The Middle Country
Somewhere, some time ago, a group of educated types got together and split the known world into regions. Then another group did the same, and another, and so on. What we are now left with is the current state of affairs. An example is the divide between Western and Eastern Europe, a result of the Cold War Era. The odd thing is whether Central Europe in fact exists as a region. The question is still under debate. Some claim that a shared history defines its borders, while others choose to ignore this assertion, and instead divide it into East and West. The same can't be said about Central Asia. It's a very tangible place, a crossroads between Russia, Iran, China and India. You could even call it the heart of Asia, and at its center is Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan was traditionally a land of nomadic tribes, and according to local tradition, there were forty of them. The country's flag represents this number by showing 40 points on a golden sun against a red background. Inside the sun are 6 lines within a circle. This shape symbolizes the crown found in the roof of every yurt, the traditional home of the Kyrgyz people. For millennia they lived off the land, raising livestock, hunting animals, harvesting herbs and so forth. But unlike the Mongols to the east, they never had a great Khan who united them and built an empire. Instead there lived Manas, a lesser leader who did battle against the Mongols and eventually settled in his ancestral lands. In the time that followed, history was not kind to the Kyrgyz people. They became dominated by one group or another, until finally their lands came under the control of Tsarist Russia and later the Soviet Union.
The legacy of Russification is strongly felt in Central Asia and because Kyrgyzstan was my point of arrival in the region, I took immediate notice of certain things. The words on signs, for example, were not in the Roman alphabet but Cyrillic. I already had some grasp of the characters because I'd studied them beforehand, but being able to pronounce written words did not mean I understood them. From Manas Airport I rode into the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek by bus. Built on flat land, it had a grid layout with tree lined streets and blocky buildings. Public squares with fountains and statues gave the city a bit of character. For the most part though, this could not make up for the bland architecture remaining from Soviet times. Naturally, my eyes focused more on the people. They were a mix of Asian faces and fair-skinned Russians. What I didn't see was anyone that looked like myself. I'd later realize that because not many Hispanics venture to this part of the world, the locals took me for an Indian or Pakistani. I even bumped into several people who greeted me the Muslim way saying, "Assalam alaikum." I responded with the appropriate "Walaikum assalam," and in one case a guy asked if I was Afghani. I said, "no," and that I was in fact American. He muttered something in Kyrgyz, chuckled and walked away shaking his head.
There is not much sightseeing to do in Bishkek. After a short time most tourists leave the city for other destinations. I was an exception. I kept coming back between side trips and spent a total of 10 days at a hostel behind the Eastern Bus Station. I chose the place because it was cheap--more so if I set up a tent in the garden. It also gave me the opportunity to network with other backpackers. The majority were from Europe. They changed by the day, some easier to talk to than others. For example, I met a French couple who were later joined by a third friend. We chatted after I'd come back from the bar loaded up on cheap vodka. I met the guy Gutierre again a few days later and did not even recognize him. As it turned out we would cross paths elsewhere in the country. There was also a pair of Israeli guys. The two were determined to travel across Asia, spending as little money as possible. It meant hitchhiking, a lot of camping, cooking on their own, and avoiding costly places. Like many Israeli travelers they liked to talk about how thrifty they could be if necessary.
Getting to spend a lot of time in the capital made me appreciate the simplicity of Bishkek. Cheap food and markets were plentiful. As were the basic services such as public transport. The main way to move from A to B was on a microbus called a marshrutka. For about 30 cents it was possible to go across the entire city, and the drivers stopped to pick up passengers in almost any place along the way. From the main stations they also operated between cities, and at reasonable fares. The marshrutkas were modern, well maintained Mercedes or Volkswagon buses. I observed that if any old woman came in, someone immediately vacated their seat to allow the person to sit. The only downside was how these small microbuses quickly became crowded. This was a nightmare when I got on one with my traveling pack. I had to squeeze between everyone. If I was lucky I'd find a place to set the bag on the ground. If not, I'd have to keep it on for the entire ride.
A few hours away from Bishkek in the north-east corner of the country is Lake Issyk-Kul. It's large and of a deep blue color--the closest thing Kyrgyzstan has to an ocean. Calvin and I first visited a resort town on the north side called Cholpon Ata. Full of restaurants and accommodation, the area was a hotspot for vacationers from the capital and others from Kazakhstan or Russia. They lounged on the beach most the day occasionally braving the cold water for a dip. I too had a swim but did not enjoy it as much as I might have. To me the lake felt ice cold, and the deeper I went the more the temperature dropped. On the food front we found a decent restaurant and returned several times because the staff spoke English. It was there we discovered boso lagman, a dish that became a favorite of ours. The plate consisted of fried flat noodles with meat, vegetables and a spicy seasoning. Calvin thought the food was Chinese-like, but I found it to have a different essence, something very much Central Asian.
