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.

Advertisements

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.

Just the usual Bishkek

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.

Soviet MIG's never lose their appeal.

Soviet MIG’s never lose their appeal.

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.

A dental spa in Kyrgyzstan? I do believe so!

A dental spa in Kyrgyzstan? I do believe so!

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.

Now that's just gorgeous! In the alpine plateau between Toktogul and Bishkek.

Now that’s just gorgeous! In the alpine plateau between Toktogul and Bishkek.

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.

Hitchhacking

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.

Cradles: notice the excrement hole in it. No idea how that works. Unique in my experience.

Cradles: notice the excrement hole in it. No idea how that works. Unique in my experience.

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.

My local guides. The translator laughing in the middle.

My local guides. The translator laughing in the middle.

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!

The market in Bazaar Korgon. You've gotta eat while you can!

The market in Bazaar Korgon. You’ve gotta eat while you can!

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.

Odd: Chinese drink Gatorade? Never saw Gatorade sold anywhere in Central Asia.

Odd: Chinese drink Gatorade? Never saw Gatorade sold anywhere in Central Asia.

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.

A relic I found walking the streets of Toktogul

A relic I found walking the streets of Toktogul

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.

Band of Horses

May 20, 2013

Like the morning after a fight with your girlfriend, the next morning was embarrassingly awkward with the hostess. I had paid for both nights in advance and wasn’t going to move accommodation out of principle, so it was time to smile and get over it.  Having aired my grievance, I slept quite well, so I was ready for a day of hiking.

The 250ft high waterfalls.

The 250ft high waterfalls.

Arslanbob is a beautiful town nestled at the end of a lush valley, which has been famous for it’s hunting and farming bounty since the days when Alexander the Great’s army occupied these lands. On his way back from his failed campaign in Afghanistan, he made sure to take the Kyrgyz walnut back to Greece to cultivate it. I have never known the walnut to be called the Greek nut, but this is why. The truth is that the walnut originated in Malaysia. Today, the town is still famous for it’s walnut grove, which is the largest in the world and part of a larger walnut forest.

Sjoerd had spoken with a Dutch couple the day before and was interested in meeting them at the CBT office for a horse trek. He seemed rather excited to speak Dutch for the day, so I simply went along to the CBT office see what hiking options were available. In the end, neither of us achieved our objectives. The couple had left with the CBT guide, so he didn’t have the chance to speak Dutch and I didn’t have any idea of where to hike.

Yup. I stopped to take a picture of this leaf.

Yup. I stopped to take a picture of this leaf.

Sjoerd had already seen the smaller of two waterfalls yesterday, so we agreed to walk upstream to the taller of the two. The deep overcast hadn’t lifted and we would be sprayed with short showers until mid-afternoon. Even so, the view of the falls was worth going up the steep trail. With rain on the horizon, I decided that I would scramble up a wet, rocky chimney for the view from the top of the 250ft falls. Sjoerd didn’t seem much interested in following me, so I planned on making the trip quick. The vertigo inducing view of Arslanbob and the valley was spectacular as rays of sunlight did their best to burn through the cloud cover. Just as I finished taking photos, Sjoerd emerged from the grassy horizon to my left.

Vertigo inducing look down the edge of the falls.

Vertigo inducing look down the edge of the falls.

This was a huge relief because the climb down would have been treacherous, so we surveyed the land and decided that we could make a loop through the walnut forest back to town. That’s the upside to a part of the world that has few trails- you can walk wherever you want. The downside is that you’re not sure if double-backing will be necessary to clear an obstacle. We still had several hundred feet of elevation gain left to the ridge and all of it was hard earned. It was so steep that, with 10+lbs of camera equipment on my back, I had to be careful not to fall backwards. In terms of footing, where there was vegetation, it was wet and slippery, and where there wasn’t, it was loose and unpredictable. I hate to admit that I welcomed a chance to stop and take photos of a textured leaf as much for the break as to capture the image, but I did. In the meantime, Sjoerd scouted a great route that kept us on the ridge and out of the ravine. Just below the clouds we found a lush jailoo, or summer pasture. Like giant mushrooms breaking ground, only large stones and boulders penetrated the thick carpet of grass, giving it the feel of being in the British Isles at roughly 7000ft.

