The love child of Switzerland and Mongolia, blessed with snow-capped mountains and hospitality like you wouldn’t believe, Kyrgyzstan makes an easy introduction into the ‘Stans. If you’re not sure where it is, you’ll find it on China’s western border – go halfway across Russia and then down a bit. The country’s attractions haven’t yet reached the radar of many travellers, and when the Border Force officer quizzed me on where I’d flown in from yesterday, he thought I said Kurdistan. Yet, it scored a mention on the Lonely Planet’s must see countries for 2019. So what can you expect of Kyrgyzstan?
There are no direct flights to the capital Bishkek from London, and in fact the country’s airlines are off limits, featuring on the EU’s “not safe to fly” list. Given that an indirect flight was necessary and Kyrgyzstan was to be my sole Central Asian destination (for now at least!) I flew with Pegasus Airlines via Istanbul. They operate out of Stansted which is convenient as that’s my closest airport. Book well ahead and they’re pretty cheap too. My flight cost £337. Though there are plenty of options for the first leg, flights to and from Bishkek are limited to one a day. Schedules change, as they did for me between booking and date of travel. What had been a three hour layover on the outbound journey changed to a five hour layover.
That had the minor advantage of arriving at a more convenient 7am, but Sabiha Gokcen Airport isn’t close enough to the city for between-flights sightseeing unless you have a seriously long layover, so I holed up in Starbucks instead. If you’ve never been to Istanbul, pick an early flight out of the UK into the city and kill time sightseeing until the second flight departs at 11pm. It takes about an hour on average to get from the airport to the city, but allow time for traffic-related delays.
Another option might be to use Air Astana and combine Kyrgyzstan with a visit to neighbouring Kazakhstan. Bishkek and Almaty are little more than a couple of hundred kilometres apart. Air Astana has direct flights from London for a similar price. Check your visa requirements before you book.
Depending on what you plan to do and how ambitious your itinerary is, you could make use of the country’s network of public minibuses, known as marshrutkas. These bear the name of the destination on the front windscreen but you’ll need to figure out the Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve always found it helpful to memorise the first or last few letters of a place name so that it’s a simpler process to clock which bus is yours. Bishkek for instance shares the same last three letters so look for “kek” at the end of the word. If you plan to loop Issyk-Kul, the country’s largest lake, you shouldn’t have a problem finding transport. Note that these minibuses go when full and won’t stop along the route if they have their full complement of passengers, so plan accordingly.
If like me you want to cover more ground and head a bit further off the beaten track, it’s worth considering a car and driver. I found Advantour to be very helpful at the initial email stage, with prompt responses and useful suggestions about whether what I was planning was doable. Marat and I bounced ideas and refinements back and forth a few times before settling on an itinerary that covered the places I wished to see at a budget I could afford. Including accommodation, I paid about £800 for my week’s activities. You’ll see from the itinerary below that it represented excellent value for money.
Another option, particularly if you have a little more time to play with, is to make use of the CBT organisations that are spread across the country. Community based tourism is a big thing in Kyrgyzstan and these helpful offices can sort you out with somewhere to stay, transport and the full gamut of activities. Each town has its own, and some even have several competing CBTs. They can hook you up with local guides, hiking packages, horse riding treks and more. I also liked the fact that they’re big on interactive experiences and will arrange cooking classes, felt-making demonstrations and more. This casual insight into Kyrgyz culture is great for the first-time visitor. Many of the bookings that Marat made for me were via the CBTs, but it’s useful to know you can cut out the middleman.
How to spend a week in Kyrgyzstan
The advantage of arriving on the night flight is that you have an extra day to play with. The downside of pushing fifty is that sleeping fitfully on a five hour flight doesn’t refresh you enough to permit morning sightseeing. The good news is that many of Kyrgyzstan’s hotels and hostels offer an early check-in for 50% of the room rate. I opted for the budget-friendly Apple Hostel for my first night and a half, which came in at about £30 for an ensuite double for sole occupancy. Its edge of town location was good for a rush hour arrival as we didn’t get caught up in any traffic and took just twenty minutes to get from the airport. The taxi transfer, arranged by the hostel, cost about £7. There’s a cheaper shuttle bus which runs more or less during working hours.
I had a much-needed nap and then had Marat send my driver over for noon. After a brief detour to his office to pay for my tour, Adyl drove me to nearby Ala-Archa National Park. This beautiful park is only about a half hour drive from the city and is centred around a dramatic canyon flanked by mountains. In late May, there was still a slight chill in the air, but blue skies meant that it was perfect hiking weather. A tarmac path takes you along the river bank. That trail ends at an outwash plain where graded cobbles and streams of water can be forded to continue the walk. You can hike for 18km though I settled for a shorter walk. A couple of red squirrels were very friendly when I got to the benches.
I was keen to ride, and had read that one of the best places to do so was in the Chong Kemin valley, a few hours east of the capital. Marat suggested I’d need to get almost as far as Karakol today to be able to complete my wish list, so I opted for a two hour ride. My guide was the chatty Beka, who’d gone to Bishkek to study English and French before returning to his beloved valley. My request for a helmet was an initially misunderstood, as he fetched me a cap to wear. The second attempt was a bicycle helmet which I figured was better than nothing.
The next two hours were a pleasure, taking a leisurely ride through rolling hills and fording occasional streams (more importantly, learning to recognise the signs that your horse is about to take a bath with you on his back). Beka interspersed nuggets of Kyrgyz heritage and history with tales of his own somewhat chequered love life. Aside from my horse almost bolting after being startled by the air brakes of a lorry as we got back to the village, it was a most relaxing ride.
