(48) Biskek, Kyrgyzstan: Ready for home + PLUS overview of Central Asia

I don’t have any notes from my last two days in Kyrgyzstan. Almost no photos either.

I had planned my last full day of travels to be my birthday. I stayed in my usual guesthouse in Bishkek the day before after arriving from Tamga, but the night of my birthday I spent at the Hyatt. My high school friend Brad, who used to work in the hospitality/hotels in Moscow, had a friend who worked at the Hyatt, so I got a deal. I enjoyed the white sheets, the fluffy robe, the pool. I wandered town, looking perhaps for a place to get my nails done, but nothing materialized. Kind of an anticlimactic ending for the trip and for my 30th birthday, but I was AOK with that.

All these posts are great an all, but what exactly is Central Asia?

Before I left on my trip, when I told people I was going to Central Asia, I would get responses like:

  • Oh, I loved the food there. (Uh, you’re thinking of South East Asia.)
  • Oh, yeah, China is one of my favourite countries. (Uh, still not quite there).
  • Where?

Central Asia was “put on the map” so to speak thanks (or no thanks) to Borat. And unfortunately, Kyrgyzstan got in the news for political reasons just before I left. But otherwise, Central Asia is one of a few clusters of countries that seem to be fairly unknown in the general North American population. Some others unknown clusters might include the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, etc.) or the Caucases (Azerbaijan, Armenia, etc.).

Central Asia is bordered by Russia to the north, China to the west, Iran and Afghanistan to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the west. The countries are all land-locked countries (Turkmenistan borders the Caspian sea, but there are no outlets to an ocean. And the Aral Sea barely counts as water anymore.) Uzbekistan is actually double land-locked – not only is it land-locked, but all its neighbours are too. (There is only one other country in the world that can say this. Do you know which one?)

It consists of the former soviet states east of the Caspian sea, and south of Russia – Kazakhstan (the largest, and the country I did not visit on this trip), Turkmenistan (the most controlled), Uzbekistan (the most touristed), Tajikistan (the poorest) and Kyrgyzstan (the most Russified). Each has their own ethic history, but the borders between countries don’t even come close to meeting the true ethnic divides. There are Turkmen in Iran, Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, Tajiks in Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyz in Tajikistan. And Russian everywhere.

It’s important to distinguish between ethnicity and citizenship, which didn’t really sink in for me until I hitched a ride with two Russian women in Kyrgyzstan. For some reason I had pictured Russians to be almost visitors here. Here for a while, just haven’t got back to Russia quite yet. I hadn’t considered Russian to be an ethnicity. But Russians have been here for generations. As one of the women said, “Kyrgyzstan is my home. I don’t like Russia. I don’t like all the drunk people.” They are ethnically Russian, but have a Kyrgyz (or Uzbek or Turkmen, etc.) identity otherwise.

Why people travel here

Turkmenistan probably for its wackiness. Turkmenistan seems to always have had a crazy, egotistical president. Posters, statues, newspapers, and books are all about the president. And while the rest of the country is fairly normal and rural, Ashgabat is a very odd, opulent city that has no equal. The gas crater in the middle of the desert is pretty neat too.

Uzbekistan for its Islamic historical architecture. Though I must say Iran has it beat.

Tajikistan for the Pamir highway, desolate and dramatic. The Wakhan Valley is gaining in popularity too. Lots of cyclists.

Kyrgyzstan for Issyk-Kul, the big alpine lake that never freezes, and for horse-trips. And the well-run and established community-based tourism system, which hooks up tourists with homestays, guides, and transportation (horse or machine).

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also attract a fare number of hard-core trekkers and mountaineers.

Geography

Turkmenistan is bordered by a mountain range to the south (along the border with Iran) but otherwise is a flat, dry, scrub covered desert.

Uzbekistan is bordered by small mountains to its east (along the border with parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) but otherwise is a flat, dry, scrub covered desert.

Tajikistan has some low lying and flatter areas in the far north near Uzbekistan and a bit in the central west, but otherwise is dramatic mountain valleys along its border with Uzbekistan and Afghanistan or high plains and mountains in the center and east.

Kyrgyzstan has some low lying areas in the southwest around Osh and Jalal Abad (as part of the Fergana Valley shared with Uzbekistan), but otherwise is a series of mountain ranges divided by sometimes narrow, sometimes broad, valleys.

