The three of us woke early in Kyzart. I was the only one not heading up to Son-Kul, a huge alpine lake beyond the mountains at whose base Kyzart sits. I was headed further east. We had a breakfast of bread and jam with tea, packed our bags, then headed out into the cold wind. Before splitting, we went to a corner store and bought some provisions. I got two thick pieces of flatbread and a snickers, and considered myself ready to head for the next place.
Outside, I exchanged my goodbyes with my new friends and wished them luck on their trek up the pass to Son-Kul. I then made the 2km walk back to the main road. I was alone in Kyrgyzstan for the first time, and alone on the road in general for the first time since I first met my Belgian companion in Jiayuguan. Almost as soon as I split paths, I regretted not heading up the mountain with them, but I had a different destination in mind.
I walked up the road to where a monument called the Gate to Kyzart sits, which is essentially a giant metal arch over the road next to the local graveyard. At the crossroads, I dropped my bag and settled in to wait for a ride, however long that would take. My only company was a pair of men cutting branches off a tree a few meters down the road, and a murder of crows flying this way and that.
Most of the vehicles that passed were buses bound for Bishkek, the capital city up near the Kazakh border. Sometimes a trucker would stop for me, but none wanted to give me a ride for reasons I was unable to determine. A few taxis stopped and demanded several thousand som. But finally, after close to two hours, a man with his son slowed down and offered me a ride to the next major town, Kochkor, which was a couple hours down the road.
The road to Kochkor wound through Kyrgyzstan’s rolling hills, many adorned with horses and yurts. Some had large tour groups led by nomad tour guides. My driver scoffed and said something to his son in Kyrgyz, but I only recognized tourist. We continued on in silence, his son having fallen asleep. I watched out the window at the mountains beyond the hills, huge and white. Occasionally, we’d pass a large graveyard ornamenting the crest of a hill and my driver would clasp his hands reverently in front of his face as we zoomed past.
It began to rain as we entered Kochkor, which was surprisingly large and unsurprisingly run-down. The man pulled over and demanded 200 som from me, despite assuring me he wasn’t a taxi when I got in. I gave him some money then continued on, walking a few kilometers down the road so I was no longer in the town, and then dropped my bag to start flagging down another ride.
It wasn’t long before a trucker stopped again. He was going to Bishkek and I to Balykchy, a town on the western point of Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake. There’s a point on the road we were on where it splits, one direction going to Bishkek and the other to Balykchy. After some explaining and pointing to a map and making exaggerated hand gestures, I thought I had explained that I wanted him to take me to where the road splits and then I’d find another ride. He seemed amiable and so I joined him on his way.
Then about 30 minutes down the road, well away from any kind of town as we’d been driving at Kyrgyz speeds, he slowed down and pointed for me to get out. Apparently I hadn’t communicated my desired drop-off point as well as I had thought, and before I had a chance to show him on my map, he opened the door and threw my backpack out with a smile.
Thanks for that, I guess.
Once I was out and on the side of the road, there was nothing. On one side, the paved road to Bishkek continued into the mountains. On the other, the dirt road to Balykchy went off into the rocks.
I sat down on my bag, preparing to sit out here for hours. But surprisingly (and yet unsurprisingly) a car bound for Balykchy rolled up 20 minutes later. He wanted 200 som, and I wasn’t going to get anything better, so along I went.
The road to Balykchy was smooth for the most part, with occasional swerves by the driver to avoid holes or rocks. The landscape changed from rolling green hills to jagged brown and red mountains, eroded down to razor blades. The wind picked up as we approached the lake, though I hadn’t been prepared for how big Issyk-Kul actually is.
See up at the top right near Kazakhstan? That’s Issyk-Kul. Seventh-deepest in the world, tenth-largest by volume, and the second-largest saltwater lake behind the Caspian Sea. This would make it the fourth-largest US Great Lake, ahead of Ontario and Erie, the latter of which making up the northern border of my home state. So it’s big.
Issyk-Kul is Kyrgyz for “warm lake” because it never freezes despite the climate. Legends tell of four ancient cities buried beneath the waves, and there is some archaeological evidence to support their existence.
Nowadays, it seems to be home to a range of towns, going from reasonably nice to the most depressing places I’ve ever seen. Balykchy, unfortunately, fell into the second category for me.
I left the bus station where the car dropped me off, and headed into the town to find a hotel. On my map, someone had marked down a point: “Cheap Hotel.” Cheap sounded good, so I headed for that point. Upon arrival, however, I decided for the first time that the cheapest place to sleep isn’t always the best place. Half the windows were boarded up, and very few of the non-boarded windows were even intact. I stood for several minutes, debating if I really wanted to go in. Eventually I decided that I didn’t, went to a nearby park. I sat down, halfheartedly eating the remainder of my bread as I searched for another option. I eventually found one a few more kilometers down the road, so I set off, camera in hand, through the most depressing city I’ve ever seen.
The weird tower in the third picture is part of the abandoned factory adjacent to my hostel. I had to cross several sets of train tracks to get there. But thankfully, it turned out to be quite nice and right along the lake, and so it was a welcome change from the dreariness around me.
After dropping off my bags, I decided to see what there was to do. First I followed the train tracks to see if I could get inside the factory and do some urban exploring, but I very quickly found a group of teens smoking weed. I decided I was sketched out, and instead I went into the town to see the sights, of which there were none.
So I said to myself, “When in Balykchy…”, bought a bottle of vodka, and went down to the beach.
I sat out there for a few hours, shivering. I busted out my coat and hat that I had been carrying in the bottom of my pack since I left Nepal, but the combination of those and my vodka still didn’t warm me enough. But despite the cold air and howling winds, I didn’t want to leave. Cold beaches are some of my favorite places to be. There’s something welcoming about them. Cold beaches surrounded by mountains are even better. Despite the unwelcoming raggedness of Balykchy, the cold expanse of Issyk-Kul was comforting and a good place to reflect on the journey thus far.
From my place on the cold black sand, I listened to the wind and waves for quite awhile, watching headlights fade in and out of view miles away on the roads across the lake and wondering where they were going. It was one of those rare peaceful moments that to acknowledge it is to end it. But acknowledge it I did, and the moment passed. I sat for a moment longer in the cold, hanging onto it for a little while longer.
But even I have a limit for the cold and eventually went back inside. I deposited the remainder of my vodka into a water bottle then went back into town to find food, only to come away with a can of cheese-flavored Pringles. Upon my return, I found the 24-hour security guard gone and the gate locked, but I got a cab that pulled up to honk until someone let me in, and it was only 9:30. I went into my room with my Pringles, watched some Netflix, and went to sleep to finish my sad night in Balykchy.
The next day would mark the end of my hitchhiking endeavors in Kyrgyzstan and the undertaking of my “spirit quest to Ala-Kul,” as I had jokingly referred to it when I split from my friends in Kyzart.
In other words, we got one more trek coming.