Dude! We have the place to ourselves!

Dude! We have the place to ourselves!

We continued on until we could see down into another pasture. This one teemed with goats, sheep and horses moving about under the instructions of their owners. The picturesque setting, complete with a grassy-banked stream, beckoned a stop for lunch. On the way down, I told Sjoerd about the time I hiked alone in Montenegro and was harassed by feral horses looking for food. Like every person that’s ever heard it, he was unconvinced that a group of horses could be intimidating- that was until a group of horses suddenly became interested in us. Somehow, I was given the loaf of bread that they wanted. I quickly stuffed the loaf in my backpack before they got too close, but still found myself in the oddly familiar position of being semi-circled by horses begging for food. While these horses weren’t feral or as aggressive as those in Montenegro, it was still intimidating to be so close to such large animals. Oh, I see! You don’t believe me either!

Looks like I have company.

Looks like I have company.

Nevertheless, they went back to grazing and we found a spot far enough away that they weren’t likely to bother us as we ate and watched the cloud ceiling lower. The darkening backdrop was stunning, but it was time to move on and avoid the approaching rain shadow. Using landmarks and instincts to direct us to the walnut forest meant that we climbed numerous fences and trespassed through many people’s property. The important thing here is that we were never caught. We did, however, cake our boots in mud from several encounters with steep and loose hillsides. It was worth it because a walnut forest is something to behold. There’s no significant undergrowth due to the uninterrupted canopy, making this natural phenomenon look utterly manicured and contrived.

Walnut trees as far as the eyes could see.

Walnut trees as far as the eyes could see.

It was well past 4PM at this time, and I was running out of food and energy. I just didn’t expect the hike to last much past lunch. Likely due to dehydration, it seemed that all of the synovial fluid in my knees had dried up, making the final descent into town a rather painful experience. Aging is a bitch! After 9 hours of hiking, we were back at the house. Dinner had already been started, so I grabbed the first bucket of hot water to ladle myself clean, cutting the hot water with cold so there would be enough to rinse properly.

Sjoerd and the kids of Arslanbob.

Sjoerd and the kids of Arslanbob.

Click on the gallery to enlarge the rest. Enjoy!

DIMLAMA! If you ever see this on the menu at an Uzbek restaurant, you must order it. It never disappoints, and this dimlama was the most memorable. Dimlama is basically stewed lamb and potatoes, but there are spices in there, too. We used all the bread available to soak up every bit of liquid left on the plate. Such a heavy meal was perfect replenishment for the hike and fuel for another cool rainy night. It wasn’t even 10PM, but once that heavy comforter warmed, I was out.

Teenage Fan Club

May 18, 2013

Needless to say, the 3AM bedtime meant a late start the next morning. This didn’t stop me from waking just in time to put my order in for my crepes and eggs at the guesthouse. It may have looked like they were running a madrassa, with half of the guys adorning a beard and/or a skullcap, but let me tell you! Those Uzbek hosts can cook one hell of a breakfast! The crepes, with the sweet cream purchased daily from the hawkers below, could make a Frenchman homesick. The rest of my fellow revelers weren’t as concerned about their morning meal and stumbled awake one-by-one. We agreed that we all would meet later for dinner, and then I scurried into the shower before any of the other 10 guests could lay claim. Clean and fed, I was then ready to waste a day wandering the city.

Mannequins are suppose to entice customers, not creep them out!

Mannequins are suppose to entice customers, not creep them out!

