(44) In transit to South Inylcheck basecamp, Kyrgyzstan: The curious incidents of the girl in the daytime

(Reference to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon)

Getting to the South Inylchek basecamp for an early 30th birthday present to myself started off in an incredibly frustrating manner. My intent was to find a shared jeep through the backroads to Naryn on my way to Karakol, where I would meet my ride to the 1st basecamp. I had heard about this road from the two Aussies on motorbikes I had met back in Samarakand, Uzbekistan. They had said fantastic things, and while I also knew the likelihood of finding shared transport was slim, I had high hopes. I had 3 days to get to Karakol.

But these hopes came crashing down soon enough. My taxi from the guesthouse in the morning took me to the area where I would find a shared jeep, if there was any. There wasn’t. I wish I knew more Russian, Kyrgyz, or local contacts. There have to be people going to Kazarman. Jalalabad is the nearest big city. Surely people go back and forth. It’s just a matter of knowing where to find these people. This happens a lot in Central Asia. It is much easier when going the other direction – from small town to big centre – like I did when going from Murgab to Osh. It was easy. Travellers going the other direction have a much harder time. But it’s just a matter of knowing the drivers, which in this case, I don’t. The only other route is back to Bishkek.

So, I gave up. At which point I got a phone call from Asel at the travel agency I had been emailing with to arrange my birthday glacier stay. I needed to wire some money to her to get an express permit to the border area with Kazakhstan and China, which is where the glacier basecamp is located.

My trip to Bishkek is delayed as I find a bank and arrange a money transfer, but it all works out fairly effortlessly, with only a $1 fee.

Finally, I make my way to the taxi area where those going to Bishkek wait. I fill up the second space in the car – we wait for two more. And wait. Eventually I realize I left some printing back at an internet cafe, so I tell the driver I’ll be back in 15 minutes or so. Minibus to downtown, and back again.

And wait. And wait. I arrived just before 12, so it’s been over 3 hours. At which point I realize my passport is still at the bank where I did the money transfer. I tell the driver I’ll be back in 15 minutes or so. Minibus to downtown, and back again.

And wait. We don’t fill up until around 4pm. I’m tired, cranky, hungry, but feeling ill. And I have a 9-10 hour drive ahead of me. I fill myself up on Snickers, bread, juice, and Coca Cola.

The drive I am not enthused about, mostly because I had just done it yesterday in the reverse direction. It’s pretty and all, but I’ve seen in before. The driver pushes on until we stop for dinner at about 9pm. At first I don’t want anything, but then I’m convinced to have at least some tea. I also opt for some shorpa (broth with a chunk each of potato, carrot, and mutton), without the giant hunk of mutton. The two others are businessmen heading to Karakol on business. They bring out a bottle of vodka, and I have a small shot – perhaps it will help my intestines. As the men get drunker, one keeps trying to pour me more vodka, while the other keeps giving him a “leave-the-sick-girl-alone” look. I nap.

Eventually we take off again after the bottle of vodka has been emptied. The businessmen are drunk in the back seat and the driver and I are sober but tired in the front. I’m exhausted, but I see the driver is too. I stay awake for the both of us. As we head over the final large pass towards Bishkek well after midnight, the driver is nodding off at the wheel, albeit at about 10km per hour. I tell him he’s falling asleep and to pull over, but he jokes it off. I don’t know if he even understood me. At least my berating him loudly kept him awake. He pulls over at one point for a smoke and to splash himself with cold water. When the signal comes back, he turns on the radio too.

We arrive in Bishkek close to 3 in the morning. It takes forever, but we eventually find the address that the drunk men are going to. The driver continues on to the guesthouse I stayed at previously. I had been trying to call them all day to let them know I would be arriving late, but they either weren’t answering, or the phone number had changed. I get there about 3:30am, anticipating a worst case scenario of sitting outside the front gate until the morning. Luckily, it seems a group is packing for an early departure, and the gate is not deadbolted. The code opens the door, and I make my way up to an open space on the top floor. I hunker down for a few hours.

