Monthly Archives: January 2014

Hui are Dungans

May 24, 2013

As a self-reliant person, it felt strange that Tatiana, our hostess and owner of Pegasus Guesthouse, was making breakfast for us at 7:15. However, as with most places in Central Asia, if I wanted a hot breakfast, I was going to pay a small fee for the luxury since breakfast is usually bread, butter, jam, and tea. Mick and I dispatched the eggs, toast, jam, and sausage quickly, but we chose to linger a bit and chat before going our separate ways. Mick planned to ride horses again despite the overcast and rainy conditions. I, on the other hand, headed into the light rain to catch a ride to Karakol with dreams of hiking. After drooling at epic mountain landscapes for weeks, I finally possessed a map so I could explore with purpose and without fear of getting lost.

I managed to wedge myself into a van just as it was pulling out. This meant that the first 30 minutes of the 2-hour ride was spent standing and finding just the right stance that would provide good balance yet avoid putting my buttocks in the face of someone seated. The satisfaction of having my own seat was short lived since the steam and grime coated windows smeared the usual crisp blur of towns, villages, and trees passing. This coupled with the sun being obscured by a thick blanket of clouds meant I was as oriented as kidnap victim on arrival. Uncertain if I was located on the guidebook map, I wandered down a couple streets until I found one that would take me to the center of town. Sure, I could have hired a cab, but I relish figuring things out. Just ask my friend that reluctantly followed a rather ‘impaired’ me straight back our Amsterdam hostel nearly 20 years ago. If this comes across as grousing about the lack of signage, know that I would be disappointed if the navigation was in a guide’s hands. I live for this stuff! I’m just rather impatient when trying to place myself on a map. I’m not afraid that I’m lost, but rather frustrated that my process of assimilating into a new place is delayed. Once I can celebrate a fine bit of navigation, only then can I leave travel purgatory and interact with my surroundings and start to suss it out.

Like Kazakhstan, Korea has a significant cultural presence here.

Like Kazakhstan, Korea has a significant cultural presence here.

Karakol is a city founded by Imperial Russia in 1869 because the military garrison founded 5 years earlier at Teploklyuchenka (have fun trying to pronounce THAT correctly) was deemed to be a lousy place to raise a kid with its floundering school system, prevalence of rifle toting, and nightly vodka drinking contests. So, a group of angry mothers banded together and lobbied the garrison commander for permission to start a new city in their image. HA! In Imperial Russia? Not a chance that story is real. Truthfully, Karakol was founded about 3 km west of the military garrison because it would have room to grow and better weather. Its earliest inhabitants were largely military officers protecting Russia’s new territory, explorers charting these new lands for Mother Russia, merchants sending home bountiful fish and pelts in exchange for vodka, smokes, tea, etc., and a host professionals to prevent this frontier town from being a complete free-for-all. Those Russians who could profit and endure the isolation from their hometowns became wealthy and built grand homes that still stand today. They have largely lost their luster, but I still regret not spending any time photographing them.

Karakol made a good impression because it actually had a few signs pointing to the some of the pertinent tourist destinations and it didn’t treat like tourists like an invading army, forcing them to find the one rusting street sign left behind accidentally. I had been walking for a while and was pleased to see that I had walked onto the map. What better way to be certain than to turn left and walk to the Chinese Mosque that was within sniffing distance?

The Chinese Mosque- the business end.

The Chinese Mosque- the business end.

Impressively constructed without nails, only the squat minaret indicates that it’s a mosque and not a cultural exchange gift. The upkeep on the main building (but not the minaret) is impressive and only closer inspection plausibly dates the building to its completion in 1910. Whether it was a gesture to the Dungan refugee community that commissioned it or a gesture of awe and respect isn’t clear, but the victorious Bolsheviks decided that they would spare this one mosque and only closed it from 1933 to 1943. Until independence in 1990, it served as a storehouse and later as a dance club. Dungans, it should be explained, are Chinese Muslims- not the Turkic speaking Uyghurs nor are they Han Chinese, though their language is considered a dialect of Mandarin. They refer to themselves as “Hui”. We adopted the label ‘Dungan’ from the Russians, who adopted it from the Uyghurs, who had translated the Chinese character “Hui” into their tongue. The Chinese character for ‘Hui’ roughly translates to ‘one who turns.’ Since the Hui (Dungan) people originated in the Eastern Gansu province, the designation could be in reference to their continued western migration from their ancestral homelands. The Tian Shan Mountains separate Kyrgyzstan and China, and that’s where the migration would have stopped had it not been for the Hui Minorities War of 1862-1877. While some of the Dungans in Central Asia today are descendants of slaves sold by raiders, most fled the conflict against the Han Chinese and remain today.

