1) Kazakhstan: the biggest of them all. about 90 times the size of Belgium but only twice as many inhabitants. 1 euro= 345 tenge.
The main reason for this whole trip was this small scale ultra race called tengri ultra, named after khan Tengri, with 7010 meters Kazakhstan's highest mountain. Last year it had only about 30 participants for the 70k, this year it saw a threefold increase in the number of racers. I had finished Madeira Island ultra trail only 2 weeks before this race so I was not planning on doing much of running the days prior to the day of the race. On my way to Kazakhstan I had a 4 day stop over in Kiev, Ukraine. a pleasant city. I had a 4-hour run here. In Almaty I had a 1-hour run with a Ukranian friend of mine and one up to kok tobe hill with good views of the city and the surrounding mountains. In these mountains I went to the big almaty lake, despite what its name may suggest it's not actually that big (pic)! I also went to see the ski resort and the world's highest ice skating ring here.
On saturday at 1pm it was time to leave to Tamgaly Tas, a unesco site, about 100km north of Almaty, where the race would take place on sunday. The organisation had arranged busses that would take us, runners, to the remote starting place. No facilities here! everything was brought in from the city. A whole Campsite was set up for the event. A truck served as a water station (picture). The only place where you could wash after the race was the river. The meals they provided were disappointingly small but apart from that I had no complaints! :) A few days before the race I even got a mail from the organisation asking me if I wanted to be "a hero" in their 2017 promotional video??? hahaha...I thought that was funny, but I was also flattered! I told them I was not a hero but I would love to do it. So when we arrived at the venue they interviewed me and during the race I was filmed. I felt like an elite runner for a while! :) ...but that feeling didn't last long...halfway the race I was still doing quite wel and ran in 6th or 7th position. but the second half of the race my leg was preventing me from going any faster and I had to slow down. Even at the flat sections. In the 5km-long canyon close to the end at least 6 or 7 people past me. But at least not a DNF! and a 15th place is not THAT bad...I guess...
2) Tajikistan: unemployment rate is 2.5% while in Belgium it's 8.8% but they make 60% more babies. :) 1 euro=9.8 somoni
The day after the race I took a flight to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. I heard about their national (vegetarian) dish called qurutob (pic) which was of course the first thing I had upon arrival. It was sooooo good! by far the best meal I had during the whole trip. I ate it at least 3 times. ( not on the same day though) The next morning I left for the Fann mountains. My plan was to hike all the way to Iskander kul. A lake named after Alexander the great. It's described as a 4 to 5 day hike. I took a shared taxi towards Penjikent and got of at Shurcha village and took another shared taxi to artuch. The driver dropped me at the alpine camp from where I would start to hike. I arrived at 2pm so I had about 6 hours before it would start to get dark and colder. I went up to lake Czukurak first before heading to Kulikalon lake, where I would spend the night. Not a bad place either, but it was still too early to call it a day. I arrived just in time to enjoy the lake a bit and set up my tent before the sun was about to set and the temperature suddenly dropped. It was freezing cold but my sleeping bag kept me warm. That night I was woken up by avalanches several times.
