Tonight we slept in a gastiniza near Bishkek's Osh bazaar. Taxis for Osh leave from here and we want to leave early in the morning. The neighborhood does not seem "well attended" at night, the road linking the market to the bus station is full of motel. When Daniele goes to the mini-market a woman "offers her services" to him, those motels are all Love Gastiniza. But who cares, we find a very cheap one, 500 som for a double room (7 EUR), not the cleanest in the world, the common toilet is filthy, and on the wall there is a poster with the word LOVE and many little hearts drawn.
When we wake we go to the taxi parking, ready to be "attacked" by all the drivers. And in fact that's what happens, we are discussing with six taxi drivers simultaneously. Many of them want to take us to Jalal-Abad. Many just of them don't want to get up to Arslanbob, located about 50 kilometers from the main road, they will leave us where the road splits and then we would have to find another way to get up there. At a certain point two guys take us away from the crowd, asking for 1000 som per person, the price it's more than fair. And it seems they'll take us to the destination. The car is very small, and the driver doesn't seem to a taxi driver, the trunk is full of stuff. It seems the two boys are just gong back home and perhaps they were looking for someone with whom to share the petrol.
Before Kara Balta we take the road south that begins to climb higher into the mountains until reaching the pass (3000msl), through the infamous tunnel, at least infamous among cyclists because it very narrow and long. We had heard it was without lights but the lights are there. Anyway, there is a sidewalk so you can walk without risking death. But this has created many legends and most of the cyclist load the bikes on some trucks to cross. It's starting to snow and we are surprised to see that there are still yurts up here. The driver drives quietly, not as a psychopath and we are happy. We stop to eat along the way, and the two guys pay us lunch. Then we can confirm they are not taxi drivers. The road is beautiful and not so tough, it goes along the Naryn river, a placid and greenish stream winding through stunning gorges, we think it should be a perfect canoeing trip to go down this stream. We regret to don't cycle here, but our gear is not suited for the cold season, too bad.
See more pictures from Arslanbob on our photo gallery
When we wake up we expect an unusual breakfast. Fried potatoes and eggs.
After lunch we go out and begin to explore the village and its surroundings. Everything is very bucolic. Here the inhabitants are mostly (90%) Uzbeks and are quite religious. Or more than anything else quite literally follow the tradition. Women do not study much, getuts married at eighteen, braid cut and end of the free ride. The role of women is typically to take care of the house, or of fields and animals. But another activity typical of this resort is the nuts gathering. Around here it is indeed the largest walnut forest in the world, and this is precisely the harvest time. And that's why we are here.
They do not sell beer anywhere. And the clothes are traditional. Women wear long skirts on long trousers and headscarf, only the neck is found to be clear. How do other women in Kyrgyzstan, but here all of them are dressed this way, without exception. The men are wearing Uzbek hats (Taqiyah), more sober than the Kyrgyz one (Kalpak).
In the CBT office there's a map with some places we could walk to. We are moving towards that which is indicated on the map as "big waterfall", to reach it we cross the village, we see that the houses are built differently here (doors and windows are straight, a simple thing that Kyrgyz find hard to do) and the gardens are well kept with flowers, various plants and many fruit trees. But the town is almost deserted, we will soon understand why.
After passing the town we follow the road along the river, and we meet Hayat, the leader of the local CBT, we have heard of him by Chad. It's going in the mountains with a group of tourists, come back tomorrow. We greet them and move towards the waterfall obviously taking the wrong path, which is steep and rocky, but does not last long. The waterfall is about 80 meters high but actually the most fascinating thing is that overhead is full of eagles, at least five. And they are huge. We think of when the conductor of the Kazakh train showed us a video in which an eagle sees a mountain goat on the edge of a ravine and grabs it and then let it fall into the abyss...
We move a little more inside...
We go back to the village following a very pleasant path along the calm river and then take the road to the walnut forest. We begin to see the first trees. They are really huge, especially considering how long it takes a walnut tree to grow. There is a very nice path to follow but the trees are fenced. We wonder whether they are owned by someone, we will ask Hayat tomorrow. We see a few tents between the trees but no one collecting nuts. We would like to get more "deep inside" the forest, but we do not understand which path to fallow and it's late. We'll try again tomorrow. We have to go to town to buy some groceries before everything closes, which takes place around 18:30! And we arrive late, at the end we eat bread, butter and bananas. Tomorrow we will get dinner prepared by the women at the guesthouse.
We wash ourself, on the other side of the courtyard there is a small house, with a shower also a sauna. The landlady heats water with a wood fire.