From there, we drove east, doubling back to stop for lunch in the Kyrgyz equivalent of a motorway service station midway through the Boom Gorge. Food’s cheap: you can have a proper meal for about 150 som (£1.50). Following the north shore of Issyk-Kul from a respectable distance, we pulled off the highway at Tamchy for a photo stop on the beach itself. We were a few weeks off main tourist season, so the place was deserted save for one lone paddler. The neighbouring resort of Cholpon-Ata is very popular with Russians in summer. From what I could tell, it had a lot in common with the Black Sea resorts they also favour.
Our overnight stop was at a charming guesthouse, Reina Kerch, not far from Karakol. Set off the main road, it boasted panoramic views of the nearby canyon, but was also a working farm. Herds of sheep and cows pottered in distant fields but it was the horses I was keen to see, as the farm prided itself on thoroughbreds. The best competed in trotting races and I was able to watch one of their most successful stallions impregnate a mare. A tour of the stables followed. Next up was a boorsok-making demonstration. Boorsok is a fried dough cut into ravioli-like pieces. The dough was already made but I helped roll, cut and fry. It was salty and delicious. Dinner was excellent, making good use of the farm’s homegrown produce.
Staying just outside Karakol on a Sunday, it was hard to resist a visit to the animal market on the edge of town. Scotski Bazaar isn’t the country’s largest – that honour goes to Tokmok’s weekly market which we’d passed the day before. The action starts in the middle of the night, but at around nine, it was still busy enough to be worth a visit. Sheep are traded nearest the entrance; those hoping to sell tie them to car bumpers with string leads. Further in are the cows and bulls. I was told a decent cow could go for $700 or $800. At the rear are the horses. I was made to feel very welcome.
Next up was Karakol itself, for a brief visit to the Dungan Mosque, which looks more like a Chinese temple than a regular mosque. That’s no surprise: the Dungans are Chinese Muslims who fled across the border in the 19th century. The colourful timbers and ornate pictures on its exterior were bright and cheerful. I wasn’t allowed in, but was invited to peer through the door. Around the corner was a charming wooden Orthodox Church, which replaced an earlier stone church that was felled by an earthquake in 1890. It didn’t have the glittering domes of other Russian churches I’d seen in Kyrgyzstan and beyond but it was a delightful sight. Mass was taking place, so I contented myself with a glimpse through the door.
From Karakol, we followed the southerly route around Issyk-Kul. The Jety-Oguz valley was a short but worthwhile detour for its beehives as well as the Broken Heart and Seven Bulls rock formations. As we drove out of the valley, the weather took a turn for the worse and we drove through some heavy squalls. The spectacular mountain backdrop was a damp squib, obscured by thick cloud. The foreground scenery was stark also, nowhere near as pretty as the panoramic views I’d enjoyed thus far.
No matter, just after the scruffy town of Bokonbaevo we pulled off the main highway to reach an Alpine meadow, where we had an appointment with an eagle hunter. He produced a magnificent pair of golden eagles from the boot and back seat of his car – they couldn’t travel together as they would fight, he explained. His display was both captivating and, when he produced a live rabbit as bait, horrifying. However, I tried to rationalise the sacrificial bunny as nature’s pecking order. Nothing would be wasted, said the hunter, bundling the kill into a sack to take home. It would feed both eagles for the rest of the week. The thrill of watching a skilful bird such as this home in on its prey was, I reluctantly admitted to myself, impressive. If you’ve no stomach for hunting, you might choose to skip this, but such a tradition has been a part of the Kyrgyz culture for centuries.
Back on the road, through more heavy showers, we reached Kochkor. Late afternoon, I was treated to a shyrdak demonstration. Felt-making is another important Kyrgyz tradition and my tutor was as skilled as she was smiley. Once again, active participation was expected and I found myself making the reed mat and stitching fabric together. A full sized carpet, I was told, takes five people two years to make. A single square can be knocked out in ten days. And I’m pleased to report there was no hard sell for either. Accommodation tonight was at a very plush homestay on the edge of town, affording magnificent views of the Tien Shan Mountains when the sun finally made an appearance.
After the previous day’s storms, a dumping of snow on the mountains wasn’t the best for our ride up and over the Kalmak-Ashu mountain pass (highest point 3447m) to Son-Kul. This lake is smaller than Issyk-Kul by some margin, but its remote location ringed by snowy peaks makes it breathtaking. Late May is very early in the season to be up there at all, and the road had only been open for two weeks.
We climbed steadily above the tree line. The road was wide, but it wasn’t long before we were driving alongside snowdrifts two metres high. The reward at the top for being one of the few to attempt it was a pristine meadow of snow which I left with two long lines of footprints. There was also a snow filled long drop toilet. This far into the tour, it had become something of a joke between Adyl and I that I couldn’t go more than a couple of hours without a toilet break.
The approach to Son-Kul was just as wonderful, descending to emerging spring grass and fields of yellow buttercups. A few yurts were open for business, but at 3016m the lake is a summer destination. After crossing the Chu River, the lake’s only outlet river, we attempted to off-road to the lakeshore but the ground was still too soft for this to be possible.
After a few failed attempts we bailed and drove down the spectacular Thirty Three Parrots Pass. A series of dramatic switchbacks carries you down the pass, and at each hairpin bend I caught my breath. I was glad to be the passenger! It’s surely up there with one of the world’s best drives though, if you have the head for it. A French traveller in a camper van had got cold feet halfway up and was trying to pick up courage to complete his ascent. A family of nomads in a small lorry, yurt in the back, made light work of it and waved enthusiastically.
