2009/05/17: River Camp 87 km
We rode up a beautiful pass with a clear view all the way back to the plains we’d come from. Horses roamed everywhere. There was a great descent to a higher plain and to Qarqara for lunch at a cafe run by a Kazakh family who held Chinese nationality and spoke Mandarin. It was a bit of a shock to use Mandarin again, but a pleasure to be able to communicate somewhat better than in Russian or Kazakh.
As we left Qarqara we saw a horse and rider doing what looked from the distance like a dramatic equine display of pirouettes. Coming closer, we realized that what we were seeing was a lurching and swaying drunk horseman, toppling from side to side and clinging to the saddle and reins. The poor horse, doubtless well trained, was trying desperately to respond to what it thought were commands from the rider. It was not a pretty sight.
The road that approaches the Kyrgyz border turned to dirt. We were hailed and invited to climb to an eagle statue viewpoint to join three men and two small boys having a picnic. Once again, vodka was involved. We have seen lot of men looking after small children here, and wonder whether that is their job while their wives run businesses. To be fair, only one of the three adults was sozzled, and the other two were managing the kids and their pickled mate quite effectively. We weren’t quite sure if they were dads or grandpas or uncles. Perhaps all of these.
The border crossing was on a straight road across an open meadow. It involved four stops at small shacks: Kazakh customs, Kazakh immigration, Kyrgyz immigration, Kyrgyz customs. The Kyrgyz immigration fellow tapped his fingers and expressed disapproval of my visa, which contains a handwritten correction to the dates. The correction is signed by the appropriate authority to attest to it’s authenticity. “Nyet normal” said our fellow, and wrote “$30” in a slip of paper that he slid towards us to solicit some pocket money. We pointed out the confirmation of the correction several times and said firmly “normal.” We were not going to play along quickly. I went outside to get my papers and fumbled for receipts to show the princely sum we’d paid for the visas, but could not easily find it. As I fumbled, however, he stamped our visas and let us proceed. Perhaps the photos of great nieces which fell out as I searched for receipts helped soften him up. Perhaps the arrival of other officers helped get him back onto the straight and narrow.
This was not a pleasant welcome to Kyrgystan, although the days since our entry have made up for this bad apple. We recorded the attempt to solicit a bribe in an email to the Canadian consul in Bishkek, and forwarded copies of our visas to them in case we have difficulties leaving Kyrgyzstan and need their assistance. If the Canadians choose to tell the Kyrgyz, and these latter are serious about cleaning up corruption, we would be all too pleased if our border fellow is now peeling potatoes.
2009/05/18: Karakol 92 km
We camped by a river that evening. In the morning, we were woken by a herd of sheep moving by on the road. As we rode downhill that morning, we must have been passed by a dozen herds of sheep, cattle, and horses being moved uphill to higher pastures. They are moved calmly along the road by horsemen and dogs. Often the riders are astride mares who have older foals at heel. (Take your baby to work?) Sometimes small boys are riding large horses; their feet are in the loops of the stirrup leathers because their legs don’t reach the stirrups. A few very small kids ride donkeys. Some groups have pack horses and bedrolls. Perhaps they’ll camp at high pastures.
We had a late lunch in Tüp, on the Yssyk Kul plain. Older women who were selling seedlings kept an eye on our bikes as we ate at an upstairs cafe. Afterwards, I admired their seedlings and explained I had a garden at home, and a pleasant interaction ensued. Entering Karakol, we stopped for drinks at a kiosk, and two horsemen came along and dismounted to buy cigarettes. I talked to one of the handsome horses, and was offered a short ride by the owner, which I felt was quite an honour.
Karakol is being developed as an ecotourism centre, and serves as a base for lake and mountain outings. Trying to address our cumulative tiredness, we are staying for a few days in a Swiss-run guest house with with delicious buffet breakfast. A small and friendly German tour group was here for part of our stay.