“We are going to Kyrgyzstan this summer.”
When we were telling our friends and relatives about our plan, the most common reactions usually were “Why?” or “Is it dangerous?”. The area is still fairly mysterious to a lot of westerners, and those questions -filled with good intentions-, were mostly fueled by the lack of knowledge we have of the region. But four years before that, Eva and I had been on a month-long trip to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan’s southern neighbor. We had found a peaceful, welcoming country with the most generous people and incredible landscapes.
We had fallen in love with Central Asia, and we always had the intention to go back and discover more of this part of the world. Kyrgyzstan came as a logical follow-up to our first trip, with promises from adventure books and travel tales we had read since our childhood: orange steppes surrounded by white mountains, where people ride horses all day long, racing each other, fighting while playing Buzkachi, immense silver lakes, yurtas, infamous Kumis, rolling green hills and dusty roads...
Our expectations, charged with years of fantasies, seemed impossible to fullfill. Maybe for that reason or maybe because we are simply disorganized, we left with no plan in mind. We didn’t buy any map, we didn’t study a path that would take us to the most interesting places over a month. Instead, we left with a sturdy tent, good shoes and sleeping bags, a few days of food, an English-Russian mini-dictionary, and the intention to follow the recommendations from the local people.
Sometimes, plans are the best way to be disappointed, and to contrive our path to something that is not going to work, like blind-folded, missing out what can be fantastic just a few hundred meters to the right. Of course, in reality, "leaving with no plan" also meant that we could go completely the wrong way, spend a few weeks being lost and come back with nothing but memories of ghost towns and coal factories.
Still, we thought it was worth the shot.
August 5th. It's finally time to start the trip!
First, we are flying to Istanbul, then to Bishkek with Pegasus Airlines. I heard bad things about that company, but hey, it was cheaper so we took it. That was our first mistake.
Tears are rolling down her cheeks. Eva is not really crying as her face is totally still, showing little emotion, but she is absorbing the reality of the situation. In the flickering, tired halogen lights of the Bishkek airport, the last pieces of luggage from our flight have been circling around the conveyor belt a couple of times already. Eva’s hiking bag is not there, and it is becoming obvious that it won’t join us today. It must have gotten lost somewhere on the way, probably in Istanbul where we had a stop-over. Inside the bag, half of our trekking equipment -especially the tent-, her clothes and even trekking shoes… which basically represent our hopes for adventure. Good thing we didn’t make too many plans.
It’s 5 o-clock in the morning, our brains are not functioning properly, and yet, we have to start queuing at the enquiry desk to fill a form -in russian- to describe the lost bag and its content. The half-reassuring detail is that 15 other bags have been lost in this flight. Pretty impressive. At least, we are not alone. While Eva is trying to deal with the lady at the desk, I venture out of the arrival hall to find a driver who could take us to a place to sleep. We have arranged to stay at a lodge called “Nomad’s home”, and I find -amongst the people gathered at the gates of the airport- a sleepy man holding a sign with the name of the hostel. He is not happy, he says he has been waiting for hours for people to show up and he wants to leave right away. I try to explain that our flight was delayed, and I am still waiting for my wife who didn't get her bag. I guess he understands by the way he frowns. I feel bad for him, and our phones are not working on the Kyrgyz network so I am left with no way to contact Eva on the other side of the customs area.
I try to chat with him to pass the time but his english is as minimal as my russian and we are both exhausted. I can’t wait to go to bed as well. All we have left to do anyways is to recover from the flight, we will deal with the bag tomorrow. Either it will be found, or we will have to look for new equipment in Bishkek, which would cost us our entire budget for the trip.
Eva, sad bag-less tourist in flip-flops and tee-shirt, finally comes out of the arrival hall. She tells me that she just filled a form to describe her luggage, but they have no idea where it could have gotten lost. There is no report of a matching bag anywhere yet. In silence, we drive through the dusty streets of Bishkek. There is no mountain yet, only the efficient-looking, square buildings shaped by years of soviet influence. I hope the driver knows where we are going, or even that he is -in fact- the right driver and not someone taking advantage of us. The exhaustion fuels my delusional paranoïa of the lost tourist.***
He stops in a remote one-way street and gets out of the car. We knock on a faded blue metal door as birds celebrate the sunrise. The air is still fresh. The two lovely ladies from “Nomad’s home” welcome us into a peaceful courtyard where I notice a little cooking area, a dining table and a fridge full of beers. They offer us to pitch the tent in the garden. Unfortunately, we have no tent anymore. With a gentle smile, they take us to a room where a clean, comfortable bed awaits us. We crash into it.
