(43) Karakol and Jalal Abad, Kyrgyzstan: From Russia with Love

(Note: I’m posting this 3.5 years after the fact. My notes are variable in quality, so what I give up in narrative quality, I get back in just getting this damn thing posted).

I was able to catch a ride quite easily on my way out of Kyzyl-Oi. Considering only about 5 cars seem to pass through this peaceful village on the way to nowhere on a given day, waiting only 10 minutes to find something was remarkable.

In Kyrgyzstan, hitchhiking is kind of a misnomer. It’s more like every car is a potential taxi. You wave your hand, people stop, you say your destination, and settle on a price. This is true over long distances, and within cities. While there are official taxis, most are just random dudes with random cars.

So my first ride of the day was with some sort of extended family. Two middle-aged men in the front, an older gentleman in the back and two young girls splitting the difference between us. 

A nice thing about these sort of taxis is that the passengers and driver love sharing their country, and often point out things to take pictures of. Heading out of Kyzyl-Oi, we wind along a scenic river valley, which broadens out as we near the main road from Bishkek to Osh. The family pulls over to show me a shrine. From what I gather, a giant was involved, based on the enormous handprints on the ceiling of the shrine, and the statue I spot later on of a man carrying something big on his back. 

It’s haying time right now, and the fields are abuzz with cutting and gathering. Sometimes it’s all done by hand, but there are a few machines in this area too.

I get dropped off at the junction with the main road. They’re heading right, to Bishkek. Me, the other way. I’m aiming to get to Toktogul tonight. Somewhere closer to Jalal Abad, and I heard Toktogul has a hotel. I figure between private cars and minibuses from Bishkek, I wouldn’t be waiting longer than a few minutes.

I was wrong.

I guess 45 minutes in the grand scheme of hitchhiking isn’t that much at all, but dark storm clouds were overhead, it was very windy, and it was already quite late in the afternoon. I scope out the nearby yurt situation, and figure I’m not completely screwed. Worst case scenario I have a cold sleep in a field and try again in the morning.

And then, a magical car pulls over. And even more magically, it’s two young women. Russian women heading to Karaköl. I explain wanting to get to Toktogul, we settle on 200som (about $4.50 for a 3 hour ride), and we’re off. The driver speaks English quite well. She learned English in order to work for the US Army in Afghanistan as a hairstylist. 

“Was it dangerous there?” I ask.

“No, I was in the American bubble,” she replies.

She thinks it’s dangerous for a “pretty girl” like me to be travelling alone. I suppose the unknown always seem scarier than it really is. 

Highlights of our drive south:

  • Canyons, trees, lakes, valleys, sunset.
  • A dinner stop at a cafe in a steep valley. The dirtiest toilet I have possibly encountered on this trip, maybe ever.
  • Slowing down, but not actually stopping, in Toktogul. They offer me a place to stay with them that night.

Highlights at “Russian Mama’s” apartment in Karakol:

  • I don’t quite understand the relationship between my drivers, the older Russian lady, and the young girl with the Russian lady. I think the driver is the cousin of the passenger, who is the daughter-in-law of the Russian Mama and the mother of the little girl. I think.
  • I help the Russian Mama prepare a whole lot of food. Lots of food. Turns out her husband died recently, she’s still in mourning, but the next day she is having a party tomorrow on the 40th day of his death. This is custom I understand.
  • Russian Mama sits me down in her living room and goes through photo album after photo album of her family. She speaks to me in rapid Russian. The pictures are worth a thousand words, and I get the jist that she is proud of her family and she misses her husband.
  • I have a lovely hot shower, with instructions to only run the water when absolutely necessary. Water and heat = $$$

Getting to Jalalabad:

  • Easy to get a shared taxi
  • More beautiful views, canyons, river

Jalabad:

  • Leave my bags at the CBT office, explore markets and restaurants.
  • Quiet evening at the guesthouse. To get to my room I have to pass through the room of two other women. We’re cool.
  • Don’t feel a desire to stay.

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