Five Reasons You Need To Visit Kyrgyzstan NOW

Five reasons, in no particular order, why you need to beat the inevitable crowds and visit Kyrgyzstan before it’s too late!

I’ve recently returned from a ten-day trip to northern Kyrgyzstan after a friend invited me over to check out the World Nomad Games – a celebration of central-Asian culture, history and sport. It was an awesome short trip and, despite only just scratching the surface, has given me a taste of what ‘the stans’ have to offer. I definitely plan to return there and explore more in-depth in the future. 

The past few years have seen an increase in the number of travellers preaching about how great Kyrgyzstan is but – searching for blogs or articles – there’s still not much traveller info out there. So, in no particular order, here’s my five reasons you need to visit!

It’s Super Cheap. Like, Really Cheap!

The Kyrgyz currency is the ‘Som’ and you get real ‘bang for your buck’ out there. 100 som is roughly equivalent to about £1 GBP ($1.30 USD). 

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Visa: If you’re one of 45 listed countries you don’t need a visa at all; simply turn up and get an entry stamp for free. There’s a further 20 countries that can obtain a visa on arrival and, even if you don’t fall into either list it’s not impossible to get in, it just might cost a little more.
Food: A substantial meal with a soft drink in one of capital Bishkek’s soviet-style cafeterias will set you back about 150-180 som, or a more western-style pizza and soft drink in a shopping mall costs about 500 som. Ramen is pretty popular in the malls and, with a soft drink as a standard gauge, the cheque comes in at about 250 som. Sometimes service in the malls can be slow or convoluted – often your freshly-cooked pizza might arrive before your bottled drink or, if you order an appetizer, everything comes out at once. However, at that price it didn’t particularly bother me. One night I went to a pretty nice restaurant down the road from Ala Too Square where a large pizza, meat solyanka soup, bread and an iced coffee came to just 800 som… pretty good! If you’re really on a budget you can swing by a roadside bakery and get a large meat pie and iced tea for just under 100 som.

10Transport: The most common mode of public transport is the Mushutkra – a minibus service not dissimilar to a Turkish Dolmus. Pretty much any journey within a town or city costs just 10 som! You simply hop on, jostle for position somewhere, and send your money forwards to the driver. There’s a really good app – 2GIS – that tells you exactly which mushutkra to catch for anywhere you want to go. You can also get almost anywhere nationally on mushutkras for a little more money. I only completed one ‘national’ journey from Cholpon-Ata (home of the Games) back to Bishkek and the five-hour journey cost me just 300 som. Taxis are pretty cheap too; you can expect to pay about 150-300 som for a journey anywhere within Bishkek or about $20 USD to get out towards Cholpon-Ata or the Kazakh border etc. (They prefer dollars for bigger payments).

Alcohol: Booze is ridiculously cheap as long as you drink the regional stuff. A pint of national beer – Arpa was my favourite – costs around 100 som and a 500ml bottle of regional vodka in a store is as cheap as 100 som. The cheapest stuff will turn you blind, but it only costs between 300-500 som for a bottle of a famous brand like Smirnoff, Belvedere or Ciroc. Just don’t buy any exotic imports: in one bar I ordered a Malibu Coke and they stung me with a 700 som cheque, making it almost equivalent to Dubai prices.

15Accommodation: When conducting personal travel I only ever stay in either a hostel, homestay or some variation of camping (hammock, tent, floormat etc.), and I’d say Kyrgyzstan hostel prices tend to fall on par with many of the cheaper backpacker destinations. You usually pay $6-10 USD per night for a dorm bed in most hostels. All the hostels I stayed at were clean and relatively friendly. Don’t expect them to be alcohol-or-cannabis-fuelled party hostels like those of SE Asia. Despite the extremely cheap alcohol and Kyrgyzstan being the genetic home of wild-growing cannabis, hostels are usually family-owned and adhere to pretty stringent curfews and rules. There was a real party atmosphere out in Cholpon-Ata and people stayed up drinking until whenever they wanted but loud noise or generally disrespectful behaviour weren’t considered acceptable like they can be in some parts of the world, and I mention this under the ‘cost’ category because the hostels advertise hefty fines for breaking the rules! Some friends went for a night in a traditional Yurt which only cost them about $30 USD each including a taxi transfer. I opted to stay and watch some more of the Games, under the argument that when I return to Kyrgyzstan I can trek between Yurts whereas the Games may never be there again.

