(46) Karakol, Kyrgyzstan: The hotdog miscommunication

I only stayed one night at the somewhat swank guesthouse. It was quite a way out of the city centre, and it was going to get expensive if I was going to spend a few days here. So in the morning after breakfast I packed my bags, said goodbye to the Spanish as they left, and took a taxi to a guesthouse recommended to me by the two French women I met in Jalal Abad. Another lovely spot.

Karakol is where I decided to screw adventurous travel, I just want to relax the rest of my time in Kyrgyzstan. So that’s what I did. My one big adventure was to head up to Jeti Oghuz, a spot with some neat red hill sides (Jeti Oghuz means “seven bulls”) and a gorge that opens up into the “Valley of the Flowers”.

I found a marshrutka at the bazaar, which got me to Jeti Oghuz, the town. But the hill formations are another 8 or so km up the road, and the gorge goes another 8 or so up until the wider valley. I started walking, and got about 2km before a car pulled over. The driver knew the drill – “Jeti Oghuz, 100 som”. I accepted. It was hot.

We arrived at Jeti Oghuz proper, which also includes a few shops, some houses, and a sanatorium. (Aside: whenever I hear that word, I think “psychiatric hospital” instead of “health resort”. I can’t shake the association.)

With a Bounty and Snickers bar each in hand I headed up the gorge to the “Valley of Flowers”. In May, this valley is brushed with a stroke of red as the poppies bloom in full force. Around two years ago or so I found a photo somewhere on the internet and shared with a friend, hoping I would one day come here – this was the image of Kyrgyzstan that so enticed me here. A field of red flowers with green, snowcapped peaks in the distance.

The gorge itself was nice. Shady, with lots of picnic spots clinched by local families. The smell of fire makes me want to go camping. And then the valley.

It may have been Valley of Flowers in name. But in name only.

I realize it’s getting near Fall and all, but there are still plenty of flowers in bloom in Kyrgyzstan. Purple ones. Yellow ones. Pink ones. Blue ones. I’ve even seen an odd poppy. But this? This was a field of grass grazed by horses, sheep and cows. I don’t even see remnants of any sort of flower, let alone where poppies might have grown.

A few yurts dot the valley. It’s pleasant enough, I suppose. But not the image I had in my mind. Maybe the picture from the internet was photoshopped? Actually, I don’t even know if the picture was from the Valley of Flowers. I just assumed it was, as they are both valleys with poppies.

Ah well. I got some exercise. And I enjoyed a Snickers and a Bounty bar.

Back down at the sanatorium I decided to suss out getting a massage. A British guy I who was leaving the guesthouse in Karakol as I was checking in had been here and enjoyed a massage and a swim in the pool.

Apparently at one time this sanatorium was quite magnificent. Heads of State came here for summits.

At one time.

It’s run down now. If I hadn’t actually seen people walking around, I would have assumed it had been abandoned years ago.

But a man outside the main building caught my eye and asked if I was there for a massage. Indeed I was. He showed me inside to the main reception area, where he seemed to be indicating that he would be giving me a massage. I don’t think so. His hands were grabby enough while trying to explain a back massage was 200 som.

But how to explain that I want a women masseuse? I try “woman” “female”. I point to him, I point to me, I point to the woman sitting beside me.

Just when I think they understand me, the response is something like (in gesture, not in words), “Aahhhh. Back massage. 20 minutes.” Uh, I get that already.

“Aaahhhhh. Full body. 40 minutes.” Nope, still not getting me.

“Swimming? Swimming pool?” Shit, we’re getting further, not closer.

“Ahhh, 20 minutes. 200 som.” No. I think I’m going to have to give up.

At which point an administrator-looking woman comes over and asks me to follow her. She again tells me the price, the length of time, the amount of body. I know this. Then miraculously she pulls out a Lonely Planet Russian language guide. She points to the word for swimming pool. No, we’ve already been through that option outside.

Then the phone rings and she leaves me. I start leafing through the guide and find the word for woman. But then even better, I find the words for masseur and masseuse, and then everything comes clear. I’m assigned a woman, who explains to the original man that he’s out of luck. I also learn that “girl” would have been the understood word for female.

The massage was relaxing. Back, legs, arms, shoulders, neck, head. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to lie on the sheets I was on, but whatever. The male masseur popped in at one point, perhaps trying to get a peak at what he couldn’t touch. Or maybe just to confirm the work schedule for the next day. I really have no clue, but I was well covered until he left. 40 minutes went by quickly enough, but not quite quickly enough when she finished off the massage by pulling at chunks of my hair. Could have done without that.

Outside the sanatorium, it was starting to rain, but it was still brilliantly sunny.

I negotiated a taxi to get back down to Jeti-Oghuz, where passenger traffic was light and I hired out a shared taxi to myself to get back to Karakol. I actually was paying local price though, so it was cheap.

The next day I hoped to get to Altyn Arashyn, a small spot up in the mountains with a few guesthouses and hot springs. It was either a $50 jeep ride, or a 15km walk. I was going to opt for the hike. The British guy had described it, and it didn’t seem too bad considering I had already done that today.

But then I woke up in the morning, and my hip ached from the day before. It was an easy decision to just stick around Karakol for the day.

My one other large accomplishment was getting my visa extended. My original plan was to actually only stay in Karakol for two days. But when I arrived at the visa-extending place, it was closed. Some police men nearby gave me the usual arms-in-an-X gesture, meaning it was closed. Through our language barriers, I learned that it is closed for either two days, until September, or until September 2. I am hoping it’s the former, as my visa expires on September 1. Two other guys I run into enlighten me. It’s a holiday. August 31 is Independence Day. The Kyrgyz Republic proclaimed independence from Russia just 19 years ago. I had completely forgotten, and hoped that this wasn’t going to impact my plans for an easy extension.

After some phone calling by my guesthouse operator, she suggested it should be open September 1, as all other offices and school are. I was in luck. On September 1st, and $23, 4 hours, and 2 passport photos later, I was in possession of a legal right to remain in Kyrgyzstan. Awesome.

