May 18, 2013
Needless to say, the 3AM bedtime meant a late start the next morning. This didn’t stop me from waking just in time to put my order in for my crepes and eggs at the guesthouse. It may have looked like they were running a madrassa, with half of the guys adorning a beard and/or a skullcap, but let me tell you! Those Uzbek hosts can cook one hell of a breakfast! The crepes, with the sweet cream purchased daily from the hawkers below, could make a Frenchman homesick. The rest of my fellow revelers weren’t as concerned about their morning meal and stumbled awake one-by-one. We agreed that we all would meet later for dinner, and then I scurried into the shower before any of the other 10 guests could lay claim. Clean and fed, I was then ready to waste a day wandering the city.
I’m not complaining. Osh was a very comfortable stop, and I needed extra time to relax and regroup before heading onward. The only thing on the agenda that day was to go to the CBT office for answers on whether staying in a yurt with a nomadic family was likely in the area of Song Köl. After a short stroll through the market, I got to the office and was told that chances were good that I could book a horse trek and a night’s stay in a yurt. Great. The rest of day was mine to do as little as I wanted, and I did. I had lunch, spent time on the internet, washed clothing, and just relaxed while waiting for everyone to gather for dinner. Joining the usual suspects were Laura and Jordan. They are both engineers that work for Airbus and met on the job. She is Basque and he is French. Both are fantastic people and a welcome addition to the group. After a meal of Kyrgyz standards (bread, lamb kebabs, manti, and stew) we went back to our favorite Uighur beer garden to reminisce and say goodbye as everyone would be leaving that evening or early the next day. Laura and Jordan were at the end of their trip and leaving that evening for France. The rest of us would be off tomorrow. Kevin and Max were going to Kashgar. Sjoerd and I were headed to Arslanbab, and Takayuki had already reached Tashkent to complete his yearlong trip and fly back to Tokyo.
May 19, 2013
Sjoerd made it clear that he was going to hitchhike to Arslanbab, so I was free to pursue my desire to stop in Özgön to see 11th and 12th century Karakhanid architecture, which was unique in my experience, and then carry on to Arslanbab.
I was out the door early to make sure that I was on the first mashrutka so that I wouldn’t have to stress about reaching Arslanbab before dark. I may have been a little overzealous. Getting to the stand before 8AM didn’t mean an early departure. Everyone seemed to show up at 8:45 and we were finally on our way.
Not long after we started, the rain came and continued non-stop until we arrived in Özgön, which presented a problem. There was no map of the town in the guidebook and the directions were given in cardinal directions relative to the town’s center. It was cloudy, so without the sun for orientation and unsure whether I was in the center of town, I started to grimace and grumble. Though there were clues I was close to a market (dingy tea houses and eateries, a bus and taxi stand, and plenty of activity), the returning rain pressed me to orient quickly, so I skipped asking strangers for help, trusted my instincts, headed off, and reached the market as the rain intensified to a downpour.
In the market, the only spaces to maneuver were the puddles and streams collecting the rain streaming from tarps and tin roofs. With a full pack, this made a usually pleasurable trip to the market fraught with dodging muddy puddles and constantly apologizing for bumping into people and objects for sale.
Tired of staying out of the way, I decided to *gasp* patron a stall to stand still and enjoy some cover. This proved a perfect opportunity to satisfy a curiosity and try a particular ubiquitous white drink. Luckily, this town believes in labeling its faire, so I now knew it was called kurut, which, if you don’t remember from Uzbekistan, is that hard-as-a-rock, salty-as-hell cheese ball. So, they crush these cheese balls and mix it with water for a drink by the same name. Since I left so damn early, I hadn’t eaten more than some morsels for breakfast. The kurut was damn refreshing and I had a second. Why they don’t call it ayran, like the Turks, is beyond me. Ayran in Central Asia is nothing more than rather thick, plain yogurt that you drink- unsalted kefir, really. While there, I chatted with the young son of the woman operating her stall. He knew more English than I would have expected and he told me that his teenage brother was studying in America. I gave him kudos for his English and encouraged him to follow in his footsteps.
