In just over twelve hours of landing in Kyrgyzstan, we’d gotten a few hard reality checks that forced us to abandon most things we knew about traveling. On our very first morning in Bishkek, we hopped aboard a Marshrutka (a minivan taxi that doubles up as a ‘bus’ in Kyrgyzstan) that was supposed to get us to the bus station, at least as per the instructions we received from our hostel caretaker. Not only did we fail miserably to communicate even a word to the driver but not a single co-passenger could help. You see, tourists were not something they’d seen often.
The bus kept emptying at each stop until we were the only passengers left. Soon, we were on the outskirts of the city and the bus came to a final halt at the depot. We were lost and a tad scared. An hour later, after dollops of more (mis)adventures, we somehow got to the bus station although we emptied our pockets significantly in that attempt. What transpired at the bus station is a whole different story but let’s leave that for another time.
We knew one thing by then – this wasn’t going to be anything like the journeys we’ve been on in the past, and it most definitely wasn’t. As a matter of fact, it has completely transformed the way we think about ‘travel’.
follow Because Unpredictability Is Beautiful
Whether we were in a big city, a small town, or a remote village, nothing was a guarantee in Kyrgyzstan. Where our Lonely Planet suggested three restaurants, probably just one was open. Where our weather app suggested a sunny day, we received a downpour. Our horseback trek, scheduled to start at 9 AM, did not start up to 1 PM thanks to the roads that had snowed in for the first time in the season. Journeys between various points involved using shared taxis that would set off only when the whole vehicle is full. This meant that we could never predict when we would get out from one place or reach the next.
In totality, traveling in Kyrgyzstan revolved around a lot of unpredictability, miles away from the guidebook-driven travels we were used to. This brought a dimension to our journey we’d seldom experienced before, something we eventually embraced and enjoyed.
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When we rode up on a horseback far up into the high mountain passes with our guide in tow, we thought this was going to be a ‘touristy’ experience. After all, we’d signed up for this through the country’s most popular tour network. As night fell on the first day, we’d arrived at our first stop – a tiny settlement of 3 yurts (Mongolian/ Kyrgyz style huts) that was put up only for the long summer tourist season. But, here’s where things really got interesting.
Every facility we were given was no different from the facilities our guide and the host family had. We all shared the same toilet, a big round hole with a drum where all our droppings went in. The yurt we lived in had no electricity and there were no ‘special’ arrangements made to provide us the same. We shared the same meals and even shared our tiny yurt with our guide. The bed made for us, the blankets we used, the warmth inside the yurt – every single thing was just what the hosts had access to themselves. For once, we felt less of a tourist and more of a guest, a feeling that we’d been seeking for since a long time.
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On the final day of the horseback trip, we woke up to a sunny day by the lakeside. A car was scheduled to pick us up after breakfast which would drive us through the mountain passes back into the nearby town. With no electricity or phone network, we were fully reliant on the driver turning up. An hour passed, then two, there was no sign of any car. We walked up to our host and requested him through hand gestures to make a call but he just shrugged his shoulders indicating he is helpless.
We walked around from yurt to yurt, most of which was on the verge of shutting down until we chanced upon someone with a car that had snow tires. To our delight, he spoke broken English, understood our situation, and promised to take us up to the valley below. Delighted, we got into the car (stuffed in the back seat with kids) and rode away only to stop every now and then to shovel snow off the road. When we finally made it to the base, we had no clue how we were getting up to the town. But, by now, we’d learned to let go. We calmly enjoyed a few cups of chai hoping something would work out and voila, it did. Our driver turned up from nowhere at the house we were in. Another flat tire adventure later, we made it to the town although delayed by 5 hours. To not have bucket-list items to tick off, to put trust in strangers, and just go with the flow – it left us feeling content.
Because It Is Much Beyond The World Of Instagram-Driven Travel
In our humble opinion, Instagram has been slowly but steadily corroding the concept of travel. The fashion parade masquerading as ‘travel’ is not just appalling but also harmful. While we’ve been admittedly guilty of it as well, Kyrgyzstan threw the towel in our face and woke us up.
When you’re sitting on a horseback at 10000 feet wherein your hands are frozen and body is aching, you ain’t gonna take out your camera and strike a pose. When you’ve been riding without electricity for days and your camera battery is about to die, there’s not much you’d click even when you’re at one of the world’s highest alpine lakes. When you tend to get lost at every turn, your interaction with locals is a necessity and not just a ‘thing to do’. For a change, we felt like explorers and not just tourists as we were more lost in the nature around us rather than inside our cameras or phones.
We came back from Kyrgyzstan with a deep desire to explore more of the region and to embrace the uncertainties that come with traveling in regions that haven’t laid out a red carpet for travelers. We’re now urged to travel to places and regions that remain raw, rugged, and away from the comforts of tourism. It was physically challenging and mentally exhausting. Yet, it is the most rewarding journey we’ve ever been on so far.