Spectacular scenery and fascinating nomadic culture define a seven-day off-roading trip across Kyrgyzstan
Choice of travel destinations, especially off-grid locations, always reminds me of the last stanza of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken — “I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. So here I was, looking through the window of my aircraft and thinking about the poetic masterpiece, when the pilot announced that we would soon be landing at Bishkek Manas Airport. A couple of months before I took this flight, I could not tell you where Bishkek was on the world map. Nonetheless, the following week that I spent driving around the charming nation of Kyrgyzstan, was one of the most exhilarating experiences.
Nestled between western China, Kazakhstan, and the Tien Shan mountain range, Kyrgyzstan is aptly referred to as the ‘Pearl of Central Asia’. The Kyrgyz region functioned as a vital hub along the Great Silk Route, an important means of trade between the Far East, the Indian sub-continent and Eurasia. With over 2,000 years of history, Kyrgyz culture has heavy influences of the former Soviet Union, Mongolia, China, and Persia. A walk around the capital city of Bishkek, with its Soviet-era grid structure, sets the tone for appreciating this confluence.
The city offers an urban flavour of life and is home to numerous cultural buildings, parks, bazaars and monuments. The most impressive of the monuments is the daunting statue of Kozhomkul, which represents this legendary wrestler hauling up a horse. Representative of the interesting commercial and cultural mosaic, Osh bazaar is a vibrant flea market with shops huddled in between narrow lanes. The area carries a wide range of local food, clothing, souvenirs and other handicrafts, which are typically available for a bargain.
Starting from Bishkek, our guided expedition was to navigate about 1,500 kilometres around Kyrgyzstan. The six-day drive, including back-country off-roading through dirt roads, shaped a unique travelling experience, as we witnessed an assortment of stunning landscapes. Our first leg was to head East towards Cholpon-Ata. En route, we caught the first glimpse of Issyk-Kul, the world’s second-largest salt lake. Issyk-Kul means “hot lake” in Kyrgyz, as the water at this high-altitude mountain lake does not freeze even in the coldest periods. The scenery of the beautiful shoreline and grazing wild horses interspersed amongst the vibrant autumn-coloured foliage is stuff that you see on picture post-cards. Add to that a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains. No wonder Issyk-Kul is traditionally regarded as the ‘Jewel of Kyrgyzstan’.
From Cholpon-Ata, we drove towards the eastern tip of Issyk-Kul through Grigorievskoye gorge. All along, plush meadows with a splendid arrangement of juniper trees and mountain streams provided inspiration, as our convoy got into the off-roading groove. A prominent landmark not to be missed is Seven Bulls (‘Jeti-Oguz’ in Kyrgyz), which is a geological red rock formation within a forested valley, circled by an active stream. The quaint town of Karakol was our next pit stop. From Karakol, we headed back to the western end of Issyk-Kul and then south-eastern Kyrgyzstan, to the town of Naryn.
All weather hotspot
Naryn is the gateway to the most famous medieval monument in Kyrgyzstan — the Tash Rabat Caravanserai. Located at an altitude of 3,500 metres, the distinctive high dome-shaped building is mostly hidden under a hillside. Although the origins of the Caravanserai are often explained through numerous theories, the most common belief is that this stone structure sheltered travellers from inhospitable mountain environment. In fact, our convoy witnessed first-hand how harsh the conditions could get. Owing to the unpredictable weather at these altitudes, the approach road and the valley were almost entirely blanketed with a thick layer of snow. Our original plan also included a stay at beautifully decorated tent-style homes called yurts. While the common directive is that no visit to this part is complete without an experience in a yurt, the sub-freezing weather was enough deterrent for us to opt otherwise. All the same, the driving conditions did make for an exciting manoeuvre.
Although appreciating the spectacular natural beauty of the great outdoors was the premise of our driving tour, experiencing Kyrgyz culture was equally intriguing. Traditionally, the Kyrgyz lived as travelling herdsmen, and one fascinating element of this nomadic culture is their proficient horsemanship. Catching a glimpse of the traditional Kyrgyz horse games is therefore highly recommended. Another notable facet of my visit was the hospitality of the locals. We had numerous opportunities to sample a wide variety of culinary styles that Kyrgyz cuisine has to offer.
Pages in history books on the Silk Route are generally detail-strewn in narrating events and dates, but their representation of culture and traditions at large is often lacking. Our journey along the Kyrgyz terrain was by no means relaxing. However, it was one of the finest travel experiences that I have had. We ventured through unnamed roads and unfamiliar topography, only to recognise just how much adventure lies beyond the well-trodden spots of the globe. And that made all the difference.
By Vikas Pawar