Exterior detail of the Chinese Mosque

Exterior detail of the Chinese Mosque

Walking into the mosque’s fenced grounds, I was careful to look off anyone that thought I might worship there. I quickly pulled out the camera and looked at the five clocks on the wall to make sure I wouldn’t find myself in the middle of prayer. I took some pictures and headed towards the door to photograph the interior. That’s when a well-dressed, clean-shaven guy in his early 20’s, and his shorter, stockier, whiskered friend approached me. Son of a bitch! This happens to me at least once a trip where Muslims are in the majority. So, here was my requisite dose of proselytizing. Time to take a deep breath and be polite.

Interior detail of Chinese Mosque

Interior detail of Chinese Mosque

I suppose that half-listening isn’t very polite, but my growling stomach wasn’t interested in this long-winded case for the virtues of Islam. So, I interrupted to ask if it was okay if I went inside and took photos. Both guys escorted me inside, where I found a Koranic study group or something like it. Feeling like an intruder, my discomfort level elevated to blushing when I was introduced to the group. They looked and gave me a quick salute from several yards away. Time to take my photos and split. In what was either a dare or chance to prove his piety, the well manicured of my two hosts followed outside where invited me to a three-day religious retreat. I was polite in my refusal and left promptly.

Interior of Chinese Mosque

Interior of Chinese Mosque

As much as I wanted to eat, I needed to pick a place to stay and drop my pack before finding lunch. I decided on the Neofit Guesthouse where I could have my own room, a hot shower and breakfast included for a reasonable price. I decided to eat lunch at the large, modern, clean, and largely empty Fakir Café. Since it was near mid-afternoon, I ordered two dishes for my late lunch. The first was a transcendent ashlyanfu, a cold dish consisting of both clear and egg noodles, vinegar, hard boiled egg, and a dash of minced, pickled red peppers. Despite the weather being overcast, damp, and cold, this really hit the spot. The second was a bleak and greasy beshbarmak– a dish with mutton or horsemeat, cooked in broth, and served over flat noodles. It just couldn’t hold a candle to the tastier and visually more appealing ashlyanfu. Stuffed, I went back my room to lay down for a nap. In such dreary conditions, there wasn’t much to do with the rest of the day other than wait for dinner. I turned on my cell in the off chance that Sjoerd had contacted me. Sure enough was a text message wondering where I was staying and if there was room. I told him that I had an extra bed and we could split the cost. Half an hour later, I was excited to have my old roomie around. He didn’t say much about his time in Bishkek, so I could only guess that it was as unremarkable as mine.

Ashlyanfu

Ashlyanfu

I needed to find an internet café and Sjoerd needed to network and find someone headed to China via the Torugart Pass in about a week’s time. Without someone to share the ride, he would have to pay $250+ in transportation. The only other way to enter China overland from Kyrgyzstan is the Irkeshtam crossing, which would require two long days of travel retracing the route he (and I) had just taken from Osh. The other, shorter route to Osh, through Kazarman, was closed at this time due to winter snow blocking the mountain roads. The best place for him to start this search would be Karakol’s backpacker hub, Karakol Coffee.

Beshbarmak

Beshbarmak

A couple of hours later, we met to eat dinner, and for no other reason than its ashlyanfu, we went to Fakir Café. We were nearly done with our meal when two familiar faces walked in the door. Holy shit! It’s Jordan and Laura! I hadn’t seen this New York City couple since Khiva, nearly a month prior. We quickly dove into the ritual of sharing travel routes and stories. They had taken their time getting to Karakol, since they had skipped Tajikistan altogether. It all became a bit wistful as we realized what little time we had left to travel. They would fly back to NYC in a week, and I two days later. Sjoerd’s had a month in China yet to come, so he didn’t understand all of this nostalgic babble and seemed ready to move on. We had paid, so when Jordan and Laura’s food arrived, we left.

