Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul

Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul

The horse stood outside the house ready for me. I was a bit unsure if I was ready for him, it had after all been 10 years since last time I sat on a horse. I was happy though to see that my saddle was patched with a pillow, to ease the pain a bit.

I must admit that I struggled a bit getting myself up in the saddle at the first try. My guide Kalybek just smiled and made me try again, this time with greater success. Starting slow, the village houses were replaced by lush green fields, and I could see why Kyrgyzstan has a reputation of having beautiful nature. Crossing a river and resting in the shade, with Kalybek’s dog loyally followed our every move.

Crossing a river by horse. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Lush green landscape. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

I rode through the fields on a horse with no name. At least Kalybek did not know it at that time. Maybe that is why it decided not to obey me, since we were not acquainted. And yes, I got that song stuck in my head, even though I rode through green plains rather than a desert.

Starting slowly uphill in the valley, the nature reigns. The sun was shining from the clear blue sky, and the only thing I heard was the rhythmic sound of hooves against the ground, and insects singing. Getting further, the sound of the stream took over.

As you probably figured, my horse was not too keen on moving fast, but at least it was slowly, but steadily moving towards the goal.

We rounded the ridge and a small yurt camp appeared on the green plain, bathing in sunlight. After 3.5 hours, both my horse and my butt were happy to get a break… As an attempt to reduce the risk of stiffness, I stretched a little before walking around the camp. The lighting was beautiful, and it all looked like an idyllic postcard from the time I was crazy about horses as a little girl. The herd of horses grazed with the beautiful mountains as backdrop, in harmony with the cows.

My first yurt camp. What a picture perfect place to spend the night! Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

My first yurt camp. What a picture perfect place to spend the night!

The two ladies living in my small yurt camp started making dinner. While the food was boiling, they grabbed two buckets and walked towards the horses. I sensed what was in store, and followed them. The horses with foals were milked one by one, and within no time, the bucket was full of mare’s milk. Back in the dining yurt, the milk was mixed in a barrel with mare’s milk that was already fermented.

Dinner was served, starting with bread and many kinds of jam on the table, followed by a stew of potatoes, cabbage, carrots and some sheep meat. And tea. Lots of it. And eventually the kumis – fermented mare’s milk. Wondering what it tasted? My first thought was smoked cheese.

A full tea bowl with kumis. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

A tea bowl filled with kumis.

Rise and shine
The night on the thin mattress was surprisingly comfortable. I will not lie, I did not sleep like a princess, but it could have been worse. My biggest worry was that I thought I would be cold, but I actually woke up sweating! The good thing about waking up several times, was that I could enjoy the simulated stars by the light coming through the tiny holes in the yurt roof. First by the bright light of the almost full moon, then by the sunlight.

After breakfast, it was time to get back in the saddle. Though in a different one. Since the-horse-with-no-name and I never became best friends, Kalybek asked me to ride his horse, Buurul, instead. It worked like a charm, and we headed up the mountain with the dog as a loyal companion.

Heading towards WiFi Mountain. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Along the way we met a man with two extra saddled-up horses, and tagged along with him for a while. When we at a later stage met some hikers and he offered them to rent the horses, I understood why. It was a match made in heaven for them after a steep hike in the hot sun.

An eagle flying over the mountains. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Digital detox
Arriving at the top of the mountain, we could see the blue lake Song-Kul ahead of us, completely still, reflecting the mountains at the far end. Then I heard the beeps. Kalybek’s phone receiving messages, meaning mobile reception. My phone had been in flight mode since we left the village, and I was originally planning to leave it like that until we were back in the civilization. But I cracked. So much for digital detox… The mountain top was later named Wifi-Mountain…

View of Song Kul from the top of the mountain. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

View of Song Kul from the top of the mountain.

Our horses resting before heading down to Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Kalybek had told me we would meet up with a friend of him, and it turned out that he was the guide of a nice Dutch couple, Tess and Julian, that I had met earlier in Bishkek! Teaming up with them, my horse found a new best friend, and followed Julian’s horse’s every move.

