My Song Kul gift horse

Sometimes you don’t look the gift horse in its mouth.

I’d just rolled into Kochkor, a supply town for the herders living up at Song Kul lake during the summer and the tourists wanting to have a look. It was meagre, and suspiciously over-populated with taxis.

I hefted my pack and walked around the corner to the local Community Based Tourism (CBT) office. What I wanted was to either horse in or walk in from a town called Kyzart, from where I’d been told a hard day’s tramp would get me to the lake.

Two young women cornered me in the office and gave a quote for a horse trek. Being an awkward solo the horse option was well out of my budget and the girls were deliberately unhelpful about non-CBT transport to Kyzart, so I went across the road for the second best option: an ice cream.

As I was loitering on the roadside, disappointed and wondering what to do now my pony ride idea had been nixed, a man in a white 4WD drove up and called from his window: “Song Kul?”

I hesitated. Not because I’d learned my lesson about accepting rides, or anything else, from strange men but because I had no idea about what I was doing. Did I need a tent if I planned on walking out? How much food would I need? What, exactly, did I want to do?

I loitered a bit more and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to ask him how much he wanted for the ride (traditional hitch hiking doesn’t exist in Kyrgyzstan; anyone will pick you up for some petrol money).

Churgit was taking supplies and two untalkative children up to a yurt at Song Kul. Not only did he have a car that wasn’t stuffed, but he was a good driver too – a rare gem in Kyrgyzstan – and he effectively just wanted some cigarette money.

He wrote 400 som in the dirt. CBT had quoted a round trip of 2800 som. Decision made and a new plan created in a matter of seconds: stay at a yurt for a couple of nights, do some walking, maybe a pony ride, and hitch hike back out. Jackpot.

Show me the way to go home…

There have been times when I’ve wanted to be at home. Not go home, just be at home, whether it be New Zealand or Australia.

The feeling comes on when I’m feeling tired or sick or after dealing with crap people, but it’s always followed by someone or something that reminds me why travel is such a wonderful sport.

Today was one of those days. My body, unused to walking 14kms up a mountain valley and then down again with a heavy pack, gave up on me after the round trip from the Altan Arashan hot springs, and I’ve still got a cold from Kashgar. The sky was cloudy, the Karakol Community Based Tourism (CBT) office was closed because it’s Sunday, and to top it off the only thing I knew about the night’s accommodation was that it wasn’t going to be in Karakol, a dirty hole of a place not even next to Issyk Kul lake.

So I walked a little bit further, feet complaining all the way, and caught a mashrutka (slightly larger than a minivan and the main form of public transport: wait long enough on the side of any road and one will appear) to… I don’t know, maybe I will go to Tamga after all, I thought. It’s on the beach after all, on Issyk Kul’s south shore.

But unlike yesterday when the sun was shining and I had the best seat, today I was stuck up the back of a dark dirty van that smelled bad. And it stopped too often. And the other passengers took up too much space.

And then we came around a bend. I had a vision of golden sand and poplar trees. I hoped this was my destination and lo, the sign ‘Tamga’ appeared before us.

I was pleased, until we kept driving. I didn’t see anything that could pass for a village so I thought the actual town must be further ahead, as in an earlier settlement called Chan Jarglechak (which I think sounds like a Chinese hoick).

Nope, that was it, disappearing behind us.

It’s amazing how the ‘damn, sorry! I forgot!’ charade crosses all language barriers as the driver realised he was supposed to let me off.

But there was an upside. A few kilometres further down is a town called Tosor, also known for having a place for tourists to stay and one I’d considered before deciding on Tamga.

The driver promised me it was good and pointed me in the direction of the beach. More walking. An old lady, laughing at the blank stares on some kids’ faces when I tried out some Russian on them, led me a little further and then a small child led me to… his house.

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I knew this couldn’t be the office of the beach-side tourist yurt camp that I was planning on staying at, and I hoped it wasn’t another case of ‘Mum! Look what I brought home! It’s a tourist!’

However, the beauty of Kyrgyzstan is that every house is a homestay. Look lost and someone will offer a bed and some breakfast for a nominal price. Mum did look a little nonplused for a moment, but quickly understood the opportunity and assured me that the yurt camp only took people for two nights or more and I should stay here.

What the hell, I thought. They speak a lot more English than I do Russian (enough to get by) and even though it looks pretty rubbish, there is a bed, which was a key factor in my decision making at this point.

The mum, about my age with a sweet smile and manner, brought me the customary chai and bread, with cherry jam. Now I’m sitting on the beach and its a balmy 25-ish degrees at 6pm. Snow capped mountains stand sentry at my back and I’m looking out over shimmering Issyk Kul. Little kids, wearing only their underwear or nothing at all, pee in the sand and race each other into the lake.

Much like home really.

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Community Based

In the late 1990s someone in Kyrgyzstan had a genius idea: since the country’s industry base and agricultural sector had been decimated after the fall of the soviet union, why not start thinking about tourism? More specifically, why not get whole communities involved?

And so was born Community Based Tourism (CBT), and later, competitors Shepherd’s Life and Jailoo.

I got to know CBT first in Arslanbob, a lovely little town with a raft of outdoorsy things to do, through its energetic coordinator Hayat Tarikov.

