Issyk Kul

May 3, 2021: Chong Kemin

After landing in Bishkek and heading to our Soviet-style hotel, my friend Sonia and I woke up at 9 am and got breakfast in a nearby Soviet-style cafeteria. The entire meal for both Sonia and me cost $3. 

Aman, our tour guide, then drove us out of the city to start the tour. 

Our first stop was the Burana Tower, the sole historic sight of the entire trip. The tower was built is the 9thcentury as the minaret for an enormous mosque in the ancient town of Basalagun. The city and the upper half of the tower were destroyed centuries ago. The tower is all that remains. 

Despite an awkward Soviet renovation in the 1970´s the tower is in good shape. In 2014, the tower was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Burana Tower

You can climb to the top of the tower. The staircase was narrow and bewilderingly steep. 

With Sonia at the top of the Burana Tower

Additionally, surrounding the tower are large carved stones in the shape of humans. The stones represent people who died, but they are not tombstones because they do not mark human remains. They were simply built to honor the dead. 

Next, we drove 1 hour along the Kazakh border to Chong Kemin National Park. This open valley is ringed with snow-covered mountains. Near the sole town in the center of the valley, we checked into our beautiful guesthouse.

We then ate lunch in the airy wooden paneled restaurant on the first floor. 

A Kyrgyz Lunch

After lunch, it was time for our first horse ride. I put on my padded bike shorts purchased specifically for this trip. 

Outside the guesthouse, we met Aziz, the son of the owner of the guesthouse. He first asked us if Sonia and I would like to have a room with one bed instead of two. I replied two because we were not romantically attached to which Aziz replied that he was “very single”. This put us both, but especially Sonia, on edge. 

We all then got on horses and rode for 3 hours along the valley floor. We crossed rivers and fields with perfect vistas of mountains covered in snow. Sonia had only ridden a horse once before so this was to be our warm up ride before the real horse trek in a couple days. 

Enjoying the scenery of Chong Kevin

As it turned out my horse walked considerably faster than everyone else´s so I was on my own. Every time I turned back, I saw Aziz talking with Sonia. I hoped he was giving her horse riding tips, but my guess was not. 

The ride ended and we all got tea in the guesthouse. There, we chatted with an American Foreign Service Officer (diplomat) and her family. The family has been in Kyrgyzstan for 6 months, but they arrived in November, right at the start of winter. Before that, they were living in sunny Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The family said that the winters in Kyrgyzstan are brutal, so they have not been enjoying the country. Nevertheless, they are hopeful that the summer will bring better experiences. 

Then we got dinner, which was really delicious. 

Then we drank local wine courtesy of Aziz, who sat down at our table. After a long conversation, we discussed the unfortunate Kyrgyz tradition of ala kachuu or bride kidnapping.

Bride kidnapping has existed in Kyrgyzstan for centuries. Traditionally, the man would arrive on horseback and take the women to his house. Today this typically takes place in a car with the help of the kidnapper´s friends. He would take the woman to his family´s house. There, the kidnapper´s female relatives (sisters, mom) would attempt to convince the woman to put on a scarf which represents acceptance. 

Sometimes the woman would refuse, and she would eventually be released (although not always – in April 2021, a woman was killed for not accepting a kidnapping proposal). Unfortunately, most women accept these marriage “proposals” due to a cultural stigma regarding virginity. Even though it does not always happen, there is a presumption that because the woman has spent time in the man´s house, she might no longer be a virgin. This presumption will make her undesirable to other suitors. 

Interestingly, many of the kidnappings are consensual (meaning that they are planning to get married and do this step for cultural reasons). 

Kyrgyzstan officially made bride kidnapping illegal in 1994 but there were no penalties enforced until 2013. It is estimated that today half of all Kyrgyz brides enter marriage through kidnapping, of those 2/3 are non-consensual. 

In general, the kidnappings are far more common in rural areas than in cities. Aziz mentioned that he had a girlfriend who was kidnapped while they were dating. She is now married to the kidnapper. He said that men who kidnap brides do it because they have no game and otherwise could not find a wife. 

While bride kidnapping is a real worry for local women, it is not a worry for foreigners. A foreigner has been bride kidnapped only once. Once the kidnapper discovered that the girl was not Kyrgyz, he immediately returned her. 

We then went to bed. 

At 3AM, a large group of people entered the hotel. The voices appeared to be both men and women. After dealing with creepy Aziz and hearing about the bride kidnapping, Sonia was extremely freaked out (rightfully so). She woke me up and I stood guard by the door while the group appeared to walk around the building attempting to open doors. After 5 minutes, the group left, and I went back to sleep. 