Before we headed into Naryn, Adyl invited me to try kymys, fermented mare’s milk which has a rather unpleasant sour taste to those unused to it. I managed a couple of sips, which was more than can be said for my attempt to drink a cup of Maksim, another popular sour milk drink which is just about the most vile thing I have ever tasted. Bustling Naryn was a bit of a shock to the system after a day’s solitude but Datka’s Guesthouse was comfortable and clean. At about £18 for an ensuite room with TV and hairdryer, breakfast included, it was a steal. She throws in dinner too for an extra 350 som (£3.50).
A much easier drive of around an hour and a half took us to Tash Rabat. This caravanserai is centuries old – no one knows quite how many – with metre-thick walls and atmosphere in spades. A lady emerged from one of the yurts opposite to unlock and collect the 100 som entrance fee (about £1, a bargain!) I was fortunate to have the place to myself for the first half an hour or so, wandering from room to room trying to imagine what it might have been like to stay in such a place. Some rooms had long benches of rock, others were square. All had skylights open to the elements which let in shafts of light. I emerged from one side chamber to give a recently-arrived Korean tourist the fright of her life (unintentional).
Outside, the way that Tash Rabat was engineered means that it’s pushed right up against the hillside. Climbing onto the roof and gazing down into the skylights is a peculiar sensation. The Korean had hiked up a nearby hill, so once again I had the place to myself until a bus load of Kyrgyz pulled up. The kids in the party scaled the walls with ease, chucking tiny stones down to their parents which, given the tone of voice, earned them a scolding.
My overnight lodging was within sight of Tash Rabat. Sabyzbek, a 62 year old maths teacher turned farmer, had a small guesthouse and a collection of four inviting yurts. Located in the quiet Kara-Kojon gorge, the road crossing the river and enabling access by car had only been built five years ago, transforming tourism in the valley. He was keen to show me both, reminding me several times that at 3200m and with a chill wind barrelling down the valley, the yurts would be cold once the sun set. Temperatures would fall below zero, he said, though I couldn’t pin him down to exactly how far. I decided to risk it for the adventure, figuring that I could pile on the spare bedcovers and every fleece I’d brought to stave off the overnight cold.
Just before lunch, a wander around the farm led to another confronting sight. This time, the local vet was castrating a stallion. Judging by the horse’s wide eyes and blowing nostrils, accompanied by the ropes holding him down, the operation was performed without the use of tranquillisation. Potassium permanganate was used to sterilise the area and a hot poker cauterised the wound. It was uncomfortable to watch, but again, part and parcel of nomad life. Such lack of censorship is both the joy and the pain of visiting somewhere unused to mass tourism. I left as the second patient was being led to his fate.
The afternoon was a pleasant one. Though the wind was biting, once you were out of it, the sun was rather nice. I tucked myself into a natural hollow, two woolly jumpers keeping me snug as I felt the warm sun on my face. Farm life carried on around me: a cow mooed insistently, chickens clucked over and pecked at the discarded balls of the morning’s business and horses pottered about. Every now and then, a car passed, bound for Tash Rabat, but by and large, it was quiet enough to hear birdsong. After dinner, I chatted with Sabyzbek’s daughter Tuzsun about Kyrgyz life, expectations and change. Dusk fell late; a pink sky soon clouded, I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing when it came to how warm the yurt would be. A fire was lit in the coal burner, started by dung, just in case. I was toasty – so much so that I spent half the night with one leg stick out of the duvet resting against the cold slats of the yurt in an attempt to cool off.
It was a long drive back to Bishkek and an early start was in order. The fire had kept me toasty inside the yurt but there was a frost on the ground outside. A bowl of steaming porridge and a mug of hot tea later, we were on the road again, retracing our steps to the capital. Bishkek’s sultry heat was a shock after several days in the mountains. I took a stroll from my centrally located hotel to Ala-Too Square. Its tall flagpole is no match for those in other Central Asian capitals, but impressive nevertheless. Nearby are several leafy parks offering the temptation of plenty of shade, as well as the presidential palace known as the White House. After a cold drink, a so-so pizza and a chat with a waiter keen to practise his English, it was time to go and pack for the following morning’s flight home.
Would I go back?
Absolutely! Kyrgyzstan was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some. I’d love to stay in a yurt at Son-Kul and revisit the delightful Sabyzbek and his family at Tash Rabat. Osh and the Fergana Valley would also be on my wish list for a second visit. I’d definitely use Advantour again. Marat’s suggestions were invaluable and his organisation faultless, well worth the money I spent!
A few observations
The Kyrgyz are hospitable and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I asked one hotel owner why. “Simple,” she replied, “many of us can’t afford to travel, so we learn about other countries through the people that come to see us.” I’d suggest learning a few phrases in Russian as many people speak very little English. Having a copy of the Cyrillic alphabet to hand so you can figure out lone words is also a good idea.
Kyrgyzstan is a cheap destination and your money will stretch a long way. Even my smart hotel in Bishkek cost only $95 for a luxurious and very central room. Most comfortable guesthouses come in at around a quarter of that cost. It would have been possible to do the Ala-Archa and Issyk-Kul trips by marshrutka for a fraction of the cost of a car and driver. Likewise public transport to and from Kochkor and Naryn was plentiful.
If you intend to self-drive, the roads are for the most part in excellent condition. Aside from the gravel roads up to and down from Son-Kul, there were none that would challenge an average driver and there were very few potholes. However, road signs are sporadic in places so it’s best to take a good map. Traffic police are everywhere: watch your speed if you don’t want to be flagged down and fined. Watch out for herds of livestock being moved between pastures and the occasional suicidal marmot.
Travelling in the shoulder season, you’ll have many places almost to yourself. I visited in late May and the road to Son-Kul had been open for two weeks, though snow still lined the Kalmak-Ashu pass. By mid-June, there’ll be plenty of yurts set up to receive visitors and off road trails down to the lakeshore will be safe to drive. By September, the season’s pretty much at an end unless you plan to ski.
