Visited July 2017

I was bounced up out of my chair. Once, twice, and then again. Shaking off my drowsiness, I looked out the window to see what was going on. To my left stood a small village with just a few scattered buildings while to my right sat a giant blue lake, stretching as far as the eye could see. Mountains, taller than any I had ever seen lined the horizon in every direction while the road beneath had now become a rough, uneven dirt path, hence the bouncing. I looked over to the passenger next to me, a new friend named Gautier, somehow still sound asleep despite the excessive turbulence. It was five hours into our trip across Kyrgyzstan from the capital Bishkek in the west to the small town Karakol in the east near the Chinese border.

One more hour of driving and finally our vehicle came to a stop. We exited, Gautier rousing himself out of slumber, and took a look around at our new surroundings. A few small shops and food stands stood here and there while a few old apartment buildings loomed in the distance. Trees were everywhere while sheep moseyed around the primarily dirt roads. Modern industry and development was essentially absent. This was the rural countryside of Central Asia. We had made it. Now it was time to find out hostel, which according to the directions was about 3km (2 miles) away. Eager taxi drivers immediately swarmed us, but we repeatedly brushed them away, welcoming the walk after sitting in a vehicle for so long. Along the way, sever children were playing in their yards, only to stop as we, two sweaty, disoriented foreigners with travel backpacks, walked by. The air was fresh, unlike that of the cities, and every once in a while, the scent of fresh baked goods (there were a lot of bakeries along the way) drifted through the air. Thirty minutes later, after passing many little food stands, an old wooden Russian church, and a mosque with Chinese-style architecture, we finally reached out destination: a backpacker's haven called Duet Hostel.

The hostess, a local named Anna, greeted us speaking perfect English and proceeded to show us around the whole place. We first passed through the kitchen, where a guy with long hair and an even longer beard was busy cooking dinner, then we went to the outdoor hangout area which was populated with several other trekkers and fully equipped with couches, artistic decor, and a bar. Gautier looked over towards me as if to say, "Yeah, this pace is awesome," but before he had the chance to speak, we made our way to the final destination: the sleeping area. For this, we did not walk into a large room, nor did we even go inside the building. Instead, we walked around back and found, ready to greet us, three large, circular, white yurts. Each was big enough to fit six people comfortably and had a swinging door that could be tied shut. For the next few days, this was to be my bed, and I couldn't have been more overjoyed.

But, while all this was well and good, I need to be honest. These are not the reasons people (myself included) go to Karakol. The city itself is pretty interesting, but it takes less than half a day to see every part of it. The real reason everyone goes is for the nature and mountains. It is to go to trek up to glaciers and through valleys alongside herders and wild horses. Karakol is a base-camp for those seeking to venture out into the wild. It is a settlement where you can buy food and rent tents and equipment (for as little as $1-2) before setting out on an epic journey through lands seemingly lost outside of time

Probably the most well known trek in the area is a 40-50km (25-30 mile) hike up to a mountain lake called Ala-Kol, through a 4000m pass and past hot springs. While I usually don't recommend doing what everyone is doing, I have to make an exception here. The route through the valley just may be the most gorgeous place I've ever seen, and since Kyrgyzstan hardly gets any tourism, you can go for a couple hours without seeing anyone except some local herders while hiking this 'most trafficked' route.

I just have to make one comment here though. It is often said, on other travel blogs and tourist info sites, that it takes 3-4 days to complete this trek and that doing it in one is impossible. That is wrong. After attempting this route, I want to make it clear that doing the whole thing in one day is absolutely possible. My friend Stefan (see story 'Mountaineering Madness') and I attempted this and within just over three hours, we covered 1/3 of the total distance. We were well on pace to finish in one day, and probably would have if we didn't get lost and head in the wrong direction for two hours in the middle (we're both pretty bad with navigation).

Yeah, we're a bit lost

Yeah, we're a bit lost


Visited in July 2015

Sometimes you plan and research a place before visiting. Other times, someone suggests a place you've never heard of and you just say, "sure, I'll go." As you can guess, I am about to talk about the latter. I first ever heard of this town about an hour before I set off to go there. It was during my first visit to Georgia and I was, at that time, in the mountain town at the base of Kazbek. I had an extra day, and one of my friends from the trip suggested we rent bicycles and ride to the only other thing written on the map: Juta,.

Within the hour, we (two friends and I) got the bikes and were off. About ten minutes later, civilization had entirely disappeared and nature had taken over. To one side of us, there was a calm, blue stream, to the other lay fields of every shade of green imaginable, and surrounding everything were the giant mountains of the northern Caucasus. While this was an incredible environment to be in, there was unfortunately one thing that vanished along with civilization: paved roads (and for that matter, even solidly packed dirt roads). All that was there leading us to the town was this semi-existent trail of dirt and rocks, which, as we soon found out, was nearly impossible to ride on, especially when going up hill. The hot sun shined down upon us in the clear blue sky, causing us (well, me at least) to sweat uncontrollably, but we still persisted.

One hour passed... and then two. Here and there, we would see animals and abandon-looking farm buildings, but no sign of a town or village. We began to wonder whether or not it existed at all, so the three of us agreed to cycle for one more hour and if there was still nothing, we would turn back. Finally, about 30 minutes later, we saw it: a few, small tucked away stone and wooden buildings and houses, nestled within the valley. It looked as if it were a place outside of time but was not in any way worn down or in disrepair. There was only one problem. The "road" to this village was entirely uphill and littered with rather large rocks and plant growth. It was not going to be a simple, joyful ride, but I had grown hungry by this point and the village was the closest source to food.

Another half hour passed until we finally made it. By this point I was pretty soaked in sweat, but that didn't seem to matter. I was in a remote Georgian village, away from cities, cars, noise, and tourists. All I needed was coffee and lunch for everything to be perfect, and there just so happened to be a small cafe right in the center. (Well, it looked much more like someone's living room, but the sign said cafe, so we entered.)



I sat down, and to my surprise, I was handed a huge menu with about 6-7 pages worth of items. I wanted to look through it all, but by this time, the hunger had taken over and sustenance was urgent, so I chose soup and an eggplant dish on the first page that looked nice. The waitress shook her head. "Нет. У нас нет." (No. We don't have it). I then chose a dish of Georgian dumplings with cheese and potato, and again was met with the same response. Finally I asked what they did have and she replied, "Hachapuri." (A Georgian bread stuffed with cheese. Kinda like a pizza but better). I asked if there was anything else and she said no, so I ended up ordering the hachapuri with two cups of coffee, and wondered why they still bothered to use the extensive menu if they only had one item to cook Nonetheless, the hachapuri soon came and it was delicious so I guess I can't complain.

The layout of the place was about as comfortable and relaxed as you could possibly imagine. The tables, chairs, walls and floor were all a dark brown wood and the small kitchen reminded me of the house where I grew up. We hung around for another hour, savoring the peace and quiet and drinking the coffee, before finally deciding it was time to go back (which actually turned out to be much easier since this time it was all down hill), so I said goodbye to the village for now, probably to return another day.