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The morning sun came through our tent at just passed five and I found myself wide awake. We weren’t in a great hurry to leave this morning, so I decided to do a little exploring. I went for a run along the beach in bare feet, happy to feel the cool air and sand on my skin. Away from camp I found the tracks of many animals who had come to the water to drink. Numerous birds, mice, rabbits, wild pigs and jackal. I returned and decided to go for a quick swim in the lake as the kettle boiled for coffee and tea. And quick it was as the water was still freezing cold, but it felt good to wash up and the combination of chilled water, exercise and two cups of coffee had me alert and feeling like a million dollars by the time we started cooking breakfast. Soon everyone had their fill of eggy-bread and I was able to sneak away from camp for a short hike to take in the mountain views and do a little birding.

We received news in the morning that it would be at least another day till our driver Dan could re-join us with our truck. Dan was forced to find a shop to fabricate the needed parts and it looked like he was going to have to do all the work himself. So we packed up the vans and began our journey west towards the end of the lake. The mid day brought in a light haze and clouds, but it was still gorgeous and warm as we sped past miles of scenic lakeshore and farmland dotted with flowers. Most farming is still done by hand and horse here and taken into town on donkey carts. The Kyrgyz have a legendary relationship with their horses, part of the reason I was attracted to the region in the first place.

I wish I hadn't taken this out of a moving vehicle, because nothing says Kyrgyzstan like a horse hitched to a car.

Every house has this same fence, in either blue-green or green-blue.

Kids playing on a sidecar Jawa. Again, it's the horse that gets used most often.

We stopped for lunch in the city of Karakol, less than 100 miles from the Chinese border. We piled into a local restaurant and it was decided that I would have the honor of pretending it was my birthday for the meal. The honor came with a bottle of vodka the flavor of lighter fluid containing a deck of playing cards affixed within the bottle. I much preferred the local beer, which was cold and delicious. To keep things simple our local guide translated a half dozen choices from the menu for us. I decided on a dish that was much like gigantic pot stickler like dumplings filled with oily meat. Oily meat was to be the theme of Kyrgy food. Every dish was topped with beef or mutton with copious amounts of fat. One of the most prevalent dishes is plov, made up of rice with a few strings of carrots and onions cooked with bits of oily meat.

After lunch we were given an hour in the town’s bazaar. The next cook group had to stock up on supplies for the next two days and this would be our last chance to buy anything before heading out into the wilderness to camp. I took the time to wander the market and admire the fresh fruit that was available and try my shaky Russian with the locals. Like every bazaar in Kyrgyzstan , this one featured stalls peddling everything under the sun, rows of questionable meat products including full cow’s heads and brightly colored spices. The edge of the market was bordered by rows of railroad containers and I wasn’t sure if these were just used for storage, or if they were also many of the merchant’s living space. I’d guess perhaps both.

Trying to figure what this was. Lime, perhaps?

Interspersed throughout the town was the ever-present Russian Lada. Quite possibly one of the worst cars ever produced and it’s a miracle to see so many in use. If you doubt my take on them, I’d recommend finding a copy of Top Gear, series 12, episode 6 in which the Top Gear team tries to answer the question “did the communist ever build a good car” by drag racing a Lada and two other communist-built cars against a dog. Spoiler alert: the dog wins.

Not a Lada, but the most bitchin' car in the 'stans

After gathering the troops and enough beer to last us a few days we piled back in the van and made towards Djety-Oguz canyon, a vast wilderness area on the edge of the Tian Shan mountains. Pobeda peak sits near the border with China , a 7,439 m mountain said to be as tough as Everest to summit. To say the route through the canyon was lush and gorgeous wouldn’t begin to do it justice. Miles of rolling green hills dotted with yurts and their herds of horses, cattle and sheep. We followed a narrow dirt road along a raging glacial stream, having to hop out of the vans at a few points while it forged small tributaries.

I swear, this is not a trick of photoshop, no fancy filters used, the color were really this vivid.

That evening our van driver promised us he’d make a special local meal for us. As we started to make camp the clouds quickly rolled in and we were forced to rig up a temporary cook tent with a leaky tarp strung between the two vehicles. The rain came down in buckets as we struggled to find dry firewood and keep dry. A quick check on my tent revealed I should have re-tightened the fly after the initial bout of rain had stretched the fabric. My sleeping bag was wet, my bag bogged down and there was a nice puddle on my side of the tent. I re-adjusted what I could, blotted up the puddle with my camp towel and braced myself for a wet night. Our driver excitedly presented us with his special, traditional meal and I could hardly wait to see what was under the pot’s lid. He removed it with a flourish to reveal . . . plov. It was quite good plov though and we all sincerely appreciated his enthusiastic efforts. I ate mine while dodging streams of water under the leaky tarp and chased it with what I hopped would be enough beer to knock me out for the night despite the torrential downpour and soggy tent.
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