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Author: Maria Zehentner / Translation: Moritz Zehentner
Beitrag vom: 09.09.2017

Finally some time to relax

Kyrgyzstan part II, July 2017

In Toktogul, eponymous to the city and the close-by lake, we did our last necessary grocery shopping before heading towards Song Kol Lake. This mountain lake lies at a height of 3013 meters in the North of Kyrgyzstans Naryn region. To get there we had to drive 330km on bad roads that we already got used to. It was utopian to believe we could do the whole distance in a day, seeing that we also had to cross an enormous mountain gap. Without clearly defining a final destination for the day, we hit the road and left it up to fortune how much of the distance we could cover.

The day before it must have had loads of rain and that’s why we had to take an unexpected detour due to a damaged bridge on our initial route. Late in the evening we reached the village of Bagysh. Only 50km divided us from Song Kol Lake, but as it was already late and we decided to park Akela on a lawn outside the village. After a short introduction to the locals, who seemed to be very interested in Akela, we couldn’t wait to fill our tummies with some lovely Spaghetti for dinner and soon afterwards we called it a day. Although we “only” sat in the truck the whole day our bones and muscles were sore as if we would have run a marathon.

The next morning our alarm woke us with a start and a sixth of our route was still lying before us. We already guessed that it wouldn’t be great fun. As most of the times after breakfast, Lennox snuggled back into his duvet to play whilst we got Akela ready to start into a new day.
We were told that the southern shores of the lake are more thrilling and less touristy but harder to reach. It was Alex, an American working in Kyrgyzstan whom Leander randomly got to know through online research, who told us the geographic coordinates of a Yurt camp at the lake, which he strongly recommended to visit. The first 20km were business as usual: bumpy and shaky. To distract Lennox a bit I climbed up to to him into our living part. I suggested that we could use this precious time to do something interesting like learning how to read. He was very skeptical at the start because he wasn’t into school at all on that day. I explained him, that our ‘Akela school’ is very different to a normal school and that we teach whenever there is some time and whenever he wants to. I also mentioned to him that our classroom is much more than just a boring grey building and that he will learn his lessons while exploring different cultures at the same time and getting to know the world.
Bells telling us when we should start or end a lesson don’t exist and we can study as long as his concentration lasts and hey, Lennox was only 5 years old so no need to hurry. The thought of being able to read a book for himself in a few months’ time wouldn’t want to get out of his head and that’s why he agreed. I grabbed the literature for beginners, that I packed right at the start of our journey, and we started to read.
Barely 10 minutes passed when Leander stopped the truck. At first, I thought it would be a pee break but when I heard him talking to someone we got curious and looked out of the window. A bunch of cyclists grouped around Akela. Lennox and I left the truck and introduced ourselves as well. It was mainly Brits and Kazakhs mountain biking through Kyrgyzstan for a few days. They asked a lot of questions about Akela and our project and showed a lot of interest. When Rowan and Olga left, they gave us their contacts and insisted that we should contact them when we would reach their home town Almaty, Kazakhstan. Before they finally left we asked them about the condition of the road leading up to the pass that we still had to climb on that day. No problem they said, some gravel and a bit narrow then and when but feasible.

We got back into the truck and drove on. The piste was meandering up and up through the green hilly landscape towards the gap. The road got narrower and narrower, which wasn’t a problem or a thrilling moment ever since we passed the Pamir Highway. However, when we reached the switchbacks it started to get uncomfy. There was enough space to reverse multiple times, which was certainly necessary, but there were some really steep parts that brought our Akela into dangerous angles. All the narrow roads, steep bends, deep holes, serpentines weren’t a problem anymore for Leander who prove that he can easily get through these challenges without a single trace of hesitation to reach all our destinations. Nevertheless, there was still a road condition that he hates more than anything else, askew tracks.
At the turning points I left and ran up the road to check if it was manageable, put heavy stones aside and tried to help wherever it was possible. When we got through this part we felt great relief and safety. Unfortunately, this was only meant to be the start of the catastrophe. Only a few meters from the top a passageway way lying ahead with extremely askew parts and without possibilities to reverse. Leander also left Akela and checked. Nervously he paced up and down with the result that it was too late to turn around.
He went back to the cab, switched to all-wheel drive and gave it a try. The truck slowly moved and with every spin of the wheel it tilted more and more into the grooves. Leander maneuvered the truck very slowly, sweat on his forehead and his eyes moved left and right with every inch he got further. While he was driving I was checked the front of the truck. I felt warm and cold at the same time and I could hear my heart racing crazily in my chest. My scared and anxious looks every time I looked into the drivers cab certainly didn’t help to get through this. When Leander told Lennox to leave the car I realized how dangerous the situation was. Leander only does that when he isn’t sure anymore that it will all go well.
With a certain distance to the truck our boy and I walked followed it. Lennox didn’t understand the seriousness of the moment, which probably was the better option anyway. He was relaxed like if it was an everyday situation and kept on talking about his daydreams while I was close to losing myself. I could barely stand the tension anymore. The moment Akela slipped off the track and tilted over I instinctively grabbed Lennox’ hand, closed my eyes and waited for the big bang to come. The truck was leaning at such a dangerous angle that the flap of a butterfly would have been enough to give it the last push to fall off the cliff. I sent a last prayer to the angels not to let us down…and it helped. Slowly but surely the road got flat again, and Akela got back into balance.

