(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…

(28) Buchara, Uzbekistan: Toilet talk

As it seems to be everywhere in Uzbekistan so far, getting from Khiva to Buchara was a pain in the ass. Probably the least so far, but still. I hauled all my stuff to the shared taxi/marshrutka stand, and am offered a taxi to Urgench. While this is where I want to get to, I don’t want a taxi on my own.

I had asked the guesthouse owner earlier in the morning what the Russian or Uzbek word for shared taxi was. He said there wasn’t one as most taxis are shared taxis. However, when I want a taxi, the drivers look at me with dollar signs and try to get me to pay for the full taxi. Grr.

But I do get a shared taxi, and get to the aftovagsal (bus station) where I should be able to get a shared taxi to Buchara, though once again the vultures pounce and assume I want a taxi to myself. I spot a minibus, and opt to wait for it fill the remainder of the 15 spaces rather than trying to explain, once again, that I want a shared taxi, and where is one please?

We leave before completely full, which is nice, but a man crams in beside me, resulting in four sitting across when only two are sitting in the next row back. He smells in need of sleeping off the drink. As soon as I determine we are, in fact, on our way and not picking up passengers at another location in town, I hop over the bench seat to the relatively spacious luxury of the next row. At the next stop, the couple that was originally beside me in the front row changes places so that the man is in between his woman and the drunk man. They seem to have the same idea I had. The drunk man ends up spending most of the trip nodding off, often splaying himself on the shoulder of the man in the middle. I pat myself on the back for changing seats.

It seems that Uzbekistan is one big dessert. Other than the cities I stop in, one or two oasis villages, and the odd truck stop, there is nothing. Sand, scrub, flatness. It’s hard to imagine the vibrant civilizations here that were fought over by multiple tyrants over the past few millennia. It’s dry and hot. I do spot at least one flock of sheep, but wonder what they eat or drink? I can’t see anything that would sustain them.

I wish I could say the journey was lovely, as I often enjoy the journey as much or more than the destination, but this is not the case. While seeing straight roads and flatness is notable for me, I’m satisfied after about an hour of it. I love mountains, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen one. And it’s bloody hot here. Consistently above 40, and more usually 45.

We get within 100km of Buchara, and stop at an isolated, half abandoned truck stop. A dilapidated shack, a leaning outhouse. Apparently we are out of gas. The country ran out of gasoline/diesel stores within the past week, and apparently individuals are also running low on their personal stashes that usually last them through times like this. I’m not sure where we are expecting to get more from.

So we wait. My Lonely Planet gets passed around. People point out the words and place names in Cyrillic with pride. I expect we’ll be waiting for longer than we actually do – only about half an hour before a car pulls up with a jerry can in the trunk. We eventually get to Buchara after 7 hours.

I end up at the same guest house that Katarina and Christina are booked into. The room is absolutely lovely. Amazing decor, lovely common spaces, and a clean, comfortable bed. I head out for dinner, and get ripped off but enjoy the venue around a fountain pool with hundreds of Uzbek tourists. Was originally excited to eat borsht (yay! vaguely vegetarian!) and then am pleasantly surprised with meatballs at the bottom.

The next morning I have a lovely breakfast at the guest house (french toast and crepes!) and head out to get a visa cash advance (its been a month and a half since I’ve had easy access to money) and pay Katarina back. I explore the town, but I’m getting pretty bored of mosques, madressas, and markets. Give me mountains! (Thankfully, Tajikistan is about a week away). I stopped at a crowded jewelry market, chatted it up with some local women, changed money with them, and went on to explore more of the city.

The only site I made an effort to really check out is an old prison. Apparently a few centuries ago an important British man came to do something in Buchara, but offended the locals, and was put in a pit prison. Then a while later another British man came to check in after the first man, and was also put in prison. Obviously the whole story wasn’t that important to me, but it was a well kept little prison.

On the way back to the centre of the old town, I explored little lanes and alleys lined with homes. At one point I fell into conversation with an extended family on one street corner, and I enjoyed some tea and soup with bread, we took lots of photos and I got their address to mail photos later. This is now the third time in the past three days. I’ve tried to explain each time that it will be a while – probably October or November before they get them. I hope they understood and don’t give up hope after a few weeks. I also hope that when I send them they actually get to their destinations. I’m not sure I have complete faith in the Uzbek postal system.