The day before, when the visa place was closed, was Kyrgyz Independence Day. Celebrating 19 years of separation from the Soviet Republic. I had already decided not to head up to Altyn Arashyn, so instead I wrote in the morning, and headed out in the afternoon. At the guesthouse I was told that there may be some activities in the afternoon, and definitely a concert later in the evening, all at the nearby stadium. The town was abuzz with foot traffic. I enjoyed a late lunch, and decided to read my guidebook and spend the afternoon checking out any major sights in town. Old wooden church, check. Old wooden buddhist-looking mosque. Check. Wait – horse games with a headless goat on Independence Day? I ask my server. It happened a few hours earlier. Damn.

I take a wander through an old amusement park. The leftover garbage from some early activities today line the lanes. I watch as people get on a circular swing ride, mostly without a chain seatbelt. A 10 year old works the motor as a young girl helps get the thing going by pulling on one of the chairs. I decide that I’m not a fan of circular swing rides today.

I pop by the stadium around the time the doors open for the concert. I hang outside for a bit, getting a sense of the scene. It seems as though the concert isn’t going to start for quite a while yet. I opt to head back to the guesthouse for a quiet evening.

My first two evening were very quiet. I was the only one staying at the guesthouse. But then, a group of artists (apparently performers from the concert) came to stay the second two nights. They came in late each night, to the frantic shushes of the guesthouse owner, and drove me crazy each morning by slurping coffee and laughing while I tried to eat my breakfast in peace. I think I was oversensitive after too many days of quiet.

The day after Independence Day was the first day of school in Kyrgyzstan. It’s tradition that the young pupils bring a bouquet of flowers for their teachers. The kids are dressed in black and white, and I’m told this is their uniform. A few years ago the education minister decided that there was too much disparity between the few rich and mostly poor population in their dress, and uniforms would help make student more equal in appearance.

Great idea, but the uniforms must have been designed by a pedophile. The girls are dressed up in what looks remarkably like a french maid outfit. Cute black dresses with frilly, lacy white aprons. White frilly bows in their hair. Odd.

Overall, I spent my time quite peacefully in Karakol. Quiet evenings writing. Quiet mornings writing. Afternoons walking, taking photos, checking email, eating dinner. I ate dinner at the same place each night. A mixture of Russian, Kyrgyz, and Dungan (Chinese Muslim) fare. It was pretty good every time, except the last. I, for some insane reason, opted for “hot dog”. The menu reads “hot dog” and then the price of 30 som. I also get mashed potatoes and a salad, but am looking forward to a hot dog.

It comes, but it’s two hot dogs, and no bun. A glob a ketchup sits on the edge of the plate beside the mashed potatoes. I take one bit of the hot dog, and I know I won’t take any more. It’s as if a regular hotdog, which itself is not all that appetizing being made up of ground up animal bits, has been ground up again and then chewed by cows and spit into hotdog shapes.

When the bill comes, I have been charged for two hotdogs. I am confused, as I just ordered “hot dog” not “hot dogs” or “2 hot dog”. The resulting conversation probably went something like this.

“I ordered ‘hot dog’.”

“Yes, but see, there is are two hot dogs on your plate.”

“But I only ordered one.”

“But one portion is two hot dogs.”

“But is says ‘hot dog – 30som’ on the menu, so surely one portion is 30 som.”

“One hot dog – 30 som. But one portion is two hot dogs, so 60 som.”

We go back and forth for a while. Eventually she changes the bill and I save 30 som for the half of the portion I didn’t order.

Overall Karakol was much nicer than I expected. It’s really just a town, but seeing as it’s such a hub for travellers and it’s situated between the lake and the mountains, I expected more hustling. More crap souvenirs. But the streets were lined with trees, the sunsets were orange, the lightning storms were purple, and everything but the hotdog tasted good.

(42) Kyzyl-Oi, Kyrgyzstan: Back in the saddle again

Leaving Bishkek was surprisingly easy. Caught a bus to the bus station, and found a big van heading to Chayek, about an hour away from my true destination of Kyzyl-Oi. I was hoping to find transportation going counterclockwise around the mountains to get there, but had to setting on clockwise. This means that I’ll probably have to backtrack somewhere, and that I had to get a taxi for the final hour, but I got here.

I have to say I was pretty disappointed by the scenery for almost all but the last hour of my journey today. I guess I was expecting dramatic valleys and mountains, and I didn’t get them. Maybe it’s because it was overcast today. Maybe I was daunted by my first day out in over a week.

I was lucky to have a seat in the front of the van, so I could enjoy the views and fresh air. Most of the drive involved wide valleys with mediocre ranges to either side. I put up with the driver trying to make jokes in his spartan English, while I made an honest attempt to learn more Kyrgyz. The only problem is most locals always talk Russian with me.

When I got to Chayek, my fellow passengers directed me to “where tourists sleep”. It was a sort-of hotel. Usual tourist accommodations, especially when arranged by the community-based tourism offices, are in homestays or yurts. I wasn’t interested in the “hotel”, so I decided to try to hitch to Kyzyl-Oi.

I walked through to the end-ish of the town, and chatted up some locals at a bridge. Traffic was sparse, if not nonexistent, and I gave up the idea of hitching before I even started. Instead I tried to get one of the guys to drive me at a decent price. I thought I had a promising price, but I think the guy was just practicing the numbers he knows. He went from 1000 to 800 to 500 to 1000 to 1500 to 1000. I gave up and decided to walk back to the centre of town for a real taxi, or even the “hotel” if need be.

But instead I ran into a community-based tourism coordinator, who also runs a little shop, and she arranged a taxi (her son-in-law) and I bought some cookies and chocolates.

The drive, finally!, was lovely. Interesting hills, dramatic mountains, steel blue rivers, tree-lined valleys. The driver (and his wife who came along in the back seat) knew a bit of English, and his favourite phrases were “photo stop” and “no problem.” Worked out great for me. I got to the town I wanted, a few dollars poorer but much happier in photos. Plus Kyzyl-Oi soon presented itself to be a great base for hiking, and a scenic little village in its own right.

