CES is back after several weeks on the road! We enjoyed a weekend exploring the Fan Mountains of Western Tajikistan, hiked the Ala Archa National Park south of Bishkek and explored the natural splendor surrounding the eastern Kyrgyz township of Karakol. Bathing in the afterglow of these fine adventures, we thought it appropriate to reflect on the tourist opportunities of Central Asia as we have encountered them and share a quick synopsis with the Central Eurasia community.
Central Asia remains a largely foggy area on western tourists’ maps. Yes, we know these countries exist and yes, we assume there are interesting sites to see, but unlike South America, Eastern Europe or even Southeast Asia the region is distant from would-be western tourists for a number of cultural, political and linguistic reasons beyond simple geography. To folks like us, however, this makes them all the more appealing in some ways. Since one of our key goals here at CES is open the region to the consciousness of westerners in whatever small ways we can, tourism in the region is also an appropriate target for our efforts.
In general, Central Asian tourism has traditionally been built around the remains of the ancient Silk Road which transported goods from Asia to Europe. The hot points along this route in Central Asia include many modern metropolitan areas including, to name but a few, the Merv Oasis in Turkmenistan; Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva in Uzbekistan; Khujand and Istaravshan in Tajikistan; and Taraz and Almaty in Kazakhstan. These cities host treasures dating back millennia along with hints of the various cultures that thrived along these economic arteries. Many of these cities retain their Silk Road nature and continue to act as trading posts today. We urge you to check them out as we hope to similarly do in the near future.
Central Asia’s allure, however, extends beyond these ancient trading posts. We’ll touch briefly on some of the spots we visited recently that we can vouch for in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Just north of Dushanbe the rugged Fan Mountains separate the north and south regions of the country. We set out to Hoji Obi Garm, a hot spring and sanatorium where Tajiks travel to relax and purge their bodies of toxins (due to their dreadful working conditions, employees of TALCO, the Tajik national aluminum company receive paid vacations there each year). Heading north from the sanatorium we crossed two steep ridges over the course of two days, one of which was still fully covered from a late April snow storm. The first night we snow camped at the foot of the glacier leading up to the second ridge. The following day we successfully summited 4,000 meters, waded approximately 15 streams and traversed over 20 kms of rugged Tajik backcountry before finding civilization. We arrived in the remote village of Saiyod, approximately 45 minutes north of Dushanbe. There we were greeted by a wonderfully generous large Tajik family who provided us a full dinner spread and bottomless pots of tea out of the goodness of their heart, then loaded our entire group of 8 into their one truck and drove us back to Dushanbe.Having wetted our appetite for the mountains, we headed north to Kyrgyzstan. The Al Archa park just south of Bishkek, our first destination, offers top-notch hiking, rock climbing, picnicking and, for the sure-footed, ice climbing as well. Nestled just 40km south of Bishkek, the park is in excellent shape for how popular it is with locals. The park gets its name from the brightly colored “archa” juniper growing in the area which is burned to drive off evil spirits. Unfortunately, it is also believed to sap the life of those who live by it. The area used to be a base for Soviet alpinists to practice their trade. Today it is known as one of the few homes of the elusive snow leopard, the endangered amu darya trout (fishing is prohibited in the park) and throngs of chubby marmots.Getting to and from Ala Archa can be tricky as marshrutkiis only go as far as the main toll gate. We were fortunate enough to hitch a ride out with a colorful duo who treated us to local vodka, family introductions and traditional parting gifts before getting us on the right bus back to Bishkek. Our next destination was Karakol, situated on the eastern side of Lake Issyk Kul, a true diamond in the rough for outdoor adventure seekers. A five-hour minibus ride for a nominal 300 som (approximately $6) from Bishkek lands you at the bus stop on the outskirts of town. A word to the wise: try to find a nearly full minibus at the bus station in Bishkek. Buses don’t leave until they’re full and will happily wait hours on end. From Karakol horseback riding, extended trekking, skiing/snowboarding/splitboarding, and fishing are all within striking distance. We stayed at the B&B at Bailanysh for the duration of our stay and enjoyed a day of trekking in the Karakol National Park, horseback riding into the mountains south of Karakol, exploring the red rock formations of Dzhety-Oguz (here’s one particularly gory myth explaining the rocks), and relaxing on the southern and less touristy side of Lake Issyk Kul. Also, despite its remote location, Karakol’s restaurants and cafeterias are excellent. For a local feel check out Fakir. Their lagman is made to order and you can watch the cooks whip the noodles into shape the traditional way with their hands. Apparently in southern Kyrgyzstan the noodles are cast by large topless men who sling the noodles around their sweaty bellies. We’ll confirm on our next trip.
When planning our own trips we have worked with and can vouch for the following agencies – both for organizing tours and simply for sound first-hand wisdom on the region:
Disclaimer: CES received no financial compensation for mentioning these organizations. We have simply dealt with each of them in the past and find them to be honest, reputable folks who, like us, have a passion for this weird and wonderful part of the world.
As we further explore the region we look forward to continuing the Notes from the Road series. If you have questions about our travels or contacts please feel free to be in touch via twitter: @tsundlee & @ingridpederson