I hadn’t shaved since Dushanbe, Tajikistan, so I was past-due for another. I really should have done it in Osh, but it was inconvenient to disrupt my R&R to do it. What I really mean is that ethnic Kygyz know nothing about facial hair, so barbershops aren’t easy to find. I suppose it seems silly to them to pay someone for a shave, given what little they have. I was still in the Uzbek majority part of Kyrgyzstan, so it was little surprise that I found one in the market.
I thought that I had lucked out to get the ‘old hand’ in the place, since the other two looked prepubescent. Well… I may not have bled out, but I definitely had some razor burn and missed whiskers. Nevertheless, I looked good enough that I wasn’t going to endure more razor burn to eliminate the missed stubble.
It was still raining and too early for lunch. So I found a place that was covered, dry, and spacious enough for me to drop my pack and get out my waterproof jacket and pack cover. As is with anything you do as a foreigner in small towns off the tourist path, this also was a curiosity. The men around joked with me about buying the vegetables for sale around me, hoping that I wasn’t just there to put on rain gear.
No longer restricted to covered areas, I decided a better use of my time would be to find an internet café for blogging while waiting for the rain to stop and for lunchtime- whichever came first. So, I started wandering. In doing so, I encountered a small animal market.
Here you could buy hens, roosters, chicks, eggs, duck, ducklings, rabbits, etc. for you next meal. Normally, sellers in the market are not photogenic, but there were several females rather proud to show off their offerings. Their genuine excitement to pose and smile had me bemused and thankful I had found this part of the market. Life is hard here, so it was a real treat to see local adults enjoying themselves in my presence.
After asking several people about an internet café, I finally found someone that actually knew of one. He wasn’t convinced I would find it, so I was escorted to one off the main street, but it was closed. I barely had time to finish my long sigh when someone came around the corner with a set of keys. The owner turned out to be extremely hospitable, putting my pack in a private area so it wouldn’t be in the way and even giving me the first hour for free due to technical issues. Such generosity made me want to return it, so I paid for the two hours I was there.
By this time, the rain seemed to be ending and it was well past lunchtime. So, I scarfed down a meal and tea and finally went to find the Karakhanid architecture I had come to see. With the rain delay, I couldn’t afford to waste time wandering, so I asked a police officer for the way there.
Through charades, I figure out that he wanted me IN the shot. I thought it would be fun to play along. So, I start taking off the pack. He stops me in the act to tell me that he wants me to wear the pack as well. Ok…. Then he instructs me to pretend to take photos. I get it now! This is probably some video for the local tourism board or whatever. I finish my unpaid acting job and head off shaking my head and snickering at what a strange sequence of events that was.
I was really feeling my schedule tighten, so I jumped in a very new Mercedes A class taxi to Jalal Abad, where I could change vehicles to head up the valley to Arslanbab. Not only was this the nicest ride of the whole trip because the car had all of it’s buttons, no cracks in the windshield, ran well, etc., but it offered the most interesting vignettes of the Kyrgyz countryside. First, was the sad sight of a horse tethered to stake by one of its front hooves. Later were the two kids in the field having a mud pie fight, followed by a bird struggling to fly home with a rather large frog in its mouth. Most comical, however, was the shepherd trying to catch a cow loping to freedom down a steep, wet, grassy slope in search of freedom.
Jalal Abad brought the usual scrum of taxi drivers trying to figure out where you were going and how to win your business, but since this taxi stand was next to a minibus station, I wanted to see if there was a cheaper option. That’s where I met Bekbolot, an Uzbek about 20 years old who was oddly interested that I end up in the right place. His English was good and the questions came quickly. Where are you going? Where are you staying? Do you have a reservation? Do you have a phone? What’s the phone number? My gut told me I could trust him, otherwise, I would have told him to piss off with his intrusive questioning.
