A week of vegan

For people who aren’t vegan, our diet can be a bit of a mystery. So for my own curiosity and that of others, I recorded what I ate for a week.

Disclaimer: I would say my diet is about 95% vegan. If unexpected cheese comes on a salad, I’ll scrape it off but might end up eating a few bits. I’m a cookie monster, so will often eat cookies at meetings, etc., even though I know there are likely eggs in them. In general, I find it’s hard to say I’m 100% anything in my life.

If I’ve included ingredients, it’s because I made it myself (all from memory, I might have forgot something). Much of the stuff I eat are things I make in bulk and freeze for later.

I’ve laid it all out here. No lies. (For example, you will shortly learn I like chocolate).


  • Banana muffin (bananas, whole wheat flour, unbleached flour, oil, apple sauce, turbinado sugar, molasses, baking soda, salt)
  • Kirkland’s veggie burger (not vegan, contains cheese) on a store-bought white bun (at our street block party BBQ)
  • San Pelligrino Limonata
  • Leftover mac and “cheese” (whole wheat macaroni, potato, carrot, onion, shallots, cashews, whole wheat bread crumbs, vegan margarine, lemon juice, garlic, salt, paprika, cayenne pepper)
  • Steamed broccolini with vegan margarine
  • Chocolate coconut ice cream with sliced banana
  • Hot chocolate (soy milk, turbinado sugar, cocoa)


  • Banana muffin
  • Fruit shake (strawberries, vanilla soyogurt, banana, blueberries, almond milk, cashew butter, ground flax seeds)
  • Bread (whole wheat flour, unbleached flour, water, agave nectar, yeast), sunflower spread (sunflowers, roaster red peppers, potato, onion, tahini, agave nectar, flax seeds, nutritional yeast, garlic, paprika, basil, chili flakes – all in a food processor; as you can see it was a bit of an experiment), ½ avocado
  • Toast with vegan margarine and my mom’s berry jam

Tuesday (busy – out most of the day)

  • More fruit shake
  • Veggie sandwich (wheat-free bread, avocado, red pepper, tomato cucumber) plus store-bought “veggie straws” and chocolate chip cookies (at a friend’s home)
  • More veggie sandwiches, this time with cheese, plus some grazing on strawberries and cherry tomatoes (at a community event)
  • Toast and sunflower spread
  • Hot chocolate

Wednesday (busy – out most of the day)

  • Banana muffin
  • More fruit shake
  • Sunflower spread sandwich
  • Avocado spring rolls (at a restaurant post-board meeting)
  • Two glasses of wine
  • Hot chocolate


  • Toast with PB and banana
  • Ginger ale
  • Steamed sausage (vital wheat gluten, navy beans, soya sauce, cranberries, spices)
  • Steamed broccoli
  • Bowl of strawberries
  • Ice cream and sliced banana
  • Popcorn with melted vegan margarine, salt, and nutritional yeast
  • Peppermint tea


  • Banana muffin
  • Toast with sunflower spread and tomatoes
  • Kiwifruit
  • Broccoli
  • Veggie burger (black beans, rice, olives, tomato paste, basil) on toast with sliced tomato, lettuce, ketchup and Dijon mustard
  • Brownie (white flour, whole wheat flour, cocoa, turbinado sugar, water, apple sauce, oil, baking powder, salt, vanilla) and icecream
  • Another piece of brownie
  • And another


  • Little pieces of brownie
  • Crepes (white flour, chickpea flour, water, oil), strawberries, syrup
  • Coleslaw (cabbage, carrots, celery, leek, rice vinegar, soy sauce, peanut butter, oil, brown sugar, garlic, ginger)
  • More coleslaw
  • Sushi (rice, rice vinegar, sugar, nori, wild rice tempeh, spices, bok choy, carrot, mango, Bragg’s liquid amino) – made by lovely couchsurfers from Florida
  • Green tea
  • Brownie and ice cream

I usually eat more beans than I did this week. And I usually eat fewer fruits and veggies.

Anything crazy weird in there? Curious about a recipe?

A truly International Women’s Day: an English poem from Uzbekistan

International Women’s Day (IWD) gets a bit of news in Canada, but it doesn’t rank up there in public holidays like many places in the world.