For our second day in Cholpon Ata, Calvin and I checked out some petroglyphs that had been left behind by the ancient Kyrgyz people. The glyphs showed how they had been obsessed with goats, because over half the images on the rocks were made up of the animals. Most had faded over the years, so they were quite difficult to identify , even when a sign directly in front said what was there. We wandered further into the field of rocks until we came out the other side. I spotted a nice valley that fed into the mountains and decided to take a closer look. It proved to be further than I'd thought, and by luck a woman gave us a ride up the dirt road in. We stopped at a kind of resort compound nestled between surrounding mountains. I was prepared to thank the woman for the lift and move on, but she invited us to a nearby yurt. Rather it was a yurt within a yurt, and the inside had been decorated with expensive wood furniture and animal skins of every kind. I saw the furs of foxes, sheep, bears, snow leopards and deer.
Because this was our first experience in a Kyrgyz yurt we didn't know what to expect. There were several people seated around a low table. One man insisted we eat the food laid out. I smiled and shoveled strange meats into my mouth. Then he poured a bowl of fermented horse milk. I downed the awful brew and the man indicated that I should have more. I tried to refuse politely but the language barrier between us made it hard to convey my thoughts. That put us in a rather awkward situation until Calvin realized some of the guests spoke Chinese. At that point we learned the compound belonged to a local woman who owned the town's bazaar. She also bred horses and sold them in Europe. I'd already guessed they were rich, but now I was thinking they might be the wealthiest family in Cholpon Ata. After some chatting and a few shots of vodka, the family permitted us to hike up a pasture within their property. So Calvin and I spent the rest of the afternoon working our way through grassy terrain, passing by horses and cows along the way. The walk was a splendid way to end our last day in the area.
Our time in Cholpon Ata served as a prelude to our real objective, a three-day loop to a high altitude lake in the Tian Shan Mountains. We had to first reach Karakol on the far side of Lake Issyk-Kul. The town was the starting point of many treks, and at the hostel we checked into, we were pleased to meet Gutierre and his friends. They had a similar plan in mind, but intended to take horses most of the way. Before starting the trek we took time to explore Karakol. A local site worth checking out was an old church built in the Orthodox Catholic style typical of Russia. A mosque also remained from before the Soviet Era, a rarity in Kyrgyzstan because the Soviets had been hell bent on destroying them all. Moreover, we went to the local tourist information center and gathered information for the trek ahead. The volunteer there spoke good English and explained well the path we would need to take into the mountains. As assured as she seemed, we would later realize she made it sound much easier than the actual climb was.
The morning of our trek came on a Sunday. That was the one day they had an animal market in town, so we visited there first. The market was not like a pet shop, but rather an outdoor bazaar divided into sections with different types of livestock--sheep, cows, goats and horses. The wind whipped up dust while locals shouted out prices and haggled. We did not dawdle. So we soon left to buy food to take with us and then caught a taxi to the start of our trek's trail head. For about two hours the path wound through a valley bottom along a river. It seemed almost too easy, and then we crossed a bridge and it was all uphill. With our gear on our backs, the climb was strenuous, but fortunately we reached the first camp site before too long. A few other tourists joined in for the night and we built a camp fire with fallen branches. I did most the work lighting it. The key was to use the driest wood first to get the coals hot. After that just about anything burned. Calvin and I had also brought food to eat. We didn't have a portable stove and had decided to go with sandwiches stuffed with salami meat, cheese and tomato. One by one people returned to their tents to sleep. I was the last one out. As the sky darkened to a pitch black, I fed the fire, waiting for the stars to shine bright above the mountainous horizon. But before I could take any good photos, the moon came up. Its heavy glow foiled my hopes.
