In 1906-1908 a young Finnish colonel Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was sent for an expedition to Turkestan, in the czar’s military intelligence service. On the background, there was Russia’s humiliating defeat to the Japanese in Manchuria, and the “Great Game” rivalry over Central Eurasian geopolitics against the British Empire. Turkestan had only freshly been colonised by the Russian Empire in 1800s, following the devastating Russian conquest of the once glorious Silk Road khanates of Bukhara, Khiva and Qoqand. The vast lands of Central Asia were divided into Russian Turkestan and Chinese-controlled East Turkestan. Fearing Japanese and Western influence to spread, and Pan-Turkic desires for independence to take root among the Sarts (Turkestanis), Czar Nicholas II planned further conquest on China’s expense in East Turkestan (Sinkiang), which would have offered Russia a more effective railroad connection towards the ultimate goal, Manchuria.
(For the information of foreign readers, C. G. E. Mannerheim is probably one of the historically best-known Finns. Although he started his career in the military service of the Russian czar – Finland was that time an autonomous grand-duchy of the Russian Empire, he later became a national hero for the Finns in struggle for independence from Russia. Mannerheim later became Marshal, hero of the Liberation War, Winter War and Continuation War of Finland, and after the WW2 the president of Finland for a short period. It is worth of looking for his memoirs and his travel itinerary “Across Asia” in English, published as an English edition in 1950s. Quite few people actually know that for two years, he also was an explorer!)
Mannerheim travelled, first by river boat along the Volga to Astrakhan, then to Petrovsk (Makhachkala) in Dagestan, and Baku, Azerbaijan, from where he took a ship over the Caspian to Krasnovodsk (today’s Türkmenbashy, Turkmenistan). He continued by railways to Samarkand and Andizhan, from where he continued on horseback through the Fergana Valley, Tajik and Kyrgyz territories, and then into Chinese East Turkestan, making detailled observations on military, social, political and cultural issues, and collecting from markets plentiful cultural items and rare manuscripts which are now in Finland. Afterwards, these collections as well as Mannerheim’s itineraries, became much more valuable than the original intelligence purpose of his trip, which produced more evidence on the corruption of Russian and Chinese colonial authorities than on Japanese or British conspiracies among the Central Asian Turks.
Well, we found there no more Wahhabi bogeymen than Mannerheim ever found Japanese spies. Mannerheim rode on horseback all the way from Samarkand to Tian Shan Mountains and to East Turkestan, from where he continued to China, all the way to Peking. My trip to Kyrgyzstan in September 2001 was connected with the preparations of a project of mine, my friend Christian, and our Canadian-Estonian journalist friend Eric, to reconstruct Mannerheim’s whole expedition journey by the 100th anniversary in 2006. The journey partly overlaps with previous explorations of Marco Polo, Aurel Stein and others, and we of course connect Mannerheim’s era with the present geopolitical situation and history of intelligence operations in Central Eurasia. (Here I would like to add that earlier myself and Christian travelled on the footsteps of the Hungarian Sahara explorer Count László de Almásy, a.k.a. the “English Patient”, in Sahara, and when we later visited the Bernstein Castle of the Almásy family in today’s Austrian Burgenland, we found out that László’s father and grandfather were great orientalists, one having been an ornithologist and explorer of Turkestan, and another even got the title of Pasha in Istanbul. If somebody has information about the ornithologist Almásy’s discoveries in Central Asia, I would be most interested.)
Birdwatching fits quite well in the interests of explorers following Mannerheim’s footsteps. Mannerheim spent a lot of time in Central Asia in his favourite hobby, hunting. Horses, of course, were another of Mannerheim’s favourite hobbies. Birdwatching suits well the picture, since it is fulfilling the hunting instincts of modern young adventurers, yet not obliging to kill any living creature.
Kyrgyzstan is the most easily accessible of the countries nowadays located on Mannerheim’s journey. It has poor economy but more democracy than the big neighbours Uzbekistan and Kazakstan. Travelling within the country is free and Kyrgyzstan does not practise as paranoid a visa policy as do Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Tajikistan and China (for East Turkestan). Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, moreover, regulate internal movement in troublesome ways, which at least yet does not occur in Kyrgyzstan, but might become reality if Russia manages to rehabilitate military presence in the Fergana Valley. Finnish citizens have to get the Kyrgyz visa abroad, since there is no Kyrgyz embassy in Finland and arriving at the airport without a visa is always risky due to the constantly changing rules and practises of bribery. The most logical ways to travel to Kyrgyzstan are through Turkey or Russia. Generally, it is easier, cheaper and better quality through Turkey (where Finns don’t need visa), but we happened to have things to do in Moscow and had the Russian visa already. We found the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow very helpful and constructive, unlike the Kazak one. So we flied from Moscow (Sheremetyevo) to Bishkek by Kyrgyz Air (one of the local heirs of Aeroflot), and could not travel by land route because of the unconstructive attitude of Kazak authorities.
