May 27, 2013
The trip took on a new character today. Gone were the leisure and relative sloth of Karakol. Once dropped off by the mashrutka, we had 14km of hiking uphill towards the hamlet of Altyn Arashan (roughly 3000m/9800ft). First, however, we (Sjoerd, Julian, and I) said goodbye to Salima, who was headed back home to Almaty, and Bart, who continued his journey towards Mongolia.
Clicking my backpack’s waistbelt buckle quickened my pulse. It was nothing more than a fear of holding back two kids 15+ years younger than me, but once on our way that fear quickly faded. Truth be told, Julian was carrying the most weight by far, as he had EVERYTHING with him. Sjoerd and I left some of our gear in the Neofit Guesthouse for a nominal fee, which, in retrospect, was very trusting of us given our history there. That said, I did not leave my Canon A-1 and it’s three lenses behind, so despite only having a daypack, I was carrying some significant weight. The route up was a gradual dirt road with a few steep, boulder-y sections thrown in, which begged the question, “Why would you ever pay for a ride up here?” Surely, you would be thrown around the vehicle like a rag doll. I was breathing too hard most of the time to make much conversation, so I disguised my labored effort by limiting my participation and used a video break to get one reprieve. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country and most people (almost all) that own horses are nomadic and don’t want them running away. So, they are tied up in in various ways to limit how far their horses can wander and graze. The most common way I saw was to bind the two front hooves together, although I also saw some horses with one hoof tethered to a stake in the ground. At least the former allowed the horse to graze and move, albeit in the most disabled and depressing manner. As you will see in the video, the horse is afraid of humans likely due to abuse from the owner.
We made good progress and were smugly satisfied with our sense of accomplishment. To reward ourselves for arriving in less than 4.5 hours (when the book said 5-6), we went to the hot springs after confirming we had a place to sleep and that dinner would be cooked for us as well.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a story about squealing naked women this time, well, actually there was. Sjoerd’s curiosity got the better of him again, and he looked into another cabin’s window to see if the springs were different. I don’t believe he got an eye-full this time, but there was a startled female when he pressed his face against the window. I tell you! His girlfriend was going to be a lucky lady when he got home! Without the prying eyes of some stranger, our cabin and its 1m deep hot spring was really peaceful and relaxing. Situated next to a stream of snow runoff, it was only customary to test our circulatory health by immersing ourselves and then run back into the hot spring. Then Sjoerd decided that the visit wouldn’t be complete without doing a cannonball, which he photographed with a self-timer.
Back at the guesthouse, we met the others staying there while waiting for dinner to be served. Before we really got to know them the sun decided to peak underneath the day’s uninterrupted blanket of clouds and we all rushed to photograph some precious sunlight before sunset.
Staying at backpacker hovels in remote places always means a good conversation. Anyone that made the same effort you did is going to share common interests. This is always good news for me because I am uncomfortable talking to strangers cold turkey. Sharing the house was Yuta, a Japanese national on his second year of traveling, after leaving behind a finance job. His English grammar, accent (Queen’s English), and inflection made his upper class background obvious, but had gentle soul and pleasant demeanor. The other (coincidental) Japanese national was Maruka. She had quit her job at a hotel in Chiba City to travel for a year. Lone female travelers are rather uncommon, but one in this part of the world is rare, especially since she was typically Japanese, reserved and quiet. Rafael and Sam were the two twenty something French friends that were really into talking about photography, marijuana, and French labor laws. Great guys. Markus was a German in his mid 40’s that managed to drive his Volkswagen sedan up that crappy road in one piece. Finally, were Martin and Vladimir. These two Slovaks had been friends forever and travel together every two years or so. Martin lives in Norway and is a hotel manager, so his English is impeccable. Vladimir is a mechanic in Slovakia and did pretty well keeping up with the conversation.
Dinner was salad and pasta with meat and liver. Certainly not the most glamorous of meals, but I was starving and it was delicious and not enough. It seemed that the rest of the calories would come from beer. Once we ran the place out of beer, Vladimir and Martin pulled out the vodka and their stories about women in Russian nightclubs. As good as they were, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I found one of the only rickety beds still open and spent the rest of the night trying to find a position where the saggy springs didn’t rest my body on a crossbar.