May 25, 2009

Kyrgyzstan - Traveling in the Wild West

So what is there to do in Kyrgyzstan when your not getting robbed at gunpoint, beaten in broad daylight, shaken down by police in the back of a van or exhorted by taxi drivers? 

(Do not worry, none of these things have happened to me, but they have happened to an overwhelming number of male tourists, which are the main targets for harrasment and sometimes violent crime in Central Asia)

Watch Muslim headscarves morph into g-strings at a disco in Bishkek

(No pictures on Bishkek post because, quite frankly, I was afraid to take out my camera on the streets)

Traveling through Central Asia is like swimming in a beaker full of experimental human substance in chemistry class; at times the mixture can be amusing or it can swing abruptly in opposing directions with little warning. Decades of Russian influence has, for the men, produced a distinct group of Vodka drinking Kyrgyz Muslims and, for the women, paved the way for long, modest dresses worn with headscarves to be replaced by short miniskirts, tight jeans, busty tops and shiny stilettos. While people in many parts of the country, from big town to small village, are partaking in Vodka time, there is a quick shift in dress from rural to city.
Bumping into an Australian couple I had met two months prior in Myanmar, we all decided to check out what goes on in a Kyrgyz disco. Over the loud music, Rachel told me that she had replaced all her exposing skirts and dresses thinking that the country would be fairly conservative, but as we sat watching a hunky “sailor” strip down to a satin g-string and a “tiger” woman run around the dance floor topless, we realized that that she probably could have kept her original wardrobe.

Save the day by shepherding a flock on horseback in Altyn Arashan

While waiting for our Uzbek visas, me and the Australian couple, Rachel and Owen, decided to use the time to venture out into the Kyrgyz countryside. Eager to act like locals, we rented horses and trotted toward the beautiful valley of Altyn Arashan. Along the way we encountered a flock of a few hundred sheep and a Shepherd driving drunk on his horse. Knowing that drinking and driving is a dangerous combination, we quickly came to the rescue by rearing the misguided sheep in the right direction. Some people might have said that the sheep were merely running out of the way as three inexperienced tourist horseriders were stumbling and fumbling all over them, but I don’t know who those people are or where to find them so you will just have to take my word for it that we were brilliantly talented Shepherding Hero’s.

Help the police solve important crimes in Karakol

In Altyn Arashan, we met an older, intrepid, solo French traveler, Denni, who, every year, takes a civilized, predictable, non-strenuous month long vacation with her husband and also an adventurous, off-the-beaten-track month long vacation by herself where she climbs mountains in Tibet, rides horses in Mongolia and treks into valley’s in Kyrgyzstan. When we arrived back at the homestay in Karakol, Denni was lodging at the same place and I awoke from a nap to mass commotion:
Denni: “I ave lost my maney and credeet cardz! Someone az stolen my holdair of maney!
Us: “Denni, are you sure you have looked everywhere? Maybe it’s in your jacket or in a pocket somewhere?”
Denni: “No, No, No! I ave shake everysing and I am shure zat I drop my holdair of maney out ze car and now zis iz gone!” My huzbaynd sink now I am chiyald.”
Us: “This is horrible Denni. And you are sure that you had your wallet in the car before you arrived here at the house?”
Denni: “Yes, Yes, Yes! I am shure of zis. I am sure zis as fallen from za car and someone take. Oh my huzbaynd! Zis iz big problame!”

This went on for a few hours as me, Rachel and Owen were busy combing the extremely quiet neighborhood street and mediating the story, which was spoken by Denni with a heavy French accent and limited English vocabulary to the Kyrgyz-only speaking House Mama. Soon the head of the tourist office was called and five police officers arrived, seating themselves at the table, listening to the story as they munched on the plate of biscuits and candy that was there. English, French, Kyrgyz and Russian was rapidly flying around the table and the game of charades was in high gear. Denni was in near tears and the police said they would make an announcement on the television, but first they needed to rule out the likely suspects: Me, Rachel and Owen.
As the police were weeding through pockets of dirty socks and underwear in our bags, I was busy putting two and two together. Oh, I had seen this type of behavior before. This post 55 years of age scenario would have certainly happened to my Mother and I was confident that I knew the ending to the story. Not long after I had quietly told Rachel and Owen that Denni’s wallet was going to be found in her room, the police found Denni’s wallet in her room. It was the classic case of looking for the eyeglasses that are on your head.
Everyone was ecstatic and soon there appeared plates of celebratory bread and jam and piping hot tea. The police were quite proud they had solved the crime and I was quite proud that I had solved the crime before them. Denni was not embarrassed in the least and after an excited exclamation of, “Zee, I am not chiyald!” it was back to business as usual. After eating, drinking tea and trying on the officer’s groovy hats, Rachel, Owen and I were like excited five year old children when they offered us a ride into town in the police van, and even though they didn’t turn the sirens on like they promised, we still felt like part of the force.

