This past weekend we decided to escape the dust of Bishkek and shed some of E’s stress from work, and so headed out to the mountains.
From Bishkek, you basically have four directions for heading into the mountains: West of the city and then South until Osh over rather treacherous mountain passes, strait south from where we live to the well-visited (and beautiful) Ala Archa National Park, South East to mountain valleys and alpine lakes like Kara Suu, and straight South from the Eastern corner of the city into the Alamudum Gorge, which is where we headed this time.
As I discovered internet searching over the week, there aren’t very many cabin-resort options out of the city. I was looking for cabins/Russian village Dacha with mountain views and (hopefully!) a sauna or outdoor jacuzzi/hottub/pool, not unlike the rustic and rustic-chic resorts found around Lake Superior. However, in Bishkek this was not to be. The middle class market is still small, and those who can afford retreats usually save their cash for summers at Issyk Kul or vacations abroad. Most summer tourists are twenty-something European bicyclers and backpackers who prefer budget yurt and homestay (CBT) options that they can brag about back home. Which means the comfortable weekend cabin market isn’t exactly booming in Bishkek.
So I found the next best thing: Jannat Spa and Resort, sister of (the more expensive) Jannat Hotel in Bishkek, but set halfway between a Kyrgyz village and where the road peters into the mountains, some 20 kilometers out of Bishkek. At $165 for a double for a night (including breakfast, use of the pool and spa, and a 20 minute massage) it’s not exactly a steal (especially in a county with a GDP this low), but what I’ve found all over northern Kyrgyzstan at least (Bishkek and Issyk-Kul) is that hotel and rent prices are really out of step with the general economy. There are essentially two categories: lower-quality, cheap soviet-era housing (essentially what CBT offers, though not always as safe and clean); and modern, way-over-priced options. In Cholpon Ata on Issyk Kul, for example, room and board in a family house with a few extra beds is about $10-20 per person while the cheaper, smaller hotels away from the lake are $50 per night, and rooms in the lakeside resorts start at $150-200 during high season. In Bishkek hotels top prices in most US cities – cramped rooms on the lower end are $80, and anything with four stars starts around $300. In a country where that’s more than 1/10th the GDP (GDP PPP: $2,372). In short, hotel prices in Kyrgyzstan are quite high, and $165 for a place with a spa and sauna is actually decent. Jannat also has a weekend special – $296 for Friday and Saturday nights, all meals Friday-Sunday, and full use of the services in the spa. If that’s your thing, it’s probably the best deal in Bishkek.
We, however, drove out on Saturday morning for a shorter weekend stay.
Jannat Resort is… like a Best Western trying to put on a four star resort with a Russian management team. Clean and standard, with decent attention to details, a mineral-water pool accompanied by a hot wood sauna, lackluster lukewarm Finnish and Turkish saunas in the spa, TVs everywhere (including in the women’s spa), a “gym” consisting of a few rundown pieces of LifeFitness equipment, a comically over-decorated dining hall with surprisingly good (and unsurprisingly overpriced) food, and a perpetually friendly (and confused) staff that spoke some English, sometimes, somewhat. The hotel itself is situated in the gorge, with front and back views of…rocky hills (but beautiful evening views of the mountains from the terrace).
Sunday morning we woke late and headed down to the buffet breakfast, which was an interesting smorgasbord of…everything. Dyed hardboiled Easter Eggs and Easter Cupcakes, Kyrgyz samosas and horse meat soup, Russian porridge and pickles, scrambled eggs, Korean sushi, eggplant rolls, smoked fish, sliced ham, cold cornflakes, blini with four different fillining (the soviet version of the Swedish pancake), cheese and olives, and fruit. I’ve never seen such a culturally confused (or delightfully mixed) hotel breakfast buffet.
Around noon we checked out and drove to the end of the valley, past 12 Chimneys (Taverna 12 Kamena) and a Soviet-era hot springs. The later looked…dirty… even from the outside. Crumbling, damp concrete in a part of the valley strewn with trash and frequented by Russians piling out of rusty Ladas in outfits that looked like they came from the second hand bazaar (or just straight from the Soviet Era, only twenty years run down). I would assume it’s relatively inexpensive, and actually decently clean, so if Soviet-Era adventuring is your thing, it’s probably recommended.
12 Chimneys actually looked pretty decent. Overpriced, as is to be expected from anything one step removed from rustic (dinners around $5-10 for dishes that are $2-5 in Kyrgyz family-run restuarants or canteens, Perrier for $8), but not so bad, and actually quite decent. They have a sizable dining room housed in a natural log building outfitted in Kyrgyz felt, outdoor seating for which you pay extra, and six two-bedroom cabins for rent. There wasn’t really any information about it online, and the pictures looked a bit campy, which is why we didn’t stay, but after a look around it seems like a nice option for future weekends. The cabins are basic with some funny touches of post-soviet bling (like cheap shiny gold polyester throws on the beds), but clean and comfortable. No sauna, no pool, no spa, but there are plenty of hiking trails around and possible promise of nighttime entertainment from local guests who over-indulge in vodka and serenade their neighbors with tuneless song. I think we understood correctly that it is $100 for a cabin per night, including dinner and breakfast for four, which comes to $25 per person – definitely decent in the strange Bishkek housing and hotel market.
(And also, we’re really bad at selfies…)