Kyzyl-Oi was my first true introduction to the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) program in Kyrgyzstan. Basically, an office (or even just a person) in a variety of towns and villages has a compilation of homestays, guides, possible trips, etc with set prices, and will sort everything out for you when you arrive to a town. In my limited time so far, it’s been quite helpful, especially since I picked up the cell phone in Bishkek. I arrived in town pretty late, so stayed with the homestay of the CBT coordinator, Artyk. I had a lovely dinner of salad and borsht, all the while praying that I would not get sick again, since this type of food was the stuff of all my illness in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

After dinner I had a sauna (steamy bathing room where a “shower” involves mixing boiling water and cold water in a big scoop and pouring it over your body), and went to bed with my stomach gurgling like crazy. Please, no sickness. Please.

I spent two full relaxed days in Kyzyl-Oi. I went for two long walks, took lots of photos, and spent a fair amount of time on my computer in the afternoons when it got stormy.

My hike on the first day got me up in the hills overlooking Kyzyl-Oi from the south. My first destination was a cemetery. Cemeteries here are more extravagant than back home in some ways, more primitive in others. Each grave is very evident, in that there is a big mount of soil covering where a person lies. This cemetery I noticed a first on this trip – each mound also had 3 or four wooden poles lying across it, kind of haphazardly like pick up sticks. No flattened grave sites with manicured grass. However, each grave (depending on the wealth of the family I suppose) has some sort of frame around it. It might be a full brick structure with the mound hidden away inside. It might be a metal frame – a simple rectangle, a dome structure, or some other ornamental cover. Some had stars and crescents, others had animals. Some are painted, some are plain. Some had etched stonework featuring a picture of the deceased, or maybe just a name. All in all, cemeteries on this trip have always been interesting.

After the cemetery I climbed further on a horse trail to a hill topped off with some sort of surveying feature. I sat atop it, enjoyed the view and the cool breeze, and pondered. Soon the afternoon storm came with its chilly wind and rain, and I descended. On the way down I chatted with some young girls, played with lots of puppies, and bought some Coca Cola. I am drawn to animals here, and I find that after a few initial barks, if I put out my hand, squat down, and say “Come here puppy” in a loud, overly dramatic, low baby voice, I can engage almost any dog.

After the storm passed, I spent the last golden hour of the day on a short trip over the foot bridge at the edge of the village. As I walked over, cows started coming in from a day out in the high pastures. They know the drill. I pretended like I was herding them in, but in reality they couldn’t have cared less that I was there.

On walks here I feel a bit like Moses. The locusts/grasshoppers/crickets are abundant, and some of the species have red under their legs, so when they jump out of the way frantically it’s like the red sea is parting before me.

On my second day I explored further beyond the bridge I crossed the day before. I thought I had seen a small group of buildings from my viewpoint above the cemetery yesterday, so that was my goal. So I walked. I parted more Red Seas of crickets. The lower hills in this area are covered with some sort of grass that is fairly unremarkable close up, but that gives the landscape a sheen, as if you’re always catching the contours in their best light. Kind of like those icky shirts back from the early 90s that change colour depending on which way you look at them. As I climb, I realize that there is no cluster of buildings or yurts, and there is no obvious end to my hike. At one point I just stop. I am content. I sit on a rock, swat away the flies around me, and just relax, listen, look. More pondering is involved. A bit of singing.

Back in the village the afternoon storm comes in. I pick up some Snickers bars for the horse trip I have worked out with Artyk for the next morning. A wedding is happening soon, and a cluster of young men have appeared on the main road with streamers and balloons on their vehicles, preparing to kidnap the soon to be bride. They add boister (is that even a word?) to an otherwise sleepy village.

In the evenings here I have been at my computer a lot. I’m actually beginning my prep for being back at home. Resumes. Cover letters. MBA research project prep. Slowly ticking off all the old blog posts I never quite finished. While I’m enjoying it here, I’m excited to get back to Canada too. Opportunities are presenting themselves, and I’m creating others. I feel like great things await.

The next morning I’m up early for the horse, and things start to be a bit hayward. Departure time of 8 has turned into 9. I’m given a tent (aren’t I staying in a yurt?). Are there yurts? Where will I eat? My questions go unanswered, as Artyk left to Bishkek yesterday afternoon and won’t be back until after I’m gone.

Once we sort out loading the bags on the horses, we’re off. It’s not more than a kilometre or so before I realize that this is going to hurt. I’m already shifting in my seat.

Soon we turn off the main gravel road to a rougher side road, which also follows the valley. We alternate between the road and paths below the road. I haven’t said more than 10 words to my guide, and I hope Artyk explained where I wanted to go. I’m assuming everything is fine, which is not always the best things to do when one has expectations, but I let it be.

The river valley is lovely, and is dotted with wild flowers of every possible shade of purple. Pale lavender. Brilliant fuschia. Deep violet. Bright indigo.

We stop for tea at a yurt around noon. Bread, tea, and all manifestations of cows milk – cream, butter, and even thicker brown stuff I don’t recognize. Kymys too. My first taste of the famous fermented horse milk found in Kyrgyzstan. It’s like a tangy yogurt drink. Not horrible, but I can’t finish my cup.

Just a bit further on we stop for lunch and for the night. Lunch is friend potatoes (the uszh) and takes over an hour to prepare. The sky darkens and it stops raining. The guide suggests doing the two lakes tomorrow, on the way down from here. This will mean a full day tomorrow instead of just a few hours. I kind of want to get my horse hours over as soon as possible. Instead I push to go to one of the lakes this afternoon, and to skip the other lake. The sky is still ominous, so no final decision is made yet.

