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Crossroads of the World: An Adventure Across Central Asia

Crossroads of the World: An Adventure Across Central Asia

Old May 19th, 2024, 11:15 PM
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Thanks for a great report and amazing photos!
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Old May 20th, 2024, 06:27 AM
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Pending your photos, I looked up all the places you mentioned. Looks dramatic and unusual. The names are evocative of distant places. I see you'll be at the edge of the Tien Shan mountains, a magical name from books I've read.

shelemm, interesting about the apples, etc. Thanks. That book is available online.
Gardyloo, will check out your report later.

Safe travels.
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Old May 21st, 2024, 03:38 AM
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Gardyloo, thank you. I bet when you visited the madrasas, it was not filled with souvenir shops geared towards tourists.

shelemm, thank you. We've had some bumps in the past couple of days, but overall it's been good.

And_Cof, thank you. Glad you're enjoying.

Nelson, some of the places we've visited are definitely unique.

May 20: Charyn Canyon National Park

We awoke to a cold, brisk morning on the steppes (there's a 30-40 difference between temperatures this morning versus our peak days in Bukhara and in Samarkand). After a simply but warm home-cooked breakfast at the guesthouse, we were on the road again. We drove through the Central Asian steppes, passing by another side of the Aktau Mountains, on our way to Charyn Canyon, a three hour journey. It was raining on and off throughout the drive but miraculously the rain stopped as we arrived at the canyon.

We walked along the Valley of the Castles trail, which took us along the valley floor. The path was gravel the entire way without any elevation changes, and could be done by most. We were flanked by massive rock walls on either side of the valley. Some resembled large buildings while others took the shape of more slender skyscrapers - hence the name Valley of the Castles. Most of the rocks had a yellowish brown hue until we reached the end of the trail, where the rocks were much darker in color. We enjoyed looking at the different rock formations as we passed. The entire walk, about 2.5 kilometers long, took about an hour with plenty of stops for photographs.

Locals like to make the comparison between Charyn Canyon and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. In my mind, there is no comparison. The Grand Canyon is far superior. The Grand Canyon is larger, wider, deeper, and more colorful. One simply cannot compare the breathtaking awe of viewing the Grand Canyon for the first time, especially from the South Rim looking north. We could spend days exploring the many trails of the Grand Canyon, whereas a couple of hours walking through Charyn Canyon pretty much sums it up. Don't get us wrong - if you're in this part of the world, do go, as it is an integral part of the Zhetysu experience. But personally, we found the Aktau Mountains to be far more interesting.

We ate lunch at the visitors center-cum-cafe at the rim of the canyon, just as 2 or 3 tour groups were finishing their meals and beginning their own visits to the canyon. Bellies full, we continued on, driving through heavy rain again. On our agenda for the remainder of the day are two other canyons - Moon Canyon and Black Canyon. Unfortunately, given the unrelenting rain and now strong winds, we had to abort our visits to the other two canyons. We may try again in a couple of days as the two canyons will be on our way to Kyrgyzstan.

In the meantime, it was straight to our hotel, Kolsai Nomads, located at the first of the Kolsai Lakes. It took about two hours to get from Charyn Canyon to Saty village and from there another half an hour offroading up a mountain through a forest of massive pine trees to our hotel. We checked into our rooms sans electricity as the village lost power due to the storms. The hotel staff did their best to cook hot dinner meals for everyone. Nonetheless, between the lack of hotel WiFi due to the power outage, coupled with the inability to access data in Kazakhstan through my mobile, made for a frustrating night given work demands back home and my inability to send and receive emails.
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Old May 21st, 2024, 06:26 AM
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Kolsai Lakes look beautiful from online photos. Hopefully the weather clears and you get to see them!

