The story is always the same: I find a really good deal on flights to the place I’ve been dreaming of for a long time, I check if dates around some days off from work are available and after some thinking (between 5 minutes to 2 hours) I almost always end up buying the ticket.
That’s also how I ended up in Central Asia in November. This part of the world has been on my mind for ages and after my numerous travels to the Balkans and Caucasus it was ineluctable that I will end up in the “-stans” sooner or later.
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How I got to visit Kyrgyzstan in November
I didn’t think about the timing when I was booking my tickets. I only focused on the dates, how I can work them around the Polish Independence Day (that was the only time I could still travel last year, my schedule was really busy as 2015 was an exceptional year for me).
After spending a little over a week in Kazakhstan, falling for Almaty, freezing my butt off in Astana (where the temperature was -5C but really felt like -17C…) and altogether enjoying my time in the country it was time for me to visit Kyrgyzstan.
Already in Kazakhstan I felt like I might be one of the very few international tourists in the country, in my hostel in Almaty there were few other foreigners but I didn’t really see any tourists when visiting the cities. I was an interesting oddity for local people who often started conversation with me just to find out what the heck I’m doing in their country in such an ungrateful month as November.
My expectations before visiting Kyrgyzstan
Since I remember I’ve been hearing how exceptional Kyrgyzstan is, with magnificent mountains, breathtaking views and laid-back capital. And I admit I had my hopes very high but at the same time I don’t know anyone who was crazy enough to visit Kyrgyzstan in November, except of me that is (however there are friends who were there in the winter time and had a blast!).
The last morning I woke up in Almaty I saw a winter wonderland around. Seriously I don’t remember when I saw such a beautiful, fairy-tale alike winter for the last time. The city has changed overnight and it looked just beautiful. I didn’t want to leave Almaty but at the same time I was looking forward to visiting Kyrgyzstan even more, hoping to see a similar beauty there.
The journey by bus from Almaty to Bishkek was rather straight forward and with some beautiful views outside taking my breath away. Some 5 hours later I found myself in Bishkek.
Bishkek – a capital with a big potential, just not in November
The first impressions weren’t the best. The dusk was growing, the air was humid and the only thing I did on that day was getting to the hostel and then visiting the supermarket to get some food. The hostel was located in the impressive socialist realism building along the main street, in a regular flat. Since it was November in Kyrgyzstan I was the only guest there which was actually not that bad, like I had the whole flat with all its advantages to myself.
The owner said one can see beautiful Tien Shan mountains from the window and when I woke up in the morning I indeed could spot very vaguely snow covered peaks, just for a brief moment. But of course my hoped were much higher that that…
Bishkek also didn’t impress me as much as I expected and I blame it on the weather. After spending a week in Almaty and loving every single moment of it I also had my hopes for Bishkek very high.
I could see very well that in the spring or summer time I would have loved the city – it had a wonderful socialism realism architecture, brutalism was doing very well there and the place, even if lacked major touristic sights, had this laid-back, pleasant vibe. There was even a Lenin statue hidden in the park! I can imagine how great it must be in more favorable conditions, either in the full spring bloom or covered in snow.
In November however it was just dull, grey and kind of boring. One day I had in Bishkek was enough to see all the city has to offer, wander around to get the sense of the city and to promise myself to return there at the better time of the year…
Challenging time at Issyk Kul lake
From Bishkek I headed to Issyk Kul lake, the main tourist destination in Kyrgyzstan. In the summer time the towns and villages along the northern shore turn into the main holiday getaway for local people as well as tourists from Kazakhstan or even Russia. Beaches are packed, the parties go on till late night hours and you can find an accommodation in every other house.
Well, the situation in November looks slightly different. First of all I had a problem with finding a place to stay at Issyk Kul lake, Booking showed only 3 properties, all of them rather expensive (for Kyrgyzstan and my budget there). Eventually I went for a hotel in Bosteri, close to Cholpon Ata – the main town in the area.
The first issues appeared when I tried to find on the map the exact location of the hotel. Kyrgyzstan isn’t the most developed country, also on Google Maps, and Bosteri looks like one main road with couple of back streets, without any names on them. There are actually no names on the streets there either so when the marshrutka dropped me off in the village I needed to somehow figure out where my hotel is.
I was almost sure I’m in the right part of Bosteri (and I really was) but it was getting dark and I couldn’t see any sign with the name of the hotel I was looking for. I was circling around one street, back and forth, looking for any clues but with no luck. Eventually I had the most clever idea ever, even now I don’t know how it came to my mind: I turned on the wifi in my phone to see if it can detect the network with the name of my hotel. And it surely did!
