Country Number 7 - We are in Kyrgyzstan!

After our rush to the border in Kazakhstan we were relieved to enter Kyrgyzstan - a relatively small country where we are allowed to stay for 60 days visa-free. Enough time to explore the remote mountains and take a few weeks to relax.

Kyrgyzstan is famous for its mountains and alpine pastures spotted with cows, sheep, goats and of course horses. The people here are shepherds that spend 4 to 6 months in the highlands, living in traditional yurts while the animals graze.

During the summer holiday the children live with their parents and help them tend to the animals. Horses play a central role in their lives and even very young boys already know how to ride. Unfortunately though we never saw a woman mounted on a horse.

The stretch between the border to the town Karakol took us along an unpaved road, small clusters of houses and hundreds of horses. The men rode past us, saluting to us from the saddle, while the women stay in the vicinity of the home baking bread and making yoghurt, cheese and butter. In the late afternoon we came past a field where about 15 riders where playing Kok-Boru, a traditional Central Asian nomad game similar to polo. However, instead of a ball the men play with a goat carcass. We stopped for a while to watch the game, admiring the mens riding skills.

The guy in the front is carrying the goat carcass.

We found a nice camping spot along a river, hidden between the willows. The sky was clear and it would have been nice to sit outside for a while and gaze at the stars, but a chilly wind sent us soon into the tent and the cozy sleeping bags.

The next day, after a steep uphill, we met a large group of mountain bikers. They were accompanied by two guides, one a cycling fanatic who had done a lot of touring himself and now took tourists on smaller cycling adventures, the other a Kyrgyz guide who spoke great English and Spanish.

After the obligatory selfie, the group continued but the kyrgyz guide who was driving the escort vehicle stayed and talked to us. He said he's been in the tourism industry for many years, especially working with hunters. These are very rich people who come to Kyrgyzstan for the trophy hunt of an ibex or marco polo sheep. Hunting these animals can cost up to 15000 US dollars and is a lucrative business, especially for corrupt officials and guides that hunt more than their license allows. Since we are also always on the hunt for wildlife, but with our camera, we asked him where the best spots would be to see an ibex or even a marco polo sheep. He quickly responded that it would be very hard to see wildlife as there are people everywhere with their heards and the wildlife is driven to very high altitudes.

"And what about the hunting?" I thought to myself, "Doesn't this also drive the animals to ever more remote areas and of course decimate the number of individuals?"

In the late afternoon we arrived in Karakol, a small town where many tourists spend a few days before or after going on trekking tours in the mountains. For us that meant hostels and English menus. We found a nice hostel with a great breakfast close to the center. In their yard they had the skull of a marco polo sheep. Would this relic be the only sign of wildlife in Kyrgyzstan?

The hostel also had a colorful yurt set up between the flowers. Curiously I took a peak inside and was startled at seeing a stuffed lammergeier and the skin of a snow leopard hanging on the wall, both endangered species. Later I found out that before 1975 these species could still be hunted and many Kyrgyz have a pelt hanging in their homes. It is questionable though if all these animals really have been killed more than 40 years ago.

Karakol is located in eastern Kyrgyzstan, not far away from the large Yssik Kol lake. It is one of the largest alpine lakes in the world and lays at an altitude of approx. 2000m. Its name translates to warm lake, as it doesn't even freeze during the cold winter months due to its high salinity level. That makes it somewhat unsuitable for washing after cycling, but the shores on the eastern side are sparsely populated and hold many great camping spots.

While eating breakfast and drinking coffee the next morning, we had to make a decision - continue cycling along the lake, the easy option, or cycle south into the Tien Shan mountains and over the Tosor pass, a road described on a website with the auspicious name "the world's most dangerous roads". The second option promised an adventure and would lead us to very beautiful and remote areas. But we were hesitant due to the bad weather. The last couple of days we experienced several rain showers and dark clouds hung low over the whole mountain range.

Undecided we started cycling. An hour later it started to rain and we found shelter at a bus station. In this weather it wasn't even easy - nor fun - to cycle along the lake. So after only 30 km of cycling we checked into a yurt camp at the shore. "Lets rest here today and decide tomorrow what we want to do" said Sera.

So we relaxed in the yurt, read and surfed the web, cooked a delicious meal of red lentils with vegetables and made friends with fellow travelers. Would we really cycle up the mountain and into the wilderness of Kyrgyzstan tomorrow?

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