After a four-hour flight, we arrived in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The airport sported a half dozen US Air Force transports, as the US shares it as a military base.
Bishkek is a sleepy little town of just under a million people, with tree-lined streets and a decent chain department store. Lying at an elevation of 800 meters (2500 feet), it is nestled at the base of a range of mountains rising up to 4800 meters (16,000 feet), roughly the height of the tallest mountain in Europe. If it were not for the poverty and political instability, this would be a fairly pleasant place to live.
Bishkek has been in the news recently, as it was the scene of the fighting that brought down the government in April. The corrupt dictator and his cronies allowed the police to fire on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators, killing 70 people. The resulting mayhem forced the dictator to flee the country, but not before the crowd torched part of the “white house” seat of government. All is calm now and they are busy repairing the damage still visible below the newly cleaned section of the top floor.
Kyrgyzstan is calm at present but considerable tensions remain in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad. Those towns have historically had an explosive mix of Uzbek and Kyrgyz tribes, and the ex-dictator fomented a violent clash in June as an attempt to destabilize the weak transition government. The plot failed, but the tensions and government weakness remain. Fortunately, those problems are localized to a small area in the south, which we plan to bypass by crossing a pair of mountain passes to and from China. More on that in late September.
Today we drove across the north side of the huge, deep lake Issyk-Kol to the northeast corner of the country to a town called Karakol, which is the center of trekking in Central Asia. Karakol is a sleepy Russian frontier town that reminded us of towns in the American west that were bypassed or never reached by the freeway. It is hard to say time forgot Karakol, because I don’t think time ever discovered it. But it has a lovely Russian Orthodox church built out of wood in 1890 and of course a mosque. Kyrgyzstan is nominally Muslim, though one rarely sees a veiled face or a person observing Ramadan. Vodka is of course quite popular.
In a few hours, we will leave on this really serious jeep to go to our trailhead. From then until September 19, we’ll be on the trail. I haven’t been able to get my new satellite phone to send email, so there won’t be any more postings until the 20th.