Winter in Kyrgyzstan
After spending January in Bishkek where we worked on our last film "On the tracks of the Gobi bear," it is time for us to start out again. Indeed, we want to visit reserves in winter, even if it is a period when the Rangers are not active because there is too much snow and it is very difficult to access the mountains, even with horses. We want to go Sary-Chelek southwest of Bishkek. But we have to delay our departure of two days, because we make two TV interviews. The first for a cable channel that performs a daily program called "I love Bishkek", the second for the national channel “NTS” who invited us for the morning program. It is always interesting to talk about our project and about environment.
When we set off at dawn, the capital is immersed in what appears to be a fog that persists for 60 kms where we follow the Kazakh border. We then branch off to the south towards the mountains and then discover a beautiful blue sky and sun. We understand then that fog was in fact a huge cloud of smoke and pollution because people use mainly coal for heating and traffic in this area is intense.
We finally arrive at the first pass at about 3500m, which is actually a tunnel. It's 10am and many trucks and cars are stopped because there is a technical intervention. After half an hour of waiting, the vehicles leave and what we find at the exit of the tunnel is a breathtaking landscape. The road is very slippery because there was lots of snow in recent days. We take the first track to observe this beautiful landscape and finally we have lunch on this track that leads to a small ski resort that seems closed.
We then descend on the high plateau where there is a small village around which, horses, with snow up to his belly, try scraping the ground with their foot, to graze some grass. We travel about 100 kms in this desert of snow and ice before starting a long descent to the city and its famous Toktogul reservoir fed by the Naryn River. Unfortunately for us the snow is everywhere and there is no possibility to bivouac around the reservoir. We decide to spend a new pass before reaching Karakool where we find a track that goes up to the mountains with stunning views of the city. There is 30cm of snow, but half an hour of Webasto of Mendes warms Totoy which allows us to store some heat for the night. When we wake up, there is a frost white film covering the windows and the metal parts inside the vehicle, it is -3 ° C and we will need to be brave to dress out. We then contacted the deputy director of the Reserve of Sary-Chelek to see if it is possible to meet before heading to the famous lake at 1873m. He said there was too much snow and even the rangers cannot go there on horseback. It does not stop us and we decide to go on site to see the situation. We are greeted by the Deputy Director Akynaly who proposes to spend the night at the hotel, we then explain that a parking space will be enough, he is a bit surprised and invites us to have tea with him in the evening. Here when you are invited to drink tea, this is actually a course meal with tea, but also bread, butter, jam, sometimes tomato puree and garlic, and in the Sary-Chelek area nuts. Indeed, it is in Sary-Chelek and Arslanbob that we can find walnut trees and their fruits are delicious.
The next day we put our winter outfits to go to the lake, the villagers are surprised and ask us why we do not come in summer because in winter they never see tourists. 30 to 50 cm soft snow make our progress very difficult, but we follow the trace of a skidoo where the snow is packed down. We finally manage to travel 10 kms in a beautiful area but obviously we run out of time to reach the lake, we must return to the village. On our return Akynaly awaits us and offers us again to have tea and a debriefing of our day. He informs us that the Director wishes that we follow some rangers the next day with horses to start the climb before completing the journey on foot and spend the night at the lake in a shelter. We are excited about this opportunity and look forward to seeing them at 7am in the center. We are on time for appointment but the village is completely silent and we don’t see anyone with horses around the rendezvous point. After half an hour and a phone call spent to Akynaly, we see the rangers’ team accompanied by children who will bring horses, but we do not see horses for us. We explain them that we need horses, but he makes us understand that we must follow by feet. They leave us very quickly with our backpack and all our camera equipment. We are stunned by their behavior, especially as we were here to follow them and to film their work.
Anyway, we decided to go there all the same and to walk the 16 km required to reach our goal. The weather is beautiful and we really want to see the lake in winter. The ascent is endless, the 20 kms of the day before made our ascent more difficult and our backpacks seem to be more and more heavy. The arrival on the completely frozen lake is a magical moment that makes us forget how hard we had to make to get here.