I explained that I was to meet my friend, Sjoerd, in Arslanbab at an agreed homestay, but that we didn’t have a reservation. It was off-season, so I wasn’t concerned about finding a place to stay, but Bekbolot was. He asked to see the phone number of the place we planned to stay, and dialed it. No answer. In a land where most people don’t have voicemail, you just keep calling until someone picks up. We didn’t have time for that, so he asked if I had my own phone. I explained that I did, but it was very expensive to use in Kyrgyzstan. Next thing I know, we are kiosk hopping for a SIM card to put in my phone, but no one seemed to have one to sell. It wasn’t until we found a proper cell phone store, that we accomplished something. I wasn’t surprised to find out that my phone was locked, but without a Russian around to hack it, I had to buy a $25 Nokia with two SIM slots. Two SIM slots seems completely ridiculous until you realize that the providers have very distinct territories in this mountainous landscape. So, if one provider works in one valley, it probably won’t work in the next. So, you hope that the second SIM card gets a signal there. All told, I had contributed $40 to the local economy, but more importantly, I had a functional phone for the rest of the trip AND it could be used in any country in the future.
Bekbolot was going the same direction as I, so he negotiated a cab faire for both of us. During the short ride, he finished setting up my phone and showing me how to use it on the trip. I was the first to get off, so it was quick goodbyes before my minibus headed up the valley to Arslanbab. When I arrived, a man, who obviously had been expecting me, approached to let me know that my friend was here but at a different homestay. He gave me typically vague instructions to find the house, although I am not sure how else he would have instructed me. None of the houses had numbers on them and most (including the one where I stayed) were painted white and walled. So, you only saw little more than roofs from the road. I didn’t know the name of the hostess, so there was no point in asking a local where so-and-so’s house was. After 20 minutes of walking uphill, I threw my hands up and walked back down to the center to find that guy again. Luckily, I did and he walked me back up the same hill to a house I had passed the first time. It had been a long day and I was really glad to drop my pack and chill for a bit.
It was also really nice to see Sjoerd! I don’t normally have such eventful days, so I was eager to swap stories. Sjoerd arrived several hours before I did and had already had a walk about the town. Now, he was helping the hostess prepare dinner by cutting the lamb that would go into our lagman. Our accommodation was quite comfortable. Sjoerd and I had a converted dining room at the end of the L-shaped, single storied house. There were chickens walking about the sizable yard, which grew vegetables. Living with the hostess were her son, her sister and her son, and her parents. I don’t know if she was divorced or widowed. All I knew is that the man that showed me where I was staying had a keen interest in her. Sjoerd had picked up on this because when he told the man where he wanted to stay, the man told him that she was preparing a wedding and unable to take guests. I had actually been able to reach her with my new cell phone, and though I couldn’t communicate with her, I wasn’t under the impression she was turning away guests. It’s good to be head of the local CBT (Community Based Tourism) office.
After gorging ourselves on dinner and beer, a deep slumber in the cool mountain air was in order. When I laid down I could hear every detail of the rain starting to fall outside. So, I searched for the open window only to find that the one next to my bed had a pane of glass missing and two others had large chunks of the glass broken out. These are the breaks. In a country of people scrapping together an existence, you feel for them because you suffer, if only temporarily, with them. The problem here is that I had been looking for the bathroom earlier and found the room where they sleep, which had intact window panes and a wood burning stove. I can still remember how nice that warm draft felt… That irony of the poor family staying warm and comfortable on the fat of their Western guests infuriated me. I wasn’t going to exhaust myself fuming and fall asleep.
I pointed out the problem to Sjoerd. While I didn’t expect him to confront the hostess, I did expect him to be annoyed with our exploitation. However, he seemed comfortable with the irony because he could use his sleeping bag to stay warm. I just kept repeating, “Yes, but they couldn’t afford that heat without travelers like us! The least they could do is provide us with windows that aren’t missing panes of glass!” This was more than an argument on principle. I was wearing a wool T-shirt, a microfleece top, a fleece jacket, hiking pants, two pairs of socks, and a fleece hat, but I was still cold.
I knocked on their door. When the hostess opened, I motioned for her to follow me to our room. I then stepped on my bed, looked at her, thrust my fist through that empty pane, and pulled it back. I was quickly losing it. It must have been damn near comical for Sjoerd. First, she acted like she didn’t understand that there was a problem, which only added fuel to the fire. Then, she said the two 3 year old boys had thrown stones and broke the glass. I didn’t give a damn why they were broken. I just wanted her to get cardboard or something to put over the holes. In the end, she got some finishing nails to hang newspaper over the missing glass and brought an electric heater. Since, the newspaper was little more than a psychological barrier, I didn’t see the point in wasting energy in a lost cause. I just went to bed wearing layers.