Friday, August 8, 2008

The Stuck in Bishkek Blues

So I did make it to Kyrgyzstan after the previous post, and, eh, did OK for the first couple weeks. I signed up for three weeks of Russian lessons, applied for my Uzbekistan visa, and things seemed to be going pretty well. I think I ended up staying too long in Bishkek, as I got my visa sooner than I had expected (I had heard it would take up to three weeks, but it only took less than half that), and by the time my Russian lessons were finished (which were largely inneffectual -- there are a few languages that one might be able to pick up a meaningful amount of in a couple weeks, but Russian is NOT one of them), I had already become so lackadaisical that it took me another week or so to get my ass moving again.

But, finally I did get my ass moving again. Biked down to Song-Kol lake over the next few days through some gorgeous terrain, and the lake itself, at over 3000 meters above sea-level, with nothing but livestock, mountains, and the occasional yurt (the Central-Asian version of a teepee) to be seen.

I stayed there a couple days with a Basque biker couple that I met on the road. After that we split up and I planned to go in the direction of Osh and then on to either Uzbekistan or China, I hadn't decided yet. However, once I got down to the southern valley from Song-Kol, I found that the road to Osh had just been recently regraveled, and the gravel was layered on several inches thick. I don't know if that sounds so back, but it was terrible. I had no traction at all. My back tires couldn't push, and my front tires couldn't steer. The first 30 km of the road was on flat terrain though, so I decided to go forward and hope that the conditions got better before I reached the start of the mountain pass. It took me OVER A DAY to ride (or mainly push) those 30 km, and by the time I got to the start of the pass, I saw that the road was going to be the same condition the entire way up and over, and that there was no way I was going to be able to do it on bicycle. Fuck. Let it be noted here that in sparsely-populated Kyrgyzstan, there are only a handful of roads, such that if the one you want is impassible, you're faced with a really long way around, if there's an alternate route at all. In my case, it meant going all the way back to Bishkek and starting off in the other direction on the main trunk to Osh, which I avoided the first time because other cyclists said the traffic was a nightmare.

So, begin the long journey pushing my bike back over the 30 km to get off this road (also note this is in the desert, in July). Once back on the main road I was desparately dehydrated. I had managed to find water here and there, but simply couldn't seem to drink it fast enough to keep up with the heat. Anyway, the first main town was another 100 km down the road, which took me way longer than I had anticipated; I think I was just physically and, perhaps even moreso, mentally exhausted and my body was refusing to do what I told it.

Once I got to Naryn, I went to the local CBT (Kyrgyzstan's national travel agency) office. I had known that there was a possible short-cut to China not far from there. It's a border crossing known as the Torugart Pass (famous as Marco Polo's route into China), but is officially only open to Kyrgyz or Chinese citizens to cross. However, with a certain expensive document, it is also possible for foreigners to cross that pass as well, presuming they have a licensed Kyrgyz courier transport them the 100 km from Naryn to the border on the Kyrgyz side, and have arranged a licensed Chinese courier to meet them at the border and transport them the 200 km from the border to Kashgar. Complicated stuff.

So, talking to the agent, it ended up that it would cost around $440 all told. WHAT? $440 for a taxi ride! For something I could do on my bike for free! It would even be cheaper to fly, if I ever got back to Bishkek. (Let it be noted that I had even been considering simply flying out before I even left Bishkek originally). I simply couldn't stomach it.

However, that price was per taxi, not per person. I asked if there was anybody else that had inquired about the trip, and he said that he hadn't heard of anyone, but that usually once per week or so a group will cross, and sometimes they will have an extra spot. Faced with indecision, I let the waiting game start.

Meanwhile, I've been staying with a local Kyrgyz family that invited me to stay in their home when I arrived in town (a common occurrence in Muslim countries). It was fairly nice; actually perhaps the best part of the trip for me. They gave me food (bread, jam, an occasional soup) and tea, and I was helping their kids learn English. It was a bit annoying at first because the eldest brother (23) would not stop pestering me about how I could help him get a job in the US. I guess they don't understand the idea that you can't simply bribe an official and get whatever you want like you can in Kyrgyzstan. However, after a couple days he chilled out a bit and I got to enjoy rural Kyrgyz family life.

