Charyn canyon cuts a miniature 80 km scar on the flat surface of the great Central Asian steppe. Definitely a beautiful piece of Kazakh scenery that would adorn our travel album on the way to Kyrgyzstan if it wasn’t for a most unexpected ticket office set at the end of a long, empty dusty path, a 2 hours trek from the road. By the time we arrive 7 students in an orange van have already engaged in a heated discussion with the indifferent guards. They agree with us that nature has no landlords and that there is something twisted in charging for scenic views. We ponder long about the idea of getting a ticket that lifts the thin bar into the very same land which, on both sides of the tiny guards’ cabin abounds in impressive landscapes that take your breath away. There is no doubt that Charyn canyon is worth a visit, and that financial contribution to protected areas are something each traveller can consider on a local basis but this time we eventually decide to turn back, sticking to the principle that nature is all beautiful and is all ours. We wonder what sort of jewel we might have missed as we are driven away through lunar landscapes and into a green wallpaper picture that fits more with our idea of the Swiss Alps than with the dusty Kazakhstan we have known so far. The slow and loaded Volkswagen mastodon clumsily winds up and down through rocky ways towards the border mountains that, unfortunately, we won’t be able to cross on foot if we want to get a decorative stamp in our passport. And at the end of the road, when a new checkpoint intercepts our way, the students decide that maybe this time the toll is worth it, while we descend into the middle of nowhere, sparing the last 2000 tenge of our budget.
Misery rents a room in heaven. And we happen to wake up in it. While a few sleepy donkeys graze their breakfast in an idyllic surrounding, we wake up in the inattentive company of several dead mice lying on the littered floor of an abandoned house where we were invited to spare ourselves the heavy evening rain. Two hours of ruminating dry crumbles of yesterdays bread by the roadside reveal an unsurprising absence of cars. A promised marshrutka never made its way to reality. We are not into riding donkeys. With 2 days left on our visa and more than 80 km away from any proper road we are presented with two main options: growing wings or tying our shoelaces tight and start walking. We safely opt for the latter.
Walking is joy. Forgotten villages perch on a curvy line slowly zigzagging towards the most picturesque border we have crossed in a while. One more police control that changes nothing,awkwardly separating places that seem to have more in common than just a cyrillic alphabet for their respective Turkic tongues. The last Kazakh sunset, the first Kyrgyz rain across a silent border. Familiar smiles wave us hello from their passing horses. Cozy village houses invite us in. Fresh milk, red ripe strawberries, honey, raspberry jam, all seasoned with the usual travel chat. Beautiful Asian faces opening their eyes in surprise, trying hard to pin down the reasons for our endeavours across their continent. Sporadic encounters over cups of tea or shots of vodka with an omnipresent character running through the veins of many blue-eyed, white-haired local Russians. “Go and see the world – they encourage – and when you come back, tell us about it”.
Explorers of the 19th Century must have definitely carried the Russian character’s blessing in their luggage. Ambassadors of an educated party of moustached men that sat in their map-wallpapered offices or pipe-smoked living rooms, waiting for faraway news of places they would never step into. Few kilometres north of Karakol, one of the ‘hiking capitals’ of Kyrgyzstan, under the peaceful shadow of green gardens, lies the eternal bed and memorial place of Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839 – 1888) – an acclaimed Russian geographer that brought Central Asia nearer to the Europeans of his time. Excited by our recent walking experience (gently interrupted by smooth and quick four-wheeled rides upon rainy clouds) we feel trained enough for a long hike around the shores of Issyk Kul, and start with a sort of pilgrimage to the last site of Przhevalsky’s adventure. His tiny museum opens windows of roving questions: military exploration, colonial attitudes, ethics, interest for the unknown, professional discovery and the nature of expeditions, everything converges into the pursue of a travelling dream as a profession. And despite all critiques to the spirit of their time, we still romanticise the long gone explorations. While nowadays travellers certainly benefit from the steps of the previous, from globalization, from technology, and can afford to pack our freedom in 50 liters, we know that the tracks are beaten for us, and that great explorations lead now only to the sky. For us, there will be a cash machine in the next town, or across the next border; bottled water will keep foreign bacteria at safe distance; online translators will speak for us with mobile phone voices, letters take no time to arrive. The distance between us and any part of the world has shortened, and still we feel that we need to fill the map and walk it ourselves.
