Trip to Karakol
Unqualified success. Well, mostly.
Aipery, Phil’s child bride, had her 19th birthday yesterday. Andrea and I arrived back at the house to find that it had been taken over by Phil’s in-laws—which is not such a bad situation when there’s a table full of food and three cakes and a group of women beckoning you to join them. We were both tired and dusty from a day of travel, but we gratefully joined them. A mix of Kyrgyz, Russian, and English ensued. Aipery is about four months pregnant now. A couple of months ago, a doctor told her she was definitely having a boy. Phil, of course, was over the moon. Last week, a different doctor told her that she was having a girl—absolutely, no question about it, a girl.
AIpery is herself little more than a child. She has moved into our house of teachers and it must be a strange experience for her. She has left her home and her family for the first time in her life and she has found herself, all of a sudden, in the west. Last night I told her that, in the west, the women are in charge. “Teach me how to be a western woman” she said earnestly.
“Ah! None of that!” Phil cried “Notice that I didn’t marry a western woman. There’s a reason for that.”
All in good fun, of course, but with that element of truth that such levity often contains.
But Aipery woke this morning with a sore throat. She wandered out into the kitchen while I was cooking. She asked with I was making. “Well,” I said, “that’s quiche over there. It’s milk, eggs, cheese, and vegetables.” I’m roasting some cabbage and later I’ll roast some carrots. I’m also boiling garbanzo beans for a salad.” And I pulled out the salad to show her. She hung around, so I offered her a piece of quiche. “Just a small piece,” she said, “I can’t eat a lot.” So I gave her a piece. She ate it and stuck around. I asked if she’d like some mint tea. “Yes,” she said gratefully. So I put some water on to boil. While we were waiting, I showed her pictures of my nieces, asked about baby names—the usual things one might do while waiting with a pregnant woman for water to boil.
She wanted to know what I was going to do today. I told her I’d probably wind up reading some. She asked me if I had any books. I explained that all my books were on my kindle, but that if she wanted something to read I could probably find something. “No,” she said, “it’s just… I’m here… being sick, it’s boring in the house.”
I wish I were more matronly. Here I am, an unmarried, childless woman in my 30s. I wish I could take her under my wing, teach her how to make British food for her husband, how to be pregnant, how to be a mom. She needs that type of support now, I can see it so plainly. But all I can do is tell ribald jokes, teach her how to swear like a sailor, talk about my sister’s kids. I’m like the well-meaning but useless uncle. I could take her under my wing if she wanted to be like me, but her path in life is very different. But at least her family is in Bishkek. Her cousin just had a baby—and her cousin is married to a foreigner as well, a Korean, so she’ll be able to help her a lot. I suppose that all I can really do is kick Phil’s ass occasionally if I see that he needs it.
Yesterday, when Andrea and I got out of our taxi back from Karakol, I’d hardly gone half a block when I saw the green. It hadn’t been green when we left, but now I can see the buds on the trees, the green patches of grass showing up in the cracks in the road, the shoots appearing in gardens. Today was overcast, but still reasonably warm. While Andrea and I were gone, the heat was shut off. As a result, we no longer have hot water in the house. Showers have become a 15-second ordeal of squealing and cursing—washing the essential bits and no more. Phil has spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out how to get us hot water. But he has a pregnant bride to take care of. He had a hard enough time trying to convince her to move in with us, so he has incentive to keep her here. She might well decide that hot water at her mom’s house is preferable to cold water in a house full of English teachers.
But this is about my trip to Karakol…
Schedules are rather uncertain at The School, so we never really know when we will have time off. We were able to determine, about mid-March, that we’d have a couple of days off at the end of the month. And the scramble to find a way to spend the time began. The first iteration of this process involved four teacher, two males and two females, hiring a taxi and going down to Osh. Unfortunately, we were never able to determine if the road to Osh was open or not. There was also a rumor going around that there was going to be a demonstration in Osh the last weekend of March. Given the nature of demonstrations in the south of Kyrgyzstan, we revised our plans slightly.
The next iteration involved the same four teachers going east, to Karakol. A shorter distance, a more secure location, and a road that we were reasonably sure was open. Then one of the teachers decided he wanted to stay in Bishkek and drink with the alcoholic. The other male teacher decided that he wanted to go west, to Talas. That left two females. This being my first trip out of Bishkek, I wasn’t sure what it would be like for females to travel unaccompanied. I had no reason to anticipate any particular difficulties—but there was the fact that one of the males was reasonably fluent in Russian. But I had my ten or so words (more than the other female) so away we went.
