Ontor Pass – Kyrgyzstan

Djigit Peak Glacier

Planning hikes to lesser-known areas in Kyrgyzstan is always a bit of an adventure.  We aren’t allowed to drive, so we have to find a taxi driver (who will lie about knowing the area) with a car suitable to drive up some terrible road.  You also rarely have reliable information about what exactly you will find if the hike anything but the most commonly visited trails.  AJ, a fellow PCV and Andre, a Dutch friend who owns a guesthouse in Karakol and I took a trip this past summer to Ontor Pass.  Ontor Pass isn’t hiked more than a few times a year so it was a bit hard to know exactly what the hike would entail but it looked amazing and we really wanted to give it a shot.  In early July we met up in Karakol and caught a taxi into Karakol National Park to give it a shot.

The first day started out with rain. Heavy rain. No taxi ride in Kyrgyzstan seems to be complete without some complication, this day our driver decided to pretend to misunderstand the bridge we said we wanted to be dropped off leaving us with an extra mile hike in (just an extra mile in pouring rain.)  The beginning portion of the hike is up a road and is heavily trekked.  Many people come up this road before turning left to see Lake Ala Kol.  After passing the Ala Kol turnoff, the rain subsided.  Soon, we reached a junction in Karakol Valley, we elected to go up the left side.  The path we were taking would end up making a large loop and we expected to be exiting the right side of the valley in about 48 hours.

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Living in a Soviet-Era Kyrgyzstan Apartment

The view

Water & power often failing, sparks shooting out of your circuit breakers and hearing the walls crumble at night are just a few of the joys we get living in a Soviet-era apartment.  Balykchy is filled with dozens of nearly identical 5-story block apartments put together like puzzles from concrete panels, many of which were made right here in Balykchy decades ago.  Since last December we’ve had the pleasure of learning the ins and outs of living in one of these poorly up kept units and thought we’d share a little bit for friends at home, future volunteers here and those who are just curious.

The apartments can look depressing at first, drab brutalist architecture has never actually been inspiring, but it starts to grow on you.  There are a few trees in the courtyard to break up the gray of concrete and rocks.  There is a brand new playground thanks to a political party hoping to make up some ground with the local populace in the upcoming election.  After some time you get past the look of the apartments and just notice the families walking about and the children playing – it really feels a lot like a neighborhood anywhere.  There are some things that never feel normal though.  The garbage is never picked up early enough so it’s burned in the metal collection bins every few days and you never can get used to the acrid smell.  There’s also the vendors that periodically up into the middle of the courtyard with a megaphone letting everyone know they have products to sell (anything from vegetables to cheese.)

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Song Kol Photos


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.

Continue reading “Chatyr-Kul & Kol Suu – The best trip in Kyrgyzstan”

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, 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.

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


Give Your Vacuum A Hug

Our year mark has past, and instead of writing out a contemplative reflection of my time here, I’m going to try something different.

I’m inherently a list-maker and I notice a trend in Top whatever-number-of-things-there-are-to-list on other blogs I’ve been reading. So here are my Top 5’s.

Top 5 Things I Miss:

(Editorial note: this does not include the people I miss, I haven’t forgotten you)

1.  Toilet Paper We have toilet paper…err..crepe paper here. Life is rough.
2.  Vacuum   We have one of these too, one that requires me to get on my hands and knees and just moves         things around so I know how much I’m really not picking up.
3.  Band-Aids that Open in Less than 10 Minutes…really…

4.  Variety of Food   Meats (pork, beef cuts, salmon), veggies (sprouts, kale, …), convenient condiments              (peanut sauce)…all available year round. What a dream. Thanks, mom, for making life a little easier for the      next few months.
5.  Seafood   Gets its own line, so now I will have 6 – oops.
6.  Good Wine   …every night, enough said.
7.  Dogs   that can be pet and loved…oh no, now it’s 7.
8.  Amazon  …for some reason the ideas keep coming. Imagine that.