In the morning, I am able to get a room, but only after I’m brusquely told I have to pay for the night before because check-in is only after 8am. Sure, I used the toilet and nodded off on the floor, but I’m not paying for a room. It’s such a small detail, but after the incredibly long and frustrating day yesterday coupled with being sick and having no appetite, I feel like it’s the last straw and I want to cry.

Instead I sleep, which is probably a lot more productive.

In the afternoon I head out for Chinese food and make my way to meet Asel to pay for my trip and learn the final details. It all seems good, and I make a list of things I need to buy before the trip. Dried fruit, chocolate bars, new sunglasses?, more warm clothing?, a 5L bottle of water. I ask her about the possibility of getting a thicker sleeping bag up there. She tells me that I should be able to. don’t know what this means, but maybe I’ll look into something in Karakol.

I mean to leave early the next morning for Karakol, a 7 hour journey, but I need the rest and sleep on and off until 10am. At the “bus” station, finding a shared minivan is easy and we’re soon off. I sit in the middle middle seat. The woman to my right doesn’t seem to like fresh air, and asks for all the windows to be closed while the vents are turned on. I already feel ill, so this does not help. The driver makes good time, but he likes weaving and accelerating/decelerating quickly. I already feel ill, so this does not help. We stop at some roadside fruit and veggie markets/stands. Similar produce to the Okanagan. A man sleeps on his watermelons. A car drives by, filled in the back to the windows with tomatoes.

The first part of the journey I had already done before on my way to Chayek and Kyzyl-Oi. The new part for me, the journey along the side of Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world, is lost to my feelings of sickness. It’s a hazy day anyways so I couldn’t see much if I wanted to. There should be snowcapped mountains across the way, but I barely can even make out across the way.

Finally in Karakol, we stop in the centre of town and wait for about half an hour for reasons I don’t know. But it gives me a chance to get some fresh air and dry heave out the side door of the van. After many fruitless phone calls to any of the guesthouses I would like to stay at, I finally get in touch with the one recommended by Asel. The driver is also finally ready to drop off all his passengers, so we’re off.

The guesthouse is lovely, and will likely be more expensive that the “cheap price” that Asel described, considering it’s like a North American bed and breakfast, with a huge bed, clean hot shower, and satellite TV. I don’t care. All I want to do it crawl up in bed and die. Which I do (well, without the dying part).

The guesthouse also includes dinner, so I come down about 7pm without an appetite. I get through about half a bowl of borsht and one bite of garlic-fried eggplant before I excuse myself from dinner and conversation with an overenthusiastic and barely-understandable retired English man who’s travelling though some inheritance money. I think to myself how some of this money might be better spent on dental care, but he seems to be doing find without it.

My appetite the next morning is still barely there, but I make it through some rice pudding and fruit. I’m expecting my ride to pick me up shortly, but I don’t know when. I relax in my room while I wait. And wait. I know we have a 5-6 hour drive ahead of us to the first basecamp where the helicopter departs from, and Asel said he would get me “in the morning” so by 10am I decide to make some calls. Through some help of the guesthouse staff, I find out that the driver has not even heard about me, but will be here in an hour. We contact Asel and she apologizes for some delay because of another group of travellers, but I just think she dropped the ball.

Before we depart, I get one of the guesthouse staff to ask the driver if I can get a warm sleeping bag up at one of the base-camps. He seems to think I can arrange it. I’m not convinced,

The drive to Maida Adyr base-camp was more of what I expected Kyrgyzstan to be like. Increasingly steep mountainsides, increasingly snow-capped peaks, decreasingly treed slopes. The geology here is strange – the hills are technicoloured. Red beside black beside brown beside grey. The mountains make no attempt to blend in with the country side.