Well, not so fast. First, we had to get to the bus station in Bishkek. Taxi for that. We were hardly out of the taxi when a swarm of long-distance taxi drivers descended upon us. I pushed my way through them, negotiated what seemed like a reasonable price for the both of us, and Andrea and I settled in to our chosen taxi.
When I asked the driver, he said that we were waiting for two other people who wanted to go to Karakol.
I didn’t know how long this was going to take but I did know that I didn’t want to get to a new place after dark. So I hopped out of the taxi and started to walk around to scope things out. While I was away, Andrea called in a panic. Some men—the taxi driver included—had grabbed our stuff from the trunk and were walking away with it. Down an alley.
I rushed back and found them. They had loaded our bangs into a new taxi—one that had two other men waiting in it. The new taxi driver quoted a new price. Absolutely not was my response. He went down 50 som—but still above what I’d negotiated earlier. Nope. He opened up the trunk and we pulled out our bags and walked away.
After we’d entered the main part of the bus station, a man—a different one—came running up to us. 400 som he offered us—100 som below what I’d negotiated earlier. Done. We followed him to a minibus, hopped into the last two seats, and took off.
Six hours later we were in Karakol.
I know I ought to describe the scenery, but all I can really say is that everyone reading this ought to do the trip. You go about an hour and a half east. Kazakhstan and mountains to the north—you can see it from the road—mountains to the south. Then you go through a gorge. Once you’re through that, you see lake Issy-Kol in all its improbable colors. There’s the red and brown of the earth, then the blue and turquoise and purple of the lake, then the green and brown and white of the mountains beyond.
We rounded the north side of the lake, dipped down, and entered Karakol. We hadn’t made any reservations but figured that since we were at the end of the ski season and not yet into the hiking season we’d have no problems finding a place to stay. Such was the case. We walked to the first place on our list and were the only two people there.
That evening we walked into town and had some chicken and manti. The walk back was… well, I’d had the foresight to bring a flashlight. Otherwise we’d probably both have wound up with twisted ankles or broken legs.
The next day we walked around Karakol. It’s a major administrative center, but it had the feel of a frontier outpost: dirt roads, chickens and dogs, bustling markets. For lunch we went to the main bazaar to try ashlanfu, a dungan speciality. There were several booths in a row and we walked past them. Once we reached the end, a woman came running after us.
“You are American, I can tell, where are you from, I’m Kyrgyz but I’m living in the United States, I’m living in LA, I work there as an RN, I’m here visiting my sister, this is my first time in Karakol, you want to try ashlanfun, I know the best place for that, you should come with me, I will show you, it is the best place here, come with me” and so on. Andrea and I, both naturally reserved and quiet people, widened our eyes a bit at this onslaught, set our teeth, and allowed ourselves to be shepherded by our new Kyrgyz-American friend.
It’s an unfortunate reality that one must be wary of over-friendly strangers when traveling in a foreign country, but that’s the way of things. This woman, however, didn’t do any of the things that function as red flags, so we were able to relax and enjoy the experience. In the end she bought our lunches for us and took off with her sister, wishing us luck and telling us to e-mail her when we were next in LA.
I should pause a bit and describe ashlanfu. I do like the try new foods when I travel--and I’m especially partial to street food. This stuff, though, was particularly nasty. It was a type of cold soup with wheat noodles and then some unidentifiable white slime on top of it all. Like I said, glad I tried it—but never, ever again.
The afternoon was spent walking along a river. The evening—a different restaurant in town. I made the mistake of ordering a salad. It sounded so promising on the menu: chicken, cheese, oranges... What emerged from the kitchen was a slimy mass of mayonnaise. I couldn’t even take a single bite. It’s the first time I’ve ever had that happen to me. I usually am able to choke down a bite or two. Not this time. This country and mayonnaise… ehhh. Thankfully the salad wasn’t too expensive, so I was able to order a borsht to keep myself going a bit longer.