The second day of the hike kicked off with a sharp climb up a narrow path. The trail ran over rocks and through scree en route to Ala-Kul Lake. When we arrived, the glacier fed pool of turquoise proved to be as incredible as we'd hoped. I drank from its cold water, and at once felt invigorated, same as Popeye after he throws back a can of spinach. I definitely needed the boost. From the lake we hiked up to a 3800m pass and then made a difficult downhill descent to a small village called Altyn Arashan. I was very relieved to finally remove my heavy pack and set up camp. A few guesthouses and yurts aside, Altyn Arashan had bath houses. For over an hour, Calvin and I soaked, letting the hot spring water work the tension from our sore bodies. I knew the feeling well having lived before in Japan. Hot springs and bath houses are a very large part of the culture in the island archipelago. So I knew the best part of using them comes afterwards. A flush of lightness overtakes the body. But since we were soon hiking again the positive effects of the bath wore off rather quickly. We also ran short of water. Calvin had dropped his bottle somewhere on the trail and the streams were unsafe to drink from. What water I had left didn't last long between the two of us, and when we made it to a town, we were both dying of thirst. Eventually, we found a place selling ice cold bottles of Coca Cola. It's strange. I was never much of a fan of coke, but on the road, I often crave its familiar, sugary taste. The bottle we had at the end of our hike truly hit the spot.
|Inside a Yurt|
|Ala Kul Lake|
|High Growing Flower|
|Calvin Treks Onward|
The largest bazaar in Central Asia is the Dordoi Bazar in Bishkek. Shortly after I arrived in the city, I went with Calvin and saw the large warehouse buildings, and within them, cargo containers stacked two high. The containers on the floor were shops, and those above served as a place for additional storage. We wanted to get a tent, but because the bazar was so huge we had no idea where to look. Eventually one of the local vendors guided us to the right place. The shops had a small selection of tents, and they were Chinese made--cheap in price and quality. We decided on an army camouflaged 3 person dome tent. The man who worked the shop said it was waterproof. And we believed him. That was a mistake. The first night we encountered rain, the thin fabric did little to keep it out, and water welled up on the sides of the tent floor. Luckily, that same water seeped through to the ground and did not collect in the center. But from the apex of the dome was another leak. We fixed it by covering the outside with a plastic bag.
At any rate, we made good use of our tents. Since we each had one, we alternated, setting one up one night, then the other the next. Our expectation was that we would save money by avoiding hostels, and moreover, have the freedom to camp out wherever and whenever we wanted. We proved to be correct on both accounts. During our travels in Central Asia we slept in the tents at least 20 times. We'd also bought sleeping bags and floor mats. These of course made the camping more comfortable. But the sleeping bags were cheap ones too, and they didn't help enough during the cold nights we spent in the mountains. I often had to wear all the clothes I had while inside the bag, and even then, I was still shivering until morning. On the upside, we could use the sleeping bags when not camping. For example, they sometimes served as a second blanket, or if there was no bed, we could sleep on the floor on top of our mats. At any rate, both Calvin and I kept our camping gear after we left Central Asia to get further use out of it.
I have to admit, as much as we did it, I never tired of camping. The exception was when the weather dumped rain on us. It happened maybe four or five nights. So for the most part we had good times in the tent, nice and snug in our sleeping bags. Now that I think about it, I hadn't done much camping before the trip. Perhaps nine times in the last five years. I'd forgotten how fun camping could be. Well, I suppose it depends on the camping area, and in that regard Calvin and I found the best spots, whether in mountain valleys, along lakes, and inside gardens. I always faced the tent towards the water if any was nearby, because in the morning, when unzipping the entrance and peeking out, it was a wonderful feeling to see the warm colors of the sky reflecting on the surface. It certainly beat waking up to an alarm clock in a dark room, then forcing myself to the shower. That had been my life in Japan.
The people of Central Asia have a long and storied relationship with the horse. The region was where humans likely domesticated the animal (or maybe Siberia), and they depended on it for transport, food and more. For example, Kyrgyz people often drink kumis, fermented horse milk that I can best describe as tasting like unsweetened yogurt watered down with vinegar. I never liked it. Horse meat I also don't care for. The dish is typical Kyrgyz fare though not as common as beef or mutton. As for transport, many locals still live the nomadic lifestyle, moving their yurts in the summer to the high pastures where their horses and other livestock can graze. Even outside the mountains the men in towns have excellent horsemanship skills. Calvin and I went to see them ride at a horse festival in Kyzyl Oi. The event was organized by a local tourist organization so it wasn't entirely authentic but still a joy to watch.