When travelling in Central Asia, it is very useful to speak either Russian or Turkish since always everyone can still speak Russian and most of the Turkestani languages (Kyrgyz, Kazak, Uzbek, Turkmen and Uighur) are Turkic and intelligible with knowledge of Turkish. Tajik is close to Persian. Almost nobody speaks English, yet some children and teenagers have already learned it.
Most of Kyrgyzstan is covered by mountains. Even the average altitude from sea level is over 3000 metres. The land is bordered by the majestic mountain ranges of the Tianshan and the Pamirs. These are connected through Kyrgyzstan by the Alatau and Moldotau ranges and the ranges surrounding the Fergana Valley, which is divided between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan by one of the world’s most absurd border arrangements, designed by the Soviets in the spirit of “divide and rule”.
In the terms of avifauna, Kyrgyzstan is located in an interesting crossroads between the Turkestani steppes and deserts, and the mountain ranges of the Himalaya and Tibet. The Central Asian avifauna is mixed with South Asian species through the mountain passes, and spiced with relicts of the mountain forests. Siberian and Kazakstani migrants pass this way on their way towards wintering areas in the Indian Subcontinent. When I later lived in Pakistan, it was fascinating to compare the mixtures of species of Pakistani, Kashmiri, Kyrgyz, Afghan and Sinkiang mountain valleys (including passage migrants – just think about a flock of Stilts on the shore of a glacier lake, or a Yellow Bittern heading south in a gorge without a drop of water).
Unfortunately literature on specifically birds is scarce. The “Birds of Russia and Adjacent Territories” by Flint, Boehme, Kostin and Kuznetsov is in many senses inappropriate and obsolete, and its illustration does not entirely meet the Western standards. Besides, it has certain “colonial” attitude towards former peripheries of Russia, which is well described by the book’s name but also the taxonomy of this book suffers from it, reducing many Central Asian species into subspecies status, thus also neglecting information on them. It’s still useful, as there seem to be very little alternative. Additional help can be found in books about European, Middle Eastern and Indian avifauna.
The Lonely Planet’s Central Asia travel guide is an important addition. In Turkestan, it is not worthy to pay too much, since not much better quality can be expected in the heavily over-priced hotels and arranged trips, than what can be found in small hostels and by independent travelling. It is also an ethical choice to pay little but important income to honest entrepreneurs than to pay disproportionate sums to be cast in the Moloch’s mouth of corruption and “privatised” state companies owned by the relatives of ruling nomenclature. Usually you don’t get better quality by paying more. You can pay either 5 USD or 250 USD for exactly same kind of cold hotel room with plenty of cockroaches but no warm water. I would advise any ethical traveller to choose the 5 USD, and not think in line of “we are rich Westerners, we can pay a bit more”, because that contribution will not go to more healthy tourism business in the country, but the opposite, because it distorts market and adds to the pockets of those who prevent and corrupt the development of healthy market economy. A good piece of advice is: Never pay bribes or extra-price just for being lazy and thinking that these people are poor. The better for yourself and future travellers, the more you can do to support fair rules and fair treatment.
There is no need to fear Central Asia. There is a lot of bullshit about Islam and terrorism going on, but we must remember that it is usually politically motivated and has very little to do with the reality in these areas. The revival of religion in Central Asia after the long era of horrible official atheism is nothing that should be feared. Uzbekistan, an ancient core area of Central Asian Islam, is traditionally more religious than Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan which never had very deep roots on the light Islamic cover of their ancient Shamanist background. So in Kyrgyzstan you face more signs of the communist “religion” than of Islam. It must also be remembered that religious conservatism does not mean religious fanaticism, and that most Islamist movements are more concerned of moral and social problems (for example alcohol and drugs) than of political activities, let alone terrorism. Indeed, conservative Islam has often been a bastion against destructive forms of radical Islamism, which is a very modern political fashion rather than a religious force. It is no surprise that many radical Islamists around the world are former Marxists who have just changed the colour of their anti-American flag from red to green. In the former Soviet Union, Islamic traditionalism was employed by the Russian czars in the 1800s to counterplay secularly inspired Pan-Turkic and independence movements. Similarly, today, fanatic anti-American Islamism has a lot more to do with ex-Soviet security agencies willing to counterplay secular national movements with Islamic internationalism, than with Caucasian separatists and Central Asian oppositions, who are usually pro-Western.