It’s customary to take off your shoes when entering a house, and the same applies to homestays, guest houses and yurts – in fact the only place where it wasn’t expected was the fancy pants hotel in Bishkek. Do as the locals do and opt for footwear that can be easily slipped on and off, rather than have the bother of unlacing hiking boots each time you want to go inside.
Toilets, save for posh hotels and the airport, are almost universally of the squat variety. Some are much cleaner than others. Those I encountered at the Kalmak-Ashu pass were full of snow. Have a stash of toilet paper handy but note that it needs to go in the bin as Kyrgyzstan’s plumbing can’t cope with paper.
English readers, everything seems to come in Morrison’s carrier bags. It’s very odd receiving a plastic bag featuring the distinctive M from a few years back and even more bizarre when it happens over and over again. I’ve yet to get to the bottom of this mystery (it’s been 12 years since this design has been used in the UK) so if anyone who’s reading this knows why, do leave a comment!
My back jarred with every rut. The small Japanese saloon was poorly suited to Ulan Bator’s potholes, let alone the enormous bumps and holes over which we creaked in the Mongolian countryside. It was clear that at some point, the arid steppe climate had experienced some rain, and the trucks and 4x4s that had come before us had churned the mud into deep and now rock solid furrows. Having spent two nights tossing and turning on the train from Irkutsk, and a good nine hours hanging around at the border, I was beginning to wish I’d taken my chances with the pickpockets of UB (the guide book’s judgement, not mine!) and not been in such a hurry to get out of the city. It had its advantages though.
A 40-metre high statue of Chinggis Khan an hour or so out of the city posed serenely in the early morning dawn, awaiting its hordes of visitors once they had prepared their picnic lunches. We paused briefly to admire it by the roadside before moving onwards to tangle with a stray herd of cattle. After two hours, we reached the Steppe Nomads ger camp, where my Italian travelling companions alighted. For me, a half an hour jaunt across the fields would take me, jolt by painful jolt, to my nomad hosts, with whom I would stay the night.
The setting was idyllic. Enormous blue skies dwarfed the gers, the traditional Mongolian felt tents, perched halfway up the field; scrubby meadows led enticingly to deceptively distant mountains. I took in my immediate surroundings. Four gers, a 4×4 and, underneath the latter, three dogs snoozing in the early morning calm. A short way up the hill was a rustic corral containing a few horses, downhill, a couple of small paddocks for sheep and goats. In the distance, cows and horses roamed free, down by the River Khergen. A couple of other gers and a truck back the way I’d come completed the picture. It seemed wonderfully simple compared to the complicated life I lead back in the west.
The guest ger was beautifully decorated. Intricately painted designs on orange woodwork contrasted with the faded cream canvas of the ger’s exterior. Hot pink beds with carpet mattresses were pushed to the edge and a matching dressing table was festooned with family photos and mementoes. It seemed to me a fairly comfortable introduction to camping! My driver indicated that the small structure across the field that looked like a British Telecom workmen’s cocoon was actually the toilet.
On closer inspection, the structure was tall enough to provide sufficient privacy, the boards firm enough to avoid any hapless falls and there was even a shovel and some loose dirt by the side for me to cover my tracks. Having a wash was going to involve several kilometres of trekking down to the river, but I figured I’d already had two shower-free nights on the train, and, let’s face it, the horses weren’t likely to complain. I felt very smug.
And then I was served breakfast.
I struggle with a piece of toast some mornings, so my traditional Mongolian breakfast of sick on a plate was hard to stomach. In actual fact it was some kind of curd cheese, and to some palates, delicious I’m sure, but, for me, that morning, it was sick on a plate, served with small finger shaped pieces of lardy bread. The cinnamon tea was lovely though, so I drank plenty of that, forced down some bread and sick and finished off with a caramel flavoured boiled sweet which had been thoughtfully provided in a small dish. I felt terribly guilty for struggling with the food, as it was served by a delightful nomad lady with a squeaky voice and a smile as broad as the Gun Galuut horizon.
After breakfast, I grabbed my camera and headed up to the corral to watch the horses. I envisaged lounging by the fence, channelling Kristin Scott Thomas in the Horse Whisperer. Unfortunately, unlike in the States, these poles were not fixed and periodically they would be charged by the horses before they made a break for freedom and hurtled down the field. Not wishing to be trampled, but still wishing to be close enough to secure some decent shots, I kept one eye on the action and the other on the camera, as poles cascaded down around me. The young men of the nomad group had the difficult task of roping the horses and fitting their bridles ready for the tourists at Steppe Nomads to ride them later in the day. It was certainly no easy task. Even with their dexterity, lassoing the only semi-tame creatures was no easy task, and the animals’ mad eyes and toothy grins only served to add to the humour of it all from the bystander’s point of view. Many times I watched as the horses bolted and their would-be captors rode expertly after them to herd them back up the field. I’m not sure I would have neither such patience nor the perseverance, especially whilst being watched. I was reassured to see that the young girls at the nomad camp thought it was as funny as I did, much to the lads’ embarrassment. Eventually, to the relief of all those involved, sufficient horses were roped and galloped down the field at an impressively fast pace to meet their excited riders.
