By Brianna 18/June/17 Kyrgyzstan
After realising that the snow was settling in for the winter over the Kyrgyz highlands, perhaps the best course of action was not to go in search of more frosty, remote alpine lakes. But that is what we did. This time, we somewhat expected that not everything would go according to plan. We didn't expect, however, for our plans to be torn to shreds in a matter of hours...
And so, in blissful ignorance, the travelling trio embarked upon another mountain lake mission, this time with their sights set on Song-Kol, the glittering heart of Southern Kyrgyzstan. They slept in a yurt, met the ex-captain of the Estonian women's cricket team, walked somebody else's dog and Brianna held a baby of unkown origins for a three hour bus ride whilst Alex battled for leg room with a paralytic drunkard. All they needed to do now was stock up on some Kazakhstan chocolate and they would be ready to tackle off-the-beaten-path Kyrgyzstan once more...
This time, we were leaving nothing up to fate. A car was rented from a guy with an actual website. Another guy was contacted, who then organised us to stay with his sister. The sister knew another guy who knew a guy who organised horse treks, willing to take people to the alpine lake in whatever weather conditions awaited us when we arrived. Fool-proof. All we had to do was turn up at the village mosque at 17:30 and everything would fall into place. Turns out, we couldn't even do that right.
Our car, a veteran of the Kyrgyz roads, served us proud for the first 100km of our roadtrip, cruising along flawless tarmac stretches of godliness with the radio blaring, seamlessly blending in with our fellow road users. The 400,000km + notches in its belt had understandably loosened its clutch over the years, but that's no problem when you're heading to the easily accessible small village of Kyzart, our intended base for exploring the region. According to Maps.me, you don't even have to veer off any major highways to get there. This is true. It fails to mention, however, that one of those so-called "highways" is in competion for world's worst road, with its primary clientelle being kamikaze lorry drivers.
Navigating pot-holes within pot-holes, tons of Russian cargo swinging precariously from side to side and blankets of ice, Alex felt like he was on an episode of 'Ice Road Truckers: Siberia'. The car, however, was not amused. We crawled along, biting our nails with every bump, trying to enjoy the snowy, nomadic plains around us while praying we didn't break down in the middle of nowhere. The 60km drive took us just over 3 hours to clear but we managed to pull up to the mosque only a little later than our arranged meet time. As we didn't know exactly who we were looking for, I made people fully aware that the foreigners were in town. Cheddar hung his head in shame, refusing to leave the toasty front seat whilst I bowled up to strangers asking them if they knew 'Uzakbek', brandishing in their faces a tiny whatsapp profile photo of the guy we had been in contact with.
After the third person took me to the same wrong house, I gave up. There's only so many times you can stand awkwardly on a stranger's porch without the Russian skills to say, 'no, I've already been taken here, it's not this guy's house please don't make me knock on the door again'. It's a very difficult concept to gesture, and results in the helpful person who's taken you to the house thinking you've gone mad and knocking for you, then having the poor chap explain once more that he's the wrong Uzakbek on your behalf. Three times. Cheddar was dying of cringe. We decided that, instead of targeting random people, the best course of action was to perch awkwardly around the car and wait for someone to recognise and approach us. They didn't.
When the muezzin cries signalled the night drawing in, we conceded defeat. Simultaneously, our plucky trooper did the same, flat out refusing to be taken back to ice trucker territory. We were stranded. At night. In remote Kyrgyzstan. We were in desperate need for someone to come to our rescue. Maps.me turned out to be that someone. We rolled the car a few hundred metres down the road to a house marked on the app as a 'homestay' and knocked tentatively. We shared mutual confused stares with the woman who answered the door, before she made a call and handed me her phone. I don't know what the man on the other end of the phone said but my responses appeared adequate to grant us roof over our heads for the night. The family, bless them, took in the three weird and frazzled homeless drifters that rocked up after dark, giving us their own fire-heated bedroom and sleeping mats for the night, as well as cooking us dinner. Alex had meat and rice, and I had the veggie option (a bit less meat).
The whole evening was a surreal experience. Family members flocked the kitchen for warmth as it started to snow, while we sat in the corner with a boy and his grandma, all of us helping the boy with his English homework. A Soviet cartoon depicting Russian gentry played in the background and there was a dead wolf hanging on the wall. The day hadn't quite gone to plan but we were happy to be sat around that fire with a bunch of people utterly bewildered by our presence.
The next morning we woke up to the scenario we had both secretly been dreading: a lot of snow and a very flat tyre. We google translated our predicament across to our hosts. Unfortunately, the local mechanic was not so local and the car wasn't going anywhere in its current state. Thankfully Alex, having seen his dad change a tyre once as a child, channelled his inner handyman and took charge of the situation. He tinkered, twisted and jacked and the grandma, the boy, Cheddar, a dog and I assisted and looked on in awe (in between the occasional snowball fight and cow herding interval). The time came to test the car. When I revved the engine a huge grin from Alex told me he had been victorious, graduating from 'man' college with distinction.
We limped the car heroically back to civilisation. Yes we had missed out on yet another beautiful alpine lake. Yes, we hadn't ridden a horse. Yes, got stood up at a mosque. But we had got back to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek with a tyre as our only casualty and that, we deemed, as a success. The surprises weren't over for us, however, as we parked the car at our chosen accommodation of 'Friend's hostel'. There are two friend's hostels in Bishkek, we discovered, one tourist dwellings and the other long-term student dorms for the local university. We accidentally found ourselves, to the amusement of the tenants, at the latter
Even though we were not in the mood for any more plan upheavals at this late stage in the game, we were overcome by the welcome we received. We had basically crashed a group of friends' house which, although seemed like a huge mistake to start with, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We got a real insight into modern Kyrgyz life and had some great company in the process. We're hoping to pop back in when we *fingers crossed* make it back overland and say hi!
So that's two lakes down. But two's still a coincidence. Three, now three makes a curse. Naturally, the travelling compadres gave up on mountain lakes for a while after that. The curse lay dormant for a long time until it was far from their minds, nothing but a bad dream that left them in the winters of Kyrgyzstan. Surely, months later, in the tropics of Indonesia it wouldn't strike them again...
Until the next lake, friends!