It has been my goal to try to write something meaningful once a week. I have been quite lousy achieving that goal, to be honest, but I do have a decent excuse. I took a (drunken) dare to do a half-Ironman some time ago. I have done 4 marathons in the past and figured that it would be about the same. I was horribly wrong. The workouts amount to much more time than marathon training, so things like blogging suffered. I’m not saying that there wasn’t time to blog, but the training wore me out so much that I couldn’t think clearly enough to write. Rest was more important. Well, I completed the triathlon yesterday and I am pleased with my 5:38:30 considering the all of the cramping and rookie mistakes made. Now, I will be putting more effort into completing my Central Asian adventure and branching out beyond it.
May 28, 2013
As soon as I heard activity in the kitchen, I was out of my sunken bed and headed downstairs to claim my portion. The rest of the house rose shortly after and we were treated to the most bizarre breakfast ever imagined- bliny, plain rice wrapped in nori (a plain sushi roll, if you will), boiled barley, bread, and a sweet apple soup. We had a long day of hiking planned, so I ate everything, save some of the apple soup, which some left untouched. I am usually an indiscriminate eater, so I felt better knowing that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t find it appetizing.
The plan was to hike to a glacier fed lake and get back in about 5 hours before heading back down the valley and eventually to Karakol by nightfall. Given that we had covered 14km in 4.5 hours the day before, 6-7km should be a piece of cake. We were told to follow river and streams up to the lake, but we were bored of river valleys. We wanted to gain elevation. We wanted a wonderful view. So, we started walking straight up.
Hiking in Central Asia means creating your own route unless there happens to be a road. So, you must have a good map and a willingness to experiment, and today was no exception. The map I purchase covered a lot of territory, so the tightly packed contour lines meant 40m each and a tough climb. What we didn’t expect was that the morning dew would make the 30+ degree slope very slick and technically demanding. I was kicking into the slope and trying to find tufts of grass to make sure every step up counted. It was so steep that rolling backwards would be difficult to stop. So, it wasn’t long until I needed a break from the unrelenting incline. We took pictures and tried to figure out how much more vertical we had. Once on the ridge, we expected to see exactly where we wanted to go and would drop down.
Seemed simple enough. What we found was rocky, sandy, loose, and even steeper. Thus it was just as tiring as going up. Down near the river, we happened upon a nomadic encampment. We didn’t want to intrude so we smiled and waved as we walked the perimeter of the camp. They waved back and invited us for tea. Excited to accept their hospitality, we approached the extended family gathered. As we got closer, we saw them were eagerly awaiting the mutton that was stewing. It smelled amazing and I was jealous that they would be enjoying it. I hoped that we would keep our visit short and not interrupt or delay their meal. After standing around for a bit, not sure what we were supposed to do, we were waved into their tent and reminded that the ‘pole’ in the middle of the tent was a stovepipe. That didn’t stop me from BRIEFLY grabbing it to balance myself as I got in the tent.
Right. The ‘tea’. Turns out that the family had every intention of feeding us. When they didn’t think that we had eaten enough of the freshly slaughtered mutton and potato stew, they encouraged us to eat more. There was also bread, fresh cream to dip it in, homemade butter…. It was easily one of the most memorable and delicious meals of the trip. We couldn’t talk to each other, but Sjoerd had a small album of photos, a gift from his loved ones, showing him, his girlfriend, and his life in the Netherlands. As you can see in the photos, they were absolutely enthralled with a world they probably couldn’t imagine. After seeing that reaction, I realized the brilliance of carrying 20 or so printed and bound photos. I will likely never travel without one again.
This inspired them to have their own photos and give Sjoerd their ‘address’ so that he could print and send them copies. Sjoerd’s battery was dead, so I took the photos that they hopefully possess now. Rather unprepared for such hospitality, we couldn’t offer money since it’s considered rude. Without a cigarette between us, sweets and cookies were the next best luxury items we could offer, so we gave all we could as thanks. We were warmly sent off and headed up to the two small lakes on the map that seemed accessible.