Heading towards Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. The beautiful Song Kul lake reflecting the mountains. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Arriving at our yurt camp close by Song-Kul, we had lunch, before the water of the lake was luring us to go swim. Being up at 3000 m, the water was refreshing. While laying on the pebbles drying in the intense sun, a flock of horses came to drink along the shore.

Our yurt camp by Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Refreshing bath in Song Kul lake. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Horses coming to drink. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

The beach and our yurt camp. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

The beach and our yurt camp.

Amazing clear and calm water of Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Second round of kumis
Kalybek’s family stayed in another camp nearby, so we got back on the horses to go visit them. We found them at the beach enjoying the sun. And kumis. The fermented mare’s milk is to be found everywhere in the yurt camps, and is very popular. I of course had to have a few sips of the sun-heated milk while looking out on the beautiful scenery by the cold lake.

Horse and Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Afternoon ride along the shore oof Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Following them back to their yurt camp, I also tagged along to witness the milking process again. And to help mixing the milk with the bishkek afterwards.

More mare's milking in beautiful surroundings. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Mare's milk. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Mares milk.

The girl with the binoculars. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Idyllic life by the lake. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Back at our camp, we walked up the hill to watch the sunset after dinner. When the darkness came, most of the others went to bed, while I sat outside for a long time, just enjoying the silence, watching the full moon reflecting in the water, listening to the flag blazing in the wind, with the head of the dog laying on my lap demanding to be petted.

A beautiful day is coming to an end. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Sunset and full moon by Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Horse in sunset with the full moon. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Full moon reflecting in Song Kul. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Waking up in paradise 

Morning mood by Song Kul lake. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Morning mood by Song Kul lake.

My new friend. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Kalybek with his horse. And loyal dog. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

Kalybek and his horse. And the loyal dog Laika.

Horses enjoying the summer in the mountains. Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

What goes up, must go down... It does not look steep, but I can promise you it was... Three day horse-riding trip to Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan.

What goes up, must go down… It does not look steep, but I can promise you it was…

I went through different stages of enthusiasm during the trip. About an hour in on the ride the first day, I was wondering how I would be able to make it through the rest. The second day I believed I could do anything, and that a few extra days would be a piece of cake, even riding an extra leg to visit Kalybek’s family. The last day started good, even galloping a bit through the plains and up the mountain. Then it was only downhill from there. Literally. I must admit going steep downhill was not my favorite, but luckily, I got used to it quickly, and Kalybek and his friend made sure we got down all right. Riding through the village, I was looking forward to having my feet back on solid ground again. Don’t get me wrong, it was just the perfect amount of time to enjoy myself, but not feeling that I should have gone on for an extra day.

And even if you do not have any skills with horses, I absolutely recommend this experience, fully enjoying the beautiful nature in Kyrgyzstan.

Booking:
I booked the horse trip one day in advance, through Apple Hostel. As I was alone, I paid 11.600 som for the three days. This included the horse, guide, 2 nights’ accommodation in yurt, 3x lunch, 2x dinner and 2x breakfast. If you are two or more people, the price goes down per person.

How to get there:
Apple Hostel is conveniently right next to the West bus station. Take bus number 514 to Kyzart from the far end of the bus station, on the side of the station building. Buy the ticket from the ticket office, price per person is 300 som. The first bus start to fill up at 7 in the morning, and leaves when it is full. When the bus leaves, you ask the driver to call the guide that will pick you up before you reach Kyzart, both to let him know approximate arrival time, and what intersection to drop you off. As I had bought a local sim-card (it is super cheap!), I used my own phone to call.

What to bring:
This of course depends on the season and weather. If it is sunny, the days are quite warm, so I wore shorts and t-shirt. I did however put on pants after the first day, as my leg got sore after rubbing against the straps for the stirrups. Evenings and nights get cold as it is quite high altitude. Based on my experience, here is my suggestion what to bring:
– Fully changed camera and phone for taking lots of pictures
– Extra power bank to charge your phone to take more pictures
– Headlight for the dark nights
– Wet wipes
– Sunscreen
– Full water bottle(s)
– Thermal underwear
– Woolen sweater
– Warm light down jacket
– Trousers with zip on/off legs so it can also be used as shorts
– One extra t-shirt
– Swimwear for the refreshing lake Song Kul and a sarong as towel
– Flip-flops
– Woolen hat and woolen gloves
– Waterproof poncho (you never know…)
– Underwear
– Toiletries
– And last but not least; a medium size backpack to pack the things above.

