Avid readers of this blog (if there are any) will realise that the postings are about three days behind where we are geographically. That is because we have been staying in yurts – the round homes that the nomadic herdsmen live in during the summer months on the high pastures.
The story begins where the last post ended, at the handover between the Chinese guide and the Kyrgyz guide. The handover took place at the highest point on the Tourugat Pass at 3700m – where unsurprisingly it was snowing. From the border, there was 50Km of no-mans land, until we entered Kyrgyzstan officially.
The drive from the border down to our first stop – Tash Rabat – was a gentle downhill route through a broad but infertile valley. Bounded by high mountains on either side – we were still over 35000m so that the mountains were over 5000m – the valley floor was dotted with herds of horses, sheep, goats and cows all moving downhill. Although only mid September the temperature was dropping fast, and the herdsmen were beginning the annual descent to warmer climes. This involves dismantling the yurt and all its contents, loading it on to the back of a truck and taking it down the valley to their winter village. In the winter at this altitude, temperatures fall to minus 10 – minus twenty degrees, with snow over 2 metres in depth.
Our first stop was Tash Rabat yurt camp. By all accounts this is a five star yurt camp, with a sauna (see picture) and separate male and female toilets (see picture).
We were taken a few kilometres up the small valley where Tash Rabat is situated to a 15th century caravansarai that has been restored. A caravansarai is like a Holiday Inn motel for travellers on the SIlk Road. This is one of the few that have survived outside of major cities. It is dark and rather foreboding in character with thick walls. Elaine’s photos give a really good feel for what it is like, even though there are the rather strange lighting effects. The external walls were covered with goat or sheep fat to provide a waterproofing coat to the brick work.
It was cold at night. As soon as the sun went down, the temperature plummeted so that we were tucked up in bed by 8.00pm. And I mean tucked up: heavy duty sleeping bag, blankets, and a coal burning fire, as well as thermal underwear and socks meant that we only felt slightly cool. Come the morning, when the stove had gone out, it was cold.
The next day was a relatively short drive – five hours or so – to our next yurt stop at Song Kul. Song Kul is a lake situated at some 3500m. Although it is only about 200Km from Tash Rabat to Song Kul the last 80Km took some 3 – 4 hours over unmetalled roads and up a pass called the Parrot pass (I still don’t understand why) which had some 33 hairpin turns. Passes in Austria would be a motor way compared to this excuse for a road. The view at the top was truly breathtaking.
True to Audley organisation, we stayed at another five star yurt camp, complete with two yurt dining halls, and a sauna. We received our daily lesson from our guide Eliman, on Song Kul lake and retired to the warmth of the yurt at 8.00pm. We needed an early start the following day, so arose at 6.00am to see the sun rise. Just look at the pictures, as really it is hard to find the words to describe the timelessness of the images.
The plan for this day was to drive to Karakol – most of the day – but the first 80Km was along another mountain pass, suitably unmetalled. Along this part of the journey we encountered camels and yaks grazing contently. The 80 Km took about 3 hours to negotiate and is a testament to the skills of the driver Vladimir and the prowess of four wheel drive. The rest of the day was continuing to Karakol, our next stop.