Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Love of a Country

Riding towards Ala-Bel Pass in the early morning

As I ride the M41 road in the shining peacefulness of the high altitude morning, the green pastured hills rising in folds to the white-capped rocky peaks behind, I think about how much I have come to love this country. Young children run out from the dark doorways of yurts to meet us on the roadside, waving and calling bright “Hellos!” So enthusiastically do they give their greetings that nothing short of an endless stream of waving, calling and tinkling of the bell until they pass out of sight behind us seems an adequate reply. The mothers and grandmothers in headscarves, bright cover-all dresses and woolly leggings carry between them buckets of fresh mares milk; a young man and his elder “Salaam” us from their tall dark horses as they move their small flock along the roadside.

From the dusty but lushly treed heat of the Fergana Valley lowlands, where Uzbek and Kyrgyz sit at low tables under shady roofs, eating and drinking through the hot hours of the afternoon, to the high road passes where lorries and Ladas are pulled up beside the Soviet “wheelhouse” shops that sell soft drinks, cigarettes, lollies and alpine lake fish, the road has been varied and rich. Bowls of chai have been shared, offers of midday vodka laughingly turned down, vegetables gifted by generous bazaar sellers who chuckle at us trying to buy one onion and one potato for our panniers. We’ve downed cups of tangy but creamy “kymis” (fermented mare’s milk) from roadside yurts, played variants of volleyball with teens at their yurt camps, found idyllic campsites night after night, and when we’ve needed been given rides in the high cabs of Kyrgyz truckies.

Our own journey has been much enriched by sharing conversations over chai with Kyrgyz who really love their country. Many have been the changes they have seen in the last decades, most notably the Soviet period, their withdrawal in the late 80s, and the subsequent efforts to build the current modern state. The latter has not been easy, and many hark back to the superior infrastructure, job opportunities, education system and moral timbre of the Soviet time. They lament the corruption within the government, and long to build a healthier country. They love their land, and those who can afford it come in the summer to the high pastures to enjoy their beloved clear mountain air and nutritious horses milk to strengthen them through the winter in the lowland towns and cities. They want to give the best to their children, including this time in the natural world. They speak quietly and with incredulity of the violence between Uzbek and Kyrgyz in 2010; how neighbours and innocent people were played upon by self interested politicians, incited to a period of violence that blew previously peaceful communities apart. It changed the state of relationships and identities in ways that are taking a long time to heal. They tell us proudly in words backed up by hearty action, of the Kyrgyz tradition of hospitality, to provide places of warmth, rest and sustenance for travellers after the challenges of the road, from the Silk Road caravans of a thousand years ago, to the “velo-turists” (cycle tourists) of today.

This love we have grown for Kyrgyzstan is only a small drop to their huge love for their own country. Their concern, their care, the work they put into building its future, holding on to the things that matter to them and reforming what they see as unhelpful. It makes me think of my own country NZ, and to look forward to being back in it, to be able to do the same there, working to oppose and reform where things are bad, and to treasure and teach our children to treasure the beautiful and healthy things of our own beloved homeland.


On the road near Kochkor
Outside of the major cities, Ladas are the car of choice

A ex-Soviet "wheelhouse", a common dwelling or shop throughout the country.

Our camp among the yurt camp, Kyzart Pass
We're always rather a novelty where-ever we go! Our Kysart yurt camp hosts watch Ollie prime the cooker.

The cemeteries are always grand. On the road from Kyzart to Chaek

Entering the gorge of the Suusamyr Valley, Aral to Kyzyl Oi road

Riding through the gorge

Stoked to be in the Suusamyr Valley, the joys of the quiet backroad!

Out of the Suusamyr, onto the M41
With Aisal and her family, who offered a welcome haven from the ferocious head wind! Near Ala-Bal Pass.

A reasonable spot for lunch? Chichkan River.

Down the gorgeous gorge of the Chichkan River heading south towards Toktugul.

