(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!

(33) Khorog, Tajikistan: Tajikistan = mountain love

Wow. What a drive. Both in length and vistas.

The guesthouse manager had said the drive would be about 12-13 hours. That if I left about 9:30 (which I did) I would arrive by 10 (which I did not).

The drive probably is more like 18 hours, but when you figure in 1) waiting for a 10m section of road to be paved (literally waiting for the asphalt to be poured, raked flat, and rolled over) 2) a legitimately tired driver wanting to nap for 4 or 5 hours, 3) running out of gas in the middle of nowhere and waiting for one of the passengers to hitch to the next village and back with gas, the whole trip ended up taking 25 hours.

But, what a drive.

The first 6 hours were fairly boring. It started with, well not starting. It seems inevitable that when a vehicle is full and all passengers are set that it’s not actually time to depart. First gas. In this case, gas taken by glass jars from open barrels, poured into the vehicle through a funnel. We also were stopped by multiple traffic police, at which point our driver soon realized that the starter wasn’t working, and that in order to get going we were going to have to find a way to get a rolling start (which remained true for the rest of the 25 hours).

On a side note, while I didn’t see any money change hands when we were stopped repeatedly at the beginning of this trip, traffic police apparently squeeze a few somanis out of many stopped cars. Next to the president’s inner circle, I suspect traffic police are the next richest group of citizens in Tajikistan. They’re everywhere, and always out in full force.

But back to the actual drive. Again, the beginning was fairly unremarkable. Rolling hills and incredibly hazy sky. We stopped for lunch, where I ordered the only word I recognized – borsht – and the ladies were treated by the men. This is the first shared taxi that I’ve taken where a majority of passengers are women. The four of us were treated for dinner that evening too.

After lunch before we start our climb over a pass, we stop for fruit and get accosted. Little children asking for money. Little children trying to pull the windows down and open the doors to ask for money. An old man who really wants a ride, and won’t take “sorry, we’re full” as an answer. Those not buying fruit lock ourselves inside. One man comes back, sets his grapes down on the seat, and I soon find myself sitting in water. I spend the rest of the trip sitting on a towel. We take off, and one of the packages on the roof falls off. A comedy of errors.

Eventually, we crested the pass, and descended into an increasingly remarkable canyon. In the far distance through the canyon I could see snow-capped peaks. Was this Afghanistan?

Soon enough the canyon emptied into a broad river valley, were we met up with the Panj river, separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan. My first glimpse of an Afghan village was very exciting. I couldn’t believe that right there, across the river, was Afghanistan. Where as the Tajik side was serviced by road, the Afghan side wasn’t even serviced by electricity. Villages were few and far between, with narrow footpaths as their sole connections.

As the river valley narrowed to have steep rock faces line each side, my new pasttime became following the footpath on the Afghan side. The path was carved haphazardly yet thoughtfully into the most forgiving part of the sheer walls. Sometimes the paths dipped below the water line – the river was higher than usual. What happens in that case – are the villages completely cut off? At one point I spotted three men walking along the path. As we continued driving, it seemed like hours before we spotted any civilization. Where were the men coming from? Sometimes the rock wall became too vertical, and the path would have to climb high about the river. Sometimes I would lose the path, and find it again only to be dumbfounded as to how it would be possible to climb and descend it without falling.

At first I thought this would be a great place to come for a hiking trip. But as the paths got more and more extreme, I thought it would be a bit of a death wish.

At dinner I sat with the women. I asked the youngest one (20 years old) the usual third question after “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” and “Are you married?”

“No,” she responded with a smile. “I’m studying medicine.” Right on! I thought.

After dinner the ladies went to find a toilet. The public toilet was the first truly public toilet on this trip. No stalls. Just a huge line of holes with two foot high dividers between them. The only private one is the last one, as no one can walk by you.

About half an hour after dinner, the driver decided to stop for a rest. Completely reasonable considering he had been driving for over 12 hours and he still had at least another six to go.

The women lie out on a large platform bed outdoors. We’re there for 4 hours, but I swear I only sleep for less than 30 minutes. One problem is the bugs, or at least my imagination. They keep flying into me or crawling on me. And the cold that I developed in Dushanbe is in full swing. My nose won’t stop running. My head aches. I sneeze. And sneeze. And sneeze.

Once we’re back in the car I manage to nod off for a bit while it’s still dark, and skip breakfast for more napping.

And then it was light, and I noticed the valley had opened up. Still stunning. I was offered to go to the homes of two of the passengers, but seeing as I was sick and was arriving in Khorog at a decent hour, I wanted some privacy.

Khorog is a nice little town, set in a valley just up from the main valley that borders on Afghanistan. The streets are tree-lined, the air is fresh, and the mountain views are lovely.