For a Western traveller, there is no such threat in Central Asia that would be connected with Islam or “terrorism”. However, crime is a threat, and there are indeed areas where there are armed gangs at loose, and some risk of being kidnapped. Expensive optical devises etc. may catch the attention of thieves or robbers. But these are all basically risks that you have to encounter in Russia as well. There is no hostility against “white” people. Moreover, there are plenty of ethnic Russians living in the Central Asian republics, and by dressing and behaving in certain ways, you can easily “disappear” in the crowth as long as you don’t open your mouth. Russians are not persecuted by Central Asians in any way (except by the state policy of Turkmenistan, which was agreed between Messrs Niyazov and Putin – but Turkmenistan is anyway an open-air museum of Stalinism and you wouldn’t end up there as a tourist).
Problems of Taxonomy
The first thing an arriving birdwatcher notices is the abundance of Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis). This species has spread with speed and irresistible force everywhere in Turkestan, and we even met mynas in high alpine zones, although mostly the Common Myna is still bound to human settlement. It is considerably less common towards east and the Chinese side ot Tianshan, like it is also absent in the higher parts of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir in Pakistan. Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) was only seen a couple of times in flocks along the road leading from Bishkek to Cholpan-Ata and Karakol along the northern side of the Ysyk-Köl (Lake Issyk).
Besides Feral Pigeon (Columba livia domestica), the urban columbines include both Palm Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) and Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), both species abundant. In Chüy lowlands, also European Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) was found. Eastern Stock Dove (Columba eversmanni) was rather common in arid places and gorges, where the species is nesting in steep precipises. Outside human settlement in rocky and semidesert lands, especially in gorges and ravines, there were colonies of Rock Pigeon (Columba livia livia), while Hill Pigeon (Columba rupestris) was found on more flat rocky deserts. Both were found in flocks, but apparently never mixed. South of Bishkek, on our way to the Ala-Archa canyon, also Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus) was seen.
In regard to crows, Kyrgyzstan belongs to the Carrion Crow zone. Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone), which prevails in Western Europe, is replaced by the “grey-coat” Hooded Crow (Corvus corone cornix) in Northern and Eastern Europe, in West Central Asia and Western Siberia, but south and east from the Aral and Balqash lakes, Carrion Crow takes over again, all the way to the Pacific. In Kyrgyzstan, Carrion Crow is abundant in all habitats, as is Black-billed Magpie (Pica pica), too. On plains, there are also large flocks of Rook (Corvus frugilegus), while on arid steppes, semi-deserts, deserts and heavily overgrazed hills one can found Brown-necked Raven (Corvus ruficollis). The Northern Raven (Corvus corax) can be found in high mountainous altitudes. Besides, there are also lots of Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) and Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), the latter being less common of the two.
In September, all bee-eaters, most waders and part of the insectivore passerines have already migrated south. Apart from some Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba) about no swifts were seen, and also hirundines were quite scarce, although there were Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Red-rumped Swallow (Cecropis daurica) and Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris), individuals and small flocks. Some local supposedly common passerines were not found at all, as they probably migrate. This was the case with many wheatears, redstarts and smaller larks. However, there were some northern migrants available, often in odd places. The most commonly seen species included for example Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides) and Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus).
In Turkestan, there are several exotic species of tits, but in many cases their taxonomic status is unclear and they are sometimes considered as full species, sometimes as subspecies, not always in entirely consistent way. The Turkestan Tit (Parus bokharensis), typical for Turkestani oases as the nomination after Bukhara supposes, may be a subspecies of Great Tit (Parus major), although in places these two coincide without mixing up. Two other species, Yellow-breasted Tit (Parus flavipectus) and Persian Tit (Parus hyrcanus) have been split from Azure Tit (Parus cyanus) and Sombre Tit (Parus lugubris). The latter does not occur in Kyrgyzstan, but in Turkmenistan, while the one split from Azure Tit might belong to Kyrgyz avifauna, too. However, I saw only birds that I considered as typical Azure Tits without the yellow belt over chest. In some places, Azure Tit was about as common as Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus) in Europe. The nominal race of Great Tit was abundant everywhere, while Turkestan Tit was only observed in some occasions in Osh. Also local race of Coal Tit (Parus ater) was common in many places, and in mountain forests, the interesting Asiatic species, Black-crested Tit (Parus rufonuchalis), was common. We did not see the Tianshan speciality, Songar Tit (Parus songarus), which is split from Willot Tit (Parus montanus).
