Kyrgyzstan: Touchdown and in love

28 May 2017

The flight from Urumqi was much shorter and tolerable than the flight from Shanghai.  Last night’s stay in Urumqi reminded me of that Pakistan trip. Urumqi- definitely a good base yet so far from Shanghai. The 100 minute flight left on time and I was excited to be inching my way closer to a region that I’ve always wanted to visit: Central Asia. And…how could I not visit Kyrgyzstan? Landlocked and mountainous with a history spanning over 2000 years, its geographic location place her at the crossroads of commerical and cultural routes- the Silk Road. Known as the “Land of Forty” (40-ray sun on the national flag and 40 regional clans united by Manas the legendary hero of Kyrgyzstan), close to 6 million people call her home. It was ruled by many including the Russian Empire (hence why the people speaks Russian) before gaining independence in the early 1990’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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As I looked out the window, the greenery and landscape offered a much needed escape from the concrete manufactured jungle that is Shanghai. Open space, endless plains and flying over Bishkek before eventually landing in Manas International Airport was a good start to the trip. The visa process was simple yet a bit strange since all you need is your passport and a verbal reason of your visit- no immigration cards or any other documents to prove your stay. Yes, I’m on holidays and this time with Milou ( yep- I name my tripod and camera).

Aigul, the owner of Salam travel http://visitkyrgz.com/ and Apple hostel owner was instrumental in helping me with this trip. Like always, I asked bucketloads of questions that are now (looking back) unnecessary and a reflection of my excited state. Taalai, my driver whisked me away from the airport and on the way, I can’t help but notice how wonderful the weather is and how green the trees were that lined up along the road leading into Bishkek. Clean air and vast plains, Kyrgyzstan with a population close to 6 million is THE place to let loose. Empty and a quick ride into the capital (around 938,000 ppl), money was changed (use USD and exchange in the city for better rates/ 1USD=67.73 S) and off we went straight to see an ancient settlement.

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Burana Tower located close to the city of Tokmok is located on the grounds of an ancient citadel and settlement/city called Balasagun that existed in the 10th to 14th century.

The tower that now stands out along the horizon used to be the around the center of the city. Surrounded by mosques, mausoleum and residential buildings, traders, artisans and farmers called it home. The former city/fortresssa (25-30 square km) was protected by two rows of walls.

DSC08410The octagonal structure in front of the tower used to be a mausoleum and final resting place of 11th century rulers. Two more, hidden behind trees, had similar terracotta ornaments and Arabic inscriptions.

Hills, ancient gravestones, balbals, sculptures, grindstones and a little museum along with remnants of a castle and mausoleums forms a picturesque view of the settlement.  Standing at 24m high, the 11th century Burana tower /minaret used to be 23 m taller and is known as one of the first minarets in Central Asia.

Its 5.6 m foundation  is octagonal in shape with its trunks being decorated with ornamental belts.

Entrance is 5 m from the ground  Destroyed by earthquakes and renovated + restored from 1970-1974, the winding stairway carried me up for a panoramic view of Burana.  Medieval cities of the East featured these minarets and their presence offered clues to its proximity to morgues or a necropolis.

 

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A place for prayers and also a watchtower, the first minaret in Central Asia dates back to the 10th century. then in the 11th century, burnt bricks were used to build these structures in the 11th century and many ancient cities in Kyrgyzstan started to construct these around the 6th -12th century.

DSC08333The rock statues collected from Chui valley dates back to the 6th to 10th Century. A very short walk from the tower and past the museum which houses some artefacts, these sculptures were distrbuted and thus marked the places of residence of the nomadic Turks. Carved with clothes, weapons and other ornaments, these statues are all depictions of men. It is extremely rare to find images of women. Wonderfully cute and all peaceful or pensive looking,  these statues are also a kind of a monument to the dead since some say that it marks the grave of fallen warriors. Now, this is why to immediately to the left of these statues lies a small necropolis filled with stone tombstones wth Arabic inscriptions.

Different writing systems provided evidence of the wealth of culture that existsed back then. From ancient Turkic writing to Sogdian script, these inscriptions dates back to the 6th-9th century. DSC08369There were also some petroglyphs on the rocks alongside the statues and tombstones. Not as clear as other site sin Central Asia, it blended nicely alongside the millstones and grindstones that marks the path back to the tower and the grassy hills.

DSC08384These old agricultural tools also give clues to water which is needed in planatation. Whether it was in Bangladesh or Iran or anywhere in the world, our ancestors have been smart enough to design channels for water usage. Although Milou and I didn’t spot any obvious signs of a drainage or irrigation system, no doubt it is there.

Such a stop it was and certainly an enjoyable attraction, I like sitting alongside the rock sculptures whilst staring at the tombstones and then going for a stroll (aimlessly) around the hills and old ancient remnants. The weather is nice, everything is green and the best thing about it, few tourists to interrupt my peace. Burana lost 2 hours of privacy and I gained much needed break and peace.

 

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Taalai, my driver took me throughout the rural area of his country and he told me that now is the season for strawberries.  A father of three, Taalai speaks great English since he spent some time abroad in London. It is always great when a local can show you around his country and answer whatever questions you might have. The bumpy muddy path which is literally in the middle of nowhere ( we had to ask locals for directions) lef us to an old settlement without any signs or indication that it was ever an ancient settlement. How did we know that we were at the right place?- Answer: a group of middle-aged Japanese tourists who were pointing to a small hill top. So, we walked past more picturesque plains, along the muddy path and checked out the hill. Holes in the ground is the only indication that these hilltops were once part of a settlement. Everything went extremely quiet. I looked out at the landscape around me…perhaps it is a privilege for anything to have survived through the centuries so that it can become a confirmation that an ancient city or empire once existed.

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We trudged our way back to the car. “You see the water here? Muddy path? We had some heavy rain lately.” said Taalai.

I hope it won’t rain during my stay here.

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The brief snack stop at a local bread shop in Tokmok was lovely since not only did I have the chance to visit local shops and meet local people, I also was invited to see how they make  bread. The nice baker and his family showed me around …such friendly and genuine people- just very shy but then they need time to warm up to you and when they do, they make the best models and have the greatest smiles.

The drive along the northern shore of Issyk-Kul offered two great views of the area. On one side, you have the mountain ranges and on the other, Issyk-Kul and more mountains. 118 rivers and streams flow into the eye-shaped lake Issyk-Kul (182km long and up to 60km wide) dominates much of the northern landscape and offers the best and most pristine views. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it is called a ‘warm lake’ by the locals and the truth is…it never freezes. Around 2007, historians and archaeologists discovered the remains of a 2500-yr-old advanced civilisation at the bottom of the lake. From their data, a fully functioning city with a 500 m long wall as well as daggers, gold bars, casts, coins and much more were located and scooped from the waters. SMACK ME AGAIN! Another lost city!

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The lake and a stopover for ancient traders travelling along the Silk Road.

Many people live in small-medium size towns along the lake. We drove past Balykchy then Tamchy and a few more before ending the day at Cholpon-Ata, a popular resort location for those visiting the lake during summer. This will be my home for tonight. Day 2 awaits :)

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