Song Kol Photos

Eric

There are several spots in Kyrgyzstan that come up over and over on traveler’s lists, Song Kol is definitely a big one.  Despite it being barely two hours away, we had yet to visit it so I arranged a trip for a quick weekend trip.  Six of us headed up early on a Saturday and stayed in one of the many yurts.  The trip was nice but to be honest, there are many better places in Kyrgyzstan.  Perhaps it’s just easily accessible so many tourists go but if you’re time is limited, I’d skip it.  If you do have the time, Song Kol is worth seeing but I’d stay just one night unless there is a festival going on.

Here are some Song Kol photos from our trip:

 

I also made a short video testing out doing timelapses

Details: You can either go to Naryn or Kochkor and just find a driver on your own (should be about 1500KGS each way) or pre-arrange a ride through CBT or Shepherd’s Life (no website, located in Kochkor near the taxi stand) for a bit higher price but everything is much more convenient.  CBT or Shepherd’s life can arrange your yurt stay but there are many up there if you are taking your own taxi.  A stay in a yurt, dinner and breakfast will be 900-1000KGS per person.

Chatyr-Kul & Kol Suu – The best trip in Kyrgyzstan

Finally, Kol Suu

Before I get to the this trip, I wanted to link to an interview I recently did with the Amateur Traveler podcast on Kyrgyzstan: Podcast interview

Two years ago, Taylor and I accepted our invites to Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan and I immediately began researching what I could and looking all the places I wanted to see.  One spot kept sticking in my mind as the number one spot I had to see, Kel Suu (I’ve since learned, not the real name, an explanation is below this post.)  But being so far from everything and in the mountains near China, I didn’t know how feasible a trip would be.  Earlier this summer we went on a great hike near an ancient building called Tash Rabat which was not that far from both Chatyr-Kul and Kel Suu.  I got the idea to link up a hike to the lake with a drive to Kel Suu, we just needed to find a driver, explore permits, etc.

Exploring Naryn
Exploring Naryn

Our friend Tamara lived closest to the area and has been working with tourism organizations.  She was able to make all the contacts and arrangements for drivers, our yurt stays, etc.  As the date approached, she and our other friend for the trip went to the police station to get the border-zone permit as they were told the process was.  While Tay and I packed and made our way to Naryn, Shaun and Tamara ran all over Naryn visiting various offices and trying to get permission to visit the border zone.  By the time we had arrived they gave up so we visited the local CBT office who told us they would absolutely be able to get us the permit the next day.  It gave us time to see some people in Naryn and the next day, the permit did indeed arrive (their contact info is below) and we went to At-Bashi to spend the night for our early start.

We met up in the morning with the same driver we rode to Tash Rabat with before. He drove us past their family’s yurts and Tash Rabat to the end of the road shaving some time off our trip.  I wrote more about the hike in the last Tash Rabat post so I’ll skip to the end of the valley where we turned around last time.  We knew there were several routes to take from the end of the valley.  When we arrived and we saw the multitude of options, the directions given to us in Kyrgyz and the hastily drawn map on the dusty window of the car suddenly seemed inadequate.  We studied the GPS, made a decision and headed up the steep scree to our intended pass.  This part of the hike wasn’t fun but we were up in under an hour.  At the top, snow started to fall… yes, it was August still.  But snow is better than rain and we continued on. We didn’t hike down the hill for long when we saw Chatyr-Kul Lake, we picked the right pass!  Our excitement was lessened when, after another 20 minutes, we saw our route ended in a waterfall.  Backtracking and picking another pass sounded exhausting… Shaun went up a narrow chute and discovered a path that would work – not the easiest route but doable.

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Tash Rabat – Winter in May

Entry gate to Naryn City
The entry gate to Naryn City.

Before visiting Tash Rabat, in the deep Southern part of Naryn, we were warned two things: It can snow any time of the year and the (possibly haunted) fort itself had an unknown number of rooms as it was impossible to count them accurately.  With that in mind, four of us set off with our former host father to At-Bashy where we stayed the night with another volunteer before our morning ride out to Tash Rabat.  As our SUV drove South of At-Bashy, much farther South than we’d been before, we stopped at the decaying ruins of Koshoy Korgon.  This Korgon (one of the Kyrgyz words for fort) is named after Koshoy Baatyr, one of Manas’ generals, who is thought to have ordered the fort’s construction.  The fort was interesting but really hard to envision what once was.  Also strange that you can just walk all over what in the States would certainly be protected in some way.

Koshoi-Korgon
Koshoi-Korgon, a small fort in Naryn thought to have been built by a close friend of Manas.
Ancient walls of Koshoi-Korgon
Koshoi-Korgon, a small fort in Naryn thought to have been built by a close friend of Manas.

We continued the drive towards Tash Rabat and as we entered the valley we finally saw yaks!  Yaks are a centuries-old tradition in Kyrgyzstan but was largely lost during the Soviet days.  Now, the government is actively trying to promote the practice and dramatically increase the number of yaks from the approximately 31,000 there are now (here’s a brief Reuters video with a little more info.)  Our driver laughed at our delight in seeing yaks but at least the whole group was entertained.  We pulled up to the yurt camp and unloaded our bags quickly so we could start our hike.

Yak!
We finally saw our first yak, with a baby!

Our first stop was Tash Rabat itself.  Tash Rabat is a 15th century caravanserai restored (poorly?) by the Soviet Union in the 80s.  The origin and use is argued about but it was likely some sort of rest spot, market and occasional prison for travelers/traders on the ancient silk road.  There’s a fee to enter and after a brief negotiation the woman agreed to give us the locals price since we spoke Kyrgyz (she quizzed us.)  Tash Rabat turned out to be surprisingly interesting and much larger than it looked from the outside.

We left Tash Rabat and the road behind as we hiked up the valley.  Soon, the valley filled with shrieks every time we came around a corner.  It didn’t take long to spot the source of the noise, marmots, hundreds of them lived on both sides of the valley.  When we came into view of a new group they would shriek out a warning call and we would get glimpses of the furry animals scurrying down into their holes.  The trail had patches of snow we crossed while walking up a narrow river valley.  The scenery was incredible and after 5 or 6 miles in we decided we had gone far enough, the end of the valley in site but too far to make today.

While resting, we saw our friends who had left much earlier hoping to get a glimpse of Chatyr Kol.  The skies began to darken and as a group we all headed back towards camp.  Along the way, the dogs who had followed our friends on their hike found a dead marmot which the larger one devoured, a bit disconcerting given the story about the teenager who contracted bubonic plague and died after eating a marmot three years ago.  Nearing the camp, rain began to fall and we could see flashes in the sky from lightning in the next valley over.  We were a bit tired and cold but when the rain turned to hail it was motivation enough to hurry up back to the safety of our yurts.  We rested until dinner and had a nice time in the large dining yurt making food and talking with the daughter of the yurt camp owner.  Snow began to fall, ensuring we would indeed experience all four seasons in a day at Tash Rabat.  The next day we woke up to beautiful, fresh snow on the ground.

Want to visit Tash Rabat?  Trips to Tash Rabat can be arranged from the CBTs in Kochkor or Naryn but we stayed at Sabyrbek’s awesome yurt camp.  They can arrange for taxis out to Tash Rabat and beyond as well from either At-Bashy or Naryn.  They can be reached at 0772 221 252, 0773 889 098 or a.tursun29@mail.ru

 

Kotor – the Not-So-Secret Gem on the Adriatic

Top of Kotor Town Walls

Ah, Kotor.  Somehow this tiny little town in a country I couldn’t place on a map a year ago has popped up again and again as travel bloggers I follow visit.  Based on little more than a photograph I saw last summer, I googled ‘How to get to from Belgrade to Kotor,’ learned about the Belgrade to Bar train and planned the rest of this trip around it.  Did Kotor live up to it all?  Yep! Cheap (and delicious) food, friendly people and spectacular views.  There’s not a lot of secrets left to tell in Kotor, everyone seems to write about Kotor now.  Avoid the cruise crowds midday, bring water when you hike up the town walls and eat a lot.  Maybe it was just because I’ve been living in the most land-locked country in the world for the past year but man, the food here was excellent.  I don’t have anything else to say but I took a lot of photos, here ya go!

Belgrade to Bar Train

There’s many reasons to visit both Serbia and Montenegro but let’s skip all those for now – they are awesome and I know you’re already planning a trip there.  If you are trying to figure out how to get from Belgrade, Serbia to Montenegro you may be skimming Tripadvisor forums and finding all the suggestions about renting a car or taking the super convenient and cheap bus.  Ignore that. Take the train.

The (somewhat infamous) Belgrade to Bar train opened in 1975 some 23 years after construction began (15 years more than expected according so some sources online.)  The massive delay to the opening was perhaps a sign of the problems to come.  In the 1990s the train systems were chronically underfunded resulting in deterioration of the line.  In 1999, UN bombing destroyed a large section of the train line and the 6 mile stretch that runs through Bosnia was blown up by UN ground forces whose mission was to maintain stability in the region.  The track was rebuilt however in 2006 just north of the Montenegro capital of Podgorica, a southbound local train derailed killing 45 people and injuring another 184 (this was not the same train as the Belgrade-Bar but they shared the same route in this section.)  Following the accident the maximum speed permitted was further reduced and a ride that originally took 7 hours now takes 11 assuming no delays.  Lastly, in the summer of 2014, serious flooding in the Balkans damaged the track again.  This was also rebuilt and as of May, 2015 the train is back on the normal daily schedule.

Graffiti on Train
Graffiti on old trains we passed. According to our couchette-mate, these trains stopped working after UN bombing in 1999.

During summer months, there are 2-3 daily trains in each direction (the schedule changes depending on the year) with at least one day and one night train.  We opted for the day train after hearing it’s one of the most scenic train rides in Europe.  Leaving the train station shortly after 9am there was immediately scenery, but not the type I was expecting.  Lining the tracks as you depart from Belgrade are a large number of inoperable, graffiti-covered train cars.  Are couchette-mate, a talkative man in his 60s, was quick to point out these have been inoperable since being bombed by American and England (knowing we were one of the two but not knowing Taylor’s father could understand his German.)  True or not, it definitely set the mood for the rest of the trip and is a sentiment for the rest of the trip.  The older folk in Serbia tend towards being reminiscent about the past and seem to gloss over the atrocities of the 90s, stating things as fact, not judging you if you come from a country that participated in the bombings.  True to form, after returning from a smoke break the man brought George and me a beer.  No hard feelings, the facts just are what they are.

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Belgrade – Forget the qualifiers, it’s just awesome.

Belgrade sunset

Reading about Belgrade before our trip I kept reading about how despite the ‘grit and rough edges,’ Belgrade is ‘actually a pretty decent city.’ We were going to Belgrade based on the recommendations of friends so I suspected we’d like it more than the lukewarm praise online made it sound.  It took about two minutes of walking outside our apartment and I knew my friends were right – Belgrade is awesome.  There are a handful of cities around the world that Taylor and I loved it instantly and this is definitely one of them. Great people, awesome food, plenty to do, easy transit system, super cheap, the list goes on.  Everywhere you go people are eating outside, you can drink anywhere you want in the city and enough people speak English there is rarely a challenge trying to order food or get a drink.  Throw in the fascinating history of Yugoslavia and I already can’t wait to go back.  We actually flew in and out of Belgrade, travelling a large loop in between, and had nearly a week there total.  Here are our favorite parts (and lots of pictures.)

Belgrade Fortress

Rising above the rest of the old city and set in Kalemegdan Park is Belgrade Fortress.  The Balkans are covered in castles and fortresses but this one is unlike the rest (or any other I’ve been to.) The entire fortress is a multi-use facility now and open 24 hours a day.  There’s a museum, several restaurants, public basketball and tennis courts and pretty killer views the Danube & Sava River confluence.  Some sections such as the Clock Tower are an extra cost to enter but most of it is open for exploring.

Belgrade Underground Tour

Continue reading “Belgrade – Forget the qualifiers, it’s just awesome.”

How to spend a layover in Istanbul

Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia

Our flights from Osh to Belgrade, Serbia included a 10 hour layover in Istanbul.  I wasn’t sure if we wanted to deal with getting a visa and planning a trip into the city but then I found out about Turkish Airlines free tours of Istanbul (or a free hotel) if you have a layover of 8 hours or more – awesome! They take you around the city, feed you and Ataturk airport is terrible anyways so it’s best to minimize your time there (scroll down for some notes on how to do the tour.)  We saw the Blue Mosque (underwhelming to me), Hagia Sophia (which I thought was awesoe) and a few other small sites.  Here’s some photos from our brief trip:

The free tour times are listed on Turkish Airlines tour site: http://www.istanbulinhours.com/. The site says you need to arrive 30 minutes before the tour starts but that doesn’t seem to be the case, they were taking on people 10 minutes before our tour starts.  There is no need to pre-register for the tour, just make sure you have your e-visa ready (most visitors can now apply for the visa online,) bring a printed copy of the visa with you.  Go through passport control and walk to the end of the hall to the right.  The hotel desk near the Starbucks at the end is where you can register.

Checking out Arslanbob (and Osh)

Arslanbob Waterfall

There are a handful of destinations in Kyrgystan that you hear of often while living here.  We’re fortunate to live at the number one destination, Issyk Kul, so instead of asking if we’ve seen it we just get asked how many times we’ve swam in it.  One of the other spots we’d heard about but not yet a chance to visit is Arslanbob.  It requires either a plane flight plus a long drive or just a REALLY long drive from Bishkek so with the family in town it was a great excuse to finally make the trip.  After the brief flight to Osh, our pre-arranged driver met us at the airport for a painfully slow but interesting drive to Arslanbob.  Even late at night where we couldn’t see much, the South of the country was clearly much different than the regions we were used to and I was pretty excited to get a sense of the Uzbek culture we’d find in Arslanbob.  We arrived to Arslanbob and spent twenty minutes knocking on a gate (don’t know who’s or why) before heading on to our CBT homestay (see below for some notes on CBT if you’re visiting Kyrgyzstan.)

Our homestay family was fantastic. The Eje (I don’t know if they call them that in Arslanbob, but I mean the grandma, the matriarch of the household) welcomed us warmly despite our 1am arrival and we immediately settled in to our very nice rooms.  The next morning we ate breakfast on the topchan (a raised platform) overlooking the Arslanbob Valley, definitely the coolest part of this homestay was the amazing view we enjoyed for every meal!  During the breakfast we tried speaking to the family with some success.  I haven’t fully explained yet but Arslanbob is a village in Kyrgyzstan but the population is nearly 100% of Uzbek ethnicity. Uzbek is a language very close to Kyrgyz so we were able to communicate a bit.

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Welcome to Kyrgyzstan George & Cindy!

The hardest part of Peace Corps is without a doubt being away from close friends and family.  Skype helps but it’s not the same.  We’ve been counting down the days until Taylor’s parents visited (Taylor literally made a countdown calendar out of rings) and the day finally arrived!  Our previous host father drove us to the airport after midnight to pick them up but Kyrgyzstan seems to have an unusual way of welcoming visitors.  All international flights seem to arrive early and usually after very long trips. Their flight was no different, it was supposed to arrive at 2:40am but it was an hour late as is so often the case.  Everyone was quite tired and not in the mood for the next surprise, 2 of their bags were missing, another Kyrgyzstan airport traditional welcome.

Nurlan drove us home and everyone rested for a bit before we gave them a trial version of the Balykchy Walking Tour (TM.)  I was excited to show family our city, everything from the beautiful beach with massive mountains in the background to the abandoned factories left over from the Soviet days.  I was reminded of our initial weeks in the country and how strange at that time it was to have herds of cows cross your path in the middle of the city or decaying ruins next to brand new construction – these all feel so normal now.

The following day we took Taylor’s parents to Bishkek via marshrutka (of course none of the crazy things happened we often see, it was a perfectly normal ride.)  We toured the city a bit and showed them the Peace Corps office in between calls to Turkish Air to try and locate our missing bags.  The best part about stopping by Bishkek was seeing a lot of the K-21s one last time before they head home.  We had a lot of great friends in this group and it will be sad to not have them around when we return to Kyrgyzstan.  Good luck K-21s!

On our second evening, we headed to the airport.  The trip on to the plane was frustrating but rather than type out a long, frustrating story, I’ll just say two things I will NOT miss from Kyrgyzstan are taxis and standing in lines (lines, ya right.)

The Halfway Point of my Peace Corps Service (in photos)

I’ve been accused of keeping my blog too positive. This may seem odd but it’s more than fair.  The things I like to write and show photos about are the highlights.  Writing a post about the many times someone just never shows up for a meeting or sitting and waiting hours for vehicles to leave (which seems to take up the bulk of my life) just doesn’t seem that interesting.  A big part of Peace Corps life (at least mine) is boredom and being aggravated by little things that just add up over time.  I haven’t had a single terrible experience but arguing with taxi drivers, convincing drunks I’m not a spy and trying to figure out how to keep my photo students motivated takes a toll (and makes the vacation I’m starting now the thing I really need.

Here, halfway through my service, I thought I’d write a post going through month by month with a few photos and thoughts on what my life was like.

May

Our first full month in country.  The days were spent learning the language, going through many Peace Corps trainings and getting to know the other new volunteers.

June

The second month of training gets very tiresome as the weather heats up.  I get tired of seeing the same faces every day, tired of learning Kyrgyz and I just want to get to my permanent site.  At the end of the month we met a couple people from our new host family.  It was awkward but it was exciting to meet them.  Finally at the end of the month we were sworn in.  It was exciting but also nerve-wracking because we were headed to our sites with colleagues we couldn’t really talk with and felt the pressure to be able to communicate and do work.

 

July

Our first month at site was packed with activities and a lot of time trying to figure out how to learn to live with a family.  We went on hikes, explored Balykchy, tried to get to know our new family and helped at a couple summer camps.  July was both good and bad.  There were some fun times with the family but also a lot of difficult times were we felt like we were doing the wrong thing but had no idea what it was or how to make it better.  The camps were fun but I got really sick and was stuck in one spot way too long.  Work was also difficult because I couldn’t say anything of substance to my main counterpart and we mostly ended up struggling to get to know each other and drinking beer.

August

August was a little more fun than July because I felt like I was getting in a bit of a routine.  We did a couple more hikes and had to go back to our training village for the last part of training.  This was miserable since it was so hot and I think all anyone wanted to do was get settled in at their permanent sites.

 

September

September was a rush of trying to fit in as many outdoor activities as we could before the weather was going to turn.  Work was going ok but a lot of the time was just spent trying to figure out what kind of work we could do together.  Things were a bit awkward with our host family and we struggled to figure out if interactions were just always going to strange or if we were doing something wrong.

 

October

Bike rides, trips to new regions of Kyrgyzstan and a trip to Bishkek to attend a party for our Kyrgyz teacher’s baby.  At AVEP work was going well but it could be a little boring at times when the only thing I could help with was correcting their reports (they’re written in English.)  At Danko work was pretty frustrating because I had no idea how we could work together.  Trying to discuss stuff in Kyrgyz was very difficult and my counterpart didn’t have the patience to sit with me and use Google Translate to figure out things I couldn’t say in Kyrgyz.  We decided to start a photo club which was exciting because it seemed manageable and would be fun.

November

My photo club started and sputtered in November.  Teaching in Kyrgyz was extremely difficult and we had a really hard getting kids to attend.  Also, kids had to bring their own cameras which were usually very bad and limited who could come.  At AVEP I went to several greenhouse openings, these were fun to see but I really didn’t have that much to do with the work.  Things with the host family were deteriorating and we couldn’t find a way to make things work even with my program manager coming to help.  At the end of the month we decided to move after Peace Corps said we could move to an apartment.

 

December

My photo club at Danko was basically dead but after a PC training, my counterpart and I decided to write a grant to buy cameras and give the photo club another go with the experience of one failure under our belts.  We moved into our new apartment and it was exciting but came with its own challenges, electrical fires, water outages and crazy neighbors who thought we were spies.

 

January

The New Year!  The New Year celebrations were fun.  We visited our host family for the first time since moving out.  It went better than expected but the grandma made more of the condescending comments that were part of why we moved out.  We had a really fun day at my counterpart’s house with his family.  We also took a trip to Naryn, the coldest oblast, during the coldest month.  It was beautiful and fun to meet more volunteers’ families.

February

We finally took our first trip out of the country to Dubai, a much-needed break.  We received the great news our photo club grant was approved so we began preparations for that.  I did another hike.  At AVEP we began writing a couple more proposals so the work there was a bit more interesting.  The challenge at AVEP is I feel more like an employee, I can’t really offer much in terms of ‘skills-transfer’ as the organization is already pretty advanced.

 

March

The weather was warming up which was nice but March was a pretty uneventful month.  I think the single biggest problem I’ve had in Peace Corps is boredom and this was one of those months.  Both work sites were status-quo and we were just continuing what we were doing.

April

After one of the slowest months came the busiest.  We received grant money to buy our photo club equipment and the first classes started.  It took a ton of time to translate lessons into Kyrgyz so I could teach.  At AVEP we took a trip around the oblast speaking to local farmers and politicians as part of the KARAGAT project, AVEP’s largest project.  Between all the work, we managed to go on a hike and ride our bikes to a neighboring village to visit another volunteer and her family.

 

May

Another crazy month.  My photo club was going pretty well and we did our first field trip.  We did hikes in Ala-Archa National Park and Tash Rabat.  I tried to start quite a few projects at AVEP that kept me very busy.  Best of all, Taylor’s parents came and we started our vacation.

Half of my Peace Corps service is done.  Looking back through all the photos and my notes from the first year I realize how much has happened even though it seems to be flying by and too unproductive.  Most of the volunteers who are leaving felt like their second year was much better than their first which I hope is true.