The Russian jeep has a bit of trouble. We’ve barely started to climb when we sputter to a halt. It’s too hot for the engine. Water is poured from ready recycled bottles. “Photography,” he says, giving me something to do while we wait. This happens four more times along our way.

There’s one image in my head I didn’t manage to get a picture of. After we’ve come down from the major pass on the route, we turn a corner to see a broad expanse where two river valleys meet. Snow capped peaks frame the view. A few buildings dot the plain, but what strikes me are some mounds in the ground at a bend in the river that at first seem like buried ruins of an old settlement but then appear to me as a very simple cemetery. I make note to take a photo on the way back.

We’ve almost reached the destination when we reach Inylchek town. A checkpoint requires me to show my permit for being this close to the Chinese border. The town itself looks like it once had potential, now faded. Empty buildings and half-finished apartment complexes dot our route.

And finally, Maida Adyr base-camp. A little rough around the edges, but the basic rooms are comfortable. The managers here (who, like the driver, don’t speak English) seem confused at my arrival. I suspect Aser dropped the ball again. I’m doubting there is even a helicopter at this point. What I paid for I really don’t know.

The base-camp is right alongside a small military base with a helicopter stationed out front. Is this the helicopter? I go to take a short walk up alongside the broad, grey river valley, and the military men who check my permit ensure I know not to take any photos of their base (which I do anyway).

Dinner is possibly the best meal I have in Kyrgyzstan. Mashed potatoes, fried cabbage, meatloaf ball thingies which I dot with ketchup. I wrangle up some appetite to enjoy it.

Three military men are also eating, and I soon am invited to join them. Their English is limited, but I learn that they fly the helicopter (my helicopter?). My name is not easy for people in Central Asia, and comes out sounding like “Tuna”. I eat and drink with the pilot (General), co-pilot (Colonel), and engineer (Captain). They tell me that three shots of vodka is tradition. I confirm it’s not four before I finish off the third. The stuff does not go down smoothly.

After dinner, I seem to confirm that a helicopter is going up tomorrow. I also seem to be told that I’ll be staying two nights, I think. It seems like I’m the only one going up. Uh, I hope they know I’m not paying for it.

Later that evening, four other men arrive. They are shooting a documentary about the Aral Sea disaster, and are heading up tomorrow too. In the morning, I see a family that must have arrived late. I’m not the only one! I ask the mother, who speaks decent English, to confirm that I can get a thicker sleeping back up at the base-camp. The camp manager jokes that he has ordered one to fit two people.

At first I’m told I’ll be going up in the second flight, but then the General asks if I want to go up on both flights. The first is going to North Inylcheck, the second to South Inylchek. It’s a present he says. Happy Birthday to me!

(29) Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Paper pushers pushing my buttons

With ticket in hand, I actually got on a train in the morning to Tashkent. Marta and Kuba and two other travellers were in a different car, so I was on my own in first class.

First class on these trains is a fairly meaningless term. I suppose there is tonnes of leg room, which I was thankful for, but the barely functioning air conditioning meant that the windows were closed and the car sweated and fans themselves the entire 8 hours. A young man going to Tashkent for a university entrance English test so we chatted off and on through out the trip as we also each tried to nap through the heat. The usual questions came up, including the question of my religion. “Muslim”, he says as he points to himself. “Christian?” He points to me. I shake my head. He holds up two fingers, looks at them, and says, “Muslim, Christian” as if he’s run out of fingers and there are only two possible religions. He tries again, and remains confused. “No Christian. But you have God,” he says, more of a statement than a question. OK, sure, I have god. I feel I might blow your mind if I try to explain atheism.

The scenery was more desert. Dust. Scrub. Did catch a glimpse of mountains as we went through Samarkand, even one with some remnants of winter snow. I’m bypassing Samarkand so as to sort out a Kyrgyz visa in Tashkent first. I’ll catch Samarkand on my way through to Tajikistan. While Kyrgyzstan is not definitely in my plans yet, I still hope to get there. I’ve been reading the forums on Lonely Planet’s website, and will base my decisions on what fellow travellers are saying. Considering Kyrgyzstan was the main reason for this trip in the first place, I would be incredibly disappointed not to go.

