Silk Roads of Tajikistan Land of Mountains


Yep.  I was able to secure a visa and go to the off the radar and relatively unknown (to the west) land of Tajikistan.  If you have the opportunity to go, you should too.  My trip was really a quick one, but what was expected to be a day trip to Khujand, what I expected to be an uneventful city near the border, was nothing like that.  WIkitravel even had a line that made it seem like a yawn.  Not so.  It was really cool, and well worth the excursion that we did on our trek across Central Asia.  Visiting Khujand was a relatively inexpensive and very easy day trip from Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

On this trip across Central Asia following old silk road trade routes we visited Merv, Turkmenistan, Mountains and Valleys of Kyrgyzstan, Mazar-e-Sharif Afghanistan.

In my quest to visit all the countries of the world, I was really pleasantly surprised by Tajik.  It was really cool, and the taxi guy we met at the border was very reasonable and treated us well.  Not only is Khujand not simply a border town, it is the second largest city in Tajikistan, a land with mostly mountains.  Khujand was formerly known as Khodjend or Khodzhent until 1936 and also named Leninabad until 1991.  Apparently there is a large lenin statue somewhere, but I didn’t find it. I’ve seen Lenin himself still resting in Moscow and his birthplace and statue in Slovenia, so I wasn’t disappointed.  On the contrary, it was a fanstastic visit.  It has over 150,000 people and has an amazing square, vibrant city center, and a lot of history that is visible.

Panchshanbe Bazaar and Fountain

Panchshanbe Bazaar and Fountain– This is the ornate old soviet era bazaar.  Filled with spices, meats, and hustle and bustle, but stop and watch a game of chess or a card game out by the fountain. 

Panchshanbe Bazaar

The faces of these Tajiks capture my experience… yes a diamond in the rough.  A peacock amongst guinea fowl.  This bright smile was one that asked me to take her picture.  When was the last time you had someone really stop you in a market and ask you to take a picture??? In my travels, that’s a very rare thing.  She wasn’t looking for money, she wanted to share her smile with the world, and I’m happy that I was able to bring this happy Tajik smile to you.

Khujand Tajikistan Market and Bazaar

Our visit to the central markets of Khujand was really an opportunity to be indudated with color.  The women wear fabulous colors while most wear colorful head scarves as well.  A day earlier I was in Afghanistan, a world where colors were much more muted with the burkas.  There was a positive vibe and the colors worn in this market really helped bring out that spirit.

Masjidi Jami mosque and medrese Tajik New Mosque

Masjidi Jami mosque and medrese These roses were growing near this mosque which is still under construction.

Tajikistan Lunch

You can eat well and for very cheap in Tajikistan.  The cup of fresh natural apricot nectar is about 40-50 cents (USD) each, and the meat skewers or Shishka or Kabob are only $1.

Tajikistan breads

This amazing looking bread was extremly cheap, but is the staple of life.  You get bread like this with every meal, but the designs do vary across the cultures.

Khujand Market

The Market and bazaar is filled with nuts, breads, spices, and bustling people selling and buying.

Khujand Market

Minaret outside the old mosque

Soviet memorial in Khujand Tajikistan

At a park across the street from the bazaar is this monument. There are a few reminders of the old soviet times.

Sughd Museum in the old citidel

The Old Citidel and fortress has been restored and turned into a museum and contains a historical museum of the Sughd region.  While there are very many forts in the area that are more impressive, the door itself up close is quite ornate and worth visiting for that alone.  The lions and stars are incredible.

Amazing Tajikistan door

Amazing door to the fortress and citadel.

Ismail Somoni monument

Ismail Somoni monument – Surrounded by Lions and the Tajik flag, this majestic king looks over the city and valley with the strength of the mountains to his back. Popular statue and fountain.  Amazing landscape view of the city & valley.

Tajikistan Lions

The power of the lion is a common symbol in Tajikistan.