Watching the action is all very well, but I felt a bit uncomfortable being the outsider, and so came ten year old Tilly to the rescue. Her name was something much longer and infinitely more unpronounceable, so Tilly was settled on as a name we both could manage. Tilly set about making it her mission to teach me to play volleyball. “Gee-oo-lee-aah!” she would cry, lengthening my name so much that it seemed I had been re-christened especially for Mongolia. At regular intervals throughout the afternoon, she would call for me, and we would continue with her attempts to refine my awkward technique. “Yee-ess. Verrry good!” was the response I hoped for, though more often than not, she just collapsed in a fit of giggles and ran down the field after the stray ball. It was an ice-breaker, nevertheless, and I was soon adopted as the new friend, someone to show off to (but not to share with!) her younger brothers. Before I knew what was happening, I was carted off the field to help milk the cows. The nomad women (and tiny infant children!) made it look simple, but for me, the hardest part was balancing on the tiny wooden milking stool without toppling over and falling into the freshly dropped manure. Once I’d mastered that, milking was easy – if a little messy. Much the reverse of volleyball, it seemed.
By the time the tourists came up to visit on their horses, the latter looking much tamer than they had that morning. The Italians looked a little uncomfortable and slightly saddle sore. It seemed like forever since I had left them this morning and I was surprised at how easily I’d settled in to such an alien environment. Dinner was brought out – a watery but delicious mutton stew – and I savoured every mouthful. I helped to unload two horses from the nomad’s truck and watched, toddler on hip, as the farmer administered some medication.
Later we sat, watching the sun set and the stars brighten in the blackening sky, smiling contentedly and watching the animals settle in the paddock for the evening. It was clear to see that this was a tough life, but the community was close-knit, the scenery was world-class and I had laughed more than I had for a long time. Shower aside, did I really need any more than this?
During my recent trip to Georgia, I spent a day in the hotch-potch straggle of villages collectively known as Ushguli.
They’re reached by an apology of a road from Mestia, the main focal point of tourism in Svaneti. I shared a taxi with a couple of Germans to bounce and slide over gravel, in and out of potholes and scarily close to sections of road which had just fallen away. The road’s in the process of being rebuilt, so don’t let that put you off.
Ushguli translates as “fearless heart” which matches the reputation of the Svans historically being a fearsome people suspicious of incomers. Five villages form the settlement of Ushguli: Murkmeli which you pass as you go in, Chazhashi where your driver will park, and then higher up Chvibiani, Zhibiani and Lamjurishi, the highest of which claims to be the highest permanently settled village in Europe. It’s a slightly dubious claim, though, not least because geographers and other experts can’t even decide whether Georgia is European or Asian. (I’ll save that one for a later blog post.)
So what is it about Ushguli that makes it worth the arduous journey? Mostly, it’s the setting. Reached at the dead end of this rural road, all that stretches ahead of you are the few clusters of homes and Svan towers that constitute the villages and then meadows framed by the mountain peaks of the Great Caucasus. UNESCO have had Chazhashi on their list since 1996. Part of the attraction is just to find a quiet corner and sit. There’s also an ethnographic museum in one of the towers which is far more interesting than it sounds. Honestly. I’m no great fan of museums but it was good.
In Mestia, the person to find is the lady that sells the marshrutka tickets from her agency next to the bakery in the centre of town. She manages more of the drivers and you’ll wait for less time. A return ticket in a shared taxi costs 20 lari. Be prepared to negotiate how long a wait you’ll have in Ushguli with your driver. Tip: if you wish to spend more than a couple of hours, it’s worth popping into the restaurant he’s likely to have holed up in to make sure he’s not been knocking back too many beers.
Some of my favourite shots from the day:
If you’re planning a trip to Georgia – and you should – make sure you don’t miss Svaneti. You can stay in Ushguli and you can even do a three day hike there from Mestia in the short summer season. Or you can do as I did and base yourself in Mestia and visit Ushguli for the day.
On Tsitsernakaberd Hill, overlooking the city of Yerevan, you’ll find a pilgrimage site dedicated to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide. Their harrowing story cannot fail to move you, as it did me.
I sit, alone. The music haunts every inch of stone and every speck of dust. The sound of violins, melancholic yet soothing, permeates the soul. I feel it. It seeps into my heart and as I focus on the flickering flame, I raise a hand to my cheek, wiping a persistent tear. A few sorry bunches of carnations have wilted where they were placed. Tall slabs of basalt crush the sunlight. The sky is obstinately blue but in here, inside the stone circle, it’s a place of shadows and ghosts. I’m shocked at the strength of my feelings. Until yesterday, I hadn’t been aware an Armenian genocide had taken place. And I’m ashamed of that.
A cleaner arrives with her broom and sweeps, rhythmically, until my attention is forced out of its sad reverie. She busies herself collecting dead blooms and rearranging those that will stay. A young man follows her with a camera, framing and reframing his shots. He clicks repeatedly but then he too is still. A family of five arrive, speaking Armenian, and pose in endless configurations for snapshots beside the flame. The emotion I felt is lost and I glance at my watch. The museum is open. I head inside.
I read, missing nothing, trying to make sense of what happened. In the late 19th century, Armenia was a divided country. The Persians had ceded territories to the Russians, who occupied what was then known as Eastern Armenia. Strategically important Western Armenia had fallen to the Ottomans in 1555 and over four centuries later, they retained control. War between the Russian and Ottoman Empires had torn Armenia apart. Armenians living under Turkish rule looked to the Russians for protection but though the 1878 Treaty of Berlin set out basic rights for Armenians they were not honoured. Amidst growing calls for independence, Sultan Abdul Hamid, the leader of the Ottoman Empire, tightened his grip on the dissenters. Words were banned: Armenia, rights, freedom.
To ban the word freedom is an alien concept. From my privileged life in a stable democracy, how could I understand?