The Turkestani subspecies of White Wagtail, called Masked Wagtail (Motacilla alba personata) is abundant everywhere, but also the northern nominal race White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba) can be found, probably as a migrant from Siberia and Northern Kazakstan.
A serious taxonomic challenge is offered by the Calandrella larks, which are divided in Russian books in different way than in European books. Usually, they are divided in European literature into Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla), Lesser Short-toed Lark (Calandrella rufescens), Red-capped Lark (Calandrella cinerea), Hume’s Short-toed Lark (Calandrella acutirostris) and Indian Short-toed Lark (Calandrella raytal). Flint, Boehme, Kostin and Kuznetsov, however, use the Russian division into Lesser Short-toed Lark (Calandrella leucophaea), Grey Lark (Calandrella pispoletta), Greater Short-toed Lark (Calandrella cinerea) and Hume’s Short-toed Lark (Calandrella acutirostris). To not make this too complicated, sometimes part of the larks are considered as a saline soil species Mongolian Sand Lark (Calandrella cheleënsis). I remember that when I was counting birds in Turkey’s Central Anatolia, yet another species was split by some researchers from Lesser Short-toed Lark, inhabiting the Turkish salt lake area. These taxonomies are partly overlapping, since they do not just unite or split the larks according to species and subspecies status, but rearrange the populations into different taxonomic patterns. “Luckily” these larks seem to migrate and there were not many present. The few Calandrellas that I saw, probably belonged to the species presented as Grey Lark (C. pispoletta). (A year later I saw abundant flocks of similar larks in the Tajik and Kyrgyz counties of China’s Sinkiang, and according to my photos I suppose these were rather Hume’s Short-toed Lark (C. acutirostris), like were also the Calandrellas that I saw in Afghanistan. However, I have no literature on birds of Afghanistan or Sinkiang, so it may even be that there are additional Calandrellas available there.)
Also the taxonomy of raptors is a bit unclear, since there are subspecies of Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and Saker (Falco cherrug), which may be or probably are separate species. But on the other hand, also the nominal species of both falcons are found in Turkestan. Common Buzzards belong to the eastern subspecies group, Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus etc.), but also Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus) can be commonly found here.
In Lammergeier’s Realm
The gorgeous canyon, gorge area and national park of Ala-Archa is located 30-40 km south from Bishkek. You can reach the “Alplager” by taking a taxi (or sometimes minibus, marshrutka) from the Osh Bazar of Bishkek. We paid 350 som to a university historian driving a taxi for better salary. This is a good price. Back from Ala-Archa we came for free, since the driver (a doctor) became a friend of ours and refused to take money. In the national park, there is a guesthouse for simple accommodation. There is absolutely nothing in the rooms, which was good since the place was the only one in Central Asia without any cockroaches. Some drunken Afghan students caused minor disturbance over the night. The mountains and gorges of the national park offer excellent chances for easy acquaintance with most Central Asian mountain species. There are also many well-marked trekking routes, one recommendable one taking you up to the Ak-Say waterfalls and a glacier above 4500 metres. But be careful with rapidly changing weather conditions! Even when starting in warm sunshine, take along something warm and waterproof, and be ready for some provisory digging into a cover, if the mist gets so thick that you don’t see more than two steps ahead of you.
In lower spruce forests, there are lots of Goldcrests (Regulus regulus), various species of tits, Black-crested Tit, Coal Tit and Great Tit being the dominant species, Hume’s Leaf Warblers (Phylloscopus humei), as well as Carrion Crows and Magpies. Above the tree-limit, two montane leaf warblers can be found, namely Eastern Mountain Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus) and Olivaceous Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus griseolus). Both are common but not numerous. Between the forested and alpine zones, there is a zone where juniper, rowan and willows are dominant. This zone is full of passerines that in this time of year remain very hard to observe, since they mainly stay quiet. However, here for example Lesser Gray Shrike (Lanius minor), White-winged Grosbeak (Mycerobas carnipes), Pine Bunting (Emberiza leucocephala) and many unrecognisable passerines were observed. Northern Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) was regularly seen.
