Why I haven’t written more

It has been my goal to try to write something meaningful once a week. I have been quite lousy achieving that goal, to be honest, but I do have a decent excuse. I took a (drunken) dare to do a half-Ironman some time ago. I have done 4 marathons in the past and figured that it would be about the same. I was horribly wrong. The workouts amount to much more time than marathon training, so things like blogging suffered. I’m not saying that there wasn’t time to blog, but the training wore me out so much that I couldn’t think clearly enough to write. Rest was more important. Well, I completed the triathlon yesterday and I am pleased with my 5:38:30 considering the all of the cramping and rookie mistakes made. Now, I will be putting more effort into completing my Central Asian adventure and branching out beyond it.

That is one happy finisher!

That is one happy finisher!

Yak. It’s what’s for dinner.

May 28, 2013

As soon as I heard activity in the kitchen, I was out of my sunken bed and headed downstairs to claim my portion. The rest of the house rose shortly after and we were treated to the most bizarre breakfast ever imagined- bliny, plain rice wrapped in nori (a plain sushi roll, if you will), boiled barley, bread, and a sweet apple soup. We had a long day of hiking planned, so I ate everything, save some of the apple soup, which some left untouched. I am usually an indiscriminate eater, so I felt better knowing that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t find it appetizing.

Me with the map and Julian's tightening his dew soaked laces.

Me with the map and Julian’s tightening his dew soaked laces.

The plan was to hike to a glacier fed lake and get back in about 5 hours before heading back down the valley and eventually to Karakol by nightfall. Given that we had covered 14km in 4.5 hours the day before, 6-7km should be a piece of cake. We were told to follow river and streams up to the lake, but we were bored of river valleys. We wanted to gain elevation. We wanted a wonderful view. So, we started walking straight up.

It was worth the strenuous hike for this view!

It was worth the strenuous hike for this view!

Hiking in Central Asia means creating your own route unless there happens to be a road. So, you must have a good map and a willingness to experiment, and today was no exception. The map I purchase covered a lot of territory, so the tightly packed contour lines meant 40m each and a tough climb. What we didn’t expect was that the morning dew would make the 30+ degree slope very slick and technically demanding. I was kicking into the slope and trying to find tufts of grass to make sure every step up counted. It was so steep that rolling backwards would be difficult to stop. So, it wasn’t long until I needed a break from the unrelenting incline. We took pictures and tried to figure out how much more vertical we had. Once on the ridge, we expected to see exactly where we wanted to go and would drop down.

The nomadic encampment

The nomadic encampment

Seemed simple enough. What we found was rocky, sandy, loose, and even steeper. Thus it was just as tiring as going up. Down near the river, we happened upon a nomadic encampment. We didn’t want to intrude so we smiled and waved as we walked the perimeter of the camp. They waved back and invited us for tea. Excited to accept their hospitality, we approached the extended family gathered.  As we got closer, we saw them were eagerly awaiting the mutton that was stewing. It smelled amazing and I was jealous that they would be enjoying it. I hoped that we would keep our visit short and not interrupt or delay their meal. After standing around for a bit, not sure what we were supposed to do, we were waved into their tent and reminded that the ‘pole’ in the middle of the tent was a stovepipe. That didn’t stop me from BRIEFLY grabbing it to balance myself as I got in the tent.

The very fresh mutton being cooked.

The very fresh mutton being cooked.

The gorgeous meal served for us.

The gorgeous meal served for us.

Right. The ‘tea’. Turns out that the family had every intention of feeding us. When they didn’t think that we had eaten enough of the freshly slaughtered mutton and potato stew,  they encouraged us to eat more. There was also bread, fresh cream to dip it in, homemade butter…. It was easily one of the most memorable and delicious meals of the trip. We couldn’t talk to each other, but Sjoerd had a small album of photos, a gift from his loved ones, showing him, his girlfriend, and his life in the Netherlands. As you can see in the photos, they were absolutely enthralled with a world they probably couldn’t imagine. After seeing that reaction, I realized the brilliance of carrying 20 or so printed and bound photos. I will likely never travel without one again.

Fascination with Sjoerd mini photo book.

Fascination with Sjoerd mini photo book.