Back at the hotel after a misty walk, Sjoerd revealed that there was a group of people at Karakol Coffee that was interested in hiking the next day. I had already seen the weather forecast, so I reserved cautious optimism for what tomorrow would bring. Until then, I would let the light pat of rain on the roof count down my remaining moments of consciousness.

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Sleeping with the Ancients

May 23, 2013

I slept well that night, but it was clear that I was still fighting illness as I exited the Nomad Home hostel. The splendid, sunny morning injected energy into my tired body however, and had me in good mood for the morning’s negotiations with the taxi drivers going to Cholpon Ata. This ride would be the best smelling of the trip, as there was a florist on board with probably ten arrangements occupying any space available in the cabin and even more in the trunk. She and the others on board were pleasant and it was uneventful ride apart from the traffic ‘fine’ that the driver paid when he was nailed for speeding.

Arriving before 11AM at my destination was a luxury I hadn’t had since Karakul, Tajikistan, but unlike that desolate village, Cholpon Ata has a tourist trap well worth visiting- the petroglyphs. I found my way to the guesthouse of my choice and was fortunate enough to grab the only open bed available.

Snowleopard and ibex hunt

Snowleopard and ibex hunt

Pegasus Guesthouse is owned by a Kyrgyz divorcee who owns horses and offers tours in the surrounding hills that provide the backdrop to this picturesque town along Issyk-köl- a geothermally heated lake that doesn’t freeze in winter despite its altitude and climate. This time of year the place is pleasantly quiet and quaint. In the summers, however, it teems with the wealthy and privileged, mostly from Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan. Then, the town becomes like any other Eastern European waterside resort town, with clubs and cafés competing for business by blaring techno to distorting levels. Imagine a blend of nails going down a chalkboard and metal tearing over a thumping bass line, and your ears should rightfully be ringing. The president has a house on the beach, so you know the place is bumpin’ in the summers.

Man on camel

Man on camel

I was told that I would be sharing my room with an older English gentleman, which was cool. I love to talk soccer (football, if you must), so as long as he wasn’t a Chelsea fan, we would get along just fine. Staying in another room were Heather and Mike- a couple in their 60’s from Australia (she’s Australian and he’s English) that were cycling through Central Asia after starting in China. Like most every Western tourist, they found themselves in visa purgatory. They were waiting on a visa to Azerbaijan so they could cross the Caspian Sea by flying rather than by cycling and ferry, thus eliminating a very long and boring trip through the desert and steppe of Kazakhstan. They were in Cholpon Ata to take time off the bike and wait out the visa process, having left their bicycles in Bishkek. Their goal was to reach England by winter.

Deer?

Deer?

I needed to do laundry BADLY. When you have two changes of clothes, you save one for wash day. Today marked 5 days since the last. The satisfaction of pouring out the gritty and filmy wash water made sacrificing a power nap inconsequential. Time was starting to get away from me, so after a disappointing samsa, I started walking to the petroglyph site a couple of miles away.

A bunch of ibex

A bunch of ibex

Long before there were Mongols, Russians, or Kyrgyz in this part of the world. There were the Scythians (800-100BC), an ancient race of Indo-European origin, who roughly occupied the land between China and the Black Sea. They were the original nomadic, mounted archers. South of them was the rival Parthian people, whose ability to turn around and put an arrow in his pursuer’s chest from a galloping horse was legendary. To this day we call that maneuver a parting shot. The Scythians legacy, however, glistens in the museums of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as amazingly delicate and intricate gold jewelry.

Ibex being hunted by mounted archer.

Ibex being hunted by mounted archer.

In Cholpon Ata, and in Central Asia more generally, the Scythians also left behind many petroglyphs as part of their legacy. My first experience with them was in Langar, where the oldest of them date back to the Bronze Age. Here, unlike Langar, the petroglyphs are not part of a rock face far up a steep hill or as old. These glacially deposited boulders are maybe half a mile from shore and were carved for what are believed are ceremonial reasons. Surrounding area is a wrought iron fence in most areas, and a derelict barbed wire fence in others. I walked in prepared to pay the entrance fee, but there was no attendant. Apart from a few petroglyphs that had signs informing the reader what animal is depicted and how old it was, it was up to you to hire a guide to find more or painstakingly walk around and find them yourself. I preferred the latter, so I could pat myself on the back for the archeological finds.

