M says "How can you not go to a place called Arslanbob?"
Apart from its striking name, Arslanbob's claim to fame is its walnut forests. Mid-September is the peak season for walnut picking when the entire town was expected to go nuts. Visitors join in too. We wanted to see this for ourselves.
And so we went there from Osh. The importance of researching and bargaining was greatly underlined on this 180 km trip that is far from straightforward. First, there is this problem of Uzbekistan standing in one's way. The old highway to Jalalabad passes through Uzbekistan inviting no end of problems for foreigners (not for the locals who can pass through) who needed multiple entry visas for both countries. Fortunately, a well paved road has been built in Kyrgyzstan that takes one around the jutting part of Uzbekistan to Jalalabad (3rd largest city in the country) and beyond to Bishkek. We've already consumed one of the two Uzbekistan entries only to get to Tajikistan and beyond. We needed the second for our eventual exploration of the great Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan. The last thing we wanted to do was to waste it on a trivial stretch of highway connecting two parts of Kyrgyzstan. Of course, with the July announcement that Kyrgyzstan would be visa free for us, eliminated the other half of the problem.
The day before we took the trip we scoped out the shared taxi area designated for Jalalabad and related destinations. Beyond Jalalabad is the town of Bazaar Korgan on the highway to Bishkek. The route to the mountainous village of Arslanbob veers off the highway reaching that remote haven after 60 km. As soon as they saw two obvious foreigners (obvious to them, but how? Our clothes? Noses?) the drivers (and some random onlookers) descended on us like flies. The usual comedy of gestures, numbers and destinations played out. Astronomical numbers more than 5 times what we expected (based on recent forum posts) were quoted. We knew beforehand that the cheapest way would be to change at Jalalabad or Bazaar Korgan to a local shared taxi to get to Arslanbob. A direct route to Arslanbob from Osh would raise the price disproportionate to the distance. When the drivers realized that we were only going the next day, they made noises of disgust and moved off. The enterprising ones tried to get our mobile numbers and give us theirs.
Despite all this research, we did get into a situation of conflict in Arslanbob. We managed to hire a shared taxi from Osh to Bazaar Korgan for a sum that seemed to be the going price. Once we were on the road, the man in the passenger seat who had negotiated the earlier figure suddenly started talking about Arslanbob and quoted a figure that was just a step higher than the one for Bazaar Korgan. After some back and forth, he agreed to a figure that we wrote down on a piece of paper which had the other numbers as well.
There were no signs indicating Arslanbob at the place the taxi stopped. The duo in front did not understand CBT or Town Centre. We were looking for a stone lion that stood in the town centre and asked them to keep going. Another 10 km later, they stopped again and said "Arslanbob". Though we did not see any stone lion, we got off and gave them the amount agreed to earlier. This greatly upset the duo and after some frenzied gesturing and writing, we realized that what they had agreed to was the "incremental" fare from Bazaar Korgan to Arslanbob. This was much greater than the figure from Osh to Bazaar Korgan which did not represent the incremental distance. The lack of a common language stood in the way of resolution. Less stubborn people than us would have just shrugged and paid what was demanded. But we were adamant in refusing to bow down to what we saw as an unethical attempt to intimidate and defraud foreigners. To break the impasse, we suggested that we get an English speaking person. CBT seemed the only option. We refused to get back into the taxi and started walking further on. The duo got into the taxi and drove past us.
We came to an intersection and saw another tourist (recognizable from clothing and facial features) who knew where we wanted to go without exchanging a word. He pointed at the CBT office that was a short walk away. It turned out that he (based in Oakland, CA just across the San Francisco Bay from where we live) had exhausted his Chinese visa allowance and had come to Kyrgyzstan to get an extension. But he had found himself in Arslanbob and the place was too good to leave and he had already been there a week! Just eating the food (apparently great!) and being taken care of in a homestay!
When we reached the CBT office, we saw our taxi waiting there already. The office was closed, but Hayat turned up from nowhere and opened it and welcomed us. He listened to both sides and then suggested that we just pay them what they were demanding since it was not a large sum for us. We said that it was not the amount but the principle of the thing. He spoke a little bit more to the duo and told us that they were not trying to cheat us, they were family people with children etc.. It was a genuine misunderstanding and that was all. This was good enough for us and we paid them off and parted on good terms.
The CBT office was nicely setup for visitors with detailed information on the dozen or so homestays (brief description of the family, how far it was from the CBT office and other trekking destinations). We were gratified to learn that all the homestays offered vegetarian food since it was a common request from travelers. There were detailed maps on possible trekking destinations ranging from easy hikes (small waterfall and panoramic viewpoint) to more moderate day trips (big waterfall) to strenuous multi-day trips (climbing the highest peak in the area). We wanted to be close to the internet and so opted for the homestay that was closest to the CBT where the internet was accessible. He told us that an Israeli couple was already staying there but were leaving the next day. We are always happy to exchange stories with other travelers and so we welcomed this opportunity. When we asked him about the walnuts, he told us that this year was a poor one for walnuts. We were picked up in a car which crossed a bridge over a river and climbed up through a dirt road before arriving at our homestay.
