September 1 is Independence Day in Uzbekistan. So we had a three-day week-end and I celebrated by visiting neighboring Kazakhstan. The Kazakh border is less than a half-hour drive from my house and I already had a visa, so late Saturday morning I jumped in my car and headed for the city of Shimkent, about 100 kilometers from Tashkent.
Border crossing took only half an hour as various officials dutifully recorded my passport and automobile registration information into their ledgers. The divided highway to Shimkent had little traffic and was in good condition so I made good time. After arriving I snacked with food from street vendors and explored the big bazaar. The staff at the old Soviet hotel were friendly and even helpful and the room was reasonably comfortable. Earlier in the week I had tried to call a trekking company recommended by my guidebook but never got an answer. I tried calling from the hotel but still got no answer. Then I saw a poster on a wall in the hotel advertising the same trekking company but with a new phone number. I called them and they agreed that someone would meet me at my hotel at 8:00 the next morning and direct me to their campground/resort in the mountains. After a leisurely dinner at an outdoor cafe (with food very similar to Uzbek food), I went for a walk, had an ice cream cone and decided I better make sure that I hadn't changed time zones. It was good that I checked, because I then discovered that it was 10:30, not 8:30 PM.
After an early breakfast, I met a pleasant woman who spoke enough English to explain that her husband was already at the campground and that her son spoke excellent English and would be my guide. The road gradually deteriorated from smooth pavement, to bumpy pavement to smoorth gravel to rutted gravel and the 70 km trip took two hours. But we arrived, they showed me my cabin (a metal transport container with a door and some windows) and soon we sat down for breakfast (note the granite table.)
After breakfast we took off: me, my university student guide and his girl friend. We started up, following a river but soon turned on a smaller brook, rapidly gaining altitude.
While we walked I learned that my guide's family had started this campground/resort in communist times when he was a very small boy. He has spent all the summers he can remember here, exploring the mountains and canyons and guiding people like me who want to see the mountains. They built a water wheel to generat enough electricity for a couple of lights in each cabin. Many people come and camp here. Most bring their own food -- only a few are lazy like me.
We continued to climb for three or four hours, including occasional stops for tea and ice cold water from the brook. The trail was reasonably smooth and I was pleased that the log bridges crossing the streams seemed sturdy and wide enough to offer me stability, except for the narrow one I crawled across! (no pictures of that)
Eventually we arrived at a beautiful mountain lake. It was fed by underground springs and streams so that it won't silt up. We admired the view and ate a late lunch.
The trip down was much quicker, but what had seemed to be a good trail on the way up felt much more treacherous going down. There were long steep sections with small loose rocks where a fall would be unpleasant though certainly not fatal.
I was tired by the time we returned to the campground and pleased that somebody else was cooking dinner. After a delicious dinner the parents drove their younger son back to Shimkent -- September 1 is the first day of school. My guide and his girl friend remained behind and we recuperated in the sauna. The pool next to it is fed by the icy brook. But the sauna was hot enough, especially after they threw water on the hot rocks, that I was ready to dunk myself in the pool. A true Russian sauna includes a sort of massage -- birch boughs with leaves are dipped into water then they are used to beat your back. It feels much better than it sounds! The water makes you feel even hotter and even more eager to jump into the pool.
The next morning we had crepes for breakfast. Then I explored the valley on my bicycle, but my legs were tired so I did not go far. We had an early lunch and I drove my hosts back to Shimkent. We stopped only long enough to get a drink made from grain, grapes and yeast that is cold and carbonated but non-alcoholic. Then I drove back to Tashkent, tired but ready for work on Tuesday. I would like to return and spend several days exploring these mountains. It's a beautiful spot and not far from Tashkent.