I’m not complaining. Osh was a very comfortable stop, and I needed extra time to relax and regroup before heading onward. The only thing on the agenda that day was to go to the CBT office for answers on whether staying in a yurt with a nomadic family was likely in the area of Song Köl. After a short stroll through the market, I got to the office and was told that chances were good that I could book a horse trek and a night’s stay in a yurt. Great. The rest of day was mine to do as little as I wanted, and I did. I had lunch, spent time on the internet, washed clothing, and just relaxed while waiting for everyone to gather for dinner. Joining the usual suspects were Laura and Jordan. They are both engineers that work for Airbus and met on the job. She is Basque and he is French. Both are fantastic people and a welcome addition to the group. After a meal of Kyrgyz standards (bread, lamb kebabs, manti, and stew) we went back to our favorite Uighur beer garden to reminisce and say goodbye as everyone would be leaving that evening or early the next day. Laura and Jordan were at the end of their trip and leaving that evening for France. The rest of us would be off tomorrow. Kevin and Max were going to Kashgar. Sjoerd and I were headed to Arslanbab, and Takayuki had already reached Tashkent to complete his yearlong trip and fly back to Tokyo.

May 19, 2013

Sjoerd made it clear that he was going to hitchhike to Arslanbab, so I was free to pursue my desire to stop in Özgön to see 11th and 12th century Karakhanid architecture, which was unique in my experience, and then carry on to Arslanbab.

I was out the door early to make sure that I was on the first mashrutka so that I wouldn’t have to stress about reaching Arslanbab before dark. I may have been a little overzealous. Getting to the stand before 8AM didn’t mean an early departure. Everyone seemed to show up at 8:45 and we were finally on our way.

Osh bazaar early on a Sunday morning.

Osh bazaar early on a Sunday morning.

Not long after we started, the rain came and continued non-stop until we arrived in Özgön, which presented a problem. There was no map of the town in the guidebook and the directions were given in cardinal directions relative to the town’s center. It was cloudy, so without the sun for orientation and unsure whether I was in the center of town, I started to grimace and grumble. Though there were clues I was close to a market (dingy tea houses and eateries, a bus and taxi stand, and plenty of activity), the returning rain pressed me to orient quickly, so I skipped asking strangers for help, trusted my instincts, headed off, and reached the market as the rain intensified to a downpour.

In the market, the only spaces to maneuver were the puddles and streams collecting the rain streaming from tarps and tin roofs. With a full pack, this made a usually pleasurable trip to the market fraught with dodging muddy puddles and constantly apologizing for bumping into people and objects for sale.

Tired of staying out of the way, I decided to *gasp* patron a stall to stand still and enjoy some cover. This proved a perfect opportunity to satisfy a curiosity and try a particular ubiquitous white drink. Luckily, this town believes in labeling its faire, so I now knew it was called kurut, which, if you don’t remember from Uzbekistan, is that hard-as-a-rock, salty-as-hell cheese ball. So, they crush these cheese balls and mix it with water for a drink by the same name. Since I left so damn early, I hadn’t eaten more than some morsels for breakfast. The kurut was damn refreshing and I had a second. Why they don’t call it ayran, like the Turks, is beyond me. Ayran in Central Asia is nothing more than rather thick, plain yogurt that you drink- unsalted kefir, really. While there, I chatted with the young son of the woman operating her stall. He knew more English than I would have expected and he told me that his teenage brother was studying in America. I gave him kudos for his English and encouraged him to follow in his footsteps.

I hadn’t shaved since Dushanbe, Tajikistan, so I was past-due for another. I really should have done it in Osh, but it was inconvenient to disrupt my R&R to do it. What I really mean is that ethnic Kygyz know nothing about facial hair, so barbershops aren’t easy to find. I suppose it seems silly to them to pay someone for a shave, given what little they have. I was still in the Uzbek majority part of Kyrgyzstan, so it was little surprise that I found one in the market.

My barber and his apprentice.

My barber and his apprentice.

I thought that I had lucked out to get the ‘old hand’ in the place, since the other two looked prepubescent. Well… I may not have bled out, but I definitely had some razor burn and missed whiskers. Nevertheless, I looked good enough that I wasn’t going to endure more razor burn to eliminate the missed stubble.

It was still raining and too early for lunch. So I found a place that was covered, dry, and spacious enough for me to drop my pack and get out my waterproof jacket and pack cover. As is with anything you do as a foreigner in small towns off the tourist path, this also was a curiosity. The men around joked with me about buying the vegetables for sale around me, hoping that I wasn’t just there to put on rain gear.