I had an amazing time in Tajikistan.  After having such an amazing day, I’d love to come back to spend my time with my gracious hosts.  They friendly people who refilled my apricot juice about 6 times, and the ladies in the market selling us nuts and letting us try and sample as much as we wanted.  Thanks to the smiles and the nods and the long looks that made me feel like I was a stranger in an amazing strange, and mysterious land.

While I didn’t feel at Risk, and I made some great friends, I point at this travel forum on Tajikistan Lonely planet safety for anyone considering travel there.  I think Tajikistan was amazing.  In my mind it’s about being smart just as it is in most countries around the world.  Avoiding Police and Military makes sense and connecting with locals makes a lot of sense for Tajik travel…

There are other travel references on Tajik travel to Khujand including Virtual Tourist Khujand, and Khujand on Wikitravel.  The wikitravel page made me think it was worth skipping.  I totally disagree.  It was definitely worth the day trip from the Uzbek capital and the taxi on both sides really was a bargain.

From Mary to the Ancient City of Merv Turkmenistan

Merv Turkmenistan

If you haven’t traveled to Turkmenistan, you’re not alone. I bet they really don’t see many visitors due to the challenges of getting approval to visit.  You can read about it on the Lonely Planet guide to Turkmenistan or trust me, there is no such thing as independent travel.  You’re required to have a guide and simply taking your guide to places you decide you want to go is also off the list.  You strictly have to check in as scheduled and not deviate off course.  In our travel along the silk road, Turkmenistan was initially planned to be a quick stop, but they wouldn’t have it.  They required us to spend at least one night and even that came across as extremely suspicious to them.  I do think we had some extra scrutiny, but after all the attention, we did make it through the border fairly quickly (about an hour).  It was good to know that we could essentially got to the front of the line as “tourists.”  We didn’t see any other tourists the entire time we were in the country, but I did meet a lot of friendly people and the nicest camel I’ve ever met in my life… and in my travels that is a lot!  The opposite end of the spectrum is the camel at Petra that spit and bit at me.

Turkmen Camel

While I’m on the topic of camels which is one of my favorite things about Turkmenistan, we saw a lot of camels simply roaming through the desert.  In some countries you see sheep on the hills.  In Turkmenistan, you see groups of camels by themselves just walking along the desert.  It’s amazing how long they can go without water.  There were often 2 or 3 adults among a group which may have a handful of young ones eating near by.  For these more wild camels we never knew how crazy they might be, but we took our chances for some good shots being cautious and then snuggling up with this lovable camel.

Turkmenistan Wild Camel

Kissy Camel lips

Turkmenistan Desert

The deserts of Turkmenistan do have a lot of green in them.  Our guide was pointing that from space it looks pretty green.  Much of what Turkmenistan looked like on the drive across looked like the picture above.  I hear there are even more great adventures out through the sand, but we didn’t get to spend that kind of time.  Our trip to Turkmen was a part of a bigger trip across the silk road.

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Some maybe most wouldn’t be able to point out where Turkmenistan is on the map.  It’s north of Iran, West of Afghanistan, and shares a large border with Uzbekistan and finally the Caspian sea to it’s West.  We would start our journey in Bukhara and spend the night in Mary after seeing Merv. I want you to see a few pictures of life today in Turkmenistan based on what I saw as we drove across this fascinating land.

 

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First you do see lots of flags and statues including the famous Turkmen symbols from the special star to the Turkmen rug symbols for the tribes on the national flag.  I think every tour in Turkmenistan starts out by explaining the nomadic tribes and their tribal symbols on the flag.  Great story or unifying tribes.

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These ladies were selling their wares on the side of the road out in the desert.  Most of it looked hand made from camel fur.  Pretty amazing what they could make with a little wool and camel yarn.  These ladies covered up their faces pretty quickly when they saw us take our camera’s out.

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Kyrgystan has yurts in the mountains, and Turkmen has yurts in the desert.