This inspired them to have their own photos and give Sjoerd their ‘address’ so that he could print and send them copies. Sjoerd’s battery was dead, so I took the photos that they hopefully possess now. Rather unprepared for such hospitality, we couldn’t offer money since it’s considered rude.  Without a cigarette between us, sweets and cookies were the next best luxury items we could offer, so we gave all we could as thanks. We were warmly sent off and headed up to the two small lakes on the map that seemed accessible.

Family photo and two white guys.

Family photo and two white guys.

Just the kids. Awwwww..... :)

Just the kids. Awwwww….. 🙂

Accessible? Yes. Easy to find? Not so much. The stream that would have led us straight to the end of our hike was covered in scree, so there was lots of scrambling over piles of large rocks until we finally arrived. The time we spent debating the route had allowed clouds to obscure the sun. While I would have preferred to wait for the clouds to move, it was chilly and we needed to keep going, if we hoped to make Karakol by nightfall.

Finally! This tiny ass lake. Complete with layer of ice.

Finally! This tiny ass lake. Complete with layer of ice.

On the way back from the glacial lake.

On the way back from the glacial lake.

Again, with no trail to create consensus on which was the best way back to Altyn Arashan, I went my way and Julian and Sjoerd went the other. Turns out they were right. They got down to the stream and found a bridge to cross. I, however, spent way too much time fighting underbrush to get to the stream and looking for a fallen tree suitable for me to cross without getting wet.

This poor horse flopped on its belly because (presumably) it was too tired to eat standing.

This poor horse flopped on its belly because (presumably) it was too tired to eat standing.

When I did, I stopped halfway across, unsure if I would be able to leap far enough to avoid slipping into the stream. Just so you know. I am a good swimmer. I just didn’t want wet boots or camera equipment. So, in the span of what was probably 5 minutes or more. I froze, was too lazy to get off the log and find somewhere else to cross, lost all confidence in my abilities, got mad for doubting myself, stood up and leaped across without incident. Once on the road back to Altyn Arashan, I managed to piss of a shepherd because my presence scared one of his cows back down the road and he had to fetch him. I had no idea he belonged to anybody or that he had somewhere to go. I just thought that the cow was embarrassed by his diarrhea. Note to self, I will act like a boss and keep it movin’ along the next time I encounter a cow that tries to run from me. Who knew being a traveler in these countries carries such responsibility?! In any case, as I strolled into Altyn Arashan, this large herd of sheep were being moved up the valley and it’s timelessness struck me. I took out the video camera to capture what is a slowly dying way of life.

Valentin, the owner of Yak Tours Camp, didn’t have to try hard to convince us to stay one more night. One, getting down to Ak-Suu at that hour would likely mean a taxi since public transportation would be done for the day. Two, he was going to Karakol early the next morning and we could (for a fee) take a ride in his vehicle all the way there. Three, he was making yak (yes, the animal) plov. Four, we could relax in the hot springs and five, more beer had arrived that day. See how easy that was? It had to have been the quickest consensus achieved on the trip.

With a larger group of guys in the hot springs that late afternoon, it quickly turned into a contest of who could stay in the bone-chilling river the longest. I did a turn for a minute and let the youngin’s fight it out for top bragging rights.

Waiting for dinner

Waiting for dinner

Dinner was served shortly after sundown and we ate it like hibernation was upon us. Valentin then joined us for the rest of the evening. As we sat enjoying beer, Valentin wanted to make sure we fully appreciated it by pointing out that the ‘new guy’, a Russian roughly our age, had managed to bring what beer we had (about 10L) up on a bicycle from town. First of all, the road is crappy. It’s all uphill, and I just don’t know how you carry that much liquid without falling over a time or two. But he didn’t.

In case, we weren’t impressed with that physical feat, Valentin then spoke of a Russian porter that he knew that once scaled Pik Lenin (the world’s ‘easiest’ 7000m peak) twice in one week and is well known for offering to take weight off of other porters for 1 Euro/kg for extra money. It’s rumored that this porter carried 75kg up Pik Lenin once because the other porters were desperate to shed weight. That’s a person my size on his back…at altitude!

All of that talk of scaling dangerous peaks made me tired, so it was back to the same awful bed for another compromised night of sleep.