The horse festivities kicked off with a demonstration of traditional Kyrgyz music. A man played a stringed instrument, a woman sang, and the locals danced. Some foreigners joined in but I stayed on the periphery to take photos. Then we had lunch, a type of soup with beef. The meal preceded the main attraction. Afterwards everyone relocated to an open field at the edge of town. About 20 riders lined up before an audience of 100. The first event was wrestling. Pairs of men squared off and grappled until one was thrown to the ground. At one point they asked for a volunteer. I stepped forward. To wrestle I first needed to remove my shirt. Next, a guy tied a sash around my waist. The objective of the match was to outmaneuver each other while holding on only to the opponent's sash. I was thinking with my high school wrestling experience I might have a chance, but my Kyrgyz opponent tripped my leg and flattened me against the ground. The match lasted maybe 5 seconds. My ears ringing, I rose to my feet and brushed the dirt and grass from my body. It was the best of three so we locked up again. This time I held my hips back to avoid being tripped. We tussled without anything happening for a while until I moved in for a throw. He moved quicker, tossed me onto my back, and like that I'd lost twice. Perhaps the event organizers felt bad for me. In the end they gave me 300 som (about 5 dollars) as a consolation prize.
The rest of the festival took place on horseback. The second event had two competitors trying to pull each other off mounts. For the third, guys raced across the field in an attempt to chase down a female rider, a symbolic recreation of Kyrgyzstan's bride-napping tradition. The announcer said that a successful rider could kiss the woman afterwards. But all the men failed. After looking closely at the female riders, I suspected they did so intentionally. The women were not attractive. Anyhow, at the end of the festival came the big show we'd all arrived in Kyzyl Oi to see. The name was Ulak Tartysh, a type or sport where players use a headless goat in place of a ball. They fight for possession of the dead animal and score points by throwing it into a hole. It's a grueling, bloody affair, somewhat akin to rugby on horseback and to participate the players needed exceptional riding skills. Their horses too were well trained or they would not do as directed. With the midday sun searing overhead, the game went on for over an hour. After it finished the tourists returned to their guesthouses for dinner. Then the real fun began. We all gathered by the valley's river for a nighttime bonfire party. Drink, dance and general drunkenness followed. There was only one downside to this. It had become a bit chilly and I wore my hoodie. But dancing made me hot so I took it off and placed it on a chair. When I went back for it later the hoodie was gone. I think someone stole it. In my book that's low. I mean stealing in general is a terrible thing, but why my hoodie? Not cool.
|Looking to Drive|
|Tug of War|
Here is the thing about mountains. They are nice to look at but a pain to travel through. This became an annoyance in Kyrgyzstan. 90% of the country was covered in them, and getting from the capital to the south via a long, curvy highway took over 10 hours. First Calvin and I stopped in Arslanbob. This town featured waterfalls and walnut groves. It was also very Uzbek in culture. The ethnic diversity of modern day Kyrgyzstan goes back to the Stalin years. The Soviet despot carved Central Asia into five republics, and placed the borders between large communities of the same ethnic people which resulted in republics that had groups of all types, making it difficult for any one to unite and oppose the central authority in Moscow. It worked. And today there remain big pockets of Kazakhs living in northern Kyrgyzstan, and in the southwest it is predominately Uzbeks.
In Arslanbob we stayed at a guesthouse with a host named Nazgul. As any Lord of the Rings fan would know, the Nazgul were the hooded servants of Sauron who sought the one ring. I thought it strange that an Uzbek woman could share the same name. In any event, Nazgul was very friendly, a good cook, and she spoke passable English. As for sightseeing, the waterfalls were not so impressive, but that didn't stop large crowds of Kyrgyz people from arriving. The people in Arslanbob had also set up a multitude of stands to sell food and peddle their wares to the local tourists. I tried a kind of twist soft candy that looked like a giant peppermint stick. I'd meant to buy only one but they gave me a bag of five. Another sweet I ate was a flat sheet of pressed apricot. Calvin didn't like it, but I thought it tasted a lot like fruit roll up, and as a child I was addicted to those things. Next, it was on to the walnut grove. Apparently, Arslanbob has the world's largest. The nuts appear on the branches in September so we didn't see any, but it was a nice hike through a wooded mountainside that overlooked the small town. From Arslanbob we went further south to the city of Osh. The road was good the entire way and from what I'd heard they'd only finished paving it the year before. Osh too was ethnically more Uzbek than Kyrgyz, but otherwise it didn't feel that different from Bishkek. It had a grid lay out, tree lined avenues, the same smattering of shops and restaurants, and like everywhere else in Central Asia, some drab Soviet era apartment buildings.