No longer restricted to covered areas, I decided a better use of my time would be to find an internet café for blogging while waiting for the rain to stop and for lunchtime- whichever came first. So, I started wandering. In doing so, I encountered a small animal market.

This woman was so proud of the chick she was selling and was determined to keep her friend in frame.

This woman was so proud of the chick she was selling and was determined to keep her friend in frame.

Here you could buy hens, roosters, chicks, eggs, duck, ducklings, rabbits, etc. for you next meal. Normally, sellers in the market are not photogenic, but there were several females rather proud to show off their offerings. Their genuine excitement to pose and smile had me bemused and thankful I had found this part of the market. Life is hard here, so it was a real treat to see local adults enjoying themselves in my presence.

An Uzbek to the left and a Kyrgyz to the right. I love this photo because it was so rare to see the two ethnicities working together. It's understandable since the residents of this town went around hacking each other to bits for 3 days in 1990.

An Uzbek to the left and a Kyrgyz to the right. I love this photo because it was so rare to see the two ethnicities working together. It’s understandable since the residents of this town went around hacking each other to bits for 3 days in 1990.

After asking several people about an internet café, I finally found someone that actually knew of one. He wasn’t convinced I would find it, so I was escorted to one off the main street, but it was closed. I barely had time to finish my long sigh when someone came around the corner with a set of keys. The owner turned out to be extremely hospitable, putting my pack in a private area so it wouldn’t be in the way and even giving me the first hour for free due to technical issues. Such generosity made me want to return it, so I paid for the two hours I was there.

By this time, the rain seemed to be ending and it was well past lunchtime. So, I scarfed down a meal and tea and finally went to find the Karakhanid architecture I had come to see. With the rain delay, I couldn’t afford to waste time wandering, so I asked a police officer for the way there.

The 11th and 12th Century mausoleum built by the Karakhanid Dynasty for their leader, Nasr ibn Ali.

The 11th and 12th Century mausoleum built by the Karakhanid Dynasty for their leader, Nasr ibn Ali.

The girl to my left was the one brave enough to ask.

The girl to my left was the one brave enough to ask.

Through charades, I figure out that he wanted me IN the shot. I thought it would be fun to play along. So, I start taking off the pack. He stops me in the act to tell me that he wants me to wear the pack as well. Ok…. Then he instructs me to pretend to take photos. I get it now! This is probably some video for the local tourism board or whatever. I finish my unpaid acting job and head off shaking my head and snickering at what a strange sequence of events that was.

I was really feeling my schedule tighten, so I jumped in a very new Mercedes A class taxi to Jalal Abad, where I could change vehicles to head up the valley to Arslanbab. Not only was this the nicest ride of the whole trip because the car had all of it’s buttons, no cracks in the windshield, ran well, etc., but it offered the most interesting vignettes of the Kyrgyz countryside. First, was the sad sight of a horse tethered to stake by one of its front hooves. Later were the two kids in the field having a mud pie fight, followed by a bird struggling to fly home with a rather large frog in its mouth. Most comical, however, was the shepherd trying to catch a cow loping to freedom down a steep, wet, grassy slope in search of freedom.

My tight ride to Jalal Abad

My tight ride to Jalal Abad

Jalal Abad brought the usual scrum of taxi drivers trying to figure out where you were going and how to win your business, but since this taxi stand was next to a minibus station, I wanted to see if there was a cheaper option. That’s where I met Bekbolot, an Uzbek about 20 years old who was oddly interested that I end up in the right place. His English was good and the questions came quickly. Where are you going? Where are you staying? Do you have a reservation? Do you have a phone? What’s the phone number? My gut told me I could trust him, otherwise, I would have told him to piss off with his intrusive questioning.