By this point, it’s hot, and it’s time for a siesta. Back at the guesthouse I fall in and out of sleep. And then, I start to feel ill.

I won’t go into complete details, but I spent the next 8 hours either sitting on, puking in, or sleeping in front of the toilet. Thank god I had my own room and it was wonderfully clean. Everything in my digestive system, plus probably another few litres of water from elsewhere, left my body. By midnight I was feeling alright. I had a huge craving for a cold orange, but knew this wasn’t going to happen. I gave up on the idea of getting on a train in the morning. I also had missed dinner with Katarina and her mother.

I felt much better the day after, but I spent it resting. Sleeping, watching Al Jazeera or France 24 in English, just laying there. Katarina came by with some yogurt, water and juice, and I got some bread and cheese from the guesthouse. Since I was staying an extra day, I would be able to catch the same train as the Germans and prepared myself for leaving early the next morning.

We had an early breakfast and caught a taxi for the train station, but for me, it wasn’t meant to be. No tickets left. Katarina and Christina had got their tickets two days previous, so we said goodbye. I tried to plead with the station attendants, but got nowhere. I’m pretty sure bribing might have worked, but didn’t know what was appropriate. 50 cents? $5? Surely not $20. I picked up a ticket for the next day and went back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel I was made to switch rooms. Apparently my room had already be cleaned, but I suspect they just wanted to give my a lower grade room so that they could rent out the nicer one. No price cut for the new room either. “All the same price,” I’m told. Lots of little lies – these weren’t the first. I wish the rooms weren’t so damn nice, otherwise I would have left because of the vibe I got off the manager.

I went out to explore one last bit of the city, feeling like I should take some advantage of my extra day here. More lanes, a Jewish cemetery. Overall Uzbekistan has failed to really impress me so far. Great accommodation options, I’ll give the country that much. But lots of dry scrub dessert. Old towns and architecture that do not compare to Iran.

One nice thing about staying an extra day was running into Marta, Kuba and Julica again. It always happens by chance – no plans are involved – but that’s just the way Uzbekistan seems to roll. We made plans for dinner, and I spent most of the rest of the day scoping out embassies in Tashkent and napping – I’m still not feeling perfect. At dinner I had about 3 bites plus a half shot of vodka, then retired.

And finally, I’ve decided my final route on this trip. Not the day to day route, but at least how I plan to get back to Canada. I’m not going to share how or when, but I’m very content with my decision. Just hope it all works out. You can still vote for how I should spend my birthday, but as my mom said in a recent email, I’m not likely to be swayed.

(26) Nukus, Uzbekistan: Can a girl get some f***ing transportation in here?

Nukus isn’t much of a destination. The two reasons (I’m aware of) that people come here is to 1) see the art museum and 2) take a trip out to the former shores of the Aral Sea. I planned to do both, and then leave as soon as possible.

After Julica and I arrived, we took a walking tour of the town to get our bearings and find out any options we had (for food, entertainment, other accommodation). The town was pitch black. Very few people on the streets, no street lights, and no discernible “downtown”. The extent of our evening included getting harassed by a drunk guy, passing by some sort of well-lit government building, walking through the very basic amusement park, and finally finding a place to eat dinner (where we randomly had 3 guys purporting themselves to be English teachers – we believed one of them). This town was definitely not meant to have tourism as its economic base.

Uzbekistan, like Turkmenistan, has annoying paperwork obsessions. In Uzbekistan, not all hotels can accept tourists. But tourists have to be registered while they are in Uzbekistan, and this happens at each hotel/guesthouse you stay at. After each stay, the hotel will give you a little slip of paper (perhaps even just a stamp on a post-it note) that you need to keep to show when you leave the country. (Update: mine were not checked when leaving into Tajikistan).

That night, I attempted to make a plan to leave while still seeing everything I wanted to. I would visit the museum in the morning, and then get a taxi out to Moynak (former fishing community, now a desert wasteland) which would then take me to my next destination, Khiva.