The next morning I had an eariy start. My tent was still frozen but I had no time to wait for it to dry. I had a long day ahead of me where I had to cross the Alaudin pass at 3850m to get to my next destination, alaudin lakes. on my lunchbreak I witnessed another avalanche.going up the pass there was still a lot of snow. sometimes I went in up to my waist and nearly lost my shoe in the deep snow. I did not bring proper hiking boots with me, just my running shoes. Walking in that snow made it a lot harder so I was not making a lot of progress (pic). After 3 hours I reached the pass. The view was lovely and I soon forgot about all the struggling to get up here. I could see the lakes in the distance and the surrounding peaks. The way down proved to be even harder due to snow and loose scree! After a long descent I finaly reached the lakes. I'd put up my tent immediately so it could dry in the sun. After this dangerous experience on the pass I decided to not take the risk to continue over to the next pass. ( which would be even harder than this one I read) So, the other option was to get back to the main road and take a shared taxi to Iskander lake. I started walking the next morning and arriving at an unpaved road there were 4 locals sitting ( drinking and eating) under a roof...They invited me to join them, which I did. I was trying to explain them where I was heading and if I could get a ride with them. Eventually they said 'fifty bucks' that was the only english that came out from their mounth! :) I noticed they had too much too drink and told them I would walk back. It would be a 26km walk all the way but I knew there were a few villages after 14 km and I might get a ride in there. So off I went. Arriving at the village (pic) around 4pm it seemed difficult to find a ride. I got invited by a young guy who spoke english to stay at his place (pic) and his brother would give me a ride in the morning. I accepted the offer, had dinner at his place and in the morning, after filling up the car with half the village population, we left for Sarvoda, the place from where I would take a shared taxi to the lake. Everything went smoothly and a few hours later I arrived at the lake. As lonely planet suggests I got off 1 km before the lake for views of the lake. The views were not great, but another thing caught my eye. A truck (converted into a camper) next to the road looked familiar to me. I went over to the vehicle and started talking to the owners, a swiss couple. Then I remembered where I've seen that truck before. 5 or 6 years ago in South America.
The campsite's location at the lake is wonderful! The only other guest was a German guy. We introduced ourselfs and decided to get some dinner later on. All they had was pilov, a rice dish, and that's what we would have for the next 3 days. We ended up hiking to A waterfall, a viewpoint up a hill and sarytag village. The latter we hiked with a british/dutch couple. A british couple had arrived as well meanwhile. They were travelling on their bicycles. Later on some french, American and british joined us. More people arrived over the next few days and we all had a swim at the lake. On sunday we all went our own way. Myself I went back to Dushanbe to catch my flight the next morning. On my search for an ATM machine that was actually working I saw the British couple sitting at a cafe. After a brief talk I went on, had dinner ( qurutob :) ) and headed straight to bed. early morning I walked to the airport which was only 2km away from the hostel.
3) Kyrgyzstan: 85% more chance to die in your infancy here. 1euro= 75 som.
Having only 1 week it's difficult to choose which place to pick, so I thought it would make sence to take those places that involve the least time consuming transportation. In my case that would be issyk kul lake and karakol, which is a good base for several day-and multiple day-hikes. It would involve a whole day of travelling to get from Dushanbe to Karakol. A 2 hour flight, 5 hour minibus ride and another 7 hour drive later I arrived at my destination. Crossing the border from Kazhakstan into Kyrgyzstan I was left stranded by the bus driver on the Kyrgyz side and thus I had to find another bus to take me to Bishkek where I had to catch a bus to karakol. I later heard that this is quite common because border control can take a while sometimes and drivers don't like to wait for that. I arrived at my destination at 11.30pm. I was exhausted and went straight to bed. The next day I went to the tourist office to find out whether or not I could hike up to ala kul lake, which was the main reason for me to come here. They volunteers were realy very helpful. One of them even took me around town and invited me for lunch. Another one told me the high pass was open so I could go and see the lake!!! I was so excited by that news! :) ...but I was not 100% sure about it and I wanted to have a second opinion. I went to the CBT ( community based tourism) office across the road and the guy in there told me I couldn't go because the pass is still closed! Too early in the season! and the lake is still frozen! That's what I was afraid of!
I'm sure this guy has more knowledge than that volunteer at the tourist office when it comes to trekking into the mountains. I had to face it...No 3-day-hike as planned! :( so...what to do now...it wasn't the right time for high altitude trekking! ...I decided to just go for a daytrip to the 'seven bulls' rock formation (pic). "One of Kyrgyzstan's most photographed natural features" sounds very promising, doesn't it? I took a shared taxi to the village of jeti oguz and ran the remaining 12 km to the canyon. Personally, I thought it was a bit disappointing! so I decided not to continue for another 6 kms to the valley of flowers. i figured it would be to early to see flowers now anyway.
The next morning I went to Tamga, a small village along the south coast of lake issykul, the second largest mountain lake in the world, after lake titicaca. Driving there there's hardly any view of the lake. The bus dropped in front of a small beach. I walked into the village, checked in into a guesthouse and started hiking into the mountains...again, no views of the lake at all! After a couple of hours I arrived back at the guesthouse. Another disappointment! (lake titicaca is way way better!)