In my travels last year to West and Central Asia, I found that for many countries IWD ranks in the top 10 of big holidays, along with Nooruz (Persian/regional New Year) and Independence Days (from the Soviet Union).

On one of my van trips in Uzbekistan, I sat in the back row with a young man keen on practicing any and all English he knew. Here is my IWD gift from him to you (and our mothers)…

Mother, mother, mother
I love you very much.
I hope you’re very happy
On the 8th of March.

Van in Uzbekistan
Hot and sticky in the Uzbek desert

Minimizing my online life and maximizing the rest (Part I): Minimizing

Major transitions are often a time of reflection and change for me, and coming back from travelling is usually a time where I set goals and make changes as “real life” resumes.

One of my goals is to cut down on my online life. Here’s what I’m doing.


Cutting down the blogs I keep up on to:

General News
I don’t have a TV and only listen to CBC radio, so RSS news feeds are my main source. I subscribe to feeds from Vancouver Sun, CBC, Globe and Mail, and NY Times. I also get emails from the Economist and Financial Times.

Thought leaders
This doesn’t mean leaders in the “I have a bajillion followers” sense. But instead, people that write about things that I would love to discuss with them in person – usually related to community and/or education. Some of my current favourites:

  • Glenn’s little ugly blog by Glenn Gaetz, who I’ve come to know in person through SFU’s Certificate in Dialogue and Civic Engagement
  • Know Your Own Bone by Colleen Dilenschneider, who I’ve only met online through the Nonprofit Millennials Blogging Alliance
  • Peter Levine (Director of CIRCLE), who writes largely on civic engagement, but I read him through Facebook, as this is where the comments happen on his writing (friend him, he doesn’t have a fan page).

Deep Sector News
Websites that offer important policy and research news regarding topics like civic engagement or the nonprofit sector in Canada. Some of my sources:

  • CIRCLE, which produces research on youth and civic engagement
  • Imagine Canada, which produces research and policy recommendations related to the charitable sector in Canada

Hard Resources
No, I don’t want to know your “Top 3 Ways For Nonprofits to Use Twitter” or “10 ways to enhance your personal brand”. However, if you have recommendations for tried, tested and true technology tools or professional development, I’d like to hear. Some examples include:

  • Civic Footprint, which writes a lot about their innovative Timeraiser events and civic engagement, but is also a huge proponent of cloud computing and efficiency and productivity through technology
  • Wild Apricot Blog, which writes about volunteerism and associations in general, but also a lot about web technologies


Sigh. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do about this. I’ve met great people through Twitter, and have been directed to great information. But most of it is shit, and results in a lot of switching costs (time wasted by changing objects of focus too often). Even limiting people I follow to those interested in similar topics leads to a lot of shit. And I’m guilty of producing it too.

I’m kind of a “let’s get down to the good stuff” kind of gal, and I don’t think Twitter is what I’m looking for when it comes to conversing and learning. I’ll probably stick around, but in a much more limited way. I learn more meaningful things about people and their ideas through their blogs.


Sigh to the power of infinity. It’s a personal not a professional tool for the most part, and as so many friends are on it, I think giving it up is impossible. But maybe only check it once a day? Maybe? OK. Twice. Fine, three times.


Delegate. Do. Delete. or Designate = Done. I like a zero inbox at work and at home. I’ll continue this.


I don’t have a TV, but I still watch a lot online. This season I’m trying to stick to Mad Men and How I Met Your Mother.

What about you? Have you tried to minimize your time online?

(48) Biskek, Kyrgyzstan: Ready for home + PLUS overview of Central Asia

I don’t have any notes from my last two days in Kyrgyzstan. Almost no photos either.

I had planned my last full day of travels to be my birthday. I stayed in my usual guesthouse in Bishkek the day before after arriving from Tamga, but the night of my birthday I spent at the Hyatt. My high school friend Brad, who used to work in the hospitality/hotels in Moscow, had a friend who worked at the Hyatt, so I got a deal. I enjoyed the white sheets, the fluffy robe, the pool. I wandered town, looking perhaps for a place to get my nails done, but nothing materialized. Kind of an anticlimactic ending for the trip and for my 30th birthday, but I was AOK with that.