A hike, a hamlet, and a hot spring

May 27, 2013

The trip took on a new character today. Gone were the leisure and relative sloth of Karakol. Once dropped off by the mashrutka, we had 14km of hiking uphill towards the hamlet of Altyn Arashan (roughly 3000m/9800ft). First, however, we (Sjoerd, Julian, and I) said goodbye to Salima, who was headed back home to Almaty, and Bart, who continued his journey towards Mongolia.

 

The valley leading to Altyn Arashan

The valley leading to Altyn Arashan

 

Clicking my backpack’s waistbelt buckle quickened my pulse. It was nothing more than a fear of holding back two kids 15+ years younger than me, but once on our way that fear quickly faded. Truth be told, Julian was carrying the most weight by far, as he had EVERYTHING with him. Sjoerd and I left some of our gear in the Neofit Guesthouse for a nominal fee, which, in retrospect, was very trusting of us given our history there. That said, I did not leave my Canon A-1 and it’s three lenses behind, so despite only having a daypack, I was carrying some significant weight. The route up was a gradual dirt road with a few steep, boulder-y sections thrown in, which begged the question, “Why would you ever pay for a ride up here?” Surely, you would be thrown around the vehicle like a rag doll. I was breathing too hard most of the time to make much conversation, so I disguised my labored effort by limiting my participation and used a video break to get one reprieve. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country and most people (almost all) that own horses are nomadic and don’t want them running away. So, they are tied up in in various ways to limit how far their horses can wander and graze. The most common way I saw was to bind the two front hooves together, although I also saw some horses with one hoof tethered to a stake in the ground. At least the former allowed the horse to graze and move, albeit in the most disabled and depressing manner. As you will see in the video, the horse is afraid of humans likely due to abuse from the owner.

We made good progress and were smugly satisfied with our sense of accomplishment. To reward ourselves for arriving in less than 4.5 hours (when the book said 5-6), we went to the hot springs after confirming we had a place to sleep and that dinner would be cooked for us as well.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a story about squealing naked women this time, well, actually there was. Sjoerd’s curiosity got the better of him again, and he looked into another cabin’s window to see if the springs were different. I don’t believe he got an eye-full this time, but there was a startled female when he pressed his face against the window. I tell you! His girlfriend was going to be a lucky lady when he got home! Without the prying eyes of some stranger, our cabin and its 1m deep hot spring was really peaceful and relaxing.  Situated next to a stream of snow runoff, it was only customary to test our circulatory health by immersing ourselves and then run back into the hot spring. Then Sjoerd decided that the visit wouldn’t be complete without doing a cannonball, which he photographed with a self-timer.

Avoiding hot mineral water getting in my eyes as Sjoerd proudly documents his cannonball.

Avoiding hot mineral water getting in my eyes as Sjoerd proudly documents his cannonball.

Back at the guesthouse, we met the others staying there while waiting for dinner to be served. Before we really got to know them the sun decided to peak underneath the day’s uninterrupted blanket of clouds and we all rushed to photograph some precious sunlight before sunset.

The first glimpse of sunlight in days was worth a photo. Hot spring cabins in the distance along the river.

The first glimpse of sunlight in days was worth a photo. Hot spring cabins in the distance along the river.

Staying at backpacker hovels in remote places always means a good conversation. Anyone that made the same effort you did is going to share common interests. This is always good news for me because I am uncomfortable talking to strangers cold turkey. Sharing the house was Yuta, a Japanese national on his second year of traveling, after leaving behind a finance job. His English grammar, accent (Queen’s English), and inflection made his upper class background obvious, but had gentle soul and pleasant demeanor. The other (coincidental) Japanese national was Maruka. She had quit her job at a hotel in Chiba City to travel for a year. Lone female travelers are rather uncommon, but one in this part of the world is rare, especially since she was typically Japanese, reserved and quiet. Rafael and Sam were the two twenty something French friends that were really into talking about photography, marijuana, and French labor laws. Great guys. Markus was a German in his mid 40’s that managed to drive his Volkswagen sedan up that crappy road in one piece. Finally, were Martin and Vladimir. These two Slovaks had been friends forever and travel together every two years or so. Martin lives in Norway and is a hotel manager, so his English is impeccable. Vladimir is a mechanic in Slovakia and did pretty well keeping up with the conversation.