Arriving in Tashkent I took the metro to near my intended hotel, and walked the rest of the way. I’ve been impressed with accommodation so far in Uzbekistan – definitely the nicest for the lowest prices – but this was more like a (low) standard hotel. Clean and the BBC; I suppose I couldn’t ask for much more.

My main goal for my first afternoon was to get rid of my lovely (grumble grumble) painting I’ve been carrying around since Mary. Uzbek post wasn’t necessarily reliable, but Tashkent did have a DHL, so if I didn’t mind forking out some money, there was a more secure option for my painting to get home.

Instead however, I ended up heading out with Yoko, the non-sick half of a Japanese couple, to get something to eat and check out the wifi that was apparently available at a nearby mall. Yoko and her husband, Hiro, have been biking around the world since 2008. From what I gather they started in Turkey, went south all the way to South Africa, flew over to Central (and South?) America, and most recently through China and now in Central Asia. A few years ago they also spent a working holiday in Canada, where it turns out they spent 4 months in Vernon, just less that an hour away from my hometown of Salmon Arm. The world just got smaller.

I had no success connecting to wifi, but borrowed Yoko’s iPod Touch to find out that I was likely not in luck for a quick Kyrgyz visa as I could have swore I had read online a few days before in Buchara. The embassy is closed Thursdays, and it takes two days, meaning I would apply Friday, and not be able to pick up until Monday.

(insert string of expletives here)

Back at the hotel I fell into a slumber until 11pm, got up and showered, and went back to sleep with my mosquito net as my only cover. I planned to get up early the next morning to try the Kyrgyz visa anyway.

But I was not in luck. Friday it would have to be. There’s nothing worse than be excited to leave something and start something new only to find stupid details claw you back to where to don’t want to be anymore. If only I hadn’t been sick. If only I had been able to get on the train the first time I wanted to. But then I wouldn’t have been able to run into some of the friends I have met along the way, and I wouldn’t take the time to hang out in Samarkand, which is what I’ve decided to do.

So today, instead of hanging out at the Kyrgyz embassy, I went to the main bazaar in town, bought a lovely plate, took photos. With the help of many people, I tracked down the DHL office to enquire about sending my Turkmenistan painting home. It would cost over $100, which I’m OK with since I would prefer that it would actually arrive in Canada. But what I wasn’t expecting was the extra step of getting permission from the Ministry of Art and Culture or somethingorother. Which would cost another $20-$40 and unknown time. Even though I have a certificate from Turkmenistan, and I didn’t buy the damned thing here. The young man working there was very nice. He was originally from Tajikistan, but left during the civil war in the 90s. He points to a 3 inch scar above his left eye. “For my parents, this was the final straw,” he says.

I guess I’ll carry it to Tajikistan and try again their. I’m getting used to carrying it around anyway.

In the evening I meet up with Yoko and Hiro for dinner. Our server speaks no English but a series of chicken noises, chopping motions, and hand squeezing gestures, we wind up with the dinner we expected – a variety of kabobs and some salad. The temperature had become bearable.

Finally, the day to apply for my Kyrgyz visa comes. I arrive at 10:10. It’s still not open, and I’m 4th in the queue. I get my paperwork by 10:30, and rush to the bank to pay my visa fee. If all goes well, I should pay, and get back to the embassy by 11 so that I can drop off all my paperwork before they close between 11:30 and 2:30.