All these posts are great an all, but what exactly is Central Asia?

Before I left on my trip, when I told people I was going to Central Asia, I would get responses like:

  • Oh, I loved the food there. (Uh, you’re thinking of South East Asia.)
  • Oh, yeah, China is one of my favourite countries. (Uh, still not quite there).
  • Where?

Central Asia was “put on the map” so to speak thanks (or no thanks) to Borat. And unfortunately, Kyrgyzstan got in the news for political reasons just before I left. But otherwise, Central Asia is one of a few clusters of countries that seem to be fairly unknown in the general North American population. Some others unknown clusters might include the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, etc.) or the Caucases (Azerbaijan, Armenia, etc.).

Central Asia is bordered by Russia to the north, China to the west, Iran and Afghanistan to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the west. The countries are all land-locked countries (Turkmenistan borders the Caspian sea, but there are no outlets to an ocean. And the Aral Sea barely counts as water anymore.) Uzbekistan is actually double land-locked – not only is it land-locked, but all its neighbours are too. (There is only one other country in the world that can say this. Do you know which one?)

It consists of the former soviet states east of the Caspian sea, and south of Russia – Kazakhstan (the largest, and the country I did not visit on this trip), Turkmenistan (the most controlled), Uzbekistan (the most touristed), Tajikistan (the poorest) and Kyrgyzstan (the most Russified). Each has their own ethic history, but the borders between countries don’t even come close to meeting the true ethnic divides. There are Turkmen in Iran, Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, Tajiks in Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyz in Tajikistan. And Russian everywhere.

It’s important to distinguish between ethnicity and citizenship, which didn’t really sink in for me until I hitched a ride with two Russian women in Kyrgyzstan. For some reason I had pictured Russians to be almost visitors here. Here for a while, just haven’t got back to Russia quite yet. I hadn’t considered Russian to be an ethnicity. But Russians have been here for generations. As one of the women said, “Kyrgyzstan is my home. I don’t like Russia. I don’t like all the drunk people.” They are ethnically Russian, but have a Kyrgyz (or Uzbek or Turkmen, etc.) identity otherwise.

Why people travel here

Turkmenistan probably for its wackiness. Turkmenistan seems to always have had a crazy, egotistical president. Posters, statues, newspapers, and books are all about the president. And while the rest of the country is fairly normal and rural, Ashgabat is a very odd, opulent city that has no equal. The gas crater in the middle of the desert is pretty neat too.

Uzbekistan for its Islamic historical architecture. Though I must say Iran has it beat.

Tajikistan for the Pamir highway, desolate and dramatic. The Wakhan Valley is gaining in popularity too. Lots of cyclists.

Kyrgyzstan for Issyk-Kul, the big alpine lake that never freezes, and for horse-trips. And the well-run and established community-based tourism system, which hooks up tourists with homestays, guides, and transportation (horse or machine).

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also attract a fare number of hard-core trekkers and mountaineers.


Turkmenistan is bordered by a mountain range to the south (along the border with Iran) but otherwise is a flat, dry, scrub covered desert.

Uzbekistan is bordered by small mountains to its east (along the border with parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) but otherwise is a flat, dry, scrub covered desert.

Tajikistan has some low lying and flatter areas in the far north near Uzbekistan and a bit in the central west, but otherwise is dramatic mountain valleys along its border with Uzbekistan and Afghanistan or high plains and mountains in the center and east.

Kyrgyzstan has some low lying areas in the southwest around Osh and Jalal Abad (as part of the Fergana Valley shared with Uzbekistan), but otherwise is a series of mountain ranges divided by sometimes narrow, sometimes broad, valleys.


Other than a handful of churches dotted around Central Asia, the religious population is generally Muslim. But the kind of Muslim that can drink vodka and eat pork shashlyk. Islam as a culture, not as a religion perhaps. There is definitely a spectrum of Islam here, and considering I was here for Ramadan and had absolutely no problem getting food at anytime of the day (I don’t think I even saw any closed restaurants), it’s definitely not the same Islam found in Iran. I think I have seen maybe only one or two men praying in public here, while in Iran it would not have been unusual to have to wait to pay for your groceries until the cashier had finished with his namaz. Headscarves here seem to be more for function (i.e. keeping hair out of eyes) than for religious purposes. While there are definitely some more devout muslims here and there, as the Lonely Planet describes, “The Kyrgyz people took as much Islam with them as they could fit in their saddlebags.”