You can leave the rest of your luggage at the guesthouse where you start your trip.
I did not need to use the rain poncho or the hat and gloves, but I would absolutely bring them just in case. In the night I was sleeping in my thermal underwear, but it ended up being too hot, so I took my blanket away for a while to cool down.
Again, this is only based on my experience. Check with the guide about the current conditions for your trip, and pack accordingly.

Day trip to Pyramiden

Day trip to Pyramiden

Visiting the ghost town Pyramiden was high on the list for my visit to Svalbard. Exploring these kinds of unusual sights are intriguing, and the guide gave insight to the way of life in this former Russian settlement.

After a nice lunch in Longyearbyen, I was ready for my afternoon trip to Pyramiden. Heading north with the mountains on one side, and the partly snow-caped mountains and glacier at the other side of the fjord, I was excited for this trip combining nature and the mystic ghost town.

Skansbukta, a bay in the outer part of Billefjorden, is known for the rich bird life and the former gypsum mine, and we could easily witness both from the boat. The mining for gypsum was not a success, so after two attempts, the mine was abandoned. We could still see the traces of the mining and the trappers hut at the beach, but the main attraction now is the birds. My personal favorite among them are the cute puffins!

Skansbukta bay in the outer part of Billefjorden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Skansbukta, a bay in the outer part of Billefjorden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

A cute little puffin! Billefjorden, Pyramiden, Svalbard, Norway

A cute little puffin!

Grey clouds hanging down the mountains. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Heading on, I could see the massive glacier Nordenskiöldbreen in the distance. I ignored the fact that I was quite cold, and stayed out on the deck to enjoy the beautiful, yet grey, scenery. As the boat approached the majestic glacier, the wind silenced and the sun came out, warming up my frozen butt… I did bring more warm clothes, and they even have some thermic overall suites on board, but I was just too lazy to put them on. And I actually did not realize how cold I was until I felt the heat.

The grey clouds that had followed us all day cracked up, and gave way for the blue sky. This combined with the white clouds, and the white and blue glacier, made it picture perfect! Everyone on board came out to enjoy this powerful natural sight, and it felt like time stood still for a moment.

Arriving at Nordenskiöldbreen glacier. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Blue ice at the massive glacier Nordenskiöldbreen. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The massive glacier Nordenskiöldbreen up close. Near Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Nordenskiöldbreen glacier near Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

But Pyramiden (and the guide) was waiting, so we had to continue our journey.

Due to the risk of polar bears in the area, you are not allowed to walk around on your own without a gun or rifle, so we had to stay close to the guide at all times.

The Pyramiden area was originally Swedish territory, but they sold it to the Russians in 1927. They built the settlement at the foot of the Pyramiden mountain, hence the name of the town, and started mining for coal in 1956. It was considered a very lucrative job, both being very well paid, and also included free housing, food and entertainment. At the glory days, there were about 1800 people living in Pyramiden. Some workers came with their family, others came alone. In one of the apartment buildings, the top floor was for single women and the bottom floor was for single men. The floors between were for couples and families. Very few left Pyramiden still single…

Welcome to Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

An apartment building in Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

An apartment building in Pyramiden.

The workers were not allowed to stay for more than two years, both to prevent depression during polar nights, but also to give the opportunity to others to work and save money to start a new life back at the mainland.

The houses in the town were modern, the culture center had a concert hall and a sports room, they had a nice swimming pool, a large cantina and a hotel. And even imported grass from the Soviet Union!

The decline started with the fall of the Soviet Union, and combined with the tragic plane crash in 1996, where most of the deceased were workers at Pyramiden, it was the beginning of the end for the settlement. In 1998 most of the workers left the town, and left everything behind. Maybe they thought things would get better and they would move back some day, or maybe it was just too expensive to move everything. The theories are many.

