(47) Southern Shores of Issyk-Kul: Peace and contemplation

Ahh, Tamga.

My original intent was to village hop along the southern shore of Issyk Kul. But you know when you find something you love, you stick with it?

For partially these reasons, and for just wanting to flat out relax and enjoy my last week in Kyrgyzstan, I spent 6 days in and around Tamga.

I admit, I spent a lot of time writing. Writing these blog posts. Writing thoughts about my masters research and sections of my research proposal. It was really productive, but in a really slow way. I should take working vacations more often. 

After my first night, a retired Russian couple from Bishkek invited me to go with them on a drive up one of the nearby valleys. It was a gloomy morning, but it wasn’t raining. I walk out of the building I’m staying in, and the husband points at my Teva sandals. 

“Mistake,” he states. Apparently this is a hiking boot kind of trip.

The drive heads up a well-maintained road, through a picturesque river valley dotted with increasingly large waterfalls. The road heads towards a gold mine (the 8th largest gold field in the world) at 4200m operated by Komtor, a Canadian company. The revenue generated by the mines accounts for something crazy like 18% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, which speaks to both the size of the mine, and the size of Kygyzstan’s economy. 

The wife likes taking pictures as much as I do, so we stop a lot to get the shots we want. We stop for longer at two different points along the valley. The first at a great open spot with a wide view of the largest waterfall in the valley. We walk a bit, and I sit a lot. I’m in a very contemplative mood at this point in my trip (though I tend to think a lot at anytime) and I just sit, watch the river water ripple over rocks, and sing a little bit when I think everyone is out of earshot.

We are also stopped because the car is almost out of gas. The husband waves down the operators of a grader, and when they’re done a run they siphon two buckets of gas for us. 20% above pump prices, of course. 

The second stop is just before the road really starts to climb toward the mine and the road that heads south of the current range of mountains. Lots of flowers still dot the pastures at this time of year.  

On the way back, I have to ask to pull over just minutes from the guesthouse. I’m sick again. After a week with my appetite back, I’m afraid to lose it. I spend the afternoon napping and swear off tap water tooth brushing and morning coffee, which for some reason I had opted for this morning. The couple gives me some pills to take before my next two meals. I thank them, but know I won’t take them. 

The next morning I make plans to wander to some Tibetan inscriptions. I have absolutely no idea what they are about, how old they are, on what they are inscribed, but it’s a destination that gives my morning purpose. Lyuba, the guesthouse owner, draws me a map of how to get there. I promptly forget it in my room.

I realize this omission about 500m into my 6km walk to the site, but I figure I can remember it. Take the road to the right when the village ends. Pass the electricity station and the cemetery. A small stream I can walk through. Then a bigger stream – take the iron bridge to the left. A gate on the left that looks closed, but it’s not. Trail follows beneath hills. When the path forks, go along the river, not between the hills. Tamga Tash is up ahead on the right. Plus lots of references to small houses, big houses, fruit trees, gardens. 

No problem. 

The inscriptions are short. Looks like one phrase, or one word, sculpted large on the flat face of a large boulder which has worn down with the weather over time. The bushes surrounding the rock are filled with colourful Tibetan prayer flags, plus small cloth strips tied to branches like those found so commonly at shrines all throughout my trip.

I sit in a patch of shade and enjoy the view that snakes around the hills back down to a small ‘v’ of Issyk Kul I spot in the distance.

I’m feeling good, and whatever the view might be around the corner is tempting, so I push on. First through lush pastures knee deep in grass and purple flowers, and ankle deep in water running down from an overflowing irrigation canal above. I join up with the rough valley road after hiking up my pants and wading through the Tamga River. I chase butterflies and touch the flora. I have one unfortunate incident with some sort of shrub that stings me. The resulting pain and swelling lead me to think my finger might fall off. I don’t know the name of the plant but call it “fuckweed” and make sure it knows its name whenever I pass another one.

