This morning we set off to drive 400km – we were in two vans so had plenty of room as we headed down the ‘Chinese’ road (all money invested from China and actually goes to China I believe). Of course the great thing about this is the road was pretty good quality.
We stopped at a small road side market – a definite indication that we are in the middle of melon season (water and other), lots of peppers and amazing looking tomatoes and fresh local bread.
Our first official stop for the day was at Burana tower. The tower is a 24m high stump of what was a huge brick minaret and is all that remains of the ancient cityof Balasagun. Balasagun was founded by the Sogdians (an ancient Irainan civilization that one ruled parts of present day Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). It thrived between the 10-14th century and was closely associated with the Silk Road. What you can see today is part of a 1970’s Russian reconstruction.
Some say the city was abandoned after a plague and the top of the minaret (once 40m tall) collapsed during an earthquake in the 15th century. In it’s prime, it was the main economic centre of the Chuy Valley and this was seen in it’s developed structures – including water pipes, piping water from the nearby Tien Shan mountains, parts of which can now be seen in the small museum on site.
You could go up the tower but I (or my ankle) decided the steep narrow dark staircase was not worth the trouble and I was quite satisfied with the views from the top of the small mound.
Near the tower there is a field of ancient balbals. Balbals are gravestones used by the nomadic Turkic tribes who used to roam the area. Some are people (those holding a wine glass are thought to be a representation of the Nestorians, a group of early Christians), others are more like the headstones we would expect with text on them. Some were carved by the greatest stone carvers of their time and some are incredibly well preserved. As well as being gravestones, it is also thought that the stones were used to depict places of residence of the nomadic Turks of Tien Shan.
As we continued on our way we passed a field laid out for a game that is part of the World Nomad Games – a very important sporting event in the area. The game is called Kok boru (Grey Wolf in English) as the games origin was the need for the nomads to chase wolf packs (whilst on horseback) to keep them away from their livestock. The riders have to lift a running wolf from the ground and throw it to each other whilst the other team fight to get it from the riders! Today the game is played with a dead goat but it still shows the strength and horseman skills of the brave riders.
Toilet stops while travelling are always interesting as you never know what you are going to find. Our next stop provided us with relatively clean and modern toilets but with a sign that I found highly amusing 😂. The oddest part about this is that it wasn’t even a western toilet – it was a squat toilet 🤔.
It was at this stop I was also introduced to Kurut – rather stinky, sour, salty chalk like yoghurt/cheese balls. You can probably guess from my description that I was not a fan but they are very popular in the region. They last for months and months and be can mixed with water to make a drink like we had the day before in Bishkek.
Our route in to the Tien Shan mountains took us through vast barren landscapes, dotted with green oasese (apparently this is the plural of oasis) along the banks of the river and reservoir (although it was almost empty as it is the end of summer) and we had lunch in a guest house in the small village of Kochkor which was surrounded by lots of apple covered trees.
The further into the mountains we went, the worst the roads became and we continued to wind up to the highest pass at 3446m. As we finally reached Song Kul, we turned on to an unpaved road which quickly turned in to a dirt track. We passed people making hay, grazing sheep and horses, yaks hanging out on the side of the road. Oh, and don’t forget the stunning views.
After driving 12 kms along the lake, we finally reached our Yurt camp at 3100m above sea level. Song Kul is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and is surrounded by summer grazing grounds for the now semi nomadic people of the area. They stay in the area with their livestock from the beginning of June till September 15th (if the weather allows).
We quickly dropped off our bags in our allocated yurts before walking a short distance to visit a local nomad yurt. As there are no trees at this altitude so they pack down cow manure in to bricks to use as fuel in their fires. Apparently, it is slow burning and kepts the heat well. We then tried fermented horse milk – like fermented fizzy very sour milk but it was not as bad as it sounds and definitely not as bad as the kurut (oh but they make that too and that is what is in the hanging bag in the photo below).
As the sun was about to set, three of us joined a local in a sunset horse ride. It was lovely and peaceful and the sunset over the lake was beautiful. I love these peaceful moments – time to unwind and take in the incredible world around you.
Back at the yurts and we barely had time to wash our hands before it was time for dinner – sitting cross legged on the floor (not ideal for some of the older members of the group) again, there was way too much food!! 4 different kinds of bread, soup, main with meat and potatoes, wonderful home made pulled noddles and sweets. Unfortunately some of the group was suffering – from the altitude and/or maybe stomach issues so the numbers were not so many to enjoy the huge spread.
After dinner it was a rush to get ready for bed before the power went off at 9pm!
Time for a little Yurt etiquette … firstly shoes must always be taken off when entering the yurt (also important in most Kyrgyzstan homes). You should bow your head and your right hand on your heart as you enter as a sign of respect. This is made easy when the door frame is purposely made low 😂. The most important/ elders sit straight ahead as you enter and then males one side and women on the other in declining order of importance. So much to remember for upcoming parts of the trip!