Mountains loom on either side of the steep, precarious road, snow-capped peaks towering over the road like silent, immovable titans, dwarfing the car to the size of a child’s toy. The icy waters of a stream rush past below, huge boulders impeding its progress. The air is crisp and pure, and I breathe it into my lungs deeply. Pine trees smother the peaks, their thick needles blanketing the forest floor, standing tall at the side of the highway, like soldiers on parade, their boughs straying precariously onto the road. The sky is a regal indigo, not one cloud daring to break the monopoly of blue. Nobody speaks; we are all too preoccupied with the amazing vista unfolding right before us. Salaam Aleikum, Kyrgyzstan.
The tarmac twists through the mountain passes, a black asphalt snake winding its way along a carpet of impossibly white snow, broken only by a rushing ribbon of water and the ever present conifers. We drive for the whole day, the scenery remaining unchanged as the sun begins to die; a triumphant moon emerges as the victor, taking its place in the twilight. Night descends, the great silent forest penetrated by two beams from the headlights, like searchlights combing the trees for an escaped fugitive. The tall evergreens whisper in the breeze, shaking and shuddering like ghosts as the wind whistles around their branches. From far away, the howl of a wolf echoes along the valley, its tone sorrowful. The call reverberates off the peaks, sending an ice cold shiver down my spine. As my eyelids begin to grow heavy, I rest my head on a pillow and let sleep envelop my mind, the darkness of night closing around me, the pale, deathly moon hanging in the sky, a lone sentinel, consumed by the night.
We wake up huddled on the seats of the Toyota, parked in a small lay by at the side of the road, the gurgling stream still flowing past. We splash the cold, icy water on our faces, reinvigorating our senses, refreshing our minds. The clear water of the river sparkles in the sunlight as I look up to the peaks; their snow capped majesty filling me with awe. Millions of scarlet poppies coat the mountainside, rushing down its steep inclines like an avalanche of blood, opening towards the shining sun, draping the gargantuan peaks under a cloak of impossible red, flowing down to the road, a river of colour splashing against its pure white banks. They ripple in the soft mountain breeze, spilling out into the road- an estuary of life blossoming on these harsh peaks. We watch from the windows of the car, mesmerised by sight, as we roar along the black snake, sliding gracefully through a landscape of staggering beauty. We drive for another few hours, passing old Soviet trucks, their hearts of steel belching acrid smoke and desecrating the crisp air. Finally, after a long day of driving, our destination comes into view, and we stare in awe.
The enormous freshwater mountain lake known as “Issyk-Kul”, literally meaning “hot lake” in the Kyrgyz language, fills the windscreen, a mesmerising panorama of impossibly blue sky and water, beautifully clean thanks to the cold, bubbling springs that animate it from thousands of feet up the titan-like mountains. The sunlight gives the whole landscape a heavenly feel, the lake sparkling and rippling like a living creature. The staggering beauty of the Ala’too Mountain range offers a stupendous backdrop, jagged peaks surrounding the water, their snowy heads towering above the earth, rearing like stallions into the sky.
Issyk-Kul was one of many Silk Road stops, whose travellers were no doubt mesmerised by the sheer beauty of the location. The water in the lake is cool and refreshing, fast flowing streams converging on it like pilgrims on a holy site. The water is so clear I can see for hundreds of metres, tiny fish inquisitively darting around my ankles, silver arrows against the sandy floor, moving with effortless grace and shimmering like jewels. The aromas of freshly cooked fish fill the air on the beach, roasted over an open wood fire not five metres from the lapping water. Falcons soar high above the edge of the lake, their black eyes sparkling with intelligence, cruel beaks turned towards the water, instruments of death behind a façade of astonishing beauty and grace, only their cold eyes revealing their true nature as they scan both land and water.
Three days later, and we leave Issyk-Kul again, the Land Cruiser a tiny blue speck against the black tarmac, contrasting sharply with the blood red poppies erupting like lava from a volcano. As we round a bend, I take one last look back at the lake, shining like a diamond in the early morning sun, hidden from the rest of the world by the proud peaks.
After the tranquillity of the mountains, the fume ridden, chaotic, cacophony of the city comes as a huge surprise. Trucks, vans and motorbikes roar past, their steel hearts beating furiously, iron lungs pumping hard as they struggle against the heat. Trolleybuses trundle along wearily, clinging on to the overhead cables that give them life, creaking and groaning under the strain. Two fighter jets roar overhead, heading south towards Afghanistan from the US base near the airport, their wings swept back. I stop and watch them for a second, their shape reminding me of the tiny minnows at Issyk-Kul, winged silver arrows, cutting through the very fabric of the sky. They move unnaturally, mechanical doom against the backdrop of nature. The never ending car horns continue throughout both the day and the stiflingly hot night, as hundreds of mosquitoes descend on me, peppering me with bites like a miniscule artillery barrage.
Bishkek still has a very Soviet feel, from the plain concrete buildings to the decidedly communist apartment blocks and parks. Statues of Marx, Engels and Lenin are showered generously around the capital. Despite being swallowed up into the USSR, the Kyrgyz national identity remains fiercely and proudly intact, the incredible natural beauty of the country one of the deciding factors in the pride that people show for their homeland. The female warrior Kurmanjan Dakta played a crucial role in the identity of Kyrgyzstan in the early 20th century, compromising with the Russian empire and persuading her people not to resist them violently. When her son was sentenced to death by the Tsar’s regime for gun running and the murder of a customs official, she famously stated that: “she would not let her private hopes and ambitions be a cause of suffering to her people.” She attended her son’s public execution at the hands of the Russian government, satisfying them and enabling the Kyrgyz way of life to survive.
The astounding beauty of Kyrgyzstan simply staggers me, tucked away in a remote corner of the world, free of the clutches of package holidays and holidaymakers, free from the travel companies and overpriced tourist traps, hidden from the boutique hotels and coach trips, lacking the tacky souvenir shops and western chain restaurants, just a country more beautiful than the Garden of Eden, tucked away, hidden from the world. As our plane bellows and hurtles down the runway, I take one last look at the Ala’too Mountains, standing tall, keeping guard over this wonderful land. I sit back in my seat as transfixed as I was on the first day. We power into the sky, and I smile at their beauty one last time.
Text by Daniel Arthur
Photos: OCA archive