I explained that I was to meet my friend, Sjoerd, in Arslanbab at an agreed homestay, but that we didn’t have a reservation. It was off-season, so I wasn’t concerned about finding a place to stay, but Bekbolot was. He asked to see the phone number of the place we planned to stay, and dialed it. No answer. In a land where most people don’t have voicemail, you just keep calling until someone picks up. We didn’t have time for that, so he asked if I had my own phone. I explained that I did, but it was very expensive to use in Kyrgyzstan. Next thing I know, we are kiosk hopping for a SIM card to put in my phone, but no one seemed to have one to sell. It wasn’t until we found a proper cell phone store, that we accomplished something. I wasn’t surprised to find out that my phone was locked, but without a Russian around to hack it, I had to buy a $25 Nokia with two SIM slots. Two SIM slots seems completely ridiculous until you realize that the providers have very distinct territories in this mountainous landscape. So, if one provider works in one valley, it probably won’t work in the next. So, you hope that the second SIM card gets a signal there. All told, I had contributed $40 to the local economy, but more importantly, I had a functional phone for the rest of the trip AND it could be used in any country in the future.

Bekbolot and me

Bekbolot and me

Bekbolot was going the same direction as I, so he negotiated a cab faire for both of us. During the short ride, he finished setting up my phone and showing me how to use it on the trip. I was the first to get off, so it was quick goodbyes before my minibus headed up the valley to Arslanbab. When I arrived, a man, who obviously had been expecting me, approached to let me know that my friend was here but at a different homestay. He gave me typically vague instructions to find the house, although I am not sure how else he would have instructed me. None of the houses had numbers on them and most (including the one where I stayed) were painted white and walled. So, you only saw little more than roofs from the road. I didn’t know the name of the hostess, so there was no point in asking a local where so-and-so’s house was. After 20 minutes of walking uphill, I threw my hands up and walked back down to the center to find that guy again. Luckily, I did and he walked me back up the same hill to a house I had passed the first time. It had been a long day and I was really glad to drop my pack and chill for a bit.

Sjoerd cutting the meat.

Sjoerd cutting the meat.

It was also really nice to see Sjoerd! I don’t normally have such eventful days, so I was eager to swap stories. Sjoerd arrived several hours before I did and had already had a walk about the town. Now, he was helping the hostess prepare dinner by cutting the lamb that would go into our lagman. Our accommodation was quite comfortable. Sjoerd and I had a converted dining room at the end of the L-shaped, single storied house. There were chickens walking about the sizable yard, which grew vegetables. Living with the hostess were her son, her sister and her son, and her parents. I don’t know if she was divorced or widowed. All I knew is that the man that showed me where I was staying had a keen interest in her. Sjoerd had picked up on this because when he told the man where he wanted to stay, the man told him that she was preparing a wedding and unable to take guests. I had actually been able to reach her with my new cell phone, and though I couldn’t communicate with her, I wasn’t under the impression she was turning away guests. It’s good to be head of the local CBT (Community Based Tourism) office.

The two cousins.

The two cousins.

After gorging ourselves on dinner and beer, a deep slumber in the cool mountain air was in order. When I laid down I could hear every detail of the rain starting to fall outside. So, I searched for the open window only to find that the one next to my bed had a pane of glass missing and two others had large chunks of the glass broken out. These are the breaks. In a country of people scrapping together an existence, you feel for them because you suffer, if only temporarily, with them. The problem here is that I had been looking for the bathroom earlier and found the room where they sleep, which had intact window panes and a wood burning stove. I can still remember how nice that warm draft felt… That irony of the poor family staying warm and comfortable on the fat of their Western guests infuriated me. I wasn’t going to exhaust myself fuming and fall asleep.

Our homemade lagman.

Our homemade lagman.

I pointed out the problem to Sjoerd. While I didn’t expect him to confront the hostess, I did expect him to be annoyed with our exploitation. However, he seemed comfortable with the irony because he could use his sleeping bag to stay warm. I just kept repeating, “Yes, but they couldn’t afford that heat without travelers like us! The least they could do is provide us with windows that aren’t missing panes of glass!” This was more than an argument on principle. I was wearing a wool T-shirt, a microfleece top, a fleece jacket, hiking pants, two pairs of socks, and a fleece hat, but I was still cold.