Accessible? Yes. Easy to find? Not so much. The stream that would have led us straight to the end of our hike was covered in scree, so there was lots of scrambling over piles of large rocks until we finally arrived. The time we spent debating the route had allowed clouds to obscure the sun. While I would have preferred to wait for the clouds to move, it was chilly and we needed to keep going, if we hoped to make Karakol by nightfall.
Again, with no trail to create consensus on which was the best way back to Altyn Arashan, I went my way and Julian and Sjoerd went the other. Turns out they were right. They got down to the stream and found a bridge to cross. I, however, spent way too much time fighting underbrush to get to the stream and looking for a fallen tree suitable for me to cross without getting wet.
When I did, I stopped halfway across, unsure if I would be able to leap far enough to avoid slipping into the stream. Just so you know. I am a good swimmer. I just didn’t want wet boots or camera equipment. So, in the span of what was probably 5 minutes or more. I froze, was too lazy to get off the log and find somewhere else to cross, lost all confidence in my abilities, got mad for doubting myself, stood up and leaped across without incident. Once on the road back to Altyn Arashan, I managed to piss of a shepherd because my presence scared one of his cows back down the road and he had to fetch him. I had no idea he belonged to anybody or that he had somewhere to go. I just thought that the cow was embarrassed by his diarrhea. Note to self, I will act like a boss and keep it movin’ along the next time I encounter a cow that tries to run from me. Who knew being a traveler in these countries carries such responsibility?! In any case, as I strolled into Altyn Arashan, this large herd of sheep were being moved up the valley and it’s timelessness struck me. I took out the video camera to capture what is a slowly dying way of life.
Valentin, the owner of Yak Tours Camp, didn’t have to try hard to convince us to stay one more night. One, getting down to Ak-Suu at that hour would likely mean a taxi since public transportation would be done for the day. Two, he was going to Karakol early the next morning and we could (for a fee) take a ride in his vehicle all the way there. Three, he was making yak (yes, the animal) plov. Four, we could relax in the hot springs and five, more beer had arrived that day. See how easy that was? It had to have been the quickest consensus achieved on the trip.
With a larger group of guys in the hot springs that late afternoon, it quickly turned into a contest of who could stay in the bone-chilling river the longest. I did a turn for a minute and let the youngin’s fight it out for top bragging rights.
Dinner was served shortly after sundown and we ate it like hibernation was upon us. Valentin then joined us for the rest of the evening. As we sat enjoying beer, Valentin wanted to make sure we fully appreciated it by pointing out that the ‘new guy’, a Russian roughly our age, had managed to bring what beer we had (about 10L) up on a bicycle from town. First of all, the road is crappy. It’s all uphill, and I just don’t know how you carry that much liquid without falling over a time or two. But he didn’t.
In case, we weren’t impressed with that physical feat, Valentin then spoke of a Russian porter that he knew that once scaled Pik Lenin (the world’s ‘easiest’ 7000m peak) twice in one week and is well known for offering to take weight off of other porters for 1 Euro/kg for extra money. It’s rumored that this porter carried 75kg up Pik Lenin once because the other porters were desperate to shed weight. That’s a person my size on his back…at altitude!
All of that talk of scaling dangerous peaks made me tired, so it was back to the same awful bed for another compromised night of sleep.
May 27, 2013
The trip took on a new character today. Gone were the leisure and relative sloth of Karakol. Once dropped off by the mashrutka, we had 14km of hiking uphill towards the hamlet of Altyn Arashan (roughly 3000m/9800ft). First, however, we (Sjoerd, Julian, and I) said goodbye to Salima, who was headed back home to Almaty, and Bart, who continued his journey towards Mongolia.
