Uzbekistan- Kyrgyzstan

25 days - august  2004


Kind of travel: alone in a wholly independent travel

When: july- august 2004 (25 days)

How I moved (in Kyrgyzstan): mainly by bus, minibus (marshrutmyy), jeep, shared taxi and (I cheated) flying

Where I slept: in cheap guesthouses/hotels (5-20$), in yurts and private houses contacted through Shepherd’s life and Community Based Tourism (CBT) associations

What I liked:staying in the yurts in Song Kul, the mongolian lineaments of the people, the colorful lada cars, the wonderful mountains, how fresh it's also in summer and the whole country still to be discovered

What I dislike: the irritating police in Bishkek and the visa hassles to travel between the stans

How much daily: (for a lowlow budget travel) sleeping  5-15$, eating 2-5$, rent a jeep (3 hours two ways 50$, 4 people) also flying is really affordable (40$ Osh-Bishkek (1 hour)). What will take most of your budget will be the visas (40-80$)

Freezing or baking?: even in the heart of august in Bishkek it wasn't so hot,  in Kochkor the temperature was perfect (18-22C), while in the high lands (Song Kul 3000m) I froze up (0 C in the night, 5-13 C in the day)

Dangers: irritating policemen in Bishkek interested in your money, some drunks and thieves in Karakol, but anyway I would say it's a safe country

What you do need: bring a sleeping bag if you want to sleep in Song Kul and some trekking gears because not everywhere is possible to found gears to trek or to climb, on the opposite....


INTRO (common part for Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan pages)

Why in Central Asia?

Since my travel in Iran in the 2000, that part of world south of Siberia and encompassed between the Caspian Sea and China, in my mind has always been a mysterious jigsaw of countries rarely mentioned. I’m not speaking about pure desert, but about an area as big as Europe containing a meaningful percentage of the world energy resources, exactly as it happens for most of Africa. However what definitely attracted me was the curiosity about which kind of ethnic groups live there, if exists and where is the "ethnic border" between Asia and Europe. Travelling in Iran let me to focus the southern border of this area, while being in Russia the northern one.
Once chosen the Central Asia as target I realised it’s really huge and it hasn’t been easy to select which among the five "stans" was worth to be visited. The must was not more than two countries for my 25 days trip. Turkmenistan seems too hassling to get the visa and travel freely throughout the country, furthermore too hot in summer, and baking my brain definitely is not my passion. Kazakhstan is hot as well and a lot of people warned me as the least interesting among the stans. Uzbekistan was a kind of must to be seen and Kyrgyzstan seemed to fit better with travelling by public means of transport than Tagikistan. Hence there I ended up!