But of course it couldn’t be that easy. Step 1 at the bank – some unknown paperwork – was fine. But step 2, actually paying, was not. Step 2 only takes 2 minutes, but when you have two Korean business people trying to withdraw tens of thousands of US dollars and it takes an hour and a half, step 2 actual takes an hour and a half and two minutes. At least I was amused by the lack of personal space people have here. While the teller is handing over stacks of 100 dollar bills, an insistent old woman stands right between them, complaining about how long it’s taking (or so I assume). There are about 12 people waiting behind me, and eventually a guard tells most of them to go, as they will be closing for lunch soon after the Koreans are done. The 3 women working in the other nearby teller windows have been mostly chatting the last hour. I’m not a fan of the ridiculous paperwork and lack of service orientation. I suppose the bureaucracy provides jobs for a huge proportion of the population, but I’m over it.

I get back to the embassy at 12:30, and wait. I’m hungry, but I want to keep my place in line. Somehow, a woman that arrives after me gets to drop off her stuff first, but soon enough I, too, get to drop off my paperwork. Done.

I just have a small overnight bag with me – laptop, underwear, mosquito net, and toiletries – and head straight away on the metro to the bus station, where I quickly pick up a shared taxi to Tashkent. Get me out of here. I need a break from bureaucracy.

(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.

(10) Dohuk and Solimaniyeh, Iraq: Mistaken for an American soldier

I left Savur on an 8am dolmus to Midyat with the hopes of catching another dolmus straight to Silopi, the town nearest the Iraqi border. I like playing the “get to the next furthest place the fastest” travel game. In Silopi, taxis know the border crossing business well, and are very helpful in navigating the series of stops between Turkey and Iraq. I had read from a recent traveller on an online forum that by 2pm, taxis were unavailable, so I was hoping to get to Silopi (which would take 4 hours direct) in good time.

This, however, was not to be. When I got to Midyat at 9:30am, the next dolmus heading anywhere in my direction was supposedly at 1pm. I spent a little while wandering the town and hanging at an internet cafe, and by a little after 12, a dolmus had arrived to take us to Idil, after which I switched to Cisre, and then to Silopi.

I didn’t get there until 4pm.

But, I was in luck. As I got out of the dolmus, I was approached for a taxi to Iraq, and soon learned that a Kurdish family was leaving too, so I only paid USD25 as opposed to the usual USD50+.

Between the driver and the family, they could speak about 50 English words, which gets pretty far. I also offered some of my orange to share, which also goes pretty far.

The drive to the border was smoggy. Or smoky. Or exhausty. Dirty is basically what it was. There were kilometres of trucks lined up to go over the border. We were one of a handful of cars, whizzing by them all.

The driver navigated the various stops and checkpoints at the border. I only had to get out once – to get the actual stamp in my passport – which took place at a lovely air conditioned hall, where I was served tea which smelled like dog food, but tasted fairly tea-ish.

Getting into Iraq will probably be the easiest of any country on this trip since I got to Turkey. 10 days. $0. Done.

Once across the border, shiny new Toyoto and Hyundai taxis were lined up to take me and the Kurdish family to Dohuk, the first major city. The taxis were incredibly civilized in comparison to Turkey. Air conditioned. Everyone in seatbelts. The phrase “I’m in (insert expletive) Iraq” kept repeating in my head.

The road wound up through small towns and over a pass before it descended towards Dohuk. The sequins and jewels sewn into the Kurdish womens’ skirts reflected light that danced around the back of the taxi. We stopped in the town before Dohuk for the Kurdish man to change money, and I took the opportunity to do the same.

The villages heading towards Dohuk were concrete block homes painted in pastel shades of green, purple, pink, orange. It was as though the sky had been playing something like an Easter version of Tetris.

Once in Dohuk, we were dropped off at the taxi terminal, where photos took place and I grabbed a taxi for downtown, to a recommended hotel that my driver didn’t know. After a few questions yelled to fellow drivers at stop lights and the help of a police officer, I made it to my destination. Checked into a nondescript room on an upper floor as to avoid the blaring TV of the lobby and the possible curious onlooks from the men getting their shoes shined on the street below.