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Many muslims in Turkmenistan (93%).  They are a very religious people it seemed to me for the most part, despite being a former soviet country.

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Women wear very long dresses and young girls wear their long hair down.  Once married the hair goes up.

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Statue and Soviet looking bus.  You do really see a variety of old and new in the cities.

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Traditional dinner in Mary.  Yep more Shishka, but these were very fresh and tender.

Now for the old.  In Merv I had two favorites both part of the ancient city of Merv which is part of the Unesco heritage site.  Merv is the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis-cities along the Silk Route in Central Asia. The remains in this vast oasis span 4,000 years of human history. A number of monuments are still visible, particularly from the last two millennia.

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

The oasis formed part of the empire of Alexander the Great.  Fluted Clay Wall of Kyzkala Palace

Read more about the UNESCO site on their website  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/886

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Palace, Dome and Ruins… (even a little came in the photo… can you see it?)

I appreciate this quote on Merv.  While I saw there, I tried to imagine the city in it’s 12th century times as potentially the largest city in the world!!  “Merv (Turkmen: Merw, Persian: مرو‎ Marw), formerly Achaemenid Satrapy of Margiana, and later Alexandria (Ἀλεξάνδρεια) and Antiochia in Margiana (Greek: Ἀντιόχεια τῆς Μαργιανῆς), was a major oasis-city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, located near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. Several cities have existed on this site, which is significant for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value. It is claimed that Merv was briefly the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The site of ancient Merv has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.”

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Merv was home to practitioners of various religions beside the official Sassanid Zoroastrianism, including Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Christians of the Church of the East.  While in much of it now you see mounds these were once great walls.  The idea that Zoroastrians were in the same town as Buddhists and Christians is amazing to me.

 

“It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000”

As we walked around trying to soak in the history and imagine the vast cities within cities, we were in awe.

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Now in much of what was the largest city, you see mounds.  In 1221 Merv opened it’s gates to the son of Genghis Khan, named Tolui.

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Not much to see now.  Looking from the walls of the city toward the dome at sunset.

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Artists rendition of the “before”

It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000” – Merv Wikipedia Article

Fascinating to read the largest cities of the world over time.  Surprised not to see any Incan or Mayan cities or even Angkor Wat.  I think it’s a fun list but not complete.

 

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From the top of the tower.  Dome in the distance.

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum, the old dome.  It really is the best preserved of everything we saw in Merv.  This 12th-century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, also in Sultan Gala is the largest of Seljuk mausoleums and is also the first dated mosque-mausoleum complex.

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum old 1890

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum dome merv

The stacked rocks reveal that buddhists have visited the place and leave prayer rocks.

muslim star

 

 

 

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The ruins of Merv were fascinating to explore.  With civilization after civilization for millinum it is overwhelming to think of this area as some of the oldest continuous civilization.

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In conclusion… Turkmenistan was a fascinating visit.  I do recommend Turkmenistan on any silk road tour.  I wish I could have made it to the door to hell or derweze.  Make sure you look that up to see if it fits you’re schedule.  Otherwise if you want some history and friendly camels, Soviet city of Mary/ and Ancient city of Merv is a great destination.

Discovering Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains


Oh Kyrgyzstan, how I love thee.  What an incredible culture.  I really really enjoyed the people and mountains of this vast rugged territory.  The loyalty and incredible friendliness of the people still strikes me.  I really enjoyed visiting these amazing places that were important sites of the silk road and played an important part of the world’s history that has since been lost in much of the history books and easily overlooked.  These former soviet republics have a history of their own and are very worth visiting as they each have their own cultures and traditions.

Basura Kyrgzystan Undiscovered Territory

I didn’t really know what to expect when I discovered I’d have 4 days in Bishkek before we’d continue on to Almaty.  At first I was a little worried by what I’d seen on simple image searches of Bishkek.  As a city you can see it in a day or based on my drivers thoughts… an hour, but get outside the city and day trips and you’re in one of those lifetimes that you need to have to find the depth.  I need to share some stories to help you really understand why Kyrgyzstan really captured my heart and became one of my favorites.

