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

 

Our New Year’s in Kyrgyzstan

Fireworks

As previously mentioned, New Year’s is a big deal here.  Thrown in our versions of New Year’s Eve, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween and you are on the right track.  The festivities more or less last ten days, with many get-togethers to eat and little work (my work is on vacation still for another week.  Taylor and I celebrated Christmas alone, but we did Skype with our families which was really nice.  Our families sent us gifts from home and we put them around our Christmas tree Taylor made from a Sprite bottle before opening them.  Besides staying in pajamas all day, we had bacon with every meal (first time in 8 months!) that we had saved from our last trip to Bishkek.

 

The next day we went with my counterpart to Bishkek for a New Year’s party with my organization.  It turned out to be a large banquet hall where different companies buy several tables and the restaurant puts on a show.  There was a crazy amount of food and free beer (I took advantage.)  The entertainment including comedians, traditional dances and an Elvis impersonator (which the crowd loved.)  After the entertainment was over it was time to dance, they love to sing and dance here.  Unfortunately we had to leave before the last meal but they always save sheep for last so perhaps it was ok to miss it.

 

We came back to Balykchy for actual New Year’s Eve and went to our host family’s house (I don’t think I mentioned yet that we moved, we’ll show photos of our new place soon.) We arrived late, ate and caught up with the family on what was new.  We watched the Kyrgyz President’s 2 minute speech and then went outside to light off a firework.  Nurlan also shot off his shotgun a couple times and asked if I wanted to shoot it to.  Besides my hesitance to add to the random bullets being fired in the air it’s a major PC rule not to shoot a gun so I declined.  It was pretty fun to watch all the fireworks around Balykchy.  There are very few tall buildings so you could fireworks going off all over the place.  The next day we went to my other counterpart’s house to celebrate the New Year.  We ate a ton more food and drank a bottle of scotch (seriously, it’s just a week of eating and drinking.)  A good first New Year’s in Kyrgyzstan!  Next year we’re going to get a hotel in Bishkek to see what goes on in the capitol for New Year’s.

Holidays in Kyrgyzstan

Holidays abroad are pretty unique experiences.  Other than one Christmas in Europe I’ve always been home for the major holidays.  The holidays are definitely the hardest time to be away.  The weather in Kyrgyzstan gets cold, the days short and not much sounds better than a Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham about now.  Luckily most volunteers here live relatively close to others and for Thanksgiving all the Issyk-Kul volunteers (plus a few guests) came together in Karakol for a little American-style Thanksgiving.

Anna wrangling our dinner.  She's a pro.
Anna wrangling our dinner. She’s a pro.

We started out by going to the bazaar and finding a live turkey to slaughter for dinner the next day.  We bought the biggest guy we could find and after the vendor bagged him (easier than expected, turkeys calm down when you hang them upside down we learned) we took him in the marshrutka back to the apartment.  A bunch of Americans carrying a live turkey onto the marshrutka attracted quite a few looks… Then, the volunteers in town a day early came over to the apartment we were staying at for dinner.  Duck, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie… Delicious. Continue reading “Holidays in Kyrgyzstan”

Issyk-Ata (winter came to Kyrgyzstan)

After our trip to Almaty we met up with the Australian couple (they write at Yomadic) that’s been living here for a few weeks for a trip to Issyk-Ata.  Issyk-Ata is ‘famous’ for the mineral geothermal hotsprings and of course they contain all types of magical healing powers.  Hailing from Soviet times, Kyrgyzstan has many sanatoriums and this is one of the more popular ones.  Normally this is a summer destination but it’s beautiful in winter and we had a really good day.  Photos:

P.S. This trip happened a few weeks ago.  A lot has been going on since then so I just now had time to post this.  In the meantime, full on winter has arrived meaning skiing, icy roads and those crazy winds in Balykchy they warned us about.  More to come!

