Song-Kul and Other Adventures by the Alpine Lake

It was my 10th experience in a yurt during my time in Central Asia when I checked into my last one (thus far) while up by Song-Kul, on my last day of exploring the Kyrgyzstan countryside. Walking through the front door of a yurt, there’s always that element of curiosity-how big is it? Will it be cozy, cold? Where’s the tea? When the thick cloth blankets are pulled off the roof in the morning and you catch your first ray of sunshine.

I wasn’t sure if Kyrgyzstan was West or East. It seemed like a mix of both. Folk traditions of the Kyrgyz people are being embraced and reintegrated into society. New temples are being built. Some traces of Russian Imperialism remains, just like the quality of the air. I actually read an article that said “…effects of global warming still aren’t apparent in Kyrgyzstan….”

Even though the grasslands and the wide-open spaces and national parks seemed North American, while the headdresses wore by women, the hospitality of the people, and some of the industrial towns were reminiscent of the spirit I grew to know and love about Asia. And typical of a country on the giant continent of Asia, things are open for development. Economic and investment opportunities are on the rise, and new ideas are being put in place. People want to know more. But I could get sour cream with my dumplings, and dill sprinkled on my soup. If you spend any time in eastern Asia, or you live there, you know these delights are difficult to come by.

A Place in Transition

And all the while, things are changing in that country. Just like so many other places in this world. The capital is modernizing but the pace still slow. Mosques are under construction along the highway but statues of Lenin in the parks of Bishkek stand tall. Up by lake Song-kul, the second largest lake in the country, life is much more organic and I forgot which way was north. 

When all of the guests (for that day) sat down around the table we were served freshly whipped butter and strawberry jam in sparkly, what looked like imperialist-era glassware in a yurt in the middle of Kyrgyzstan by a beautiful Kyrgyz family. Guests included myself, Jean, our new friend Nadja from Germany, a retired German couple, two newlyweds from Bishkek, and our driver of course. We booked a tour in Kochkor the day before with a local travel agency. When travelling in Kyrgyzstan, these are all things I recommend doing once you get there. 

Rows of yurts are set up by the marine blue lake Song-Kul. The hardcore adventurists (badass German mountain bikers) make the trek up to the 3,000-metre elevation from the town of Kochkor to Song-Kul, where yurts are put up for the summer and locals farm and get back to nature, away from the more industrial cities. The rest are lots of Community-Based Tourism camps, where the lucky travellers who make it to Kyrgyzstan get to stay. The wander to and from the city to the mountain, I got to see some of the most breathtaking, peaceful scenery I’ve ever seen in this entire world.

Go Local

It’s worth it to go somewhere that you may think is the middle of nowhere. The rewards are there. It’s always the most life-changing. Place with the lifestyle centuries old, the religion new, the food just cooked fresh for purchase. So many different levels of culture shock, and new things to learn about in so little time.

We spent just one night up by the lake, before taking the scenic 3-hour ride down to Kochkor before getting the bus back to Bishkek, with a stop at the Burana Tower along the way. We rode a donkey (somewhat unsuccessfully), rode a horse (definitely unsuccessfully), watched the family milk their cows after dinner, chatted with the other guests over dinner and tea inside the yurt when it got too windy outside. It was the middle of July and it got to a few degrees above freezing at night. The lake is uninhabitable for most months of the year.

When You Just Never Know

One of my favourite travel moments from Kyrgyzstan was on the bus ride back to Bishkek. After Song-Kul and lunch in Kochkor, Jean and I stopped at the well-known Burana Tower and then found a ride back to the capital city, on what was probably our 8th or 9th marshuka ride that week. I knew Bishkek had two bus stations, and that our hostel was next to one of them. I figured they were both a little far away from each other. Unfortunately, I had just spent my last 5 som using the toilet at the bus station near the Tower. The bus needed to get us as close to our booked hostel in Bishkek as possible. I tried asking him which station we were going to, but I couldn’t.

Language Barriers

They speak a lot of Russian in the capital city of Bishkek. A few “hellos” and “thank yous” in Russian was all I could muster. A “One” and a “Two”. And a “Da” thrown in for good measure. So a few hundred kilometres later, as we rolled into Bishkek, the bus eventually stopped at the other station and let everyone off.

“Last stop. This last stop.” The busman said.

“Um…west bus station?” I tried to pronounce the name of the street where we were staying of Jibek Jolu. I tried my pathetic lost soul face along with it. Nothing.

“No. No. Last stop.” He said again. He pointed outside at the afternoon traffic of the city. 

So I just pointed to the paper where I wrote down the street name and the west bus station written in Kyrgyz. Then I just looked at him and said, “please?”

He turned around, shrugged his shoulders, and took off again, with only Jean and I in the car. We drove a few kilometres until we eventually reached recognizable territory and I could see the west bus station approaching. I knew how to maneuver through the touts and marshukas and make our way around the corner to Apple Hostel. The bus driver nodded, smiled and let us off the bus without charging us any extra som. He even watched us for a few moments making sure we were safe in the crowds of Bishkek.

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

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