Exploring Kyrgyzstan: Balykchy

The intensity of our training schedule leaves only a one-day weekend. Many volunteers choose to spend that day in Bishkek, the capital, where we can get food that reminds us of home (burgers, iced coffee, fried chicken, good cocktails) and wander the wide streets of a big city. I joined a small group for an adventure east, in the opposite direction of Bishkek, to visit Issyk Kul – the world’s second largest saline lake and the Pearl of Kyrgyzstan. The name Issyk Kul directly translates as “Hot Lake” in Kyrgyz; it is so named because the lake refuses to freeze over during the cold Kyrgyz winter.

After transferring between two marshrutkas and a very cramped taxi ride (8 people in 5 seats), we finally made it to Balykchy, a mid-sized city on the western tip of the lake. On Saturday afternoon, the wind was strong and it looked like rain – not good odds for a weekend at the beach. Fortunately, the weather opened up for us on Sunday, and we were able to enjoy several hours at the beach, sunbathing, snacking on ice cream, and people-watching. I took responsibility for guarding the bags while the other volunteers went for a swim – I’m glad I didn’t go in, because it took all afternoon for some of them to warm up from the freezing water. Issyk Kul? More like Cool Kul. (Cue laugh track now, please.)

We took the train back from Balykchy, which was a wonderful experience. It took more than twice the amount of time to get back by train, but the landscapes were lovely and we had a lot of room to stretch out, talk, nap, play cards, and eat snacks bought from the Russian women selling homemade pies. Kids in the next compartment over took an interest in us, and we chatted with their parents, as well as the man who sold us our tickets.

It tends to blow peoples’ minds when we speak Kyrgyz, when we say that we come from America, when we say that we will live here for two years. These conversations are often short, but they are definitely heart-warming. One Russian babushka who sold me a fried-dough pastry filled with potato went on and on about how lovely it is to meet an actual American and speak face-to-face. She only sees Americans on TV, where we are portrayed only in a negative light; seeing us smiling and laughing on the train changed her perception of Americans, she said. After all the drama with visas and bureaucracy in the last month, chats like this confirm that I am in the right place.

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