Hear about, become the object of, and witness the beginning of a bridal kidnapping

Before leaving Karakol, me and the Aussie’s had a goodbye dinner with our Altan Arashan horseguide, Almas. Having heard of the strange and disturbing Kyrgyz tradition of bridal kidnapping, Rachel casually pried, “So, Almas, how did you meet your wife?” Almas replied, “I catch her.” With our eyes wide open in disbelief, Almas went on to explain that he had once said hello to his wife on the street. Knowing he wanted to marry her after this brief meeting, he rounded up two of his friends and a taxi, followed her and then stuffed her in the car and drove off. As the romance of this was gripping Rachel’s and my heart, he proceeded to tell us that his wife cried every night for the first three months but now, a few years and two children later, it seems to be better.
This story put me on high alert. We had just come from the Denni Wallet Debacle, where one of the officer’s had taken a liking to me. I was sure he was already reving up the engine in the police van, waiting to pluck me from the dark streets of Karakol as my friends would be forced to listen to the sirens muffle my screams, but luckily after dinner, choosing to walk incognito through the park, I narrowly escaped my own sure kidnapping.
Now that we were on to the fact that romantic bridal kidnappings still happen in Kyrgyzstan, it was easy to spot the beginning of one while walking on the street in Bishkek. Noticing the three men walking in front of me, I exclaimed to Rachel, “Look! A Kidnapping! A Kidnapping!” One of the boys was carrying, in one hand, a bouquet of roses and, in the other, a pair of boxing gloves. It was clear we were bearing witness to young Kyrgyz love in action and if we didn’t have to pick up our Uzbek visas we would have followed them and saw the climax of future bride getting punched in the face, stuffed in a taxi and handed a lovely bouquet of roses.

Narrowly escape a zombie invasion in Jedi-Oguz

There stands an old sanatorium in Jedi-Oguz, which was built in the thirties and is famed for providing rest and relaxation to Yuri Gagarin after he made the first mission into space. We heard this place was still open, and so, looking forward to sleeping under a roof of history while a strong Russian masseuse kneaded our backs, we made our way. Stepping out of the taxi onto the dirt road of the desolate town was like stepping onto the pages of a Stephen King novel. There was an eerie emptiness as we approached the crumbling entrance of the sanatorium and once inside, the halls felt angular, cold and communist. After some time, Norman Bates’ Russian girlfriend showed up with a demeanor that was outwardly cheerful, but we weren’t fooled and knew quickly that she was really about to suffocate us with our backpacks in a dimly lit shower stall in the basement. As she led us through shadowed hallways to empty rooms, it was clear that tourists arrive, but they never leave.
With paranoia nipping at our heels, we made a family decision to go back to the comforts of the guesthouse in Karakol, but no sooner had we made this plan an old man with promises of a hotel appeared. Falling under his strange spell, we decided to have a look and were led to a big, concrete building where electric outlets were blown up, stairs were angled not upwards toward heaven but downwards toward hell and the air was damp with creepiness. Convinced that soon zombie’s from Russian nuclear experiments gone wrong would start to descend from the red rocked mountains surrounding us, we quickly ran out and rushed back to the safety of Karakol.

Assemble a yurt and stand under a rainbow in Manjili

When the Aussie’s and I were dropped off on the side of the road in Manjili, a town that consisted of two yurts, lots of mountains and a graveyard, the storm was already approaching. Big, grey clouds began closing in on us as we hurried to the location of the yurts…..actually, yurt (singular). When we arrived the family running the tourist camp had only constructed one of them and it was inhabited by two Dutch couples. They were cozily waiting for the storm to come and pass from the warm, felt insides of their circular lodge while Rachel, Owen and I were left shivering outside with a few red yurt sticks, a shrug and a smile of gold teeth from the owner, and two women furiously stitching up the cover to our home. As the storm inched nearer and nearer, we sprang into action like a true Kyrgyz by helping with the construction of our yurt. It was completed just as the first drops began to fall.
Once the storm had somewhat cleared, Rachel and I took a walk to the cemetery, which lay on foothills and was filled with intriguing burial mounds and photos of its members. We began talking about people we have known who have passed, my parents among them, and when we turned the corner and looked to the sky, we saw two incredible rainbows, one which was in a perfect, glowing arch and the other which stood proudly behind the first. As we sat watching their beauty, I quietly smiled, knowing that I had just witnessed another moment of magic along the trail.

