Monday, July 14, 2014

DAY 27 – 12 July 2014; Naryn to Bishkek

The idea was to get to Bishkek by lunch time. Accordingly it was decided with Alexander that we would leave after breakfast at 7.30 am. Breakfast consisted of a salty porridge – made of undercooked rice - boiled egg, Laprechka, Bread and raspberry jam, cheese, salami, vegetable cuts and coffee. Before leaving Naryn I wanted to tank up and Alexander took me to the Gazprom fuel station (it had run out of fuel the previous evening). Diesel cost less than INR 47 a litre – wish I could cart some to India! Among places to see are listed, on travel sites, the Naryn Square and the Naryn River. The Square, which was close to the Hotel we stayed in, is a small park and nothing much to write home about. A few of the elderly townspeople could be seen ambling along in the Park. The Naryn River flows through the city.  It rises in the Tian Shan Mountains and flows into Uzbekistan. The river is home to many hydro electric power projects along its 800 kms course. In Naryn the river looks contaminated and muddy. But further South, Alexander told me, the river is clean and still due to the network of dams and reservoirs.

Kyrgyzstan is an incredibly beautiful landlocked country with more than 93% covered by mountains (dominated by the Tien Shan range) and served by a plethora of rivers and four major high altitude lakes. People take pride in the fact that they can drink water off the tap. The year around availability of fresh water from melting snow and rainfall is a boon. The mountain range divides the country into the southern (actually the west) and the northern (the east) regions; the latter being cooler. The regions are divided into 7 administrative units. The language, Kyrgyz, is related to Uzbek and Turkish and the alphabet is Cyrillic. Kyrgyzstan was annexed by Russia in 1876 and remained within the Russian Federation till it attained independence in 1991. While it has one of the most progressive political systems post independence amongst the erstwhile Soviet federated units the country has underachieved. During the Soviet days the country had many factories producing arms and ammunition. A few of these morphed into industrial units and a vast majority just closed down, leaving people jobless and desperate. The drive to Naryn and Bishkek reinforced the fact that the villages and towns continue to preserve the old relics like houses, cars and eve bus stations. Many fuel stations were seen closed down and houses boarded up. Politics, while empowering a section, had left the vast majority outside the reach and spread of development. The political system soon developed into one corrupt and mostly incompetent. However, it is fiercely democratic and takes pride in freedom.
On our way from the Krygyz border to Naryn we passed the Chatr Kul (‘Chatr’ means roof – the lake takes its name because of the altitude, and ‘Kul’ is lake) which is fed by glaciers and mountain flows. Visitors throng to Issyk Kul Lake, the biggest lake in the country, for recreation and rest during the high season of July and August.  It is skiing that brings tourists into the country during winter. The Kyrgyz are basically a nomadic people with proud traditions; the 5.5 million population of the country is comprised of 49% ethnic nomads, 35% Uzbeks, 15% Russian and 1% of a variety of Central Asian peoples – the country has one of the most ethnically diverse population inhabiting it. The locals and Uzbeks are Muslim in faith while the Russians are Christians. The nomads stay on the mountain slopes and other grazing fields in Yurts, which is a portable dwelling unit. The traditional yurts are made using wood, fabric and sheep’s wool felt. The Chinese have made a difference here too. The modern ones have easy to assemble tent like features with light weight steel rods. It is said that a camel can carry a Yurt meant for one family. The horse is treated as a sacred animal among the locals. The utility of the animal in their daily lives, from milk to meat, is the reason for this. In fact, on the way to Bishkek is a town called At-Bashi; so named by a Kyrgyz horseman in memory of his dead horse, whose head he displaced on a pike at the entrance to the village. The road infrastructure is being given a complete makeover by Chinese companies that have won global tenders. They build the roads with imported Chinese labor who are housed in camps and work for over 16 hours day in and day out. Alexander showed me sections of the road to Naryn, from the border, that had been completed in less than a month. At the hotel in Naryn I met with a group of Chinese professionals who had come there to prospect non-ferrous mining possibility. The presence of Chinese in various businesses in Kyrgyzstan is obvious.

Alexander told me to follow a few basics to drive without hassle in Kyrgyzstan; keep to the speed limits prescribed - which is 90 kmph for the highway, 60 for the mountains and villages and 40 for special areas – keep the headlights on all the time except in cities, fasten seat belt and keep the front side windows free of any shades. On the road to Naryn we were stopped by the ‘Road police’, who let me off with a warning for not having switched on the headlights. It is not possible to take advantage of the good roads due to speed restrictions and the ubiquitous presence of the ‘Road Police’. In fact, they are a ‘feared’ lot and drivers expect them at every turn, thereby slowing down and becoming overcautious. Alexander did tell me that the police invariably fatten their purses using State provided technology rather than improve the revenues of the State!

All along the route to Bishkek I found many vendors by the roadside holding up small bottles of what looked like a summer drink. Alexander told me that it is kymys, a drink that we should be extremely careful of taking. It is fermented mare’s milk. This traditional drink is very strong and pungent with a strong smoky finish. It is fatty and, Alexander warned, a laxative! We had lunch at a resort called Hawaii, just 50 kms short of Bishkek. Saturday is a day for wedding, we were told. And the resort was hosting two receptions. It is a fabulous place with a lake filled with fish and swan, a small beach where people were sunbathing and an excellent restaurant. I decided to try out a Shorpo, which is a large portion of soup with potato, meat, carrots and onion. It was wholesome. We arrived into Bishkek by 3 pm and drove straight to the house of Raveendran, the Second Secretary to the Indian Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. We have been extremely lucky with our guides so far. Alexander, like Yingchu, was an excellent person and a rich source of information. It was Mirus, the agency in Delhi, which had sourced this Company and, must say, they did a very competent job.

Raveendran was introduced by a friend of a friend. He readily offered his house for us to park ourselves during the sojourn in Bishkek. It is only when he mentioned to us that he had worked in the Cochin Passport Office that we realised that all three of us had met him on different occasions for different reasons! I had met him in January 2008 to change the residential address mentioned in the passport. The courtesies he had extended to us, we told him and his wife. It was indeed strange that we came all the way to thank him once again for the favors he had given us! The Ambassador and his wife had invited us to his home for dinner. Jayant Khobragade, 1995 batch IFS officer, had also invited senior members of the Embassy and a delegation of doctors from Apollo Hospital, New Delhi, who were there to market medical tourism. The painter-artist Ambassador and his wife entertained us and made us feel welcome and warm. The food and drinks were excellent. It was Indian food after such a long time. Many cups of tea and coffee later we bid goodbye and it was almost midnight when we returned to the flat.

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