It was a great plan in theory.

The taxi option was ridiculously expensive, though somewhat legitimately. The country’s gas stations ran out of gas the week before, and drivers were slowly also running through private stashes.

So instead, in the morning I happened to meet Christina and Katarina – German mother and daughter – who were also interested in heading to Moynak. Katarina had spent the past 9 months in Uzbekistan, teaching German in Tashkent. She spoke a little Russian and Uzbek, and so I tagged along with them as we attempted to catch public transport out to Moynak (a 200 km trip).

Our first marshrutka (minivan) we thought was going to take us to the town halfway to Moynak. Turns out it was only taking us to the place where taxis hang out that are heading to the town halfway to Moynak. I watch Katarina closely as she bargains, trying to learn this skill which I have tried so long to get by with not knowing.

We get to Kunigrad, and spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to make the second half of the trip happen. A man adopts us at the bazaar, and it seems like he’s trying to find us our next marshrutka, but after a while it seems apparent that he just likes to walk around and repeat what we say. Finding a marshrutka in the end was half test of patience, half pure luck.

The drive out to Moynak was long, flat, and dry. And hot. When we arrive, the town is a lot larger than I expect. I have no idea how we are going to find the deserted boats that mark the old sea shore. The town was strange – all the buildings and streets were faced with one big wall. Like all the life and activity was taking place behind them, and the streets were left dead. I don’t know what sort of life exists here though. The industry has completely crashed since the drying of the sea. What remains?

We are in luck with finding the boats, as our marshrutka driver takes us right out to where the boats are. He goes even further by asking how much time we want, and tells us he will take us back to Kunigrad after. For the same reasonable price. Remarkable.

The boats and the sand are beautiful, but depressing. Surreal really. There are about seven large fishing boats, rusted from bow to keel (are those the proper boat part names?). The sand is hot, and littered with sea shells. All this 180km from the current sea shore. It’s utterly inconceivable that Moynak used to be a thriving fishing community, until the Soviets decided to divert most of its feeder rivers to irrigate cotton fields. What’s amazing is that they expected the sea to dry up. It’s not certain whether they expected the scale of environmental disaster that followed.

High above to boats, informative posters show the gradually shriking of the shoreline. A huge monument has been erected this year, with an image of 1960 and 2010 sea shapes respectively. As though they are celebrating 50 years of ecological catastrophe and depleted communities.

On our way back we stop briefly in the centre of Moynak to wait for any more passengers. A small child, maybe 18 months old, is placed in the middle seat on her own as if she’s just another passenger, waiting for the car to leave. She sits silently, barely noticing the three foreigners questioning her existence. When we leave and her mother still hasn’t shown up, I’m a bit concerned, but we pick up her mother a few hundred metres down the road. The young girl has just sat quietly the whole time.

Getting back to Nukus was a lot easier than leaving. We eventually arrive back into town, and walk through the bazaar, picking up some plums, cucumbers, and apples, and eventually making it back to the guesthouse. We have arrived too late to see the museum today, and my plans to get to Khiva tonight have been completely tossed out the window. I had expected to meet Julica’s mother, arriving by plane in the morning, but apparently there was a delay and Julica is just now fetching her.

The next morning, I went with Katarina and Christina to the art museum and it was well worth it. The founder of the museum basically was a collector of art during the Soviet times, when anything diverting from realist art could see the artist put in prison, or a psychiatric institution. Nukus is so completely in the middle of nowhere, that he was able to do all this collecting in relative peace. Only a fraction of art is on display at a time, and I enjoyed what was there. I also bought a small painting done by a local art student – a water colour of a nearby ruin for about $2.

From here, the three of us planned to find a taxi that could take us to some historical forts on the way to Khiva.

And this is where I started hating Uzbekistan.

Let me preface this by saying that in pretty much every country I have travelled to on this trip and all the others, if you arrive at a bus station or any other transportation hub and walk up to anyone and say your destination, you will be pointed in the direction of the bus/shared taxi/van/train etc. If there isn’t a direct way to get there, people will often suggest transit points. All this without knowing each others’ languages.