Religion

Other than a handful of churches dotted around Central Asia, the religious population is generally Muslim. But the kind of Muslim that can drink vodka and eat pork shashlyk. Islam as a culture, not as a religion perhaps. There is definitely a spectrum of Islam here, and considering I was here for Ramadan and had absolutely no problem getting food at anytime of the day (I don’t think I even saw any closed restaurants), it’s definitely not the same Islam found in Iran. I think I have seen maybe only one or two men praying in public here, while in Iran it would not have been unusual to have to wait to pay for your groceries until the cashier had finished with his namaz. Headscarves here seem to be more for function (i.e. keeping hair out of eyes) than for religious purposes. While there are definitely some more devout muslims here and there, as the Lonely Planet describes, “The Kyrgyz people took as much Islam with them as they could fit in their saddlebags.”

Language

Turkmen, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz are all rooted in Turkish, while Tajik is similar to Farsi (Iran). One Turk I met in Turkmenistan joked that Turkmen is like a really simple, literal version of Turkish. The Turkmen word for “key” is “opener” and the word for “landing” (as in a plane) is “falling to the ground.” Russian is also widely spoken everywhere. Schools before the break up of the USSR were taught in Russian, so most adults speak Russian. Kids are hit and miss.

In Tajikistan it was nice to use some of the Farsi I had learned, and in Kyrgyzstan I put in a good effort to learn Kyrgyz. However, it was hard to actually use the Kyrgyz I knew. Even if I asked, “How much is this?” in Kyrgyz, I would generally get a response in Russian. And while I know a bit of Russian, I don’t know any numbers other than “2” (dva). So after the price is given in Russian, I would have to ask “Kyrgyzski pajalsta” (Kyrgyz please). And hope that the price involved 1-39, 80-89, hundreds or thousands, as I didn’t know 40, 50, 60, 70 or 90 in Kyrgyz. It’s complicated.

Things you will see everywhere in Central Asia

  • Gold teeth (just because you can afford something though, doesn’t mean you should get it)
  • Whitewashed houses with sky blue trim
  • Russian vodka
  • Melon rinds placed thoughtfully rind down
  • Russian vehicles that look old, but are actually new (they haven’t changed the models)
  • In addition to cows, donkeys and sheep, Turkmenistan has a lot of camels, Tajikistan has a lot of yaks, and Kyrgyzstan has a lot of horses.

Music

Russian techno is all the rage, unfortunately. One song I have heard pumping in every country is one called “Alors On Danse”, which I know is French, but I’m pretty sure it’s by a Russian group. Another one is “We Speak No Americano”. I much prefer any traditional music, but it’s hard to come by. Additionally, “artists” such as Justin Bieber are heartthrobs even here. I heard one song in a mall in Kyrgyzstan and though “what is this crappy Ace of Base rip off?” and it turns out is was Lady Gaga.

People in Central Asia are oddly adept at

  • Retrieving the seeds from sunflower shells in two crunches or less
  • Being bi- tri- or even more-lingual (for example, in Khorog, people will generally speak Russian, Tajik, the local Pamiri dialect, and possibly a bit of English)
  • Living and getting things to grow in places you almost can’t find imaginable (deserts, high altitudes, steep mountainsides)
  • Not getting bored by the same few standard dishes available at every cafe (which leads me to…)

Food in Central Asia

If you’ve read the rest of my posts, you’ll know that I lost my appetite for about six weeks, lost some weight, and was sick a lot. So the food definitely wasn’t a highlight. Here’s what was on the menu. Everything is served with tea and bread (which is dipped in the broth and/or the tea and/or yogurt, especially in yurts).

Breakfast

  • Porridge (made with rice or cream of wheat)
  • Fried eggs
  • Fried potatoes

Lunch or dinner

  • Lagman (soup with noodles, chunks of meat, and maybe some vegetables)
  • Shorpa (broth with a chunk of potato, maybe chunks of carrot, and a huge chunk of mutton, which is removed from the broth and savoured after the rest of the soup)
  • Borsht (basically any soup with shredded cabbage, made possibly with shredded carrot, onion, or potato, and often chunks of meat)
  • Plov (oily rice with chunks of meet and maybe some shredded carrot)
  • Manty (moist dumplings stuffed with diced meet and onions
  • Pilmeny (like mini manty in a broth)
  • Shashlyk (skewered meat and fat)
  • Fried potatoes

All meals also involve a little tray with some wafers, biscuits, and wrapped sweets. The wrapped sweets, especially, are hit or really, really bad miss.