When junipers become more scarce and finally turn into low, wind-distorted bushes, one of the most charming, characteristic and exotic species of these mountain regions can be found, namely Severtzov’s Tit-Warbler (Leptopoecile sophiae), a bluish little bird that always moves in flocks and appeared all but cautious. Severtzov’s Tit-Warbler was the most abundant species in certain bushy parts of otherwise plain grass vegetation. Here the observed birds also included Desert Wheatear (Oënanthe deserti), Mountain Whitethroat (Sylvia althaea), and many interesting finch-related birds. Alpine Chough was common.
The finch birds of Kyrgyzstan’s mountains, such as Twite (Acanthis flavirostris), Red-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus), Mongolian Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes mongolicus), Crimson-winged Finch (Rhodopechys sanguinea), Hodgson’s Mountain Finch (Leucosticte nemoricola) and Brandt’s Mountain Finch (Leucosticte brandti), seemed to be always moving in large flocks, which one met every now and then, especially in meadow areas. The variety of finch birds was increased by several species of rosefinch, among which the species easiest to spot and recognise is Great Rosefinch (Carpodacus rubicilla), a true alpine species. Some of the species migrate and were probably already missing. In lowlands, a common finch is Grey-headed Goldfinch (Carduelis caniceps), which might be a Turkestani subspecies of the Common Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis).
In the rapids and stremas of the mountain rivulets, two common birds are Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) and Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii). Although also the White-breasted Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) should occur in the area, all the dippers I saw belonged to the Asiatic entirely brown species. Another common bird to be found by mountainous streams is the Blue Whistling-Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus), a large bluish blackbird-like thrush. The peculiar exotic redstarts of the region we did not, however, observe during our trip. Probably they migrate. Instead, of the passerines we did see, I may still mention Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia) and Brown Accentor (Prunella fulvescens).
Also larger birds were seen in Ala-Archa. Chukar (Alectoris chukar) was a common gallinaceous bird throughout, and it was hunted by Peregrine and Saker Falcons. Small flocks of chukars could be seen also along the roads, whenever they took through mountainous or rocky areas. In the spruce forests of gorges, the Northern Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) was breeding as a numerous species. Also Hobby Falcon (Falco subbuteo) and Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) belonged to the frequently seen raptors. Kestrel was common high upon the mountains. Also Saker (Falco cherrug) was seen in Ala-Archa.
However, the Ala-Archa trip was highlighted by two wonderful species: Lammergeier a.k.a. Bearded Vulture (Gypaëtus barbatus) was seen as many as five times during the first day, once performing a pair flight, and once so closely that my camera was about to fall into a ravine. Above the Ak-Say, about 4500 metres high, we were spectacularly passed by a flying row of four Himalayan Snowcocks (Tetraogallus himalayensis), making their characteristic flight voice. After this, it did not matter any more that the weather turned considerably worse towards the evening, and we had to hide under a precipice like ancient Scythian hunters had done before us – judging from the petroglyphs that anywhere in Europe might cause an archeological sensation.
From Ysyk-Köl to the Fergana Valley
The Ysyk-Köl is the biggest lake of Kyrgyzstan, the second largest alpine lake (after Titicaca) and the world’s second deepest lake (after Baikal). On its shores, relatively lush poplar groves are mixed with the arid semidesert slopes of hills turning into the majestic peaks of the Küngey Alatau that separates Kyrgyzstan from Kazakstan. (Lake Issyk in Russian. Köl is Kyrgyz for lake. “Issyk-Kul” is actually Russianised pseudo-Kyrgyz, as the Russians cannot pronounce the letters used in Turkic languages.)
In the poplar groves there are lots of Golden Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus), which is here natural and not introduced, Golden Orioles (Oriolus oriolus), Blackbirds (Turdus merula), Great, Coal and Azure Tits, and many other birds. On the lake, there are lots of Black-headed Gulls (Larus ridibundus) and on the way, there were also great flocks of Caspian Gulls (Larus cachinnans). Above the lakeshore town of Cholpan-Ata you can walk into the arid wasteland in the middle of nowhere to see age-old Scythian petroglyphs, illustrating ibex, snow leopard etc. Although no living snow leopard appeared for us, there were some Gray-headed Goldfinch, Crested Lark (Galerica cristata), Twite, Black Kite (Milvus migrans), pigeons, crows and so on.