Tourist Fees Don’t Exist: The best thing about the cost right now is that the Kyrgyz haven’t started adding ‘tourist charges’ onto everything. Tourism is still a pretty new concept out there so you pay what the locals pay. Even at the height of the World Nomad Games prices barely fluctuated on anything except transport, where travellers and expats familiar with the area told me prices were about 1.5x higher than usual. Just be wary in any restaurant or bar; the one area they will sting you is the 15% Service Charge that gets added to any sit-down drink or meal. A bonus whilst we were there was that the Games were almost-completely FREE. However, Turkey is hosting the next tournament and I don’t think it’ll be long before they start ticketing everything.

The People Are Really Friendly 

Despite reading about aggressive Russians, corrupt police or cold and uncaring locals, I didn’t find any of that in my short stay in the country. Perhaps the police were under orders to behave because of the Games; I witnessed one taxi driver paying off a traffic cop for some fake charge but I was never stopped and I didn’t hear of any other traveller being charged either. 

19It’s no secret in the backpacking world that, sometimes, Russians can be quite loud or pushy. However, this trip completely changed my perspectives. I found every ‘ethnic’ Russian (Kyrgyz citizen of Russian descent) I met to be very friendly, welcoming, and excited to see western tourists finally visiting their secret central-Asian haven. The same can be said for the ethnic Kyrgyz, who were really keen to talk and extremely welcoming. English really isn’t prevalent in Kyrgyzstan, except for maybe the younger generations in Bishkek, but lots of loud shouting and big smiles from both parties meant the friendly message usually got through. I strongly recommend adding the Cyrillic keyboard to your phone and using google translate; if you’re trying to speak locals will usually want to write something into a translator and vice versa.

DSC_1285On visiting the World Nomad Games Ethnovillage in Kyrchyn Valley I made friends with a great group of locals who invited me to join them for lunch. Despite my protests they kept putting food on my plate, then simply would not accept any money in return. They were extremely welcoming and had an incredible sense of humour.

I was told that hitchhiking is acceptable and a common, safe practice. I didn’t try it out on this trip (though I’ve previously enjoyed hitchhiking in the Middle East) but plenty of people seemed to have got around that way and enjoyed long conversations in broken English/Russian with the drivers.

 

25Osh Bazaar in Bishkek is one of the oldest bazaars on the ancient Silk Road and is well worth a visit. Unlike the soukhs of the Arab world, traders in Osh Bazaar aren’t pushy at all. In fact, you pretty much have to call them over to make a purchase! You can spend hours exploring the winding passages and alleys, each divided into sections such as spices, fake-brands, meats, electronics etc. and traders seem keen to pose for photographs and/or talk about their wares and products.

It’s Absolutely Stunning

18With more than 85% of the national landmass being classified as mountainous and boasting the second highest and second largest alpine lake on Earth, Kyrgyzstan is pretty damn aesthetically pleasing. There is literally hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres of fascinating scenery and, despite pretty good soviet infrastructure, most of the country is still pretty-much untouched. Fans of mountaineering will be keen to know that more than half of the country’s mountains are still unclimbed on record! So if bagging first ascents is your thing it’s an absolute playground. In the near future I’m planning to return for some first recorded summits.

11Fans of soviet architecture or cool cities will love Bishkek. Built in block-format and flanked by snow-capped mountains it looks like a city straight from a John Le Carré novel and many people are still getting around in old Lada cars and 1970s buses. There’s plenty of statues too, with statues and monuments of national heroes seeming to be a pretty big feature of Kyrgyz parks and roundabouts. The national warrior-hero Manas takes centre-stage in Ala Too Square.

 
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It’s Easier To Reach Than People Think 

When people think of ‘the stans’ they usually think of thousands of miles of trekking or overlanding to reach some distant, icy nowhere-land. However, we live in the 21st century and times have changed. I caught a Pegasus Airlines flight from London Stansted, transferring in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot are the two other main providers to Bishkek, or you can fly into Almaty (Kazakhstan) and either transfer onto dozens of smaller regional carriers, or take the short journey over the border by taxi. Due to the excellent transport system mentioned earlier, extensive travel in the region seems pretty easy and I met many people that had visited Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and even Turkmenistan using exclusively public transport.

It Won’t Stay Secret For Long

This year saw a huge surge in travellers heading to the World Nomad Games compared to previous years, and even with the Games going to Turkey in 2020, the increase in tourism is bound to continue. Kyrgyzstan already seems to be the most-famous secret on the backpacker trail, with more and more people adding it to their bucket lists. Lonely Planet cites The British Backpacker Society in rating it Number Five on the list of top backpacking destinations (no, Thailand didn’t make the list), and everybody I spoke to out there shared the mentality that we were riding the early stages of a wave that is gonna pick up a lot of energy in coming years.