I flew from Italy stopping over in Istanbul and then to Tashkent. It was deep night (1.00 am) when got my luggage and I definitely started my travel in Central Asia. Lonely Planet warns about taxi drivers hassling at the airport, but frankly I didn’t see many of them. Anyway I had no accommodation booked, so, rather them trusting alone any uzbek taxi driver in the middle of the night in a totally unknown place, I follow a french couple to the hotel where they had already reserved room, and did my first central asian bargain.
The next day I woke up quite dizzy in my gloomy room and started walking to the centre. It was a super hot but dry sunny day, as all the other ones turned out to be during my travel in Uzbekistan. I wanted to apply for my kyrgyz visa at the embassy, and luckily paying an extra I got it on the spot (details about visas). Then I went to the unmissable Tara Hotel in the southern outskirts of the capital.
Tashkent is not that much nice, in fact apart from the police stopping you to swindle you and a small waterpark where I spent my last day, you’ll just yearn to flee asap. So I did and the next day I got to the wonderful Samarcanda. It took 6 hours by bus where once again travelling by public means of transport let me to know the locals and have fun. I was eager to test my russian and for sure any passenger could be aware of the torture could mean sat near me for hours :-)
There’re no words to describe how was pleasant my staying in Samarcanda; not only for the beauty of the town itself with all its highlights, but mainly for the travellers and the locals I met there. I settled down in the Bahodir guesthouse, a small but cute place where I spent 4 days hearing travelogues and exchanging opinion about journeys in the furthest corners of the world.
Here I met Olga and Nick, the russian-american couple with who I travelled for one week in Khiva and Buhara, Martin the crazy german biker I’d have met by chance two weeks later in Kyrgyzstan spending a bunch of days and a danish couple who helped me to get to the Song Kol lake at 3000m in the hearth of Kyrgyzstan.
One of the four days I did a day trip by a shared taxi to the small but worthwhile town of the Uzbek hero Temur": Shakharisab.
My next leg turned out to be quite tough: it took 16 endless super tiring hours by bus to get to Khiva, and I promised you, I’d not do such trip again. It took one full day to rest and to forget about all those hours spent pushing away a sucker Uzbek who though I was his pillow on an Africa style bus!!!!!!!
I didn’t expect Khiva to be such nice place: the old town is small but concentrated inside high and thick fortifications. I slept in a private house after a whole morning bargain (thanks Olga!!!!!!!) and wandered inside the old town exploring most of its "labyrinth style" narrow streets.It reminded me the city of Bam (Iran), those who managed to see it before the earthquake will agree.
After few days through in the endless corners of Khiva, we (me, Nick and Olga) took the way back to Buhara. No way we still got the supertiring bus!!! So we found a guy who brought us by car for 40$. I promised you that such journey has been one of the most interesting of the whole travel. First of all we diverted to the ruins of the old fortress of Topraq-Quala. It was not just for the highlight, quite interesting anyway, but mainly for the landscape. It was amazing watching the green cotton fields grown along huge artificial lakes and canals turn into desert covered somewhere by a layer of salt. Then the whole journey was 400 km done in 9 hours through a sandy white desert along the Amu Darya River. I still remember the feeling of being in a huge hair dryer due to the hot air coming from the car window. Definitely the hottest leg I did in the whole trip, but it was absolutely worthwhile. In fact on the way we found one yurt of a family living in the very desert, as I got closer three children come out staring at me like I was an alien; frankly I’m still wandering how they could stand to live in such climate. Unfortunately the man who gave us the lift was in hurry and didn’t let me to try to communicate with them, and I had just the time for some shots.
Buhara is worth its fame: definitely the most soviet of the uzbek city that I’ve visited in Uzbekistan, but around a nice and well-maintained historical area, although being quite touristy.Here we sadly split and I proceed alone back to Tashkent by train; I recommend you as the best mean of transport connecting Buhara to the capital.
From Tashkent I got a shared taxi to Fergana (6 hours). For the first two hours through the Tien Shan mountains to reach the Kamchic pass there’s a very nice landscape and it’s as fresh as I hadn’t felt for the last 2 weeks!!!! The only incredible hassle were the endless checking points on the way that oblige the car to a continuo slow down and speed up. I hope you’re not prone to motion sickness :-)After the pass the landscape gets boring and anonymous for the whole Fergana Valley. As LP claims, the first sentence you say getting there, is: "where’s the valley??". In fact there’s no really any valley or since it is very wide you don’t notice it, but at least it is fresher than the rest of the country. Although from this point of view I got disappointed I think it’s worth travelling there since it’s so culturally different from the rest of country that you cannot have a general idea of Uzbekistan if you haven’t see Fergana Valley.
I visited the interesting silk factory in Marghilan and then I entered in Kyrgyzstan sleeping my first kyrgyz night in the supersoviet and "really not uzbek" city of Osh.
From here I was to lazy to spend 15 hours on a bumping jeep to get to Bishkek and, shame on me, I flew: 40$ for 1 hour flight plus the wonderful view of the mountains: sorry but I think I’d do it again!!
My primary task in the kyrgyz capital was to get the kasakh transit visa. I got immediately disappointed knowing that on wensday the embassy was closed and 2 whole days were necessary to have it. Obviously I arrived at the embassy on Tuesday just after it had closed. No way to wait four days for it, " I’ll get it in the way back!". Then I left by minibus to Kochkor. 6 hours packed in a super uncomfortable kind of tonne can, moreover later I found out I didn’t paid so much less than taking a faster shared taxi. Just to make my travel better, the road snakes at the feet of the mountains and the driver probably was feeling like Schumacher :-) so I spent part of the travel trying to avoid to throw up on the people around me!
Kochkor is a small town, but I found it more than a starting point for the trip to the Tien Shan mountains. Luckily I found a so nice danish guy, known to weeks before in Samarcanda, who was leaving for 3 days trip to the lake Song Kol sleeping the the yurt of the herders at 3000 meter. To share the expenses of the jeep I joined the group (him and some other travellers) and at the end such trip turned out the most interesting experience of the whole travel.(read about it)
Back to Kochkor I reached Karakol by minibus in 7 hours; there I hang around for two days visiting the animal market and the crowded beaches of the lake Issuk Kul. It was time to start my way back to Tashkent: I got to Bishkek where I freaked out for 3 days to have my kazakh transit visa but enjoying a lot to stay at Sabyrbek's B&B guesthouse with nice family of the owner!
Then by bus I entered in Kazakhstan and I stopped in Shymkent. After wandering in the town for few hours I easily got in Tashkent where I spent my last afternoon at a water entertaiment park relaxing and trying to gather thousands of impressions of my last month through Central Asia.



