(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!

(31) Penjikent, Tajikistan: A glimpse of what is to come

The trip from Tashkent was remarkably unremarkable. Taxi to the train station. Train left on time. First class actually had air conditioning this time. Buses through Samarkand to the minibus station. Minibus to the border (passing Tobi on his bike, agreeing to meet up in Penjikent). Cross the border. Minibus to Penjikent (I see mountains!!).

I suppose the remarkable thing was how unremarkable it was. I had heard rumours of horror stories of leaving Uzbekistan – confiscating money, searching every nook and cranny of your luggage – but all I got was a nice conversation with an Uzbek officer who had done an English degree back in 1984 and was eager to practice.

Unremarkable other than the diarrhea. I guess that was a bit of an annoyance. Thankfully it stays at bay when I’m not moving (ie sitting on the train) but when I have to walk (ie across the border) it acts up. Having had the privilege of using the toilet on both the Uzbek and Tajik sides of the border, I’d have to say the Tajik one is nicer, if only for having fewer flies. The kind of diarrhea I have sucks (I suppose diarrhea sucks in general though). I feel completely healthy, then BAM!, I have go to the washroom NOW OR ELSE! If this is anything like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, I have a new appreciation for what life for those with it is like.

In Penjikent I settled into the guesthouse, convinced the local convenience store to take my Uzbek som for and hung out by the road so I could wave Tobi over. And I was no longer linguistically incompetent! Tajikistan has a language very similar to Farsi in Iran – 1,2,3 is Yak, Du, Se instead of Yek, Do, Se – so I could get by. Tajik e cam cam medonam – I speak a little bit of Tajik – is my new oft repeated phrase. It seems most people think that I might speak Russian (most travellers use it as it is common among all the Central Asia countries) so when I throw out some Tajik, they are pleasantly surprised. It just means I’ll be screwed again when/if I reach Kyrgyzstan, but I’m having fun for now.

I hung out by the road with a 15 year old boy who ran an ice cream machine. He treated me to an ice cream and turned on Snoop Dog when I asked if he liked any American music. Surprisingly (and I say this honestly) he didn’t like Enrique Iglesias.

I had asked the boy to be on the lookout for a tourist on a bike named Tobi, and to tell him to stop. This didn’t go so well, as when Tobi passed I was (once again) on the toilet, and apparently people asking you to stop is pretty common when you are a tourist on a bike. He passed by.

When I got out of the toilet, the boy was standing outside the guest house, frantically motioning to me that Tobi had passed and he didn’t stop! We tracked down Tobi soon enough.

Tobi and I took a wander through Penjikent. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a nondescript town. All through Uzbekistan, I only went to the main stops. It was nice to just wander down the main street, see people going at their usual lives which don’t involve selling trinkets to tourists.

Unfortunately, earlier in the day my camera lens (18-125mm) got locked in the 125mm position. I’m going to have to get this checked out in Dushanbe (hopefully), because it means that all my shots are going to be zoomed until then.

That evening at the guesthouse, I was chilly for the first time since Van, Turkey. I actually pulled out my microfleece. It was incredibly refreshing.

The next morning I headed out on my way to Dushanbe to meet my CouchSurfing host. I caught a shared taxi for the 5-6 hour drive. Once again I pulled out my limited Tajik with the driver. He shared pictures of his 3 children with me. One picture was of toddler twins, but he made a sleeping motion and it soon became clear that one of the twins had died. My heart sank.

The mountains heading out of Penjikent were spectacular. My first real mountains since Iran, and even then those mountains didn’t speak to me quite like these as they weren’t snow capped. I’m so happy to be in Tajikistan. The whole basis of this trip started with images of mountains in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and I’m finally here.

I soon settled into a comfortable state of wonder. I felt like I had never left the mountains, and that this where I was always meant to be.

The road shifted between potholed dirt roads, potholed paved roads, and smooth paved roads. The most interesting part was the “Tunnel” I had heard so much about when talking with cyclists in Samarkand. It’s a 5km tunnel (though it seemed like longer as we were going about 10-20km/h) with no ventilation, no lighting, and little evidence of road maintenance. Perhaps some of it was paved at one point, but it is filled with ridges and holes, and almost a foot of water in parts. I can’t imaging cycling through it. The shared taxi, with barely functioning headlights, made it through unscathed.

As we neared Dushanbe, we got pulled over and it seems the driver had to pay a “fine” for some reson.

I tried to reach my CouchSurfing host. No response. No response. No response. Finally, he called back. Turns out he’s in Penjikent, and is heading to Dushanbe tomorrow morning. Grr. He says if he had known I could have stayed with him in Penjikent and driven with him to Dushanbe.

I guess plans aren’t really plans. Hotel it is.

(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.