May 21, 2009

The Great Irkeshtam Pass Adventure

Irkeshtam Pass Adventure Part 1
There are two entrances into Kyrgyzstan from China: either over the bureaucratically difficult to organize, but beautiful Torugart Pass or over the Irkeshtam Pass, also beautiful and one which the Lonely Planet Guidebook describes as a “straightforward”, hop-on-the-bus experience.
Of course I had wanted to take the Torugart Pass, but the thieves who had robbed me managed to steal my time along with my passport. I had three months left on my original visa, but the newly issued one had the clock ticking into days, if not hours. With an approaching holiday, which was going to shut down both countries for four days, I was told I had to take the bus through the Irkeshtam Pass. No Problem, I’ll just take the bus, it’s “straightforward”, right?

Cut to Monday morning:
Me: When does the bus leave for Osh (in Kyrgyzstan)?
Moon (Hostel Owner): Monday, Thursday and Friday.
Me: Well, I will take the Thursday bus because Friday is the start of the holiday and my visa expires on Saturday.
Moon: Yes, you have to take the Thursday bus. Friday, everything will be closed and China has big fines if you overstay your visa.

Cut to Monday afternoon:
Moon: Um, well, I called the bus station and they said that maybe the bus leaves on Thursday, maybe not. It depends if it fills up.
Me: Well, when will they know this?
Moon: We must wait until Wednesday and then call.
Me: Shouldn’t I try to book a ticket now and at least count for one.
Moon: No. We can’t do anything until Wednesday.
Me: Hmmpf.

Cut to Wednesday morning:
Me: Good Morning Moon, did you sleep well?
Moon (slightly panicked, but ultimately not his problem): I just called the bus station. They decided to close the border two days early - by this afternoon. There is a bus going to Osh today, but it’s full.
Me (in denial): O,K, let’s try that again… Good Morning Moon, did you sleep well?
Moon: Your only option is a driver to the border.
Me: What the @%$#! What exactly does “afternoon” mean and what happens when and if I get to the Kyrgyz side, how the heck do I get to Osh?
Moon: They won’t tell us exactly when it is closing, they only said afternoon, and I don’t know what happens on the other side. I hear you can maybe hitch a ride with a truck. You better pack your stuff, you have to go….now!

Without a Taco Bell drive-thru in sight, I was literally making a run for the border. How poetic. After three months in China and two robberies later, here they were, mercilessly booting me out. “Thank’s for your business Ma’am, now don’t let that customs door kick you in the ass on the way out. Have a great holiday and come back again soon! (after you have purchased yet another expensive visa from us that we will eventually try to steal from you)”

The Great Irkeshtam Pass Adventure Part 2
The chain-smoking driver showed up, but without the necessary permits to get to the border. He had a friend who had a friend who was friends with his friend’s friend who could get him the permit, just not quickly. My head was ticking seconds. It was already eleven o’clock in the morning and the drive was over three hours long. This already put me in the murky “afternoon” region.
Finally and thankfully a driver with permits and without a chain-smoking habit showed up. I threw my bag in the car, looked at the clock (noon), said goodbye to my friends and prayed for the best.
My anxiety was in fourth gear, but as soon as we got out of the city and rolled onto the pages of Geology Magazine my jitters were smashed under the weight of all the incredible surrounding mountains. In the very last stretches of the country, I saw some of the best scenery it had to offer. It was as if China was telling me, “Think what you want about everything else, but one thing is clear - you will never forget my undeniable beauty.”
The clock had now hit 3:30 p.m and we were finally approaching the border, which was in the middle of nowhere, flanked by open fields, a few rusty trailers and snow-capped mountains. We hurried up to the office entrance where a middle-aged Kyrgyz trucker gave us the international sign for “closed” (two arms criss-crossed). Closed! Closed! My heart landed in my shoe. But no sooner had he signed “closed,” when he was already adding on another internationally understood hand movement, food going into mouth. As he pointed to the clock, I understood that the border would re-open at 4:00, right after lunch. Aha! I made it! My first ever Border Run ends in success!

The Great Ishketam Pass Adventure Part 3
The border opened, my friendly non-English speaking driver left, the sun was starting its descent and I was wading in a thick marsh of rough testosterone. I was surrounded by weather-faced Kyrgyz and Uzbek truckers with skull caps, cigarette stained fingers and gold teeth, most all of whom were intently staring at the one person who clearly didn’t fit into this picture…me. All of a sudden I became acutely aware of my femininity: the brightly patterned dress over my jeans, my hair tied up exposing gold and emerald earrings, the handbag over my shoulder and the shiny pink lip gloss which I had started to apply frequently out of mounting nervousness. I quickly put on my new army jacket to showcase my rugged side, but unfortunately next to this crowd I would have had to bathe in motor oil and dry myself with sandpaper to fit in. Like surrounding wolves, they started to bark, Osh? Osh? Osh? In my vivid imagination, I saw dripping saliva and fangs and in reality, they were probably very respectful family men, but I couldn’t get past the image they were presenting. Then they started to sign language that I could ride with them in their trucks. This, I thought, was going to take some crafty maneuvering.
As we were in no man’s land (literally between two borders), accepting a ride in a truck was the only option. Standing in the customs line I started devising all sorts of plans in my head. I would accept a ride, pretend my ipod was a phone and somehow communicate that I needed to call the U.S Consulate before we left– just in case. Or I would use the restroom and carefully hide the knife I had bought in Kashgar somewhere on my person. But before I could hatch anymore of these clever plans, the entire building started to rumble and shake and everyone inside started running for the door. An earthquake? A damn earthquake? As the apocalypse seemed to be upon me, I quickly started repenting for my sins.
The tremors soon stopped but my heartbeat was as fast as ever. Confused and panicked, I turned around and, just like an angel sent from above, there stood a short man with grey hair, a red mountain sport jacket, high-jacked khaki trousers, sensible shoes and holding a large framed picture of a pastel colored embroidered horse. “Osh?” I asked. “Yes, Osh,” he replied and it was as if the heavens opened up and started singing carols of pure, cool comfort.