One of our main targets was the legendary Silk Road town of Osh in the famous but also notorious Fergana Valley in the south. Osh just celebrated its 3000th anniversary (yes, three thousand)! Also Mannerheim spent some time here, photographing the vivid trade of Sarts in the famous bazar of Osh. If the claims of the Moscow Kremlin and Uzbekistan’s leader Islam Karimov would be plausible, the Fergana Valley should be full of Islamists and Wahhabis. Indeed, we saw a couple of quite moderate headscarves worn by elderly women, and we heard that in one village men had grown beards. This had provoked a punishing strike by Karimov “against Wahhabi terrorism” to occupy some positions on Kyrgyz territory. Just after the 9/11 (when I was on my way to Fergana), I met an American journalist in an internet café, and he was very frustrated, as there was nothing to meet the expectations of burning flags and cries for the “clash of civilization” (he even had Huntington’s book with him). So the bearded men of the border village were enough evidence that “there’s something in it”. When the media next started to wait for the intervention to Afghanistan (in support of the legal government against the rebel Taliban), they all flocked to Pakistan and it was frustrating that although internal matters like the issue of installing electrometers in the Tribal Agency had pushed Pashtuns to mass demonstrations and into armed rebellion, there were not much to see, when every Western media was drumming for sexy anti-American “clash” in streets. Finally capitalism took over, and local entrepreneurs mounted a kiosk with prices in rupees for mere Allahu Akbar cries, burning US flag, burning Bush puppet, and burning Musharraf puppet. Then more than 30 photographers were photographing the same dozen of young men, who continued profitable demonstrating.
Osh belongs to the areas of Kyrgyzstan, where ethnic Uzbeks constitute majority of inhabitants. The spectacular road between Bishkek and Osh is worth of seeing and birdwatching, besides being among the main drug trade routes from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe, governed by mafia organisations of all nationalities but all connected to the Soviet legacy. In Osh, life seemed calm and quiet, while the rest of the world was in turmoil. Excellent Kazak beer (brewery founded by Germans, whom the Soviets expelled there from the Volga region) was been drunk open in streets without a trespassing mullah to care anything about it. Trade was flourishing in the bazaars.
You can get from Bishkek to Osh (or Jalalabad or Özgön) best by private Volgas and Ladas leaving at the Osh Bazaar of Bishkek. There are also minibuses, but they don’t stop on your request. With a constructive driver and a couple of extra banknotes you will get birding stops wherever you want. Normal price from Bishkek to Osh is 800 to 900 som, from Osh to Bishkek less, about 500 to 600 som. To both directions, you should leave very early in the morning. There’s a tunnel which closes at 10 o’clock p.m. and thus regulates the frameworks of making the journey within a day. You can also make half-way stop for example in Toktogul or Karaköl.
The road from Bishkek to the Fergana Valley takes about 12-15 hours, but is absolutely worth of seeing. Also, it is not half as horrible as sometimes cursed, as a Turkish company has very recently repaired it so that it is now very good. It crosses breathtaking mountains with pale rock peaks and alpine meadows, broken by gorges and ravines, semideserts and arid overgrazed steppes, and dry, barren rock hills with canyons. The mountain areas are crossed by the rivers Dangi, Suusamyr and Ötmök. In the village of Razan-Say, which is a suitable place for example for having a meal, you can watch a colony of Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus) on the steep cliffs just above the village’s edge. The village is located in the gorge surrounded by the cliffs that the Griffons inhabit. They are everywhere. Also Rock Sparrows (Petronia petronia) were present in large flocks.
On the deserts and semidesert hills for example Pallas’s Sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes paradoxus) and Daurian Partridge (Perdix dauurica) were found. Also raptors were plenty. The most abundant on all open lands was Black Kite, but other species included Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus), Steppe Buzzard, Shikra (Accipiter badius), several falcons, Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis), and Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus). In the Fergana Valley we also met Barbary Falcon (Falco pelegrinoides).
The variety of larks on dry lands, however, caused some disappointment, as apart from a couple of single Calandrellas and one Bimaculated Lark (Melanocorypha bimaculata), all the larks seen were common Crested Larks. Some other surprising birds, however, were seen. A flock of about 30 migrating Common Cranes (Grus grus) seemed somewhat strange in the middle of a Turkestani semidesert.
European Roller (Coracias garrulus) was seen regularly on arid lands, and Hoopoe (Upupa epops) in several occasions in villages. However, the European Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters (Merops persicus) that are supposedly very common and numerous in the region, were totally missing, probably already gone to their wintering areas. However, their nest holes could be seen absolutely everywhere.