Clicking my backpack’s waistbelt buckle quickened my pulse. It was nothing more than a fear of holding back two kids 15+ years younger than me, but once on our way that fear quickly faded. Truth be told, Julian was carrying the most weight by far, as he had EVERYTHING with him. Sjoerd and I left some of our gear in the Neofit Guesthouse for a nominal fee, which, in retrospect, was very trusting of us given our history there. That said, I did not leave my Canon A-1 and it’s three lenses behind, so despite only having a daypack, I was carrying some significant weight. The route up was a gradual dirt road with a few steep, boulder-y sections thrown in, which begged the question, “Why would you ever pay for a ride up here?” Surely, you would be thrown around the vehicle like a rag doll. I was breathing too hard most of the time to make much conversation, so I disguised my labored effort by limiting my participation and used a video break to get one reprieve. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country and most people (almost all) that own horses are nomadic and don’t want them running away. So, they are tied up in in various ways to limit how far their horses can wander and graze. The most common way I saw was to bind the two front hooves together, although I also saw some horses with one hoof tethered to a stake in the ground. At least the former allowed the horse to graze and move, albeit in the most disabled and depressing manner. As you will see in the video, the horse is afraid of humans likely due to abuse from the owner.
We made good progress and were smugly satisfied with our sense of accomplishment. To reward ourselves for arriving in less than 4.5 hours (when the book said 5-6), we went to the hot springs after confirming we had a place to sleep and that dinner would be cooked for us as well.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a story about squealing naked women this time, well, actually there was. Sjoerd’s curiosity got the better of him again, and he looked into another cabin’s window to see if the springs were different. I don’t believe he got an eye-full this time, but there was a startled female when he pressed his face against the window. I tell you! His girlfriend was going to be a lucky lady when he got home! Without the prying eyes of some stranger, our cabin and its 1m deep hot spring was really peaceful and relaxing. Situated next to a stream of snow runoff, it was only customary to test our circulatory health by immersing ourselves and then run back into the hot spring. Then Sjoerd decided that the visit wouldn’t be complete without doing a cannonball, which he photographed with a self-timer.
Back at the guesthouse, we met the others staying there while waiting for dinner to be served. Before we really got to know them the sun decided to peak underneath the day’s uninterrupted blanket of clouds and we all rushed to photograph some precious sunlight before sunset.
Staying at backpacker hovels in remote places always means a good conversation. Anyone that made the same effort you did is going to share common interests. This is always good news for me because I am uncomfortable talking to strangers cold turkey. Sharing the house was Yuta, a Japanese national on his second year of traveling, after leaving behind a finance job. His English grammar, accent (Queen’s English), and inflection made his upper class background obvious, but had gentle soul and pleasant demeanor. The other (coincidental) Japanese national was Maruka. She had quit her job at a hotel in Chiba City to travel for a year. Lone female travelers are rather uncommon, but one in this part of the world is rare, especially since she was typically Japanese, reserved and quiet. Rafael and Sam were the two twenty something French friends that were really into talking about photography, marijuana, and French labor laws. Great guys. Markus was a German in his mid 40’s that managed to drive his Volkswagen sedan up that crappy road in one piece. Finally, were Martin and Vladimir. These two Slovaks had been friends forever and travel together every two years or so. Martin lives in Norway and is a hotel manager, so his English is impeccable. Vladimir is a mechanic in Slovakia and did pretty well keeping up with the conversation.
Dinner was salad and pasta with meat and liver. Certainly not the most glamorous of meals, but I was starving and it was delicious and not enough. It seemed that the rest of the calories would come from beer. Once we ran the place out of beer, Vladimir and Martin pulled out the vodka and their stories about women in Russian nightclubs. As good as they were, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I found one of the only rickety beds still open and spent the rest of the night trying to find a position where the saggy springs didn’t rest my body on a crossbar.
May 26, 2013
Sunday’s animal market in Karakol is rather famous due to its size, so I was determined to see if stories of sheep being stuffed into the back of cars were true. Four hours of rest seemed to be enough and I got up and walked back to the hotel for breakfast. In a day full of bad decisions, this was the first.