The valley is just beautiful. Like what I expected Kyrgyzstan to be like all along, but hadn’t actually seen yet. The valley made crooked by many years of river flow is the kind where a whole other stunning vista awaits around every corner. 

So I push on.

Around one corner, then another corner, and then another.

The valley is fairly void of signs of human life – four houses since I left the inscriptions, a few spots for herds to take shelter. A few men fishing. An abandoned van. I add this area to the list of places I could imagine living. So far on this trip Zagreb-Croatia, Bachesaray and other spots around Van-Turkey, and Khorog-Tajikistan all fit the bill. And curiously, they are all pretty similar to BC. Temperate climates. Mountains. Trees. Snow. Water. Sun. It’s probably about 25 degrees with clear sky and light wind. Perfect.

I daydream about refinishing one of the seemingly abandoned (though likely just in a state of disrepair) houses in the valley. I have imaginary conversations with travel guide writers and tourists in my head.

I end up going about 2 hours further than the inscription. I stop when I hit denser trees. Some men I passed earlier in my walk mentioned “wolf” and I didn’t know if they meant that wolves generally lived up here, or that a wolf has been causing shit and attacking people. 

I also knew that the corners that lead to more beautiful views weren’t going to run out anytime soon, and I still needed to walk back. If you had of told me in the morning that nice views awaited if I wanted to walk for over 6 hours, I probably wouldn’t have gone. But I’m glad the corners tempted me further than expected.

On my walk back down, I pause to see if the clouds hanging over some eternal snow on one of the peaks will pass so I can take a photo. Nope.

The men I had passed earlier were heading back down the road in their Russian jeep, so I tagged along for a few km before they took another fork. Earlier in the day I had assumed they were military based on their clothes, but the large proportion of men around here that seem at first to be military lead me to believe that men around here actually just like wearing camouflage.

On the way back down, I considered ways to come back up here. Perhaps on a horse on an overnight trip (but remember how much pain you were in last time?). Perhaps on another walk up the valley (but by the end of this walk, one of my feet was aching). By the time I got back to Tamga village, I had decided to just leave the valley alone, and keep my memories and photos. 

And the foot pain that wouldn’t go away for days. After resting for a bit back at the guesthouse, I could hardly walk. 

My peaceful time in Tamga was also dotted with:

  • Swimming in lake, Issuk-Kyl. The pristine, Okanagan-like lake, but with NO motorized boats etc.
  • A trip over to Bokonbaevo. Got my hair cut (it’s almost the end of my trip, it’s what I do). Checked out the market, expressed curiosity at the school uniforms for sale that looked like french maid outfits. Explored outside of town towards the mountains, enjoyed scenery of canals, fields, and graveyears. On the way here I had spotted a nice isolated beach to stop at on the way back, so asked my shared taxi driver to stop in the middle of nowhere when it was time to head home. Enjoyed more peaceful, warmish, clean water. Headed back up to the road and chatted up a family that had also ventured to (another part of) the beach. They drove me home (other recipients of mailed photos).
  • Enjoying the view of mountains during the Golden Hour.
  • The guesthouse. Good, though basic, food. The orchard with apples, pears, apricots. Flowers. Quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was all very strange. Interpretations welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sounds all pretty reasonable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only God knows.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only one thing is definitely on my list. Laundry.

(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.

(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.

(16) Western Iran: Hospitality and heroin

I had bought a ticket earlier in the day, both to guarantee I would get one, and to make sure I knew where I was going. I’m glad I did because it’s a bit station and the entrance is not where I expected it to be. Amir Hossein had got me in a shared taxi heading there, and I was on my way before 8.

I didn’t see my bus where I expected it to be at the time I expected it to be there. I tried asking a few people, but didn’t receive any good information. Eventually I approached a trio of people that were going on the same bus, could speak basic English, and assured me that they would make sure I got on. They introduced themselves as Kurdish, and I felt immediately relieved. Ah, Kurds again. I had such great experiences with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, so I felt at ease knowing they had my back. We chatted a bit and they let me know if I needed anything, or had any questions once we were on the bus, that they were there for me.