Kochor and Saraly-Saz

May 21, 2009

Arslanbab, Kyrgyzstan

When I first got to Kyrgystan, I didn’t really have a plan of where to go. I knew I needed to make it to the capital of Bishkek to start working on visas, but I wanted to take a scenic route there. The nice and knowledgeable guesthouse owner in Osh had recommended two towns to stop off at along the way, one with a waterfall and one with a lake. He said he could arrange a private car and guide, which would only make sense if I had a few other people to share the costs with.
That afternoon a Swiss couple arrived who were also looking for a scenic route to the capital. We started talking and it seemed as though the trip was in motion when the word “rain” was thrown into the conversation. This ruffled some Swiss feathers and they began, “We must check zha weezaire rayports. I rayfuse to go in zha rhain. I can see nuhsing in zha rhain.” They immediately started pulling up weather reports on the internet and when the forecast didn’t call for total sunshine, they smothered the idea with a croissant and booked a car straight to Bishkek.
I booked a car straight to Arslanbab. As forecasted, it was drizzling when I arrived at the village square where I was promptly greeted by the CBT director. CBT stands for Community Based Tourism and it is a fantastic program which provides small communities the training and economic opportunity to tap into the tourist industry through homestays while giving the traveler an opportunity to experience places from a local perspective. A house was chosen for me and soon the soft-spoken owner, Ibrahim, arrived ready to escort me to my new village digs.
Ibrahim and I walked up the rocky dirt path, next to the stream, over the little wooden bridge, past vegetable gardens and flowering trees until we reached his house, a modest white structure with oriental rugs, lace curtains, potted plants, a cozy veranda, wandering grandchildren, wandering chickens and an outhouse. He set me up in a simple and quiet room as his daughter-in-law poured me a piping hot cup of tea on the porch, where I sat with a book, listening to the rain until it was time to take a nap (forecast that).
One small nap, in a little country house, listening to the rain, without a pressing agenda was all it took to restore some of my recent traveler’s fatigue. When I awoke, the storm had cleared and a beautiful sun had emerged over the snow-capped mountains, which stood at the far side of the village. I took a walk and was greeted by grazing cows, children playing stick-ball and friendly locals.
The next day’s sunshine had managed to prove the forecaster’s wrong and as the Swiss couple were couped up in a car on their way to Bishkek, I was wandering the surface of picture perfect postcard, along small winding dirt roads, through apple orchards and pastures of green, past horses and streams, toward a waterfall that could be heard in the distance.
As I sat on a rock, enjoying the sounds of nature and the sun on my face, I thought about where exactly I was. This was Kyrgyzstan? Kyrgyzstan had always been just a place I couldn’t spell, an alphabetical nightmare, but here, sitting next to a babbling brook and an open meadow, I was finally placing the images with the name and it was different than what I had expected. All those uneven and opposing letters made it seem like the country would be disorganized, harsh and confusing. On the contrary. The people are warm and kind. The landscape is spectacular. And the food…well, the food is not so good, but the hospitality around it is. Huh, well how about that…this is Kyrgyzstan.
I was so enamored with the solitude and peace of Arslanbab that when the CBT director asked me to stay on and teach English for three months, I almost dropped my bag on the spot and said yes. Knowing I wasn’t quite ready for the commitment, I compromised by staying an extra day; an extra day that was filled with the same simplicity and calm as the previous two.
If I had let doubt, over planning and pessimism be my guide, like the Swiss couple, then I would have never found the magical little village of Arslanbab. The forecast is not always going to call for sunshine, so the sooner you learn the love the rain, the easier and more full life will be.

Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Finally arriving in Osh, after miraculously surviving the Great Irkeshtam Pass Adventure, I officially felt like a skewered piece of lamb. My eyes were blurry with the residue of involuntary vodka shots and insufficient sleep from the night before, which was mixed with a heavy mutton kebab smoke that hovered over the city like a threatening storm of raining sheep’s rump. I wanted to just crawl into bed, but the fact that the sun was shining and I was in a new country after such an extended stay in China had my curiosity radar beeping and I chose instead to tie up my laces and hit the streets.
Kyrgyzstan, like it’s Central Asian neighbors, has a reputation for partaking in some seemingly obligatory post-communist corruption. And after walking around for some time I could validate this as truth; not so much with sticky fingered government officials or rogue police officers, but rather with the crooked dentist who convinced the entire population that they needed not one, but an entire mouthful of gold teeth. As the friendly smiles of the locals were blinding me in my tracks, I couldn’t help thinking that this guy had pulled off the greatest gold heist of all time and was probably sitting beachfront somewhere on the Riviera, carefully dabbing a slight caviar stain with seltzer water from his seersucker suit as his countryfolk sold bread, fixed trucks and manually plowed the fields of the farm….in winter.
The remaining evidence of Osh as an ancient hot spot along the Silk Road is with its massive bazaar, which is still kicking 2,000 years later. I chose to inaugurate my journey through Kyrgyzstan with two purchases that were impossible to obtain during the three months I was in China: a jar of pickles and a pair of shoes that fit my size ten feet (kind of, almost, really, really close). In my short time interacting with the local people who make up an eclectic ethnic Eurasian Casserole, with a cup of Kyrgyz, a tablespoon of Uzbek, a pinch of Tajik, and a dusting of Turkmen, their openness and warmth is immediately apparent. The mostly former nomadic cultures are built on centuries of hospitality (and tribal war), which is still very present and makes for a sincere welcome into the country.
As I was sitting in a cafĂ© near the park, there was a group of teenaged boys at the table next to mine. After some time they called over to me in English and we struck up a basic conversation. We went through the normal rounds of questions before they started to speak of Osh. They wanted to know what I thought of Osh or if anyone in New York knew about Osh. They wanted me to go back and tell people in America how great Osh is. Finally, they asked me if I would want to live in Osh. I said that I really liked Osh but that I would miss my family. Almost in unison they replied, “Yeah, but if your family lived here, then would you want to live in Osh?” As I looked over at seven pairs of young, hopeful and proud eyes, I said, “Yes, if I could bring my family here, then I would definitely want to live in Osh.”


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