Gardyloo, I ready your Central Asia TR from 1974, then followed up with the '76 Iran trip. Wow, that was some crazy sh!t! Great stuff and those vintage photos are cool. Thanks.
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Old May 21st, 2024, 10:22 AM
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Nelson, thanks. And yes, I agree on Gardyloo's vintage photos. Some of those, I could definitely place in the Soviet Union. Interestingly enough, other than in buildings in Tashkent and in Almaty, the only Soviet legacy elsewhere in Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan is the Cyrillic alphabet and the Russian language. Russian seems much more prevalent in Kazakhstan than in Uzbekistan. Also interesting not much Arabic is understood by the general public of either country.

Select Photos from the Aktau Mountains













Katutau Mountain







Sunset on the Steppes





Images of Charyn Canyon










Our First Glimpse of Lower Kolsai Lake Upon Arrival



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Old May 21st, 2024, 08:09 PM
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May 21: Lake Kaindy, Kolsai Lakes

We awoke at around 6:30 to noises all around us from guests doing what they couldn't do last night, as the hotel's solar power switched on with the sun coming out to play. Alas, the electricity is still not restored, so I remain unconnected with the outside world. The lack of ability to connect as we have in every other corner of the world we've travelled has made Kazakhstan a frustrating place to visit.

We began the morning freshening up, getting dressed, and taking in the beautiful views of Kolsai Lake with the surrounding mountains and pine forests. It's a fairytale setting. We enjoyed the views with some morning tea, as the breakfast provided by the hotel was inedible.

From our hotel it was an hour drive, mostly on backroads, to the parking lot at Lake Kaindy. From there we transferred to vehicles driven by park rangers to the trailhead at Lake Kaindy. The trail to the lake is only 500 meters. Formed by an earthquake, the lake is surrounded by pine-covered mountains, with a mountain with some snow in the background. What makes Lake Kaindy unique is the dead tree trunks that stand in the water, like a mini-forest. There was a mist that hung over the tops of the pine trees, giving it a mystical quality. At the lake is a boardwalk path and a small path along the water. Other than viewing the lake and photographing it, there's not much else to do.

After the visit to Kaindy, we returned to our hotel for a late lunch and catching up on yesterday's email (the power and Internet came back on around noon), followed by a visit to Lower Kolsai Lake. While it was misty the entire afternoon, our excursion on Kolsai Lake was nonetheless very enjoyable. We walked around the extensive boardwalk hugging the shoreline, taking in the different vistas of the deep turquoise waters, the gorgeous pine-covered mountains, and the misty fog hanging over everything. One of the vantage points conjures up fond memories of Milford Sound in New Zealand for us, while the scent of fresh pine throughout our walk made us think of the sweet scents or Christmas. All in all, we spent about two hours on the lake. The walk definitely brightened my mood again, especially after the issues and stress of last night. Had we had more time and perhaps better weather, we may have tried hiking to Middle Kolsai Lake and even Upper Kolsai Lake.

Dinner tonight was back at our hotel. There is plenty of variety, from salads, pastas, and other Western dishes to Asian items and grilled meats, all artfully prepared and tasted great. The dining room offered a suedo-apres ski atmosphere; it was fun to break bread and share travel stories with the other guests.

As far as dining goes, what we've discovered so far is that options are very limited in the Zhetysu region. One or two visitors facilities may have a cafe, but most don't. Restaurants and cafes are also few and far between. Most meals are taken at hotels or guesthouses, where options are limited.

Images from Lake Kaindy








Scenes from Lower Kolsai Lake














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Old May 22nd, 2024, 09:53 AM
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May 22: Black and Moon Canyons, Road Trip into Kyrgyzstan

This morning we left Kazakhstan for our final destination on this trip, Kyrgyzstan. We enjoyed some early morning views of Lower Kolsai Lake with tea before heading back on the road. On our way back out to the main road, we go through very picturesque mountains and valleys full of various green shades, with yellow wildflowers everywhere. We see cows, horses, and sheep, and occasional yurts that dot the landscape. We left the mountains behind and were back on the steppes once we hit the main road. About two hours after we left our hotel, we arrived at Black Canyon. Named for the color of its canyon walls, the chasm is fairly deep with a flowing river at the bottom. The stop is simply for viewing and photographs; no hiking is allowed at the canyon.