Compelled, I read on. In 1895, 300,000 protesters were massacred in Constantinople in an attempt by Hamid to shut down the Armenian Question for good. It didn’t work. Nine years later, there was another uprising. The stability of the Ottoman Empire was under threat. In 1908, a political party called the Young Turks seized power. Their policy of the “salvation of the Turkish homeland” could only be achieved, they held, by the liquidation of the Christian population. Under their watch, anti-Armenian atrocities continued unpunished. A further 30,000 were killed in a market in Adana in 1909. Their treatment was horrific. Many were set alight or stabbed repeatedly. The backs of children’s legs were gored with cotton hooks leaving gaping holes. A series of photographs documented the horror.
I’m struck by the eyes. They stare, vacantly, yet implore those watching to act. But it’s too late. I’m a century too late.
World War One was to provide cover for the vilest act of all. A secret treaty was signed, allying the Ottomans with the Germans. Needing the support of its largely Islamic population to survive, the Turks proclaimed Jihad in an attempt to demonstrate their religious credentials. In October 1914, 60,000 Armenians were called up to fight, joining others already conscripted. They fought, bravely, at Sarikamish on the Caucasian Front under Enver Pasha, but were no match for the wintry conditions. The Ottomans suffered huge losses and 70,000 lost their lives. A scapegoat was required. The Armenians were that scapegoat. Soldiers who had fought alongside Pasha were killed on his orders. Afterwards, the Young Turks turned their attention to civilians, murdering politicians, clergy, intellectuals and other eminent Armenians. Mass arrests followed, in Western Armenia and Constantinople.
The Armenian family I saw at the memorial see that I’m making notes. It’s diaspora season and they’re from LA, bringing their children to the home of their ancestors for the first time. They ask if I’m a writer and if I’m going to write about this. I promise them I will, emotion choking my words. The mother hugs me, an unspoken thank you.
Unarmed Armenians in Ottoman territory were rounded up to be sent to the deserts of Mesopotamia and Syria, their property looted as they left. Men were separated and stabbed. Women, children and the elderly were spared, but instead driven south. On the way, their police and army escorts stood by and did nothing as bands of Kurds and Turks kidnapped and murdered the helpless. Those who did complete the journey ended up in concentration camps. In Rakka, Bab, Deir Ez-Zor, Ras Ul-Ain and Meskene, 600,000 endured horrendous atrocities. They were subjected to medical experiments, pregnant women were used for target practice, bare feet were shod as if they were horses’ hooves, children were burned alive or dragged behind horses until they died from their injuries. Rape was common. An estimated 600,000 lost their lives.
It’s hard to reconcile what I’m reading with the gentle and welcoming Turks I’ve met on my travels. I’m shocked to find I’m upset, not because I think it’s not worth getting upset about, but because at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, I haven’t been. Sobered, desperately sad, but not upset like this. The tragedy that befell the Armenians feels worse, somehow, because I wasn’t aware it had happened. I feel that in some way that means I’ve betrayed them.
On May 24 1915 France, Britain and Russia issued a joint statement condemning and declaring the Turkish government responsible for a “crime against humanity and civilisation”. After the war, the Young Turks were brought to trial. The key perpetrators – Mehmed Talat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal – were brought to justice and punished for what they’d done. Yet today, the mass extermination of Armenians isn’t acknowledged by all countries. Britain views what happened as a war crime and doesn’t recognise it as genocide.
I climb, slowly, from the bowels of the museum back up into the sunshine of the plaza, legs and heart heavy. Another tear escapes from my eye but this time, I let it fall.
To visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial it’s easiest to take a taxi. From Republic Square I paid 700 drams, just over £1. The museum is free to enter. Leaving, the unofficial taxis in the car park were asking for 2000 drams for the same ride. I walked down the hill and across the footbridge to the Dalma Garden Mall, from where I caught the #27 marshrutka back to Mashtots Avenue for a 100 dram fare. The bus stops right outside the Blue Mosque, also worth a visit.
The older I get and the more my knees creak, the more I need to research possible hikes before setting on to ensure I don’t end up with aching muscles or worse, being stretchered out. But no one, least of all me, wants to find out that they’ve missed out on superb scenery on a hike that would have been perfectly within their capabilities. So when I found out about a glacier accessible from Mestia on foot, I set about reading up. The trouble is, many of those who post are young and fit. Their definition of an easy hike isn’t necessarily what I’d call easy. So here are the facts about hiking to the Chalaadi Glacier.
You don’t have to walk all the way
Technically, the Svans consider this hike a 25km round trip. The official tourist board literature states the duration of the hike as being eight hours. That’s beginning and ending in Mestia and walking up the road past the airport until it runs out. Well, 25km would take me more than eight hours including collapses, even if much of it is fairly flat.
Keen not to have to quit before the good bit, I hired a lovely driver called Nodani. I found him in the main square in his adapted Subaru – look for the Subaru sunshield and a disabled badge in his rear windscreen. He agreed to drive me to the suspension bridge that crosses the River Mestiachala. It costs a flat rate of 80 lari (about £26). It’s also possible to rent horses, but they looked pretty frisky and once you pay for the guide too, it’s not a cheap option.
Allow time to enjoy the hike
Most people book a two hour gap between rides; I made it three so as not to have to rush. I was keen to take the hike at a steady pace and allow enough time to appreciate my surroundings. I thought I’d make an afternoon of it but in actual fact got back thirty minutes ahead of schedule. No biggie: there’s a cafe at the bridge where I waited for Nodani to come and collect me.
You won’t get lost
A concern if you’re hiking solo, as I was, is getting lost. Most trails are marked but the frequency of such signs can be less than you need. Not so here, where they’ve helpfully painted red and white rectangles on assorted rocks and tree trunks. There was even an arrow cut into the tree trunks in some places. It was very clear which direction you needed to take, so you won’t get lost.
