Strangely enough – and, believe me, I do understand how strange this sounds – my interest in Central Asia was piqued by a 2000 Outside Magazine article titled “Fear of Falling” in which the harrowing story of the kidnapping of four American climbers who were attempting the Yellow Wall in Kyrgyzstan was relayed. I had never heard of Kyrgyzstan and the article made it sound as though it was a climbing nirvana – a land of soaring, rocky peaks where budding alpinists could test their mettle.
I fancied myself to be budding alpinist. Nevermind that I was in high school, had never rock climbed, and the most rigorous alpine ascent I’d undertaken was a day hike up 9,495’ Mt. Mclaughlin near my hometown of Medford, Oregon. I hiked it wearing jeans and a Disneyland tee-shirt. Hardly the stuff of legends. Regardless, I became enamored with the idea of climbing and trekking in this relatively unvisited alpine paradise. I visited the internet (hardly a convenient undertaking on our dial up connection – it was the year 2000, remember), found a few photos of Kyrgyzstan that looked paradisiacal, and filed it away on my “to visit” list.
Unfortunately, plane tickets to Kyrgyzstan were beyond my very limited means in college and the time needed to travel there eliminated it as an option during the years of 7-10 day vacations. But I knew I wanted to take a long trip upon completion of my residency, before starting my new job. When my original idea of traveling for 6 months around the rim of South America proved impractical (apparently, I have to start working sometime), I revisited the idea of Central Asia. The scenery, the Soviet history, the inaccessibility (relatively speaking), the challenges posed by the language and culture – all my boxes were checked and the planning started.
Kyrgyzstan was always part of the plan. For the inclusion of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, I have Lonely Planet to thank. Had they sold Kyrgyzstan guidebooks alone, my plans may have been very different. But they do not. Kyrgyzstan is included in a 5-country Central Asia book, and by the time I’d merely glanced through it, I knew I wanted to go to all of them. Ultimately, Kazakhstan won a spot on the list due to its many Soviet sites and oddities and the descriptions of its bustling cities. Uzbekistan won for its incredible Silk Road architecture. And Kyrgyzstan won me over years ago, from that first internet search. Of course, things have changed since 2000 and now Kyrgyzstan is actually quite popular. Uzbekistan sees so many tourists in high season that hotels and trains will fill days in advance. Kazakhstan is must less visited, but has a developing tourism industry.
What about Mongolia? I did mention that, following Central Asia, I will meet my husband there for 3 weeks. My obsession with visiting Mongolia started even before Kyrgyzstan and will be discussed in later posts. For now, I will sign off. Next stop – Almaty, Kazakhstan!