I toured the market, and felt invigorated. I’ve been questioning my reasons for travelling, my purpose, during my time in Turkey, and feeling the vibrancy, the colour, the smells and sounds of the market in Dohuk brought my sanity back.  I enjoyed dinner of greasy ground beef and tomato pizza, washed down with a Coke. The power went out while I ate.

In the market I notice quite a few slender men with plucked eyebrows working in shoe stalls or bead and sequin shops, and I ponder the attitude of Kurds towards gays and lesbians.

The next morning I was off to look for a shared taxi to Solimaniyeh. The three main (safe) towns in Kurdistan are Dohuk, Erbil, and Solimaniyeh. Mosul and Kirkuk are on the outskirts of the region, and are not generally safe. My plan was to hop over to Solimaniyeh, and spend a night in Erbil on my way back. There were a variety of side trips to mountain villages that were also possible, but travelling alone meant expensive taxi trips, so I planned to stick to the main cities.

At the taxi office, I was quickly invited into the back area to share in a breakfast of bread, yogurt and tea. The group of men seemed genuinely excited to have me join them. Not in a creepy, leery way, but in an innocent generosity sort of way. The difference is subtle, but I feel it quickly. One of the young men I eat with share with me that he is in the Iraqi army in Mosul. He then asks me if I am American, and mimes a machine gun. No, I am not an American soldier.

A variety of Kurdish men are also waiting, but for different destinations. Or maybe they are just hanging out and being social. I’m struck by how different each man looks from another. Some have light hair and eyes, and could pass for having a northern European ancestry. They make jokes about their traditional clothing – a khaki button up shirt with khaki MC Hammer-esque pants, tied together with an interwoven length of fabric fashioned into a sort of a cummerbund. I suspect that the jokes revolve around the width of a man’s pant legs indicating the amount of room needed for his package. Or so I guess as they hold out their hands in front of them. I don’t think they’re joking about fish they have caught.

One other young man arrives that wants to go to Solimaniyeh, but it soon becomes apparent we are going to be waiting a long time for a third, so we agree to pay a bit more each and leave now. Two other men join us for part of the journey, but are dropped off early.

My co-passenger, Karwan, is generous. At each stop we take he comes back to the car with offers of bottled water, juice, gum.

The road to Solimaniyeh is lovely. As we are bypassing Erbil, we are able to take a more direct and scenic route. We wind up and down, sidling up against a dry mountain range to our right. The low mountains I had visited in Turkey were nice, but these were getting higher, and they drew my attention out of the car window.

We stop for lunch and I get to learn a bit more about Karwan. He’s originally from Kurdistan, but has been living and working in Germany for the past 8 years, though his European papers are for Italy. He’s visiting his family here for a few months, and will return to Germany later in the summer.

I ask Karwan to order for me. I have no idea what I want, let alone what is possible. Soon dish after dish of vegetables, rice, meats, and soups appear. Two thoughts enter my head. 1) There’s no way I can eat all this. 2) Please forgive me stomach for the meat I’m about to shock you with. In addition to my meat, Karwan insists I try some of his. This is more mammal than I’ve eaten probably in the past 6 years combined.

I ask what he does in Germany. He points to the chairs and tables of the restaurant and makes gestures that I understand to mean he manufactures furniture. He points to a finger that has been partially cut off. Part of the dangers of the job I suppose.

I ask why he left Iraq eight years ago. “Sadaam,” he says, and makes gun noises. He looks down at his food and pauses. “Not good.”

He tells me very affirmatively that he will get his official EU citizens papers in October 2011. He obviously has the date memorized.

We arrive in Sulimaniyeh in the late afternoon. At this point I’ve decided to bypass Erbil and head back to Dohuk the next day. Karwan will do the same. He’s made passing remarks about staying with his family, or visiting villages when we get back, but I’m not holding my breath yet.

At our hotel, I insist on separate rooms. I don’t know what his marital status is, but I don’t want to give any suggestive impressions. I find it interesting that sharing a room with a fellow tourist wouldn’t give me pause, but sharing one with a local guy does. Maybe it’s a vibe he’s giving off. I don’t know.