The place that I’m staying at is not a yurt. It’s more of a summer tent, and my guide and I set up our tents along side it. The woman has two cute children, but the young boy gets annoying pretty quickly. He has a penchant for tugging at jacket and hitting my bum. I’m reminded of something that I was told on a hike in New Zealand where I had met a young family. “When you play with children, you will always end up disappointing them” meaning that you will want to stop before they do. This is definitely the case.

The family also has a dog, who absolutely loves me. He sinks into my scratches until he no longer has balance or alertness.

The toilet is outdoors as is expected. I’m told its over a small crest of a hill. At first I just think it’s anywhere over the crest, as you can’t be seen from the camp area. But then I realize they mean that the toilet is just around one big hug rock. There’s no hole in the ground, just a worn trail around this odd rock that’s over 6 feet high. I spot small piles of shit from the baby. They must just shovel it all up every day or so. I decide to pee in the grass instead.

As we wait for the weather to clear, I notice that there’s almost a weather line about the ridge to the right of the valley with the lakes. Blue on one side. Dark grey on the other. I try to convince the guide that the path is clear, but we wait until almost 4:30 before we take off.

We climb steeply with the horses before the high valley starts to level off. It’s nice to be off the route of the road. There are supposed to be two lakes in this valley – a small and large one of the same name. I see a depression that seems to be a dried up pool. I joke to myself that this is the small lake. And then soon the “big” lake is pointed out. It’s pretty piddly as far as lakes go. Hmm.. Maybe the other little depression was the small lake?

It’s still early so we keep going up the valley. Very worthwhile. We run into some shepherds and my guide seems to have a discussion with them as to which way would be the best to continue on further. One joins us along up the broad valley, which we explore for another hour. If I had decided to do both lake valleys tomorrow instead, I would have missed this part, and I’m so glad I didn’t. Wild flowers. High grasses. A valley ending with the eternal snow remnants of an old glacier. We stop for a pause. I take photos and sit and think near the river. I wish I could go to the end but there’s not enough time before the sun goes down.

Back at the tent, dinner is a tasty lagman, the usual noodle dish. I’m not feeling sick, so my appetite is alright. I just hope my stomach stays this way. I head to bed early with a headache and some stomach rumblings, but they don’t turn into anything major. I ponder taking a Gravol, but opt for some acetaminophen instead and fall asleep soon enough.

The night was filled with crazy dreams. If I’ve ever spoken to you about my dreams before, you’ll know that they are strange, but filled with vivid details. Here are the two examples from this night.

My old dance teacher’s husband explains how when he goes to Shanghai, he is accosted by women that make signs with very dirty phrases. In this instance, the women that he speaks of didn’t have time to make a sign, so they got t-shirts printed instead. He arranges to have them arrested.

Except I’m not told this story directly, I read it in fine print on the outside of a pack of Hubba Bubba. My dance teacher retells the story later after I point out the oddness of having this printed on a pack of gum.

The second dream I’m sitting on a WestJet flight waiting to take off. There are a lot of WestJet staff eyeing seats among the paying passengers. I fall asleep before the plane takes off and don’t wake up until after it has landed. I’m confused. After I leave the plane I have to confirm with people where I am. I have landed in Kelowna on my way back to Salmon Arm from this Central Asia trip. An old friend from highschool and her husband are also on this flight, but they don’t want to give me a ride back to Salmon Arm. And then I’m confused as to why I was on the flight. It’s only June 30th and I’m not supposed to be home until the Fall. I wonder what this extra flight home is going to cost.

I surprise my parents at their apartment (which they moved into since I left), but I quickly tell them I’m heading out again and will be back in September for good.

It was all very strange. Interpretations welcome.

The next morning we leave by 9 for the few hours back to Kyzyl-Oi. My ass is so sore from riding yesterday that I spend most of the ride shifting around, changing positions when the one before gets uncomfortable, which usually only takes a few minutes. I pretend my horse and I have developed a special relationship, in which his snorts are his way of telling me thank you. I have become a horse whisperer in my own mind.

Back in Kyzyl-Oi I decide to stay for lunch and then try to hitch a ride to the main Bishkek-Osh road to eventually get to Jalal Abad so I can take a back road to Naryn in the middle of the country. While I’m waiting for lunch I read a portion of a book I’ve got with me about the scientific origins of the earth. It’s mostly about geology. I note a passage by Lord Byron featured on one of the pages, and I feel it’s speaking about me.

I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a feeling…

(37) Murgab, Tajikistan: A goat? Just for us?

Our taxi driver, having offered to drive us to ACTED the night before, picked us up in the morning to visit the NGO office. ACTED had established a community-based tourism organization called META, but this has ceased to operate as of this year. Apparently the yurt owners, horse guides, and jeep operators didn’t think it was worth it. Which means it’s a little tougher for the tourists to find service providers.

The night before Nick, Nic and I had decided to try out a hike over the next few days. We would get our driver to drop us off in the late afternoon at a yurt stay, we’d hike the pass the next morning, and have him pick us up on the other side, where we would stop at some hot springs before heading back to Murgab. At ACTED, our goal was to find a map and touch base with the world-wide-web that we had been missing over the past few days.

We arrive, and it turns out that our driver knows the operator of ACTED and had arranged to open up the office for us on a day that it was normally closed. Duh. And the maps were actually in another room in the building, so other people were called in to open up on their day off. The map ended up being at a scale that was totally not worth it, but we made it worth their while by buying a bunch of locally-made handicrafts.

Instead of the map, Nic found Russian military maps online, of which we took a photo, and the ACTED guy and our driver explained to Nick in Russian what the hike was like. Easy. 6 hours at leisurely pace. Take the left pass instead of the right. Nic was a seasoned hiker in Switzerland, I’m decently experienced, but Nick needed to confirm that his Converse sneakers were good enough for the hike. No problem, he’s told.

It sounds all pretty reasonable.

After ACTED we get dropped off at the market to get ready for the hike. We get some chocolate, bread, and vegetables. Some of the mini chocolates we get are made to look like $100 US bills. Cute. Marco Polo sheep shashlyk (skewered meat) is on offer in the market, but I turned the endangered animal down.