The main transportation hub in Khiva is around the bazaar. At first the three of us scope out a hire taxi area and try to arrange this private trip with the fort stops. We get nowhere. The prices we are quote are ridiculous even in the face of a gas shortage (especially as many taxis run on propane and are not effected). And the men seem drunk, and get increasingly aggressive with their speech, space, and finger pointing. After about 20 minutes, I decide to go on my own and bypass the forts. I’m just going to get a shared taxi to Khiva, or to one of the main transit points near Khiva.

In front of the bazaar there are hundreds of marshrutkas and taxis going various places. I ask a variety of people “Khiva?” and get nowhere. I ask the names of other nearby towns. Nothing. Eventually a man offers to help, and then it’s clear he want me to hire out his entire taxi. No thank you. He calls a friend who speaks English to help me, but the friend just keeps telling me that the man can drive me to Khiva for X dollars. I tell the friend I don’t want the full taxi, I’m looking for a shared taxi or bus or marshrutka, but again, I get nowhere.

At this point I decide to try my luck at the bus station outside of town. I ask for the bus station, and people start nodding “station, station” (“vogzal, vogzal”) and direct me to the correct city bus. When I arrive, it’s clear that I have been directed to the train station. When I ask the marshrutka drivers outside about getting to Khiva, they shake their heads. I go inside the train station. There’s a line. I’m hopeful. When I ask about Khiva, it seems like there is a train leaving later today, or tomorrow, or now. Eventually I find someone that speaks English, and it turns out that no, there is no train to Khiva. She tells me to go the bazaar.

I want to cry. I’ve been to the bazaar. I ask about the bus station, and how to get there. It’s about 10 minutes away she says. Outside, one of the marshrutka drivers wants to explain something, but obviously our languages are getting in the way. One of the passengers tells me she will show me how to get there.

We end up back at the bazaar, at which point she shows me to yet another marshrutka. This marshrutka leaves the bazaar and heads BACK to the train station, at which point it continues on to the bus station, which is close enough for me to have walked. The bus station has a few shared taxis, which of course each want me to hire out their entire car. But, hallelujah, there is a minibus going to one of the transit points. And it leaves in half an hour.

It took 3 hours of frustration, but I’m finally going to get out of Nukus. I realize that I don’t speak Uzbek or Russian, but Khiva and its nearby transit points are only a few hours away from Nukus. This is a very common route to go, and the only way to get anywhere east to the rest of Uzbekistan. There must have been shared taxis going. Whatever. Grrr.

(14) Bahçesaray, Turkey: Hospitality to the power of infinity

I debated many possible titles for this post.

  • Bahçesaray, Turkey: I’m an honorary man
  • Bahçesaray, Turkey: Sleeping is hard to do when you’re pretty sure there’s a mouse in your bag on the other side of the room
  • Bahçesaray, Turkey: Holy f**k I love mountains

Wow, where do I start. At the beginning I suppose. After saying goodbye to Peter, I put my backpack in storage at the hotel and took off with a small overnight bag in search of a minibus to Bahçesaray. Lonely Planet gives one location, which I tried to scope out a few days ago with no luck. The hotel front desk man gave another location, which is where I started today. I ended doing almost a complete circle of the town centre, both on foot and in a van of a guy offering to help. After an hour of searching, I ended up at the right minibus, just two blocks from my hotel. I was told we would be leaving in 10 minutes.

After 30 minutes, we were off.

But not really. First we stopped at the main produce distribution centre of Van, where we circled around for 45 minutes and loaded potatoes into the van.

And then we were off.

But not really. Second, we headed back to where we originally took off from, and loaded a bit more. A bag of fruit was offered around. Small green things, kind of like really, really unripe plums. I was actively encouraged (pushed?) to eat four.

And then we were off.

But not really. Third we pulled a U-turn and back tracked to a small hospital, where we stopped and people got out to do who knows what. I went to a little store in the compound and got some juice and snacks. I offered some sesame crackers around.

And then we were off.