We head off to explore the town, and I find out that he hasn’t actually been here before. I guess that’s what growing up in war does. We wander market after market, meet his friend briefly, and explore the highlights of downtown. By this point I’m not feeling so well. The meat is not agreeing with me.

We head back to the hotel, and Karwan wants to pick up some alcohol. I turn down his offers. Back at our rooms, I tell Karwan not to expect me for dinner later. Part feeling sick and tired, part feeling vibes I don’t want to go any further. He takes out a cooler he bought for me at the liquor store. I tell him I don’t drink alcohol.

The next morning we head back to Dohuk in another shared taxi for two, paying a little bit extra not to have to wait for other passengers. He invites me to stay with his family back in Dohuk, and I accept.

At his brother’s house, I am set immediately at ease. Strong women, children. This is not going to be uncomfortable.

Shortly after our arrival, lunch is served. A huge spread of vegetables, rice and meet. It’s nice to see vegetables. What strikes me as strange is that after we are finished, all the food get scraped up into one big bowl, as if it’s going to get thrown out, no leftovers. They have two fridges, so it’s not for a lack of cool food storage (not that that matter in this area of the world anyways).

Karwan’s brother’s wife’s sister and niece come over. It’s the niece’s 6th birthday, and the women ask if I want to go shopping with them. We take a taxi downtown to the market area I had been to a few days before. I notice that women are dressed in the full range of head wear – I spot one or two burqas, but most of the women have either a loosely fitted head scarf or none at all (like my hosts).

The women, who don’t really speak English, are obviously looking for some sort of fancy fabric. We head into one fabric shop and stay there for quite a while. While we wait, I start playing my favourite children’s game, the “guess which hand it’s in?” game. A small fabric jewel becomes the object of focus. After the basic guessing, I start doing odd things like pretending I’ve swallowed it and finding it in her ear. It goes over well. When it’s her turn I make like I’m using all five senses plus my special finger radar to determine the jewel’s whereabouts. Later we play soccer with the jewel. Endless fun.

After a while Karwan joins us. It’s time to buy gifts for the birthday girl. At one of the toy stands she picks out a doll. Her younger brother is with us, so he gets a gift too. Karwan picks up a collection of plastic weapons for him. They go through it together, seeing if the young boy can name the grenade, the machine gun.

I point to the child size weapons and say, “very dangerous.” My passive way of disapproving of these sorts of toys.

Karwan tells me that he started in the Kurdish army when he was 15, and continued until he left for Germany. He shares his experiences very seriously, in a way that communicates the gravity of what he had to do.

Back at the house, we have dinner and relatives come and go.

In one chat, I explain my upcoming itinerary. Back to Turkey, onto Iran, and then Central Asia.

Karwan’s brother’s wife’s sister’s husband inhales through his teeth. “Iran,” he says in a low voice. “Dangerous. Many problems.”

I start laughing aloud unintentionally. I try my best to explain, but how do I describe the irony of people in Iraq telling me another country is dangerous? While I understand the relative safety of this area of Iraq, and the perceptions of Iran, this would sound pretty funny to most people back home.

Later Karwan explains he will arrange a taxi to my hotel soon, as it may cause problems with the police for me to stay here. I’m not sure if they mean for them or me, but I go with the flow. We chat for a while longer, and the birthday girl returns from her party. We pose for some photos. Later I’m told that I’ll actually stay with them after all. I try to ensure it won’t be a problem, but it seems it won’t be. I arrange that I’ll leave for the taxi stand at about 8 in the morning. Karwan leaves to stay at his mother’s house, and I take a family photo in front of his brother’s home.

In the morning, Karwan’s nephew wakes me up, and his mom helps arrange a taxi for me. It’s still early, and the taxi arrives earlier than I anticipate. Apparently “8am” means “in 10 minutes” at 7am. I pack my bags quickly, and as I leave the home in the taxi, I see the nephew crossing the highway with his buddies on his way to school.