I ended up at the main backpacker haunt in Khorog. Mainly because I was hoping to meet some other people interested in sharing a jeep up the Wakhan Valley over a few days. I did meet some interesting people. Lots of cyclists. A group of motorbikers heading over into Afghanistan, including a Calgarian. An English woman doing research with the local Ismailis. Had a good laugh when a German cyclist very seriously told a group of us that he was a warm doucher. It sounded funnier than it looks in print.

Through the information centre I was able to hook up with a young Texan and two older French women who were also interested in sharing a jeep. It worked out pretty perfectly, though I could tell early on that the French women, one in particular, might be a bit too assertive for my liking. But Nick, the Texan, spoke Russian, so he was going to be a great help. That night I also found one more traveller, Nic from Switzerland, looking to go, so we were 5 in total. Perfect.

Before we left Khorog, I achieved two important things. First was finding a place to eat a better variety of food than the standard Tajik fare. I was able to try an Indian restaurant (though while run by an actual Indian, does not compare to India or Vancouver), a kind of fancy cafe overlooking the water (which served decent tasting food in small portions and at high prices), and finally, my favourite, the Russian restaurant. The place looked like a Russian love dungeon. It was dark and furnished in dark wood and red satin. Apparently it was a night club later in the evening. But it served good food. I settled on mashed potatoes (yum!), vegetable ragout (yum!), and a main dish called “Perfume of Love” (huh!?). I had enquired about the “Canadian Steak” but it was described to me as “chopped up meat”. Perfume of Love, on the other hand, was a chicken breast, covered in chopped up green peppers and onions in some sort of cream, topped with slices of tomatoes and melted cheese.

The second thing was to inquire into some volunteering possibilities. I popped into the Aga Khan Foundation office to see a woman I had met briefly on the way to the tourist information office earlier in the day. I wanted to find out if any project work was available in Kyrgyzstan or possibly Tajikistan. I have quite a bit of time to spend in this area, and with visa extensions being much easier in Kyrgyzstan, the former seems like a better option. I met with Nuria and her colleague Azicha, explaining my interests and experiences, inquiring about contacts or projects they may be able to direct me to. They offered to make some inquiries and get back to me. Which would be difficult seeing as I was leaving the next morning, and I didn’t have a cell phone. Azicha was a bit surprised I wouldn’t have a mobile.

“A man without a mobile is, is like, …. like a border guard without a gun.”

An odd choice of simile.

On our way out of the office, I met of friend of Nuria’s who was selling a phone. He didn’t have it with him, but said he would bring it by in the morning, all set with a SIM card and some credit. 8am. When I was meeting the others at the PECTA office to leave in the jeep.

Yeah, that never happened. I’m not sure what it is, but as firm as you think plans, are, plans never seem to be plans here. Ah well.

Instead, it was Nick, Nic, Francoise, Mary Florence and I ready to take off for four days through the Wakhan Valley and east Pamir Highway. An eclectic bunch.

(25) Darvaza and Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan: Into the fiery pits of hell

I sat waiting to meet the local travel agency rep at 2pm in my hotel lobby. I figured she wouldn’t be late, seeing as we were meeting so I could pay her for my tour.

At 3:15pm I get a call from her via the hotel reception – why wasn’t I at the other hotel? Uh, because you told me to meet you here at 2 and I’ve been waiting for over an hour. Apparently some messages weren’t passed on by reception that I was supposed to meet her at Julica’s hotel at 3pm. Even if I got that message, I wouldn’t have gone. I’m not paying hundreds of dollars not get picked up and to have to lug my bags across the city.

So we get it all sorted, and eventually are on the road at about 4pm.

(Aside: Instead of me drawing this out in a bajillion words like I usually do, let me show you my intermittent blog writing process. Sometimes when I don’t have time or desire to write a complete post, I’ll just write notes to remind me later. Below is the rest of this post, in point form.)

pick up supplies. more vodka.

long drive. desolate. passed two towns.

camels. intermittent sand dunes.

flat tire. road is hot. sand is hot, too hot to touch or walk in without boots.

stop one more time for supplies. this time it’s mixers for the vodka. egg to test on the hot ground. camels tied up in the back yards.

water crater. old gas crater filled with water. small bubbles.

sun is going down, shadows are long, light is golden.

destination down sand road. like driving down a waterslide. set up camp near the burning gas crater. can’t see much other than heat waves.

viewpoint reveals inside the crater. not what I expected, but possibly better. like hell. fire and brimstone. what is brimstone? maybe this.

dinner is chicken shishlak (shish kabobs) and salad. we make the salad. guide and driver sit with the meat. before we eat, vodka commences. a bottle costs about $2. i pass every second round, so as to not repeat last time’s after effects.