On the bus I was seated beside a young, overly stylish woman. Big sunglasses, a bit too skinny, probably had long fake nails if I had looked. I must say I’m a huge fan of the Iranian bus system, where females travelling alone are paired with other females. No worries of creepy men/ large men/ snoring men ending up beside you on the long distance buses.

It soon became obvious that the woman was keen to talk to me, but she spoke about 100 words of English. We established ages, marital status, that Iran was beautiful. The usual. If ever I completely did not understand what she was saying, she would laugh and grab my arm. At one point she blurts out the few English words she hasn’t had a chance to use yet: “I love you, too.” We were best buddies.

Before we went/tried to sleep, she made house gestures, and from what I understood from the hand motions and words, she wanted me to come to her home when we arrived in Sanandaj. There she had a Farsi – English dictionary. We would eat there, I could rest some more, and then head to Paveh later in the day. Agreed.

Sleep was off and on, as it usually is on a night bus, and we arrived in Sanandaj early in the morning, but it was already light. At this point I’m expecting my new best friend and I to get off the bus together, where she would lead me to a taxi to her home, we would eat, rest and I would be on my way to Paveh later in the afternoon.

So I was a bit surprised when the bus reached its destination and she stood up, waved and said, “Good bye!” with a huge smile.

What happened to being best buddies? I thought we had something. You told me you loved me, too!

I waved back with a smile, and pretended like I wasn’t confused. Ah well.

Although I wanted to get to Paveh, I hadn’t decided on a route. I definitely wanted to complete a circuit of a mountain route near the Iraq border, but didn’t know if I would start or end at the Paveh side.

I sat down with my Lonely Planet, pondering my options, when I hear a shared taxi driver yell “Marivan”, and my decision was made. Counter-clockwise it would be.

I shared the taxi with a young man and a couple, and we made great time to Marivan. The couple was headed to the same hotel I was interested in, so I was happy to know I would be able to get to my destination without too much trouble. I was a bit let down when we arrived though. The best option in town was actually a bit out of town. Near a lake, but not near enough to make it worthwhile to be near the lake. And finally, it was full, so that was probably the main reason it wasn’t a good place for me. I caught a taxi ride back to the centre of the town, bought a toothbrush to stand in for the toiletries bag I forgot in Tehran (I forgot my watch too – oops!), checked email, and tried to figure out a plan of action.

I decided to try to get to where I was originally going to spend my second night, Howraman. It doesn’t have any official accommodation, but that generally hadn’t posed too much of a problem in the past for me. My first bus to the junction I needed to get off at had me sharing some fruit and nuts (what a great way to break ice!), getting my fare paid for by a local teacher (Kurdish people are so generous!), and relearning some Kurdish I picked up in Iraq and Turkey. It’s amazing how a quick “spas” (thank you) lights up faces.

At the junction I found a shared taxi to Howraman, and we were quickly on our way. Except for the flat tire, that is. But it was fixed in just enough time for me to find the back side of a bush for use as a toilet.

We climbed over increasingly higher and steeper hills. I could see where the road forked ahead, and where the right fork’s road was cut jaggedly like a zigzag into the mountain’s side and up and over onto the other. We took the other fork, and descended into the valley below where Howraman lay. The three other men in the taxi got dropped off, and the driver stopped at a few places for me to take photos. At one point, we were wandering around a shrine when I heard from above “Paveh!” – a bus was leaving (or at least this is what I swear I heard). I knew I wasn’t going to have time to run back to the taxi, grab my bags, and get to the bus. I watched it drive away.

