I decided quite at random to take a marshrutka to Жыргалан instead of hiking to Алтын-Арашан, as I was rather exhausted after the hike the previous day. I knew almost nothing about Жыргалан aside from the fact that one could take a marshrutka there (no walking necessary!) and that it was high up in the valley amongst mountains. I left quite late from the Yurt Camp, not sure when I’d have internet next, and a good thing, too, as the next stable internet I’d have would be now, in Almaty (I’m backdating the posts as I am wont to do). On the way to Жыргалан, I stopped by the Central Market and ate some cold noodles, my guilty favorite “Kyrgyz” dish (it’s actually Dungan) at the cafe where I’d drawn a few days back. The owner recognized me, of course.
A good thing I got to the marshrutka early, as it ended up being one of the most crowded transports I’ve ever been on. They just kept cramming people on. I sat near the back, having claimed my seat before getting the noodles with my yoga mat and jacket. A pair of French had enormous packs which took up an entire seat in the back row behind me (Tons and tons of French in this part of Kyrgyzstan. If not French, then German.). It was a hot, stuffy ride – the drawing below was done just before we left – later one would see only the backs and legs of endless human bodies. We stopped by the side of the road to pick people up, taking nearly two hours to make the 60km trip. We were so full, in fact, that we even rejected a few passengers! I counted passengers who got off after the last village on the main road (no one got on after this) – 35 people, around 20 seats…
I had a dastardly plan for my time in Жыргалан, which was namely to do absolutely nothing. I’d checked the weather forecast before leaving, and happily saw rain for the next few days, which would absolve me happily of the guilt of sitting around on my butt. The first homestay I checked into was full, but the very kind proprietor pointed me down the street (there are two main streets in the village of 1,000 people) and I found a place at the homestay where Tynchtyk had once worked. The French couple joined shortly after to use the WiFi to send a birthday message before heading off on their trek, magically catching the WiFi for the 20 minute window in which it would work for the next 48 hours. I walked a bit around town before the rain picked up, catching some images of the ridiculously charming (and somehow extremely clean) village. It reminded me of Mazeri in Georgia, except better – western toilets instead of pit toilets, hot showers, excellent fresh food, even more beautiful mountains, and the addition of horses and subtraction of dogs.
I spent the next day mostly asleep, as I was quite freezing – around 2,200m above sea level, raining all day, with only a light jacket. I took a few walks around town and to the town overlook, dodging the mud and animal poop as best as I could. The town has a fascinating story of revitalization spurred by USAid, who gave them a grant to open to community based tourism in 2017. It’s tourism done right – appealing to the middle income tourists rather than the cheap-ass backpackers (begpackers, as Brent enlightened me) or the fussy nouveau riche. The six homestays have fixed rates for lodging and food between them, and get their pre-arranged guests from the central office such that no homestay is overburdened or neglected.
The next day was beautifully sunny all day, so I went on a hike with my new friend from the United States, an interesting man named Douglas. Douglas hails from California, but has lived most of the last few decades in Koshrai and now Saipan, in the posts of Attorney General and lawyer. His extensive travels have brought him back to the same areas multiple times, allowing for wonderful insights on how they have changed. I was most interested to hear about the changes in Xinjiang, where the Uighurs have been quite thoroughly cleansed since he was there thirty years ago. After almost a month of traveling alone, it was quite nice to speak to a fellow American and fellow traveler. I learned about the world a lot from him, and now know a bit more about politics in the American (and former American) Pacific.
Our hike was quite muddy and unclear in the morning. We often doubled back to find the trail, and the various stream crossings were very confusing. Our main companion for this part of the hike was the rustling of the river to our right until we finally emerged into the beautiful confluence of three valleys that was our destination. I sat to draw for a while on a nice rock over the Жайлоо, or high pasture, then we went about the confusing process of trying to find a path over the river. We didn’t find it, headed back and asked the first group of hikers we’d seen, who were also unsure, then used the Brent sage advice of going until you think you’ve gone too far and then continuing on for 10 more minutes.
We stopped into a the yurt camp (two yurts) mentioned in the hike description and sat for some bread and tea. We were quite ripped off, asked for 300 som afterwards, but expected it in advance and enjoyed it nonetheless. The bread and tea were hot and pleasant, and the yurt had windows! The girl inside was only twenty five and had two children already. Her younger brother, at seventeen, smoked. They had poor Russian, and we used a combination of Russian and Kyrgyz (the numbers and some verbs are thankfully the same as in Turkish) to communicate. On the way back, we found Тулпар-Таш, Tulpar Tash, apparently the rock from which Манас’s horse leapt to scare his enemies. If so, both would have been quite dead, as the rock is about seven or eight meters tall. Douglas and I chatted pleasantly throughout the journey, with the perfect mixture of conversation and independent silence that one only gets from equally experienced travelers.
A quick aside about our accommodation. I acted as the proprietor’s primary translator throughout our stay. On our last night, however, a sudden wave of eleven guests worried her immensely. The Kyrygz family on vacation found other accommodation for the night, and Douglas and I had to move into the adjacent yurt (which was massive and wonderful) to make room for the three awkward and unfriendly French guests and their friendly male Kyrgyz guide, and the Danish family of five, their unfriendly very young female Russian guide from Bishkek, and their Russian horsemaster. The first group would be going on a 19 day tour by horse, foot, and car around the backcountry. The second group would take day trips from the guesthouse. We’d been out of electricity the previous day and much of this day, so our hostess was even more frantic leading up to their arrival. But all went well, and we had an excellent meal, even though we were joined at the last minute by Tom, a British (Scottish or English yet growing up around the world) hiker who’d come down that morning from Boz-Uzchuk lake, crossing two 3400m passes on the way on his 28km day of rather strenuous hiking and smelling quite like it. We’d become fast friends, but more on him in the next post.
We all left back to Karakol the next morning on the second Marshrutka out, too lazy to take the early morning one. This one was even more crowded than the last, with forty people somehow cramming in. On hearing me speak Russian, the entire Marshrutka chatted with me happily for about fifteen minutes before it became too crowded to comfortably speak.