The details on getting to Issyk-Ata:

Getting to Issyk-Ata is easy as a public marshrutka leaves the East Bus Station in Bishkek on a regular schedule.  Currently, buses leave at 8:30, 10:00, 11:30, 13:30, 17:00 or 18:00.  The ride takes approximately 90 minutes and will cost about 70 som.  There is a schedule posted when you arrive to Issyk-Ata of when rides back to Bishkek will depart.  At the bus station there is not a sign in English, so you can’t read Cyrillic, ask where the Issyk-Ata marshrutka is.

Jeti-Oguz Weekend

Another fun weekend adventure! This time we were headed to Jeti-Oguz (means ‘7 bulls’) for a little trip organized by our friend AJ and his organization, Eco-Trek. They had asked us to help them with a couple things including documenting the accommodations and a couple hikes with photos and GPS tracks. We were helping them put together some packages to give to their clients to offer a better product. In exchange, they put us up in their yurt camp and arranged for the transport out there.

We head out from Balykchy and stopped by Cholpon Ata to watch some of the World Nomad Games. It was pretty fun and really an impressive event for Kyrgyzstan, a couple dozen countries were there participating including the US with 5 PCVs forming a Kokuz Torgol team (a strategy game similar to mancala.) We weren’t there long and some other PCVs wrote about it more, you can read Shaun or Anna’s blogs to here more about the event. Also, here is a short video showing the opening ceremonies.

Our yurt for the weekend
Our yurt for the weekend

After the horse games we went to Karakol and stayed with AJ. The next morning we walked with him to his office and his director drove us up to his yurt camp in Jeti-Oguz. We didn’t really have an idea of what to expect as things here tend to be a little (a lot really) less consistent than we’re used to at home but this just lends to the adventure. The drive became very beautiful as we headed up towards the mountains, passing the small village of Jeti-Oguz before the road cut through a scenic, narrow river gorge. As the road opened up into a large valley we saw many other yurt camps, this is a very popular destination for both local and foreign tourists. Arriving at the yurt camp, we were given a brief tour of our very nice yurt (with the best looking bed I’ve seen in a yurt yet and power!) as well as the toilet (not an outhouse) and shower… yep, this would do. We unpacked our bags and took a look at my map to figure out where to head. The GPS showed a waterfall nearby so we followed the road that direction. After a bit of confusion we found the correct cow path that represented the trail we were supposed to follow. Heading up the fill the cow path turned into a real trail and we began passing Russian tourists and Kyrgyz people picking juniper (the branches do all kinds of magic but you can’t have a juniper tree on your property as it will sap the life from your family.

Continue reading “Jeti-Oguz Weekend”

Home Sweet Balykchy Home

Our front door and attached Lincoln Center, an English school
Our front door and attached Lincoln Center, an English school

Some people have asked where we live, what our permanent site actually looks like.  Before I get into that, let me introduce you to a term… ‘Posh Corps.’  Dirt floors, laundry by hand and having to go fetch water from the river to drink are things people think of as the norm for us volunteers. People often think this term is a derogatory term used by people who want the ‘real’ PC experience where you are roughing it towards those volunteers who have some modern conveniences.  As it turns out, our permanent site fits none of those stereotypical images and I’ve since come to realize that ‘Posh Corps’ is a phrase born out of jealousy.  I’ve done laundry by hand here… it sucks.  So here it is, a tour of our fairly posh, Peace Corps home.

The courtyard.  Our the main house on the left.
The courtyard. Our the main house on the left.

As previously mentioned, our home is in Balykchy, a city on the Western edge of Issyk Kul, a huge alpine lake.  Our home is closed by a large fence on all sides like most in Kyrgyzstan, especially common in cities.  Inside the gates there are some differences between most of the homes I’ve been in and ours.  Our property is mostly finished with clean concrete walkways separating grassy areas with fruit-bearing trees (cherry, apple, pear and apricots,) generally homes are surrounded mostly by dirt.  It’s a pretty large plot for a city with a driveway on either side.  The main house is 3 or 4 bedrooms, depending on how you define them, and several living areas. There is a separate apartment attached that goes unused now but a previous volunteer lived there.

