We had to go to Bishkek a few days earlier than planned to get another Chinese visa - we had forgotten we were flying out via Urumqi and our Chinese visa was only single entry. Our route followed the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.
We overnighted in Tamga at a guesthouse recommended to us by our host in Karakol. Tamara and Askar ran a beautiful guesthouse in the small town of Tamga. Tamara learnt English by working in the local Canadian-owned gold mine. She explained that Tamga has many Russians and that they get on well with the Kyrgyz but don't totally assimilate. The boys in the town live hand to mouth and spend any spare money on alcohol and games at the town's internet cafe.
Tamara organised horses and a couple of local kids took us for a ride into the mountains. It was apricot picking season, and the village leader had mandated that there would be three days allocated to pick apricots that were then trucked to the city for sale. There were far too many apricots to be picked in just three days, so as we rode along we helped ourselves to the apricots hanging from the higher branches! The horses took us to Tamga Tash, a rock with Buddhist inscriptions dating between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD which was just sitting unprotected in a river valley.
En route to Tamga Tash
Berries from Tamara and Askar's orchard
A huge meal for just two people - plov (pilaf) of yak
Washing socks, Kyrgyz style
From Tamga we caught buses to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Religion has a tenuous hold in Kyrgyzstan. Men attend mosques on Fridays and the shops near a mosque don't sell alcohol, and even the Chinese don't seem to eat pork. But the Soviet culture has had a big influence and Bishkek feels like a European former Soviet city. There are many Russians who don't integrate that well with the Kyrgyz. Russian is becoming the dominant language in Bishkekand the Kyrgyz language may even die out.
At Bishkek we stayed in the main backpacker hostel, Sakura Guesthouse, which seemed to be the place to wait for your visas to various central asian countries (as we were doing). The guestbook was full of tips and tricks to how to secure your visa with minimal hassle, but even then some had to wait weeks for letters of invitation to come through, etc. We were able to swing a Chinese visa in one day with only moderate hassle and lots of fudging, coercion and smiling. After that success we happily chilled out by the pool and spent the evenings searching for interesting restaurants with other travellers. One Bishkek highlight was a restaurant with an English menu (rare). The translation offered dishes such as "Hen on Tsarist", "Salad Under Fur Coat", "Intoxicating Hen", "Polka Dots", and "Pity". So we made a bet on what "polka dots" were, and they turned out to be green peas.
We left Bishkek through Manas Airport, an international airport that doubles as a US airforce base that supplies the US effort in Afghanistan. It's unusual to see a row of grey Hercules behind your 767.
We flew back into Urumqi in China and headed for the Uighur part of town, seeking to buy hand-carved copper teapots that we'd seen in Kashgar. While stopping to eat some home made yoghurt, we noticed an animal nearby. Is that a big dog? No, I think it's a sheep. Why is that man approaching it with a big knife? Oh, that's why.
Roger enjoying a Uighur meal
Roger had his holiday beard shaved with a cut throat razor. It took about thirty minutes and only took cost a few dollars, and is an experience every man should have in his lifetime.
On Saturday we walked to one of the city's parks, which was full of families enjoying amusement rides and views of the city. Roger was approached twice for photos and considered setting up a "photo with foreigner" stall. We checked out the museum (not normally our style), which had some great stuff such as 3000 year old bronze swords and intact mummies. Neither of us had seen a real mummy before.
We flew home via Guangzhou to Sydney, arriving just in time for ski season.