Murgab is not the nicest of places. After the sights of the Wakhan Valley and Pamir Highway, most tourists are not enthused with Murgab. It’s dry (water has to get trucked in) and has the feel of a wild west mining town after the gold rush has ended. The bazaar is made up of two rows of shipping containers. The houses and buildings are placed haphazardly around town – few true streets exist. It’s like some idiot Russians set up shop here, and then quickly realized, “Oh shit, we shouldn’t have done this” but it was too late to move and people just kind of stuck around. But I didn’t find it all that bad. It’s in a scenic location. The homestay options are pretty good. The place has character, as rough as it is.

That afternoon we get picked up to head to the yurtstay. We drive through yet another scenic, broad valley. The mountains are topped with snow. They alternate in greys, reds, and browns. Side valleys are sparsely populated with small clusters of yurts. A girl waves us down on the side of the road. She wants us to charge her batter by changing it with the one in the jeep. The driver turns her down.

About 20km later we end up in the village of the valley of the pass we are going to cross. This “village” consists of 6 yurts and an outhouse. The driver takes us to a family that also has another small room built near the yurt that they can stay in to give us more room. The family consists of a young mother and father, four children (of which some of them are actually their sibling’s children) and the man’s father. The children include two young boys and two babies. One young boy has a lot of fun with us. He can’t stop giggling at our hat-stealing, face making antics. Another boy, just a few years older, is much more grown up. The two or so years difference means he plays less and knows his responsibilities. He’s already a young man. The babies are frightened of us and cry and run away when they spot us. The like using their new-found feet to run around in the grass, but just when they think they’re having a ball, a damned tourist appears, and they run crying for mommy, daddy, aunty, uncle, or grandpa.

Soon after our appearance, a goat gets slaughtered. Nick asks the father what the goat is for, and he replies, “We always slaughter a goat when we have guests.” We’re confused. The financial math doesn’t make sense seeing as we are only staying one night. But we’ve heard about goats getting slaughtered for guests of honour. But is that us? Whatever. We’re having goat for dinner.

The family has an adorable dog. It tries to get close to the goat while it’s getting cut up, but he knows the expected boundaries. It’s a cute dog, and if you say “Salaam” you can shake his paw.

As the evening progress, we spread out and each take walks to enjoy the golden light and find some peace and beautiful scenery. Along the way I have to pee and spot a pile of rocks that looks suitable. Nope, it’s a grave. Move alone.

On my walk back, I get invited into one of the other yurts for tea. They spot Nic a few minutes later and he gets a call in. Once they realize that neither of us speaks Russian and therefore aren’t too entertaining, they go off in search of Nick. We three are soon reunited over drinks and carbs.

We find out that they are here for the summer only. They’re relaxing. No work involved. Basically the Kyrgyz Tajik version of a summer cabin. Except they disassemble this cabin at the end of the season. They live in Murgab during the winter. I can’t imagine anything more desolate that Murgab in the summer, but Murgab in the winter might just have that beat.

We also learn that our hosts (where we are sleep) are having a big wedding tomorrow. They are already husband and wife, but they are finished a new house, so apparently this calls for a big wedding. Nick confirms later that this is actually more like a housewarming, and not a wedding. Over forty people are expected.

One of the young men in the yurt says something in Russian, and Nick almost spits out his tea. He translates.

“You thought the goat was for you, didn’t you?”

We laugh sheepishly and admit that while confusing, we thought that the goat was for us.

Along with tea they serve little fried little dough balls. I’m tired of all the bread and dairy, but these little things are great dipped in thick cream and sprinkled with sugar.

We bow out soon enough, as dinner at our other yurt awaits. After we leave I bring back a bar of chocolate in thanks. We watch the yaks come down for the evening from the high pastures. They know the daily drill.

As we wait for dinner, the young silly boy and I play the “guess which hand the coin is in game” like I do so often with kids. He doesn’t like to play fair and instead of pointing at the one hand he suspects, he grabs both hands. I impressively grab the coin from his ear. My magic skills are shite, but they seem appreciated. If they don’t instill a sense of awe, at least they are a form of amusement.

Dinner was what I had been expecting all along in Central Asia. Meat, bread, and dairy in the form of yogurt, cream and butter. Large bowls of each are spread around the mat in the yurt. Whatever is uneaten goes back into the small kitchen area and is brought out for the next meal. Truly communal eating. This meat is the first meat I’ve had in a homestay. Most meals have been vegetarian – potatoes, cabbage, eggs, bread. I’m not sure what the meat is, and if it is the goat we saw killed earlier. The father and grandfather skin every bit of meat off the bone with a knife and suck the marrow from within. I only take one small piece and eat as much as I can, but I’ve never been much for fat.

After dinner the grandfather prays. It’s the first namaz I’ve seen performed in Central Asia. We then fall into political chats. It’s great to have Nick in our group to converse and translate. How rare it is to find a young Texan travelling to Central Asia who speaks Russian. We talk about the recent Kyrgyz/Uzbek violence in Kyrgyzstan. The grandfather believes that the Uzbeks started it, but that Americans and Russians were provocateurs. We ask what he thinks the solution is.

“Only God knows.”

We ask how they like living in Tajikistan. This area of the country is largely Kyrgyz, and the grandfather has no interest in living in Kyrgyzstan. He says they speak a bastardized form of Kyrgyz up there, mixed with too much Russian.

After the dinner is cleared, we head outside as our beds are made with piles and piles of sleeping mats and blankets. One wide bed is made on the right, one single bed on the left. Our first quick assumption is that the girl and boys are sleeping separately, but it turns out the three of us will be snug as a bug in a rug together, and gramps will be joining us.

I sleep lightly and sporadically. The altitude is 4100m we’re told, but I can’t imagine that we’ve gain 500m since Murgab. I also would like to think that we have more than 600m to climb the next day. Gramps is up at 5am for morning namaz, then the fire gets made to slowly warm us out of bed.