"The Laos of Central Asia", this is how I’d define this small forgotten country plunged among the Tian Shan mountains. For sure it’s not its history or its culture that led you there and once back nor Bishkek, nor Osh will belong to your memories. What can push you there is the curiosity to explore the wildlife and how the inhabitants manage to live in this tough land. In short I think that Kyrgyzstan is more a target for travellers than for tourists.
I spent some wonderful days living in a yurt of the summer herders at 3000m near the lake Song Kul. Washing in the lake, riding horses (or better trying), speaking with the people in such relaxed atmosphere made me feel like on another planet.
Although it’s very mountainous it’s possible to travel by public means of transport; connecting the main towns there’re comfortable buses, while coloured "marshrutnyy" (minivan) go almost everywhere. Obviously it takes times and Kyrgyzstan, unlike Uzbekistan, it’s not the right place for a few days trip. What more charmed me was to see the change in the lineaments of the people passing from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan; from a not identified strange ethnic mix like it’s in the first country to a clear mongolian appearance in the last one.
The whole country, more than the neighbouring Uzbekistan, preserves a russian influence and also the attitude of the people in the main towns sometimes is close to the russian roughness; you’ll feel it in particular coming from Uzbekistan.
Apart from the irritating police in Bishkek and the drunks walking in the evening I’ve not had any particular problem, as anyway in the whole trip in Central Asia.



I loved Kyrgyzstan, and it’s one of the rare countries where I would come back, maybe taking the chance to travel to Tajikistan.
What I liked mainly was the simplicity of the country and also how much it is still to be discovered. If you haven’t planned particular excursions or climbs, 15 days it’s an enough amount of time for visiting the country. You don’t need special organisations: on the main ways there’re many public means of transport and meanwhile so few tourists around.
Kyrgyzstan is definitely a place for people fond of the mountains or generally speaking of the nature, but not only. In fact how the locals manage to live in the mountains was one of the things that mainly charmed me. The days in the yurt near the lake Song kul observing the people living there were amazing. Moreover entering in Kyrgyzstan I felt entering in Asia, due to the mongolian-like lineaments of the people who looked so exotic to me: if you are a traveller hardly you’ll get disappointed.






Where I slept: Kochkor: private house (Shepherd’s life and Community Based Tourism (CBT) associations) 8$/night

Lake Song Kul: yurt tent (Shepherd’s life and Community Based Tourism (CBT) associations ) 10$/night

Getting there and away: From Bishkek to Kochkor: minibus (about 4$, 5 hours), it’s not convenient, take a shared taxi!! I hope you don’t suffer the motion sickness.

From Kochkor to Karakol: minibus (7 hours). there’s not direct connection!

