Monday, July 31, 2006

Biking around Issyk-Kul day 8: Jeti-Oguz Sanatorium to Tyup – and the circle is finished!

July 23, 2006

I had big plans for the last day of my Issyk-Kul loop. I wanted both to hike
through the Jeti-Oguz canyon to the Valley of the Flowers, and to bike another 60 kilometers or so to finish up in Tyup. So I was up and outdoors at 7:20, beginning my hike.

I walked alone for about an hour along a gushing river that roared in my ears. Above me rose pine-covered slopes. As I followed the winding river through the canyon, I’d occasionally cross it on bridges made from tree trunks.

A few cars came by. When three young Dungan men from the Karakol region offered me a ride, I accompanied them to the Valley of the Flowers. They continued on further, to the summit and to a waterfall. I sat in the large meadow, where purple and yellow wildflowers shot up from the grass. I watched horses and cows running free and listened to their moos and whinnies, as though I was in a playground for animals. They seemed so wild and happy and free. And they seemed to belong there. I, as the only human around, was a visitor to their world. Again, Kyrgyzstan amazed me.

I returned to the sanatorium by foot, crossing a moraine, then walking back through the canyon. At the end of the canyon, the seven red cliffs stood sentinel. The story goes that once a king stole the wife of another king. The king who lost his wife went to see a wise man and asked how to make the king-thief suffer as much as possible. After hesitating, the wise man recommended that he kill his former wife, letting the king-thief have a dead wife, but not a live one. At a funeral feast in the mountains a few days later, the king sat next to his former wife. As the last bulls were slaughtered, he drove a knife into his wife’s heart. Blood flowed from her heart, carrying the seven bull carcasses and the king-murderer with it into the mountains and the valley. The seven bulls turned into seven mountains.

I started off my ride coasting for almost the entire 15 kilometers of dry, scrubby landscape I’d struggled up the night before. One boy on horseback gave me the finger, the first negative interaction I’d during in the entire ride. Another boy had pestered me for money the night before, and the service at the sanatorium was awful. Though I wasn’t in Jeti-Oguz long enough to make much of a fair judgment, I did get the sense that the people in the area were less friendly (or, as the locals say, “civilized”) than other areas I’ve traveled to (with the exception of the remote southern village of Kojo-Kelen, which I felt a similar reception).

I continued along the quiet, calm, green, tree-lined road I’d been on the day before, with fields on either side, mountains rising up behind them. I passed a lot of horse-drawn wagons, with a wooden arch rising over the horse. In one, I saw an entire family packed in the cart with a new, modern baby carriage. Others traveled with a cow on board. And in many of them, either the passenger, or even the driver, lay asleep in the cart, trusting the horse to move ahead and avoid getting hit by passing cars.

After a much anticipated stop in Karakol for a high-quality lunch and some communication at the internet café, I decided to make the final push on to Tyup.

The road to Tyup is a rolling up and down. I had to make one major climb, but was rewarding with two wonderful downhills at 12% grade, some of the best coasts of the trip.

The tree lined road mainly provided views of fields – an array of pastels in green, yellow, blue and white. A woman in a scarf and a young girl climbed up the mountain, running around on either side of the road, looking at the views – of the newly reappeared Issyk-Kul on one side, undulating meadows on the other. The woman gazed over the meadow with her hand on her forehead, then quickly ran back downhill when she saw me looking at her.

I liked the atmosphere in Tyup. Swimmers walked happily to and from the canal, carrying plastic bags and wearing flip-flops. I twice saw men giving women a ride on bikes – both an older and a younger couple. Sunflowers tilted their heads in the gardens behind people’s homes.

And when I approached the area where I’d set off on this adventure four months ago, I hopped into a marshrutka with my bike, tired, burned, dirty and sweaty. But watching the scenery go by, and knowing I’d covered so much territory - all I could see and all that wrapped around the immense body of water - I felt proud and relieved, as well as exhausted.

Biking around Issyk-Kul day 7: Tamga to Jeti-Oguz Sanatorium

July 22, 2006

I began day seven of my bike ride around Issyk-Kul in the village of Tamga, on the southern shore of Issyk-Kul.

Leaving Bishkek on Friday evening, it didn’t take long before cattle, and the children herding them, blocked the roads. Drivers wove through bovine behinds.

Not far outside of the city, a long string of vendors sold fresh fruits and vegetables directly from the adjacent fields to passing motorists. Judging by the cars stopped at these miniature stands, they were doing a brisk business.

It’s now the height of the season at lake Issyk-Kul and quite a bit of traffic headed to the lake on Friday evening. However, once we turned off onto the southern shore, suddenly we were almost alone.

Most visitors go to the northern shore, where there are more developments, more discos, more cafes, and more beach-front entertainment. The southern shore, poorer, more sparsely populated, and less developed than the north, attracts those who seek ecological pristineness, quiet, and simple relaxation.

My driver, Volodya, lives in Khaji-Sai, a village on the southern shore. He loves it there. An ethnic German, his mother emigrated to Germany a decade ago. And 8,000 of the town’s 10,000 former residents have left. But he and his family stay in this village, supporting themselves on his Bishkek-Issyk-Kul taxi service.

I could see why he liked it when our tire went flat on the dark mountain pass. As he put on the spare, I could look up and see a panorama of glittering stars.