The following day, the snow comes, we must not waste time to reach the village. We spend a great evening with Akynaly and his family.
We drive for Dashman reserve where we meet Lachin who works for the tourism company "Community Based Tourism" and is very active in the field, notably with the local people for the protection of the environment. He explains that he organizes cleaning days where groups gather wastes and then, recycle or burn them whether it is glass or plastic. Then we go to the mountains to admire altitude waterfall. We pass through areas where there is at least one meter of snow. After 2 hours of walking to browse 5kms that separate us from the waterfall, we finally reach our goal.
On our return to the village, the show is disastrous, dozens of candy wrappers strewn around Totoy who obviously was the attraction of the day…
We now take the direction of Osh, which is the second largest city, but before that, we make a short break in Jalal-Abad, where we taste a lagman in a small canteen on the outskirts of the city. We laugh together, seeing the state of the kitchen, which in France, would be closed at the first health inspection, but the food is excellent. Since our departure, we ate everything, in all conditions and often with the hands. Indeed, Central Asia, it is normal to give food from hand to hand, and we have seen many dirty hands, but we surely have good antibody for the moment, (we keep our fingers crossed so that it lasts), because we have never been sick.
We find a bivouac on the outskirts of Osh. We meet an inhabitant of the area that shows us a place where we will be quiet.
As soon as we wake up, we are invited by our neighbor to have tea. We are very welcome and the breakfast is a feast : vegetable soup, several coffees and teas, small sweet cakes and of course bread and jam. Unlike other countries such as Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, Kyrgyz people know how to make good bread and it is a very economical food (€ 0.30 per loaf). We look with him and his wife our film about snow leopards because like most Kyrgyz, they know this mythical animal, but have never seen it.
Osh city enjoys a milder climate than Bishkek, several mountains stand in the middle of the city and mountains form a natural barrier to the south while the north plains extend to Uzbekistan a few kilometers away. We spend a great time strolling through the city and its bazaar while enjoying almost summer temperatures in February. We stay two days in Osh, which is enough for us to explore the city, it is true that we are not really fond of big cities and already look forward to returning to the mountains.
Kyrgyzstan is a country where the mountains dictate the rules and man must adapt to these reliefs and especially to elements such as snow and ice. To go to the east, we have no choice, we have to go back to the north to join the Issyk-Kul Lake. As it is raining a lot, we start looking for a place to sleep and find the perfect place just before dusk. A gas station with a huge hangar that allows us to put Totoy safe from the rain. We talk to one of the attendants who is very friendly and after a while he says that he saw us on TV a week earlier.
It rained all night, but fortunately the weather is milder than in the north, there is no snow to our revival, but a beautiful sun. Our attendant comes back to us with his camera and proposes to spend the next night in his house 14kms of the resort. We tell him that we are very affected by the proposal but we need to continue our journey north. We make photos and videos with his team and give appointment in spring if we have the opportunity to come back in this area.
Gradually, as we go north, we find the snow and take a secondary road who leads to Issyk-Kul. This road is like a huge carpet of snow where even with sunglasses, we have trouble distinguishing the track. Then we stop to observe the Himalayan vultures on top of mountains whose colors vary from pink to ocher. Our progress is slow and we finally found a place to sleep near a little village. The main problem in the center of the country is freezing cold and heavy snow that covers all the areas where we usually bivouac. We finally find a track where livestock has settled snow, which is perfect for us to drive on it. It's so cold that it is difficult to heat water outside, at the back of the vehicle. We light our heater Webasto, but we do not want to turn over an hour. Now we are lying and when the heating is cut, we understand that this night will be the coldest we have lived since we left France.