Kochkor - Lake Song Kul: private jeep (3 hours, 50$ two ways) find somebody to share the expense or hitch hike, on the way back I walked half of the way and the few cars that passed stopped offering me a lift (of course you have to pay something)

Special activities: in Lake Song Kul: horse riding or trekking


Kochkor is mainly considered a starting point for the trekking in the mountains of central Kyrgyzstan, but, although quite a small town, I found it interesting. They looked exotic all its bright green and orange Lada cars, and the old men wearing their typical high caps sat on the benches and answering so politely to my greetings. In the town there’re the Shepherd’s life and Community Based Tourism (CBT) associations, that’re a no profit association whose aim is to connect the people who travel in the region with the locals. I used them either to find a private house where I slept in Kochkor either to know how to get and in which yurt sleep at 3000m near lake Song Kul. They are well organised, and I really recommend you to drop by there, moreover it’s the best way to let your money spread in the community.
There are 3 categories of private houses where you can sleep in Kochkor according to the price. The house I slept belonged to the middle one, it was clean and the housewife was nice, taking for granted bathroom it’s a hole outside in the garden, but this is a standard in Kyrgyzstan.
As concerns the trip to the mountains there’re an endless number of different opportunities: from one day to one month, by foot, by jeep, or by horse…. I think you could trek for months without stepping on the same trail.
I was lucky, because as soon as the minibus dropped me off I found a so nice danish guy, known to weeks before in Samarkand, who was leaving for 3 days trip to the lake Song Kul sleeping the yurt of the herders at 3000 meter. To share the expenses of the jeep I joined the group (him and some other travellers) and I spent three wonderful days in a kind of heaven on the lake bank. The herders were settled in group of few yurts spread on an endless relative flat green area. All around were just free horses and the white smoke of some far yurt lifting to the sky. The lake is extremely big to be an alpine one: about 30 km long and maybe 10 km wide. An old herder convinced us to swim saying it was warm: my god how much I suffered to enter in the water; only the swedish girl felt at easy, but Sweds don’t count in such thing ;-) Apart from this painful experience the lake was perfect in the morning to rinse the face feeling fresher with all the horses wandering around me! The place is perfect to ride horses, in fact we rented some (7$ all the afternoon) and had a great trip towards the other herder camps. As concerns the food you don’t have to bring from the civilisation, they have the essential you need: as soon as we arrived they killed a calf (poor animal, I felt guilty :-( , we had with bread and rise for the dinner. While for breakfast there was bread with jam.
My only regret was first of all not to have a sleeping bag, in fact I literally froze during the night when the temperature outside the yurt dropped some degree below zero. Then not to have time for a long trekking trip in the area, as it would have deserved. 






It was my last day in Kyrgyzstan while I was in Bishkek and I saw two policemen walking annoyed. I immediately tried to divert from their way, but they stopped me. I was very calm since my passport was at the kazakh embassy and given I would have left the country the same evening I had really few money in my pockets. Otherwise I don't think they would have managed to take me inside a room as they did. They seemed very nice and smiling asked me about my documents: I gave them the ripped photocopy of the passport with the kyrgyz visa, then they wanted to check my pocket and my bag. I took out the money I had (of course not the dollars hidden in the money belt), one started to count them while the other was asking me a lot of questions. Frankly I didn't think they would have stolen such few money, but after a while when they let me free recounting them I founded out there were some missing. And the funniest thing has been that, before leaving, they kindly asked me the money of the coffee and when I answered that I needed them for the bus ticket (it was true!!) they almost apologised for having asked: assholes!!!!