At the CBT, Hayat has not yet returned from the trip to the mountains. Better check the map on the wall to reach the depths of the forest. The trails are not marked and there are no maps. We are reaching the small waterfall, asking for directions to the "malenki vodapad" ("small waterfall" in Russian) to the inhabitants we can take the right path.
This small waterfall I like a lot more of than the big one, maybe because we are much closer. An "improvised" bridge (basically a piece of iron, recycled from what in not clear) leaning on the two banks of the river leads us to another improvised iron staircase that climbs the mountain on the other side. It comes at a cafe! Closed. From there a path, which goes in the forest. The forest is a maze, not in the sense that you can imagine though. There are just walnuts and it's not dense, the problem is that there are a lot of fences, probably for the animals, and when you enter a gate it's not clear where to get out. However with the help of GPS, which tells us at least what direction we are going, it's not that complicated. Going forward we start to see more and more people in the woods. They live there with the whole family and the animals, at least for the harvest season. That's why we haven't seen many people in the village. Again nobody is collecting nuts. They seem to be all taking a nap. Finally we come to a part of the forest which is not fenced. And we see a man on a tree. He is shaking the branches to drop nuts.
We walk a dozen kilometers immersed in this atmosphere of Miyazaki's films. The day is beautiful, full of sun.
At home there is another guest who eats with us. Dinner arrives, and it's huge! Everything is in one dish, there is a pepper stuffed with rice, at least five boiled potatoes, a lot of other vegetables and even meat for Daniele. Oh I forgot, also a cob. None of us can finish the dish. We chat a bit with the other guest, Nathan, and we go to sleep happy. Tomorrow we will leave Arslanbob. A little sorry. With a little more money funds this would have been a place where to spend more time.
This morning it rains, we finally menage to meet Hayat and interview him, is really doing a good job to promote this place and seems to have a lot of ideas. He's developing winter tourism. And when we tell him that the Naryn River would be a nice little place where to do canoeing he agrees and offers us to stay there, room and board paid for, to help him organizing this sort of tours. Sure it would be nice, but first we should do some more practice with the canoe. To understand what the problem is, there are no teachers of skiing, canoeing etc... As long as it comes to horse riding there are no problems. We greet this very nice guy and we get on the minibus that takes us in Bazar Korgan. Along the way we see more and more Kyrgyz hats, we are back. Bazar Korgan is a really ugly place. At the bus station we are assaulted by taxi drivers and chauffeurs, and not even knowing where to go, it's hard to think. Hayat had recommended a couple of places that are definitely beautiful, one to the south, near Sary Tash, from where you see the Lenin Peak (7,000 meters) and another to the north west, the lake Sary Chelek. But in both cases those destinations are too expensive for us. After a walk in the bazaar, the only thing that is here, as the village name suggests, and a stop at a cafe that has no food (they wonder why I ask sugar for tea, and in fact do not have it), we return to the station and decide to take a bus to Jalal Abad. We will see the city and tomorrow we will go to Osh, and then return to Bishkek.
Of course, not one of those "must go at least once in a lifetime" places, but it looks like a cute little town and worth living in, there are many outdoor cafes, and seems to be less expensive than the north. But in a few hours we have seen pretty much everything and we go back to the fetid gastiniza. We spent the evening playing cachiera (a dice game, pretty stupid), compelling... We forgot the playing cards in Bishkek.
As each night spent in a respectable gastiniza we wake up with itchy scattered. We get to the bus station and from there we go to Osh, boring trip. The Kyrgyz are very quiet, do not make "a big mess" on the bus as we Italians do...
In Osh thr bus station is located in the middle of the market, we go down there and go in search of the usual bad place to sleep. This part of town is basically a huge bazaar. We cross a bit, it looks nice. But it rains and we have to find a place to leave our things, we ask a few hotels along the way but the prices are high (by our standards), until we find a gastiniza without any sign, behind, or rather inside, the mosque. It signaled on the Open Street Map on our GPS. There are two guys at the entrance, they show us the room. The mosque is pretty, there are large rugs and they bring us mattresses and blankets. Everything is clean! Hooray. It only costs 400 som (5,50 Euros), great deal!
Let's walk through the market, there's a storm, but not cold, and many parts of the market are sheltered. Only problem is that there is mud on the ground and sometimes you have to wade some pond formed between the benches. The market is really big but not very "quaint". They sell what we call "cinesate" (chinese low quality stuff), the food part is smaller than that of Bishkek and no screams to attract customers. Sometimes they say things when you come, so quietly, like they are drug dealers. Back to our gastiniza through a park full of karaoke, here is pretty popular, but these are practically the size of a shower stalls, outdoor, with a stereo, a monitor and the pirate CDs sold everywhere (I think that the originals does not exist). Unfortunately the weather is bad and we can not see any performance.