Turkmen, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz are all rooted in Turkish, while Tajik is similar to Farsi (Iran). One Turk I met in Turkmenistan joked that Turkmen is like a really simple, literal version of Turkish. The Turkmen word for “key” is “opener” and the word for “landing” (as in a plane) is “falling to the ground.” Russian is also widely spoken everywhere. Schools before the break up of the USSR were taught in Russian, so most adults speak Russian. Kids are hit and miss.

In Tajikistan it was nice to use some of the Farsi I had learned, and in Kyrgyzstan I put in a good effort to learn Kyrgyz. However, it was hard to actually use the Kyrgyz I knew. Even if I asked, “How much is this?” in Kyrgyz, I would generally get a response in Russian. And while I know a bit of Russian, I don’t know any numbers other than “2” (dva). So after the price is given in Russian, I would have to ask “Kyrgyzski pajalsta” (Kyrgyz please). And hope that the price involved 1-39, 80-89, hundreds or thousands, as I didn’t know 40, 50, 60, 70 or 90 in Kyrgyz. It’s complicated.

Things you will see everywhere in Central Asia

  • Gold teeth (just because you can afford something though, doesn’t mean you should get it)
  • Whitewashed houses with sky blue trim
  • Russian vodka
  • Melon rinds placed thoughtfully rind down
  • Russian vehicles that look old, but are actually new (they haven’t changed the models)
  • In addition to cows, donkeys and sheep, Turkmenistan has a lot of camels, Tajikistan has a lot of yaks, and Kyrgyzstan has a lot of horses.


Russian techno is all the rage, unfortunately. One song I have heard pumping in every country is one called “Alors On Danse”, which I know is French, but I’m pretty sure it’s by a Russian group. Another one is “We Speak No Americano”. I much prefer any traditional music, but it’s hard to come by. Additionally, “artists” such as Justin Bieber are heartthrobs even here. I heard one song in a mall in Kyrgyzstan and though “what is this crappy Ace of Base rip off?” and it turns out is was Lady Gaga.

People in Central Asia are oddly adept at

  • Retrieving the seeds from sunflower shells in two crunches or less
  • Being bi- tri- or even more-lingual (for example, in Khorog, people will generally speak Russian, Tajik, the local Pamiri dialect, and possibly a bit of English)
  • Living and getting things to grow in places you almost can’t find imaginable (deserts, high altitudes, steep mountainsides)
  • Not getting bored by the same few standard dishes available at every cafe (which leads me to…)

Food in Central Asia

If you’ve read the rest of my posts, you’ll know that I lost my appetite for about six weeks, lost some weight, and was sick a lot. So the food definitely wasn’t a highlight. Here’s what was on the menu. Everything is served with tea and bread (which is dipped in the broth and/or the tea and/or yogurt, especially in yurts).


  • Porridge (made with rice or cream of wheat)
  • Fried eggs
  • Fried potatoes

Lunch or dinner

  • Lagman (soup with noodles, chunks of meat, and maybe some vegetables)
  • Shorpa (broth with a chunk of potato, maybe chunks of carrot, and a huge chunk of mutton, which is removed from the broth and savoured after the rest of the soup)
  • Borsht (basically any soup with shredded cabbage, made possibly with shredded carrot, onion, or potato, and often chunks of meat)
  • Plov (oily rice with chunks of meet and maybe some shredded carrot)
  • Manty (moist dumplings stuffed with diced meet and onions
  • Pilmeny (like mini manty in a broth)
  • Shashlyk (skewered meat and fat)
  • Fried potatoes

All meals also involve a little tray with some wafers, biscuits, and wrapped sweets. The wrapped sweets, especially, are hit or really, really bad miss.

If coffee is offered, it’s always of the instant variety.

Back to the “reasons people travel to Central Asia” — food is definitely not one.