Suleiman-Too, a large five peak hill at its center. The Prophet
Mohammed supposedly visited at some point, making it a place of
religious importance. We went up and discovered a flat rock with a
smooth surface. According to the guidebook, sliding down it
alleviated joint pain. I didn't have any such problem but still gave it a
go. I made a wish too. It seemed like the thing to do, but the wish never came true. Next, on the lower side of the hill, we went to a
cave museum. The large subterranean network provided shelter dating
back to neolithic times, and thanks to its natural insulation, was
quite cool inside--perhaps too cold. Most the visitors walked through
the chambers with their arms folded in tight. By comparison, the
temperature outside was a hot 35C. From the exit we saw a mosque
below. A group of older women (babushkas as we referred to
them in Russian) sat near the gate chatting in the shade. Somehow we
ended up taking photos together and before we left, one gave me a
parting gift. It was large piece of fry bread that I had absolutely
no desire to eat. For appearances sake I accepted the food, and then
once out of sight, tossed it like a frisbee into a bush.
|Inside a Car|
The couple that ran our guesthouse in Osh was hearing impaired. Amazingly, the wife had still learned good English. She later told me she'd started studying it before she went deaf in her teens. Her husband though could only communicate through sign language--and when with us--he used child-like sounds and simple gestures. He was also one hell of a snorer. Of course it didn't matter to his wife. She couldn't hear a truck horn at 10 yards. To be sure, I once tried getting her attention by shouting from behind. It didn't work. She had to be looking at us to have any kind of conversation. And since her English lipreading abilities were limited she preferred that we write on a notepad. We didn't have too many exchanges really. Most the time Calvin and I were out seeing places. For our last day we took a marshrutka south to Currchurk Pass. This was a place of green, treeless valleys that wound into rows and rows of mountains. We meandered past farm animals and yurts. Grasshoppers scattered at our feet. Not another hiker was in sight. On our way back we came across a group of people enjoying a late lunch along a river. The man of the group waved us over. His wife offered us food--tomato stew with potatoes and some kind of meat. Then I had a shot of vodka with the man. He was quite aggressive, even for a drunken Kyrgyz. When he shook my hand he squeezed tight, crushing my palm, and I had to wrestle it free. Then he got in my face, insisting I take photos of everyone and everything, including his pet dog. I'd dealt with men like him before and knew it best to escape. But we were waiting for some of the others in the group who had a car. They said they would soon leave for Osh. It took longer than expected though.
|Sliding on a Rock|
|Posing with the Statue|
|Aggressive Drunk Guy|
For every terrible thing America has done within its sphere of global influence, the Soviets were worse. Going to Kyrgyzstan has made that clear. A predominantly Muslim people, they fell victim to religious oppression during the Stalin years. The Soviets killed or locked up Islamic leaders, burned mosques, and then scoffed at the Kyrgyz' peoples' prohibition against alcohol and pork. And the Soviets didn't stop there. They systematically destroyed other facets of the local way of life by forcing the people to work in heavy industry and textile manufacturing. Collectivization of agriculture also made it difficult for the Kyrgyz people to continue their nomadic movements. Stalin also displaced large populations of people, forcing Chechens, Azerbaijanis, East Germans and other groups to relocate to Central Asia, many of them dying along the way as they were moved in overcrowded cattle trucks. In the meantime, settlers from Russia arrived in large numbers to become the ethnic majority in urban areas, and Russian took the place of Kyrgyz as the language of learning, business and government.
Then again, the Soviet times were not entirely bad. The shift to European governance helped increase education and social development, while infrastructure also improved. For example, the Soviets built paved roads and set up electricity grids. Government subsidies kept food prices down and everyone had work. Women also took on a larger role in their communities, gaining many rights they'd not had before. But when the USSR collapsed, Kyrgyzstan entered a period of prolonged economic stagnation. Those in control had no choice but to sell off the country's resources to generate some type of income, the Kumtor Mine included. It's still the world's second largest gold mine in terms of output, and the same Canadian company owns it. Another problem with the aftermath of Soviet communism, was the ecological impact its policies created. Moscow mined and refined uranium across the empire, and certain areas in Kyrgyzstan still have high levels of radiation. The Soviets also destroyed the biodiversity of Lake Issyk-Kul by introducing foreign fish, and to this day, it still has not recovered.
What I found interesting was that in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan the people looked back at the Soviet era with fondness. In their eyes everything was simpler back then, and they'd been proud to be a part of a great superpower, one they did not choose to become independent from. The collapse of the USSR happened in 1991 without warning, and the leading political figure in each Central Asian Socialist Republic suddenly became president of a new country. The first thing they did was meet in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and agree to keep the borders of each country the same, the way Stalin had drawn them on the map decades before. And don't get me started on Stalin. In my opinion, he'd been hands down the worst person to ever live. But all the evil he was responsible for has now become a lesson for the history books. Few people are still alive who experienced his oppressive policies, and in the decades following his death, communism fared rather well in Central Asia. What made it seem even better was the period of extreme difficulty that came after. Had the transition to the market economy been smoother, the people in Kyrgyzstan would likely have a more anti-Soviet outlook today.