The same group entered the hotel at 5am and of course Sonia woke me up again. For a second time, the people came and left. I then went back to sleep. 

Nothing bad ended up happening, but it certainly spooked Sonia and started the trip off on the wrong foot. Hopefully, this would be a one-off incident instead of the norm.

May 4, 2021: Issyk Kul

Aziz served us breakfast at 8:30 and was shocked to hear about the noises. He guessed that it was local young adults coming to the hotel to party. That said, we will never truly know what happened.

We then got in Aman´s car and headed out. Our drive took 2.5 hours through some seriously impressive mountains. On the far side of the mountains, we reached it: Issyk Kul. 

Issyk Kul (Kyrgyz for “warm lake”) is Kyrgyzstan´s largest lake. Despite being at a high elevation in a cold country, the lake never freezes in the winter due to underwater geothermal activity. 

The lake is one of Kyrgyzstan´s most popular destinations, especially for wealthy Kazakhs who come in the summer to experience the closest thing in the region to an ocean. The north side of the island, the side closest to Kazakhstan, is full of beach resorts and reportedly has a really fun clubbing scene. 

We were on the south side of the lake, which has real towns including the popular trekking destination of Karakol.

Our first stop at Issyk Kul was a yurt glamping site. There, we ate lunch and walked along the lakeshore. 

Beautiful Issyk Kul

Next, we drove 5 minutes away to watch a cultural demonstration of eagle hunting. 

Hunting with eagles has been an important part of the nomadic cultures of Central Asia for centuries. 

The birds are captured from their nests when they are newly hatched. The birds are still young enough to consider the hunter their “mom”. They then accompany the hunter. Eagles have incredible eyesight and can spot prey from kilometers away. With the hunter´s blessing, the eagle will take out the prey. 

The most common prey are rabbits, but eagles can kill animals as large as a wolf! 

The eagles are released back into the wild when they are 18-20 years old. Their lifespan is typically between 50-60 years. 

Hunting normally only occurs during the winter, so in the summer, the eagle hunters do these demonstrations for tourists. 

First, we held the eagle. I was surprised by its 2.5-meter wingspan and humongous talons that must be at least 10 centimeters. When you see these eagles up close, it makes perfect sense that they can kill a wolf. Heck, they can probably kill a human! The bird was also heavy. I would estimate it weighs between 5-7 kilograms. 

We watched the eagle in action 3 times. The first time, one of the hunters ran with a sheep pelt. The eagle chased down the hunter and clawed onto the sheep pelt, bringing it to the floor and pinning it to the ground like a wrestler with its humongous sharp talons. 

The second demo involved the eagle grabbing a piece of meat out of the hunter´s assistant´s hands from 50 meters away. 

For the third demo, the eagle killed a rabbit dropped onto the ground by the hunter´s assistant. Once the eagle had secured the rabbit, it cawed to alert the hunter to pick up the kill. The hunter then fed the rabbit to the eagle. Eagles can only eat live meat, so this was going to be his lunch. 

Sonia and I with the eagle hunter and the eagle

Eagles are not the only animal used for hunting. We also got to see a dog-hunting demo. Once again the hunter´s assistant ran with a sheep pelt. The exceptionally cute dog chased it down and pinned it to the ground. 

Next, we did some archery. I did pretty well!

We said goodbye to our hunter friends and drove 30 minutes to the Fairy Tale Canyon. This canyon, which looks just like the red rock areas of the SW United States was the location of our short hike. We scrambled our way up to a viewpoint of both the lake and the impressive rock formations. 

Fairy Tale Canyon

Finally, we drove to the lakeshore where Aman prepared a fish grilled on a stone. Fish is not a very popular food item in landlocked Kyrgyzstan, but there are a few fish farms near Bishkek.

Grilling fish on the stone

For the night, we drove to a guesthouse in the town of Bokonbayevo. Sonia was relieved to learn that the guesthouse was run by a woman named Gulmira. Her husband is a former police officer and is now the chief detective in the region. We felt extra safe tonight. 

Final Thoughts:

The scenery both in Chong Kemin and around the lake are absolutely beautiful. I am very glad that I bought the bike shorts because horse riding is tough! The eagle hunting demonstration was also unique.

While nothing bad ended up happening, the combination of incidents that occurred with Aziz during the first day and night underscored the extra difficulties that female travelers face everyday. Kyrgyzstan is not considered a tough place for female travelers, but clearly things can happen anywhere. Perhaps it is because I am a man, but I have generally been oblivious to these aggressions/overly flirtatious behaviors. Moving forward, I need to better assess how people can interpret or experience situations very differently depending on their circumstances and be ready to step in sooner.

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