I was determined to ignore the signs.
I can be stubborn that way. I plan something and I set my mind to do it and even when things start to go a little wrong, I want to push on. This the case with the trek I planned to take around Song Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan.
I planned a three-day trek with the help of the Community Based Tourism (CBT) coordinator in Bishkek. Once I decided exactly what I wanted to do, she referred me to the local CBT coordinator in the town of Kochkor, the jumping off point for trips to Song Kul. He initially responded saying he would work on arranging everything.
And then I never heard from him again.
I emailed him four times over the course of about 10 days with no response. Even after I asked the CBT coordinator in Karakol (my stop before Kochkor) to call him, I heard nothing back.
That was my first sign.
I arrived in Karakol to find cool, rainy weather for the first time in months. I started talking to others at my guesthouse about the conditions in the mountains and heard time and time again how cold it could get, especially at night, and how quickly the weather could change. With my meager summer wardrobe from traveling in the desert all summer, I suddenly felt very unprepared.
I found a sporting goods store that carried ponchos and considered buying one, but held off because they were far more than I wanted to spend. I went to the bazaar in hopes of finding something cheaper, but with no success. When I returned to the store, it was closed.
That was my second sign.
Then, the night before I planned to head to Kochkor, I was leaning over to pack up my things when I suddenly aggravated the sacroiliac joint in my lower back– an issue I have had in the past that causes a sharp pain to shoot down my hip and linger for hours, even days. I wondered if I would physically be able to handle a three day trek even if the weather held up.
That was my third sign.
Despite these signs and the growing bad feeling I had about going to Kochkor and Song Kul, I left Karakol on a Monday morning to make my way to Kochkor anyway. I figured at the very least I could find a homestay for the night and try to arrange something through another local travel agency if CBT wasn’t ready or me. I took a marshrutka headed to Balykchy on the opposite end of Issyk Kul Lake, where I would then need to grab a shared taxi to Kochkor.
I never made it there.
My marshrutka arrived in the small town of Bokonbaevo and the driver informed me that I was the only one going as far as Balykchy. He didn’t want to go all the way there just for me, so he arranged for a shared taxi to take me the rest of the way instead. I reluctantly piled my things into the trunk of a station wagon and sat down to wait for it to fill up with enough passengers to leave. Then I noticed a sign.
This time I paid attention.
I got out of the taxi and called the number on the sign. The coordinator told me they could arrange a homestay and excursion for me the next day. She would meet me at their office to make arrangements. I grabbed my things out of the taxi and told the driver plans had changed. I was no longer going to Kochkor. At least not that day.
Twenty minutes later, I met not only the coordinator at the office but also a group of 3 French tourists: Bene, Alain and Sylvain. They had also just come from Karakol and Bene and I actually had a brief conversation in a café there a couple days earlier.
The four of us grabbed lunch, watched an eagle hunting demonstration and then stayed together at a yurt camp on the shore of Issyk Kul Lake. At the yurt camp, we met a German anthropology student who took us to Mandzhaly-Ata the next morning, a holy site with springs said to have healing powers. We joined a Kyrgyz family for lunch there and then went on to visit a salt lake nearby.
We were all supposed to move on that day – me on to Kochkor (I still thought I would try to do some hiking near Song Kul Lake), Alain back to Bishkek and Bene and Sylvain back to Karakol to trek some more. But by the time we returned to Bokonbaevo, it was too late to secure onward transportation. So we spent another night together and by Wednesday morning, Bene had convinced me to return to Karakol with her and Sylvain.
I finally gave up on Kochkor and Song Kul Lake altogether.
I spent the next two days hanging out with Bene and Sylvain in Karakol, exploring the town, indulging in some shashlik and vodka and finally doing a little hiking in Jeti Oghuz. It was the perfect way to wind up my time in Kyrgyzstan (and in the former Soviet Union!) and while I was disappointed I never ended up doing a multi-day trek in Kyrgyzstan, I know I had a much better time than I would have if I had pushed on with my original plans.
All because I stopped ignoring the signs.