Tag Archives: horses

A hike, a hamlet, and a hot spring

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.

 

The valley leading to Altyn Arashan

The valley leading to Altyn Arashan

 

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.

Avoiding hot mineral water getting in my eyes as Sjoerd proudly documents his cannonball.

Avoiding hot mineral water getting in my eyes as Sjoerd proudly documents his cannonball.

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.

The first glimpse of sunlight in days was worth a photo. Hot spring cabins in the distance along the river.

The first glimpse of sunlight in days was worth a photo. Hot spring cabins in the distance along the river.

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.

Martin and Vladimir in the foreground, Markus, and Maruka behind.

Martin and Vladimir in the foreground, Markus, and Maruka behind.

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.

Band of Horses

May 20, 2013

Like the morning after a fight with your girlfriend, the next morning was embarrassingly awkward with the hostess. I had paid for both nights in advance and wasn’t going to move accommodation out of principle, so it was time to smile and get over it.  Having aired my grievance, I slept quite well, so I was ready for a day of hiking.

The 250ft high waterfalls.

The 250ft high waterfalls.

Arslanbob is a beautiful town nestled at the end of a lush valley, which has been famous for it’s hunting and farming bounty since the days when Alexander the Great’s army occupied these lands. On his way back from his failed campaign in Afghanistan, he made sure to take the Kyrgyz walnut back to Greece to cultivate it. I have never known the walnut to be called the Greek nut, but this is why. The truth is that the walnut originated in Malaysia. Today, the town is still famous for it’s walnut grove, which is the largest in the world and part of a larger walnut forest.

Sjoerd had spoken with a Dutch couple the day before and was interested in meeting them at the CBT office for a horse trek. He seemed rather excited to speak Dutch for the day, so I simply went along to the CBT office see what hiking options were available. In the end, neither of us achieved our objectives. The couple had left with the CBT guide, so he didn’t have the chance to speak Dutch and I didn’t have any idea of where to hike.

Yup. I stopped to take a picture of this leaf.

Yup. I stopped to take a picture of this leaf.

Sjoerd had already seen the smaller of two waterfalls yesterday, so we agreed to walk upstream to the taller of the two. The deep overcast hadn’t lifted and we would be sprayed with short showers until mid-afternoon. Even so, the view of the falls was worth going up the steep trail. With rain on the horizon, I decided that I would scramble up a wet, rocky chimney for the view from the top of the 250ft falls. Sjoerd didn’t seem much interested in following me, so I planned on making the trip quick. The vertigo inducing view of Arslanbob and the valley was spectacular as rays of sunlight did their best to burn through the cloud cover. Just as I finished taking photos, Sjoerd emerged from the grassy horizon to my left.

Vertigo inducing look down the edge of the falls.

Vertigo inducing look down the edge of the falls.

This was a huge relief because the climb down would have been treacherous, so we surveyed the land and decided that we could make a loop through the walnut forest back to town. That’s the upside to a part of the world that has few trails- you can walk wherever you want. The downside is that you’re not sure if double-backing will be necessary to clear an obstacle. We still had several hundred feet of elevation gain left to the ridge and all of it was hard earned. It was so steep that, with 10+lbs of camera equipment on my back, I had to be careful not to fall backwards. In terms of footing, where there was vegetation, it was wet and slippery, and where there wasn’t, it was loose and unpredictable. I hate to admit that I welcomed a chance to stop and take photos of a textured leaf as much for the break as to capture the image, but I did. In the meantime, Sjoerd scouted a great route that kept us on the ridge and out of the ravine. Just below the clouds we found a lush jailoo, or summer pasture. Like giant mushrooms breaking ground, only large stones and boulders penetrated the thick carpet of grass, giving it the feel of being in the British Isles at roughly 7000ft.

Dude! We have the place to ourselves!

Dude! We have the place to ourselves!

We continued on until we could see down into another pasture. This one teemed with goats, sheep and horses moving about under the instructions of their owners. The picturesque setting, complete with a grassy-banked stream, beckoned a stop for lunch. On the way down, I told Sjoerd about the time I hiked alone in Montenegro and was harassed by feral horses looking for food. Like every person that’s ever heard it, he was unconvinced that a group of horses could be intimidating- that was until a group of horses suddenly became interested in us. Somehow, I was given the loaf of bread that they wanted. I quickly stuffed the loaf in my backpack before they got too close, but still found myself in the oddly familiar position of being semi-circled by horses begging for food. While these horses weren’t feral or as aggressive as those in Montenegro, it was still intimidating to be so close to such large animals. Oh, I see! You don’t believe me either!

Looks like I have company.

Looks like I have company.

Nevertheless, they went back to grazing and we found a spot far enough away that they weren’t likely to bother us as we ate and watched the cloud ceiling lower. The darkening backdrop was stunning, but it was time to move on and avoid the approaching rain shadow. Using landmarks and instincts to direct us to the walnut forest meant that we climbed numerous fences and trespassed through many people’s property. The important thing here is that we were never caught. We did, however, cake our boots in mud from several encounters with steep and loose hillsides. It was worth it because a walnut forest is something to behold. There’s no significant undergrowth due to the uninterrupted canopy, making this natural phenomenon look utterly manicured and contrived.

Walnut trees as far as the eyes could see.

Walnut trees as far as the eyes could see.

It was well past 4PM at this time, and I was running out of food and energy. I just didn’t expect the hike to last much past lunch. Likely due to dehydration, it seemed that all of the synovial fluid in my knees had dried up, making the final descent into town a rather painful experience. Aging is a bitch! After 9 hours of hiking, we were back at the house. Dinner had already been started, so I grabbed the first bucket of hot water to ladle myself clean, cutting the hot water with cold so there would be enough to rinse properly.

Sjoerd and the kids of Arslanbob.

Sjoerd and the kids of Arslanbob.

Click on the gallery to enlarge the rest. Enjoy!

DIMLAMA! If you ever see this on the menu at an Uzbek restaurant, you must order it. It never disappoints, and this dimlama was the most memorable. Dimlama is basically stewed lamb and potatoes, but there are spices in there, too. We used all the bread available to soak up every bit of liquid left on the plate. Such a heavy meal was perfect replenishment for the hike and fuel for another cool rainy night. It wasn’t even 10PM, but once that heavy comforter warmed, I was out.