At this point I was planning to just get dropped of in Howraman and let the rest sort itself out. But I succumbed to the persuasion of the driver. There are no buses to Paveh on this road he says. The road is a bad road he says. I need to take the other route he says. I should go back to Marivan he says. I should wait at the fork for a bus on the other road he says.

Eventually I ride with him back to the fork, and some confusion results when I want to get out, and not go with him back to Marivan, and not go with him on the other route to Paveh. I just want out. I want my bags. I finally get them, and the driver, as nice as he truly is once the confusion subsides, arranges a ride for me with a Kurdish family travelling in three cars. We chat a bit over ice cream with a few soldiers and the man with the ice cream cooler on the back of his motorbike. I finally have a way to get to Paveh. Considering Paveh is where I planned to spend my third night on this side trip, I’m way ahead of schedule and need to find some more destinations before heading back to Tehran.

I had a great ride with the family. They were on a holiday picnic drive from Marivan, and stopped like regular tourists at all the places I was happy to stop at. Snowball fights at the pass. Photos at the viewpoint of the valley floor reaching over to Iraq. Have I said recently that I love mountains?

We stopped for a picnic. Iranians do picnics well. Picnics do not just consist of sandwiches on a blanket. We had rice, barbecued fish, bread, drinks, tea, and more. And dancing. They wanted to show me a traditional Kurdish dance, which involves stepping forward and back, arms linked with the person beside you, the lead and end each waving handkerchiefs. It’s a political dance I’m told. The steps symbolize land, and the willingness to fight for it. The linked arms symbolize solidarity. The waving handkerchiefs symbolize a flag for an independent Kurdistan. They ask me if I have a website where I describe my travels, and they ask me not to post photos of the dance.

After lunch they have decided not to go to Paveh, as the day is getting too long, but even with my insistence that yes, I can take a taxi, they still drive me all the way to Paveh, and drive all the way through the town to make sure I have a good place to sleep, and finally we say goodbye.

That night in Paveh I try to sort out the route I will take from here, considering I’ve only had one long day and I still have at least two more before I need to get back to the assortment of various embassies in Tehran for visa duty. I finally decide on another long day of travel to get to Andimeshk, from where I can see some interesting sights and take a scenic train through canyons and mountains.

First is a bus to Kermanshah, from where I catch a shared taxi to Khorammabad. Four college guys sit across the back. It takes me a while to let my guard down, as when people (men) are laughing in obvious reference to me when travelling, I always assume that some sort of sexual jokes are being told. I know this is overreacting, but honestly, it’s not nice to laugh when someone that doesn’t speak your language is in your company – you feel you’re being laughed at, not with. They also ask innocent, but to my suspicious ear, creepy, questions. Do you have a cell phone? Does your cell phone have GPS? I jump to the obvious conclusion that they are going to drive me somewhere remote where I can’t call for help or find my way back to civilization. Of course, they are just curious about the technology I’m carrying, but in my hopped-up hyper-paranoid state, I think the extreme. I keep an eye out for road signs.

But of course, they end up being very friendly young Kurdish guys. I get treated to lunch and when we get to Khorammabad they bypass their destination and pay for my taxi to the next shared taxi stand and ensure that I get a car to my next destination at the right price.

The final ride was the neatest. The landscape changed dramatically to an odd mountainous dessert. This is actually what I imagine much of Iraq looks like, and it probably does. Baghdad is about 300km away.

It’s kind of like the Monument Valley in Arizona (where Forrest Gump stopped running), but a few hundred million years before. Erosion hasn’t happened to its fullest yet. Even still, I could make out amazing sedimentary layers in the walls of the hills around me, many of them worn away slightly. The topography itself looks like a topographic map.

I noticed the temperature gauge in the car was 44. Then 46. At it’s highest it reached 49. I figured it must be a mistake, though it was pretty damn hot.

