blocks of flats. Both Russian and Kyrgyz are widely spoken, with both written in Cyrillic script, and while Islam is the dominant religion here it seems less strictly adhered to than it is in Western China (drinking certainly plays a larger role here in social customs), and Russian Orthodox churches as well as mosques are visible in the towns. This Russian influence, and the use of an alphabet that we can read, even if not understand, gives Kyrgyzstan a much more familiar feel than anywhere we’ve been for some time, and at times has us almost believing we’re back on the eastern fringes of Europe.
We spent a few days in Karakol, a sleepy, slightly run down provisional capital on the edge of the Tien Shan mountains in the north east of the country near the Kazakh border. Karakol has an interesting animal market and beautiful old wooden Russian Orthodox church and faded wooden houses, but it's hard to believe walking around its quiet streets that it's a provincial capital. In season apparently the town is filled with tourists, primarily Russians and Kazakhs, drawn in winter by the opportunities to ski and in summer to trek and climb. In late April though the town felt almost deserted.
South of the town, the mountains rise dramatically above the plain. Climbing up into them we found a beautiful landscape utterly unlike the open grassland we’d ridden through in the centre of the country. Here we walked through narrow Alpine valleys, passing stretches of pine forest and open meadows. The higher passes remained closed by snow and even in these lower valleys patches of snow remained, yet through the grass wild violets, and crocuses miniature pansies were appearing.
For much of this year we’ve felt disconnected from the seasons, avoiding autumn by travelling east through a perpetual Indian Summer and then skipping winter in the tropics of South East Asia. Finally it feels like spring is here and we’re back in step with the seasons as we expect them. In the mountains we walked to close to the snow line, camped out in an open meadow near a rushing river of icy water and bathed in natural hot springs.
Throughout our trip we’ve come across repeated references to some of the great 19th Century European explorers of Asia. We heard of Nikolai Przewalski first in Mongolia, where the wild horses there bear his name, and then again in Tibet where we was one of the first Europeans to explore the country and came close to becoming the first European to reach Lhasa. Between 1867 and 1885 he travelled through much of Central Asia, China, Mongolia and Tibet, mapping huge areas and collecting vast numbers of plant, animal and bird specimens. On the eve of his fifth expedition he died near Karakol and for a while the town was named in his honour, and there remains a small monument to him and a fascinating museum recording his achievements.
Just north of Karakol, stretching west for 170 km lies Lake Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in South America. Unlike Central Kyrgyzstan, much of the land around the lake is cultivated and from its shores to the foothills of the Tien Shan to the north stretch fields edged with lines of poplars. In Soviet days, spa resorts lined the shores of Issyk-Kul. Most have now closed, although a ribbon of rather run-down houses and cafes still lines the main road around the shore. About midway along the northern shore of the lake lies Cholpon Ata, a small non-descript town where we spent a couple of relaxing days.
Just outside the town we visited a field strewn with glacial boulders decorated between the 8th Century BC and the 1st Century AD with paintings of goats, sheep, camels and hunting scenes. Unfortunately it started raining as we arrived, and most of the petroglyphs are unmarked so we spent an hour or so trying to spot the drawings – some are amazingly well preserved but others almost indistinguishable from the marks of rain or lichen – and then headed sodden back to town.
Cholpon-Ata’s main attractions are its beaches and lakeside setting. Like much of urban and semi-urban Kyrgyzstan, the area around the beach looked shabby and neglected, with a collection of half-finished buildings, overgrown bushes, derelict trailers and rubbish. Even the sanatorium, which in its heyday apparently used to attract the elite of the Communist Party, looked rundown and shut up. Yet the lakeside itself was still stunningly beautiful: the white sand and impossibly clear water both sparkled in the sunshine, and across the lake the snow-capped mountains to the south were just visible. Issyk-kul means “hot lake” in Kyrgyz, for a combination of extreme depth, thermal activity and high salinity means that remarkably the lake never freezes and instead has a moderating effect on the local climate. “Hot” though was overstating it on the day we spent on the beach, and only Rachael braved the icy water, while Kieran opted to lie on the beach and sunbathe.