Monday, July 31, 2006

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.

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