I kept walking around, the signal was getting stronger and weaker yet I couldn’t see the hotel! I was slowly getting hopeless, the time was passing by, it was getting really dark and of course there was no one around to ask. I entered a small shop and in my very poor Russian I asked the woman working there if she could call the hotel (as my phone didn’t want to make the connection…). Couple of minutes later I was saved as the guy from the hotel came to pick me up. And let me tell you it was nowhere close to the street I was walking up and down…
It’s no surprise I was the only guest in the hotel. It was pretty new and it felt like it wasn’t really in use – it was freezing cold inside! I got extra blankets and a heater to my room but I still put most of my clothes on, just like when I spent a night at Wadi Rum desert in Jordan…
The next day I started with a walk to the lakeside in Bosteri, before heading to Cholpon Ata. Of course everything was long closed for the winter time but I managed to somehow sneak into the holiday resort with a small amusement park. I could imagine how it gets busy in the summer time but in November it looked somehow creepy.
The Issyk Kul lake itself was stunning, even in the gloomy weather it left a huge impression on me with its vast waters and magnificent mountains glistering on the horizon. The contrast between abandoned tourist infrastructure and the pristine nature was prostrating!
Cholpon Ata was slightly more busy than Bosteri – I’ve seen maybe 20 people around during my visit to the town! Besides the lake the biggest attraction of Cholpon Ata are petroglyphs – there are around 2000 of them, dating from 800BC to 1200AD.
Since the maps don’t really exist I just headed in the general direction where they should be located, using the shortcut (or just a wrong way, you name it) through the fields. When I was this close to the sight two rather scary dogs appeared on my way and I had to turn around. Fortunately shortly after I stumbled across friendly locals who showed me the way to petroglyphs.
There’s supposed to be an open air museum with the best exhibits but of course I couldn’t find it… Instead I just hanged out in the area as the rocks strewn around looked really spectacular! I haven’t seen the most famous petroglyphs but I was really impressed with those I was lucky to find anyway.
Before heading to the lake shore again I wanted to stop at the local cemetery as it looked beautiful, so different than those I know. But of course it was closed, all I could do was to peek through the gate…
The lakeside in Cholpon Ata was even more beautiful than in Bosteri. The beach was wider, cleaner and even if there were hotels around it looked neat. Besides me there was one more person walking around and enjoying the place but we both tried to avoid each other, pretending we have the place all to ourselves. The lake and the mountains were hypnotizing, a pure beauty!
It was then that I understood the whole hype about Issyk Kul, it really is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It leaves you speechless even in the gloomy autumn day. I could have spent hours, just sitting at the beach and looking at the pristine view.
Sadly it was time for me to go back to Bosteri. Again I couldn’t get into my hotel as no one was answering the doorbell but as I learnt from my experience from the day before I headed to the nearby restaurant to ask to call the owners to open the door for me. Altogether on that day I saw many more animals than people…
Karakol – probably my favorite place in Kyrgyzstan
My last stop in Kyrgyzstan was Karakol – fourth largest city in the country, located at the eastern end of Issyk Kul lake. For couple of days I’ve been debating in my head if I should go there or return to Bishkek. Eventually I headed in Karakol and I was really glad I did. The city was very pleasant, with a beautiful old houses, exceptional wooden church and even a small mosque.
It was also the first time in Kyrgyzstan when I saw the sun shining, very timidly but still lightening up my mood big time. Too bad I didn’t have an extra day to head to the mountains around, they were pretty spectacular and probably the highest I’ve seen in my life, after Caucasus in Georgia (some reaching over 5.000 meters at the peak). I should have visited Karakol on Sunday too, to visit the famous animals market. I have so many reasons to go back there!
Of course again I was the only one in the hostel and this time it was a rather creepy experience. The hostel itself was really good, located in two buildings and when I had to go from one to another, in the pitch-darkness and a terrifying silence surrounding me I didn’t feel all that confident. I was left all alone in the property and it felt just weird… Still Karakol might be the place I liked the most during my visit in Kyrgyzstan!
Should you visit Kyrgyzstan?
So I might as well say that I wasn’t blown away by Kyrgyzstan. After hearing everyone oohing and aahing about the country I had my expectations way too high. But most of all I blame myself for not liking Kyrgyzstan as much as I should have to.
Let’s face it, going to Central Asia in November was probably one of the most stupid travel ideas I’ve ever had. While visiting Kazakhstan was surprisingly good I found Kyrgyzstan rather boring, even the mountains didn’t impress me as much as they should have to. But I’m aware it’s all my fault. I know I should visit Kyrgyzstan again to make a full judgment of the place.
Right now the country is on the top of my travel list, this time however I’m aiming for late spring, summer or early autumn time. And if you’re wondering if you should visit Kyrgyzstan or not – go! Just don’t do that in November…
Do you like travelling off season? Have you ever felt like the only tourist around? Would you like to visit Kyrgyzstan?
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