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.

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