There were several factors that made this possibly one of the best trips to Issyk Kul that I’ve ever had.
First, wonderful company. Daniel was prepared for anything, and he had a car, and he’s a very laid-back, awesome guy. When the apartment we rented didn’t have sugar, he had sugar (a necessity for my morning coffee). When I wanted to stop in the middle of nowhere to take photos of old WWII memorials (like the one below), he kindly obliged. Traveling with a friend who has their own car might just be the best way to travel around Kyrgyzstan, because then you don’t have to deal with potentially shitty/rude/dangerous hired drivers, you get to stop along the way, and at the end of the day, you don’t have to deal with the trouble of actually owning and maintaining a car in Kyrgyzstan (it’s one of the seven circles of hell, I’ve heard).
It was just the four of us, and the small group kept it easy. A fellow rocker friend put us in touch with his college buddy in Tamga, who not only set us up with an apartment (hilariously and un-ironically kitschy), but also took us to a waterfall that we most certainly would not have gone to on our own, and most importantly, he put up with our terrible Russian skills. (In return, he practiced his English, which almost caused a problem when he mistakenly said the apartment cost three thousand som instead of three hundred.) We ate bread with butter and honey for breakfast at a little cafe right next to the beach (the only place that was open for several miles, it seemed). We stayed on the beach all day, reading, tanning, talking, and taking periodic pilgrimages to the icey water. Darwin ate sand and clenched his tiny fists when we dipped him in the lake. We gathered supplies from a store in town and built a fire on the beach, watching the sun set and the moon rise. Guys, it was great.
Basically, everything fell into place, and I know for a fact that it cannot be replicated. I know! That’s the horrible news, why am I even blogging about it? It’s almost as if I’m bragging. Lonely Planet would have you believe that nothing you read about is beyond your reach, but this trip was so wonderfully unique. If you asked, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how to rent that apartment. I could tell you where the beach is, that one’s easy enough (down the hill, across from where you’d turn to go up to Tamga). You could eat at the same cafe, but we brought our own honey. I could tell you the location of the waterfall, but you would most definitely need a car to get there, as it’s about 15-20km down the Kumtor road between Tamga and Barskoon. We passed a few sweaty tourists attempting to walk/hitchhike there and they looked absolutely defeated when we told them they still had at least 10km to go. We didn’t have room in our car or else we would have given them a ride. I wonder if the waterfall, or maybe the Gagarin monument, is in the Lonely Planet guide for Kyrgyzstan?
(The first cosmonaut in space came to Issyk Kul prior to his famous flight.)
The weekend was mostly uneventful (in the best possible way), though we had the opportunity to meet a few interesting characters. The owner of our apartment, Elira (or maybe Elena?), upon seeing Darwin, launched into an explanation of how her daughter is nearly 30 and had yet to give her a grandchild. She told us, I want to be a grandmother! There was also visiting group of female boxers from Kazakhstan (apparently Issyk Kul is a popular destination for athletes), girls who could have easily kicked all of our asses. We saw them on the beach and at the waterfall and mostly cowered in fear while they playfully put each other in headlocks. When we were at the waterfall, our friend-of-a-friend/impromptu tour guide continuously asked us why Darwin wasn’t wearing a hat. “See that baby? He’s wearing a hat. And that one? He has a hat.” It’s warm, that’s why. I never thought it would make sense to say, “Americans don’t believe in bundling up kids the same way people from the former USSR do,” but it’s the truth. He also told us to avoid the kumys that was being served there (there were some yurts set up), because he saw a man adding water from a nearby creek to top it up. I happily obliged; I will always take an opportunity to avoid drinking kumys (fermented horse milk).
On the drive back, Farrell and Daniel patiently allowed me to run around this weird mural that was in the middle of nowhere and was completely abandoned, snapping photos to my heart’s content. A future post on this is on its way for sure! (I’ve heard the story on the myth that inspired the mural, but I’m super curious about why it’s there, who painted it or funded it or built it, when, etc., so if you have any details, please feel free to email me! Also, I’ve heard that the complex across the road from the mural was probably built by the same guy who built this place, but I still can’t find any info on this place specifically.)