In the mountains I would have liked to stop much more and for longer walks, especially as I finally managed to see even a species that had remained on the top of my European target list for a long time, namely the Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria). And another dreambird, the Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii) was also seen high on the mountains of the Suusamyr area, flying on a rivulet crossing an upland plain of alpine meadow. At the same area there were flocks of several montane finch birds, but also surprisingly familiar species such as a couple of Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), and Magpie.
List of Species (preliminary – all identifications are not entirely confirmed; comments are welcome):
Little Grebe, Tachybaptus ruficollis: wetland in the Chüy Valley.
White Stork, Ciconia ciconia: two seen in the Fergana Valley near Jalalabad.
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos: few seen in wetlands.
Black Kite, Milvus migrans: common throughout.
Shikra, Accipiter badius: a few in Fergana Valley and in poplar groves.
Northern Sparrowhawk, Accipiter nisus: common in mountain areas, generally much more common than Shikra throughout.
Steppe Buzzard, Buteo (buteo) vulpinus: rather common on cropfields and paddocks.
Long-legged Buzzard, Buteo rufinus: several seen on open hilly landscapes.
Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaëtos: one seen along north-south road.
Steppe Eagle, Aquila nipalensis: two seen, once on the Ysyk-Köl road, once south.
Egyptian Vulture, Neophron percnopterus: a few on the north-south road.
Lammergeier, Gypaëtus barbatus: two to five seen in Ala-Archa, one on the north-south road.
Black Vulture, Aegypius monachus: one surprising on the north-south road.
Griffon Vulture, Gyps fulvus: 30 to 40 seen on the north-south road.
Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus: one seen in Ala-Archa.
Barbary Falcon, Falco pelegrinoides: one seen in the Fergana Valley.
Saker Falcon, Falco cherrug: seen on lower parts of Ala-Archa.
Hobby Falcon, Falco subbuteo: common, seen many times throughout.
Red-footed Falcon, Falco vespertinus: migrants seen in a few occasions.
Eurasian Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus: common throughout.
Lesser Kestrel, Falco naumanni: seen on the Suleyman Mountain.
Chukar Partridge, Alectoris chukar: common in Ala-Archa; also elsewhere.
Daurian Partridge, Perdix dauurica: two seen on the north-south road.
Himalayan Snowcock, Tetraogallus himalayensis: four seen in Ala-Archa, summit zone.
Golden Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus: common in Cholpan-Ata, seen also in Ala-Archa.
Common Crane, Grus grus: a flock seen in the Fergana Valley, near Özgön.
Black Coot, Fulica atra: seen in several wetlands.
Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus: some individuals seen in wetlands.
Ibisbill, Ibidorhyncha struthersii: one seen on high mountain rivulet on the north-south road.
Northern Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus: a few seen in the Chüy Valley, a couple at alpine Suusamyr region.
Caspian Gull, Larus cachinnans: common along the Chüy Valley.
Black-headed Gull, Larus ridibundus: common at Ysyk-Köl.
Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Syrrhaptes paradoxus: a flock on the north-south road (semidesert).
Woodpigeon, Columba palumbus: one seen south of Bishkek.
Rock Pigeon, Columba livia livia: common on cliffs throughout.
Feral Pigeon, Columba livia domestica: common in towns and cities.
Hill Pigeon, Columba rupestris: common on cliffs, drier areas than Rock Pigeon.
Eastern Stock Dove, Columba eversmanni: common especially around Cholpan-Ata.
Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto: common in towns and cities.
Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur: seen in Cholpan-Ata.
Palm Dove, Streptopelia senegalensis: abundant everywhere in human settlement.
Little Owl, Athene noctua: seen in the Fergana Valley.
Black Swift, Apus apus: very few seen on the north-south road.
Alpine Swift, Tachymarptis melba: some flocks seen on the north-south road.
European Roller, Coracias garrulus: seen frequently on roadsides.
Hoopoe, Upupa epops: several seen in villages.
Bimaculated Lark, Melanocorypha bimaculata: one near Ala-Archa.
Crested Lark, Galerida cristata: common throughout.
Grey Lark, Calandrella pispoletta: individuals seen on the north-south road.
Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica: seen in many places throughout.
Red-rumped Swallow, Cecropis daurica: several seen, including centre of Bishkek, but fewer than Barn Swallow.
Crag Martin, Ptyonoprogne rupestris: few seen on the Ysyk-Köl road.
Tawny Pipit, Anthus campestris: few seen along the north-south road.
Grey Wagtail, Motacilla cinerea: common at mountain rivers.
White Wagtail, Motacilla alba alba: frequent on roadsides.