If coffee is offered, it’s always of the instant variety.

Back to the “reasons people travel to Central Asia” — food is definitely not one.

(44) In transit to South Inylcheck basecamp, Kyrgyzstan: The curious incidents of the girl in the daytime

(Reference to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon)

Getting to the South Inylchek basecamp for an early 30th birthday present to myself started off in an incredibly frustrating manner. My intent was to find a shared jeep through the backroads to Naryn on my way to Karakol, where I would meet my ride to the 1st basecamp. I had heard about this road from the two Aussies on motorbikes I had met back in Samarakand, Uzbekistan. They had said fantastic things, and while I also knew the likelihood of finding shared transport was slim, I had high hopes. I had 3 days to get to Karakol.

But these hopes came crashing down soon enough. My taxi from the guesthouse in the morning took me to the area where I would find a shared jeep, if there was any. There wasn’t. I wish I knew more Russian, Kyrgyz, or local contacts. There have to be people going to Kazarman. Jalalabad is the nearest big city. Surely people go back and forth. It’s just a matter of knowing where to find these people. This happens a lot in Central Asia. It is much easier when going the other direction – from small town to big centre – like I did when going from Murgab to Osh. It was easy. Travellers going the other direction have a much harder time. But it’s just a matter of knowing the drivers, which in this case, I don’t. The only other route is back to Bishkek.

So, I gave up. At which point I got a phone call from Asel at the travel agency I had been emailing with to arrange my birthday glacier stay. I needed to wire some money to her to get an express permit to the border area with Kazakhstan and China, which is where the glacier basecamp is located.

My trip to Bishkek is delayed as I find a bank and arrange a money transfer, but it all works out fairly effortlessly, with only a $1 fee.

Finally, I make my way to the taxi area where those going to Bishkek wait. I fill up the second space in the car – we wait for two more. And wait. Eventually I realize I left some printing back at an internet cafe, so I tell the driver I’ll be back in 15 minutes or so. Minibus to downtown, and back again.

And wait. And wait. I arrived just before 12, so it’s been over 3 hours. At which point I realize my passport is still at the bank where I did the money transfer. I tell the driver I’ll be back in 15 minutes or so. Minibus to downtown, and back again.

And wait. We don’t fill up until around 4pm. I’m tired, cranky, hungry, but feeling ill. And I have a 9-10 hour drive ahead of me. I fill myself up on Snickers, bread, juice, and Coca Cola.

The drive I am not enthused about, mostly because I had just done it yesterday in the reverse direction. It’s pretty and all, but I’ve seen in before. The driver pushes on until we stop for dinner at about 9pm. At first I don’t want anything, but then I’m convinced to have at least some tea. I also opt for some shorpa (broth with a chunk each of potato, carrot, and mutton), without the giant hunk of mutton. The two others are businessmen heading to Karakol on business. They bring out a bottle of vodka, and I have a small shot – perhaps it will help my intestines. As the men get drunker, one keeps trying to pour me more vodka, while the other keeps giving him a “leave-the-sick-girl-alone” look. I nap.

Eventually we take off again after the bottle of vodka has been emptied. The businessmen are drunk in the back seat and the driver and I are sober but tired in the front. I’m exhausted, but I see the driver is too. I stay awake for the both of us. As we head over the final large pass towards Bishkek well after midnight, the driver is nodding off at the wheel, albeit at about 10km per hour. I tell him he’s falling asleep and to pull over, but he jokes it off. I don’t know if he even understood me. At least my berating him loudly kept him awake. He pulls over at one point for a smoke and to splash himself with cold water. When the signal comes back, he turns on the radio too.

We arrive in Bishkek close to 3 in the morning. It takes forever, but we eventually find the address that the drunk men are going to. The driver continues on to the guesthouse I stayed at previously. I had been trying to call them all day to let them know I would be arriving late, but they either weren’t answering, or the phone number had changed. I get there about 3:30am, anticipating a worst case scenario of sitting outside the front gate until the morning. Luckily, it seems a group is packing for an early departure, and the gate is not deadbolted. The code opens the door, and I make my way up to an open space on the top floor. I hunker down for a few hours.

In the morning, I am able to get a room, but only after I’m brusquely told I have to pay for the night before because check-in is only after 8am. Sure, I used the toilet and nodded off on the floor, but I’m not paying for a room. It’s such a small detail, but after the incredibly long and frustrating day yesterday coupled with being sick and having no appetite, I feel like it’s the last straw and I want to cry.