Reflections on turning 30

When I was in first year university, I thought I had my path before 20 planned out. I would apply for medical school in my 3rd year, get accepted, and be one of those few special cases that finish 4th year of undergrad and 1st year of med school at the same time. For my twentieth birthday, I would have just started this 4th/1st year overlap. I would have accomplished much by this important birthday, or so I thought.

Yeah, none of that happened.

I changed my academic and career directions after 2nd year, but a heck of a lot of different kinds of wonderful have happened since.

As my 30th approached, I wondered how I would react. Would I be sad? Would I feel old? Would I feel disappointed? Would I feel excited? Would I feel anxious?

If anything at all worries me or makes me scared, it’s how fast time passes, and how my body isn’t what it used to be. What? Hurricane Katrina was 5 years ago? What? I walk for 10km and I’m sore the next day?

But otherwise, I’m at peace. And I believe it’s because I don’t have regret.

I travelled when I wanted to, changed jobs when I wanted to. I’ve loved, been loved, and lost. I saved money, I spent money. I relaxed, I worked hard. I learned, I grew, I expanded my horizons. I’m proud of me.

One thing that I’m happiest about, is that I had a chance to really understand who I am. I’ve lived alone for most of my 20s. I’ve travelled almost exclusively alone. And it has given me time to enjoy my own company and learn what I’m passionate about, what my boundaries are, what I deserve, what my weaknesses and strengths are, and what makes me unique. I know what the life I want feels like, and I’m not settling for less.

I won’t say that my 20s were perfect. I definitely have wishes to live more healthily, or stay in better contact with friends and family. I know I’m a bit of a hermit, a mystery to many. I’m happy that way, but I know it sometimes impacts those close to me.

This post is not meant to be one where I list my accomplishments, and try to impress you with what I have done in the past decade. The important people in my life know all this.

Neither is this post meant to list all the things I plan to accomplish in the next decade. Making plans that far in advance means I might miss out on opportunities outside that narrow field of view. This doesn’t mean I don’t have goals and hope, but I’d like to keep them a bit of a mystery.

So what is my message?

As I turn 30, I’m happy. I’m at the Hyatt in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstsan*. I’ve just had my hair cut and my nails did**, and am enjoying a fairly quiet day. I’m spending it alone, but I’m not lonely.

I’m content, with no regrets. Happy Birthday to me.


*Actually, I’m not. I’m sitting outside in the shade at a guesthouse in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan a few days earlier. I’ve got some time on my hands and I’ve been reflecting.

**Actually, I didn’t. I ended up getting my hair cut two days earlier in Bokonbaevo, and I didn’t feel like a salon today.

(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.

(46) Karakol, Kyrgyzstan: The hotdog miscommunication

I only stayed one night at the somewhat swank guesthouse. It was quite a way out of the city centre, and it was going to get expensive if I was going to spend a few days here. So in the morning after breakfast I packed my bags, said goodbye to the Spanish as they left, and took a taxi to a guesthouse recommended to me by the two French women I met in Jalal Abad. Another lovely spot.

Karakol is where I decided to screw adventurous travel, I just want to relax the rest of my time in Kyrgyzstan. So that’s what I did. My one big adventure was to head up to Jeti Oghuz, a spot with some neat red hill sides (Jeti Oghuz means “seven bulls”) and a gorge that opens up into the “Valley of the Flowers”.

I found a marshrutka at the bazaar, which got me to Jeti Oghuz, the town. But the hill formations are another 8 or so km up the road, and the gorge goes another 8 or so up until the wider valley. I started walking, and got about 2km before a car pulled over. The driver knew the drill – “Jeti Oghuz, 100 som”. I accepted. It was hot.

We arrived at Jeti Oghuz proper, which also includes a few shops, some houses, and a sanatorium. (Aside: whenever I hear that word, I think “psychiatric hospital” instead of “health resort”. I can’t shake the association.)

With a Bounty and Snickers bar each in hand I headed up the gorge to the “Valley of Flowers”. In May, this valley is brushed with a stroke of red as the poppies bloom in full force. Around two years ago or so I found a photo somewhere on the internet and shared with a friend, hoping I would one day come here – this was the image of Kyrgyzstan that so enticed me here. A field of red flowers with green, snowcapped peaks in the distance.

