We decided to risk the overland trip south through Osh to Tajikistan, as things seemed to have calmed down a lot. No trouble and the town centre is much the same as it was when I visited a year ago, but the approach roads are lined with burned-out shops and houses, the anti-Uzbek graffiti mostly painted over now, and there are fields filled with UNHCR tents in the outskirts. I don’t know how this can be fixed.
Shyrdaks are Kyrgyz felt carpets, traditionally found adorning the walls and floors of yurts. As you can perhaps tell, the designers are fairly unconfined by any notions of matching colours or taste, so the dilemma for the discerning shyrdak shopper is whether to spend hours (days) hunting for a vaguely tasteful specimen that might fit into some pre-exisiting colour-scheme at home, or just embrace the madness and go for purple-and-orange piece that carries a risk of seizures if you look at it for too long. If I had my own house they would be my floor-covering of choice in every room.
Dawdling in Kyrgyzstan is an almost entirely pleasant activity, even if its object (to wait out the violence down south) is somewhat less so. The reason for this is primarily because it is so easy to engage in said time-wastage in yurts up in the Kyrgyz mountains, which flicked in a day from spring to summer – morning drizzle gave way one day to bright afternoon sunshine that hasn’t let up since. With this in mind, I coralled a trio of Swedes (travelling with Swedes is great: you learn the best Norwegian jokes) and we hired some horses and a guide to disappear for a few days into the hills in the centre of the country, where yurts sprout like mushrooms and there are ibexes (how do you properly pluralise an ibex? ibices?) on the mountain ridges and marmots (not marmosets. This caused a certain amount of confusion for a while) running shrieking at your approach.
I really can’t get enough of the mountains here. Even when the horses are intransigent (Kyrgyz horses know damned well that foreign tourists have imbibed too much animal-welfare nonsense to follow the single piece of advice that constitutes riding instruction in these parts (“just hit it”) with much conviction, and take full advantage of this, with the result that you frequently find yourself stationary in a patch of wildflowers for extended periods of time with the horse stuffing its face and you prodding it cautiously the whip, vaguely worrying that an RSPCA inspector is going to pop out from behind a rock and do you for animal cruelty, while the guide disappears over the horizon. Or possibly that’s just me.) and the “saddles” appear to have taken their notion of comfort from a medieval torture chamber, everything feels fresh and bright and clean, with the high still covered with spring flowers and dozens and dozens of meltwater streams running off the hills. Wandering around the valley one evening I suddenly remembered what one is supposed to do when faced with a multitude of small streams and a large supply of flat stones and mud, and spent a very happy couple of hours damming and diverting several streams, and anyone who doesn’t fully appreciate how supremely satisfying an activity this can be is probably dead inside.
Nothing is better than feeding other people fermented mare’s milk for the first time. NOTHING.
What is it about this country that inevitably leads to me doing slightly silly things in pursuit of scenery? It’s not as if it’s hard to find the stuff here.
The pass was higher than I’d ever been in my life. The south side had been snow free, but the north was covered with overhanging snow bluffs, softened by the sun and the previous night’s rain. A sentence I’d read once in a book about an avalanche disaster on K2 or some other such baleful mountain leapt to the front of my mind and lodged itself happily there, replaying again and again: “Strangely, the party had chosen to cross the snow field during mid-afternoon, the most dangerous time for avalanches”. It was 2pm. Every ten minutes or so, a vast load of snow and rock rumbled off the neighbouring mountainsides, easily one of the most menacing sounds that there is. I probably wouldn‘t have been so concerned if our guide hadn’t also been so very obviously Not Happy. “Too much snow, too dangerous”. With a rope or an ice axe the bluff would’ve posed no problems, but mountaineering equipment was just one other thing that we had not thought especially hard about. Of course, most people don’t perish in avalanches. It’s just that, well, some do.
The idea had been to do some gentle trekking in the hills around Karakol, in the east of the country. We had been informed by the head of the local trekking agency that there was a beautiful azure gem of a lake called Ala-Kol just two day’s hike away, and we could breeze up there, admire the Alpine scenery and breeze back down again. The pass crossing might be a little tricky because of the altitude he conceded (Oh ha ha, I thought bitterly, struggling to put one foot in front of the other at 4000 m), but there would be no snow, and we would be laughing our way down to the hot springs on the other side. Things we were not entirely aware of when we launched ourselves merrily into this enterprise: a) June still counts as spring in Kyrgyzstan, not summer and this had been the wettest and coldest June for a while and b) due to the unrest, we were the first group of tourists going up the pass this season. For a brief comparison, this is Ala-Kol as it usually looks in late June:
This is how it looked when we were there:
The similarities are, you must concede, striking.