Instead I sleep, which is probably a lot more productive.

In the afternoon I head out for Chinese food and make my way to meet Asel to pay for my trip and learn the final details. It all seems good, and I make a list of things I need to buy before the trip. Dried fruit, chocolate bars, new sunglasses?, more warm clothing?, a 5L bottle of water. I ask her about the possibility of getting a thicker sleeping bag up there. She tells me that I should be able to. don’t know what this means, but maybe I’ll look into something in Karakol.

I mean to leave early the next morning for Karakol, a 7 hour journey, but I need the rest and sleep on and off until 10am. At the “bus” station, finding a shared minivan is easy and we’re soon off. I sit in the middle middle seat. The woman to my right doesn’t seem to like fresh air, and asks for all the windows to be closed while the vents are turned on. I already feel ill, so this does not help. The driver makes good time, but he likes weaving and accelerating/decelerating quickly. I already feel ill, so this does not help. We stop at some roadside fruit and veggie markets/stands. Similar produce to the Okanagan. A man sleeps on his watermelons. A car drives by, filled in the back to the windows with tomatoes.

The first part of the journey I had already done before on my way to Chayek and Kyzyl-Oi. The new part for me, the journey along the side of Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world, is lost to my feelings of sickness. It’s a hazy day anyways so I couldn’t see much if I wanted to. There should be snowcapped mountains across the way, but I barely can even make out across the way.

Finally in Karakol, we stop in the centre of town and wait for about half an hour for reasons I don’t know. But it gives me a chance to get some fresh air and dry heave out the side door of the van. After many fruitless phone calls to any of the guesthouses I would like to stay at, I finally get in touch with the one recommended by Asel. The driver is also finally ready to drop off all his passengers, so we’re off.

The guesthouse is lovely, and will likely be more expensive that the “cheap price” that Asel described, considering it’s like a North American bed and breakfast, with a huge bed, clean hot shower, and satellite TV. I don’t care. All I want to do it crawl up in bed and die. Which I do (well, without the dying part).

The guesthouse also includes dinner, so I come down about 7pm without an appetite. I get through about half a bowl of borsht and one bite of garlic-fried eggplant before I excuse myself from dinner and conversation with an overenthusiastic and barely-understandable retired English man who’s travelling though some inheritance money. I think to myself how some of this money might be better spent on dental care, but he seems to be doing find without it.

My appetite the next morning is still barely there, but I make it through some rice pudding and fruit. I’m expecting my ride to pick me up shortly, but I don’t know when. I relax in my room while I wait. And wait. I know we have a 5-6 hour drive ahead of us to the first basecamp where the helicopter departs from, and Asel said he would get me “in the morning” so by 10am I decide to make some calls. Through some help of the guesthouse staff, I find out that the driver has not even heard about me, but will be here in an hour. We contact Asel and she apologizes for some delay because of another group of travellers, but I just think she dropped the ball.

Before we depart, I get one of the guesthouse staff to ask the driver if I can get a warm sleeping bag up at one of the base-camps. He seems to think I can arrange it. I’m not convinced,

The drive to Maida Adyr base-camp was more of what I expected Kyrgyzstan to be like. Increasingly steep mountainsides, increasingly snow-capped peaks, decreasingly treed slopes. The geology here is strange – the hills are technicoloured. Red beside black beside brown beside grey. The mountains make no attempt to blend in with the country side.

The Russian jeep has a bit of trouble. We’ve barely started to climb when we sputter to a halt. It’s too hot for the engine. Water is poured from ready recycled bottles. “Photography,” he says, giving me something to do while we wait. This happens four more times along our way.

There’s one image in my head I didn’t manage to get a picture of. After we’ve come down from the major pass on the route, we turn a corner to see a broad expanse where two river valleys meet. Snow capped peaks frame the view. A few buildings dot the plain, but what strikes me are some mounds in the ground at a bend in the river that at first seem like buried ruins of an old settlement but then appear to me as a very simple cemetery. I make note to take a photo on the way back.

We’ve almost reached the destination when we reach Inylchek town. A checkpoint requires me to show my permit for being this close to the Chinese border. The town itself looks like it once had potential, now faded. Empty buildings and half-finished apartment complexes dot our route.

And finally, Maida Adyr base-camp. A little rough around the edges, but the basic rooms are comfortable. The managers here (who, like the driver, don’t speak English) seem confused at my arrival. I suspect Aser dropped the ball again. I’m doubting there is even a helicopter at this point. What I paid for I really don’t know.

