A Very (Issyk) Kul Weekend*

*I will not apologize for this title.

The first weekend after classes begun, SRAS and the London School planned an excursion for the students that had arrived. We went to Lake Issyk Kul, probably one of the most popular summer destinations for locals as well as tourists.

Issyk Kul is in the eastern part of the country and is the seventh deepest lake in the world and the tenth largest by surface area. It is also the second largest saline lake, after the Caspian Sea. Issyk-Kul means warm lake in Kyrgyz. (The truth behind this translation is debatable.)

After taking our tests in the school computer lab Friday afternoon, we set off in a private marshrutka for a four-hour ride to the southern shore of Issyk Kul. The London School has a lake house used for excursions like this, which we stayed in. It was very comfortable and had a lot of space. The kitchen and dining hall was in a separate building and we ate very well.

Friday night we arrived and had dinner, then had free time to walk around the lake shore. It was dark and unlit, but we spent about an hour sitting in the sand looking at the stars. We had to be up for breakfast at 8:00 the next morning and departed via backroads to Kol-Tor village. We made it as far as we could in the marshrutka and then got into a large van capable of swerving around large rocks and driving over streams until we reached our horses and guides, and a nice dog.

At breakfast, we were shown an instructional video on horse-riding and had to each sign a form that I didn’t read. Once there, our guides told us the commands to use with the horses: chu for “go” and, in the occasion your horse decided to gallop, an R-roll for “stop”. Mikaela and I looked nervously at each other; we actually had a conversation the night before about the lack of our r-rolling abilities. If our horses started galloping, we would have no choice but to go along.

The way up went quite well. My horse was feeling snacky, some others needed extra motivation. It was funny, listening to everyone yell Chu! at their horses in various tones and volumes until they responded. It was reminiscent of a child playing with toy trains, or an exaggerated head cold. We spent about an hour making our way to the top, where we stopped for lunch and to take in the gorgeous views.

The way back was a little more eventful. My horse had personal space issues he took out on whatever horse was closest to him with his hind legs. Chris’s horse decided to take off galloping as we got closer to our stopping point. Thankfully, with intervention from our guides, we all made it back to the marshrutka in one piece.

We continued on our way in the marshrutka until we reached two men wearing traditional Kyrgyz clothes giving tourists archery lessons on the side of the road. When their tour was finished, we were informed that the eagle demonstration would begin and determined what was screeching from the small car parked nearby.

One of the men unhooded a gorgeous golden eagle and showed us its feathers. He described how the eagles hunt; due to their poor eyesight they can sense their prey only if it’s moving. To demonstrate this, one of the men walked to the top of a large hill with the bird and the man ran across the field with a skinned fox on a string. They also demonstrated how the eagle is trained to fly to their raised hands.

They had a second, smaller golden eagle to show us as well. Additionally, they brought out a sparrowhawk to demonstrate how much better they could fly in the forest compared to the larger, less agile eagles. After seeing the sparrowhawk, the men hinted that they had a live rabbit and would show us the golden eagle hunting in action if we were comfortable witnessing the murder. We consented and saw the eagle get its dinner.

Following this, we tried our hands at archery and took turns shooting at a target with the bow and arrows. We thanked our guides and headed back to the lake house for a yurt-building ceremony.

London School coordinator Syimyik and his friend, as well as our marshrutka driver, gave us instructions for helping to construct a small-scale yurt. In my experience, assembling tents with friends has led to disaster, but I was excited to learn more about this essential aspect of Kyrgyz nomadic culture.  The symbol on the national flag is a bird’s eye view of the top of a yurt. Yurts must be light, easy and quick to put together and dissemble, and mobile enough to carry on horseback. We put the frame together, making Ross stand in the middle holding the roof’s centerpiece because he was the tallest, and then threw carpets around the outside that had to be intricately tied together, which I discovered I was knot talented at. Us girls specifically were instructed to hang yarn decorations inside, and we were happy to contribute our interior decorating talents. After the yurt was completed, we sat in it for a little bit and then it was deconstructed.

We then had free time for swimming, and although it was a bit chilly, we were determined to make the most of our time at the lake. The beach beside the lake house turned out to not be the most idyllic location to swim because it was rocky and shallow quite far out into the water and there were more waves that I anticipated being in a lake. There was bloodshed; we walked away with some gnarly cuts from the rocks we couldn’t avoid jamming our feet and knees and elbows into. We went to dinner with slight trauma and enjoyed the rest of our night finishing sampling bottles of Georgian wine we bought at the Vefa Center grocery store.

Scheduled for the next day was a hike to the popular waterfall Barskon, as well as a walk through Skazka Canyon, and swimming at a real beach!

As our trusty marshrutka rolled along the road up to Barskon, we came quite close to picking up a few hitchhikers. We began to see more white people with backpacks that dressed granola enough to obviously be tourists, which was a little exciting. When we reached the base of the trailhead there was another eagle demonstration and horseback riding for other tourist groups. We began our descent, following behind a large guided group who we had to navigate our way around by the time we reached an ideal place for pictures. A few of us that were equipped with waterproof shoes took off to wade into the stream and climb over a lot of slippery rocks; these actions were repeated at the other waterfall we trekked to on another trail. We caused our guides’ blood pressure to spike a few more times than we meant to, but we knew the wide parameters of coverage set by our required health insurance.

Also located nearby were two statues of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. His connection to Kyrgyzstan includes his time vacationing in the country, and that was enough for them to be constructed.

Skazka Canyon was next on the list. Skazka is the Russian word for “fairy tale”, and the creation story of the canyon involves a lovelorn dragon who spitefully floods a village, causing the magical formations. We set off scampering along the ridges of the canyon, putting our guides at risk of heart attacks once again.

The chance of renewing our swimming experience in Issyk Kul presented itself, despite a lack of towels. We changed into our swimsuits and spent a few hours on what I can best describe as a blatantly post-Soviet beach. But it was all sand and no rocks! Following our dip in the lake, we boarded the marshrutka and headed home to Bishkek.

We’re on our third week of classes and are settling in nicely into school and living with host families. Last weekend, Miranda and Marshall, who were here throughout the summer, introduced us new arrivals to Bishkek nightlife which was interesting enough for us to decide to hold off on outings to club until at least next month (probably).

This upcoming weekend we have a trip to the village Talas planned. There are rumors we might stay in a yurt. I’m looking forward to more adventures in Kyrgyzstan!

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