The driver was probably the craziest I’ve had yet. He was a huge fan of weaving in and out of traffic, which in and of itself isn’t so unusual, but he even liked to test out passing on blind corners, which isn’t that common even in this area of the world. Whenever there was a big line of trucks or cars in front of us, he would flash his lights repeatedly at oncoming traffic and make question gestures with his arms, as if to ask, “What’s going on up ahead? Radar?” I was, however, able to confirm that tailgating is the international sign for, “Speed up or move over,” and flashing one’s headlights once means “Cops up ahead.” I was also able to confirm that the middle finger is, in fact, NOT the international symbol for “You drive like a ninny.” In Iran, a thumbs up is used instead. I’m not joking. It’s really amusing to see a pissed off driver give someone a glare, a few choice words, and a thumbs up.

In Andimeshk, I settled into my hotel and cranked the air con. Maybe it was 49. I waited a while before heading out to explore the town, but I eventually ended up buying some vegetables for the train ride the next morning (at this point I had completely forgotten about visiting nearby ruins. A day trip in the dessert at 50 degrees was NOT going to happen), confirming the train’s departure time, checking my email, and browsing a fine selection of camouflage gear, which appears to be all the rage in Andimeshk.

I grabbed dinner at a restaurant off one of the town’s squares (or really it was more like a circle). I was soon joined by a few men who were keen to try to chat. Again I read too far into innocent questions, like “Where is your hotel?” I’m passed a cell phone by an older gentleman – it’s his wife, and she speaks English. She asks if she can help me. “Nope, I’m just enjoying my dinner, and I was passed the phone to talk to you.” I take the opportunity to find out what the temperature was today. “49,” she tells me. We chat briefly, and she apologizes for for interrupting my dinner. I pass the phone back to the man. He chats to her briefly and passes the phone back to me. She invites me to stay at their home. I thank her, but let her know that I already have a room, and I have to wake up at 3:30am the next morning for the train. The man offers to take me back to my hotel, but my guard is still up, and I’m fine with the 100m walk.

Back at the hotel, I try to sort out a way to wake up at 3:30am. There’s about 6 other men in the hotel lobby/cafeteria dressed in Kurdish attire and I test out my Kurdish again. It falls flat. I know that there are many different languages spoken in the multi-country Kurdistan, but this is the first time my offers of “thank you” and “what is your name” are not understood.

In the end I think I have at least two men plus the hotel attendent waking me up in the morning. For backup, I use what I  call my water bottle alarm. I drink a litre of water before I go to bed. If nothing else, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night having to pee.

The water bottle alarm worked too well. I had only slept just over an hour before I woke up. And then after that I woke up every half hour to check the clock on my camera. I was wide awake and getting ready when the men knocked quietly at my door in succession. They were way too quiet to have woken me up if I had really needed them.

At 4am, the town is quiet, but incredibly warm. It really hasn’t cooled down much, and must still be close to 40. I expect the train station to be dead at this time in the morning, but it’s buzzing with hundreds of people all planning to take this train. I stand in line for about 2 minutes before an attendent leads me around back to the ticket sellers and I get a ticket in 1 minute instead of 30. It costs about 40 cents for a seven hour ride. I feel like a celebrity, and have to admit I don’t mind the service. I wait, sitting on my bag, briefly, before being led into a special, spacious, waiting room. Soon enough, I am led out to the train before the masses. It’s soon evident that I am on the “women and children” car. I had heard that this train was incredibly packed, but this is obviously only true for the co-ed passengers. My car at first only had one other set of seats taken – a woman and her three children. Soon enough she has claimed me for her own, and one of her older boys is relegated to my former seat.

She shares water and food with me. I’m thankful. She speaks no English, and I at this point only speak limited Farsi. When she tries to get something across to me, she seems to think it would be effective to repeat the same phrase over and over again. When I laugh sheepishly and shrug my shoulders, she pinches my cheeks and slips her fingers away as if a clothespin was being tugged from my face. Her intentions are playful, but it hurts a bit each time she does it.

