Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Three Stans - Karakol Excursion

Bishkek late afternoon Wednesday April 30th

We just returned to our Turkish high rise (with especially generous servings of good caviar at $9 a pop) from two absolutely striking and exciting days. Our driver Valentin is A+...the son of an important local functionary and the representative in Kyrgyzstan for George Soros and his foundation....a young guy of 30 with 2 children and a computer programmer wife (whose family thinks he has lost his mind for wanting to be in travel)....he has a growing organization of cars and drivers, minibus and buses....and I would trust him with my granddaughter I like him so much! We have also been accompanied by a guide named Svetlana who is agreeable. We cut out early yesterday and drive east...first through the suburbs and into steppe-like landscapes...then into a long a gloomy and very windy canyon which looked remarkably like that landscape south of Butte.....the canyon then opening to the wonders of Lake Issyk Kol.

How much can one write about a lake: yes it is 170 km long and 80 km across...something like 75 rivers and steams and streamlets run into it but nothing flows out of it....despite being surrounded by snow capped peaks (some well into the 20,000 foot range) the lake is fed by underground thermal springs and never is shockingly blue....and was closed during the USSR days to all foreigners as the Reds tested their torpedoes (and other horrors) is shaped rather like a cucumber, it is the second highest alpine lake (Titicaca is larger, Baikal as I may have written is not alpine), supports a large fishing fleet and what locals wags call the Kyrghyz navy (converted-into-pleasure craft excursion boats now). The SOUTH side is rather arid but with marvelous copses of blooming apricot trees here and there and Kyrghyz cowboys with ridiculous looking tall felt hats sum crowned by luxurious hawk feather managing huge herds of mostly sheep but also cows and horses. Geese strut about the highway sure that no one would dare kill is other worldly in a way and yet it not totally unfamiliar ground to people who know part is our west...just substitute a cowboy hat by a chapeau which Dior might have fashioned.

We arrive in the main lake town of KARAKOL (famous for its sheep and the tightly woven wool which was fashionable in the 30s and 40s as a far coat or jacket) was not founded until the 1860s and the Russians (many military, many jacks of all trades discovering the wild wild east) and the Kyrghyz who drifted in from their yurts and high mountain life to give up their nomadic ways to farm and be fixed adobe cow-people... (when I think about it I would wager that ALL of our ancestors were nomads too.....but at a date far earlier than the 1806s)...we sought out a good bowl of borscht and good tea and then set about sightseeing.......the requisites here include the Chinese Muslim Mosque (the Uighers who fled from the Urumchi area when the Hans became a rather unpleasant majority a bit ala Tibet) built without a nail....with Uighers starting at Aysegul who of course knows Mosque etiquette......then to the Russian Orthodox Church which, mostly because of its absurd globular domes and interior 4th rate icons, where a lady of the church physically attacked me (picture an enraged chicken clucking at the maximum and beating me with its wings) because I had stepped into some particularly sacred space...I am still not sure what it was...but then again only the Zoroasters (Parsis) have a god which we can all agree exists, the sun. we left a nice offering at the Chinese mosque but nothing at the cathedral. Those poor people in the latter had no doubt suffered indignities more heinous than mine in the Stalin days.Our hotel in Karakol was comfortable, a new building all done up in orange and I think terra cotta, one with very pretty huge felt hangings in every room (the local craft...Aysegul, the worlds number one shopper almost bought one....big ones are circa $200...but better sense prevailed). We went to a restaurant for dinner called KENCH which I swear sounds like a soubriquet for Lotte Lenya in a spy movie...and at said KENCH was had a magnificent beef stroganoff and would you believe crepes suzette all around...dinner for the 4 of us was $38 including lashings of vodka and beer. Man, Karokol is a bit of all right and the fanciful Russian wooden houses are off a stage set. Anything of course done after 1917 or so looks like Ciudad Juarez.

After a luscious breakfast of homemade yoghurt and the local muesli and an egg certainly laid 20 minutes before (we were all awaked by the rooster), we hit the road on the VERY green north shore of dear old Lake Issyk Kul. The trees of the area are mind bogglingly beautiful and there are 10 mile allees of Lorraine poplars...then birch...then weeping willows. Hardly a mile could pass outside a village without these spectacular (and well cared for) avenues of trees....all nicely interspersed with cherry and apple trees in FULL Bloom. The country north of Kygghyzstan is Kazahkstan and you might like to know that its largest city is ALMATY which in the Turkic tongues of the region means "father of apples".....couldn’t resist the trivia.

The big stop today was at a rock strewn region at the bottom of towering snow capped peaks...above the kitschiest resort town on the lake (picture decaying Soviet era sanatoria plus new modern-than-tomorrow buildings calling themselves Meridien, Beau Rivage and of course Four Seasons (no relation). LO in this area of boulders uphill and still within sight of the resort town of Cholpon Ata was one of the greatest petroglyph sites on earth: bronze age fashioning of snow leopards and ibexes, still quite visible, amazingly intact without graffiti....the ancients kept using these huge stones as their canvases even after the arrival of the Kyrghyz in the 8th century. Some of the art, crafted by people as mysterious as our Anazasi, was done by a lost people called the Saka-UIsuns who also arranged some stones here and there in oddly shaped circles which seem to have little to do with one can figure out WHAT the shapes are there. It was spitting rain; deserted, eerie...the place was as exciting to me as Stonehenge or the possibly more dramatic Zoarts Stones in SE Armenia...

Now it is back to Bishkek after a stop at the Burana Tower a pre-Islamic sort of minaret in a deserted city in which lots of Scythian gold treasures can be found ...from the top of 4-5 srory remains of the tower I could make out the humps and angles of the ancient city....11th century mostly. Neat place. Scythian gold working is about as elegant as anything man has done (some good pieces too in the adjacent museum at Burana)....and the stuff keeps showing up in the damndest places like Graz, Udine and Zamosc!

Can you tell I am having the time of my life? Sure you can! I wish each and every one of you were along.....It is a true thrill to be somewhere on this earth immensely valid to visit but largely devoid of world tourists. They will come.


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