The gorge itself was nice. Shady, with lots of picnic spots clinched by local families. The smell of fire makes me want to go camping. And then the valley.

It may have been Valley of Flowers in name. But in name only.

I realize it’s getting near Fall and all, but there are still plenty of flowers in bloom in Kyrgyzstan. Purple ones. Yellow ones. Pink ones. Blue ones. I’ve even seen an odd poppy. But this? This was a field of grass grazed by horses, sheep and cows. I don’t even see remnants of any sort of flower, let alone where poppies might have grown.

A few yurts dot the valley. It’s pleasant enough, I suppose. But not the image I had in my mind. Maybe the picture from the internet was photoshopped? Actually, I don’t even know if the picture was from the Valley of Flowers. I just assumed it was, as they are both valleys with poppies.

Ah well. I got some exercise. And I enjoyed a Snickers and a Bounty bar.

Back down at the sanatorium I decided to suss out getting a massage. A British guy I who was leaving the guesthouse in Karakol as I was checking in had been here and enjoyed a massage and a swim in the pool.

Apparently at one time this sanatorium was quite magnificent. Heads of State came here for summits.

At one time.

It’s run down now. If I hadn’t actually seen people walking around, I would have assumed it had been abandoned years ago.

But a man outside the main building caught my eye and asked if I was there for a massage. Indeed I was. He showed me inside to the main reception area, where he seemed to be indicating that he would be giving me a massage. I don’t think so. His hands were grabby enough while trying to explain a back massage was 200 som.

But how to explain that I want a women masseuse? I try “woman” “female”. I point to him, I point to me, I point to the woman sitting beside me.

Just when I think they understand me, the response is something like (in gesture, not in words), “Aahhhh. Back massage. 20 minutes.” Uh, I get that already.

“Aaahhhhh. Full body. 40 minutes.” Nope, still not getting me.

“Swimming? Swimming pool?” Shit, we’re getting further, not closer.

“Ahhh, 20 minutes. 200 som.” No. I think I’m going to have to give up.

At which point an administrator-looking woman comes over and asks me to follow her. She again tells me the price, the length of time, the amount of body. I know this. Then miraculously she pulls out a Lonely Planet Russian language guide. She points to the word for swimming pool. No, we’ve already been through that option outside.

Then the phone rings and she leaves me. I start leafing through the guide and find the word for woman. But then even better, I find the words for masseur and masseuse, and then everything comes clear. I’m assigned a woman, who explains to the original man that he’s out of luck. I also learn that “girl” would have been the understood word for female.

The massage was relaxing. Back, legs, arms, shoulders, neck, head. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to lie on the sheets I was on, but whatever. The male masseur popped in at one point, perhaps trying to get a peak at what he couldn’t touch. Or maybe just to confirm the work schedule for the next day. I really have no clue, but I was well covered until he left. 40 minutes went by quickly enough, but not quite quickly enough when she finished off the massage by pulling at chunks of my hair. Could have done without that.

Outside the sanatorium, it was starting to rain, but it was still brilliantly sunny.

I negotiated a taxi to get back down to Jeti-Oghuz, where passenger traffic was light and I hired out a shared taxi to myself to get back to Karakol. I actually was paying local price though, so it was cheap.

The next day I hoped to get to Altyn Arashyn, a small spot up in the mountains with a few guesthouses and hot springs. It was either a $50 jeep ride, or a 15km walk. I was going to opt for the hike. The British guy had described it, and it didn’t seem too bad considering I had already done that today.

But then I woke up in the morning, and my hip ached from the day before. It was an easy decision to just stick around Karakol for the day.

My one other large accomplishment was getting my visa extended. My original plan was to actually only stay in Karakol for two days. But when I arrived at the visa-extending place, it was closed. Some police men nearby gave me the usual arms-in-an-X gesture, meaning it was closed. Through our language barriers, I learned that it is closed for either two days, until September, or until September 2. I am hoping it’s the former, as my visa expires on September 1. Two other guys I run into enlighten me. It’s a holiday. August 31 is Independence Day. The Kyrgyz Republic proclaimed independence from Russia just 19 years ago. I had completely forgotten, and hoped that this wasn’t going to impact my plans for an easy extension.

