Road Stories #34: Hitchhiking around Issyk-Kul and dealing with local drunks

Our trip to the world’s second largest alpine lake was meant to be a relaxing holiday after the horribly boring time we spent in Bishkek waiting for our Chinese and Kazakh visas. Lake Issyk-Kul sounded like a stunning place where you can swim, hike and be close to nature, so full of new energy we set off on our adventure. Little did we know that hitchhiking around Issyk-Kul wouldn’t be exactly as we had imagined…

Read: Issyk-kul lake, Kyrgyzstan – photo essay and tourist information

Hitchhiking to Issyk-Kul and being denied wild camping

Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan (8)Hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan had always been quite easy and this time was no different. After being picked up by four different drivers who shared their beer and nuts with us, and one of them who even tried to give us some money, we prepared ourselves for the last stretch of the journey.

It was getting dark and we were still quite far from Issyk-Kul but hoped to be able reach the lake that evening in order to pitch our tent on its bank. We were eventually picked up by a family who were going to spend their weekend with their relatives in Cholpan-Ata, the biggest and most famous lake resort. We hadn’t Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan (5)been planning to stay in that town, as we assumed it would be loud, relatively expensive and there would be nowhere to pitch a tent, and our plan was to spend some time in the wild. After explaining to our drivers that we would like to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere before reaching their destination, the middle-aged lady we we had been sharing our journey with, expressed her deep concerns about our safety and tried to convince us to change our minds. She then called several people in Cholpan-Ata and asked them if they would be able to put us up so that we wouldn’t need to camp. In the end, she managed to organise an empty apartment for us where we would be able to spend the night and we agreed as we thought it might rain that night and we would have plenty more opportunities to camp around the lake.

Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan (4)

First night on the lake and joining a local party

So we found ourselves in the lake resort with a key to a tiny private apartment. There was no running water and we had to use a public toilet outside, but at least we were all alone and nobody bothered us there.

After having explored the town, we went to sit on the pier, drink some beers and watch people having a night-time swim. The time passed, families left and the only people who stayed to share the lake with us was a group of local young men, having some vodka and snacks. When they realised we spoke some Russian they invited us over and after countless vodka shots and as many toasts to Kyrgyz hospitality and international friendship we stumbled back to our apartment.

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Pier in Cholpon-Ata, Issyk-Kul

Getting to know the lake people and two drunken lifts

The next day things didn’t go as smoothly as the day before and that’s not only because of the huge hangover we had to fight through.

Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan (15)The first hurdle was to run away from all the taxi and marshrutka drivers who after spotting us, surrounded us in a tight grip and it took some time to squeeze through the crowd and explain we didn’t want to use their
services. We were confident we could hitch, so we reached the edge of town and waited.

The traffic was scarce, it started to rain heavily, our heads hurt and nobody was stopping. It was the first time in the country we had problems hitchhiking and we couldn’t understand why. After what seemed like ages, a car pulled over. The door slammed open and I poked my head inside to be immediately hit by the heavy alcohol breaths of the four people sitting inside. Car in Karakol, KyrgyzstanThe driver, his male companion at the front and their female friends at the back were all pissed as skunks and could barely talk, heads swaying in all directions and beer bottles covering the floor. I tried to ask them where they were going but their state prevented them from answering coherently. The road was straight, however, and all cars were going around the lake anyway, so it didn’t matter too much. The question was, though, if we would want to risk getting into that car. They had been going really slowly and considering it was raining and it was the only car that stopped in hours, we decided to take the risk. We made sure they didn’t want any money for the ride and put our bags in. It was a scary ride, truth be told, as the driver wasn’t able to control the car very well and a couple of times we nearly faced a head-on collision. Fortunately they were only going to the next village and we were happy to leave this stinky and scary experience behind. When we jumped out and were ready to wave goodbye, they suddenly demanded money. ‘But we asked you if it’s ok to go for free and you said yes’, I tried to reason with the drunks. They had either forgotten or didn’t want to remember our agreement and repeated that they wanted money. We shrugged our shoulders, tried to explain a couple more times that we had agreed to go for free and when that didn’t work we started walking. They followed us for a while but eventually gave up and continued their drunken ride.

Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan (17)The next lift was a really nice old guy who went out off his way to drive us further and wanted to give us some money too, and when we thought that our luck had turned again and it was getting better, we got stuck for another hour. It started raining again, it was getting late and our hangovers didn’t let us forget about them. These were probably the main reasons why we accepted another drunken lift offer. This time we got in a car with two friendly, but absolutely pissed young men who drove as if they owned the entire road. They didn’t demand money though but we again left the car with shaky knees promising ourselves it was the last such ride.

We were surprised by how many drunks we had seen that day, not only on the road but also in villages. We remembered people had warned us about the lake folk, judging that most of them were ‘useless jobless drunks’. Well, perhaps there was some truth in that.

We were on the side on the road again waiting for a long time and eventually we started planning where we would pitch our tent as things were looking desperate. That wasn’t necessary, however, as we were soon picked up by a van full of young people who were going to Karakol. We quickly realised they were heading to SunHouse Hostel too and the driver was our CS host! What a coincidence! Our luck had turned in the end!

Read: SunHouse Hostel, Karakol, Kyrgyzstan – the perfect base to explore the mountains

View from SunHouse Hostel, Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

View from SunHouse Hostel

Hiking around Karakol and wild-camping eventually!

Hiking to Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan (2)We spent three gorgeous days: hiking around Karakol and then recovering from a huge downpour that left us soaking wet on the way down the mountain. We would have loved to spend some more time there, but we had to rush back to Bishkek as our Chinese visa was starting in less than a month and we still had to visit Kazakhstan before that.

Read: Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan – an easy hike near Karakol

On the way back we planned one more night in the wild and no apartment offers would dissuade us this time!

It took four lifts before we got to Ottuk, a small village in the south of Issyk-Kul where we found a lovely forest and a quiet beach to spend the night. We collected some firewood Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan (13)and made a lovely fire, cooked some food and had some beers and when it got late and the stars were shining above the lake, we crawled into our cosy tent. Perfect!

At the crack of dawn the noise of a tent unzipping woke me up. Somebody was standing outside. I woke Jon up and we poked our heads out. There was a drunk guy who was barely standing upright and when he saw us he started pleading with us for money for vodka. We told him to bugger off and went back to sleep as it must have been before 5 a.m. Then around 7 a.m. another noise woke me up. This time the drunk was sitting outside our tent and pouring vodka into one of our camping mugs. We yelled at him and eventually he went away and we got another 2 hours of sleep. Bloody drunks of Issyk-Kul, why won’t you leave us alone!

After having some breakfast and packing the tent we were ready to go. Go back to Bishkek and onwards to Kazakhstan!

Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan (10)

written by: Ania

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  • utterly brilliant. I think Kyrgyzstan is a country easy to love. So much variation and natural beauty. Honestly you guys blog like every day and they are always long and filled with pics. HOW do you manage it?

    • There are two of us and we both love it! But the truth is that it takes a lot of valuable travel time, that’s why we are now 3 months behind with our posts. Hopefully one day we will catch up! ;) Thanks for sticking with us, Andy!