I want to help you understand how I saw this place which really reveals my formula.  If you look at the pictures of what I saw vs. a quick image search of Bishkek or even a virtualtourist.com search of Bishkek and you see a big difference.  On this trip, I took a traveler’s perspective.  I did very little research before going.  I made a reservation because I had heard from a friend who was there a few months prior that I might have a challenge in the airport.  I personally have never allowed language to stop me from visiting a place, but I did once have to visit more than half a dozen taxis on an island in China to find one driver who could take me where I wanted to go.  In this case, I like to build a home base.  I like to make a connection with a local and a hotel to start my travel from.

On facebook I started with a search, “My friends who live in Kyrgyzstan” – 0 results.  “My friends of friends who have friends who live in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan” – a handful of results.  I reach out to Monica, and ask her if she could introduce me to her friend Azat.  After being introduced, I discovered that not only did Azat live in Bishkek, but he spoke pretty good English and had even visited the United States.  Monica had visited him while in Bishkek and with that introduction, I had a true friend.  In the world of Kyrgyzstan that friendship I would find would be so profound.  The people have a rich heritage and rich loyalty.

I was traveling to speak at a conference in Barcelona and planning a trip across Central Asia, but my friend Michael had already visited Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  He’s the one who had mentioned language may be a challenge.  With Barcelona as my starting point I found a flight on Pegasus airlines a very discounted airlines that has some really fascinating destinations.  For approximately $250 I could fly from Barcelona and connect in Istanbul to Bishkek on a flight that would take about 10 hours or so to arrive.  For the price, I was crazy not to take it.  In all my travels across Central Asia, this flight would save me about $1000 vs other routes.  I did some searching and made a reservation with Booking.com at RIch Hotel.

rich hotel

Four stars and an 8.4 user rating for $70.  I was pretty excited.  I was pretty happy with Rich Hotel.  The facility met my needs.  Good bed, clean sheets, ok (free) hot personally made breakfast (eggs and toast) and juice, but it was the driver that I really connected with.  He didn’t speak a lot of English, but over the course of the few days, we both got really comfortable with each other.

My driver would me on private tours of the city, take us to some fantastic places.  Here’s the quick list of where we went and amazing must see places.  I’ve been surprised how some of these fantastic places haven’t really been discovered.

Bishkek

Ala-Too Square

Ala too square

This square is the central square for the city and in the past has been a place of gathering for political protest it still is a great place to see the people gathering and children playing around the fountains.  Across central asia, fountains are found in the centers of cities and the people go there to relax and socialize with their friends.

central square bishkek

Ала-тоо аянты Площадь Ала-Тоо is the central square in Bishkek,Kyrgyzstan. The square was built in 1984 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz SSR.  At one point it had a statue of Lenin that was later moved to a smaller square.  Erkindik(Freedom) was installed in its place it has a statue of Chinghiz Aitmatov.  You can read about it’s significance in the Tulip revolution for gathering and protest in 2005.

Ala Too Square

Interesting Soviet style buildings from 1984 surround the fountains.

Old Kyrgyz Man with Hat

It was at the square that I saw this wise man, I wanted to talk with him and ask him if I could take his picture.  He didn’t speak any english, but my driver from the hotel helped us find out that he was from deep on the other side of Kyrgyzstan and he was visiting.  He was anxious to talk with me and share.  As my first real interaction with a local that wasn’t associated with airport or hotel, I was very impressed with how nice he was and how he was happy to let me take his photo and share his wisdom.

Beautiful Kyrgyz Child

This little Kyrgyz girl was gathering dandelions and flowers.  I couldn’t resist taking a photo to capture the memory.  So innocent.