DSC_1720Whilst Bishkek probably won’t replace Prague or Warsaw in the list of former-soviet Bachelor Party destinations, and Lake Issyk-Kul isn’t going to suddenly replace Italy’s Great Lakes for a landlocked beach holiday, Kyrgyzstan is certainly going to become a known name in the edgy travel sector. The backpacking community is starting to talk about how great the sightseeing and partying is, mountaineers are starting to talk about how many potential first-ascents there are, and global business is starting to realise there’s a big market potential for expansion there. With every blog or article – just like this – that hits the internet, there’s somebody else already booking their ticket. I’d strongly recommend beating the crowds now and seeing what the place has to offer before the Kyrgyz realise they can add big tourist prices to everything and everywhere gets too busy. Admit it or not, we can all be guilty of travellers’ snobbery at times, and in Kyrgyzstan it’s pretty nice to know you’re not just another tourist drone visiting the same old hotspots (ironically the area is historically the definition of an ‘old hotspot’, being the centre of the notorious Silk Road!).

 

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The Struggle Of The Modern Maasai

The infamous Maasai tribe of East Africa is under considerable strain. Nearly gone are the days of roaming free across the plains and warrior culture. Many Maasai have chosen to abandon the traditional lifestyle; they want to ‘modernise’ and join common society, arguably at the detriment of their culture. But a few still fight to remain Maasai, keen not to forfeit their history.

Just outside of Tsavo East National Park in Kenya there is a traditional Maasai Village. It has modernised somewhat – corrugated iron being the material of choice for housebuilding now rather than mud – and the residents are aware of their position as a tourist attraction, selling their ‘curio’ wares (handmade souvenirs) to safari tours that stop to pay a visit and take photographs. But when every other visiting tourist is keen to avoid ‘ugly’ clutter in their photos, I found myself drawn to it.

China has invested in a super-railway linking Nairobi and Mombasa, cutting right through the middle of the Tsavo National Parks (it also cuts through Nairobi National Park). Now, rather than a seemingly endless expanse of savannah these Maasai Tribesmen and Women have a megalithic concrete structure as their backdrop.

After some persuasion I convinced this tribesman to pose for a portrait. He protested about the railway being in the photograph – not quite understanding that it was the contrast of his home and the railway that I wanted.

It is not my place to judge what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for Kenya, but I think it safe to say times are certainly changing.

 

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A Magnificent Place With A Traumatic History

In the Malaysian part of Borneo there is a state called Sabah, known as the land beneath the wind. Within Sabah there is a district called Ranau, and within the district of Ranau lies a small, quiet village called Bongkud.

Set in the foothills of Mt. Kinabalu, Bongkud is a scenic village with a small population, still majorly reliant on agriculture and labour to sustain themselves. In recent years they have had the support of volunteers on expeditions with Camps International, a company I feel extremely proud and grateful to lead for, who have installed vital infrastructure and educational aid to improve the quality of life for locals, and given employment to many too. I have been to Bongkud on two of my three trips to Borneo with ‘Camps’ so far.

On the outskirts of the village, about a 500m walk from the Camp Bongkud facility, lies a hill known simply to locals as Bongkud Hill, or Bukit Bongkud in Malaysian. Standing at about 620m ASL, making it a mountain by UK technicalities, it is an imposing feature visible from anywhere in the village. It is coated in a sea of green ferns and rubber trees from bottom to top.

From below, Bongkud Hill looks stunning. However, an expedition wouldn’t be an expedition without going on adventures, so it is a Camps tradition that groups staying in Bongkud summit the hill at dawn at least once during their stay. As a Leader I’ve been fortunate enough to hike up there five or six times now – in 2016 I joined other groups each morning whilst my team remained asleep so I could recce it and get some exercise each morning before our own team ascent, and in 2018 I got up there with another team I was leading. I acquired a bit of a reputation for pushing my groups to do it early – leaving camp at 5am meant a much higher chance of catching the 6am sunrise from the top than the usual 5.30-6am schedule but this paid dividends when the teams witnessed why we’d done so.

The views are glorious from the moment you step outside the village centre. Within 20m of ascent, the misty morning valleys come into view to the right hand side. After a few hundred metres the path steepens to a sharp left turn up an even steeper earthen and muddy set of cut steps that eventually lead you to the top.

 

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A (clean-shaven!) author with Bongkud resident and local guide Euan about halfway up Bongkud Hill in 2016 (taken by team member).

As you near the top you step onto a wide, shallow-gradient ridgeline that eventually leads to a viewing area. In 2016 this was a dead end – a small wooden shelter marking the summit – but now it’s been cut back, providing ample space for groups to enjoy the view or even for vehicles to access it via a new gravel road on the other side.