Now that I've biked through much of the Issyk-Kul territory, I feel a much closer relationship to the place. I can remember where a particular bread kiosk is located, where the bus stand with the good view is, where were the steps leading up to a hotel. I remember what it felt like to move through a particular area - tired, challenged, exhilarated, awed, and I associated that feeling with what I saw.

I stayed in a guesthouse in the quiet, green village of Tamga, formerly a popular resting place for the military.

The owner told me that several other bikers were guests as well, but already asleep – a couple of French and a couple of Russians. They were headed in the same direction, but were long gone by the time I got up and enjoyed my breakfast near the garden of flowers and fruit trees.

Once I got on the road, I coasted downhill to the lake shore, then followed the road along the coast. It felt wonderful to be on the road and I was lucky to have wonderful weather. The nice breeze cooled the effects of the bright sun.

I passed the village of Barskoon, beyond which lies the giant Kumtor gold mine, a significant contributor to the Kyrgyz GDP. I rode along calm, turquoise bays and deserted beaches lined with flowering purple and yellow bushes. Even from a distance, I could see the rocks below the turquoise water, which then moved out into a deep blue. On the other side of the road, beautiful, snow-peaked mountains lined my path. The smell of herbs filled the air and I listened to the chirping of various birds, the sound of rushing rivers, the occasional swoosh of a car, and the calls of faraway children.

Orange apricots hung from trees. When I’d stop to take a break, I’d hear them fall with a thump, like miniature coconuts. Along the roadside, I passed two men with two buckets of apricots, hoping that a passing marshrutka would stop and buy them. They gave me three and I bit into the sweet flesh with pleasure.

I took my lunch break at a beach near the village of Ak-Telek. After changing in a tunnel, I joined the two families swimming at the remote beach. The water was colored sky blue, smooth and clear. Only the snowy peaks and wispy clouds on the other side separated it from the matching sky.

The families looked at me briefly, then let me be. They were busy calmly swimming, turning black in the sun. No one was there to sell us anything. We sat within a bowl, surrounded by mountains, allowed to enjoy such an immense amount of beauty to ourselves. I loved Kyrgyzstan there.

I watched a father giving his children cannonballs. I laughed as two boys pulled a girl in a bikini into the water, and she turned around and pushed one of the boys in.

“Good for you!” a woman cheered her.

A young local man rode up on a horse and let it drink. When he dismounted, the horse rolled in the stand. After encouraging the horse to roll, the man then stripped off his pants and long-sleeve shirt, jumped back on the horse, and rode it into the lake. As he went out to a depth that reached the horse’s neck, he seemed to show off, as though he was on parade, and drove the other beachgoers out of the water in the process.

While struggling over several kilometers of road layered with additional rocks, I saw passing cars raise a shower of rocks. These flying stones knocked out the entire front window of a truck carrying a family. Women and a baby looked forlornly from the cab as the men peeled out the remaining pieces of glass.

Eventually, the road moved away from the lake and the scenery opened up into a green valley and fields. Tall poplar trees lined the road, making for a cool and pleasant ride. I passed white potato flowers in the fields, watched the laborers hard at work, and listened to water rushing through the many canals.

In the villages, the signs of apricot season clearly showed themselves – families preparing apricots for shipment, boys throwing apricots like baseballs, and large refrigerated rigs collecting crates of apricots for sale elsewhere.

The people along the way were very friendly. Most yelled out “Hello!” Sometimes a child would shout “Tourist!”, alerting his friends to the passing sight. I could feel that it was now tourist season – with more cars and activity than my last visit.

This was the first time I rode with a bike computer and I found the information helpful. In my 10-hour ride, I only spent 6 hours and 20 minutes in motion. The rest was filled by breaks, taking notes or photos, or talking to the children I passed.

By the time I reached the turn-off to Jeti-Oguz, I had already traveled 72 kilometers and was tired.

“The sanatorium is another 15 kilometers,” a shop owner told me. “Uphill.”

I frowned.

“You should hurry. It’s not good to be alone. The Kyrgyz here are wild and while most are good, some aren’t.”

I was taking this detour to see the famous red cliffs that appear on many postcards of Kyrgyzstan. As usual, I didn’t prepare too much in advance though, and I didn’t realize it was quite so far, nor uphill. It was already six p.m., so I needed to hurry before the sanatorium registration might close for the evening.

I slowly plowed my way up the gentle, but continually sloping road. At the end, I was so worn out, I had to take breaks and eat something every two kilometers. I saw the red cliffs ahead, including the broken heart, a giant red rock spliced in two. Several beekeepers worked at their trade along the roadside, selling their products to passersby.

I arrived at a café hungry and caked with sweat. The kind family, who lives in the back of the building, served me lagman and slices of juicy tomatoes and red watermelon.

I made it to the sanatorium just in time to get a room, though the administrator seemed less than pleased to see me. She sat at a desk, busily penning numbers into a ledger. She ignored my request for a room, several times.

“Wait,” she told me.

I watched her as she painstaking wrote a series of number - 33, 34, 35. After making several rows, she then starting adding sub-numbers to each - 3,4, 5. When she finally led me to my room, she’d forgotten both the key and the sheets. There was no shower and she couldn’t tell me how guests washed.

I was able to take a mineral water bath, which was disappointingly cold. Then I had nothing to do but return to my depressing room, with the spider webs around the window, the burned nightstand, and the old, stained mattresses. It cost just over $4, so the quality was in line with the price. But I knew the red cliffs and the raging river were just outside and I looked forward to going out among them the next morning.