Masked Wagtail, Motacilla alba personata: abundant everywhere throughout.
Lesser Grey Shrike, Lanius minor: one in Ala-Archa, another on the Suusamyr region mountains.
Brown Dipper, Cinclus pallasii: frequently seen in mountain rivers.
Mistle Thrush, Turdus viscivorus: few seen in gorges.
Eurasian Blackbird, Turdus merula: abundant everywhere in gardens, poplar groves.
Blue Whistling-Thrush, Myophonus caeruleus: common in Ala-Archa.
Desert Wheatear, Oënanthe deserti: common in Ala-Archa, alpine meadows.
Eastern Mountain Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus sindianus: found in Ala-Archa, rocky alpine meadow.
Olivaceous Leaf Warbler, Phylloscopus griseolus: found in Ala-Archa, almost pale rock zone.
Greenish Warbler, Phylloscopus trochiloides: commonly found in gardens etc.
Yellow-browed Warbler, Phylloscopus inornatus: abundant in gardens, groves.
Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Phylloscopus humei: found abundant in forest in Ala-Archa.
Lesser Whitethroat, Sylvia curruca: commonly found in poplar groves, in Fergana Valley.
Mountain Whitethroat, Sylvia althaea: found in Ala-Archa, alpine zone with some juniper.
Goldcrest, Regulus regulus: found in forest zone in Ala-Archa.
Severtzov’s Tit-Warbler, Leptopoecile sophiae: abundant on upper juniper zone in Ala-Archa.
Pied Flycatcher, Ficedula hypoleuca: found in the Atatürk Park in Bishkek.
Great Tit, Parus major: abundant everywhere, from cities to alpine bush.
Turkestan Tit, Parus bokharensis: only few found, in garden, Fergana Valley.
Azure Tit, Parus cyanus: common in many places, especially around Ysyk-Köl.
Coal Tit, Parus ater: common for example in Ala-Archa.
Black-crested Tit, Parus rufonuchalis: common in Ala-Archa forests.
Wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria: one seen on the north-south road, alpine summit cliffs.
Brown Accentor, Prunella fulvescens: found on alpine meadow (marmot habitat), Ala-Archa.
Corn Bunting, Miliaria calandra: found south of Bishkek.
Pine Bunting, Emberiza leucocephala: found in Ala-Archa, edge of forest.
Grey-necked Bunting, Emberiza buchanani: lower Ala-Archa; under suspicion (should migrate).
Rock Bunting, Emberiza cia: found in Ala-Archa; also in the Fergana Valley.
White-winged Grosbeak, Mycerobas carnipes: found in Ala-Archa, lower juniper zone.
Western Greenfinch, Chloris chloris: found in Bishkek and Osh.
Grey-headed Goldfinch, Carduelis caniceps: found in Cholpan-Ata and in a few occasions along roads.
Twite, Acanthis flavirostris: found common on high altitudes, but also lower meadows.
Red-fronted Serin, Serinus pusillus: found in Ala-Archa, not common.
Mongolian Trumpeter Finch, Bucanetes mongolicus: found in several flocks along the north-south road and in Ala-Archa.
Crimson-winged Finch, Rhodopechys sanguinea: one flock seen on the north-south road.
Great Rosefinch, Carpodacus rubicilla: found in Ala-Archa, summit zone.
Hodgson’s Mountain Finch, Leucosticte nemoricola: common on all mountain regions.
Brandt’s Mountain Finch, Leucosticte brandti: less common but frequent on north-south mountain parts.
White-winged Snowfinch, Montifringilla nivalis: seen once on the north-south road.
Rock Sparrow, Petronia petronia: found in places along the north-south road.
House Sparrow, Passer domesticus: common in all human settlement.
Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus: common in all human settlement.
Common Starling, Sturnus vulgaris: a few flocks seen on the Ysyk-Köl road.
Common Myna, Acridotheres tristis: abundant everywhere throughout.
Golden Oriole, Oriolus oriolus: seen in Cholpan-Ata, poplar grove (must be pretty late).
Black-billed Magpie, Pica pica: common everywhere throughout.
Alpine Chough, Pyrrhocorax graculus: abundant on alpine zones.
Red-billed Chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax: seen on the north-south road.
Rook, Corvus frugilegus: common on cropfields in the Chüy Valley.
Carrion Crow, Corvus corone: abundant everywhere throughout.
Brown-necked Raven, Corvus ruficollis: frequent on low desert and semidesert areas.
Northern Raven, Corvus corax: found on high alpine areas.
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