The base-camp is right alongside a small military base with a helicopter stationed out front. Is this the helicopter? I go to take a short walk up alongside the broad, grey river valley, and the military men who check my permit ensure I know not to take any photos of their base (which I do anyway).

Dinner is possibly the best meal I have in Kyrgyzstan. Mashed potatoes, fried cabbage, meatloaf ball thingies which I dot with ketchup. I wrangle up some appetite to enjoy it.

Three military men are also eating, and I soon am invited to join them. Their English is limited, but I learn that they fly the helicopter (my helicopter?). My name is not easy for people in Central Asia, and comes out sounding like “Tuna”. I eat and drink with the pilot (General), co-pilot (Colonel), and engineer (Captain). They tell me that three shots of vodka is tradition. I confirm it’s not four before I finish off the third. The stuff does not go down smoothly.

After dinner, I seem to confirm that a helicopter is going up tomorrow. I also seem to be told that I’ll be staying two nights, I think. It seems like I’m the only one going up. Uh, I hope they know I’m not paying for it.

Later that evening, four other men arrive. They are shooting a documentary about the Aral Sea disaster, and are heading up tomorrow too. In the morning, I see a family that must have arrived late. I’m not the only one! I ask the mother, who speaks decent English, to confirm that I can get a thicker sleeping back up at the base-camp. The camp manager jokes that he has ordered one to fit two people.

At first I’m told I’ll be going up in the second flight, but then the General asks if I want to go up on both flights. The first is going to North Inylcheck, the second to South Inylchek. It’s a present he says. Happy Birthday to me!

(41) Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Where I healed

I wish I could tell you about all the wonderful things I did over the week I spent in Bishkek. It’s not that I can’t tell you, it’s that I didn’t do many wonderful things.

Bishkek is where I recuperated. I was consistently sick from the middle of my stay in Uzbekistan, and almost all through Tajikistan. I possibly lost 10 pounds. Tajikistan, especially, physically and mentally exhausted me. While the scenery was absolutely lovely and I without a doubt plan to come here again, Tajikistan almost broke me. I lost my spirit. I met others like me. Ready to go home. Yearning for home.

I’ve never been homesick before. Usually I can go with the flow wherever I am, no culture shock, just travel around with my eyes wide open. I rarely get sick when I travel, and often joke about my poor food hygiene in Canada helping me strengthen my stomach for travelling. But as I went through Tajikistan, I found that almost every meal resulted in a dash to the toilet, which meant I started associating basically every local dish with getting sick. I lost my will to eat.

So in Bishkek, I stayed at a lovely guesthouse. It was cheap, clean, comfortable, and it had wifi. And Bishkek, thank God, has food that didn’t resemble the food that made me so ill in Tajikistan. I generally ate out once a day, either Chinese food or Western food, and the rest of my caloric intake was a mixture of bananas, fruity yogurt, bread, cheese, Coca Cola, and chocolate bars. I was able to convince myself that the peanuts in Snickers and the coconut in Bounty actually made them energy bars. I ate about one each a day.

Now, the problem with being comfortable is the issue of getting too comfortable. I stayed in Bishkek a week, which is probably twice the amount of time I needed to feel better.

In that time, other than eating and sitting at my laptop, the only other things I did were:

  • visit the community-based tourism office to get their book of services and locations around the country
  • attempt to visit 3 craft/art spaces, but only actually find one
  • visit a travel agent to book a flight home (only to end up booking it online)
  • buy a cell phone
  • meet with a rep from the Mountain Societies Development Services Program, a program of the Aga Khan Development Network, to discuss the possibility of me volunteering to write part of a grant proposal

Two other things that I started working on while in Bishkek are related to my upcoming 30th birthday. As a gift to myself (or perhaps assisted by others, depending on what the cost turns out to be) I am attempting to book a few days at a mountaineering basecamp on a glacier, accessed by a scenic helicopter ride. I also have a possible connection to get a discount at the Hyatt in Bishkek, which is where I hope to spend my actual 30th birthday. The last night of my trip. I fly back to Canada the next day.

And that’s it. I put off leaving Bishkek more than once. Somehow the country that was the inspiration for this trip was no longer inspiring me to explore. I didn’t even really make any attempt to meet the other travellers at the guesthouse.

But eventually, I got my ass in gear, and made rough plans to leave. And I did. And I’m glad.

I got my mojo back.