I knocked on their door. When the hostess opened, I motioned for her to follow me to our room.  I then stepped on my bed, looked at her, thrust my fist through that empty pane, and pulled it back. I was quickly losing it. It must have been damn near comical for Sjoerd. First, she acted like she didn’t understand that there was a problem, which only added fuel to the fire. Then, she said the two 3 year old boys had thrown stones and broke the glass. I didn’t give a damn why they were broken. I just wanted her to get cardboard or something to put over the holes. In the end, she got some finishing nails to hang newspaper over the missing glass and brought an electric heater. Since, the newspaper was little more than a psychological barrier, I didn’t see the point in wasting energy in a lost cause. I just went to bed wearing layers.

Detail of restored and unrestored brickwork on the minaret.

Detail of restored and unrestored brickwork on the minaret.

The minaret and entrance to the site.

The minaret and entrance to the site.

Detail of restored and unrestored elements of main entrance of the mausoleum complex.

Detail of restored and unrestored elements of main entrance of the mausoleum complex.

On the ride to Arslanbab: Don't let the headscarf fool you. Muslim women want to be beautiful, just the same.On the ride to Arslanbab: Don’t let the headscarf fool you. Muslim women want to be beautiful, just the same.

Turkey encouraging pan-Turkic diplomacy.

Turkey encouraging pan-Turkic diplomacy.

Afghan War memorial: Central Asian republics disproportionately filled the ranks and suffered loses in the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Afghan War memorial: Central Asian republics disproportionately filled the ranks and suffered loses in the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Real men  have a lucky eagle's claw! Yes, it's real! I checked several times.

Real men have a lucky eagle’s claw! Yes, it’s real! I checked several times.

Gratuitous cuteness

Gratuitous cuteness

This rooster probably wasn't being taken home as an alarm clock.

This rooster probably wasn’t being taken home as an alarm clock.

DJ Razzy

May 17, 2013

The nightmare was over. I had been transported. Gone was the moonscape of the Pamirs. Gone was the freeze-dried climate of the high country. What greeted me that morning was comfortable coolness and embracing humidity. Osh was the lush polar opposite for what I had known the past week or so, and it put a smile on my face. It may be the only time in my life that humidity brought such glee.

I ordered breakfast and was quickly drawn in to the story being told by three Americans that had arrived that morning. A single male and a married couple had just completed the long journey from Kashgar. While the journey was not unique, the fact that they were turned away from the Chinese border was. As active military personnel learning Chinese in Beijing, they had planned a trip through Western China to Osh and on to the Pamir Mountains before going back to Beijing. Fully aware of the sensitive and fickle nature of the border crossings in Western China, they went out of their way to make sure that they had all of the proper paperwork and that the Torugart Pass crossing was open. Well, it wasn’t open. At least it wasn’t for them. They were told to go back after a day’s journey to get to the border and return to Kashgar and set off for the Irkeshtam crossing. Two days wasted as a result. Their experience made me remorseful for being so frustrated with my journey to Kyrgyzstan.

Even so, I couldn’t muster more than a polite hello to Max as he came into the Osh Guesthouse after his hitch from Sary Tash. Sjoerd, Takayuki, and I were headed out after a lazy morning to make the encounter more clumsy. Knowing Max’s need for space and comfort, I figured that there was little chance that he would stay in a place where there was one toilet and shower for the 10+ people staying in a 3 room flat and where shuffling past others was the norm. However, that slight chance would preoccupy my mind until I knew for sure.

After Takayuki and Sjoerd said hello, we headed out into Osh. Before we could get to the city’s major bazaar, we were drawn to the first soft serve ice cream we saw. Ahhh! The sweet comforts of the urban landscape! The only flavor you will find is vanilla, but they put some sort of crushed cocoa/chocolate sprinkling on top. So, you choices are small, medium, and large servings. For about 10 cents, I was content with a small and we carried on to the market. The only person with real purpose was Sjoerd, who needed an SD card/USB adapter so he could transfer photos to Takayuki’s computer as backup until the end of his trip. Takayuki and I were along for the trip, randomly picking at the curiosities in the market.

Crystalized honey at the bazarre. The bee trying to reclaim what's rightfully his.

Crystalized honey at the bazarre. The bee trying to reclaim what’s rightfully his.