It was never our intention to stay in Bishkek for more than a few hours. It is the countryside that attracted us to Kyrgyzstan, not the concrete buildings. We wake up feeling a bit trapped: we have to find Eva’s bag before we can escape the capital. And we need help. Our first idea is to contact Samuel. I virtually met him on a travel forum a few weeks before our departure, as I was doing some research for permits to some remote areas. He is a Swiss expatriate living here, and he runs an organization called Nomad’s Land. They help travelers discover the country and he might be a good person to ask for some tips. We have the address of his office, so after a quick breakfast, we go out of the lodge with the mission to find him.
We venture for the first time in Bishkek. The city has woken up since we landed. The streets are filled with battered japanese cars and the dust they lift as they drive by. We jump from shade to shade, sneaking away from the sun already trying to knock us out. This part of town is busy but remains surprisingly peaceful, and we are able to navigate easily. We have the address of Samuel’s office: Maldybaeva 12/1. It is quite far, on the other side of town compared to our lodge, but after a good two-hour walk, we finally find the street. And we find the building number 10, and 14. But number 12 (let alone 12/1) is not there.
It is a residential area, with much less going on than in the city center. People have more time to notice us, and with our shorts and our bewildered look, we are hardly blending in. They look at us with a bit of curiosity, but quickly respond with smiles. We decide to ask for directions. Our russian is very limited so we just repeat : “Maldybaeva 12?”. After a moment of confusion, and reflection, people point at a direction, which we follow to no avail. Another person, the same question, a completely new direction. Hours pass as we wander around without being able to find the office.
Eventually thirsty, I walk into a shop to buy a drink, and I try to ask for directions to the shop owner. The lady doesn’t seem to know, but another customer hears my distress, and comes to talk to me... in English! She’s a teacher and comes to our rescue for a few minutes. She helps us call the office for more precise directions. We end up finding the building, a couple of kilometers further, in a total different street.
Samuel and Naguima welcome us in a quiet, refreshing office and listen to our undramatic drama. They show us how to go to he the airline’s office where we are welcomed by an unimpressed man in a suit, who makes us fill the same form as the one at the airport, while his colleague peacefully sleeps on the desk next to him. “Come back tomorrow” he concludes.
We had to go every day, for four days in a row to meet that same man. Every day, the same protocol: no information about Eva’s bag, and we have to fill the same forms over and over. Eventually tired of seeing us, they give us access to their computer where we can see the descriptions of every bag lost in Istanbul’s airport. And after hours of research, Eva found on a specific page : “Orange bag. No tag. Tent. Hiking shoes. Books “Sur la route, Jack Kerouac”, “Michel Houellebecq“... it has to be it!
It will reach Bishkek tomorrow. It’s time to leave.
Waiting for Eva's bag gives us an unexpected chance to discover Bishkek. And it turns out to be a much better city than we expected. Good food, friendly and helpful people, easy transportation.
We have spent the last few days talking to Samuel about possible places to go to in the following weeks. He tells us about a lake called Song-kul, quite a popular place for people who want a first adventure in Kyrgyzstan, especially if you like horses. And Eva loves horses. He gives us a contact in a small town (Kochkor), where someone would be able to rent us some horses for a few days.
We have Eva's bag. After a few days in Bishkek, we are eager to start the adventure and first head to the massive Issyk-kul lake for a bit of fresher air.
We are not quite sure how to get there, but as soon as we ask some people, everybody is trying to help us.
We are guided to a marshrutka (a shared mini-bus) that is about to drive to Balykchy, the closest town on the lake. As soon as we arrive, people are just trying to help and come to ask us where we are from. We quickly find a place to stay for the night and enjoy the end of the day by the lake.