May 21, 2013
There was no tension between Sjoerd and myself, but I sensed his hunger to continue hitchhiking and creating his own adventure. Even so, I expected him to take the bus down to the main highway since it was pouring rain when we departed, especially since he didn’t have waterproof gear. But, he headed down the road for a hitch and I climbed aboard.
After about 45+ minutes of waiting for passengers, the bus rolled down the valley to Bazaar Korgon, where I planned to experiment with hitching myself. Given the scarcity of drivers in the poor weather, I wasn’t surprised that we picked up Sjoerd after a couple of miles. He said that he got a hitch quickly in Arslanbob, but the hitch ended when his driver arrived home. Once again, there were goodbyes at the intersection with the main highway as he got off, and I carried on to Bazaar Korgon.
Bazaar Korgon suffers from being too close to Jalal Abad, despite its proximity to an intersection on the M41 highway. Thus, it isn’t mentioned in the guidebook because it is as bleak as it is uninteresting. It was close enough to lunchtime that I decided to eat a warm meal while I had the chance, since I had no idea how long I would travel or whether I would have time to stop and eat. I found a dingy eatery that was serving made to order favorites- lagman, manti, samsa, etc. After watching the cook prepare noodles for lagman, I regretted my choice. Changing my order without knowing the language would risk getting an order of each, so I sat back and watched as the cook measured the one ridiculously long noodle that makes an order, coiled that noodle around his arms, stretched it out while slapping it on the counter, then placed it in a wire basket to boil for a couple of minutes. The sauce went on top and was served. I probably could have sat there for hours watching this until the novelty of someone working noodles by hand wore off. But I was full and needed to get some snack food for the day of hitching ahead.
I was doing my market routine where I get close enough to inspect whether the stall operator has the item I want or not. Once I have picked out two or three that do, I go back and decide which have the freshest food. This is where one will inevitably try to snare me into buying from them. That’s when the fun of bargaining ensues, as other competing sellers feel slighted and try to out compete the other on price. It’s a lot like dating. Come on, ladies! Don’t hate the player! Hate the game- a game with rules written in bubbly, circular cursive. This isn’t a rant. It’s just an observation. I’m just a guy that tries his best to follow the rules. I have yet to marry, so I have yet to follow anyone’s rules to their satisfaction. I digress.
I had decided where I would buy some biscuits (cookies) and three female high school students appear from behind wondering if they could help. Actually, it was really only one. The other two were too shy to attempt English with an American. I explained that I was about to buy some biscuits, pointing to the ones of interest. I didn’t need the help. I had done this plenty of times, speaking just enough Russian to get what I wanted, but I decided to entertain her eagerness to speak English and help.
With my biscuits in-hand, she wanted to know where I was going. I told her I was hitchhiking to Bishkek. Maybe she didn’t know what hitchhiking was or she just didn’t want me to do it, nevertheless she took it upon herself to help me find a cab. So, we walked over to a taxi stand that was so organized that it resembled a used car lot. This almost made the experience of negotiating with taxi drivers a pleasant experience since there wouldn’t be any crossfire from drivers trying to get you to go anywhere but your desired destination. So, we talked to the drivers going to Bishkek. Two problems. One, I was the ONLY person trying to go to Bishkek. Thus, if I wanted to go, I would probably have to wait a very long time to leave (like tomorrow) or pay for the empty seats in the car. NO. Two, the drive would take about 9-10 hours. That meant that I would get there well past dark, and I hate arriving past dark when I am traveling. I already had a shit experience trying to get to my hotel in Almaty when I landed because it was after hours. NO, again.
I’ll be honest. I figured this would be the case. I had done my homework, so the exercise was just so that the girls felt like they had really tried to help me. Heck, the translator had even called her mom on her cell to come over and help with the negotiations. She was going to get me into a car! I decided the best way to get going AND allow the girl to help me was to take the shortest taxi trip possible. That meant going to Kochkor Ata. There was a car nearly full when we walked over, and by the time I thanked them, took their picture, and got their email addresses to send the picture, it was full. It was time to leave the city whose only other lasting memory will be the man in the market that, upon learning that I was American, shouted (in English) “Obama is a terrorist!” Those girls sure were sweet, though!
It didn’t take too long to get my first ride. It was in a large diesel truck. The ride only lasted a few minutes as the driver had arrived at his work site. The second hitch was more productive. A middle-aged couple picked me up as they headed home from a market with fresh meat and vegetables. I had to make room for myself in the back amongst all of the food. The meat had been packaged in the same plastic bags that we get from the grocery store, which meant that the bones had created small holes, allowing the residual blood to leak out. Since I had disturbed the order of things, I rearranged the food so that the car seat and my stuff would be free of meat juice. We tried our best to make small talk over the 20-30 minute ride and then it was over, as they pulled into their house. I helped them unload and walked down the road for my next hitch. This time getting a ride was more challenging. Most cars were full. Those that weren’t were luxury cars with no interest in hitchhikers. Even the truckers weren’t looking for passengers. Finally, a shared taxi showed up and I decided to get in despite knowing that I would be wedged in and ride with my backpack in my lap. I figured we weren’t too far from the next major city on the highway, Tashkömür, and we were. I had come to the conclusion that I possess no hitching skills, and that I just needed to focus on making Toktogul by nightfall. I knew that Sjoerd had made that town his goal and I might crash his party, but stopping short of it would make the trip the following day to Bishkek too long for my taste, especially since I had essentially wasted a day experimenting with hitchhiking.