We continued on to Uzunbulak, or Moon, Canyon just down the road from Black Canyon. Uzunbulak Canyon is much more expansive than Black Canyon or Charyn Canyon. Wide panoramic views similar to those to be had at the Grand Canyon. Different rock formations, some that remind us of the lunar landscapes of Cappadocia in central Turkey. Layers and layers of mineral deposits that form the colors of the rainbow on stone. The views along the rim are so good. We went to one of the viewpoints along the rim and then another. At the second viewpoint, we saw a high point and decided to walk up for better views and photographs. From there we followed a path into the canyon. Wow! Wow! Wow! We were as children in a candy store. The vistas get better and better. Soon we reached a point where we could look all the way down to the canyon floor, a carpet of green juxtaposed against the yellow-brown hues of canyon rock on both sides. We were in heaven. The entire walk was very easy to do and took about ten minutes, but the views were worth hiking several hours for. I don't have all the superlatives to describe our experiences. We feel so lucky.

We carried our adrenaline-full selves back into our 4x4, and continued towards the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, chatting about our awesome excursion for much of the way. The views from the road on the way to the border were not too shabby either - a carpet full of green grass as far as the eye can see and punctuated by wildflowers of multiple shades of yellows, golds, and blues across the entire visual canvas. I would never have imagined the spectacular smorgasbord that is Zhetysu that we've had the fortune to enjoy all in just this one morning.

At the Kazakh border, we had to exit our vehicles with passports and luggage in hand. The border agents screened our luggage. We then proceeded to have our passports stamped out of Kazakhstan. We then walked across no man's land to the Kyrgyz border post to be photographed and have our passports stamped into Kyrgyzstan. We then loaded our luggage back into our vehicle and were on our way. The process took about 20 minutes.

The road to Karakol was somewhat bumpy but the vistas were just as scenic as that of Kazakhstan. Further into Kyrgyzstan, hills turned into mountains, all covered in verdant pine trees.road. The mountains were significantly bigger and taller than what we saw in Kazakhstan. We saw men on horseback herding large flocks of sheep - a classic scene from Central Asia. We also saw herds of cow led by men on horseback, as well as horses roaming on the road. As it's the beginning of spring, the animals were going into the mountains to feed, where it will remain until October. About halfway between the border and our destination for tonight, the city of Karakol, farms appeared and dotted much of the landscape. Towards the north, abutting the crop-growing fields, are green mountains. Towards the south, in the far distance, are the snow-capped Tian Shan (Heavenly or Celestial Mountains in Chinese) rising up to the sky. As we approached Karakol, we hugged the eastern shore of Issyk-Kul (meaning warm lake in Kyrgyz), the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, with the Tian Shan looming straight ahead. The scenic drive from the border to Karakol took about two hours.

Karakol was founded in the mid-19th century by the Russians as a garrison town to defend its claims to Western Turkistan from China to the east after the Turkic nations were conquered by and divided between the two countries. Upon arrival in Karakol, we went to Dastorkon Restaurant, a traditional Kyrgyz establishment, for dinner with our driver. We ordered a mix of items. The meat and noodle dishes tasted like a combination of the Uzbek and Kazakh foods we've had in the past couple of weeks, with some familiar Chinese flavors - all tasty. We checked into our hotel, the Karagat, the first Soviet-era hotel in which we've stayed, freshened up, and took a quick walk around our hotel.

Below are some photos of Black and Uzunbulak Canyon, with the first three being from Black Canyon and the rest from Moon Canyon.















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Old May 22nd, 2024, 10:20 AM
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This part of the world seems so foreign (since I really don't know anything about the history or culture) and yet so familiar (I live in Utah, so some of the landscapes look very similar). What are the primary nationalities of the other tourists? I'm curious about who is traveling in this part of the world.
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Old May 22nd, 2024, 11:45 AM
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Wow, wow, wow, indeed! Fabulous description and photos. I loved the cloudy shots of Kolsai Lake, and the dead trees are definitely strange looking.