Holiday in a Holiday
|Union of Socialist Soviet Republics Flag|
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Traveling is hard work. A person needs a break from time to time. Stopping for a while also provides an opportunity to get to know a place better. This is one of the reasons I like to volunteer. It helps cut down on expenses too, since accommodation and food are often provided in exchange for a person's services. In the past I'd used this one site, workaway.org, to find volunteer positions in Southeast Asia, but in Central Asia the choices were few. So I went to the tourism office in Bishkek and inquired there. They told me about the town of Bokonbaevo where I could teach English to the local guides. Not wanting to limit my options, I later visited the tourism office in Osh. The guy there said I could volunteer at a public school. It was the same one he had attended when younger, and he really sold me on the idea. "Ok," I told him. "I'll go for three weeks." That was all the time I had left in the region. I'd also spend it alone. Calvin and I had traveled together for over two months, but we now had separate plans and parted ways. Though I hate to admit it, all good things must come to an end.
The place I went to was Gulcha, a town of 30,000 on the Pamir Highway. I'd passed Gulcha before on my way from Osh to Tajikistan, but couldn't recall seeing it. That didn't matter now. I had a job to do. The guy at the Osh office, Talant, arranged for me to stay with his parents the first night. They were very kind. But no one spoke English. I needed to use what Russian I had acquired over the past nine weeks, which regrettably, was very little. The following day the language situation became worse. I went to the school and met with the director. He spoke to me in Russian, and this was not a simple exchange regarding my background and interests. The man was explaining what I would do, and something about a letter I needed. I knew this because I'd called Talant and had him interpret. Later I met with the school's teachers. Again they knew no English, save for two of them who taught English to the students. In spite of this, they were limited in what they said and understood. It was all so overwhelming. I was trapped in a world of Russian speakers.
The situation soon improved. Once I got into the classroom and started teaching, I slipped back into my instructor role. The kids were very low level, similar to the elementary school students I'd once had in Japan. So I had experience with the type of instruction required. My one quip was the lack of materials. The students had some textbook written up by Russian linguists. One look was enough for me to rule out the possibility of using it. The content was terrible. It revolved around the rote memorization approach. Language is not about that. Learners should practice, experiment, and express their ideas in creative ways--if they ever hope to improve. So I started playing games. I did what I could to engage their little brains, and frame the lesson within a tangible context, one where they asked questions to learn more about me. For example, "Do you have a _____?" and "What _______ do you like?"
|Farm in the Hills|
|Students in Class|
The school had students of all grades. The older ones couldn't speak that much more English than the young. But they did take an immediate liking to my class. They even wanted me to teach them after school. When I showed up at 2pm they decided instead to take me on an excursion. Off we went through town, speaking a mix of English, Russian and Kyrgyz. We saw the local museum and sports stadium. We stopped in a park where an old WWII tank sat on display and had ice cream. For this first excursion the students were all girls. They were so intent on being good hosts, informing me of every detail they knew, almost none of which I understood. But the effort charmed me, as well as their innate cuteness. At the same time I was learning some Russian by having to communicate with them. For example, we needed to cross a wooden bridge that spanned the Gulcha River. Some of the boards had wide gaps between them, and the girls told me to be careful about my footing. "Astarojna," they said, again and again. The word stuck.
Another excursion was with the 9th grade boys. They took me south of town where the Gulcha River narrowed to create swirling pools of water. We went for a swim. It was freezing cold so I quickly got out, opting to watch the boys splash around from the warm rocks. Later I had a third excursion with the 5th graders. This time it was both boys and girls, and we had a picnic at the park across the road from the school. Everyone brought snacks to share. There was bread and jam, fruits, cookies, bottled soda and too many other sweets to describe. After eating we played a game of soccer. As is always the case when 30 kids chase after a soccer ball, one of them eventually took a blow to the face. The girl was quite angry and teary-eyed, accusing the assailant of doing it on purpose. It had of course been an accident. "There, there," I said, putting an arm around her shoulder. My words of comfort did the trick. Not 5 minutes later she was laughing and skipping rope with some other girls who'd also tired of kicking the ball around.