The scenery on the train ride was well worth the early morning. At first we sidled through broad dessert valleys, but soon moved into increasingly narrower canyons. The morning light was golden, and cast a warm orange glow on the rocks around us. Soon enough though, it was hot. Too hot. We nodded in and out of sleep most of the rest of the journey. The best part of the ride was in the early morning anyway.

As the train continued, our car filled more and more, but was still not cramped. It was entertaining to watch men board at the various stations, thinking they had come across some undiscovered empty seats, only to be quickly thereafter ushered out by train attendants.

Throughout the journey, I got an increasingly, I don’t know, negative? feeling about this woman and her children. Her young daughter seemed sweet, but the older boys were a bit corrupted or something. At one point, a toddler in the next berth over was standing in the corridor just past us. I was engaging the young boy, making funny faces. On of the sons turned around with a sour face and shooed him away like a pest. I can’t quite describe the vibe I got from this family, but it wasn’t entirely positive.

By this point in my journey, I had made the decision to head back to Tehran on a night train. I had been throwing around the idea of heading to Esfahan, but I had a feeling that unless I had a clear and firm plan, I was going to be hijacked by this woman.

Which is what happened. At the station, she pulled me along with her. I was obviously coming to her house. I convinced her to at least allow me to get my ticket to Tehran. Overnight train. Leaving at 6:30pm. It was about 11am. 7 hours to kill with her.

We walked to a quiet area of town, and it became clear we weren’t heading to her home, but to someone’s she was visiting. We entered the modest home of her brother and his wife and children.

No one spoke English. We went as far as we could with the very basics – family structure, names, marital status, ages. Soon they invited a family friend over, an intellectual type who spoke a bit better English. It made things run a lot more smoothly, except sometimes he would ask questions that made no sense to me whatsoever.

“Mother, father, love, expensive?”

???

He tries to explain the sort of answer he’s expecting.

“1, 2, 3, 4, Tehran,” he continues, moving his head back and forth and waving his arms around in front of him as if he must have made himself understood.

???

The older boys and their male cousins are little shits. They yell at me in Farsi to get my attention while I’m talking to the family friend, or shout out basic English phrases like “Mother Penis” to get me to look. I do my best to ignore, or shake my head disapprovingly. The father takes a stick once and a while and smacks the annoying boys. He also has some dental issues and soaks small pieces of tissue in ethanol ever few minutes to dab a tooth or two with. He’s a bit of a rough character. If I understand correctly, he was a soldier (or police officer?) in the Iran-Iraq war.

The adults take out a water pipe. I decline, though I’m not really ever offered. Whenever the dad leaves the room, the oldest son rushes over and sneak a few puffs.

We enjoy lunch. Probably the highlight of my stay here. Really good.

After lunch I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to pass the next few hours as quickly as possible. A nap is suggested – yes! I sleep (or really, I lie awake) way longer than necessary in the afternoon, but it takes me that much closer to when I have to depart.

When I come out of the room in which I have been napping, I hear and see a small propane stove and know that I’m going to see the dad smoking drugs. He is. Now, everything I’ve learned about hard drugs I’ve learned from the movies, so I’m not sure exactly what it is he’s smoking. He’s got two metal wires, and he intermittently touches them together and inhales the resulting smoke through a small pipe – perhaps it’s the shell of an old pen. When I describe the scenario to others later I’m told that he was smoking opium. Whatever it was, doing it in front of the whole family (or at all) was not cool to me.

While the father is getting high, the older boys continue with their rude comments and gestures. They make like they’re injecting drugs, and slap their inner elbows and mime a needle breaking the surface of their skin. The mothers don’t even bat an eye. While the dad’s sister seems to be used to this, I suspect the wife, although used to this, probably doesn’t have any power in the household to say anything without risk.

At the point the father has two lengths of sticks in front of him. He uses them to hit the children with, so that he doesn’t have to move to beat them. The kids seem used to this. It’s clear that the older boys are too far gone, and are likely to grow up into nothing good without intervention. The young girl is not too far behind. It’s a sad scene.