I was thinking for a while on what to do next...I then decided to leave and get a bus to Kochkor, hoping I could at least make it to another lake I realy wanted to see, song kol.
I left the guesthouse and an hour later I found myself in a taxi who would take me to Balykchy, at the end of the lake, where I had to change to another vehicle. Halfway the car stopped and the driver told me to get on the minibus that was standing there and which would take me further to Balykchy. I did. a few minutes later the driver started collecting money from the passengers and reaching his hand out to me I said I already paid my share to the taxi driver. He said NO! I said YES!...and so the discussion began...well...it was google translate that did the talking for me! :) He got pissed and threatened to throw me off the bus and grabbed my bag. I told him not to touch my stuff! I of course realized it wasn't his fault but the taxi driver who's to blame. I just payed the driver! it was only about 1.3 euro anyway! Arriving in Balykchy I found there were no more busses at that time of the day, only taxi's who wanted to charge me exorbitant rates for the drive! A guy, who sat in front of me in the bus stood next to me and offered me to stay at his place. I took the offer. Arriving at his place his wife was busy cooking and their kids were happily surprised to see a stranger in their house. He appologized for not having a shower or (western) toilet in the house. I had to wash using a waterhose and the toilet was a whole in the ground in the garden. I told him I don't mind. We had dinner, I played with the kids and we would have something you could call 'a silent conversation' using google translate to communicate. Asking me questions like: 'Do Europeans hate muslims?' 'Do you fear me?' 'Do you think all people in Kyrgyzstan are liars?' ( that's because I called the taxi driver a liar earlier on the bus ) 'Did you notice the litter on the roads?' .
The next morning, after breakfast I thanked them for their hospitality and he took me to the spot from where to take a bus to Kochkor.
Arriving in Koshkor I went straight to the CBT office to see what my options were! I was not counting on making it to the lake, but I asked anyway...He replied: sure you can! one road is already open! YES!!! I immidiately arranged accommodation with them. one night at a yurt and one night at a village. bought some supplies and arranged transportation. I started hiking around 1pm and I was told it would be a 5-hour-hike to the yurtstay. 3.5 hours later I arrived. It was an amazing walk through a beautiful valley. There were 5 french people on a horseback riding trip staying at the yurt as well. The next morning we left together to the lake. they on their horse and I walked. after 1.5 hours we reached the viewpoint...but guess what...Yes...the lake was frozen! nevertheless, the view was still amazing. Arriving back at the road I realized I did not have the address of the homestay I booked! I had 2 choices: left or right...I chose left and it turned out to be the wrong choice. :) I walked through the whole village, asking around, no one seemed to even know what a guesthouse is. Eventually a truck (pic, piece of crap) driver offered to give me a ride and help me to look for the place after he unloaded his freight. It was not much fun walking around in a dusty village so I agreed on it. Of course I didn't think the place would be a long drive away from the village...and after a few kms I asked him to stop the truck. This was not helping me much either. I thanked him and started to walk back to the village, which was just vissible at the horizon. After an hour of walking I got a ride to the other village where I finally found the place I'd been looking for the last couple of hours. I was exhausted, hungry and sweaty...I was longing for a bed, food and a shower. I was able to satisfy the first two needs, but no shower in the guesthouse! a sink outside was the best they could offer (pic). that means day 4 without shower. I feel sorry for the man sitting next to me on the bus tomorrow! :)
I had 3 days left on this trip. Which I would spend in the city. first 2 days in Bishkek, where I went to see an opera for the first time in my life (pic) and had 'cheap pussies' (pic) at the market or at least that's how the woman translated them on her smartphone. hahaha... and the last day in Almaty, from where I would fly back home.
- The capitals were quite pleasant, spacious and surprisingly green.
- Some basic russian would be very helpful.
- Hard to get by as a vegetarian.
- Best hike: Fann mountains/Iskander lake.
- may is too early for high altitude trekking.
- Cheap countries to travel.
- Contrary to what you might think...these countries are very safe.