The fact that something is known (for somebody else) does not mean that it is known for you. There is a whole array of prosaic questions that always await an answer. How long does it take for the sun to set behind the second largest alpine Lake on Earth? Which colour are the waters of the salty lake that never freezes? How fast does the cold get under your skin as the night sets invisible roots by its shore? What’s the aroma of the surrounding flower fields in a sunny afternoon? They linger in our minds fused with more practical issues that know only of “empirical” replies. How do people drink their afternoon tea in this part of Asia? What sort of colours adorn their walls? Or what’s the smell of their blankets? The first week of walking around the south of Issyk Kul, the lake we first got to know from the old accounts of the Silk Route, satisfies our novice curiosity. The sun that blinds us during the day sets after nine in a colourful explosion, the waters are crystal clear, flowers we have never seen buzz with the sound of honey. Devoted to our tour around the lake, when the fresh evening breeze reminds us of our missing sleeping bags we do not hesitate knocking on nameless village doors and asking for the warmth of their handmade quilts. Not two blankets smell the same.
Only the smooth and straightforward kindness of Kyrgyz people is a constant that does not stop to surprise. They offer their gardens and open their homes with the same easiness as the female head of the family takes her duty of distributing tea all around the table. “Like a tea master” – we say – and they smile, probably unaware that where we come from everyone fills his own cup. Guests are always welcome no matter the time of the day or evening, even if they appear wet and muddy and unannounced on the doorstep. It’s our duty not to take advantage of the Kyrgyz’s good will, but we can’t help wanting to meet them for a cup of tea. It’s an absolute pleasure to sit around in homes, feeling like one travels through an ongoing museum of local crafts where rooms cyclically revolve from living rooms to bedrooms back to living rooms, where mats are spread – folded – stack depending on the flow visitors. The number of mats piled by the walls make us wonder in each house how many people are they ready to host. It turns out that most of the family is away in the summer pastures, and comes back in autumn to the houses where 3 generations usually coexist in an organic manner following Kyrgyz traditional life. Evenings of jokes and stories, spiced up by the local indiscreet curiosity, are mysteriously and invariably followed in the morning by a rough exchange of phone numbers and an awkward good bye “Давай – ладна – щастлива”(well, alright, good luck) they wave from the door turning casually around. After a month we get used to their funny manners, finally convinced that they do not dislike us when they see, with the morning light, who has just waken up next to them. This lack of ceremoniosity makes travel light and easy.
Kyrgyzstan makes us feel at home while its landscapes change. A brief furnishing visit to Bishkek provides us with basic equipment and the best of mood, courtesy of Raj (an Indian in Central Asia). We feel ready to take off to the mountains and are back to walking in the surroundings of Karakol. Magnificent walls of giant forests, roaring streams, and jagged rocks reveal a world of rough wonders that hide the alpine lake Ala Kul behind a 3900 mt pass. While Boris transforms into a mountain goat climbing uphill in light leaps, Marta’s enthusiasm for nature diminishes with each panting step behind his track. And every meter up the slope feels as exhausting as it is beautiful. Kyrgyz kids shorter than a meter ride horses as if they had been born on one, cows follow us with their ruminating gaze as we slowly pace upwards, while a flow of trekking tourists pours downhill in the opposite direction – their light and happy moves adding to Marta’s desperation. “Are we going again the wrong way? I’m sure it was easier through the other end.” Each step is a platform that offers a new viewpoint to the still stone made peaks reaching for the sky. Soon the aching and tiredness become secondary, leaving room for a genuine admiration of the multifaced nature. Blind and powerful winds re-shape the pattern of clouds every few minutes and expand the range of wildly changing landscapes. Hail, rain, mist and sunshine form and faint like a desert mirage. And just when we think that nothing could surprise us and happily climb the last steps before the pass, the sky closes in black and throws charges of electricity towards the iron stones around us. A rain of lightning that lifts ones hairs upwards crowns the top of the steep slope and we crouch behind a stone frozen by fear and failing to remember the instructions of our lost SAS survival guide. Was it better to lay still or is wet ground the worst solution? Should we run or should we pray? – everything crosses our mind as we live through the nightmare of the Mongols (They are famous for their fear of thunder storms, and even Chingis Khan is believed to have perishes under this weapon of the sky).
Two Russians with strong minds and little clothing optimistically come upwards as we hastily descend. The pass is closed and with hail turning into snow, they join our escape and we slide down together the muddy paths chased by the storm. Not a single millimeter of clothing remains dry by the time we reach a lonely shepard’s shelter. A cocktail of vodka and tea by the fire reliefs our minds and bodies, while our four pairs of socks steam in the darkness of their tent. The welcoming emergency hosts live at around 3000 meters for 4 months a year, taking care of cattle in the moody mountains – Kyrgyz call “jailooing” this semi-nomadic practice, widespread all around the country. They laugh at our fears but also remark that storms can kill tourists and horses – !? – and with their vivid unscientific explanations reassure us that Ala Kol did not want our visit today. Two or three hours later we are floating in the hot springs of Altyn Arashan, reflecting over our vulnerability and fear of nature, re-comforted by the 40 degrees of the sulfuric water and the awaiting good sleep under a duvet in a room. We will continue walking, but not today.