With the purchase made, Sjoerd and I wanted some sort of assurance that there would be nomadic families at their jailoos, or summer mountain pastures, so we could book at least one night in a traditional yurt. After lunch, we found the CBT office, but the travel agent wasn’t there. We instead ended up talking to a very lovely English tutor and her student. Well… not so much the student. Come back tomorrow was the advice we got.

At that point, we had differing agendas, so we spilt. I went to get a wad of Kyrgyz som and do laundry. While it dried outside our 5th floor window, I went to an internet café and decided to offer an olive branch to Max to clear my guilty conscience. Max happened to be logged into his Facebook account at the same time and we quickly arranged a time and a place to have a beer and eliminate the assumptions about the day before by talking it out. In doing so, I learned that he had chosen to stay elsewhere so he could have his own room, which was a relief. No more awkward passings. Not long after that, the internet café, along with a large block of buildings, lost power, so it was time to go.

Sjoerd and Takayuki met back at the guesthouse so we could hike up the only hill in the city, Solomon’s Throne. In giddy moods, we decided that alcohol should be part of the trip. I opted to try this fermented millet drink, boza, which is sold on just about every corner in coolers, branded “Shoro”. Was it awesome? No. Was it fizzy, gritty, and alcoholic? Yes.

Taken from Flickr, but this is the stuff!

Taken from Flickr, but this is the stuff!

Sjoerd and Takayuki went with the safe bet of beer. It tried to rain on us several times at the top, but no matter, it was a nice view of the city and we had some good laughs sharing stories.

Takayuki and Sjoerd chatting away while I take photos.

Takayuki and Sjoerd chatting away while I take photos.

Takayuki in one of his signature animated moments.

Takayuki in one of his signature animated moments.

Down the hill after sunset, we all agreed on a place to eat and had Max join us for the meal since he needed food as well. After the meal, we moved next door to a Uighur (Turkic speaking Muslims from Western China) beer garden where Kevin joined as well. Kevin is tall, lanky master hitchhiker from Flanders, the Dutch (technically Flemish) speaking part of Belgium. While the rest of us were using the beers to cap off the evening, Kevin was just gearing up for a night out. It was Friday night and he had managed to meet a DJ that was spinning that night. He was on the guest list and he wanted a crew with him. So, Sjoerd, Takayuki, and I joined him.

None of us were dressed appropriately, but that didn’t matter. We were VIPs and guests of DJ Razzy. He came out to verify that we were guests, and we were all saved $10 the cover charge. I have been to clubs too early and felt like a dork before, so the emptiness of this immaculately decorated club didn’t bother me. It was about 11PM and we took advantage of an empty bar to throw down the first round quickly. With the second, Kevin, Takayuki, and I picked one of the several bottle service tables available and proceeded to people watch.

What we saw was a group of about 12 Kyrgyz 20-somethings out for the night. There were more guys than gals, so there was some entertaining ‘grab-and-drag’ to be had. However, watching the same group of people is only fun for so long. So, when Sjoerd came over and told me he had been talking to two dental students, I figured it was time for a change of pace. They were both Uzbek, which would explain, in part, why they made no attempt to mingle with the others that night. Anyway, they were very drunk and very excited to meet a fellow dentist. I was less excited about their drunkenness and the excessive hugging and handshakes. Most importantly, my hearing is shit in loud venues, so communicating was more of chore than it usually is for me.

I excused myself and went back to Kevin, where we compared observations of the young, priviledged Kyrgyz. When I tired of poking fun at their behavior, Kevin and I hit the floor and showed them how it was done. Normally, I would have like the cover of a large crowd, but it never materialized. So, I stop denying myself the pleasure surrendering to a good song and went for it. There weren’t too many good songs that night, but eventually we got master raver, Sjoerd, to join us. We had all big beer grins on our faces as we connected to the first familiar thing we experienced for some time, electronic music.

FINALLY, DJ Razzy, the obvious understudy was allowed to hit the decks for about three songs and it was over. Probably for the best since neither DJ was any good and Sjoerd and I were certainly exhausted. Our plank hard beds were waiting after our cab ride home.