The light in the morning is beautiful. It’s a clear day for our hike and the sky is a deep crisp blue. Breakfast is bread and dairy (I’m so tired of bread), as well as some buttery layered dough thingy. It’s almost like a moist uncooked pie crust rolled out thinly and layer over and over again back over itself, the cut up into pie-piece triangles.

We leave at 9am, first taking a family photo by the yurt. We play “I stole your hat” with the young boy, and are refused a paw after our offers of “Salaam” with the dog. The babies surprise us by waiving goodbye as they are carried near us by the adults. I suppose they hate to see strangers come, but are happy to see them go.

It’s a long, slow walk up the valley. We can hear marmots squeaking all around us, but it’s rare to actually spot one. The yaks are already back up in the high pastures above us. The ground is spotted with tonnes of flowers – purple, white, yellow. For quite a while our hiking takes us along the grassy valley bottom, but soon we start to climb among rocks. Really loose rocks.

The nonpath along the loose rocks becomes steeper and suckier. It’s the kind of rock that takes you back down half a step for each one you take.

The whole time we can see where the pass will roughly be, but not the exact spot. It’s always a little bit around a corner. While I imagine that there is actually a dip of a pass, I have no idea. Nic is quite a bit ahead so I keep asking him for route tips based on what lies ahead.

Soon the rocks become interspersed with snow. The edges of the snowfields are icy and hard to navigate without slipping. Nic has made tracks ahead of us and I’m grateful.

One foot at a time seems to work. I keep my head down. I’m a bit dizzy with height; it’s easy to imagine a wrong step and then a subsequent slide down a few hundred metres. Nick is having a bit of trouble with his sneakers, but he’s a trooper and never complains. Nic is great at making trail. I lead for a bit, but decide I feel comfortable if Nick makes the tracks. Crampons would have been ideal. We were told there was no snow at the pass. This doesn’t look like much from below, but when you are trying to climb it, it feels like much much more.

Nick and I rest near the top as Nic scopes out the best place to cross the pass. It definitely isn’t a pass like I expected. It’s more of a ridge that may or may not have a lowest point.

Finally, we make it. It’s windy at the top. With the cold wind and the altitude I’m having a bit of trouble breathing. Lots of coughing. 4721m. This is the highest I’ve ever been on a hike. I’ve been higher on a bus in Peru, but it’s a lot different when you’ve had to do the footwork yourself.

The valley on the other side is much different that the one we have just come from, but is just as picturesque. As this side is oriented in a more southerly direction, there’s little snow. It’s easy going at first, but then once we cross a small wall of snow the path turns to loose rock. It sucks. At least each slide is a slide in the right direction though. The route is barren, and I have trouble finding a private place to pee. I squat behind a 2 foot rock and hope that Nick and Nic avert their eyes.

I breath a lot better as I warm up and descend, but my nose is running just as much as usual. I opt for the “plug one nostril and blow” approach, wiping whatever remains with my sleeve. My clothes are absolutely nasty.

At the base of the rockfall there is a bit of grass and once we’re all caught up with each other we have a rest and snack on our vegetables, bread, and chocolate. I lay down in the sun and become groggy with relaxation. It’s lovely. I need rest, but there is no time, so we push on.

Down in the river valley the trail is much better. Hard grass with only scattered rocks and gravel. I know already we are going to be late to meet our driver. Once we hit the 4WD road we have another 8km to go.

We spot two boys up ahead. They say hello. About 10 times. Nick asks how far to Madiyan, which is on the main road. They say 1km, but we know that’s wrong. They must mean to get to the 4WD road. We spot two other people, but lose them. Where did they go?

We climb over a crest, and magic. The jeep. Yup, the two people we spotted and lost were driver and son. We originally arranged for him to meet us in Madiyan, on the main valley road below, but he was worried about us. He refused payment for these extra km, even though they were the toughest he’s driven for us.

The 4WD road out makes all other roads I’ve ever been on seem luxurious, and all other 4WD vehicles seem like sissies. There was no road. It was just big rocks. Rivers. And once and a while two tracks that lead through rocks and rivers. Every other 4WD road I’ve been on now just seems like a gravel road with some pot holes. Even if you think your SUV could make this road, you wouldn’t dare. I was glad I didn’t have to walk it in the end.

We hit the main road and turn up the route to some hot springs. We had asked the driver the day before how the hot spring were. The last ones we stopped at near Bulunkul had been more like lukewarm springs. “Hot,” he says.

The road out to the springs skirted the edge of a lush and green valley. A lovely wide river, eventually leading to Sarez Lake, was dotted along its banks with trees and crops, all thriving above 3800m. Sarez Lake is off limits without a permit, as it was formed after an earthquake resulted in river blockage. If another earthquake disrupts this natural dam, experts expect a flood of such devastating proportions that lives and villages would be destroyed all the way into Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. It would be the largest flood ever to be witnessed by humans.

We turn off the main road for the last 10km to the hot springs and follow a narrow gorge. Once we arrive we’re told that all the bathing rooms are taken, so we wait. I entertain myself with the resident dog, which likes to half lay, half stand while getting its ears scratched.

When the first room opens up, the driver asks if we will bathe together. This is definitely not Iran. I wait it out.

As I wait it out, I think. Earlier in the day I had decided, after much indecision, the head on to Kyrgyzstan. The prospects of maybe teaching English in Khorog did not appeal to me, and as much as I enjoyed it there, I just wanted to push on. And then, in my post-hike induced clarity, I realize that my Kyrgyz visa not good until the 2nd, so back to Khorog it is. I’m happy enough with the outcome. The decision has been made for me.

Finally it’s my turn for the bath. The water is not hot. It is F***ING hot. I accidentally hop in, and then hop out, and then finally back in again. Is there no cold water mixing option? I have a whole little pool to my naked self, but I quickly rinse off as much filth as I can, and get out. I’m so hot I’m dizzy. I dress as fast as I can in order to catch some fresh cool air.

Before we head back into Murgab, we have tea with the older man that seems to run the place. He looks like a Kyrgyz pimp with his traditional hat, trench coat, and think glasses.