But not really. We made it a bit further along the highway and then pulled into a residential area, dropped two guys off, went a bit further, stopped for a bit, picked some things up, started up again, stopped again and picked up the guys dropped off earlier. I’m given a cup of Coke from a 2L bottle.

And then we were off.

But not really. 20TL of gas first.

And then we were off.

Kind of. We made it about 30km, where we stopped for more gas, and tea. I was plied with tea, cookies, and a small cake.

And then, about 4 hours after our original departure, we were off.

For a while. After about an hour, we stopped for lunch and prayer. A small cement pad, pointed towards Mecca, was a base for us to eat bread, cheese, and drink more pop.

And then we were off again. Scenery-oh-my-god. I love mountains. I love love love mountains. I was not disappointed. The road winds gradually ascends through lush valleys and, eventually, icefields, to a 3000m pass and then descends steeply into the interior of the mountain range that hosts my destination. The passengers get a good laugh at me when I freak out upon discovery of small, slightly fuzzy pink beetle on my hand.

We made two further stops along our descent. At one, four men got out and proceeded to walk down the mountain (to where? I thought) and then later, four switchbacks down, we waited as the four men caught up to us. They had picked some wild rhubarb-like plants (again, which they shared with me) and some wild mountain tulips, of which I was the recipient of four.

We finally get to Bahçesaray, and the town is larger than I had expected. Straddling a quick moving river, the main street is paved with bricks and men drink tea on the sidewalks.

And here’s where it gets interesting. The guidebook says there’s a small guesthouse in town, and to inquire at the restaurant on the river. However, the driver and passengers, with their nonexistent English and my incredibly limited Turkish and Kurdish, share with me that there is no hotel or pension. And that there is no transportation back to Van until tomorrow.  So the driver (from what I think I understood) offered to host me at his village (his home?).  All the passengers are nodding at me.

I’ve learned to savour ambiguity here. While I keep my guard up a bit, I find that overall, people look out for you, and genuinely want to help. Especially in this Kurdish region, I have experienced the most wonderful hospitality and generosity, without any expectations of reciprocity (to which I am humbled and often embarrassed).

So I go along with the driver. He’s young, friendly in a quiet way, and (I’ll admit) a tad dark and handsome. At first we walk through the street of Bahçesaray. It doesn’t take long to reach the ends of the town, and we turn around as I snap photos. We end up back at the van, where the passengers, plus a few more are waiting, and I get back inside, and we continuing up a valley along a rough road at about 10km an hour.

As the road winds up over a steep edge, the old woman beside me starts making faces. I have no idea what she means, but I guess that she is trying to share, “Isn’t this road scary?” I put my arm around her and squeeze her shoulders. We laugh.

On this part of the journey, one of the new passengers is a school teacher. He speaks a bit of English, and all of a sudden questions are flying back and forth through the van. Apparently, I am very interesting. “Why?” I ask. “Because you are a woman alone,” the obvious response.

I get another offer from the older woman to come to her house, but in the end I follow the teacher, Yasin, to his village. He is not from here, but was assigned here (by the computer he says) when he finished teacher training. He spoke no Kurdish when he came her four years ago, and the children he teaches speak no Turkish when they start.

In the village (Çatbayır – Turkish; Arıncik – Kurdish; turns out you can actually find it on Google Maps!) he tells me we will visit here, and then we will walk down the valley to the next village where I will stay with a female teacher. Again, I’m fine with ambiguity. I’ll carry my small bag with me and be happy wherever I end up.

The village is perched on the slope of a valley, the second to last before the road ends. All of the homes are constructed of stone walls, wood beam ceilings, and sod roofs. First stop is his small home, where, lo and behold, he has Facebook. Even in village of 150, satellite TV and phone modems are still accessible.

We explore the village, and children slowly start to accumulate behind us. At one pause I am given a gift of knitted socks and a head scarf. We stop at the mosque, where Yasin demonstrates the prayer process, from the call to prayer over the PA system, to the cleansing, to the actual prayer. The boys who have followed me in are now quiet, but stare intently.

