No Call to Prayer this morning, just my iPhone telling me to get up. My flight boards at 5:30 am. This is pure wonderful. I leave the YOTEL at 5:10. My walk from room to gate is 6 minutes, less than 800 steps.
This morning I am flown out of Bishkek’s Manas International Airport for Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan. With a population a little over 208,000, Osh is located in the Fergana Valley. I was prepared for chaos at the airport but it went smoothly. Security to enter and security at every doorway, had to remove shoes and still have a pat down. Short 45 minute flight to Osh, didn’t leave on time, but quick exit at Osh and on time for lunch.
This morning we depart lovely Lake Issyk Kul and retrace some of our route west before turning north to Bishkek. There are not a lot of roads here, basically up and down the valleys with little more than hiking trails over the mountains. I think locals like it that way.
Along this 160-mile route, following the twisting Chu River and running parallel to the Kazakhstan border for miles, is the true land of the Kyrgyz: Muslim cemeteries, mosques, small villages, farmers, smelly toilets, interesting and decorative landslide barriers, and truck stops. At a border crossing into Kazakhstan, trucks are lined up for miles. No one seems to care that bureaucracy is creating chaos with goods and services. A trucker could sit in line for days.
It’s Sunday and after a hearty breakfast we board our large and comfortable bus and drive to Issyk-Kul Lake. The road travels west within the valley before rounding the mountains in a southerly direction and looping east around the mountain to go up the next valley and the northern shore of the lake. All the while we are bracketed by tall mountains. The bus travels about 100 miles but takes us over three hours. Passage is slow.
The day begins with a large, delicious breakfast including flaky pastries, potato pancakes filled with cheese, honey and raspberry spreads, bread, quiche and more – homemade and from their gardens. I’m not a breakfast person but one has to indulge here. As for coffee, well, let’s say there is room for improvement. Roger, our supreme leader and caregiver, buys us cream to replace the fermented mare’s milk.
I am spirited off, by van, to the Kazakhstan border with neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Except for the spelling, how does the history and culture of this country differ? Kyrgyzstan flies a brighter national flag, is more rugged and mountainous, is home to 6 million Kyrgyz, does not share a border with Russia, hosts a population over three times denser over far fewer square miles and has but a small fraction of the GDP of its oil-rich neighbor Kazakhstan.
Sometimes it takes a lot of preparation to travel to distant places. And yes, it will take me three days to arrive at my destination of Almaty. In the case of what travelers typically lump together as “The Five Stans,” my first challenge was locating the countries on a map, remembering their five names, and learning how to spell them. Though we tend to lump them together as one destination, each country is unique and deserves more than telling friends I am headed for the 5 Stans of Central Asia.