When he reached the top Leander left the truck and raised his arms to the sky and as a sign of gratitude he patted the cab a few times. Our Oldie mastered the worst part that we had to drive up to that day. I ran to Leander and flung my arms around him. For a few seconds we were just standing there, happy to have reached the top. The weight that fell off us could certainly be heard over miles. After the first shock was gone we walked back to inspect the key part again that nearly cost our lives. What we saw when we got there drew a smile on our faces but also drove us mad about our own stupidity. Not far from our route there was another road, a way less nerve killing one that led up to the top. No extreme turns, no askew bits, simply a normal road. How stupid and blind have we been not to see this proper track? When I took a closer look, it seemed like we forced Akela up the hikers trail instead of the easy Sunday ride one. However, being angry didn’t help the situation and the fact that it all ended well was the important factor. After our adrenaline got back to normal we all boarded the truck again and followed the grassy road towards the lake which greeted us with some pretty reflections of the sun.

Song Kol lake laid peacefully between green hills and snow-covered mountain tops. Wild horses were grazing all over the place. It seemed highly unreal. One think in this perfect looking environment seemed odd to me when I was looking outside the window. Akela was rolling over a white meadow, but somehow the colour was not due to fresh snow. To make sure what it was we stopped the truck and left it. When I took a closer look, I couldn’t believe my eyes! The ground was covered in alpine edelweiss. We couldn’t take a single careful step without standing on these precious plants that are under protection in Austria. Here in the Song Kol area the flowers are considered as the horses’ favourite food and the ones we saw were indeed munching these rare plants with great pleasure. A scene like in a dream, incredible! Although Austrian botanists would probably get a heart attack. Considering the fact that 2-3 edelweiss were nothing in this area I picked them and put them in my book to try and to have a souvenir of this amazing place.

We quickly found the Yurt camp that Alex suggested. We parked Akela a little bit outside of the camp and stated exploring the site. The lake wasn’t easy accessible as the last few meters of the shore were pretty swampy. However, the 11 degrees would have been too cold to swim in it anyway, even for our little seal Lennox. Still impressed by the stunning scenery and the amount of edelweiss we slowly walked towards the camp and asked the locals if there was a possibility to ride a horse the next day. 10€ per day seemed like a fair price compared to how much lessons cost in Austria. At 10am the next day, 2 of the horses should be saddled and ready for us. I spent the rest of the afternoon by cleaning up Akela, which was certainly needed, whilst the boys played outside.
The next morning warm sun rays that came through the gap in our truck woke us. Excited we jumped out of our beds, quickly downed our breakfast, packed the backpacks with warm clothes and food and headed towards the Yurts. Time to ride a horse!
My last experience with horses were about 30 years ago and Leander never mounted one. Let’s see how this one ends! Our two four legged friends were already waiting for us. Whoever might think now that we got a quick introduction by the locals is certainly wrong. The farmer gave us the reins and let us mount the horses, which seemed like an easy task to start with. Leander had Lennox on his horse while I was alone. The owner mimicked pulling the rein to the left, the right and backwards and that was all he did. He smacked the bottom of the horses and the adventure started. After some time, we felt pretty comfortable and safe on the back of the horses also due to the fact that we knew they weren’t race horses.