Agosto 2004, Bishkek

Oramai sono in giro da un 20ina di giorni, ma mi sembra di essere partito l'anno scorso, come se fossero passato due stagioni: una in cui mi sono stato dal caldo (40-45 C) nel deserto del Kyzylkum (West Uzbekistan) fino al punto di fare retromarcia, l' altra in cui mi sono congelato come un tacchino in freezer in un campo estivo degli allevatori oltre i 3000m nel cuore del Kyrgystan. Dopo la prima email ho continuato a viaggiare in Uzbekistan verso ovest per un migliaio di km mentre la temperatura saliva e i campi di cotone scomparivano per lasciare posto a dune di sabbia bianca e sassi addobbate qua e là da bassi cespugli verdoni. Sono arrivato fino ad una città (ex fortezza) che mi ricordava la Bam Iraniana (quella rasa al suolo dal terremoto). Stavo tentando di scendere dalle mura della città in un punto non propriamente adatto, mentre un anziano mi sollecitava ( del tipo "ke sei scemo??) a tornare indietro, ma alla fine ce lo fatta e lui tutto esaltato manda fuori la figlia con una bacinella per farmi lavare le mani invitandomi in casa. Una casa poverissima, due stanze di cui la prima e la principale ricoperta di tappeti, con al centro una colonna di legno intagliata che sorreggeva l'alto tetto e un piccolo televisore in un angolo. Questo era tutto quello che c'era. Mi (anzi, ci, perchè all'epoca stavo viaggiando con una russa e un californiano) fa accomodare e tira fuori tutto quello che ha da mangiare e da bere (probabilmente la cena dei giorni successivi),e inizia a raccontare la sua tortuosa vita. Non c'e' stato verso di rinunciare al mangiare per non privarlo, in quanto lui era semplicemente commosso dal fatto che noi accettassimo e io ogni "piroghi" che ingurgitavo mi sentivo a disagio.
Niente Mar d'Aral: il tempo scarseggiava, il caldo aumentava e ho deciso di puntare verso il montuoso e piu' fresco Kyrgystan, ma non senza aver stupidamente accettato un invito in una "banija russa".
"E' come una sauna con un massaggio e c'e' anche la piscina" mi era stato detto!
Il posto era nella periferia di Buhara in perfetto stile supersovietico ultra decaduto : praticamente come una prigione: porte in acciaio supercorrose. La custode, tipica russa super cafona, non credeva ai suoi occhi che una straniero entrasse lì dentro. La sauna era una stanza di cemento in cui entravano due grossi tubi che, dopo aver girato due altrettanto corrose valvole, buttavano fuori vapore a temperature insopportabili. La piscina era una vasca 2x2m profonda 1 m completamente spiastrellata e cmq vuota. Io che di caldo ne avevo eccome, non ho osato metterci piede, ma la parte migliore è stata il massaggio: entra un serio russo, con il quale prima avevo lungamente contrattato. Si spoglia in costume e mi fa sdraiare. A quel punto inizia a tirarmi dolorosamente la pelle, io mi contorco," e' per tirar vita lo strato morto della pelle" mi rassicura, mentre continua a ripetere ad alta voce
" RILASSATI, RILASSATI, non sei rilassato!!"
sfido che non lo ero. E non vi dico quando e' arrivato ai capelli: ha iniziato a tirarli, sempre per la stessa storia di tirar via quelli morti. La tortura e' durata 20 min e ho dovuto pure pagare (l'equiv di 1.2 euro) per farmi strappare i capelli. Morale della favola: ho meno capelli di prima.