Following the typical ascent route Mt. Kinabalu is visible to the left, its jagged rocky shape often encased in cloud or mist, and to the right is an endless expanse of jungle valleys and rises with morning mist rolling through them.

 

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Malaysian volunteer staff, Kendall, taking in the view from near the top in 2016 (Rich Holt).

 

 

 

Once at the top, groups often take half an hour to celebrate, catch their breath and photograph views like this:

 

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View from summit of Bongkud Hill, 2018 (Rich Holt).

 

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View from summit of Bongkud Hill, 2018 (Rich Holt).

 

 

 

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Descending into the mist via the new track on Bongkud Hill, 2018 (Rich Holt).

 

 

 

But hidden within this magnificent scene lies a dark and little-known history of suffering that all Camps Leaders and Camp Borneo staff try to educate their teams about. It is something not taught in school history lessons. The rest of the world, unless they have visited Borneo or stumbled upon it for themselves, remains completely unaware despite it being branded the single worst atrocity to happen to Australian forces in history.

In 1945, during the Japanese occupation of Borneo during the Second World War, 2345 Australian and British POWs were marched from their POW Camp in the city of Sandakan, on Borneo’s east coast, inland to Ranau 250km away. The series of three major marches became known as the Sandakan Death Marches and were conducted when the Japanese believed allied forces were closing in on Sandakan.

These marches were an event of extreme suffering. Prisoners were tortured or murdered for the sheer sake of it. They were barely fed or provided any water. Those who fell too weak, or refused to continue, were shot or bayoneted on the spot. By the end only six men survived to tell the tale, having made their escape and reported on the atrocities. It was too late and logistically impractical for allied forces to conduct a rescue of anybody still out there.

The Sandakan death marches passed through the village of Bongkud en route to Ranau, and local elders still remember them happening. Any local who attempted to help the POWs, even by the simplest act of providing food or water, was met with the same fate as the POWs.

The Australian survivors spoke very differently of the scenery around Bongkud than I have in this article. They said that the sight of Mt. Kinabalu reminded them they were in an inescapable hell and, with every misty morning, they would question whether it would be their last day alive.

Today Bongkud could not be any more peaceful. It is a calm, friendly place where the sight of expedition teams puts a beaming smile on the face of every local. Local children and teens play football on the village pitch, or volleyball on any of the many courts. There is a thriving market once a week in the village centre and fresh fruit grows in abundance in every garden. But it is vitally important to remember how fortunate we are and to remain grateful that we live in a different time where we can enjoy the place for its peace and joy rather than the suffering that so many once would have associated it with.

 

For more photos of Bongkud Hill and its surrounding scenery check out my Instagram, or for more content like this article hit the FOLLOW button in the sidebar. Thank you for reading.

Rich

 

 

Exploring A Notorious Arms Dealer’s Abandoned Cargo Plane

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If you’ve seen the 2005 Nicholas Cage film Lord of War, you’ll be loosely familiar with the tale of Russian gun-runner Viktor Bout.  Whilst Hollywood chose to rename the movie’s protagonist and fictionalise various events it cannot be denied that Bout was the main influence for the story. Bout now sits in an American jail cell after a long hare-and-hounds chase around the world that culminated in his arrest by US and Thai Authorities in Bangkok in 2008. Weapons and ammunition were not Bout’s only cargo – he flew everything from flowers to electronics too – but it was his willingness to make dodgy gun deals that ultimately led to his demise.

Shortly after arriving in the United Arab Emirates to work for an Outdoor Education company in September 2017 I learnt that the UAE has its own little slice of Viktor Bout’s legacy. Bout based many of his (fully legal on paper) air freight operations out of the emirate of Sharjah, and is said to have lived for a brief period in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the emirate I called home for seven months and may again sometime in the future.

During induction for my role as an Outdoor Instructor and Field Studies Tutor our head of Senior Field Studies, Hugh, told us he had something cool to show us as part of our geography familiarisation. Whilst driving along a desolate desert road in the emirate of Umm al-Quwain, passing a couple of water parks and not much else, the silhouette of a great aircraft appeared before us, behind it a vast runway and a couple of dusty old hangars.

The jet was a Russian Ilyushin IL-76 – the centrepiece of Soviet aircraft engineering – and the aircraft Viktor Bout was known to have operated when he was in business. There’s mixed reports on how the Ilyushin came to rest at the now-abandoned UAQ Airport; some say it was grounded by local forces as the American DEA started to close in on Bout and the British intelligence services requested the UAE to evict Bout (a request the UAE complied with, catalysing the collapse of Bout’s empire). Another opinion is that a private investor purchased the body to use as a ‘gate guard’ for the airport, a more likely theory considering its location at the front of the facility, standing proud over the road. All that can be confirmed on a search of its serial number is that it was once part of Bout’s fleet.