The uphill bits were a bit of a slog
Remember, I’m no athlete. If you are reasonably fit, then this will be a piece of cake. But the altitude at the river is around 1600 metres above sea level, rising to about 1920 up near the glacier. If like me you live at sea level, the thinner air won’t help either. But it’s shady amid the trees and where the route passes through the forest, you’ll see plenty of pretty flowers and lichen covered rocks.
The path wasn’t difficult to navigate as the stones formed a natural staircase. I took frequent rests and carried plenty of water. Further up, heavy rains a few days before my hike meant the water was running high and parts of the path had turned into a shallow stream. Luckily it wasn’t deep enough to leave me with wet feet.
You have to cross a boulder field
About halfway to the glacier, you reach an area where rockfalls have created a big obstacle. Boulders of various sizes lie piled up. Some are steady, others move disconcertingly beneath your feet. I fell foul of such a hazard when I hiked one of Sweden’s High Coast trails last year and ended up with a nasty cut and bruised elbow. There are also deep gaps between some of the stones, meaning a misstep would leave me with a twisted ankle or worse. This was the scariest part of the hike, more so on the way back down as higher up the slope I could hear rocks falling. Fortunately I managed to cross without incident and didn’t end up a casualty of a rock avalanche. You’ll need decent boots though.
You can cut out the very top part of the hike and still see the glacier
Once you’ve successfully negotiated the boulders, the path is an easy one and leads to a flower strewn meadow by the river. Here, you get a fabulous view of the glacier itself and in its mountain setting, it really is a spectacular view. Turn around, and you’ll see mountains behind you too. Unless you’re really dead set on touching the glacier, you’ll be scrambling over terminal moraine to get any higher. Personally, given the timing of my visit in early summer when the ice is melting and there’s a real possibility of being hit by falling ice or rocks, I didn’t continue. If you carry on, as many do, it’s advisable to use walking poles.
Is it worth it?
That’s a resounding yes! If the weather’s playing nicely as it was during my visit, it’s hard to imagine a better way of spending an afternoon. But to maximise your time spent at the scenic parts of the trail, I’d definitely advise hiring a driver for that dull airport road.
It’s been a long journey involving an overnight train and a four hour ride in a marshrutka, but I’ve finally reached Svaneti. My base is in Mestia and I’m writing this holed up on the hotel balcony overlooking three of the famous towers that dot the village. The birds are chirruping and the neighbour’s dog is letting me know if anyone walks up the rutted and very steep road that joins us to the main drag. The sun is valiantly making an attempt to break through today’s persistent low cloud, but tomorrow’s forecast promises sunshine and blue skies.
I spent yesterday travelling along the Georgian Military Highway, the route linking Tbilisi to the Russian border. The epithet “military” conjures up all manner of images, but you won’t see tanks or soldiers, just great scenery. I travelled with Envoy Tours in the capable hands of their guide Beqa. He was great fun, doing everything he could to ensure my Singaporean travelling companion and I had a fun day. From tour guide to chef to toastmaster, there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to.
Our first stop was on the edge of the Zhinvali reservoir built in the 1980s to supply water to Tbilisi. It’s a picturesque addition to the landscape, though one that necessitated drowning several villages. The water level was high enough to conceal them yesterday, but when the water level is low, sometimes the tops of churches can be revealed.
We skirted the edge of the reservoir to reach the fortress complex of Ananuri, where they were selling these fabulous sheepskin hats. Once, there was just a tower here on a hillside; now there’s a cluster of buildings with defensive towers and a 17th century church featuring ornate carvings.
It was the first time I’d been asked to wear a skirt over my trousers as well as the headscarf I’d been expecting. Not the most elegant of looks, of course, but when you’re in someone else’s country you play by their rules. Inside the church walls bear a few faded but interesting frescoes. When Georgia was under Russian rule the frescoes were whitewashed and are slowly being restored.
While the tallest tower was off limits, it was possible to climb the smaller one. I’ve no head for heights, so the narrow, worn steps missing a handrail had my heart missing a beat. With plenty of encouragement, my two younger companions got me to the top. Inside, each level was surprisingly spacious, with a fireplace and plenty of room to live. These towers would have been hiding places when the area was under attack. The castle’s dungeon was quite claustrophobic in comparison.
Heading north from Ananuri, the road took us past the ski resort of Gudauri and over the 2379m Jvari Pass. Next stop was the Georgia-Russia Friendship Balcony.
Our guide, no fan of Russia, was quick to point out that it was built in 1983 when Russia was still in charge and Georgian independence was eight years off. Despite its name, the monument was very tastefully done and its multiple balconies were perfect for capturing a shot of the dramatic mountain scenery which formed its backdrop.
Our last port of call was right near the Russian border near the town of Kazbegi in a little place called Gergeti. Lunch had been arranged: my first experience of a Georgian stupa or feast. First, though, we had to make the local dumplings known as khinkali. Pastry had already been made and rolled; a spicy lamb filling had been preformed. All we had to do was assemble it, which involved lots of pinching of pastry and some rather dodgy looking shapes. Our hostess demonstrated a far higher level of skill, putting together a double decker khinkali quicker than we could pick up our cameras. They were delicious, though I resorted to using a fork instead of eating them the traditional way – bite off the top, drink the juice and then munch on what’s left. Beqa proved to be a good toastmaster too, ordering us to raise our glasses at regular intervals through the meal to God, peace, ancestors and women.