Continue reading “Home Sweet Balykchy Home”

Apple Pie, Mountain Bikes & an Old Fashioned River Float

We’ve been sharing some posts from some fun events we’ve had but haven’t shared much about what our day-to-day life has been like here lately.  For all of August we were stuck back at our training villages for the last part (Phase 3) of Pre-Service Training.  While it was great seeing everyone it was really hot nearly every day (90+ often and the training center does not have AC) and the days seemed to crawl by.  Plus, we were missing the best month to be back in Issyk Kul where every day the weather is perfect and the beach is just a five minute walk away.  Besides being able to see the whole group back together (minus our one fellow volunteer who went home) we had some fun adventures.  We invited 10 other volunteers to Ala Archa (blog post here,) had an amazing weekend in Bishkek, bought mountain bikes, held the first annual Issyk-Ata Regatta, cooked American food, explored an abandoned apartment and perhaps best of all, took the ‘Balykchy Express’ to get back to Krasnaya Rechka.  We’ll write up some info on the world-famous Balykchy Express slow train that runs from Bishkek to Balykchy later but read on for more photos and stories from our other adventures the past month…

The first pizza we made in KG
The first pizza we made in KG

Being back in Krasnaya Rechka was fun even though training wasn’t because the kids are so much fun to play with.  We spent many nights playing Frisbee and surprised them with a Frisbee of their own that Taylor’s mom sent from America (thanks Cindy!)  There’s a big difference between the village kids in Krasnaya Rechka and the city kids in Balykchy.  The village kids all know who we are and scream our names when they see us even if they are on the other side of the school yard.  Much like cities at home, you lose a bit of the ‘neighborhood feel’ in cities here which has its pros and cons. Our language still seems terrible to us but we were able to talk a lot more with our PST family and learn things like how they met, when they moved to their house, where they originated from, etc.  We also tried to cook more American food for them, not only to share American culture but frankly, we’re craving a lot of food from home.  We made pizza and had to resort to using pre-made frozen crusts we found. They tasted as good as a frozen pizza from the grocery store but we had fresh ingredients and the kids loved it.  Taylor also went with some of the other PCV girls and made apple pies.  She said they were delicious but forgot to bring a slice home for Eric so things are a bit rocky between us, тамаша (that means kidding!)

 

We missed the cows coming home everyday
We missed the cows coming home everyday

Continue reading “Apple Pie, Mountain Bikes & an Old Fashioned River Float”

The Best Week of My Summer

Now that the first week of school is officially underway, I figured I’d try to get my post about summer camp up. I attended the Girls Leading our World (GLOW) camp in mid-July. Here’s how it went:

The week started with some confusion around who was supposed to arrange the transportation and where I was supposed to meet up with my counterpart and the girls (an experience that almost brought me to tears), but by the end of the experience,  Gulum and I got to know each other better, I met 10 awesome girls from Balykchy that I will be able to host a health club with, and my name  has appeared in Balykchy’s local newspaper. Here’s the full story (skipping that first mixup):

We – me, Gulum, Jake (the English teacher volunteer from Balykchy), Jake’s counterpart, Kyal, and ten girls from Balykchy (with some random ride alongs along the way…) – took a marshrutka along the south shore of Lake Issyk Kul to a camp facility near Barscone. It was the first time I’d seen this side of the lake since we usually travel east along the north shore. It was interesting to see how much less populated this side was. There were wide gaps between towns and beautiful views of the mountains and some hoodoo looking formations as well.

2014 GLOW Participants - on our way to camp in a marshrutka!
2014 GLOW Participants – on our way to camp in a marshrutka!

When we arrived, the camp coordinators (other Peace Corps volunteers Kelly and Mira) were there to greet us. The girls registered  – which was helpful in getting to know their names – and then headed to their cabins, where they would meet other girls from around the Issyk Kul oblast. As I understand it, the girls don’t often have the chance to meet peers from villages other than their own so this was an experience of a lifetime for some of them.

Continue reading “The Best Week of My Summer”