The day finally arrived and we are still huddled together, it is ultimately how we were able to keep enough heat during the cold night, where the thermometer indicated -5°C when we wake up in the car. We do not even have breakfast because it's too cold outside and after a few minutes we no longer feel our hands and feet, it is necessary that we drive as fast as possible to defrost Totoy and wait for the sun to warm up a bit the atmosphere. We are 70kms north of Song-Kul lake which is in the middle of a nature reserve known for its waterfowl. We start taking the track who leads to the lake, but there is too much snow at the top of the mountains, it would be too difficult and dangerous to continue. Now we have to go back, the descent is easier since we follow the trail that we have already made.
There is a very special area located west of Lake Issyk-Kul where snow is almost nonexistent. It is in this region that migratory birds (such as wild swans) come to spend the winter at the lake that does not freeze because it is slightly salty. We camp in an area where we can observe whooper swans, which as the name suggests, sing all the time, even at night ...
We continue our journey the next day to visit a beautiful canyon in bright sunshine and finally bearable temperatures.
We spend two nights on the beach of Lake Issyk-Kul, where we make a campfire, the days get longer and it is already almost like being in the spring. On the other side of the lake is our next stop, the rehabilitation center of snow leopards, where we have already spent 3 weeks in november. When we arrive, Daniar awaits us at the gate and Alexis cleans the small cottage where he has already lit the fire for the night. We have dinner with them, we are happy to see them and spend a good evening in their company. Before returning to our cottage, they offer us a traditional Kyrgyz hat and scarf.
The following day, Sergei explains us they will transfer the lynx in the old enclosure for snow leopards. They set up a little fence and we improved this enclosure by putting a house and a promontory in stones for this lynx. A week later, it’s time for the lynx to be transferred into the new enclosure. Everything goes very fast because it comes in a few seconds in the cage, as if he wanted to leave this too small aviary where he has already spent too much time. Rangers put the cage in the new enclosure and open the screened door where the lynx comes out with incredible speed, and discovers then his environment.
We really like to spend time in this center, we feel to be isolated from the rest of the world, the sun beat our lives like animals. After 10 days in the center, we take the road to try to shoot migratory birds in the southwest of the lake. This is the period where the birds gather to leave the area and fly north. We make several stops where we mostly see wild ducks and swans, but there are many other interesting native species to observe. We also benefit from being in this area to go to a salt lake in the famous area we call the Kyrgyz Sahara. We meet Valodia, 65 years old and for 4 years, he lives alone all the year with a cat in a little room of 9m². We spend two days with this loner who tells his life in Kyrgyzstan and what the country became, including the lake since the fall of the USSR. He almost has tears in his eyes when he recalls the time when the lake was full of fish before a heavy poaching, which still operates today. We also had no trouble to shoot poachers, they do not even hide, because corruption is such that everyone closes his eyes. He explains his struggle to maintain this beach cleans and regrets spring cleaning days of the Soviet time where people gathered to work together and of course to drink and to dance.
Our last stop is in the Chon Kemin National Park, where we find Talai and his family, that we met after our intervention with Gruppa Bars in December. We had indeed followed up on this team that fight against poaching, particularly that of "Bars", meaning snow leopard, and regularly set up photo traps in this park to monitor wildlife. This area is beautiful in winter, but the snow made our progress very difficult for us and for horses and the expedition was cut short.
We come back to visit the schools of the National park to present our project and especially educate the younger to the protection of fauna and flora. We are very pleasantly surprised to see that the schools do not lack resources, since there are computers and even a video projector. We make our first presentation in the school where Talaï girls are. We show our different movies in Russian and tackle poaching problems with bears and leopards, wastes found all over the countries and illegal logging in protected areas. Celine performs all the explanations and Russian Talaï translated into Kyrgyz. In all these schools, the students have never seen leopards and have very little information about them. We receive a warm welcome from all the schools and the children perform traditional dance and music with komuz (Guitar with 3 strings). We finish our visit by dancing with children and teachers to the music of DJ Assad, a French music, as we had already done in Mongolia, in Hustai National Park. After this busy week, we receive the congratulations and thanks from the Director of the reserve for our involvement with Talai and we are cordially invited to come back in spring and summer. We must now take the direction of Bishkek where we started other projects.
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