After some phone calling by my guesthouse operator, she suggested it should be open September 1, as all other offices and school are. I was in luck. On September 1st, and $23, 4 hours, and 2 passport photos later, I was in possession of a legal right to remain in Kyrgyzstan. Awesome.

The day before, when the visa place was closed, was Kyrgyz Independence Day. Celebrating 19 years of separation from the Soviet Republic. I had already decided not to head up to Altyn Arashyn, so instead I wrote in the morning, and headed out in the afternoon. At the guesthouse I was told that there may be some activities in the afternoon, and definitely a concert later in the evening, all at the nearby stadium. The town was abuzz with foot traffic. I enjoyed a late lunch, and decided to read my guidebook and spend the afternoon checking out any major sights in town. Old wooden church, check. Old wooden buddhist-looking mosque. Check. Wait – horse games with a headless goat on Independence Day? I ask my server. It happened a few hours earlier. Damn.

I take a wander through an old amusement park. The leftover garbage from some early activities today line the lanes. I watch as people get on a circular swing ride, mostly without a chain seatbelt. A 10 year old works the motor as a young girl helps get the thing going by pulling on one of the chairs. I decide that I’m not a fan of circular swing rides today.

I pop by the stadium around the time the doors open for the concert. I hang outside for a bit, getting a sense of the scene. It seems as though the concert isn’t going to start for quite a while yet. I opt to head back to the guesthouse for a quiet evening.

My first two evening were very quiet. I was the only one staying at the guesthouse. But then, a group of artists (apparently performers from the concert) came to stay the second two nights. They came in late each night, to the frantic shushes of the guesthouse owner, and drove me crazy each morning by slurping coffee and laughing while I tried to eat my breakfast in peace. I think I was oversensitive after too many days of quiet.

The day after Independence Day was the first day of school in Kyrgyzstan. It’s tradition that the young pupils bring a bouquet of flowers for their teachers. The kids are dressed in black and white, and I’m told this is their uniform. A few years ago the education minister decided that there was too much disparity between the few rich and mostly poor population in their dress, and uniforms would help make student more equal in appearance.

Great idea, but the uniforms must have been designed by a pedophile. The girls are dressed up in what looks remarkably like a french maid outfit. Cute black dresses with frilly, lacy white aprons. White frilly bows in their hair. Odd.

Overall, I spent my time quite peacefully in Karakol. Quiet evenings writing. Quiet mornings writing. Afternoons walking, taking photos, checking email, eating dinner. I ate dinner at the same place each night. A mixture of Russian, Kyrgyz, and Dungan (Chinese Muslim) fare. It was pretty good every time, except the last. I, for some insane reason, opted for “hot dog”. The menu reads “hot dog” and then the price of 30 som. I also get mashed potatoes and a salad, but am looking forward to a hot dog.

It comes, but it’s two hot dogs, and no bun. A glob a ketchup sits on the edge of the plate beside the mashed potatoes. I take one bit of the hot dog, and I know I won’t take any more. It’s as if a regular hotdog, which itself is not all that appetizing being made up of ground up animal bits, has been ground up again and then chewed by cows and spit into hotdog shapes.

When the bill comes, I have been charged for two hotdogs. I am confused, as I just ordered “hot dog” not “hot dogs” or “2 hot dog”. The resulting conversation probably went something like this.

“I ordered ‘hot dog’.”

“Yes, but see, there is are two hot dogs on your plate.”

“But I only ordered one.”

“But one portion is two hot dogs.”

“But is says ‘hot dog – 30som’ on the menu, so surely one portion is 30 som.”

“One hot dog – 30 som. But one portion is two hot dogs, so 60 som.”

We go back and forth for a while. Eventually she changes the bill and I save 30 som for the half of the portion I didn’t order.

Overall Karakol was much nicer than I expected. It’s really just a town, but seeing as it’s such a hub for travellers and it’s situated between the lake and the mountains, I expected more hustling. More crap souvenirs. But the streets were lined with trees, the sunsets were orange, the lightning storms were purple, and everything but the hotdog tasted good.