Communication is an essential part of traveling. Of course, when you speak the local language, you are less likely to have a problem. But what happens when you don’t?
While hiking to Song Kol lake in Kyrgyzstan, I learned that a small miscommunication can lead to a very big problem.
Where It All Started
It all started 3 weeks before my departure.
I was searching for hikes to do in Kyrgyzstan, and the hike to Song Kol was one of the most popular. Of course, when I say popular, I mean there are maybe 10-20 people who hike to Song Kol per day (during the high season).
Despite its popularity, there was not a lot of information on how to complete the hike without a guide.
I was able to find the hike on maps.me and assumed that would be enough.
Fast forward 3 weeks and I was on my way Kochkor, one of two starting points for the hike to Song Kol.
My other option was Naryn. But it was slightly further than Kochkor and I was unable to find a minivan departing from Bishkek.
Once I arrived in Kochkor, I knew I needed to get to a small town called Kyrgyz, where the trail actually started.
There were no buses to Kyrgyz town, and my only option was to take a taxi from Kochkor. The hostel owner of where I was staying assured me that it would be easy. He told me that I needed to go to the taxi stand early in the morning, and there would be somebody going to Kyrgyz.
So, I woke up early, as advised, and made my way to the taxi stand. It was not a taxi stand per se. It was a small parking lot in front of a small market where locals would come to pick-up anybody going in the same direction.
I arrived at 8 am to an empty parking lot. I stood there looking around confused and lost. I ran back to the hostel to verify the location of said taxi stand. I had the right location, but I was too early!
So, I waited and around 9 am various sized vehicles began to fill the parking lot.
Of course, I was the odd one out and I was approached by several taxis all calling out a different city. Finally, I heard Kyrgyz.
It was an elderly gentleman, driving the world’s oldest Honda. He didn’t speak English, but I pointed to the town on the map and he nodded like he understood.
We proceeded to negotiate a price. We each wrote numbers down on our cellphones and agreed on 500 SOM (roughly $5).
And we were off, or so I thought.
There were 2 empty seats, and, in Kyrgyzstan, that doesn’t happen. So, we drove around for about an hour until he received a call.
On maps.me it looked like we were going towards Kyrgyz town. But after a few minutes, he pulled into a driveway and another elderly gentleman got in. Then, several men arrived with various-sized packages. And they proceeded to fill the car until it could hold no more.
Once the car was nearly bottoming out, we started driving towards Kyrgyz town.
The Mix Up
The paved road eventually turned to dust, and the landscape became vast and empty. There was nothing and there was nobody. It was so peaceful.
Then, the driver slammed on the breaks and the car came to a screeching halt. As I lunged forward, the driver turned and said, “Kyrgyz.”
I frantically checked maps.me.
This was not the town. We were not at the right location.
I said, “No.” I pointed to my phone and tried to show him.
He smiled and said, “Da.” I knew that meant ‘yes’…it was the only word in Russian I knew. My heart started racing.
He got out of the car went to the trunk and took out my bag and pointed to a sign. It read, “Kyrgyz Pass.”
I started shaking my head, hoping he would realize the misunderstanding.
He started nodding and, again, said, “Da! Song Kol.” He then walked to the edge of the road, pointed in the distance, and starting speaking Russian. I suspected he was describing how to get to Song Kol, but I had no idea what he was saying.
I tried to explain that I did not speak Russian, but it did not work. He did not speak English.
Then, he gave me a thumbs-up, smiled, got back in the car, and drove off. A cloud of dust filled the air and the taxi disappeared into the distance.
I stood in the middle of the road looking around. There was nothing. And, given the emptiness, I was sure that no other vehicles were going to arrive.
I remained calm and checked maps.me. There was a trail, but far from where I wanted to start the hike. It was going to add another day of hiking, which I had not planned for. That meant I had to look for water sources, a place to sleep, and food.
I realized I had no choice but to start walking.
So, I took a deep breath and looked for the start of the trail.
The Start of My Journey to Song Kol
I found the trailhead and followed the zig-zagging path on maps.me.