And Then the Top 5 Things I Don’t:

  1. Morning Commute   I walk 20 minutes to work three times a week…when I’m in town…and stay for 2-3 hours and then walk home. That’s it. Where I do the rest of my work is up to me.
  2. Meeting Minutes, Action Items, Recurring Calls   …essentially anything that can be managed via Outlook. Haven’t opened that since March 2014.
  3. Having to Accomplish Anything at Work,   ever. Between becoming a pre-natal yoga instructor overnight, completing a grant to install TVs in my clinic that show health education videos (did I write about that before?…For another post), planning a ‘it-better-be-the-best-camp-ever’ summer camp, being responsible for updating my region’s emergency plan (Warden is my title), and getting to know the new volunteers, it’s nice not to have anything really pressing. I just do what I can.
  4. Having to Be on Time,   ever. Sitting outside my office right now waiting for my counterpart to come unlock the door. Gives me an excuse to not worry so much if I am running late.
  5. Supervised Children I love that I am greeted by a hoard of unsupervised children every time I walk into my apartment’s courtyard (courtyard is a generous word). They like to practice saying, “Hello,” and then they go back to playing games with rocks, making parachutes out of empty bottles and plastic bags, and jumping over string (there must be rules that I don’t quite understand – this is most definitely a team activity, but I don’t get it).


Top 5 Things that I’m Loving:

  1. Finally Making Some Local Friends   More to share:

o   Had a moment at work the other day where I thought, “This is why I am here.” A woman I know came in and, after chatting about summer plans, family, and my work, she asked what she could do to help with stress and no sleep. She ended up breaking down in our conversation, sharing her worries about finding work and supporting her two kids on her own. We made plans to do yoga together twice a week to help with stress, and to work on business ideas in September. Even if neither of these happen, that conversation at that moment seemed to make her hold her head higher. I realized I truly care about her and hope I can continue making life easier for her however I can.

o   Reconnected with my tutor and now have plans to make salads, pies, and cookies at my apartment so she can learn about different spices and recipes. This is right up my alley. Maybe I’ll learn a little more Kyrygz by doing this too…maybe…

o   After a chance introduction to a local man looking to improve his English, I met his wife. She is amazingly smart, articulate, and interesting. My conversations with her (only a few to date) have made me see some of my experiences in Kyrgyzstan more clearly, made me appreciate my frustrations more fully, and made me hopeful for Kyrgyzstan’s future. This country is lucky to have her.

  1. Getting Creative with What to Make for Dinner   using what we have in the fridge – our budget requires this.

3.  Time to be Creative,   to think about what’s next for me professionally when I get back – it’s so exciting!
4.  Skype   Had the realization the other day that I was not actually there when my sister got a new puppy. I           just remember so vividly my dad holding her up to show me. The puppy is six months old; I definitely wasn’t       there. Video chat is amazing.
5.  Getting to Travel   to places I would have never imagined – places in Kyrgyzstan and places like                      Kazakhstan, Serbia, Montenegro…Albania to come. See Eric’s blog posts for these – the travel is as                amazing as it looks.

6.  Being Here with Eric   There I go again, adding a sixth. Can’t help but appreciate that he keeps up with          our blog, plans our more adventurous excursions, cooks with (or for) me every night, and is here to share in      the ups and downs of this whole thing called Peace Corps.


Which of the things I miss have you enjoyed lately? Don’t post a picture, that’s just cruel. But please enjoy them just a little more next time, especially the Band-Aids.

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.


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.


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.



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 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 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.



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.


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.



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.



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.


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.



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.


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.



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.

Danko Photo Club Update

Final group shot

I previously wrote about my new Photo Club I’ve started at Danko and I wanted to talk a little bit more about how it’s been going.  We’ve held 7 classes so far and just did our first field trip.  Attempting to teach a technical topic in a foreign language is incredibly challenging to say the least but my students are patient and some know enough English to help me translate.  The biggest challenge at my last attempt at a photo club was attendance and it’s still a bit of a challenge but I’m averaging 9 students or so out of 12 at each class, having cameras and computers to play with definitely keeps their attention. I’ve been teaching basic concepts like the ‘Rule of 1/3s’ and ‘Leading Lines’ but mostly we walk around Balykchy taking photos while I give them pointers along the way.

Are first field trip (of 4 total) was last Saturday to Bishkek.  The capital city is only 2 hours away yet the students rarely get to visit.  Most go once a year or so and two of my students had never been.  They really enjoyed walking around the city and I was able to show them many things they had no idea existed in their country.  It was also really hot so of course they ate ice cream, lots of it.  Below are some photos from the field trip.  Scroll down for photos from my students.

Here is a gallery of photos by various students.  I’ll leave their names off for now but I’ll share a gallery of their credited work this fall when we prepare for an exhibition.