moon starts to rise. we leave dinner for the crater and photos. darkness. crater is truly like I imagine hell would be. functioning gas well in the 50s but exploded and not possible to close. setting on fire is the safest option.

guide stays behind as we walk down to crater but Maksad, the guide from Mary, is also here. our guide more interested in vodka than guiding. slept with iPod most of day.

dung beetles attracted if you do the ‘big event’ says Maksad. I don’t understand at first. ah, yes, take a crap.

arrange with Maksad to maybe send my lost swiss army knife with other tourists.

btw, Marta and Kuba still have passport held hostage in Ashgabat. sneaky.

more vodka and chatting back at camp. uzbek tips from australian/french couple. guide keeps interrupting convo with fairly irrelevant commentary.

temperature is nice in wind, but tent a bit stuffy. settle into sleep.

up at 6:30

simple bfast. my stomach is off, but i don’t think from alcohol.

drop of polish couple – hitching back to ashgabat.

more desert.

fish got for lunch from fisherman.

roads bad. better to drive on gravel shoulder than actual road.

more old mosques and mausoleums. yawn. funny hill that people roll down for good luck – fertility, prosperity.

stopped in konye-urgench. finally a real town in this make believe country.

market before lunch. colourful. scarfs. photos. smiles. police give us the “no photos” arm cross, but then walk away. we ignore them.

fish takes a long time, but good. lovely yogurt. where did the rest of the fish go?

hurried out. more time at market? driver needs to go back to ashgabat. phone call with antonina. feeling rushed out of county. our itinerary said 6pm.

walk again, but stopped by julica falling in man hole. no ice. ice cream, frozen vegetable stock, half frozen juice in a bag. limited first aid. accidentally sit on egg i meant to test. comedy of errors in our last hour in Turkmenistan.

finally to the border.

This border was possibily the funniest and easiest border crossing I’ve had yet. We start off on the Turkmen side, where our guide has warned us not to take photos. However, Julica asks the first two guards, hanging underneath a tree, if she can take a photo of them. Instead of the usual stern faced, crossed arms we have experienced so far, we get giggles. They point at each other and say things that must translate to something like “Take a picture of him!” “No, take a picture of him!”

We get to the first main checkpoint, and I’m nervous about the painting I have. I don’t want it confiscated. We get to a room where it seems bags may be searched, and I find that I need to use the toilet. Now. We ask the guards. No toilet they say. I plead, and they laugh. They point to a building behind the room we are in. Oops, I stand corrected. They point to behind the building that’s behind the room we are in. I relieve myself in tall grass. When I come back, I expect the luggage search, but I am waived on. At the next stop the Turkmen guard speaks rather good English, and other than checking our passports briefly and telling us the extra paperwork we have been carrying in our passports for the past 6 days is now our souvenir and not important, he waives away our praise of his English. “I’m just a beginner,” he says with a humble smile.

Just before we cross into Uzbekistan, a final, solemn guard checks our passports. Considering how difficult and stern the other police have been, these four checkpoints have been breezy. Julica suggests it’s because we’re on our way out. They’re happy to see us leave.

In Uzbekistan, the first borderguard makes a remark about the Vancouver Olympics. I ask him which sports Uzbek athletes are good at, and he apologizes that he understands English better than he can speak it, so instead he mimes an array of sports. It’s like we’re playing charades. Uh… downhill skiing? No! Rowing? Yes! Next one. Uhhh…. wrestling, no, no… uhhh.. judo! This goes on for a while.

The next stop is the customs stop. We are given forms to fill out twice. In the “do you have art?” column, I move to check yes, but the guard tells me no. I point to the painting. He still says no. I suspect it’s because it will make more work for him, not because it’s the legitimate thing to do.

He asks sternly to look in our bags; specifically, he wants to see our medicine. I pull out my small ziploc bag of first aid supplies. He slowly flips through my bandaids one by one. He takes out my tensor bandage. “What is this?” he asks. I mime a hurt knee and getting bandaged. At this point I really hope he’s not planning to go through the whole bag. I don’t want to have to explain condoms. But he stops. He’s apparently not interested in the unlabeled pill containers I have.

Then the man checks out my passport again, and suddenly he’s all smiles.

“Vancouver?” he questions. “Vancouver Canucks!”

I start laughing in amazement. “Yes, Vancouver Canucks.”

He continues. “Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers!” He starts listing Canadian NHL teams eastward. This is surreal.

And then, it was over. The now friendly border guard helps us confirm a fair price for a taxi, and we head off. The driver drops us off at our hotel and tries to pretend that the price we agreed on was per person. We walk away. Our first impression of Uzbekistan.