The scenery was breath-taking, mountains covered in green pastures with flowing rivers.
Every now and then I passed herders and small yurt camps, but for the most part, it was quiet and empty.
After about 4 hours, I saw 3 other tourists that were doing the same trail, but by horseback. This gave me reassurance that I was on the right path.
Another 4 hours past and I realized that I needed to find a place to sleep. Maps.me indicated that I was roughly halfway to Song Kol, and there were several yurt camps in the area.
I walked from one yurt camp to another but there was nothing available. Then, I saw a young girl playing in the distance. I started waving and she waved back. So, I walked over and asked if her family had a place where I could sleep.
She stood there staring back at me. She uttered a word or two words in English, but it was obvious that I would need to mime. So, I made the sign for sleeping and eating. She smiled and nodded. She then picked up a small stick and started to draw the price on the ground – 1700 SOM (approximately $20). I smiled and nodded.
She took me back to her family’s yurt camp and showed me to my bed. I set my bag down and she said, “Food. Later.”
I smiled and gave her a thumbs up.
While I waited for dinner, I explored the area around the yurt camp.
They had 4 yurts, one where the family slept, one where visitors slept, and the other two were for dining. There were 3 children. The eldest appeared to be in charge of visitors as she was the only one who could say a few words in English. The others took care of the cattle (goats, horses, chickens, etc.).
As the sun began to set, the temperature dropped and I was starting to get hungry. Luckily the eldest daughter returned and said, “Food. Now.”
She took me to the dining yurt and where a huge dinner waiting for me. There was a large bowl of soup with pasta and pieces goat meat, hot tea, and a smorgasbord board of tasty snacks.
After I gorged myself, I retreated to my bed and slept like a baby in a sea of blankets.
I woke up to a copious breakfast. But I was so full from dinner that I could not finish everything. I ate as much as I could, and headed out towards Song Kol.
Destination – Song Kol Lake
The second day started with a steep incline that would last for about 3 hours.
The hot sun, even early in the morning, made it that much more challenging. I tried to cover my skin, but it was ruthless.
When I reached the highest point, I could see Song Kol lake in the distance. It was magnificent.
Fun Fact: Song Kol lies at 3000 meters in the Tien Shan mountain range. It’s surrounded by high mountain pastures called jailoos. Here Kyrgyz herdsmen graze their livestock, living a semi-nomadic life in yurts.
It was a slow and steady descent towards the lake. I eventually arrived at a large yurt camp where I was given lunch, dinner, and a very comfortable bed.
Since Song Kol lake is quite popular, there were several locals who spoke English.
I spent a wonderful night talking with the locals and other hikers. My miscommunication story was a source of laughter.
The next morning I headed back to Kochkor. And that night in the hostel, I downloaded google translate and the Russian dictionary!
A Lesson Learned
Communication plays a vital role in any traveler’s experience. Even if you don’t speak the local language, there are other forms of communication. From hand gestures to drawing pictures, there are so many ways you can overcome a language barrier.
And of course, I recommend downloading google translate. Most languages are available offline. And having a dictionary available can be very useful…like when you are dropped off at the wrong location.
Tips for Hiking to Song Kol Lake
1. Bring a water filter. There is no source of clean water, and there is nowhere to purchase bottled water.
2. Wear warm clothes. The temperature drops below zero during the night, even in the summer. The yurts are warm, but it’s best to have layers.
3. Bring a bed liner. The blankets are never washed at the yurt camps.
4. Wear a lot of sunblock. The ozone layer is very thin near the lake, and the sun is powerful. My hands did not have sunblock, and I had several blisters.
5. Bring snacks. You will have dinner and breakfast at the yurt, but not lunch. There are no stores or places to buy food along the hike.
6. There are two options to return to Kochkor. Either by hiking or taking a jeep. The cost to take a jeep is 3000 SOM. I met some hikers who paid 10,000 SOM. Make sure to negotiate.
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Have questions about the hike to Song Kol in Kyrgyzstan? Send me a message in the comments below!
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