Tashkömür is a dump of a town. Utterly depressing with its abandoned coalmine commanding the view along the river gorge that the town hugs. The cab driver knew that I wanted to go to Kara-Köl and pointed out a man to help me. Neither he nor any of the other taxis drove there but he pointed to a mashrutka that had pulled up to take on passengers. I knew that this wasn’t my ride to Kara-Köl, but hopefully it would take me to the appropriate taxi stand. The question was, “Where the hell do I get off this thing?” Without a seat, it was difficult to bend down to see out the window to scout where I might get off. In the end, two women over heard me asking others about Kara-Köl, tapped me on the shoulder and gave me that “I’ve got your back” look. When the time came, they got my attention, I gave them a big smile and thanked them as I got off. The highway is across the river from the city, and they had placed me perfectly at the bridge that led back to it and the taxi stand.
I like a good thrill, and I had been disappointed with the lack of maniacal driving that can make transport exciting. The guidebook had led me to believe that such driving was ubiquitous, but 5 weeks into this trip, I was wondering what the fuss was all about. Only drivers of Kazakhstan’s highways had quickened my pulse at all to this point. However, this shared taxi ride in a 1990’s Audi put a smile on my face. He was a maniac in a way that I could appreciate- driving fast, pulling G’s in the curves, and passing in the opposite lane- because I do the same crap when I drive. With a canyon wall on one side and a drop-off to the riverbed on the other, the experience was exhilarating! It’s probably the first time I wished the ride lasted longer.
I probably could have stayed comfortably in Kara-Köl since it wasn’t utterly depressing, but I still had enough sunlight to make it to Toktogul, if I didn’t screw around. I half-heartedly started to hitch before I made the better decision to get out of the cool drizzle, stop pretending I was any good at hitching, and arrive in Toktogul before dark. I found a ride in a rather lightly used Toyota minivan from Japan. Yes! Really from Japan. This was a right-hand drive with EVERYTHING in the car in Japanese, including the female voice that told us to fasten our seatbelts, or something (no one does here unless there’s a police car within sight). With someone coughing most of the trip, I got rather annoyed that no one would crack a window or turn on the fan to move the air. Nope. I just sat there trying to breathe as little of the stagnant, human-humidified air as possible.
Toktogul is a rather small town near the banks of the Toktogul Reservoir, but it has one proper tree-lined parkway that leads into the town from the highway. That mattered little since it had been another long day of traveling and nibbling on an assortment of snacks for sustenance. I just wanted to drop my pack and get the fresh fried fish that I read about earlier. The driver dropped me at the nicest hotel in town. I’m the rich foreigner, of course. Honestly, I think he was just being a good host. I would do the same in his position. I would want a guest to see the nicest parts of my country. As I walked in, I noticed that it was eerily empty. I quickly learned from the hotel owners that there was no water. No water? Next to a huge reservoir? This is joke, right? No joke. I wasn’t going to pay a premium to stay in a place without running water, soI made my way to the other, cheaper hotel in town. As I approached it, I could see Sjoerd exit that hotel with a soccer ball and some locals for his customary kick around from about 100 yards. Perfect. I could slip into the hotel without him noticing. No one needs to be branded a stalker, after all! Unfortunately, I couldn’t have foreseen that Sjoerd would forget something and nearly brush my shoulder before heading back out to his playmates. I was a non-chalant and polite as I could be as someone breezes by. Inside, I was so annoyed at the thought that he might think I had copied his idea and followed him here. The bottom line is that the mountains give you very few options for routes. We were both headed to Bishkek and this was the best place to stop to break the journey into two days. I knew this then, but it still ate at me.
I put those thoughts behind me only to realize that I had misread the guidebook. The fried fish stands, which I had seen an hour back on the highway weren’t to be found in Toktogul. As consolation, I found a stand that had fresh, hand-made mushroom and onion piroshkies. With two lead weights sitting in my stomach, I decided to take a walk around town to help digestion as the sun set. The scene was nothing unusual or note worthy- just the usual assortment of kids playing in the street and riding their bikes. As dusk became night, the kids started migrating home, as did I. Back at the hotel, I had to face the reality that there was no running water here either. The whole town was without water, in fact. So, one could imagine how great I smelled after a long day of hitching, but that couldn’t compare with the smell of toilets that hadn’t been flushed all day. As I settled in for bed, I decided to check my text messages by turning on my phone. Surprisingly, there was one from Sjoerd asking what I had been doing. I explained that I had dinner and that I had just returned from a walk. When I asked him where he ate, he said he wasn’t really hungry since his driver had stopped so he could have fried fish. Son of a bitch! He got there before I did AND had fried fish. I couldn’t help but be jealous. Even so, I felt much better that he was willing to stay in touch, so I finished by wishing him well before his hitch to Bishkek, leaving open the chance to hang out if we bump into each other. It was lights out after that.