At this point, I’m really looking forward to leaving. I don’t feel like I’m in any danger, but it’s just a really messed up situation. The family and family friend try to convince me that I need to change my train ticket. That 6:30pm is a bad train, and that a better one leaves at 10pm. They tell me there are bad people on the 6:30pm train. Worse or better than this family?, I question to myself. They tell me that the train will arrive in the middle of the night. I explain I have a friend to pick me up. I tell them I have a meeting in the morning at an embassy. All of a sudden, the train might not arrive until 9 or 10.

I try to compromise. That we will go to the station, and I will ask about the other train. I will MAYBE change ticket, I try to explain. I don’t know if the family friend understands the word maybe, so I follow up with “Maybe yes, maybe no.” “Yes! Yes! Change ticket!” he exclaims. This is not going to be easy.

Before I leave, they would like to take me to a park for photos, and to bring me to a viewpoint over the city. I make to take my bags with me, but they try to force them back down, since I’m changing tickets, right?

At this point I’m quite forceful and insist. We head into town, but not to the train station. Instead, we stop at an English school, so they can get a better English-speaking person to convince me to change tickets. I explain to the very friendly owner that I appreciate their concern for me, but that it’s important for me to arrive in Tehran early. The original arguments of late trains and bad people are repeated over and over again, this time in better English. I repeat my position, and am firm. I wonder if the owner realizes the man in front of me is an addict and understands my reasoning.

Finally, I say my position one final time, ask the man to please express my gratitude for their help and concern, and I use a hand wiping gesture to indicate that this is final. The family finally retreats, and we head to the park for photos. Thankfully it’s just the adults that I travel with, and not the rude boys. We take it seems like 100 photos, and walk to the riverside. I try to express how beautiful I think the nearly-dry riverbed littered with garbage and weeds is.

Next we drive up to the city view point. It really is lovely. The family friend points out the cement factory and explains, for the 20th, 21st and 22nd times, that his father worked at the factory, but not any more, and that that over there is where they get the rock for the cement from, and that those big trucks carry the rocks to the cement factory, and that the dust is very bad.

And then finally, we head to the train station for my 6:30pm train. The family has obviously given up on me changing a ticket, but still wants the visit to end positively. They drive me along a back route to get right up close to the train. They talk to an attendent to make sure I’m in a nice berth, and arrange a move. They give me their mobile phone numbers and addresses so that if I have problems to call them, and to make sure I call them when I arrive. They are genuinely worried about me on this train. But how warped is it that the original woman though that inviting me to her brother’s home where he gets high and whacks his children and nephews is normal? The train is bad but their home is fine?

I am quietly hoping they leave before the train does so that I can sneak off the train and wait for the 1st class sleeper train at 10. But they don’t. They wave me off.

My original berth is with 6 young girls, but I am soon moved to another berth with a single woman and a young family. But then I am moved back to the berth with the young girls. They range in age from about 12 to 30, and we have a good evening. We share food and basic information. We lock the door and take off our head scarves. And finally we let the seats slide down and meet in the middle so that we can stagger ourselves head to toe and get some sleep. I don’t get much, but I feel safe, secure, and surprisingly comfortable.

In the morning, I wake up groggy, and share the food that I have with the girls. Cucumbers, date cookies. Their breakfast so far was just processed cookies, so they seem thankful. Near the end of the trip they invite me to stay with them. I thank them profusely, and explain that I am meeting a friend, and that my luggage is at her house. Before we part ways at the Tehran station, they give me a  simple aluminum ring as a gift.

I decide to use it as my fake wedding ring. I’ve never followed this suggestion before, but seeing as I now have a ring, I might as well try it.

After I arrive back at Somayeh’s, it takes all of 5 minutes for each of them to separately notice the ring and exclaim jokingly at my apparently new marital status.

(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.