The Great Irkeshtam Pass Adventure Part 4
Maybe, just maybe, crossing into Kyrgyzstan on the public bus would be a “straightforward” affair, like the guidebook said, but it is anything but straightforward without an assigned mode of transportation. And I do not know how I would have managed without Muktar, my Sensible-Shoed-Savior, who was Kyrgyz and spoke about ten key words of English, but had managed this border before and knew the drill well.
First you have to hitch a ride with a truck to the first checkpoint. We loaded our stuff and got 3 km down the road before the traffic piled up and we were at the end of a long line. We then unloaded our stuff and walked the distance of about twenty big rigs, with me now holding the pastel embroidered horse picture, and reloaded our stuff in the truck that was first in line. We then drove another fifteen kilometers down the road and reached another checkpoint.
The entrance Health Minister, who was collecting and pocketing money from the truckers in great frequency sat behind his desk oinking at me. Oink, Oink and he would crumple his nose up like a pig. “No, I don’t have swine flu.” Then he started flapping his arms like a bird. “No, I don’t have avian flu.” Then he started pointing at a bunch of papers. “No, I don’t have a health certificate.” Which I guess is what required the money. No papers, no entrance. Money, entrance. My novelty as a women and an American seemed to outweigh the need for another illegal som into his pocket and so we came to a fair compromise: he could watch me stick a thermometer under my armpit and I could enter the country without health papers.
The truck let us off at a village of tin cans; a collection of rusted, Soviet era train cars that housed people, bars and restaurants. It felt like someone had rubbed raw with a Brillo pad and ammonium the lives of the locals here; they were hard and the concept of comfort was as distant as a warm sandy beach. Muktar was busy trying to organize a ride to Osh, and I was busy feeling my thirst and my hunger, but soon realized that I had no local currency. My Border Run had prevented me from going to the bank and exchanging some Chinese Yuan for Kyrgyz Som, but Muktar, my Sensible-Shoed-Savior came to the rescue once again and bought me some food and water.
As Muktar’s efforts were proving unsuccessful, I was standing outside a trailer becoming a local spectacle, of which I caught the attention of the Alai County Police Sheriff, a gold-toothed guy in his late twenties, clad in army fatigues and a Russian fur cap. He approached me and started speaking a very broken English, to which I was at first stand-offish until I realized that he was offering us a ride, not to Osh, but to a town before it that was pretty darn close. As darkness peeked around the corner and the cold mountain air started invading all layers of fabric, Muktar, and I hopped into the police car with Tokyo the sheriff and Macho, his toothless driver.
The pass, which was an unpaved, winding, cratered “road”, was packed with snow and the trucks were at many times caught in a blocked standstill. We would approach, lights and sirens flashing. Tokyo would get out of the car, make everyone move out of the way, collect money from the truckers to pad his pocket and then we would proceed. Before long the vodka came out and as Tokyo sat repeatedly scolding Macho for hitting unavoidable potholes, he would then reward him with a pat on the old man’s shoulder and a shot of the hard stuff.
The rotation of vodka shots, sirens, and money collection went on all along the pass, until the wee hours of the morning, until finally, men became men and all the formalities disintegrated into one long running joke about the American Girl, of which I couldn’t understand linguistically, but I didn’t need language to know exactly what territory the joke was in. I played along, pointing my fingers at them, accusing them of being naughty boys and dirty old men. Although I would love to think otherwise, dirty jokes at my expense were to be expected, I guess, at some point. I was, after all, still bathing in a marshland of testosterone. But even though I was trapped in a car, in the middle of a snowy mountain pass, at night time, in Kyrgyzstan, with a group of men taking hefty rounds of vodka shots, one of them a police sheriff who could cover up any crime, I never felt threatened. My hand never even approached my Kashgar Knife, not once (O.K…maybe once).
It was about four in the morning when we arrived at the town of the sheriff. Muktar and I stayed in a local guesthouse and got a few hours rest until daybreak when we arranged for a shared taxi to Osh. In Osh, Muktar picked up his car from a friend’s house and dropped me off right on the doorstep of the guesthouse.
I can’t say for sure exactly how I survived my Irkeshtam Pass Adventure; arriving at the Kyrgyz border with no money, no arranged transport and getting a lift from Tokyo and Macho, a man who liked to drive the steep, dark and winding pass fueled on Vodka. Perhaps it was through my Sensible-Shoe-Savior, or maybe my parents are still protecting me from the other side. Whichever the case, I now know that real travel does not come with a manual and life is never as “straightforward” as it may seem.

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