I agree with memejs in that the scenery is reminiscent of the American West, yet slightly different. The expansive vistas are evocative, can almost hear thundering hoofs.
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Old May 22nd, 2024, 06:49 PM
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Originally Posted by Gardyloo
I'm really enjoying this TR.

If interested in a (pretty big) contrast, here's a TR I posted on Flyertalk covering a trip to Russia and Central Asia in 1974. Big changes in 50 years.

Back in the USSR - Russia and Central Asia, 1974 - FlyerTalk Forums
Wow!!! Your trip in 1974 was amazing!!! Love the photos. Sounds like you had some wonderful plane food! And enjoyed your convict escapade in Edinburgh!
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Old May 22nd, 2024, 06:58 PM
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Still enjoying your report and photos! The photos of Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy are especially beautiful. I notice the photo with the yurts. We stayed in a yurt at Heaven Lake in China quite a few years ago. A very unique experience!
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Old May 23rd, 2024, 04:38 AM
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memejs, I agree with you on the Utah comparison. You are so lucky in that you have some spectacular places in your background (Bryce Canyon is one of my favorites). In Uzbekistan, we saw lots of French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian tour groups as well as independent travelers from France, Singapore, and the Middle East (especially Jordan). French and Italian by far outnumbered everyone else. In Kazakhstan, we saw lots of Indians followed by Russians and Chinese, both those travelling in groups and independently; we've also interacted with a handful of Chinese-speaking tourists from Singapore and Malaysia as well. In Kyrgyzstan, so far, we've only seen one Korean tour group, two parties of German speakers, and several Indian families. Americans are few and far between in the three countries we've visited; we've crossed paths with perhaps a dozen or so couples, families, friends, etc., throughout our trip.

Nelson, thank you. I continue to be impressed by the diversity of what we're seeing and experiencing.

KarenWoo, thank you. How fun. We've considered staying at a yurt for a night while we were in Kyrgystan but the couple of options we looked into had data connectivity issues. I passed as I could not be certain my phone will have worked there.

May 23: Karakol, Jeti-Oguz Rocks, Skazka Canyon

We began our day with an early morning walk around Karakol, getting a feel for this for Russian garrison town. There is a mix of late-19th style buildings in pastel colors built by the Russians and more recent construction built in the Soviet brutality style. A couple of points of interest include Holy Trinity Cathedral, a wooden Russian Orthodox Church built in the 1800s, and Dungan Mosque, built in the style of a Chinese temple. We also walked around Victory Park with its World War II memorial.


19th Century Russian Style Building

Soviet Era Building

19th Century Russian Style Building

Holy Trinity Cathedral

Dungan Mosque

Dungan Mosque Minaret

Statue in Central Park

World War II Memorial

We ate breakfast at our hotel following our walk, checked out, and were on our way. Our first stop of the day was Jeti-Oguz Rocks, massive red rock formations rising out of nowhere among the pine-covered mountains. Here we caught glimpses of the snow-capped Tian Shan as well. We stopped for a few photographs before moving on to Barskoon, our home for the next two nights.






We checked into our guesthouse, enjoyed a light lunch, and headed to Skazka Canyon for an afternoon of hiking. To reach the canyon from Barskoon, we drove along the southern shore of Issyk-Kul, enjoying it's calm, beautiful blue waters. There were apricot trees growing on either side of the road for much of the way.

Nicknamed the Fairytale Valley, Skazka Canyon is another hikers' delight. There are a variety of trails to choose from, from even gravel paths along the valley floor to more slippery sand and rock paths with different gradients. Features include rock formations that look like fairytale castles, animals, and mushrooms. Another key feature is a massive wall of rock referred to both 1) as a dragon from a local myth on how the canyon came into being and 2) as a Chinese wall for its resemblance to the Great Wall of China. In the center of the canyon are colored hills, again from different mineral deposits. We found ourselves to be like children in a candy store once more.