A hike had been planned. The Tsminda Sameba church, also referred to as Holy Trinity, is perched high on the mountain pastures above Kazbegi. Apparently there was once a cable car (those Russians again!) but the locals were none too impressed at having a sacred place defiled so they tore it down. A bumpy road led up to the church, but, said Beqa, it didn’t take much longer to walk up. Yeah right, if you were a goat maybe. The others walked, but told me later – as I’d suspected – that the path was pretty much straight up to the church and not an easy hike.
I took the minibus option, to my later relief, though that in itself was a hair-raising experience. Deep ruts characterised the gravel track for much of its length. In a couple of places the road had fallen away altogether. At the top, heavy rain made the pastures soft. I held my breath as we screamed across the grass, deep in some other vehicle’s tracks. How we didn’t get bogged down I don’t know. That fate was to befall someone else later, much to everyone else’s amusement.
The church was as impressive as its setting, though cloud obscured the 5047m Mount Kazbek which can be seen on a clear day. Inside simple candles stood in sand illuminated the icons and other works of art that adorn this simple church. Despite the constant tramping of tourists’ feet (including mine, of course) it had a spiritual feeling, perhaps not surprising as it is a working church to this day. The forecast rain that had held off all day materialised while we were at the church and so we all headed down by minibus. Come down on foot when it’s slippery like that and you may as well be on a toboggan.
For more information on Envoy Tours and to book this Embracing Georgia tour, please visit their website:
I’m not Asia’s greatest fan. Though you’ll find some of the world’s most fascinating natural and cultural sights, I find it irritating that they’re buried amidst jumbles of telephone wires and that reaching them often involves darting out in front of more motorbikes than it should ever be possible to encounter on one road. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading about the place, when I can filter out the bits that I don’t like to be left with a vibrant and enticing locale. There are exceptions, however, and one is most definitely Sri Lanka. I visited last year and cannot wait to return.
The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries
It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, to learn that one of my choices is a work of fiction. The story is enthralling but most of all, it captures the essence of the country in which it’s set. Here’s one of my favourite descriptions from the book:
“She took a deep breath of what she’d expected would be salty air, and marvelled at the scent of something stronger than salt.
“What is that?” she said as she turned to look at the man, who, she rightly sensed, had not shifted from the spot.
He paused and sniffed deeply. “Cinnamon and probably sandalwood.”
“There’s something sweet.”
“Jasmine flowers. There are many flowers in Ceylon.”
“How lovely,” she said. But even then, she knew it was more than that. Beneath the seductive scent there was an undercurrent of something sour.
“Bad drains too, I’m afraid.”
She nodded. Perhaps that was it.”
For some reason, though this scene takes place in Colombo, it feels to me like it should be set in Galle Fort. Quite possibly that’s because I grabbed the first train out of Colombo to head for the hill country and quite possibly because Galle Fort oozes history, spice and sewage from every cobblestoned street.
Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson
My next choice focuses on an Asian country I also love: Japan. Travelling through Japan ought to have been a challenge, what with the different alphabet and all, but the Japanese go out of their way to make sure they can understand you, even if the conversation can get a little stilted. Here’s the author on the art of Japanese conversation:
“This was conversation by Non Sequitur and I was thoroughly familiar with it by now. The trick was to answer with equally arbitrary statements, until you sound like a couple of spies conversing in code.
“Yes, I can eat Japanese food. Baltimore is very big.”
“How long will you stay in Japan?”
“Until tomorrow, forever. It is very cold in Baltimore.”
He shook my hand. We smiled warmly at each other, clearly this was an International Moment.”
Fortunately, when I reached Kyushu, the lady in the tourist office at Yanagawa defaulted to technology when she realised our language abilities were sorely lacking. Video conferencing with a disembodied head on her computer, I was able to secure a map and a recommendation for lunch. The head seemed very disappointed that I had no further questions and I felt guilty as I thanked it and headed off.
Three Moons in Vietnam by Maria Coffey
Years ago, I found myself sleeping in Michael Caine’s bed. He wasn’t in it, of course – of course! – but he had stayed in that same room and slept in that same bed while filming The Quiet American. The bed was located in Hoi An, in an old Chinese chophouse that had been converted into a guest house. Despite that it heaves with tourists (more so now, I understand, than when I was there) I found Hoi An to be a wonderfully atmospheric place. Maria Coffey describes the place thus:
“It was no problem to while away some time in Hoi An. We explored the fish market along the river bank, where women vendors smoking fat hand-rolled cigarettes squabbled nastily and noisily with each other.”
I don’t remember any squabbling, but I do remember the noise.
Mirror to Damascus by Colin Thubron
On to the Middle East now, and a book set in a city whose history stretches back seven millennia, giving me hope that when the present conflict ends, the city will rebuild and restore. I visited shortly before the war kicked off and was enchanted by the place and its people. Clad in what felt like a mediaeval cloak, I marvelled at the Umayyad Mosque; free of my robes, I haggled in the tiny shops on Straight Street and never felt unsafe in the streets of its old town, even late into the night. In his book, Thubron tackles some of the city’s history:
“Some cities oust or smother their past. Damascus lives in hers.”
Here’s to when Damascus can live freely again.
The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames
My final choice is another reminder that time changes everything. Mention Baghdad now and the Iraqi capital is still, to many, a place that instils fear instead of hope. But less than a century ago in 1928, none other than Agatha Christie made the journey from London to Baghdad by train. Her route took her through Syria, where she frequently stayed at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. (Rumour has it that this historic hotel, which I visited but didn’t overnight in, has so far survived the war almost unscathed.)
Eames quotes the 1928 edition of the Thomas Cook handbook which “advises customers packing for Syria that “There is nothing better for travelling than a suit of Scottish tweed, supplemented by an ulster or other warm overcoat and a good waterproof.” The author had probably never ventured further than Ramsgate.”
Times change and for some places, that’s a good thing.