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It is due to Hayat that CBT arrived in Arslanbob in 2001. After a career as a forestry engineer in the local walnut forest (the largest in the world at 60,000 hectares) he hankered for something more. Setting up a tourism business that got people in the township of 13,000 involved was just the way to indulge his love of the outdoors.

Hayat is an interesting character. He saw the potential in Arslanbob for eco-tourism after doing some part time guiding in local mountains. He began with easy walks and horse rides into the forest, up to a waterfall overlookingy the valley, and to the Ibn Abbas shrine high above the township. Later, with some help from a Swiss mountaineer, the CBT included a climb up to the Babash-Ata peak (4427m), the highest in the Fergana Range, as well as fishing and a week-long horse trek to the Holy Lake on the other side of the range.

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Eighteen local families provide homestays – a comfy, slightly more expensive alternative to the Soviet ‘retreat’ up the hill. They ban the vodka but thankfully also silence the terrible Russian pop music that blares on repeat long into the night at the retreat.

It’s an interesting way to get a handle on the conservative community. I stayed at a homestay run by one of Hayat’s sisters. She was one of the first to get on board and her son, Almaz, is a guide with CBT. It’s a full house of Hayat’s sister and her husband, their son Almaz, his young wife Gulseva and their baby girl Fatima; a nephew and a niece from up the road have the run of the property.

The long drop toilet is outside, as is the shower – hot, when a small child is sent up a ladder with a bucket of hot water to fill the rooftop tank. A potato and garlic garden takes up most of the free space and apple and plum trees hang at the edges.

One of Hayat’s goals is to get every homestay insulated and with indoor toilets and showers to build on Arslanbob’s nascent skiing reputation. As it is, three guides (including Hayat) know how to ski well enough to take tourists up to the high summer pastures in the mountains that for a backdrop to the valley, thanks to a Norwegian skier who, last winter, took the guides on an intensive two months of daily skiing (those who didn’t decide early on that they hated skiing, anyway).

The powder is best in January and February and there are learner slopes (although they do require a steep cross country ski up a steep hill to get to) and more technical ones in the mountains.

But aside from the beautiful scenery, what is really interesting to see is that the influx of western tourists with large sums of western cash hasn’t turned Arslanbob into a theme park. Children don’t beg for lollies or money in exchange for photos, and adults tend not to view foreigners as ATM machines. This is tourism done well, involving the whole community instead of forcing it to reap peripheral benefits.

The guides are good at what they do and Hayat is fully aware that if they don’t treat tourists well, they won’t come back. He encourages people to buy the services of his guides, because that is what CBT is about, but understands when people choose to go it alone. In other places in Kyrgyzstan, such as Kochkor, this is not the case as CBT people employ hard sell tactics and provide deliberately minimal information in order to force tourists into buying their product.

Hayat’s latest plan is to start mountain bike tours, and the future may involve rafting and rock climbing. But at the moment, with the summer season upon them and winter starting to become busier as keen skiers drop in from Europe, America and Australiasia, the Arslanbob CBT is busy managing the interest it’s getting now.

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Paradise on earth

You want paradise? You got it.

The hills are verdant and fecund; the mountains tower and glisten with summer snow above the high summer pastures that are tinted forest green against the grey rock; bees hum and birds sing in shady walnut groves; industrious adults smile from fields and greet visitors with unprompted ‘salaam wa aleikum’s’ while children charm with innocent requests for photographs and cheeky shouts of ‘hello’.

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I am not kidding. This is real life in summertime Arslanbob: an isolated, mainly Uzbek town of 13,000 in Kyrgyzstan’s Fergana Valley, and outdoor and adventure sport playground in summer and winter alike.

The hills are covered by Soviet era walnut forests and wild Kyrgyz apples, maples, blackberries, pistachios, and junipers pop up everywhere. Crops grow easily, especially the staple potato, and there is so feed for animals in the summer and winter that donkeys, replaced by cars and trucks years ago, are allowed to roam and rut at will without contributing to their keep.

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Gentle questioning still hasn’t revealed much more than the odd alcoholic, the occasional teenage girl shockingly wearing trousers, fears of the possibility for prostitution at the old Russian summer camp, and littering.

Paradise, provided you follow the rules and are happy with the status quo. Tourists aren’t quite exempt from the conservative, Muslim influenced modes that prevail here (such as clothing, for example) and I get the feeling that women, at least, who dare break out of the arranged marriage-move in-with-the-in-laws-motherhood cycle best hope for extremely supportive and open-minded parents.

Traditional subsistence farming, the occasional teaching job, and part time mountain guide work is as far as the job market stretches for men. To find more opportunities outside the status quo they must leave the village. Many head to Russia which creates a disruptive influence as they return with Russian wives (or not, and just marry a local girl as well) and wads of cash.

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Yet conservative attitudes and providence have also helped to protect the town and its culture from splintering as modern trends and western ideas trickle in.

From a tourist’s perspective Arslanbob is gorgeous but I wonder how long it will be able to hold at bay the liberating, westernising ideas that are sneaking into other conservative outposts in Kyrgyzstan. Then again, they did manage to survive the Soviet Union.

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