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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.