As has become so common now, we (through Nick) and our host discuss politics. We discuss the recent turnover in government in Kyrgyzstan, and the man reveals is is not a fan of parliamentary government. He believes that a country needs one strong man to lead its people (though he later confirms that one strong woman would also be OK). This strong leader is needed to hold back the influences of Russian and US, and soon China. He worries about the possible influence of Islamic fundamentalism in Kyrgyzstan, noting that its not a problem in Tajikistan because of the strong President. The influence of the Taliban is not a problem if the government and its people don’t want it. He says the people here are not interested in what that kind of religion brings.

Pimp comes back with us to Murgab. He sits in the back so that we can continue our conversation. We stop for a series of photos, the driver now attuned to our English cues of wanting to stop. The sun is almost setting and has washed the green valley in golden light.

Once back in Murgab, the air is so clear we can easily see the 7546m snowy peak of Muztagh Ata in the distance (in China). Apparently it’s the easiest 7 thousander to climb in the world. It’s more of a really high broad hill that a jagged peak, but I’m sure it requires skill just the same.

I get a photo with the drive as we say goodbye. I really regret not getting his name and phone number to pass on to other tourists heading to Murgab. He was really a gem, and this season has been very slow with the lack of tourists heading through to Kygyzstan. He tells us that we are only his second group of tourists all season, and the season is half-way over.

Dinner is met with hungry stomachs that are filled quickly. Some miscommunication happens as I think the homestay owner is asking if she can take my plate, when it turns out she was asking if I wanted my plate refilled. Thankfully Nick has no problem shovelling down the extra portions.

So tomorrow, our original group of 5 which fractured to 3 will be divided again as Nic and I head back to Khorog and Nick head to Kyrgyzstan to meet up with a friend in Osh before he continues to Uzbekistan.

I’ve got about 5 days to fill before my Kyrgyz visa starts. Will I volunteer? Hang out? Try to hike some more?

Only one thing is definitely on my list. Laundry.

(9) Savur, Turkey: I’m stuffed

Getting out of Göreme was a bit of a pain. The local bus companies have a monopoly on long distance travel – they won’t sell you a ticket to the next main town an hour away, from where you can get a ticket anywhere. Instead you have to buy a long distance ticket, which takes you to the next main town and you have to change buses anyways. Sigh.

I got as far as Diyarbakir by about 8 in the morning, and took a (damned expensive) taxi to the minibus station to get to a small town of Savur. Savur has nothing of note to see in particular – it’s just a nice small village set on the side of a hill, which one main accommodation option set in an old, traditional home. My plan was to spend just one night, but it wasn’t long before I opted for two.

The drive there was lovely. Leaving Diyarbakir I passed two main things of note: a street-side tomb purchasing market, and fields of poppies. The area is dry, but I’m often surprised by lush pockets of green, and blankets of poppies interspersed among the matchstick grasses.

On the way there, the minibus got pulled over. Everyone’s papers are checked, mine included. It’s a Kurdish area and there are some security concerns, but nothing big. The police guy keeps asking me a question, something like “An la?” I respond back with “An la?” We don’t get very far. Eventually he gives up and we continue on.

I arrive at the guesthouse, and have a bit of a siesta. It’s much warmer here than Göreme, and the heat has got to me. I’m hooked on a book and pass in and out of sleep.

Before the sun begins to go down, I set out for a walk around the village. I motion to the house mother that I’m going for a walk (fingers make walking motion) and to eat (hand to mouth motion). She motions to indication that a meal is included at the guest house, but I’m not sure if it’s dinner or breakfast. I head out with plans to eat something light so that I’m ready for either possibility.

Today must be carpet washing day. It seems every home has a dripping wet carpet hung over balcony railings. I spot two young girls above me working a carpet and I ask to take a picture. Soon enough they ask me “Come, café?” and I head to their home for some god-awful coffee.

The two sisters are soon joined by 4 other girls. With our basic knowledge of each others’ languages, we determine ages and marital status, and I learn that at least two of them have boyfriends, even one girl who is 12. Apparently her boyfriend is 11. Robbing the cradle it seems.

They take turns arranging themselves for photos, sharing their English school workbooks with me, and whispiggling (a word I just made up that describes a combination of whispering and giggling). Apparently they think I can understand them so sometimes keep their voices low. They run in and out of the room in pairs or alone or all together, leaving me to push down the coffee. They take turns getting their pictures taken, and by the time I leave, they’ve had a full on photo shoot it seems. I get their email addresses and head back out to explore the town.

The children here seem to have picked up some lovely habits when passing by travellers in the street. Clean, well dressed, well fed children stick their hands out and ask for money. I talk to the guest house owner later and he seems to think that these children must have spent time in Mardin, the larger and more travelled version of Savur two hours away. These children aren’t from Savur, apparently.

I wander around the town a bit further as the sun sets. I poke my head into a few eating spot-looking places, where I get the stare down from the men that exclusively eat or (more likely) drink tea there. I end up back at the guest house starving, with plans to eat one of my few remaining protein bars that I brought with me on the trip.

However, apparently dinner was included, and after half an hour of photos on the rooftop, a huge spread is laid out for me. Zucchini in a lovely garlic yogurt sauce and a variety of veggie and meat stews and kabobs. I think the meal is meant for four, as I barely make a dent. Good thing I didn’t stop for food in the village.

The next morning, I find that breakfast is included too, and am served a standard Turkish breakfast – sliced cucumber and tomatoe, bread with a selection of cheese, honey, jam and butter, and a hardboiled egg. At points on this trip I make a note to have more breakfasts like this when I go back to Canada. But really, who I am kidding. 1) I’m getting near vegan, so most of the ingredients won’t fly; and even more of a reason: 2) Too much work in the morning.