After a couple of hours here, we went for an afternoon walk along a pebble beach on Issyk-Kul, enjoying the crystal-clear waters and the snowy Tian Shan behind it. From here it was back to our guesthouse for rest and dinner.




While we welcome not having to travel long distances today as we have every day since we began this road trip from Almaty, there are time in which we had wished we had more activities planned. Today is one of these days. One or two more items on the agenda would have been very welcome. Again, first-world issues.
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Old May 23rd, 2024, 02:09 PM
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Wow!!! More fascinating photos. The differences in architecture in Karakol is so interesting. I like the 19th century Russian style with the yellow colors and white trim. Also love the Holy Trinity Cathedral.

And those red rock formations are something else! Wonder what that chair is for? With the 2 small statues. Almost looks like a throne.
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Old May 23rd, 2024, 06:39 PM
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Whatever that chair is used for, it's a work of art.
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Old May 23rd, 2024, 07:38 PM
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KarenWoo and shelemm, the chair is for photo ops. The vendor was selling photo ops for 100 soms each. It is supposed to be a make-believe king’s or queen’s throne as we were in the Fairytale Valley.
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Old May 24th, 2024, 07:29 AM
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May 24: Barskoon Valley, Arabella Plateau

We awoke after a good night's sleep at our comfy and cozy guesthouse, Ugra, and enjoyed morning tea and coffee while gazing out at the snow-capped mountains and Issyk-Kul around us.

After breakfast, it was back on the road for our two planned excursions of the day, the first being Barskoon Waterfalls. The drive to the waterfalls was pretty, with clear blue skies, majestic mountain peaks looming ahead, and apricot and poplar trees lining both sides of the road. As we drove deeper into the Barskoon Valley, the mountains rose higher and higher, with pine-covered mountains and snow-capped peaks all around us. Rushing rivers with the sound of water fast moving from the melting glaciers to Issyk-Kul. Even though this could be a scene out of anywhere, from Glacier National Park in Montana and Banff in Alberta to the Alps of Austria and Switzerland, the trotting horses and the yurts that dot the landscape remind us that we're in no other part of the world but Central Asia. This is truly God's (or in this case, Allah's) country, where the hills are alive with the sound of music. Oh, how I love snow-capped peaks! How wonderful it is to be alive and be present where we are.

We hiked up to see a trail to see the beautiful Lower Barskoon Falls, fast flowing down the pine-covered mountainside and into the gushing River below. The hike is short, about 30 minutes up and back. From there we hiked up to Upper Barskoon Falls. Although we only reached halfway up to the upper falls, we were able to enjoy the waters of both waterfalls and the towering mountains above us, as well as the snow-capped Tian Shan in the distance. We walked for about two hours up before heading back down. Even though we didn't make it to the top, we felt good about what we were able to see, do, and experience. Back at our vehicle, our driver prepared some tea for us to take with cookies.






Refreshed and rested some, we continued deeper into the Barskoon Valley. Once we reached the end of the valley, we ascended up towards the Arabel Plateau, winding higher and higher, passing one glaciated mountain after the other. The peaks grew taller and taller as we climbed up. The glaciers went from small to big to bigger to massive. Glaciers merged together to form icefields. We were now on the Arabel Plateau itself, at almost 4,000 meters or more than 13,000 feet above sea level, with snow and ice everywhere. The vistas across the tundra environment are beyond spectacular. We felt like we were on top of the world. This was truly heaven on earth! I'm out of superlatives once again. How could we be so lucky.














After two hours on the plateau at one with our surroundings (it was just ourselves and our driver for almost the entire time), we descended back down to the Barskoon Valley, taking our time to enjoy the alpine meadows with edelweiss and other flowers covering the soft green grass. We saw horses grazing on the grass, adults and babies, without a care in the world. By now, it was time to return to our wonderful guesthouse for a nice dinner. Our feet may be tired but our minds and hearts are beyond full. Central Asia continues to exceed our expectations and our imaginations in every way possible.
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Old May 24th, 2024, 05:12 PM
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Snowy mountains and horses is what I dream about when I think of this part of the world. Gorgeous coloration on the horses.
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Old May 25th, 2024, 09:52 AM
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shelemm, what you describe is most readily accessible in Kyrgyzstan among the Central Asian republics.