Upon arrival, I didn’t like the expressions the two unpleasant Russian females (the third, nice one was elsewhere) were giving me. Once in the lobby, they descended on me like hell from above with raised voices and in stereo with one on each side. First of all, most places will let you pay when you check out. I had a key to give back to them, after all. Secondly, no one had made a fuss all the other times I had come and gone. Being treated like a common criminal was infuriating, but I paid them for the night before and the coming evening because they insisted (and because I was unwilling to leave and upgrade or downgrade my accommodation). I then texted Sjoerd to let him know that he better have payment ready when he comes back or else.
I went back to the dungeon to have breakfast and asked the Pole and Basque backpackers next to me if they had encountered such charming service as well. They acknowledged their general unpleasantness but had not been treated as poorly. They were headed to the animal market as well, but I decided, based on the guidebook, that by the time I walked the 2-3km there it would be wrapping up. Of course, I could have chosen to get a cab, but I couldn’t justify spending the money when seeing the animal market at its best didn’t seem likely (bad decision #2). So, I went back to the room and took a nap convinced that the other two were wasting their time going to the market (bad decision #3). The Pole and the Basque came back saying that the market went on until about noon (the book said 10AM), and had great photos to show for their effort.
When Sjoerd came back around lunch time, he had made arrangements to stay somewhere else since it was a bit pricey for him and the staff hardly convinced him it was worth the premium. However, he would be meeting Julian, Salima, and Bart at Karakol coffee later, and I would be joining them.
While the hike into a valley from Jeti Öghüz had been scenic, it didn’t challenge us or give us dramatic views. So, with the weather forecast showing significant improvement, Sjoerd, Julian, and I decided that we would be heading off to Altyn Arashan the next day. Salima would be heading back to Almaty and Bart would head towards Mongolia. With that sorted out, it was time to get some food for the excursion. After a street food dinner, I swung back to Karakol Coffee for a night cap. There I ran into Jordan and Laura again. We were the only people left in the shop, so Aikerim, the owner of Karakol Coffee joined us in conversation. After Jordan and Laura left, I stayed a bit longer to talk with Aikerim about her time in America as a child. I left thinking that there may be something to my hunch that she really did like talking to me.
May 25, 2013
Waking up was a challenge. The rain tapping on the windowpanes scolded us to stay under the duvet and shut our eyes. Not today. It was Sjoerd’s birthday, and he was stir crazy for a hike. Who could blame him? The weather had been miserable since we arrived and it continued to be so that morning. Sjoerd rustled about and said he would join me for breakfast as I left.
The Neofit Guesthouse, where we stayed, has one distinguishing feature. The open mouthed dragon that serves as the entrance to the street side. It’s so over the top that I was too embarrassed to take a photo of it, though I regret that now. Down below, the Russian owners fully embrace the gimmick by making the dining area look like a dragon’s lair. It’s not exactly what you want when you’re trying to wake up on a dreary day. Nevertheless, the waitress (of a staff of 3) acknowledged that I was there and had the cook fire up the kitchen. While waiting, I tried to write in my journal, but found myself mesmerized by slickly produced Russian pop videos on MTV, virtually indistinguishable from American. That program ended around the time that I was finishing up and on came this most bizarre cartoon.
This is the actual cartoon that I watched (the first 8 minutes). Enjoy!
Why an obviously drug-inspired cartoon about the attempted kidnap of the Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, be played on Russian MTV in the morning baffled me only slightly less than how it didn’t give Soviet children nightmares back then (I’m assuming). Sjoerd came in about half way through and I tried to explain what I believed was happening. We spent the rest of the time rather amused at its psychedelic nature and how we were probably in the wrong state to properly enjoy such a thing.
After my ritual at the internet café, I met Sjoerd at Karakol Coffee to meet the three others that would be hiking that afternoon. First was Julian, the tall, young, blonde Australian taking a gap year. Then was Salima, an ethnic Tatar from Kazakhstan who was traveling with Julian. How did Julian get to have a Russian speaking travel partner? This is worth explaining. Julian was hitchhiking in Kazakhstan when he was picked up by a young Kazakh, who truly believed that the encounter was utter serendipity- so much so that took the story to the television station in Almaty. Julian is then interviewed and broadcast on the evening news. Salima was watching and as Julian put it, ‘kind of Facebook stalked me.’ Voila! A local tour guide free of charge! It’s that easy folks. Finally was Bart, a Dutchman that had driven all the way to Kazakhstan in a suspect 4×4. I know this because there were lots of stories about repairs made along the way.