After being deserted for 10 years, some Russians started to inhabit Pyramiden again in 2008 to attract tourists. Today there are only two buildings that has electricity, and most of the houses are locked up. No one are allowed to enter the buildings without permission, but the guided tour takes you inside some of them to witness the grandness of the glory days. Today there are 3-4 persons living in Pyramiden all year around to maintain the buildings, while there are about 10 extra people during the season.

It is a very special experience walking around a ghost town like Pyramiden. It seemed dead quiet, but all of a sudden a fox came sneaking around a corner, curiously following the group at safe distance.

The mines behind Pyramiden. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway A fox sneaking around. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Arriving at the cultural center, we were allowed to walk freely inside. The house is pretty run down, but if you look closely, you can still see some of the fine details; such as the engraved polar bear on the floor downstairs.

Lenin in front of the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The world's northernmost statue of Lenin. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

A polar bear engraved in the floor. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

A polar bear engraved in the floor.

Several music instruments were scattered around in different rooms, once used to play music in the concert hall. Pyramiden was a haven where they could listen to music that was banned elsewhere in the Soviet Union, like for instance jazz.

One of the many instruments left in the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The entertainment room in thge cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

The sports hall had a thick layer of dust on the floor, and reminded me of the sports room in another former Soviet area; the cultural center in Pripyat in Chernobyl

The sport hall in the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

The stairs inside the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Standing at the porch of the cultural center, you can look out at the whole city of Pyramiden, with the glacier and the mountains as a beautiful backdrop. And the back head of the northernmost statue of Lenin, that enjoy the same view.

Lenin looking out over Pyramiden and Nordenskiöldbreen. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Lenin looking out over Pyramiden and Nordenskiöldbreen.

Pyramiden and the glacier. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Pyramiden town. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

The large cantina looked like a nice ballroom, with wooden floor, large windows, flowery wallpaper, and a large mosaic art piece above the staircase. Back at the kitchen the relics of the state-of-the-art equipment from that time remains.

The cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Care for some ice cream. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Care for some ice cream?

The main staircase in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Mosaic art in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The main room in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Inside the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The kitchen in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Our last stop was at the hotel. Originally built in 1989, it still has the Soviet style even though part has been renovated to be more modern. The room where the bar is situated still has the original walls and ceilings, but the bar is new. And rich. Not in the sense of money, as the prices are quite cheap, but the selection is wide. They have their own beer and vodka as well. I of course had to try them both. Apparently, Russians have a tradition to drink alcoholic beverages containing the same % of alcohol as the latitude they are at, so if you feel adventurous, you can get a strong shot. Being at 79°, I did not feel the need to act like a local. Regular vodka was enough.

The hotel bar. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The local vodka in the bar. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Leaving Pyramiden, I wish I had more time and could stay overnight. You are not allowed to walk freely around without a gun or rifle though, but if you are licensed you can go for hikes up the mountain. Or just enjoy the scenery. And send a postcard from this unusual outpost.

Stamps at the post office. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

As the boat headed back towards Longyearbyen, I caught a last glimpse of the white and blue glacier, while puffins were flying by the window.

Practical information: 
Book online in advance. 
The catamaran leaves at 13.30, but pickup at the hotels are earlier.
Bring warm woolen clothes, including scarf, gloves and a hat, so you can stay outdoor and enjoy the scenery.
You can only pay by cash at Pyramiden, as they do not have signal for the card machines to be online.

 

Driving from Brasov to Sighisoara via Fagaras

As a tourist, it is not about finding the fastest route from A to B, but what you experience along the way. Heading from Brasov to Sighisoara, we therefor decided to go via Fagaras and visit the castle. It was closed though (again, check opening hours…), but it was beautiful to just walking around the moat, with the castle mirrored in the water.

The castle in Fagaras The castle in FagarasContinuing, we drove the countryside road 104D between Fagaras and Sighisoara, through beautiful landscape shifting between charming villages and green meadows with flocks of sheep. Occasionally they decided to cross the road, forcing us to take it easy and enjoying the scenery even more. Suddenly the open fields changed to dense forest, before it opened up again, revealing yet another charismatic village with colorful rundown houses. Some of them even dating back to the 1800s.