Martin and Vladimir in the foreground, Markus, and Maruka behind.

Martin and Vladimir in the foreground, Markus, and Maruka behind.

Dinner was salad and pasta with meat and liver. Certainly not the most glamorous of meals, but I was starving and it was delicious and not enough. It seemed that the rest of the calories would come from beer. Once we ran the place out of beer, Vladimir and Martin pulled out the vodka and their stories about women in Russian nightclubs. As good as they were, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I found one of the only rickety beds still open and spent the rest of the night trying to find a position where the saggy springs didn’t rest my body on a crossbar.

The sting of regret

May 26, 2013

Sunday’s animal market in Karakol is rather famous due to its size, so I was determined to see if stories of sheep being stuffed into the back of cars were true. Four hours of rest seemed to be enough and I got up and walked back to the hotel for breakfast. In a day full of bad decisions, this was the first.

Upon arrival, I didn’t like the expressions the two unpleasant Russian females (the third, nice one was elsewhere) were giving me. Once in the lobby, they descended on me like hell from above with raised voices and in stereo with one on each side. First of all, most places will let you pay when you check out. I had a key to give back to them, after all. Secondly, no one had made a fuss all the other times I had come and gone. Being treated like a common criminal was infuriating, but I paid them for the night before and the coming evening because they insisted (and because I was unwilling to leave and upgrade or downgrade my accommodation). I then texted Sjoerd to let him know that he better have payment ready when he comes back or else.

I went back to the dungeon to have breakfast and asked the Pole and Basque backpackers next to me if they had encountered such charming service as well. They acknowledged their general unpleasantness but had not been treated as poorly. They were headed to the animal market as well, but I decided, based on the guidebook, that by the time I walked the 2-3km there it would be wrapping up. Of course, I could have chosen to get a cab, but I couldn’t justify spending the money when seeing the animal market at its best didn’t seem likely (bad decision #2). So, I went back to the room and took a nap convinced that the other two were wasting their time going to the market (bad decision #3). The Pole and the Basque came back saying that the market went on until about noon (the book said 10AM), and had great photos to show for their effort.

Posing with Jordan and Laura

Posing with Jordan and Laura

 

When Sjoerd came back around lunch time, he had made arrangements to stay somewhere else since it was a bit pricey for him and the staff hardly convinced him it was worth the premium. However, he would be meeting Julian, Salima, and Bart at Karakol coffee later, and I would be joining them.

Aikerim posing with her homemade brownies.

Aikerim posing with her homemade brownies.

While the hike into a valley from Jeti Öghüz had been scenic, it didn’t challenge us or give us dramatic views. So, with the weather forecast showing significant improvement, Sjoerd, Julian, and I decided that we would be heading off to Altyn Arashan the next day. Salima would be heading back to Almaty and Bart would head towards Mongolia. With that sorted out, it was time to get some food for the excursion. After a street food dinner, I swung back to Karakol Coffee for a night cap. There I ran into Jordan and Laura again. We were the only people left in the shop, so Aikerim, the owner of Karakol Coffee joined us in conversation. After Jordan and Laura left, I stayed a bit longer to talk with Aikerim about her time in America as a child. I left thinking that there may be something to my hunch that she really did like talking to me.

Party of Five

May 25, 2013

Waking up was a challenge. The rain tapping on the windowpanes scolded us to stay under the duvet and shut our eyes. Not today. It was Sjoerd’s birthday, and he was stir crazy for a hike. Who could blame him? The weather had been miserable since we arrived and it continued to be so that morning. Sjoerd rustled about and said he would join me for breakfast as I left.

The Neofit Guesthouse, where we stayed, has one distinguishing feature. The open mouthed dragon that serves as the entrance to the street side. It’s so over the top that I was too embarrassed to take a photo of it, though I regret that now. Down below, the Russian owners fully embrace the gimmick by making the dining area look like a dragon’s lair. It’s not exactly what you want when you’re trying to wake up on a dreary day. Nevertheless, the waitress (of a staff of 3) acknowledged that I was there and had the cook fire up the kitchen. While waiting, I tried to write in my journal, but found myself mesmerized by slickly produced Russian pop videos on MTV, virtually indistinguishable from American. That program ended around the time that I was finishing up and on came this most bizarre cartoon.