We got into a microbus and headed to Jeti Oghuz. The name means seven bulls, which is assigned to the prominent red sandstone outcropping that looms large from the town. Blame time, erosion or the wrong viewing angle, but it’s hard to see the resemblance. Once along the dirt road that would undulate along the snowmelt fed stream, we spent the time chatting about world politics and American television programs, and soccer (alright, football). Once in a while, we would take time for pictures of the vibrant green pastures against the forested mountains, when the clouds lifted enough to do so. Sjoerd also found great amusement photographing horses copulating. It was about that time that we bumped into a group of well-heeled retired English tourists. We chatted a bit and asked if we could get a lift back to the trailhead. We were running out of time and good weather, and frankly, didn’t feel like seeing the same things on the way out. They politely said that they would love to do so, but their vehicle was already full. We observed them get into a less than half full vehicle, shrugged our shoulders and walked back out with the rain only making short, sporadic visits.
Back in the town, there wasn’t a public transportation option since it was too late in the day, so we had to convince someone to take us back to Karakol for a reasonable price. This was uniquely challenging since there were 5 of us and only sedans for hire. The best we could do was an inebriated man who thankfully got us back safely.
We all cleaned up and met to celebrate Sjoerd’s birthday at a restaurant where Salima did a proper Russian toast and we all had a jolly time drinking cheap local beer.
That would have been a fine way to celebrate a birthday, but it was also the Champions League Final between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. So, we were all on a mission to find a place to watch the match and drink more beer. We pestered just about every business owner that had a television without any success. The problems were that 1) the time difference meant that the match would start at midnight and most places wouldn’t be open. 2) soccer (football, if you must) isn’t that popular in Kyrgyzstan, thus awareness about this match was virtually non-existent. So, what we (Sjoerd, Bart, and I) had hoped would be a chance to drink beer with the locals became a cozy party at the flat that Salima had rented. In a sense, it was nicer than a bar because we all had our own bed to sleep in after the match finished at 2AM.
If you grew up in a very white city, town, or suburb (like I did) and wondered what it is like to be one of a few blacks living there (but was too afraid to ask, like me), Shazza lays it all to bare. Even if you didn’t, it’s a fascinating discussion worth your time!
The Holistic Wayfarer got me to come out of my shell and talk about my past. It goes a long way to explaining who I am and why I love to travel so much. If you don’t already follow this amazing blog, I encourage you to do so! Great topical pieces and amazing poetry! Find her here! http://holisticwayfarer.com/
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.
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.
May 22, 2013
Today marked the first day, since I reunited with Sjoerd in Ishkashim, that we truly pursued independent paths. Sure, we were both headed to Bishkek, but I knew where he wanted to stay, so I would choose another place when I arrived. Any further meetings would be purely coincidental.
Getting out of Toktogul without bumping into Sjoerd was easy with a 7:30 departure from the hotel. I quickly found a shared taxi to Bishkek and we were on our way once the driver got paid and filled his tank. It was slow going, however. The driver was determined to get the best gas mileage for the journey and avoid a profit vaporizing speeding ticket. Once we passed the one police car that he expected, he did speed up a bit, but my ass was getting numb and the incessant chatter of a child was annoying me. I just wanted to get to Bishkek. So, I might have been a little annoyed when we stopped for ‘breakfast’ roughly halfway there. The choice couldn’t have been less appetizing with shorpa (mutton and potato soup) and bread being the only thing on the menu. I’ve had that soup before- meaning the soup that comes with a couple chunks of potato and a big piece of bone with a few of morsels of meat flagging off of it. So, I chose to stay outside of the converted postal railcar restaurant and enjoy the gorgeous scenery that you couldn’t avoid.