A much younger ibex petroglyph.

A much younger ibex petroglyph.

First, a nap! No amount of distraction or denial about my health was going to prevent my body from getting the sleep it demanded. Besides, later in the day, the light would be better for photos. I looked at my watch and decided that a half-hour power nap would be perfect. I found a boulder large enough that I could sit in its shadow and not be seen or get sunburned. As far as naps go, this could not have been more atmospheric. I had an enormous boulder field to myself, and it was utterly quiet apart from the occasional avian species or the light friction of amber grasses in the gentle breeze. Such a soothing soundtrack unsurprisingly extended the nap to over an hour. Feeling more energetic, I stood up and turned around to see that my precious late-afternoon light was soon to be eclipsed by an approaching thunderstorm. I would have to move quickly. Doing so seemed to have sharpened my vision, and I began to pick out petroglyphs from a distance, quickly judging whether they were worthy of a photo or not. Every few minutes, a rumble would echo off the mountain ridge and I would check to see the storm’s progress. The rain shadow continued its creep towards me. So, I started to move from the farthest reaches of the site towards the entrance. Every time I thought I had taken my last photo, I would stop for another worthy petroglyph. At a certain point, I realized that there was no way I was getting back dry, so I decided to stay amongst the boulders until the rain began and make the most of the visit. Had I not been wearing jeans, I wouldn’t have tried to outrun the rain in what is now the second dumbest thing I have ever done- after trying to do a wall flip in front of the principal’s office as a second grader. I finally recognized the futility, and focused my efforts on hitching a ride. That, too, was futile, as I was walking against prevailing traffic. There would be no kind stranger to rescue me from extreme dampness.

The storm moves closer

The storm moves closer

The rain fizzled out about halfway back, leaving the chance to take in the stillness that immediately follows a rain shower. Call to prayer began as I approached a modestly sized mosque. With the mountains acting as a sounding board and the air cleared of human banality, the sound carried unimpeded across Issyk-Köl, leaving me haunted, enchanted and jealous of its power. It took me back to Erzurum, Turkey in July 2001. I was finishing my day by walking around the ruins of an old Seljuk mosque built in the 12th century. Ignorant of where I was, I panicked when I, as a half-Armenian, found myself standing on the roof looking out at the Anatolian plateau with call to prayer beginning. In this deeply religious city, after one mosque begins, a multitude of others quickly join in like a chorus of wolves bemusing themselves with their howls echoing.

Once I let that thought pass, I turned around to see the most intense double rainbow I have ever seen. Grinning at my good fortune, I took photos and walked the rest of the way back to the guesthouse with the smug satisfaction that can only come from being the right place at the right time and returning to find that my drying laundry had largely avoided getting wet.

IMG_1702After taking a shower, I managed another powernap before my roommate, Mick, arrived from a day of horse riding. I was relieved that he was a Tottenham supporter and hates Chelsea as much as I do, so we centered the conversation on that. Mick, when he isn’t traveling 5 months a year (not an exaggeration), he’s being paid to help sports teams with their training regimens, focusing on soccer and field hockey. He also referees soccer matches as well. He’s a fit fellow, in his early to mid-50’s, and never been married. When it came time for dinner, it was natural that we would carry on the conversation there. I was feeling better by this time, but not enough to try to keep up with the 3 pints that he had with dinner. In fact, I was satisfied to have tea and water. Normally, I feel guilty for accepting someone’s offer to pick up the cost of my meal, but since I suffered through his table manners, it seemed like a fair trade. In exchange I would pick up his dessert. We went to the convenience store a couple of doors down so he could get his ice cream and I, my Snickers. I am normally dogmatic when it comes to only eating local or regional foods while traveling, but I felt entitled since I wasn’t feeling 100%. In the short walk to the guesthouse, the entire Snickers had been consumed and I decided that I wasn’t done with this indulgence. So, I excused myself from Mick and went back to buy another. I inhaled that one as well, but was satisfied enough that I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation the sales clerk was having with her friend, again. Some things are universal.

Double the pleasure!

Double the pleasure!

Like friendly roommates, neither of us was eager to turn off the lights. Even after they were out, we continued until we were just too tired to speak.