|On an Excursion|
|Cup of Tea|
During my time in Gulcha I stayed at the home of a teacher. Nurjamal was her name, and she taught Russian. This was good for me, because she understood that speaking slowly and clearly made it easier to follow her words. And yet my brain still failed to process much. Russian is a very complex language for native English speakers. I've written about this difficulty before. So trying to speak the language regularly didn't help me get much better. Anyhow, Nurjamal had five children. Her two eldest daughters were off in Russia working somewhere. The next two eldest were also girls, still students in town. And last was Namazbek, an eight year old boy. In Arabic, "namaz" is the word for "prayer," so his name meant something like, "he who prays." He was a well-behaved, adorable kid, and everyday he'd come into my room to see what I was doing on my computer. More often than not, I was writing about my travels. Since that wasn't interesting for him I put on episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender. And there we sat watching in silence. We spent so much time doing this that Nurjamal asked if he was a nuisance with his constant presence. "Problema nyet," I told her. No Problem. Having him around was a comfort in my mind.
From what I saw in Kyrgyzstan, families ate four meals a day. So they had that odd distinction between dinner and supper, where dinner is a light meal in the early evening, and supper is the large one that comes later. Or maybe it's the reverse. At any rate Kyrgyz people ate a heavy meal late in the evening. Nurjamal cooked typical dishes, a lot of tomato, potato and mutton. Some things I couldn't eat. For example, I found unsavory chunks of sheep intestine in my soup. Liver too was a big "no thank you" for me. Namazbek didn't like it either--bless his heart. As for the lighter dinner meal, it was usually tea, bread and maybe some fried eggs. And when there wasn't any meal to eat, I could go off and do my own thing. I spent most my afternoons at the local Helvetas office, an NGO conducting programs in the area. I went to use their free wifi. It was there I met Rut, a Swiss intern who was helping locals improve the nutritional value of their hay yields. They needed the stuff to feed to their animals is the winter months, and she wanted them to cut it earlier in the year when the plant matter had more fiber. This would ensure the animals lose less weight before spring. But the Kyrgyz people were stubborn to change their ways.
At the NGO office, the local staff convinced me to teach them English. So I had my classes at the school in the morning and another at 6pm when the Helvetas crew finished work. It was all going well, like I was contributing in a worthwhile way, helping the people in town. Then abruptly I had to leave. Talant at the Osh tourism office discovered I couldn't work at a government building without a work visa. It made no difference that I was only volunteering. I might be a spy. The call came around 11am, and a few hours later I was packing my bag to go the next morning. I said my goodbyes to Nurjamal and her family. To describe how I felt I looked up the Russian word for "sad.". So strange I didn't already know so common an adjective. I guess I'd never needed to use it before. Things in Kyrgyzstan had been that good. Now I didn't know what I'd do next. But before I departed I printed some photos I'd taken of everyone. I also wrote a letter to Nurjamal. I had Talant translate it for me. In it I said I was sorry for not knowing more Russian and Kyrgyz, and I wished her family the best.
The logical thing to do next was head to Bokonbaevo. They'd already said they could use a volunteer. So back to Bishkek I went, then took another bus to the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul. Bokonbaevo, like Gulcha, was a place I'd passed through but not stopped at. At the time I hadn't thought the town had anything interesting to offer. Oh how mistaken I'd been, because had my travels not brought me back, I'd've missed out on the best part of my Central Asia adventures. At the bus station, one of the guides came and introduced me to Mir, the big guy in charge. Mir told me I could teach English to the local staff, but had a vague ideal of the particulars. He also wanted me to teach kids at a nearby school. I was against the latte, you know, after what happened in Gulcha. Another thing, two German volunteers were also in town, a young couple from Berlin. For whatever the reason, I struck upon an idea. With the help of the Germans I'd build a webpage for Bokonbaevo. Here was the one hitch--I'd never made one before.
I now realize the difficult part of putting together a webpage is not the formatting or layout. The days of needing to know HTML source code are over. Host sites already have readymade templates, so the real work is having to organize the content. Unfortunately, the Bokonbaevo office had few descriptions of their activities, and worse, the photos in their computer were of a poor quality. Perhaps the gods had intervened bringing me to town, for with my passion for photography and travel writing, I happened to possess "a particular set of skills" that would get them their content. To have an idea of where to begin I checked the other local tourism offices' webpages. Only there were none. Kyrgyzstan had just one site for their Community Based Tourism network, and the information listed for each individual office was scant. It now dawned on me. My ambition of making a webpage was not merely a task to bring in more tourists to the area. It was groundbreaking.
