Last week we left the smoggy streets of Bishkek behind for the crisp mountain peaks of Ala Archa National Park. Just 30 kilometers from central Bishkek, the park offers city dwellers and visitors open space and fresh air without much hassle. We weren’t sure how to get there, so we consulted a number of sources: three Russian-language teachers, two Kyrgyz-language teachers, one Bishkek expat Facebook group, and one travel agent. We figured it out, eventually, and I’ll summarize our findings at the end of the post, but the real story here is how we got BACK to Bishkek from the park.
After, long story short, taking a taxi to the park and deciding not to negotiate a return trip, we were weighing our options. It was still relatively early–around 2 PM–and there were a few other visitors traipsing around, so we figured at best we’d hitch a free ride, and at worst we’d call a taxi from the surprisingly operational park hotel.
Instead, we ended up riding back with a tour bus full of tipsy Indian businessmen crooning Bollywood love songs and inviting us to one day meet their mothers.
Here’s how it happened:
We were making our way back to the parking lot after shooting some key footage for our clean-air-eco-comedy video, when we came across a large and widely dispersed pack of Indian men. Several of them were clumped around a tree, relieving themselves in the cold air, which inspired me to duck into a nearby outhouse as well. When I came out I saw the same group swarming something apparently very interesting, but I didn’t see Stephanie anywhere. As I got closer, I realized that SHE was the focal point of the crowd, and groups of four men at a time were literally pulling her back and forth and demanding (all smiles, of course) that she pose for a picture with them. She looked uncomfortable.
At this point, I knew I had two choices: I could rescue her from her insistent admirers, or I could document the event on my own camera. Here’s what I decided:
I’ll admit that it was a bit bizarre to be getting the red-carpet treatment here in a Kyrgyz national park on a quiet February Sunday, but it turned out that the majority of the group was actually quite sane. They just, apparently, loved taking pictures with strangers. The photo shoot went on for at least 20 minutes, and several of the more sober members of the group warned us that it wouldn’t stop unless we took our leave and moved on, but we had other plans. We found the tour group leader, a slightly overwhelmed 23-year-old university student, and asked him if we could score a ride home. “Sure,” he said, “but can you sing?”
As all 67 of us loaded onto two tour buses, we were offered the seats of honor in the front of the bus, with the president of the company right behind us. This way, we got some answers to the many questions swirling in our awe-struck heads. Who are all these guys? They’re employees from the various offices of an Indian pharmaceutical company. Why are they here? Because they exceeded expectations in their various positions during the past fiscal year. Why Kyrgyzstan? It’s an untouched wilderness, of course, and they may never get a chance to see it again. All reasonable answers, I thought, and the president seemed genuinely proud of his employees and quite pleased with the prize vacation he’d provided–with good reason, as far as I could see.
That’s when the tour guide handed us a microphone. “I’m sorry, but I promised them you would sing.” Sing what? Christmas songs? “Happy Birthday?” Britney’s “Everytime”? We were both drawing blanks, until we remembered the one song that all 90s kids know by heart: the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air intro. We performed and got a standing ovation (to be fair, most of them were standing up to begin with) then Stephanie followed with a solo encore of “Barbie Girl.” The all-male crowd got a little too raucous after the “undress me everywhere” line, so we decided to let them do the entertaining from then on. They were really good at this–everyone seemed to know a dozen songs–mostly love songs from Bollywood movies–and sang them with passion, even snatching the mic from each other to sing it “better.” Our favorite singer was quite drunk but had a genuinely good voice, and always sang with his eyes closed and maybe just a hint of a tear–when anyone else sang, he either fell asleep or plugged his ears and muttered curses.
45 short minutes later, we were all dropped off in the city center. The mood had calmed, but not soured, as the vodka drained and the song catalog exhausted. We very nearly accepted an invitation to join our benefactors for lunch, but we opted to head home and reflect on the experience instead. I think if we learned anything from this experience, it’s that in the future, we should never arrange for a ride home.
As promised, practical info for getting to Ala-Archa National Park:
1. The cheapest way to get to the park is to take a marshrutka. A variety of different numbers go there–just look for the ones that say “Ала-Арча” in the bottom-right corner. The easiest way to get the right ones is to head to Osh Bazaar and wait at the marshrutka stop across the street from the bazaar to the east.
2. In the off-season (February, for example) these marshrutkas don’t go all the way to the park. They go to a nearby town with the same name. From there, you can take a taxi. The consensus from our sources was that a taxi from here to the park gate will cost between $2 and $4 (100-200 som).
3. We didn’t know any of this until we personally saw the marshrutkas driving alongside the taxi that we hired. (We had tried several marshrutkas, but apparently they were the wrong ones–eventually we just hired a taxi to save time.) The taxi cost around $8 (500 som). No matter what your budget, $8 for a 35-minute taxi ride is NOT a bad deal, especially considering that you can pile at least 4 people into one car and split the cost. Still, it’s a lot more than a 40-cent ride in a cozy marshrutka.
4. As mentioned in forums and travel sites, the park gate is about 10 kilometers before the hiking trails/recreation areas start. We took TripAdvisor advice and negotiated our taxi ride to “the hotel,” which sits at the entrance to the hiking trails.
5. Since the taxi was driving us all the way, we had to pay its entrance fee to the park. It was a surprisingly steep 400 som, or about $7 for the car. Without a car, it’s a negligible 80 som fee per person.
Our trip from Bishkek to Ala-Archa National Park, in summary:
- Transportation Mode: Taxi
- Cost: Approx. $8 , plus $7 park entrance fee to enter with a vehicle
- Time: 35 minutes
- Easiness (out of 10): 8
Our trip from Ala-Archa National Park to Bishkek, in summary:
- (Most taxi drivers will wait up to three hours for you in the park. There are also taxi drivers parked in the parking lot in front of the park hotel.)