That time we stayed in the Kyrgyz yurts at Lake Issyk Kul, washed for the first time in 8 days in a glacial lake, played the local sport we named “goat ball”, and found a pregnant spider bigger than my face.
When? September 2015
With whom? Alone
Before crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan I’d traversed the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan which is the highest altitude international highway in the world but not near civilisation; after over a week of camping and I was gagging for a wash! You know when it gets so bad that you’re acutely aware of your own stink… well that was two days ago, so a good wash was somewhat of a priority. You might think that I could have had a bowl shower in my tent but I was low on water and needed to ration it for drinking.
The people I had met travelling (sharing vehicles and on the same route) and I had a rota system for cooking for each other when we were far away from civilisation. Since Iran, (you can read about parts of the journey here and here) we had managed to cook for the group for under 5 USD each day, which even out here was a bit of an accomplishment. Tom, a beardy American traveller, and I had teamed up and I have to say that we made a pretty excellent team. Other than the “Never Again” we cooked in the pouring rain that was basically raw potato in a tomato sauce, we had smashed every dinner. We had a bit of a tradition since Romania when we found a vodka with a Russian title that we translated as “Regret”, we had celebrated our cooking night with copious quantities of alcohol.
We arrived in Kochkor, our last stop before the yurt. We stocked up on necessary water and went in pursuit of a bar. It was 9.30am, so in such a small town a bar was a lost cause. No matter, we bought beer and vodka and sat on a step outside of a shop and drank them. That makes it a bar, right?
We made our way up to Lake Issyk Kul, the world’s second largest Alpine lake after Lake Titicaca, and perhaps it was the alcohol talking but I decided upon sighting the lake that it would be a good idea to wash in it. It had been so long and every movement reminded me how gross I was. The lake was the only sensible option. I opened my backpack to find my shower gel, which was next to the shampoo. It didn’t take long to deliberate and I decided that freezing lake or not, it was time for the hair to be washed. Others seemed to know that this was a terrible idea but Hannah, another crazy, braved the ice water with me.
It was SO cold. We slowly waded into the lake with more than one involuntary squeal between us. We knew from the first touch that this was a bad idea, but we were so gross! Touching it felt like ice and by the end I couldn’t even feel my head. I quickly splashed it over me in my bikini, scrubbed my armpits clean, then reached for the shampoo. Hannah was already struggling to wash the shampoo out of her hair, so I rapidly lathered in into my scalp while trying the whole time to remember to breath normally. Now we were both struggling (there is something about seeing a friend in an equally stupid situation that immediately makes you feel better about daft life choices). Hannah and I agreed to wash each other’s hair out as that seemed to be easier and we certainly weren’t going to submerge our heads. We were squealing from the cold as an audience began to gather round and our friend Luke started throwing horse poo at us. For this instance, I do not recommend Head & Shoulders; Head & Shoulders why do you lather so?!
We dried off and when feeling returned to our extremities and we could no longer hear the chattering of our teeth as we shivered, the clean feeling hit us so we gloated. To everyone. We helped make the bed with a lot of blankets in our yurts which were filled with tiny kitty cats. A yurt is a traditional, portable, round tent so there wasn’t much protection from the cold at such a high altitude. We shovelled coal into the stove oven to warm ourselves up and got taboo out. Taboo is a great game similar to Articulate and is ideal for bonding with new people. Whilst we were warming up and sharing blankets I noticed something tickling my leg. I reached down to touch it and accidentally flicked a HUGE spider. It was about the size of a human face and was pregnant so had an extra egg sack to make it even bigger! Hannah mistook the eggs for a huge bum, so we named it Kim Kardashian. There were a lot of people squealing as I removed the spider from their sight with the lid to the taboo box and set it free away from the yurt. Then I returned and suggested it would find its way back and give birth to hundreds of spiders during the night.
A traditional Kyrgyz sport involves hunting, catching, and decapitating a goat before throwing its carcass around whilst on horseback. The family we were staying with gathered their mates for a game. This is a great, and I mean great, spectator sport. It was a gripping game and although none of us really knew what was going on this seemed unimportant. The referee/umpire role was undertaken by a man in a fabulous hat on the back of a donkey.
After goat ball, we commandeered (with permission) the horses and rode around the mountains surrounding us. I hadn’t ridden a horse before but we had a great time exploring and we even got the horses galloping/trotting/cantering (I don’t know which, but we went fast). The views of the landscape were amazing and having the option of riding the horse up to a better vantage point allowed us to appreciate the lake in its stop-and-stare alpine surroundings.
Info: Whilst we had our own transport, you can organise some with tour companies up to the lake from Kochkor. The capital of Kyrgyzstan is Bishkek and has a number of things to do. Tripadvisor is a great start but I suggest The Obama Bar. There was also a Putin Bar but rumour has it Putin got wind of its existence and the owner mysteriously disappeared, leading to the bar permanently closing. Whilst those two had the gimmick appeal, for quality of food, atmosphere and value for money, I have to recommend Chicken Star. They do some of the best chicken I have ever tasted and have a bar in the restaurant. Chihoon is the owner, and one of the nicest people too. Eat delicious chicken as you listen to live music and admire some of Chihoon’s impressive artwork! Staying in a yurt is such a cool ting to do and you see a way of life that is completely different. I have grown up in London so have been surrounded by people and public transport, and all of a sudden I was living with a Kyrgyz family in a yurt with no signal, running water or transport in the most beautiful surroundings.
Product of the week: It was cold at that altitude, and one thing I was grateful for was my thermal base layers. I took with me this Craft long-sleeved thermal that is one of my favourite things to wear. I generally wear it as casual clothing because it is co comfortable. It’s not super cheap but it is reasonable and worth it to stay warm.
Tip of the week: If you spontaneously go horse riding as we did through the Kyrgyz mountains, then make sure you wear shoes with a good heel (no I don’t mean stilettos, more hiking boots or trainers) and do not wear shorts. One of the group made that mistake and had some serious chaffing going on. It was not pretty.