Tag Archives: Karaköl

The sting of regret

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.

Posing with Jordan and Laura

Posing with Jordan and Laura

 

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.

Aikerim posing with her homemade brownies.

Aikerim posing with her homemade brownies.

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.

Party of Five

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.

The seven bulls of Jeti-Oghuz. Just use your imagination.

The seven bulls of Jeti-Oghuz. Just use your imagination.

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.

Salima and Sjoerd

Salima and Sjoerd

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.

Julian and Bart wait with the rest of us for permission to walk across.

Julian and Bart wait with the rest of us for permission to walk across.

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.

This bit of Americana was inviting enough for us to chose to have dinner here.

This bit of Americana was inviting enough for us to chose to have dinner here.

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.

Salima doing the heavy lifting of trying to find a place to watch the match.

Salima doing the heavy lifting of trying to find a place to watch the match.

At last! Borussia Dortmund vs Bayern Munich! Notice the yurt marking it as a Kyrgyzstani state television broadcast.

At last! Borussia Dortmund vs Bayern Munich! Notice the yurt marking it as a Kyrgyzstani state television broadcast.

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.

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.

Reunion at the Lake

May 15, 2013

Karaköl, pronounced Karakool, would not appear in the guidebooks, if it didn’t sit on a nearly lifeless, salty lake that remains frozen the entire year. But, like most folks, this oddity was intriguing and we  figured we could make a day of it.

That sums it up!

That sums it up!

How we were to get there was an issue of debate. The problem really was that Sjoerd wanted to hitchhike at all costs, meaning he would waste as much time as it took to get a ride on this lightly traveled road. Max wanted to hitchhike as well, but made crossing the Tajik and Kyrgyz frontier his priority for hitching. I wasn’t at all opposed to hitching to save money and to exchange cultures with drivers. The problem is that neither were willing to get up early enough to catch the bulk of the truck traffic as it headed towards Osh, Kyrgyzstan. By the time we finished breakfast and the like, it was past 8AM, meaning there was fat chance that we would catch traffic headed east. Sjoerd reluctantly agreed to pay for another shared taxi, so we headed to the market to get our ride. There we bumped into an old friend from Uzbekistan, Takayuki. We had all tried to catch up with him via email, since he was going our way to share in the cost of the taxi, but had failed… until today!

His east Asian looks and kind demeanor succeeded where we had failed. He got the price we wanted with a 4X4 headed to Karaköl, and we were off. The driver was more of a tour guide than a taxi driver, stopping at a Russian military outpost from the late 19th century and telling us what he knew about it, then pointing out the Chinese border and then other photogenic opportunities for our ready cameras. Smugly satisfied with the price we paid and the kindness of the driver, we arrived in Karaköl in good spirits.

The Russian military outpost from the 18th century

The Russian military outpost from the late 19th century

As we pulled up, we introduced ourselves to a Russian couple that was sitting by the road waiting for a ride. They were hitchhiking and not interested in paying our kind driver for a lift to Murghab. As we talked to them more, I became rather disgusted with their imperialist attitude towards the locals. The male had very expensive camera equipment and couldn’t help but brag about how they were ‘paid’ to hitchhike one leg of their trip. A truck driver felt bad enough for their  ‘situation’ that he gave them money when they got out. These people are poor, and to shamelessly leverage their hospitality and generosity by feigning destitution was infuriating. It would be as if I traveled Iraq or Afghanistan and tried to do the same. Such arrogance! I was all to glad to see them go as they were able to get a ride, though I then felt sorry for the driver that stopped, knowing that they weren’t going to offer anything in return for his kindness.

Blankets, rugs, and sleeping bags getting aired out.

Blankets, rugs, and sleeping bags getting aired out.

Takayuki with tersken bush stored on someone's roof behind.

Takayuki with tersken bush stored on someone’s roof.

Once our accommodation had been settled, we all went out to explore the lake. Max was determined to rent a donkey, and the rest of us went for a walk with our cameras. Unlike the formalized, walled shrines of the Wakhan Valley, the Kyrgyz part of Tajikistan will have an established fire site for sacrifice and the Marco Polo sheep horns are left behind. Nevertheless, they provided an hour or so of photographic entertainment.

Along the frozen shore of Lake Karaköl.

Along the frozen shore of Lake Karaköl.

The horns of Marco Polo sheep just beyond the village.

The horns of Marco Polo sheep just beyond the village.

The bottom line is that we were bored. The village offered little to do other than walk the shore. It made me realize that these people are poor because of a complete lack of opportunity. Unless your family takes in travelers, has some sheep or goats, or is fortunate enough to have a vehicle for hire there was little else to do to make money here. The one bright spot was that most people in the town use compressed dung for heating and cooking rather than the quickly disappearing tersken bush.

In the end, Max took a nap on the sunny shore with nothing but an oval portal for face peering out of his cinched hoodie, got a sunburn, and manage to take a guided donkey ride around the village for small fee. The three of us, myself, Taka, and Sjoerd, decided we would split the cost for a transportation to go for a quick hike up a peak because nothing accessible was within walking distance. The trip was just the antidote for the boredom with some exercise, nice views of the lake, and a chance to get close to a herd of yaks on the way back.

Myself, Sjoerd, and Takayuki at the top.

Myself, Sjoerd, and Takayuki at the top with Lake Karaköl behind.

Dinner was slow coming, but well worth the wait. The local dumpling, manti, was somehow rolled into a large plate sized wreath. I thought that I took a photo of it, but gorging myself obviously was more important at the time. For once, we had enough heat in the Pamirs, and it was a comfortable nights rest.

And yes... that's a functioning water well.

And yes… that’s a functioning water well.