This is the actual cartoon that I watched (the first 8 minutes). Enjoy!

Why an obviously drug-inspired cartoon about the attempted kidnap of the Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, be played on Russian MTV in the morning baffled me only slightly less than how it didn’t give Soviet children nightmares back then (I’m assuming). Sjoerd came in about half way through and I tried to explain what I believed was happening. We spent the rest of the time rather amused at its psychedelic nature and how we were probably in the wrong state to properly enjoy such a thing.

The seven bulls of Jeti-Oghuz. Just use your imagination.

The seven bulls of Jeti-Oghuz. Just use your imagination.

After my ritual at the internet café, I met Sjoerd at Karakol Coffee to meet the three others that would be hiking that afternoon. First was Julian, the tall, young, blonde Australian taking a gap year. Then was Salima, an ethnic Tatar from Kazakhstan who was traveling with Julian. How did Julian get to have a Russian speaking travel partner? This is worth explaining. Julian was hitchhiking in Kazakhstan when he was picked up by a young Kazakh, who truly believed that the encounter was utter serendipity- so much so that took the story to the television station in Almaty. Julian is then interviewed and broadcast on the evening news. Salima was watching and as Julian put it, ‘kind of Facebook stalked me.’ Voila! A local tour guide free of charge! It’s that easy folks. Finally was Bart, a Dutchman that had driven all the way to Kazakhstan in a suspect 4×4. I know this because there were lots of stories about repairs made along the way.

Salima and Sjoerd

Salima and Sjoerd

We got into a microbus and headed to Jeti Oghuz. The name means seven bulls, which is assigned to the prominent red sandstone outcropping that looms large from the town. Blame time, erosion or the wrong viewing angle, but it’s hard to see the resemblance. Once along the dirt road that would undulate along the snowmelt fed stream, we spent the time chatting about world politics and American television programs, and soccer (alright, football). Once in a while, we would take time for pictures of the vibrant green pastures against the forested mountains, when the clouds lifted enough to do so. Sjoerd also found great amusement photographing horses copulating. It was about that time that we bumped into a group of well-heeled retired English tourists. We chatted a bit and asked if we could get a lift back to the trailhead. We were running out of time and good weather, and frankly, didn’t feel like seeing the same things on the way out. They politely said that they would love to do so, but their vehicle was already full. We observed them get into a less than half full vehicle, shrugged our shoulders and walked back out with the rain only making short, sporadic visits.

Julian and Bart wait with the rest of us for permission to walk across.

Julian and Bart wait with the rest of us for permission to walk across.

Back in the town, there wasn’t a public transportation option since it was too late in the day, so we had to convince someone to take us back to Karakol for a reasonable price. This was uniquely challenging since there were 5 of us and only sedans for hire. The best we could do was an inebriated man who thankfully got us back safely.

This bit of Americana was inviting enough for us to chose to have dinner here.

This bit of Americana was inviting enough for us to chose to have dinner here.

We all cleaned up and met to celebrate Sjoerd’s birthday at a restaurant where Salima did a proper Russian toast and we all had a jolly time drinking cheap local beer.

That would have been a fine way to celebrate a birthday, but it was also the Champions League Final between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. So, we were all on a mission to find a place to watch the match and drink more beer. We pestered just about every business owner that had a television without any success. The problems were that 1) the time difference meant that the match would start at midnight and most places wouldn’t be open. 2) soccer (football, if you must) isn’t that popular in Kyrgyzstan, thus awareness about this match was virtually non-existent. So, what we (Sjoerd, Bart, and I) had hoped would be a chance to drink beer with the locals became a cozy party at the flat that Salima had rented. In a sense, it was nicer than a bar because we all had our own bed to sleep in after the match finished at 2AM.

Salima doing the heavy lifting of trying to find a place to watch the match.

Salima doing the heavy lifting of trying to find a place to watch the match.

At last! Borussia Dortmund vs Bayern Munich! Notice the yurt marking it as a Kyrgyzstani state television broadcast.

At last! Borussia Dortmund vs Bayern Munich! Notice the yurt marking it as a Kyrgyzstani state television broadcast.