May 25: Konorchek Canyon

Today was our penultimate day. How the past three weeks have flown by. After breakfast at our little guesthouse, we left Barskoon. Hugging the southern shore of Issyk-Kul, we headed west, towards the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek. We must admit, we had some unease about going to Bishkek. While in Karakol a couple of days ago, we learned that there was some unrest in the city a week or so back that involved ethnic tensions and anti-migrant protests that resulted in deaths. Additionally there were a couple of evacuations at Manas Airport, where we are due to fly out of, because of bomb threats. Based on the information we were able to gather from our driver and guesthouse owners from their contacts in Bishkek, it seems that the situation may have calmed down. If needed we could continue back to Almaty with our driver and make arrangements out from there.

The drive west continued to be picturesque for about an hour or so - the azure waters of the lake, the sandy shoreline, the beautiful apricot and poplar trees, tall brown cliffs and mountains rising in the distance (though not snow-capped, as we were heading away from the Tian Shan)... Then, as we moved away from the shore, the landscape turned drier and more barren, with little vegetation to speak of. Close to Balykchy, on the western edge of Issyk-Kul, there were more industrial facilities to speak of. We took a coffee break in Balykchy before continuing on, to Konorchek Canyon, for one final hiking excursion on this Central Asian adventure.

The trail into the canyon was an easy one, or so we thought. We walked along the riverbed into the canyon. The cliffs on both sides were brown with green shrubs and yellow wildflowers. About halfway into the trail, we need to use a rope to climb up a rock in order to continue on. None of us has any experience rope climbing. Oh no. With encouragement and help from our guide and fellow hikers, we made it. And then came another rope. We did it again. And then the final. We made it. The rest of the way was flat, until we reached an open area. There the brown and green mountains gave way to red rock cliffs all around us. The formations reminded us of Zion National Park in Utah. Beautiful, yes. Enjoyable, yes. Stunning, no. The red rocks did not wow us as some of the other places we've experienced on this trip. Then came the hard back. Hiking out. If we thought scrambling up rocks and using the ropes were hard, coming down was ten times harder. It was scary and a couple of us were scared. It didn't help that we saw a few others do it so effortlessly. This was by far the hardest hike we partook in on this trip. Had we known, we would have passed. Would we do it again? No. But heck, we did something that we never thought we would do.














After a tea break, we anxiously headed to Bishkek. All seems normal on the highway towards Bishkek. Vehicles were heading in the direction we were heading. Other than highway police with their speed guns, there were no police or military to be seen approaching Bishkek. Perhaps the situation is okay. Approaching the city, we hit traffic - for once, it was a welcome sign. Driving into the city center, we saw people out and about on a Saturday evening - walking around, children in tow - relief!

We and our driver capped off our week-long road trip with dinner at Tsentr Plova. We enjoyed several Central Asian dishes such as manti, lagman, and plov. After dinner, it was to our hotel for the night, the Hyatt Regency, where we bid goodbye to our wonderful driver, Misha. We had a great time travelling through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan with him and he's become a friend.
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Old May 25th, 2024, 01:46 PM
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Going down is always harder, much harder. If you are scrambling up (using hands and feet to ascend), then imagine going down: reverse the process and you can't see in the direction you are going. You can't see where you need to place your feet. And those Aztec or Mayan pyramids? Sure it's easy to go up, but those enormous steep steps are very scary to descend.

Was the rope anchored at all into the rocks at intervals or was this pure rappelling?

You should be proud of yourself for doing this. Awesome.

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Old May 25th, 2024, 02:50 PM
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Exactly what shelemm says!!! If that were me, someone would probably have to carry me down. No kidding!!!!
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