To start with the photos the guides took me around to the places of interest. First we traveled to the Salt Lake about an hour west. Small and blue with no rivers feeding into it, the lake had high levels of salinity and nothing living in it other than brine shrimp. The surface was surprisingly easy to float on, but considering how late it was in the year, the temperature was very cold. The Germans were unfazed and I took photos of them in the water as well as the surrounding landscape. Next we went to the Bel Tam Seaside Yurt Camp, the most popular destination in the area for tourists. As the name suggested it was a yurt camp near the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. I photographed the yurts, inside and out, then had the opportunity to see an eagle hunter. He climbed with his bird to a nearby hill. Another man pulled a rabbit from a bowling ball bag and dropped it in a dirt clearing. Too confused to hop away, the rabbit didn't even see the eagle coming. Not that it would have mattered. The eagle soon had the animal trapped in its talons. Since the bird pecked into the back first, the rabbit didn't die quickly. To its last breath it made horrific screaming noises I hadn't known the little animals were capable of making. I later commented to a local guide how unsettling the demonstration had been. "Eagles eat rabbits," he said, "that's life."
The pictures I took of the golden eagle attacking the rabbit did not come out well. So the tourism office called another hunter and arranged a second demonstration. The man, Ruslan, arrived with a pair of eagles in his car, then drove me to a scenic canyon area, the birds squawking in the back the entire time. The first eagle was given a fox skin as quarry, no different than how the birds were trained. Someone else dragged it with a rope and the large bird trapped it with ease. The second time a rabbit became the quarry. The poor, soon-to-die critter, I thought. I also felt enormous pressure to get solid photos of the hunt. I mean, the set up had been for me alone, for that purpose. But photographing the eagle in flight was not easy. The action happened so fast, and I fired off the shutter, not really knowing if I got anything good. Looking at my camera's LCD monitor, I ended up with two serviceable pictures. Afterwards I talked with Ruslan. He was one of 10 eagle hunters left in the country, and his uncle had taught him the art of training the birds. They went out every autumn to hunt foxes. I wondered if Ruslan, him being a hunter and all, was also popular with the ladies. I didn't ask. Instead I posed with one of the eagles. I had to wear a glove that swallowed my right forearm whole, and on it perched the 5kg bird, large and mighty.
One more big duty awaited me for gathering content. I accompanied an Austrian tourist, Mari, on a horse trek. A driver took us outside town to a wide valley, and our guide rented two horses from a farm at the base of some quiet, rolling hills. Up we then went, the guide and Mari on the horses, while I trailed behind taking photos. It being late September, the colors of many leaves had shifted to shades of orange and yellow. The weather was not favorable though. Heavy clouds threatened rain, and the grey colors robbed the landscape of its luster. When we made it to the top, a ridge offered views of the lake on one side and the snow capped Ala-Too Range the opposite way. About this time the clouds broke. I snapped loads of photos of Mari for the webpage. She was pretty in a carefree way and photogenic as well, but her horsemanship skills were lacking. The guide on the other hand had ridden since the age of 5 and looked as comfortable on a horse as a fat man at a buffet-style restaurant. On the way down he let me have his steed. It was a majestic experience, and I knew afterwards, if there's one thing all visitors must do in Kyrgyzstan, it's ride a horse through a tranquil, natural setting as nomads have done for millennia.
The final task for me was to organize the content I had. This should have been very straightforward but I'd been dealing with slow Internet in Bokonbaevo from the onset. Very slow. The images didn't load half the time because of a system error, and trying to edit them on the site was even more troublesome. The stress of failing to get much done had me pulling at my hair. I was at my wits end. I had a task to do and this annoying impediment was standing clear in my way. It made me wonder. If traveling 5 months in the less developed corners of the world had taught me anything, it was that I'd taken a good, high speed Internet connection for granted in the past. Still, I did what I could, later finishing the page outside the country. If the webpage will do much to bring in tourists I can't say. But it's out there. Done and ready for the world to see. Here
|One Dead Rabbit|
|Lake Issyk Kul at Sunrise|
|Guide and Horse|
In the End
I tried so hard and got so far, but…no, I'm joking. To me, my time in Central Asia mattered very much. I learned about another region of the world, a geopolitically important one that outside powers shaped. Yet the local people still manage to preserve some of their tradition while moving forward into an undecided future. As an foreign visitor I tried to piece together the culture, and as I often do, I looked to the past to have a clearer picture of the present. Now that it's over I will take that knowledge and share it as I've done here. This will help me to remember. For what's the point if we soon forget the experiences that give our life meaning? Anyhow, I can say with certainty that Kyrgyzstan was my favorite of the Central Asian countries. Ok then. I look ahead to the next chapter in my journey--the Middle East.