Hugh stopped the truck and we disembarked for a quick snoop around. This initial visit was fairly uneventful, learning a little bit about the socioeconomic impacts of an area expanding beyond its means and poking our heads into a few hangars, then we headed off to conduct another tiresome beach survey. But I knew I had to get back there and explore a little more.

A week after my lust to explore had been teased, I asked around the outdoor centre for a lift to the abandoned airfield. Not long later and I and three workmates were setting off for the 90 minute drive south.

It was approaching sunset as we pulled up in a gravel layby in front of the facility. The perimeter was marked by patches of broken chainlink fence and a lazily-established line of barbed wire. It was evident that this was a popular site for the edgier or more-curious passer-by because there were many footprints in the sand and no real barrier to prohibit entry. Sun-faded “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” signs were sporadically placed along the fence, many hanging limp after years of disregard. We crossed into the facility over a trodden-down section of barbed wire and made a beeline for the huge silhouette of the cargo jet about 300m to our left.

 

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The view from the gravel layby at the front of the facility. (Rich Holt)
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The IL-76 in the distance. (Rich Holt)

 

As we approached the IL-76 we were ecstatic to find its ladder had been left down from its port-side door, meaning entry would be a walk in the park. To our surprise other people were here checking it out too and we nodded a ‘hello’ to them as they made their way back to their car.

Once we reached the plane we took a few moments to enjoy its beauty. At some point in history a hotel had come along and painted their logo along its sides but the sun and sand had blasted the logo out of relevance long ago.

 

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The IL-76 from the front, note my colleague near the belly for scale. (Rich Holt)

 

After two or three minutes we set about penetrating the vast carcass. One by one we scrambled up the ladder and into the door sitting about 2.5m off the ground. It was surprisingly tricky to get in; we each had to ‘mantle’ on the plane floor and scratch at the sides of the door to shift our bodyweight inside or, once somebody was in there, help the next person up.

 

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A friend approaching the top of the ladder. (Rich Holt)

 

The main hold of the aircraft had been torn to shreds; every last bit of its interior stripped. I don’t think it was a move to hide anything nefarious – just the level of degradation to be expected with any accessible abandoned site after long enough.

 

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Inside the main hold. (Rich Holt)

 

Once inside, we decided to check out the front spotter’s area (possibly the navigator’s booth?) and the cockpit, both now coated in several layers of dust with very few of the controls remaining intact.

 

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The lower viewing port, possibly a navigator’s booth. Small metal staircase up to the cockpit in foreground. (Rich Holt)

 

 

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The remnants of the cockpit. (Rich Holt)

 

Once we reached the cockpit we were gifted with an opportunity too good to ignore! Located just behind the pilots’ seats were a series of footholds in the bulkhead/wall leading up to an open roof hatch. It was time to enjoy sunset in style. One by one we each clambered up the holds and heaved ourselves on top of the aircraft. This was a fairly simple task for myself at 6’4 (193cm), the main issue being angling my shoulders and backpack through the narrow hatch, but the big reaches of the 2m climb were a bit of an epic for my shorter pals (who found getting through the hatch itself much easier).

 

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Squeezing my way through the roof hatch. (Jaime Chong)

 

The view once we were on top of the plane was glorious. 360 degrees of endless desert expanse. To the west, or facing aft, the sun was setting over Umm al-Quwain’s mangrove marshes. Treading carefully so as not to slide over the aircraft’s rounded convex edges we made our way to the midpoint of the wings and sat to enjoy the scenery, occasionally standing to grab a few more shots.

 

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Selfie on top of the IL-76. (Rich Holt)

 

 

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Author watching sunset from the midpoint of the IL-76’s huge wings. (Jaime Chong)

 

Once the sun had set we made our way back down through the Ilyushin and decided to get going. A coffee at the nearby Al Hamra Mall was starting to sound rather appealing! Over all, this short hour-long adventure remains one of my best memories from my season in the UAE; it truly did feel like ‘getting off the grid’…

If you find yourself in the UAE this cool feature is located about an hour’s drive north of Dubai, right next to the turn-off for Barracuda Bottle Shop and a short hop from Dreamland water park. I’d advise extreme caution in visiting; it is still technically off-limits and things didn’t go so smoothly when I decided to return in February. I’ll write about that in the future but hint: I got held at gunpoint!

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