On the contrary, it was rather hard to get them going, not to talk making them run. However, there was the whole day left to practise. Relaxed we led them along the shores where they stopped at a small river to satisfy their thirst before we started riding up the hilly hinterland. It was a wonderful day, just the three of us in this beautiful landscape. Whenever the path was getting steep we dismounted the horses and led them upwards and while we had a break we let them run free and watched them filling their tummies with the lovely edelweiss. In the sky above, falcons and eagles were circling through the air while lake Song Kol was lying right at our feet and completed this idyllic picture. In the afternoon we came back from our trip and suddenly, as if jinxed, our horses started to run. Maybe it was n jinx but simply the fact that they saw the Yurts and thought their day will end soon.
They were so wrong. For the last few meters we tested how far our animal friends could really go. Even Lennox wanted to ride on his own and managed to stay aboard even in the fastest speed, because well, average is for little boys. To the disadvantage of the horses we still didn’t want to call it a day. Leander had some romantic shots in his mind where the horses would play a key role. When the sun kissed the horizon, he got his camera and got some amazing pictures with the horses and me. Some of the most beautiful pics I’ve ever seen, I love them.

At over 3000 metres above sea level it is rather chilly even if there’s a clear sky. We wanted sun, beaches and the ocean and that’s why we left Song Kol lake after one more night and headed towards Issyk Kul lake. Vanessa and Gerhard, a lovely couple from Austria whom we met in Buchara and spent a nice evening together, finally told us the coordinates of their favourite place near this lake. According to their descriptions it would be the best place to hand out for a few days. Only 300km parted us from that place. Issyk Kul is the second biggest mountain lake in the world, only topped by Lake Titicaca (Bolivia/Peru), and measures 700m at its deepest spot. Its depth is also the reason why the Russian marine forces used to test their submarines in the waters of the lake. Nowadays, its serves more as a recreation area for Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and Russians. Especially the northern shores offer a lot of Hotels and holiday resorts to accommodate the masses of tourists during the summer months and that´s why we headed straight to the South. Also because that’s where Vanessas and Gerhards favourite spot is located. Although short, the shitty roads forced us to make several stops on the way there. Our first stop was right at the start of Issyk Kul lake. The lake was warm and clean but as we arrived rather late we postponed the swimming session to the next day. That’s what we thought until the moment when Lennox started shouting from the outside while I was in the truck preparing our dinner. When I looked out, I saw how he tried to get rid of the mud that covered him after falling head first into a puddle while playing. So, under screams of protest, the only option was to wash him in the lake. The next morning all the three of us jumped into the lake together. Armed with shampoo we also had our morning wash, which was more than needed. After that we started our day in the car and drove along the shores of the 200km broad lake. From the main road the coastline looked very inviting. Shade-giving trees all over the shores and the reflections of the lake were shining through the leaves. However, we were too slow in the morning so that all the good spots were already taken. It was a day of the weekend during summer break and a reason for many to pack their tents and enjoy the lake. We continued searching for a perfect spot when we finally had the impression that we found a cosy place. Leander turned onto the sand piste and headed towards the beach. When we left the truck, we got that ugly view that we already got used to, Rubbish all over the place. But it was already too late. Lennox was already swimming in the lake and we weren’t bothered to continue finding a better place. So we grabbed a big bin bag and started cleaning up the place to make it a bit more pleasant. As soon as we were finished, two men approached us. They showed us their ID´s and said they were part of the eco-police. Camping close to the water is prohibited in your own car and they advised us to park Akela on the road. Bribing them (about 20€) would have allowed us to stay. We told them our views on how ridiculous their definition of an eco-police force was, seeing that this beach looked like a dump. One of the pair gave us a thumbs-up for our tidying up while the other one shouted at us and threatened us with slashing our tires if we wouldn’t move. Annoyed by those two wannabe policemen we packed our stud and hit the road again. Not being keen on having another ‘adventure’ like that, we headed straight towards Gerhard and Vanessas promised paradise. For heaven’s sake we were so much looking forward to finally find some time to relax at that place. According to our navigation device we left the road at the next intersection which would lead us to the destination. The street led us through high reed and past demolished houses down to the lake until we reached a gate. The fellow Austrians told us that there is a small fee for camping, which we were ready to pay as long as we could finally get some rest - and tidiness. The camping site was located on a peninsula and seemed to be vast. In some places we could see tents which were easy to drive by. A few meters away from the water we found a perfect place to leave our Oldie. Not a single human being for miles. Die pebbly beach was mostly clean, the water of the lake transparent and the view just breathtaking. The snowy mountain tops of the Tien Shan mountain range looked down on us while we changed into our bathing gear and jumped into the lake. Gerhard and Vanessa weren’t lying, it was the most beautiful place that we have seen in a while. Thanks for telling us about this special place. It was obvious that the three of us enjoyed the break a lot after going through some really stressful weeks. No alarm in the morning, no bumpy roads, just chilling and being happy…how pleasant! When all of a sudden our German friends Sonja and Michael, whom we met on the Greek motorway months ago, appeared we even had nice company. Lennox especially enjoyed running around naked on the beach and building castles out of sand. However, in-between swimming and trolling around there was also time for some lessons, which was way more pleasant in the sun compared to the rocking roads in Akela. When finally all our food and sun screen was gone we took our Honda from the back of the truck and drove to the next village. A very nice feeling to have the wind going through your hair by taking a ride on the motorcycle in these foreign regions. After four days Sonja and Michael said farewell and moved on to Kazakhstan. We stayed one more day and then started packing. We were ready to hit the road and went one last time back to the lake to say goodbye and capture the good vibes of the place when a certain sadness overcame us. Under heavy tears we cuddled and sighed how beautiful this lake was and how long we haven’t felt so much at home than here. It didn’t feel like the time was right to leave this place of warmth and easiness and exchange it for asphalt and dust once more. Long story short, we decided to stay one more day. Faster than light we got rid of our clothes and went for some skinny dipping, fooled around and just enjoyed the day. It might sound strange but this last day brought back the last spark of motivation to go back on the road the next day and head to the town of Karakol.