 

Kyrgyz Russian Orthodox ChurchKyrgyz Russian Orthodox Church

Old Russian Orthodox church in Bishkek was a quick pass by.  I asked the driver to stop so I could take a picture.  Going inside was even more fascinating.  During the Soviet times, religion was repressed, and few of these buildings remain.  The church on the right above  is bombed out, but the domes remain.

Kyrgyz MosqueKyrgyz Mosque

Kyrgyz World War 2

It so happened while I was in Kyrgyzstan there were celebrations to honor the world war II veterans and remember… Never forget.  With as much opposition as there has been it’s very interesting to think that the US and Russia were allies during both world wars.

 

Ala Archa

Less than an hour outside the city and for about $30, I full day trip to explore the mountains.  Think Switzerland, but even more remote and unseen and unknown by western ways.  Ala Archa is a national park that has a small fee, but has trails to falls and along glacial rivers with incredible views of the valleys.

Ala Archa National Park

Ala Acha

Swiss Chalet?  Looks like it, but here you can get fresh water or some soup or local horse or sheep milk yoghurt drink.

yurt kyrgyz

This is life in rural Kyrgyzstan.  Simple, traditional, and living life the way the ancestors did.  Huge respect for this type of natural living.  Is there more green ways than the idea that no one should own the land and that we are simply transient and all of us will move on in our journey in life?

Kyrgyz Shepherd and horse

It wasn’t unusual to find shepherds tending their flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle.  What was unique about this was my driver offering to talk to the shepherd to allow me to ride his horse.  Sure enough he obliged and I had a great ride around the little hills.

I referred to my facebook friend Azat.  He arranged to meet me after my excursion in the hills.  He was getting off work and invited me to have a traditional meal with his family.  I was very very excited to have such an authentic experience to really meet locals that I could talk to and better get to know what life was like in Kyrgyz.  He was a technology guy like myself, so we already had that in common.  He picked us up at our hotel and brought us to his apartment in the city of Bishkek.  Azat has two little boys and an amazing wife who spent probably all day working on our meal.  The food was amazing.  What’s better than traditional Kyrgyz Home cooking?  They made this traveler feel like I was a dignitary.  Very special treatment.  They were so nice and kind, and so willing to do whatever was needed.  I wasn’t hungry for days afterward.  I still get a big smile when I think about how incredible it was to make a local connection and meet a real family to experience the traditions and values.  Even though I was only in Kyrgyzstan for a few days, this connection will last a lifetime.  I hope I can return the hospitality some day Azat!

Azat and his beautiful Kyrgyz family

Azat and family were so cute.  I had an amazing time getting to know them and sharing some of my life experiences with them.  We shared stories and really connected.  His wife played on her traditional instrument the komuz the national instrument.

Komus playing

 

Top of the Yurt

At the top of the Yurt is the iconic symbol of Kyrgyzstan.  At Ala Acha there was a family that was setting up their yurt and was happy to let us see it come together.  There is much pride and honor in these portable homes.  The history and family traditions run very deep.

Kyrgyz Yurt

The locals are very humble and extremely nice.

 

yurt

This is what the finished product will look like.

Kyrgyz teens

As we were hiking, I saw this group of Kyrgyz teens.  They were making soup.  Cutting up carrots and potatoes.  Really.

Kyrgyz picnic at Al Acha

Kyrgyz picnic spread

Soup

Cooking the soup!

Yoghurt Drink

Traditional meal after our hike.  Carbonated yoghurt sheep milk and soup.

Kyrgyz Com

Kyrgyz Money – som, com, pronounced some or soums

primitive out house

All of this talk of nature and simplicity should also include some caveats.  While the cities have plumbing, the more remote villages have out houses.  This make shift outhouse has a hole and boards in a very traditional rest room out back behind the restaurant.

kyrgyz graves

In life and in death there are many of the same symbols.  Religious symbols and the national symbols that are incorporated from the Yurts are very common.  Lots of symbols in the impressively ornate graves that celebrate the next chapter of our journey.