At the taxi stand, I’m the first one for a car to the border. I wait a while and then decide to fork out for the whole car. The lot is dead and I expect I would be waiting hours otherwise.

The ride to the border is mostly nondescript. The driver speaks a bit of English so we exchange basic information.

At one police checkpoint the truck in front of us is waived over, but it doesn’t stop. I see the police officers look at each other and exchange remarks, something to the effect of “I told buddy to pull over. What does he think he’s doing?” My driver offers a ride to the officer, and we quickly catch up to the truck, which has since moved over to a side gravel road. We honk and the police officer makes a gesture for it to stop. The truck finally pulls over, and the officer leaves the taxi.

The driver explains why this issue with the truck.

“Arabic.”

I try to ask how the officer knew he was Arabic.

“Arabics terrorists.”

I tried one more time. I point to my face and attempt to ask what is visually different about Arab people.

“Arabics crazy.”

I can tell I’m not going to get anywhere so let the matter drop. I’m sure it’s something subtle that locals can tell, like Vancouverites being able to tell whether someone is from Surrey. (Kidding!)

Just before the border a variety of cars are waiting. My original intent was to just catch a taxi to the town over the border and find dolmuses from there, but I spot a taxi going all the way to Diyarbakir in need of one more passenger and I enquire about the price. $50. Done.

I set my bags down, and the driver instructs me to head inside a nearby building for my first border crossing check. I start to pick up my bags again – I don’t want to be a mule for smuggled cigarettes – but the driver tells me to put them down.

“No cigarettes,” I say as I shake my finger.

“No, no cigarettes,” the driver confirms with a smile and laugh. My bag is stuffed tight enough that they wouldn’t be able to get more than a pack in there anyways.

Security heading back into Turkey is tight, but not. My bags go through x-ray machines twice, but are examined much less scrupulously than those of my fellow passengers, who turn out to be Kurdish businessmen from Germany and the Netherlands. They have obviously agreed to help smuggle a few cartons over, as each of them claim a small bag of cigarettes as their own.

Our young driver seems to have a variety of friends in his fellow cross-border drivers. We sneak in front of other cars without much fuss, and he gets other people to move our car forward as the line sneaks ahead over the bridge to Turkey.

Once on the bridge, after Iraqi screenings, each car around us, including ours, has people pull cigarettes out of plastic bags, break the cartons into smaller pieces, and stuff them into obviously well used hidden compartments of the cars and vans. Hands place packages blindly into spaces up under the foot step of the van in front of us. Empty cigarette boxes and carton wrappers litter the entirety of the bridge.

After just under 2 hours, we make it through the variety of border control points. In Silopi the young driver trades off with his brother, and it becomes clear we’re not in Iraq any more. No seat belts. Old car. Many a cigarette are smoked. The driver plays travel agent, and arranges air tickets to Istanbul for my fellow passengers.

We arrive in Diyarbakir three hours later, and along the way through town our driver spots someone of relevance. A drop of the smuggled cigarettes happens as we are double parked on a main street. We then seemingly stop for tea at the travel agency that has the air tickets for the Kurdish businessmen. I just want to get to the bus station. Who knows what the schedule is for tickets to Van – I don’t want to miss the afternoon round if there are any. I leave the businessmen behind and assertively request to have the last few kilometres of my journey completed.

As we head to the bus station, the driver asks if I am Christian. I shake my head. He pulls a book out of his glove compartment to share with me: Glad News! God Loves You, My Muslim Friend. I flip through the Christian propaganda slowly as to not offend, and then hand it back to him. It becomes clear that he wants me to take it, and after offering excuses related to the size of my bag or the value of the book, I finally acquiesce. We arrive at the bus station and he helps me retrieve my bags from the trunk. I quietly leave the book behind on the passenger seat and head inside to arrange a bus to Van.