In the local language Karakol means black arm and the origin of the name goes back to a Russian military base in the 1860s. The town lies about 5km south of the eastern end of Yssyk Kul. These days it is mostly a hub for tourists with a lot of hotels, souvenir shops and travel agencies that offer tours through the surrounding area. The main reason why we stopped there wasn’t a souvenir but our empty water tank. Michael and Sonja told us the contact details of the Riverside hostel where we tried our luck and asked for water. What was planned to be a short stop ended in an overnight stay. Andre, the Dutch owner of the hostel and all the guests welcomed us with open arms and we couldn’t resist this welcoming atmosphere. The day ended with BBQ and some thrilling stories and a lot of information from all the other travellers. Andre even told us the contact details of a local and still authentic eagle hunter! Since we’ve been traveling we were looking forward to meet an eagle hunter. Even in our wildest dreams we didn’t think that Kyrgyzstan would be the place where this dream would be fulfilled, because our latest information was that eagle hunting is mostly practised in remote areas of Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and certainly not in summer. Although, to reach the hunters place we had to go back to the southern shores of the lake which wasn’t our initial plan at all. In our order to make our dream come true we changed our plans and headed back to Yssyk Kul. We met Xenia and Martin (XT-Adventures) from Switzerland who were traveling on motorbikes and also stayed in the Riverside. The chemistry between the four of us seemed to be perfect and that’s why we decided to hit the road together for the next few days. The evening before starting this adventure we found out that Martin is a carpenter and kindly asked him a favour, because the bumpy roads in the last few countries pretty much damaged all our furniture. Without hesitation he repaired our shower door that wouldn’t lock anymore and fixed other small bits that needed mending. After this we could start the trip. On our way to the hunter there was the Fairy Tale Canyon. We didn’t pay much attention to it the last time we passed by and that’s why we decided to spend the night there. After about 100km along the shores of the lake we reached the intersection that led to the canyon. By the time we reached the place the sun already started to set and that’s why the visit of the Fairy Tale Canyon had to wait for the next morning. The gorge, that’s called Skazka by the locals, was only a few kilometres away from the main street and certainly deserves it’s English name. Over centuries nature formed the steep cliffs of the canyon that gave us the impression of standing in front of the Chinese Wall. Still, it was not the canyon but the colourful hills that made my day. From dark brown to golden yellow all colours could be found in this stone, colours that I only knew from tree leaves in spring. These amazing hills paired with the bizarre sand stone formations and the blue of the distant lake formed a scenery that could easily be described in an old fairy tale.

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