back to the salt mines

As weird as I thought it was when the Kyrgyz government shuffled work days to make a three-day weekend out of International Women’s Day (which fell on a Tuesday), I was grateful for the unexpected time off, which I spent in Kochkor, a town about five hours from Bishkek on the way to Naryn. It marked the first time I drove to a place outside of Chui Oblast (because there was that trip to Osh Oblast, but I flew there).

I ate too much bread and drank too much tea; it’s sort of a problem I have. I gawked at all of the Ladas; there were so many! All lined up, posing just for me (or patiently waiting to drive me somewhere, as most of them were taxis). I went horseback riding up a mountain to see the town’s cell phone/television tower. (How can you tell if there isn’t much to do in a town? The big attraction is “a large metal structure on a hill that allows contact with the outside world“.)

It was only my second time on a horse and I managed to both stay on the saddle and take some (slanted) photos and (shaky) video. The other photographer of the group wasn’t so lucky when his horse decided to get caught in a ditch, but he mostly stuck the landing. At least his camera came out unscathed (and last I saw, his face healed quite nicely!).

It was a relaxing weekend, a nice opportunity to do mostly nothing in a new location with good friends, but by Tuesday morning I was anxiously going through my teetering To-Do list in my head and wanting to get back to the office.

No, no. We’re visiting salt caves first.

What? It’s cold, we have jobs to get back to, a five hour drive ahead of us, and we’re going to visit a network of barren holes in the ground?


Strangely interesting, it turns out. Still nestled in the tourism off-season, our driver had to call someone with a key to unlock the metal gate and the door the led to the caves. The electricity was turned off but we all had some sort of gadget to light our own way; a cell phone, a flashlight, an LED reading light.

Going into these sorts of situations/attractions with no expectations seems to be my go-to attitude, leaving me apathetic and slightly annoyed upon arrival, but pleasantly impressed by the time I leave. Who knew salt could be so trippy? Suspended, rust-colored, crystalline, oozing from the walls and fluttering into my lungs.

Beds? Ping-pong and pool tables? Library? Bar? Apparently when there is electricity, the caves serve as something of a health retreat for people with asthma or other lung issues. One person in our group suffering from horrendous allergies confirmed that she did notice the healing effects of the caves.

Several rooms were decorated with strings of plastic flowers and photos of how the salt caves used to be decorated; plush leather chairs in the library, white linens, a sense of hope and optimism. It really added a nice touch of nostalgia-slash-post-apocalypse. “No, really, these caves used to look much nicer, I swear!

After circling through most of the tunnels, not more than 20 minutes, we groped our way out into the sunlight, waited for the man with the keys to lock up, piled into the van and drove home. Somehow in the slight chaos of arriving in Bishkek and unloading the van, I ended up with two palm-sized blocks of dusty, silver salt rocks in my apartment. They now reside on my windowsill (unless someone from the trip wants to come forward and claim them? I’m certain that I didn’t drop six som on such a luxury item).