Take Barcut for example. The houses were perfectly lined up along both sides of the road. Children were playing carefree in the street. Elderly people hanging outside their houses, watching the slow village life as it is passing by, as well as the horse and carriage that suddenly appeared from a side street. A sheep dog off duty were strolling along the street. We kind of would have needed him right after, when we were stuck between a flock of sheep surrounding the car. But then again, we were in no hurry. That however, is a keyword. Time. Always expect to need more time than planned. Both due to the pleasant fact that there is so much to see along the way, but also the less fun fact that road conditions are not always the best, and you have to drive zigzag to escape the holes.

One of many green meadows with flocks of sheep A flock of sheep crossing the road Typical village along the way Typical village along the way Typical village along the way Elderly people outside their houses

A flock of sheep in the road. Where is the sheep dog when you need him

Where is the sheep dog when you need him?

Mavrovo

Driving through the national park of Mavrovo is a scenic drive through roads narrowed by trees, mountains, rivers and lakes.

Narrow roads.

Narrow roads.

Since we were in Mavrovo national park, we felt we had to take the small detour to Mavrovo village as well. Driving off the main road, over the dam, we followed the croocked road.

We very fast noticed that this was a popular skiing destination after passing by a fence made by used skis. But the way to the end of the road also lead us through beautiful green landscape, to a fabulous old run down church by the lake, cows eating gras and minding their own business and idyllic houses spread all around.

Fence in Mavrovo made by skis.

Fence in Mavrovo made by skis.

Faboulus old run down church by the lake.

Faboulus old run down church by the lake.

At the end of the road we found a few hotels and a ski lift. It was no snow (but could easily have been…), so the place did not show itself from the best side. But it still showed potential. It could off course not match the bigger places in the Alps, but offers a different experience.

Mavrovo village.

Mavrovo village.

Heading onwards through the national park, we passed many charming, small mountain villages.

Heading onwards through the national park, we passed many charming, small mountain villages.

The detour to Bajram Curry

Since we found ourselves near by the border to Albania, we decided to take a short detour, going to Bajram Curry. Well. It ended up not being that short, as the road conditions are quite bad most of the way, and we had to drive very slowly. At least we had good time to enjoy the scenery!

The city in itself is not very charming, but it is supposed to be a very good starting point for many great hikes in the area. And with the beautiful nature we passed on our way there, I have absolutely no trouble believing just that.

We passed a charming small village.

We passed a charming small village.

Passing by nice scenery

Passing by nice scenery.

Beautiful combination of green grass, snowy mountains and clear blue sky

Beautiful combination of green grass, snowy mountains and blue sky.

Beautiful view on our way to Bajram Curry.

Beautiful view on our way to Bajram Curry.

Farming in the mountains close to Bajram Curry.

Farming in the mountains close to Bajram Curry.

Street in Bajram Curry.

Street in Bajram Curry.

Read more posts from Albania.

Lake Matka – a great getaway

Only about half an hour from Skopje, you will find Lake Matka. The river Treska that run through the Matka Canyon was dammed up sometime before World War 2, to serve the electrical power plant.

The power plant by Lake Matka.

The power plant by Lake Matka.

Beautiful nature and fantastic scenery is not exactly what I imagine when I hear the word power plant, but that is what we found. Once you just pass the dam and it is out of sight, it really quickly gets out of mind as well.

Lake Matka, with boats and kayak rental, as well as a hotel, restaurant and the Church of St. Andrew.

Lake Matka, with boats and kayak rental, as well as a hotel, restaurant and the Church of St. Andrew.

The steep green clad cliffs rises high above the lake, and a pedestrian path all along the lakeside gives the opportunity for an easy hike. If you prefer watching the scenery pass by from a boat or kayak instead, that is also possible.
Steep green clad cliffs
Cliffs rising from Lake Matka
At the beginning of the path you will find a hotel, a restaurant with a large terrace, and the Church of St. Andrew built in 1389.

Church of St. Andrew built in 1389.

Church of St. Andrew built in 1389.

Iconography inside the church.

Iconography inside the church.

If you do not have your own car, there are regular buses from Skopje to Matka.

Read also:
Skopje, the city of sculptures
Skopje by night

Find more details about Skopje on Macedonia’s official tourism website.