We stop on a plaza/balcony/roof (an open flat area) where tea materializes. At this point I haven’t used the toilet in about 10 hours, but I can hold off a while longer, though I hold off after one cup. We visit the Kazim Cudi family home in their sitting room, and I become the honorary man – getting to eat and drink with the other men, while the women serve but otherwise remain outside. More tea, but also raisins and walnuts. Yasin tells me that this is a very good family, and the children are very clever.  The brother of the girl that serves us is the first from the village to go to university, studying finance I gather (“for working in bank”). Yasin believes intelligence is genetic, as all the children in this family are clever. We philosophize on nature vs. nurture. I finally get to use a toilet.

We continue our walk around the village, and I learn we will go back to the Kazim Cudi house for dinner. We stop again in the flat area, and I learn some Turkish and Kurdish, though what I think means “How old are you?” actually means “12” in Kurdish, so it turns out I subsequently keep asking children “12?” the rest of the evening, and am suitably confused that they don’t understand my question.

We head back to the Kazim Cudi home, and I play the guessing game that has come to be my staple way to connect with kids. After a few round of getting them to guess which hand the coin is in, and pretending to swallow it and knock it out of my ear, it’s the daughter’s turn. I shake the young girls fists, sniff them, hover my fingers over them as I make beeping noises, all under the pretense of investigating the coin’s location. I read the girl’s facial expression and probably end up guessing about 80%.

Dinner with the Kazim Cudi father, son, and Yasin teacher was fantastic. It’s always a pleasure to deviate from shish and donar, though I still am only eating with the men. Rice, bread, some sort of tomato omlette, bean and potato soup, and a tasty yogurt and cucumber combo. The electricity flickers off and on and a fuel lamp is brought out.

The evening closes with a laugh as I am told to try on the socks given to me earlier. I can’t even get them over my arch. The mother brings out a bag of these knitted socks and we all laugh as we find my size 9 feet are too big for all of them. I am given another gift of the largest pair of sock in the bag, along with another head scarf. The daughter that served us tea earlier returns to show me how to put on a head scarf.

It turns out I will stay in this family’s home for the night. Bedrolls are pulled out for me and one of the oldest daughters, and our sleeping area is arranged. I have a feeling that I am displacing some of the other family members to other rooms in the home. I feel embarrassed by all of the generosity. I didn’t bring anything to share or to offer as a gift.

I would have slept soundly in the dark and quiet of this small village, had it not been for the small sounds of plastic rustling. I’m aware of the crackers I’ve left in a small bag on the side of the room beside my backpack. I hear small sounds above my head at the top of my bed roll. I lapse in and out of sleep.

In the morning I realize the sounds were actually small bits of dirt falling from the ceiling and hitting the floor. My crackers are in tact, but a small pink fuzzy beetle has made its way inside the bag.

Breakfast is eggs, sheep cheese, sheep yogurt, bread, and honeycomb. Everything is from the village except the tea and sugar. Yasin has returned and joins me for breakfast before the van back to Bahçesaray and Van.

A group is present to see me off, but most of the children have already gone to school. One of the men heading down in the van is also continuing on to Van, so has been designated to look after me. I reluctantly leave the village, but wonder how easy it would be (or not?) to spend some more time up here in the future. Can houses be rented? How did the teacher get his place?

I have tea two separate times and am offered a third while waiting in Bahçesaray for a van to Van. The driver from yesterday makes an appearance and four eager men take me on a quick tour to a nearby town to show me an old bridge. Apparently it was built in 816, but what caught my attention were some bright blue butterflies fluttering by down near the river.

As we almost depart for the 3 hour trip back to Van, I wonder about Turkish land ownership laws for foreigners. I often consider running a guesthouse later in life, and have added this to my list of potential locations.

The ride back was more of the same beauty, but with way fewer stops along the way.

Back in Van at my favourite hotel, I am here one more night before an overnight train to Tehran, Iran. This morning I went back to the Bahçesaray minibus stop to confirm it was heading all the way to Çatbayır village. I bought selection of fruit and asked the driver to get the bag to the Kazim Cudi family and Yasin – my small attempt at reciprocity. He refuses my offer to pay, and as I walk away down the street, I find myself starting to cry.