Passano i giorni, passano i km e arrivo nel cuore del Kyrgystan, dove ho avuto l'esperienza piu' incredibile di tutto il viaggio. Premessa: il Kyrgystan e' una specie di Nepal al confine occidentale della Cina dove ci sono piu' di 4 cime sopra i 7000 m ed e' un paese molto rurale. Una specie di Laos dell'Asia Centrale per intenderci.
Arrivo in un paesino piccolissimo e appena scendo dal pulmino dopo non so quante ore schiacciato come una sardina vedo uno straniero! e' un danese, molto vichingo, che avevo conosciuto in Uzbekistan due sett prima. Lui stava partendo verso un lago d'alta montagna dove ci sono degli accampamenti estivi di yurt (grosse tende) degli allevatori. Da solo non me lo sarei mai potuto permettere, perche' il costo del mezzo per superare il passo non e' una scherzo, ma con lui, un giornalista inglese che lavora a Mosca, e un Australiano che lavora all'ambasciata a Mosca si poteva fare. In quel posto che già mi sembrava alla fine del mondo, figuriamoci proseguire. Dopo aver riempito le taniche di benzina siamo partiti con una vecchia jeep russa (guidata da un Kirgiko) su strada di montagna per 50 km fino a 3400m. Poi la strada finisce e per altri 20km fino ad un lago in mezzo alle vette, con sterminato prati, gruppi di tende degli allevatori lontani vari km tra di loro, e cavalli, cavalli e ancora cavalli sparsi ovunque.
La mattina e la notte faceva un freddo della madonna!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Il max che potevo fare era mettermi addosso tutto quello che avevo: le T-shirts, la felpa, i pantaloni..... in quanto non ero certo attrezzato per una cosa del genere. Per pochi dollari ci siamo piazzati in una tenda. Subito ammazzano e scuoiano una pecora per cena, non si butta niente: le viscere raccolte non so per cosa (spero non per la zuppa della colazione) e il sangue da bere ai cani. Quando pulivano la pelle dalle carni e gironzolavo con fare un po' impietosito e schifato non avrei mai pensato che la stessa notte l'avrei desiderata piu' di ogni altra cosa. Alla fine ho passato 3gg in questo posto lontano km e km da ogni avamposto civile e accessibile solo pochi mesi all'anno.
Mi hanno dato un cavallo, tre spiegazioni su come fare e a disposizione almeno 50 km di altopiano , e devo dire che queste bestie corrono: eccome se corrono (peccato pero' solo quando ne aveva voglia).
Per lavarmi c'era il lago che era freddo da impazzire ma lo scenario faceva dimenticare un po' tutto. In giro per l'accampamento tutti i bambini che giocavano con gli animali, mentre la madri, (tra i 16 e i 20 anni) a lavorare dall'alba alla sera. La sera dentro la yurt (fuori non se ne parlava proprio) a lume di candela con questi grossi uomini Kirgiki dal volto bruciato dal sole a bere vodka. Bisognava brindare dicendo qualcosa, rigorosamente in russo, (anche il Kirgiko era accettato).
Io di quelle sere non ricordo molto......
Adesso sono tornato alla civiltà, e dormo a casa di una sciura (non c'e' altra scelta) che mi tratta come un re: la casa e' pulita e molto carina, anche il bagno (una tavola di legno forata dentro una casetta in giardino) ha a suo modo il proprio orgoglio. E quando sono entrato ho notato pure una lampadina che penzolava dal soffitto.
Ieri sera stavo cenando e stava facendo buio, quando il figlio entra con una candela e mi dice che e' meglio del lampadario; poi quando torno in camera per leggere e provo ad accendere la luce mi accorgo che in casa non c'e' energia elettrica. Probabilmente l'unione sovietica nella sua ritirata si e' portata via anche quella............




Travel tips





  5. CASH


POLICE IN BISHKEK: I hanged out in the town for three days and they stopped me only once, but they manage to steal me some money, even if absolutely harmlessly. (read the story)

COMMON HASSLERS: I met people stopping me (in Karakol), saying they belong to the police showing some strange card. They wanted to see my passport. NEVER SHOW IT, USE ALWAYS A FOTOCOPY saying the real document is at the embassy for the visa.

KAZAKH VISA IN BISHKEK: it's a pain in the ass. The embassy was opened only in the morning on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and it takes two full days for your 72 hours transit visa. Go there early because you have to pay in another part of the city (40$) and then come back to apply for it. You do not need any ticket to proof you are in transit, anyway I showed my plane ticket from Tashkent.

STUDY SOME RUSSIAN: travelling in central Asia is definitely worthwhile regardless your knowledge of Russian, but surely your entertainment will be proportional to it, hence I suggest a minimum of preparation.

CASH: dollars are more accepted than euros, moreover you can use dollars as cash almost everywhere.

WATCH IN KARAKOL: I walked in the evening without having any bad experience but other travellers haven't been so lucky. Pay attention especially to the drunks!