We drove to Osh and had some lunch and continued towards Bishkek, since we didn’t really have much interest in spending time in the city. The drive was beautiful, winding through mountains and fields and really gave us a glimpse of the country that strives to be the “Switzerland” of Central Asia. People were amazingly friendly and they wear cute traditional Kyrgyz hats that I wish I had bought!
The drive was slow going, so we stopped for the night in the small mountain town of Karakol. We had neglected to take out the local currency in Osh and no one took dollars in Karakol. Their ATMs were only accessible during business hours, and we were too late for those. We did find one strange Soviet hotel that said we could avail ourselves of one of their ghetto rooms, but we decided our tent was a better option! We stopped at a gas station/house off of the highway and the friendly lady there let us camp out back. Earrings, postcards and a big thank you went her way!
The next morning we set off again towards Bishkek and arrived in the afternoon. In Bishkek we decided to trust the Lonely Planet hotel and restaurant recommendations and were disappointed with both. Still, we were happy to have a shower and a bed at the very least. (We did meet some very interesting people here: One guy from France had been travelling for the last 18 years, he quit an administration job, rented his house and went biking, and never came back. He was on his way to the Phillipines with plans to retire in Brazil, awesome – S)
We decided to take in one of Kyrgyzstan’s prime attractions the lake Issyk-Kol. It is the second largest alpine lake in the world, second only to Lake Titicaca in South America. The lake is a deep blue and ringed with snow-capped mountains and rolling hills. We drove to an isolated spot and jumped in for a refreshing swim. We were debating staying there for the afternoon, but both of us felt we had a few more hours of driving left in us. We headed towards the border and decided to try and get as close to Almaty as possible that night.
The Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border was definitely not as efficient as it could have been, but it was entertaining. Hordes of people on foot were waiting to cross over and were restrained by a rope that the guards would periodically drop to let in the next tranche of people. They would push forward, jostling each other like they were queuing for position at the running of the bulls. We were waiting in our car to be called forward, and even there an ingenuous local managed to beat the system. There were two lanes held back by a gate. There was a bit of space on the right not constrained by the gate, but it was definitely not a lane. This guy still somehow managed to squeeze his car through, thereby cutting in front of all of us and avoiding having to wait for the guard to lift the gate! We couldn’t even be annoyed because we were so impressed.
The good thing about these countries is that they will often let foreigners cut towards the front of the line. While this is unfair for the people waiting in line, we don’t really have any qualms about it (we’ve heard of some teams who refuse and wait in line with the “real” people). In fact, since most of the people around us were scheming ways to get to the front of the line and cheat the system, I think it actually is more of the authentic experience to do just that! (the locals cheat too, while I was waiting in line 4 guys cut in front of me, little did they know I had already sent Aruna to the front of the line, Bossing it. - S)