Monday, July 7, 2008

Karakol to Osh

I left Karakol and headed along the southern coast of Lake Issyk-Kol. The shore is quiet, with pebbly beaches, azure-clear waters and rugged spurs shrouded in cloud to the south. Much better than the resort dominated northern shore. I passed a girl running in Russian colours and slowed for a chat. She was a marathon runner from Omsk, training at altitude for the Omsk marathon. At a little village called Tosor I picked up supplies and headed into the mountains. At the top of the first gorge a herder family (2100m up) invited me to stay in a spare room and fed me with home made bread, jam, cheese, kymyz (sour horse milk, like kefir) and joghurt. The next morning Mum fed me up again, I bought cheese from her, then I was on my way.

Up a gravel/4WD road round constant switchbacks more kymyz was on offer in another 2 yurts. Further up into foul weather, then over a spectacular 3800m pass. Horses and cattle were grazing right up to 3700m or so, until the country was just rocky scree.

Half way up this pass I noticed my first theft - two bolts from the right side of my rear pack rack were missing. Very lucky I noticed. I check them regularly -though not as often as I did when I had crappier racks - and they have never come loose over 4 years, so I'm 99% sure they were nicked. Maybe the thief was one of the people I was telling about my big list of spares?

Over the next 2 days I wound down the lush Naryn valley, green meadows lined with jagged snowy peaks, to the south west, with occasional river crossings and detours over escarpments. Even high up they're not quite Heidi meadows - they are pretty heavily grazed. I soon passed my first chabani (herdsmen), these ones living in white old style tents, like our ancient canvas Scout tents. There had once been bridges on this road, but they were virtually all washed out. The road was rubble, gravel, not good. Even descending you can't go more than 15 km/h. Much more kymyz was around, and in one yurt I swear I had 8 cups. They kept insisting, swearing that it's extremely healthy and completely fat free. More home made bread and jam. Also more promises to send photos from home (making more of these than I should, I have a very bad track record.) For the first time my emergency shelter (a tarp) got a bit of a test in a stormy and rainy night. The sky was crystal clear before I went to bed - very rapid weather changes here.

By Naryn I was pretty tired and found a 'CBT' (community based tourism) flat with a well educated Kyrgyz hostess who spoke very good Russian. So I decided to have a rest day.
We had a good talk over dinner - she belongs to the generation that owes everything to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately things degenerated the next day after they all stayed up and watched Russia lose in the Euro football semis. She was very disappointed but I said I was glad because I was sick of rabid Russian nationalism. She got very angry and we had a big argument. I made her late for work. As she left I was thinking of saying, 'By the way, do you know how many Kyrgyz I hear skinheads kill in Moscow every year?' - but thought better of it.

From Naryn a good asphalt road led 100 km further west, running between two east-west ridges, uncannily like the Larapinta west of Alice Springs in places. The country dried out dramatically, and started to resemble huge rolling sandy hills of mine tailings.

The road wound up over two more big passes before reaching the Ferghana valley: the first 2800m, the second 2900m high. On the first I was invited to stay the night with a chabani family in their yurt. They were very happy to tell me all about how they live.

Generally they rent the high country meadows from the local government, and it seems that certain families have a long standing claim on certain areas. They take their yurts up high in May and stay there until September. If the kids go to school or Mum works, they come up for the long summer holidays. The husband/older sons stay the whole time.

Chabani often have a mix of their own and other peoples' stock, who pay them. The family I was with had about 50 horses, 5 cows, and 150 sheep and goats. I noticed many families lower down didn't have horses. I would stop and ask if I could buy kymyz and they would often say, 'No, you see, we're poor, we don't have horses.'

Mares are valued most of all as they produce milk for kymyz (only in summer though) which they sell for $US 0.70 per litre to passersby or at markets, a good earner. A good mare sells for $1500. They milk the mares every 2 hours from 6am to 8pm! This family said they got about 35 litres of kymyz per day.

There is a special process for kymyz production: you line a wooden barrel with a coat of cream, then smoke the barrel with pine cone smoke (or other if not available). Then you just stir the milk and within an hour or two you have kymyz.

The cows are milked twice a day and every family has a 'separator' (same word in Russian) to make cream. Some make cheese too. Many families now have small Chinese solar panels to run a light and a radio at night - not sure if they can power a separator!

Sheep are only sold for meat, at maybe $150 each. The fattier the rump, the better. They use the wool to cover the yurts but otherwise they can't really sell it - no market. Shashliks in towns are mostly mutton, with less beef.

The families make their own bread often using flour which they grind using their own wheat from the valley below. The dough goes into a deep pizza pan and bakes like a fat pizza/heavy Turkish style bread. Then the bread is eaten with green tea (+ cream), cream, and home made jam (there is a berry called 'oblipikha' which is like a powerful apricot which everybody gathers in the forests for jam.)

The little stove (inside/outside the yurt) runs on dried manure gathered after the winter from the sarais (stables) down in the village. Water is boiled in a samovar (which has a hollow core for fuel).

Child labour isn't much of an issue here!

On the second pass I found a NZ and Scottish cyclist coming the other way, up from the Ferghana Valley - golden fields way below to the west. They had come from Europe and the Kiwi wins the prize for cheapest bike to travel across Central Asia so far... but these roads will test it.

Down towards Jalalabad into the heat of the valley and I spent my last night before Osh with a retired Kyrgyz Russian language teacher.

From Jalalabad it was a hilly 100km loop on good roads around a bit of Uzbekistan to Osh.

In Osh I found that my GBAO (Pamir) permit hadn't come by email and desperate measures were needed...

The bazaar in Osh was a real treat, though, with lovely friendly people, no haggling needed, and no massive hordes to negotiate. I spent most of the weekend with Xavier (a French bike tourer, down from the Pamir) and also met up with 3 Swiss riders - then 1 British.

Most of the people working the bazaar are Uzbek rather that Kyrgyz; the woman often conservatively dressed in Uzbek patterns with a monobrow painted on, and henna stained hands.

I bought a whole stack of supplies here for the Pamirs: 1kg sultanas, 1 kg peanuts, 5oog dried apricots, 500g lollies for gifts, excellent mountain honey...

Odile and Olivier, French bike tourers I met in Kyrgyzstan, took some great pics in this area. Sadly, I lost most of mine (memory card died).

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