Though you might think that each day on a journey like this is blessed by beautiful fairy tale scenery, gourmet ethnic food, impeccable accommodation, comfortable transport and the best that humanity has to offer, the reality is often different. We thought it might be interesting to share what a “perfect day” looks and feels like to us.
While waiting to extend our Kyrgyz visa in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, we opted for a getaway to Manzhyly, a shepherd’s outpost on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, the second-largest alpine lake in the world.
So, the perfect day in Kyrgyzstan:
- An internet connection that works. As always, we’re on the hook for some last-minute communication before we disappear for a few days. This time, the internet actually works and we spend more time typing and transacting than waiting and scratching our heads.
- We arrive at the marshrutka (minivan) stop in Karakol to get the last 2 seats on the next marshrutka out. This means no standing for hours or eating our knees, sitting on a tiny stool no more than 4 inches off the ground.
- Our fellow passengers, three jovial Kyrgyz families don't just pelt us with the typical battery of questions – they sing for us and give us apples for our journey. One woman wanted to give us a bottle of vodka, but we graciously declined. We enjoy entertaining the locals with our battered Russian, but it’s a real treat when they do a little open-kimono and tell us a little about themselves.
- With the help of our fellow passengers, we’re instructed to get off the marshrutka in the middle of nowhere…turns out to be exactly where we were supposed to get off.
- We take a picnic lunch of apples, pears, and chocolate in the early afternoon autumn sunshine on the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. Its perfectly clear waters and crisp air provide a perfect setting to take a deep breath…and a dip.
- After a short walk, we’re greeted by a friendly Kyrgyz woman who shows us to the yurt where we'll be spending the night. She pulls back the felt at the top of the yurt, yielding an instant skylight. Our accommodation is clean, colorful and comfortable.
- We set off for a short hike nearby. Our host's dog acts as a guide and leads us up a dry creek bed into the hills. As we ascend from the creekbed, our trail yields to Arizona-style red rocks on one side and snow covered peaks on the other. It was only a 90-minute hike and may be the least effort we've ever exerted for such amazing views.
- We watch shepherds bring their sheep and goats home for the evening. The animals’ munching sounds provide the perfect symphony.
- As the sun sets, we descend to our yurt. The red rocks we leave behind us are almost outdone by autumn-touched golden hills and blue backdrop of Issyk-Kul. We begin to wonder, Has someone planned all of this?
- Our feast in a yurt is a lovely candlelit spread of home-cooked oromo (cabbage, carrots, onions and meat in a flat pasta roll – delicious!), fruit, tea, and salad. Tasty and thankfully very light on the meat. It is one of the best local meals we've had in a long time.
- With the sun tucked away and our bellies full, we emerge from our dining yurt to find a sky stitched with stars. We pull up a bench and gaze at star clusters and falling stars.
- Since we're here approaching the low season, tourists are few. Our host carefully prepares a double bed for us in our own yurt, complete with fluffy pillows and warm duvets for a pleasantly cool night ahead.
- An aside. Not to ruin the ambience here, but the outhouse was the most immaculate on the planet. Anyone who has traveled for a long time can appreciate this point.
- After morning light and breakfast, we hit the local cemetery. Sounds strange, we know. But the views from the cemetery hillside are impressive. The graves are also unique and range from metal funeral yurts to elaborate sandstone and mud brick mausoleums.
- While waiting to hitch a ride, we meet an old shepherd riding his donkey. With 76 years of wisdom under his sagging belt, he tells us that we should wander, learn and explore while we're young. We’re shocked to find a kindred spirit connection halfway around the world on top of a donkey. He tells us that the next time we return, we're his guests – though he expects us to learn some Kyrgyz.
- We hitch a series of rides along the shoreline of the lake, getting out, walking, gazing, and snapping photos along the way for several hours. The changeable autumn weather shrouds and reveals layers of farms, meadows, desert hills and snow-touched mountains. Horses graze, the locals pick potatoes and turn hay and another day finds its end in the march towards winter. Virtually everyone waves, many smile – and some even pose for the camera. The locals aren't used to tourists walking along the side of the road, but are happily surprised by our interest in their activities.
- We chase our shadows, and for a moment our perfect day looks lost. Of the few cars and marshrutkas that pass, all are full to the brim. Our savior eventually comes in the form of an almost full marshrutka. A crowd of locals makes space and conversation and guides our arrival for dinner back in our temporary home of Karakol.
With the onset of (hopefully) more reliable internet in China, we expect to write much more about our experiences in Kyrgyzstan and the rest of Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan).