We’re determined to explore every bit of Kyrgyzstan while we’re here so we headed down to Toktogul to squeeze in one last backpacking trip before the snow comes. Getting to Toktogul from our home in Balykchy requires a trip through Bishkek and we spent the night there to break up the long journey. In the morning, we headed to the taxi stand to locate a taxi. Normally we would take a marshrutka between cities but apparently due to a large number of accidents on the bad mountain roads they are no longer allowed. We found a Toktogul taxi driver who told us he’d be leaving soon, just needed two more passengers… maybe 30 minutes. An hour later the two additional passengers were sitting in the car but the driver was just strolling around and didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Another 30 minutes went by and we became increasingly aggravated as another passenger had taken a seat but still we waited. Finally enough passengers showed up for the taxi to fill and we took off, only to stop after 15 minutes so the ladies could spend 15 minutes buying bread. Just double the time you think you need to get anywhere in this country.
An hour later we were out of the city to a part of the country we hadn’t seen before. Turning towards the mountains we drove up and came to a toll booth, after this the road became twisty and climbed steadily. I struggled to make out the scenery through the limo-tint glass as the road kept climbing the mountains. I turned on my phone to see we reached 10,200’ at the top of the pass as we entered a very long and narrow tunnel. We entered the tunnel under sunny skies but 3 or 4 minutes later we popped out and into winter. Snow was falling and covered the roadway. We stopped here for a rest stop, it felt 30 degrees colder than when we left Bishkek. Heading down the mountain we reached a high plateau, technically in Talas Oblast, that seemed beautiful but I could barely see through the window. The next two hours were mostly uneventful except for the amusing incidents where the car is forced to slow and honk its way through herds of sheep moving down the road.
We arrived in Toktogul and met Max’s family before grabbing some food and turning in for the night. The next morning our plan was to meet the rest of the group, hire a taxi and head out by 10am or so. Kyrgyzstan manages to delay any plan, this time it was Peace Corp’s doing with a surprise consolidation drill and we had to wait for all the volunteers in the area to meet. So, we waited. After an hour or so all the volunteers arrived and with the requirements met, we left. From Google Earth it looked like there was a road three or four miles up the valley we were headed towards, Bala-Chychkan and we hoped the driver would take us all the way but the road quickly turned to shit and so we walked. It was a perfect day for hiking and chatted as we walked down the road, past the confused but friendly locals wondering where four foreigners with huge packs could possibly be going.
The road ended and turned into a nice trail. After a couple hours we found a nice spot to camp and set up. Max, Taylor and I went for a little walk up the side of the hill to scout out things for tomorrow while JoFo and Britta rested. That evening we sat near the river on the rocks and built a fire. The river level was lower this late in the year and made a nice, clean, cowpie-free area to eat dinner. As a bonus, the river was very close and was a convenient ‘fridge’ for the eggs and vodka. We ate and relaxed, enjoying the campfire and the company. Great first day.
The second day we woke up to clouds but assumed they would burn off as they had the night before. We began hiking up the valley hoping to find a route across the river at some point. It was an easy hike and very scenic but darker clouds were ahead of us. Soon enough we were in showers and sought refuge under a large tree. A man on a horse came by and offered to take us to his tent but we declined, confident the rain would blow past. Awhile later, he came back and told us his sister insisted we come, with the rain continuing to fall we happily agreed. He showed us the secret way across the river the locals use and we headed up the hill to the beautiful tent site perched on a large flat spot on the side of the hill. We enjoyed warm milk and bread while the woman told us everything she could think of (at one point she stopped and said, ‘well, what else can I say?’) Before we left she took us down the hill to the best apple trees around. Not wanting to climb the tree to pick apples, she directed me where to throw large rocks to knock them out of the trees. Satisfied we had enough apples to properly appreciate them she showed us the path up the valley.
Scanning the hillside and referencing the GPS, it seemed doable to head up this valley for a bit and then traverse the side back towards our camp in the direction of a bridge we had seen coming up the day before. It was doable but not exactly enjoyable and we headed back down the main valley past our camp to the bridge. A short time later we were back in camp and headed straight to our ‘fridge’ as we noticed the water level rising. We managed to recover our eggs which were hanging onto a rock, nearly getting swept away. One of two vodka bottles were found, the other likely floating down the river to whatever lucky man found it. Our river fire-pit now submerged we setup a new one near our tents. We built the fire, cooked dinner and had another nice night.
The next day we hiked out to our pickup spot and went back to town. We met Britta’s family to buy 5 liters of her family’s phenomenal honey (really, this city’s honey wins international awards.) After lunch we got some of the world-famous Toktogul ice cream (not award winning but pretty good) and caught a taxi back to Bishkek. The ride back was nice and had windows we could actually see through so we could enjoy the scenery. Another part of the country explored, we’ve now seen 3 of the 7 oblasts and can’t wait to see the rest!