I was relieved to finish that journey. I had made it my personal pledge that rest of the trip would not involve any more 3+ hour car rides. This was my last 10 days of Central Asia and I was going to slow it down and savor the remaining time before going home to move myself to Colorado and find a new job when I returned home.
As far as taxi rides go, this one went pretty smoothly. We didn’t run out of fuel before the end of the trip, as happened in Dushanbe. I was dropped at a minibus/shared taxi station because the driver didn’t know the address of the hostel. Without street signs, I wasn’t sure where I was on the map. I figured I was probably in the northern half of Bishkek but not sure how far east from center we were. There was more than one station on the map, so deciding where I was came to a coin toss. Luckily, I saw the 114 bus I was supposed to take to the hostel, so I jumped on. Unsure where to get off, I asked a rather attractive female where get off for the East Bus Station. She told me that we had past it and to get off and go back the other direction. When I arrived back where I started, I decided to orient myself on the map with the help of some locals. The 114 didn’t run frequently enough for me and I was running low on local currency, so I retraced my steps to the East Bus Station- over 2 miles away. The instructions to find the hostel were inadequate, so only serendipitous encounter with an Israeli backpacker, who had the owner coming to find her, prevented me from wasting time finding it. Nomad Home is a basic dormitory style hostel with wooden bunks and a decent common shower and bathroom. It was cheap and would do for one night.
For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling particularly well or energetic, but I needed to get out and pound some pavement if I was going to complete my errands and leave Bishkek tomorrow morning. The primary objective was to get a map so I could go hiking in the area of Karakol. Apart from the dizzying attempt at summiting in Alichur and the epic day hike in Arslanbob, so many mountain adventures had gone begging because maps are either non-existent or hard to find. As it was, when I arrived at the CBT, not all maps had English versions available. Yes, I can read Cyrillic, but I don’t want to depend on that ability when I am tired and trying to navigate. Fortunately, there was an English version of the map for the area around Karakol, but I would have to do without the one for Song-Köl, which was a disappointment. The good news is that that well-spoken woman told me that there should be some nomadic families in the area of Song-Köl despite the recent snows in the highlands. I left thankful that I had a map and committed to use it for some hikes in the coming days.
With that sorted out, I had the rest of the day to explore the city. My reward for doing so on limited energy and questionable health was a stop by the extremely popular, large, and well-run Café Faisa. I wish I had been able to appreciate the food more through my rapidly developing sinusitis, but it was still a good meal. I decided that I may have overfed the cold, so I walked half an hour back to the hostel. There, I could now enjoy a lengthy shower and shave before fraternizing with my fellow guests. The most memorable were the two male university students from Germany and the Norwegian sailor.
Backpackers are a strange breed, and I unashamedly associate myself with their ranks. However, this Norwegian was not only a strange personality, but the most impractical backpacker I have met in my years. What possesses a man to buy a case of probiotic drink and a large, gaudy, crystalline bottle of cologne at the duty-free shop at the beginning of a journey? In addition, he also had brought the thickest damn Kyrgyz sweater you’ve ever seen for warmth. I will say that he a clue that perhaps he hadn’t made the best decisions to begin his journey, as he was giving away probiotic drinks to anyone who wanted. I declined primarily because I was so full from dinner, but there was part of me that wanted the giveaway to continue as long as possible for my entertainment. That’s mean. I know, but this guy was over 30 years old and should know better.
As for the German buddies, they looked like they had been engineered in a Third Reich laboratory. They were athletic, painfully good looking, confident, and keenly aware of it. They were on a two-week tour of Central Asia and planned to do the Pamir Highway through Tajikistan, into Uzbekistan and out to Khiva before returning to Bishkek. It was getting late for my increasingly achy body, but I shared my experiences and knowledge with them, adding the caveat that will be very fortunate to accomplish such an ambitious itinerary. My parting words of wisdom before curling up were to skip Tajikistan and just see Uzbekistan.