We eventually scrambled down some snow-free boulders, which were vertical and unsteady in a way that lent new and intensely personal meaning to the phrase “rocks fall, everybody dies” and bolted across the snow as fast as we physically could, which was not very as it was up to our thighs, as one of the snow bluffs above us collapsed, sending a stream of snow and rubble past us slightly closer than I would’ve preferred. One slightly unexpected river crossing later (who knew that unstable ice sheets can harbour glacial streams underneath? Well, most people I suppose. I’m reasonably sure I’ve never uttered such high-pitched noises in my life) and we were down in a green, flower-filled valley, contemplating the uniquely ex-Soviet attitude towards health and safety. Actual mountain climbers do stuff like that all the time and at much higher, its just that they tend to have stuff like experience and equipment and some idea of what they’re getting into. Evidently in Kyrgyzstan not much of this is important.
Still, the guy wasn’t lying about the hot springs, and if there’s one thing Kyrgyzstan is dead good for is hot springs. The thing to do with these is apparently to build a sanatorium on top and then depending on temperature either bathe in or drink the water, which of course cures everything, and everywhere you come across these decaying concrete complexes where cosmonauts used to convalesce and heads of state to meet and write constitutions and carve up new republics, and now they crumble gently but you can still get a two hour massage for five dollars. Fortunately the ones we stayed at that night were a bit too far away from anywhere for much of that, but there were still small concrete huts and huge baths smelling strongly of sulphur of which I got one of my own, because men and women sharing the same pool even while wearing bathing suits leads to the kind of moral degeneracy that even very smelly water can’t cure. In the evening we talked politics, because now what else is there to talk about, and toasted to our survival and peace in the country with a bottle of vodka which had heroically survived being thrown over a cliff during our descent. It felt a little silly that here we were, wandering around scaring ourselves by having inept and mildly dangerous fun in the mountains, when everyone I speak to has a relative or friend in Osh that they’re worried about, but then people are cancelling their holidays here in droves, and tourism is a major source of income in the rural areas, almost all of which are still safe, so we’re probably not doing any actual harm.
Back in Bishkek now, keeping an eye on things and working out what to do next. Things are calmer now but tense, with everyone anticipating further trouble in the run-up to the constitutional referendum on June 27th. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Issyk Kul is still beautiful.
Words and phrases in Russian that I now know and wish I didn’t: civil war, ethnic conflict, murder, rape, genocide. The appalling violence between ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz that exploded in the south of Kyrgyzstan last week is the only thing that anyone here is talking about (warning: both articles contain graphic descriptions of violence, and I found the latter in particular very difficult to read).
From here’s it’s pretty difficult to tell exactly who or what lies behind the eruption of violence: the interim government (and many locals I’ve spoken to) are quick to blame provocateurs in the pay of former president Bakiyev, ousted in April (and it certainly seems that a lot of the violence was organised in advance) and it also appears that the security forces may have been complicit in the attacks. No one here in the northeast seems to harbour any particularly strong ant-Uzbek sentiments or blame the Uzbeks for the attacks, but then there are hardly any Uzbeks in this part of the country. I rather suspect that opinions are very different further south.
I’m in Karakol, in the northeast of the country, which so far has remained peaceful and thankfully looks like it will remain so. Most of Kyrgyzstan’s international borders are closed at the moment, so I’m here for at least the next couple of weeks (which actually suits me down to the ground, as rural Kyrgyzstan is as wild and beautiful and hospitable as ever) but keeping a close eye on developments (given the tight visa regimes in all the surrounding countries, short of flying back home there is rather a shortage of quick and easy escape routes even if the borders do reopen, so that should prove interesting). Watching this play out is miserable: this country is easily one of my favourite places in the world, and just a few months ago seemed to have so much going for it; although now the threat of civil war seems to have receded a little, to see things disintegrate like this is just heartbreaking.