Good?“ We asked our driver in broken Russian. “Good, good!” he replied. Only a moment later he turned his head around, smiled and said: “Big problem.”
Outside of the car windows, everything was white, drowned in the thick snowstorm that has suddenly washed over the mountain pass between Osh and Bishkek. To our left, coming the opposite direction, every second car was stuck in deep snow and couldn’t move neither forward nor backward. People were on the road literally pushing the cars up the mountain.
Arslanbob – Kyrgyzstan’s most entrepreneurial Community Based Tourism (CBT)
After relaxing for two days in unspectacular Osh and celebrating the survival of the Pamir Highway (especially with great food in the Brio Café), we made our way to our first real destination in Kyrgyzstan, Arslanbob. Arslanbob is particularly famous for being situated right next to the world’s largest walnut forest, some hiking and horse-trekking opportunities and the infamous Hayat, Arslanbob’s CBT-coordinator.
Getting to Arslanbob from Osh was a little bit of a hassle for us as we were bogged down by a really annoying taxi driver and we missed the only Mashrutka going that day. We therefore had to make a detour through another city, Jalal-Abad, and only arrived in Arslanbob with a shared taxi. However, the taxi driver drove us straight to the CBT office, Hayat’s kingdom.
After arranging our homestay (a really nice one with amazing showers, rooms and food), Hayat offered us to do a three-day horse-trekking through the holy lakes in the mountains near Arslanbob. The problem was that Hayat, when arranging tours, basically tried to employ the entire village: It was obvious we needed to hire a guide for this trip as apart from Nicole, none of us had any experience with horses. But Hayat also insisted that we needed a mountain cook. And because we were now five people with five horses (us three + guide + cook), we also needed to hire an additional horseman. When we suggested that we had camping equipment and could cook for ourselves, Hayat still claimed that the guide needed his own mountain cook!
In any case, because it had snowed the days before, we could only start the tour the day after tomorrow, so that we had some time to consider the offer. The next day, we set out early to explore the vast walnut forests and some nearby waterfalls. September is harvest time, so we really experienced the villagers working in the forest and received some of the freshest walnuts we ever had. The waterfall was quite a disappointment though. It was titled Big Waterfall, but was rather small and maybe not worth the steep climb.
We met Hayat again after our hike and, to the surprise of all of us, he sad that we couldn’t do the horse-trekking because of the snow in the mountain passes. We were all a little bit disappointed, but also relieved that we didn’t have to decide whether to do the tour or not. Then suddenly (now not able to sell us the entire village), Hayat tried to employ us as volunteers! He suggested that David could stay in Arslanbob for free if he did some photography for CBT. Apparently, some people have taken up his offer and for instance bolted climbing routes or taught the local guides how to ski. That was obviously still a little bit weird, but we told him that we would think about it for the next summer.
Because there was nothing to do anymore in Arslanbob with snow in the mountains, we took a taxi (organized by Hayat) to Bishkek the next day (where we got into the snowstorm).
A taste of spring in Karakol and Jeti-Öguz
Because of bad weather all over Kyrgyzstan, there was not much to do in Bishkek and we soon after headed around lake Issyk-Kol to Karakol. The fourth largest city in Kyrgyzstan, it became one of the tourist hotspots because it is located next to the Tian-Shan mountain range, Chinese for the “celestial” mountains. Little could we have guessed that Karakol would become something like our “home” for the entire next week.
Through the recommendations of a fellow traveler we met in Bishkek, we stayed in a very recently opened hostel called the tent hostel. The name quite literally describes what the unique idea behind this hostel is: the biggest room in the hostel was filled with (quite big) single person and double person tents, each equipped with a light, mattresses and plugs (so quite luxurious compared to our tent)! And because the five of us (apart from Kevin & Nicole and David, we met Theresa and Dennis) were the only guests in the hostel, we literally owned the place. The owner, a really nice and helpful guy, even gave us spare keys for the entire hostel because he himself wasn’t in the hostel all the time. Karakol also became very homey because we discovered a cozy café with amazing cakes and a very fat cat (the café was also called fat cat). So in the end, we stayed almost a week and probably drank way too much in the meantime.
On the third day or so, the weather finally started to clear up a little bit. So we made a small day trip to a village nearby, Jeti-Öguz. The village is famous because it sits under a very spectacular and photogenic rock formation, consisting of seven red colored rock domes, called the “Seven Bulls”. The village was also the starting point to a hike into the nearby valley of flowers, which sits beautifully between huge glaciers on either side.
Here in the lush valleys, winter was still far away and autumn turned out to be the best season for traveling this part of Kyrgyzstan. The valley (quite popular with locals in summer) was basically deserted now and the trees were especially beautiful between greens and yellows.
We hiked along a meandering river until we came upon an open field with very well constructed, Swiss style house and thought that maybe Hayat from Arslanbob was starting to build his new home.
The hike would have eventually led us to a waterfall, but everyone we have met told us that it would not be worth it, so we also let go of that idea.
For the next two days we planned a two-day hike through the Karakol valley up to Ala-Kol lake and the coldest night in our life. But that's a long story and worth telling another time!
Kevin and Nicole, written in Karakol