Burana Tower

80 KM from Bishkek on great roads.  The tower, along with fascinating stone  grave markers, some earthworks, is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun, but now there’s a yurt with souvenirs, and a little museum of odd things from the area. (Not much in English. Mostly Russian.) This area was at one point a large city established by the Karakhanids at the end of the 9th century.

Burana Tower

The Tower is fantastic.  It’s been restored, but it really is very unique and if you’re claustrophobic you’ll find a real challenge.  It’s quite dark and daunting, but as you can see in my pictures, if these kids could make it up, I could.  There is an external staircase and then a steep, winding stairway inside the tower allowing you to climb to the top.

Muslim Girls Top of the Burana Tower

The grave markers and stone carvings contain a fascinating mix of Buddhist, Islamic, and early man.  It’s a fascinating area that gives you the impression that this place has been inhabited since the dawn of man and is a very important place.

Burana Grave Markers

All that’s left of the city is earthen mounds and rooms.  It’s still amazing to feel like an archeologist to walk around and put together stories of the castle and mausoleums that once were here.

Burana Ruins

These mounts were once a great city in the 9th century.  The ancient city of Balasagun also known as Gobalik (pretty city) by the Mongols who captured the city in 1218.

Balasagun was founded by Soghdians, a people of Iranian origin and the Soghdian language was still in use in this town till the 11th century.  It was the capital of the Kara-Khanid Khanate from the 10th Century until it was taken by the Kara-Khitan Khanate in the twelfth century.  The Khitans used this as their capital, but were a mix of buddhist nomads, and muslim people as well as traditional khitan.

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Old Arabic in grave markers

 

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The food in Kyrgystan is not to miss.  The freshest meats you’ll ever find.  Sheep, Chicken, Beef skewers called Shishka.  The dinning is nice.  Traditionally we’ll sit on the floor with cushions around a short table.  It’s very family and socially oriented.  It’s not about eating fast, it’s about enjoying the company you are with.  The drapery helps you get some level of privacy if you want it.  There are similarities in the food across central asia, but each country does their traditional rice dishes very different.  Each tribe of people has their own way, so you’ll often find different cities have their own flavor.  In Bishkek it’s traditional to have a little bit of horse meat with the Osh (regional rice dish).

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Fresh food!

Lake Issuk Kul

One of the largest lakes in Central Asia and really what the locals consider going to the beach.  There are even changing rooms and sand.  Highly recommended to see what a Kyrgyz retreat is like.  With the help of our driver we found a variety of small cheap hotels for around $20 even with wifi.  I did end up jumping in the lake and swimming around with some Russians on vacation.  They didn’t speak any english and my handful of words in Russian didn’t keep us from having a good time splashing around in the fresh, but freezing water as the sun set.

Issuk Kul Lake - Иссык-Куль

Beautiful and serene Lake Issyk Kul (Иссык-Куль) in the northern Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. It is the tenth largest lake in the world by volume and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. (Wikipedia)

 

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The lake is a very important region supporting life of all types and is recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Izzyk kul.  The snow leapord is in the mountains surrounding this lake.  Ladies sell dried fish and honey on the road near the banks of the lake.  Also near the lake is a prehistoric tribal outdoor museum that contains many mounds, mausoleums, rock carvings, and petroglyphs.

izzyk kul beach on the lake

Glacial Mountains in the background of the sandy beaches of lake Izzyk kul.

 

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Kyrgyz Kids playing on the beaches on the coastline of the worlds 2nd largest high lake of Izzyk-Kul.

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I dove into Kyrgyzstan and made some great friends and a new favorite place in this world.  I highly encourage it you to visit Bishkek and surrounding.  Don’t stay in the city, go into the mountains, and valleys, visit the lake.  You must roam!  Don’t let Kyrgystan be one of those places you’ve never been.  It’s an incredible experience.