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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
After 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.
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.