Loving Kyrgyzstan and loving the biking!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Photo story of Ala-Archa National Park, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek is a green city. Numerous trees soften the ex-Soviet apartments, and the mountains are not far off.
Surviving a crowded minibus (35people, 13 seats) for an hours ride is all the access needed to the National Park
As we hitched the last few kms to Ala-Archa, we got waylaid by a generous picnic invitation! As we picnicking in the idyllic shady green land beside the tumbling mountain river, everybody helped with the work, including the preschoolers and the guests! The fire was for cooking the most delicious meat patties. 
Merigil and her son Arlsa share their picnic with us. Chai, kumiz, smoky meat patties, home made bread, home grown strawberries and cherries and salad. "Daam du!" "It is delicious!"
Heading up the Ala Archa Canyon Track through the wild flowers in the late afternoon sun. 
One of our beautiful campsites, this one on the edge of the larch forest
Ibex in the morning light, by the alpinists camp.
The icefall by the hut
Not so different from NZ, a simple tin alpine hut.
At the valley head, so much to gaze up at!
A small scramble gave us even greater vistas. Wonderful granite spires!
Perfect plateau
Back down to the green and the flowers, everything lush in the spring morning
Pretty stoked on the Kyrgyz mountains!!
And pretty stoked on this!! A Tajik visa! Pamir Highway here we come!

The Kyrgyz and their mountains: Three snapshots

94% of Kyrgyzstan is covered in mountains. Their culture, identity and way of life have always been heavily influenced by the mountains. In the last five days we have been lucky enough to see and share in some of the various ways that the Kyrgyz people enjoy their mountains these days.  

Nomadic Kyrgyz family near Toktogul
The first has been recorded on our last blog. We visited a high camp above Toktugul where several Kyrgyz families were staying with their herds of horses, sheep and goats. As well as the family on holiday, we met the extended family who still lives in true nomadic style. When we were there they were about to shift their camp higher still, over the rugged looking range to the south, in search of more new pastures as the snow continued to recede. They looked tough, weather beaten and fit, from the older women to the young children. Their camp was simple but tidy, their tents were of the heaviest canvas, 30 year old Soviet tents they proudly told us. They would pack this, and the various blankets, cooking equipment and kumis fermenter on to their horses, and take them over the untracked, stony ridges into the heart of the mountains for the summer months.

Melis teaches his sons to make meat patties for cooking on the open fire
Our second snapshot was on a sunny Saturday in a lush valley in the mountains next to Bishkek. Our 10km hitchhike from the bus stop to the National Park gate turned into a five hour picnic extravaganza. Our hosts were Melis and Merigil and their three young boys, and they offered us the Kyrgyz hospitality of joining them for lunch. “There will be enough!” they reassured us, and there certainly was! Maybe they pack anticipating the surprise guest! Also on holiday, they came out from Bishkek to picnic at the same spot every day of their holiday week. Many families dotted the shady, well-grassed riverbanks, some feasting in open-fronted tents, others under the trees. They too were drinking the mare’s milk, the children the straight milk, the parents the kumys (fermented mare’s milk). Our hosts work at the Manas University in Bishkek, they have great English and we talked of preschool education, politics, family, organic food and entrepreneurial schemes. They value spending time in the “natural world”, and they are teaching their children to do the same. The boys (3 and 5 yrs) wielded a small axe to chop sticks for the fire, they fanned it with cardboard to keep the embers hot, and they rolled and flattened small balls of mince into patties to cook. It was a very special afternoon, and we felt blessed to share in this young family’s mountain time. 

With Valerie and Yulie in their alpine club hut, Ala Archa
The third snapshot was higher in the mountains behind Bishkek, in the Ala-Archa National Park. Only an hours drive from Bishkek, and a three hour walk in, you are up at the foot of a spectacular glacier, and encircled by numerous steep rocky peaks. No wonder it draws a lot of climbers from Bishkek every weekend! We met Valerie and Yulie, a young Russian Kyrgyz couple from Bishkek, and they offered to show us the route up to a glacial lake and beyond. Their club owned one of a collection of small huts at an alpinists base camp, and they shared some tea with us there. They were acclimatizing to the altitude (3400m) and preparing for some climbs at a later date. They planned to spend most of the weekends of their summer in this alpine camp, and some of the winter too. 

Through the hospitality of the Kyrgyz we were able to share these three varied experiences, and gain insights into these different communities. As citizens of a mountainous country ourselves, it was fascinating to see similarities and differences with our relationship to our mountains as New Zealanders. Also, to see how a traditionally mountain nomad culture has evolved and changed, but has not lost much of its attachment with the land.