The homestay had room for two groups. We dumped our bags in our room and then headed through the garden to a magnificent covered "tapchan" - an outdoor dining platform with sweeping views of the mountains and canyons on which the houses comprising Arslanbob could be seen. The floor seating with colorful cushions and a floor dining table made for a very inviting afternoon to enjoy the breeze. We were asked to specify what we wanted for dinner and saw the vegetarian options included ravioli (!) and vegetarian plov! We would sample both on the two evenings that we would spend there. But what about lunch? We found that none of homestays offered lunch (presumably because most guests would be out trekking during the day). We were not too sure about our options in the town below and also wanted to enjoy a lazy afternoon in the tapchan (it was chilly inside the room anyway). The lady of the house offered bread, jam and tea and so we settled down for a magical Arslanbob afternoon doing nothing (we did catch up on writing a few blog entries!).
Three young girls and an over-friendly barking dog were residents of the homestay. The youngest, around 3 years old, would holler "Hallo!" repeatedly (this seemed to be the only word she spoke in any language) whenever she saw any of guests and would not cease until we moved away. The oldest was barely 7 but did a whole lot of housework all by herself even when the adults were out. There was a boy but he rarely showed himself except when fruits needed to be picked up from a tree in the garden. The dog was not allowed on the tapchan but would stretch this boundary by sticking its snout inside and demand attention and food. Most of the time it was chained to its kennel due to this behavior. The gardens were full of blooming roses of various colors and several other flowers. Water flowed through the garden from up the hill. Pipes were dipped into this flow to route the water for cooking and washing. Vegetables, rice and pasta were cooked in a large outdoor stove and fresh bread baked in a mud oven. Interested guests joined in the preparation. Chickens roamed about the garden while a group of ducks would occasionally march in step along the flowing water feeding on the life forms in the mud. Yes, we could see why city-bred foreigners would want to spend time here. The day stretches forever and seemed to last several times longer than a typical day in a rushed metro.
We met the other guests (Mor and Ofer) after they returned and spoke about our recent and planned travels. We got a lot of information on destinations in the Issyk-Kol Lake area where they had done a multi-day trek along with other friends from Israel (staying in another homestay). We forgot to exchange email addresses like we normally do before we retired for the night. We heard them departing early next morning in a taxi arranged for them by CBT. They were gone by the time we got up for breakfast - a never ending stack of pancakes.
We opted to do the easiest hike on offer - the brief walk to a small waterfall that took us past the village. We were stopped often by excited young boys and girls who demanded to be photographed. A morning bazaar was just opening up on the way to the waterfall. A woman with two kids was particularly keen on talking to us. She asked us to send her the photograph we took of her but had no idea how as she had no email address. We gave her ours just in case she eventually stumbled upon the internet.
After the waterfall, the trail climbed steeply uphill and leveled off in an open meadow with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. A few groves of walnut trees appeared nearby and we walked briefly through those before emerging into long series of potato fields. A small family was digging them up and filling sacks. They helpfully pointed the way to the "panorama". A pair of young men were picking apples from a tree and they offered us one each as we passed by. We got to a point with a panoramic view of the hills and the houses of Arslanbob that lay dotted all over it. We were told about a circular route that would have brought us to our homestay, but opted to retrace our way back.
After yet another lazy afternoon in the tapchan and a sumptuous vegetarian plov dinner we prepared for an early morning departure for the long trip to Bishkek, 600 km away. We had declined the CBT offer for a taxi pickup from our door all the way to the guesthouse in Bishkek where we had a booking, preferring to do it the hard way (walking down 1 km from the homestay to the town with our packs, riding the minibus to Bazaar Korgan and then hiring a shared taxi to Bishkek). But we were surprised by someone knocking on our door with a similar door-to-door offer at a much reduced price which we simply could not refuse.
We noticed Mor and Ofer had left their handwritten tour diary behind on the breakfast table and immediately regretted not exchanging email addresses. The homestay only had their names in their register. We were booked to stay in the same guesthouse in Bishkek that they had stayed previously and hoped to get their contact information from them. So we took their diary as well with us hoping to deliver it someway or the other. Since it was a handwritten diary, it seemed to us that it would be irreplacable and its loss would be keenly felt.
Google Maps Link
Ha ha - what a name for a place. Of course, you have to go there.
They understand vegetarians there !!!!! Wow !!
On your last post I speculated that you won't go as far as Bishkek - but indeed you are heading there (I am reading your posts in the right order :) ) Hopefully Mor and Ofer will read your blog and mail you - chances are that the diary will find its way to the owners, I think. From , on Sep 30, 2012 at 02:10PM