It was fairly nice. The have a cow, five sheep, a house with three rooms, a small TV, outdoor squat toilet, two cars (?!?) and a dump truck (the father is a "driver"), and live close to the river where they make daily trips to wash up and get fresh water for the house for the day. The girls take the animals out to pasture, the boys were working on an additional room for the house, mom was mostly in the kitchen, and dad was out driving either his taxi or his truck (both of which always seemed to have to be towed back at the end of the day). Food, like I said, was very simple, usually just home-made bread and jam and something halfway between lard and butter, and lots and lots of tea. I remember being so enamoured with the simplicity and the from-the-earthedness of the food initially that I had decided that when I get back to the US I'm going to start eating exactly like this. However after several days of nothing but the same crappy homemade bread over and over and over again, I could hope to never see another piece of bread again in my life! Regardless, it was interesting to see how they lived.

The highlight probably came when they sacraficed a sheep for me. Yup, you read that right. Wake up early in the morning, do a couple quick prayers, grab a sheep, tie its ankles together, and go crazy on that jugular. It was fascinating to watch. Supposedly a hit to the jugular releases certain endorphins in the brain that immediately calms an animal down for impending death. And that seemed to be the case. The sheep really didn't seem to experience that much pain, and it was really only a couple seconds from the time it was a living breathing animal to the time it was a piece of meat ready to be dissected.

And they wasted no time with that, either. The skin came off, then the digestive organs came out and mama had the work of cleaning those out. The head and hooves came off, and papa started taking to them with a blowtorch. And then the other internal organs started coming out one-by-one, and finally the meat was hacked up into its portions. Not so much as an eyelash went to waste. You can guess that lunch that day wasn't quite as limited as usual (with a big roasted lamb skull sitting on top). Ultimately the whole experience really did reveal some of the essence that exists in the millenia long balance between man and the earth. I recommend everyone to have a sheep sacraficed for them someday.

Anyway, back to practical matters. So finally Monday I learned that there would be two guys going over the pass on Wednesday. Okay, $150 is certainly more palatable than $440. Even still I was feeling leery -- they had actually arranged things through a different agency and something told me that there would be a problem with my bicycle and the taxi drivers. Tuesday I found another bicyclist that wanted to go over the pass, we finalized the details on coordinating with the other two guys, we made sure the taxi drivers were taking minivans capable of holding our bicycles, we confirmed that all the documents were finished and there would be no problem at customs and finally I was able to sleep easy. After a whole trip that seemed nothing but roadblocks -- from the four flat tires I had that forced me to Beijing, to the hassle of the Trans-Siberian railroad that prevented me there, to the dreariness and mosquitos and cost of everything that turned me around in Sweden, to the visas and general malaise that kept me stuck in Bishkek, to the gravel at the pass at Ak-Tal that forced me back there, to now the border hassles at the Torugart, after all the self-doubt and second-thoughts about whether this trip has been worth it or whether it ever will be worth it, or whether I should go back home and get back to work, or whether I should have never come on this trip in the first place, it suddenly seemed like the rest of the journey, from Naryn to China, the Turpan desert and the alpine lakes of Kanas, to Pakistan and all these great, well-paved mountain passes to the highest reaches known on this planet and humble old cultures of the northern areas, and on to India, the desert remenants of the Royal British Empire in Rajastan, the ancient pilgrimge centers all along the Ganges, the national parks, and even crazy modern Indian Bollywood style all the way to Calcutta were so wide open, so free, dependent on nothing but me and my bicycle, away from all this beaurocratic bullshit that had been taking away everything I wanted to do, and yes I slept well that night. Then finally, on Wednesday, I woke up to find out that there had been riots in Kashgar and all the land borders from Kyrgyzstan to China were closed. Take that, asshole.

So, now I'm back in Bishkek. How things change. Now I hate this city. I started looking for flights home. Cheapest one I've found yet is $2000 and leaves in eight days. Eight more days in crappy old Bishkek. But of course another part of me is saying I can't let this stupid border incident mark the end of this trip, or rather of this part of my life, since I do feel pretty unwaveringly that this is going to be my last long multi-country trip like this in a long long time and have felt like that since the days when I planned it. The three guys I was going to go over the pass with are catching a flight to Urumqi on Tuesday, and I'm increasingly feeling like I might join them. If for no other reason than to try to find a few more cheaper options on flights home from within China. And who knows, maybe once I get to China I'll start feeling a little better about this trip again.

Anyway that's my current position. Until next time.

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