I eat leisurely and eventually head out for a walk up above the village. I don’t know how I manage to do this, but I often end up heading up on adventures in the hottest heat of the day. I get up to the top of a ridge, and find a quite place in the shade of a small bush. I enjoy the view and take time to think (and continuously wipe the sweat from my face). I take a different route down, trying not to disturb the horses, donkey, cows, sheep and goats that seem to be getting along well together along the route. Back in Savur I explore the village once more, and get back to the guest house for a well deserved (as I reason anyway) siesta.

One of the things I do is arrange some information that I need for my next destination: northern Iraq. It’s not a destination I originally planned on, but after speaking with some others who have been there, and reading some online forums, the Kurdish region of Iraq seems like a safe and interesting choice. I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to say they’ve been to Iraq? At first I was just thinking I’d hop across the border, spend a night and come back, but after a bit more research I plan to spend a few days. I don’t have a guidebook, but enough information and rough maps from websites and forums that allow me the basics I need.

The spread for dinner that night was smaller, but just as tasty. I sneak into the kitchen to see what was cooking, and they explain a soup on the stove. There’s no direct translation for what the soup is made up of, but the main ingredient translates to  “a paste of yogurt and flour”. The result is much tastier than it sounds, and with that and the rest of the offerings, I head to bed absolutely stuffed. This seems to be a trend on this trip.

I wake up early for an 8am dolmus to Midyat, from where I’ll get to the Iraqi border. Another leisurely breakfast is followed by a prayer bead bracelet from the guesthouse owner as I wait for the dolmus. My first Turkey souvenir.

(8) Goreme, Turkey: Motorcycle mama

Ahhh…I’m back to being in love with night trains.

When I left you last in Istanbul, I was recovering from a creepy man on a night train and questioning my existence as a traveller. Catching (by 2minutes) a ferry across the Bosphorus to the train station, I made it to my third attempt at a positive night train experience. I was not disappointed.

I spent the equivalent of about $45 for a 16 hour train ride and an immaculate room with bunk beds all to myself. An attendant on each car cam to make up the beds and provide a towel. There was a pull out countertop to make a portable office, and a mini fridge stocked with a few tasty items.

Can’t say I sleep totally well, though, as every time my ladder knocked against the wall or any other similar sound was made, I woke up with a start thinking creepy man was trying to get back in my room again.

Otherwise, lovely.

Arrived in a city called Kayseri, where I slogged to a bus stop with a couple from Montreal in order get to the main bus station. A man at the stop said that he was getting on the same bus and would show us when to get off. He also offered to pay for us. Note that I’m assuming this is what he said based on his hand gestures. Much uncertainty, but it seemed alright to me. The young woman from Montreal almost started crying – the uncertainty, the heat, her heavy pack. She said she was more independent when she travelled alone, but the near meltdown had me thinking otherwise.

Göreme is a main tourist centre of a region of Turkey called Cappadocia. Cappadocia, which once had an economy based on underground lemon storage and collecting pigeon shit for fertilizer, is now heavily tourism dependent. Lemons are still stored. The pigeon shit industry, however, has collapsed.

The attraction of Cappadocia lies in its unique geography and related homes and churches. Long periods of erosion have left many pillars of stone and dirt which dot the landscape. The pillars, called fairy chimneys, once contained complete homes, and but more often now contain guest houses. Similarly unique-looking valleys have complete villages carved into the earth, with bricks used only sparingly.

My stay in Göreme was overwhelmingly relaxing. I spent four days here overall, and used my time to hike, motorcycle, and write. It helped that the place I found to stay at had a lovely shaded rooftop terrace, wifi, and a great view.

While Göreme has become well touristed over the years, I don’t find it offensive. (Update: Camels were just brought by our outdoor restaurant eating area for rides. Perhaps I spoke too soon). I think the surroundings help – the immediate physical geography surrounding the town means there is a reason for people to be here.

My longest hike took me 5 hours up above Göreme, under sedimentary layers and above eroding, rolling, technicolour canyons. I found myself in old rooms (homes?) carved into the mountain, with doors that walked off into thin air (has the geography changed so much?). I spotted lemon caves and old pigeon shit collectors, admired frescoes in old churches built within rock walls, and wandered through a semi-abandoned village carved out of hills and fairy chimneys.

The walk was a great reminder that what I love about travel is most often the physical geography. I can be at peace in stunning surroundings. I can sit, think, enjoy views and be content. History? Meh.

On the hike I also finally bent my orthodontic wire enough so that it snapped off. It’s still in contact with 4 teeth – I hope my hard earned teeth stay in place for the next five months.

My motorcycle circuit took me far. It had been suggested to me the night previously by a local restauranteur that the valley to the east of Göreme was much more scenic than the valleys south. I’m so glad I took his advice. While the road was cold, even with my fleece done up tight, the air was lovely and the views ever changing. I stopped at a great little old monastery looked after by an engaging host who had been looking after the area as a volunteer (along with his father) for 40 years.

Winding my way through the hills, I knew I was getting low on gas, and was starting to get concerned as I hadn’t seen a gas station since I started earlier in the day. I’m sure most villages have a “gas guy” that has buckets of gas somewhere, but I wasn’t desperate enough to start asking, and soon could see that I would make it to the next big town, where I was sure gas would await.

And it did. I filled up, had some chai with with a group hanging out at the station, and headed back to Göreme on a long boring highway. At this point, I was cold, tired and sore and just wanted to get home, but stopped just before Göreme at another scenic village and some viewpoints. I’m really loving the geology here.

Other than these two more major excursions, I walked, met some interesting people, had some great food, and enjoyed the weather (though the nights are cold). I’ve had a lot of time to think about my plans for the next few days, and I’m torn. There are one or two places that interest me, but I worry that I would put a lot of time and effort to getting there, only to be disappointed. I suppose that a poor excuse, but unless the location is in physically stunning surroundings (do I hear an echo in here?), I’m not content (especially if the accommodation is crap). So I’ve cut two originally intended destinations from plans, and am heading directly to Savur, a small village set among valleys and mountains, with a unique guest house. It’s expensive compared to what I’m used to, but I hope it will be worth it.