[continued several days later]
25 degrees, according to one website (though it is acknowledged amongst folks here that temperature reports are suspect. As one student explained to me, there is a law that, if it’s over 40 degrees, offices and schools have to close. A good idea, but the practical result of this is that official temperature reports never seem to top 38…)
Day two of Karakol began much the same way that day one began: a breakfast of simple carbohydrates (including a candy and cookie dish!) and a giant pot of weak tea (while about ten cups of weak tea might equal two cups of normal tea, they do tend to lead to greater usage of Russian as part of a frantic bathroom search).
First stop: Ak-Tilak Bazar to try and find a Marshurka to Jeti-Oguz and then a taxi to the Jeti-Oguz sanatorium about 11 km up the road. The destination is not the sanatorium but the mountains behind it (though we did pack our swimsuits for a quick dip after our intended hike). No Marshurka, but a taxi driver willing to take us all the way to the sanatorium.
In Bishkek, almost everyone speaks Russian. Outside of Bishkek, however, Kyrgyz is widely spoken—with Russian becoming more of a lingua franca at best (or, at worst, completely useless). Thus, my conversation with the taxi driver involved me scrambling for my lonely planet guidebook to look up some Kyrgyz. When I finally established that he was trying to tell me that the field of flowers was, at this moment, a field of snow, I thanked him for his information (the snow on the ground as we drove to the sanatorium already indicative of this little nugget of wisdom), assured him that we did not need him to wait for us, and set out.
But first stop: a store for some food. All the shops in Karakol had been closed, so Andrea and I were unable to buy anything for our lunch. I had asked the taxi driver to stop in the village of Jeti-Oguz so that we could buy something, but he assured us that there was a shop at the sanatorium. And there was. One that had chocolate and vodka.
So, then. No lunch. But, me being me, I had brought and apple and some nuts. And there was enough snow that we wouldn’t be able to go too far into the mountains anyway. And there were three cafes at the sanatorium where we could have lunch after our brief hike. Then, a quick dip and back to Karakol. That was the plan at least.
Fast forward about five hours and you find two weary travelers without water or food, stumbling along a dirt road to the village of Jeti-Oguz. The hike in the mountains was great—went off without a hitch. The cafes were closed, the store had closed while we were walking in the mountains (so even chocolate for lunch wasn’t an option), the hot springs in the sanatorium were broken, and there was nary a car in sight to flag down. Once in Jeti-Oguz, we hopped into a shared taxi to Karakol. Once in Karakol, we popped into the nearest café and promptly began stuffing ourselves with that oh-so-fatty Kyrgyz meat (promptly being somewhat relative, given the wait time at most restaurants here.
Another quiet evening in the B&B.
Day three: same breakfast, different bazaar for a marshurka, different mountain gorge. We had to enter a national park that, like most parks and museums in developing countries, charges different rates depending on your ability to convince the park guards that you are a local. I had practiced my most convincing “ski base” in Russian (if you are going to the ski base, you automatically pay less. A lot less). The guards weren’t exactly buying it. “Tourista?” “Nyet. Lykshe baza” (or some such. I’ve already forgotten.) The guard behind the window finally gave up and waved us through without charging us anything. The other guard had found a way to turn a personal profit and was standing behind us, mobile phone at the ready. “Taxi” he said, pointing to an exorbanant 500 som that he’d typed on his phone. “Nyet, speciba. Ya ahchoo [pantomime of walking because I’d forgotten the Russian for walk].” He tried to give me the mobile so that I could type in my counter offer. I refused to take it, thanked him again, and walked past him into the park.
This gorge was not as pretty as the previous one had been, Andrea’s legs were hurting her, and after she stepped into a river and got her feet wet I turned us around and started marching us back to the park gate (wondering how I was going to explain a one-hour ski trip to the park guards—but figuring I’d come up with something.) As we were walking, though, a very nice SUV pulled up next to us. The window lowered, and a man in a very official-looking uniform peered out at us.
“What’s this?” I thought, my guard automatically up. The man offered us a ride (in Russian). I told him we wanted to walk. He, however, was quite insistent—to the point where he mentioned several times that he was police. I turned to Andrea and, in English, explained the situation to her, ending with “he’s police.” She got a look in her eyes and said, “We’ll walk.” I tried to politely decline, but the man was having none of it. Not wanted to create problems, I told Andrea that he was insisting. So we got into the car.
Again, it’s a shame that one’s guard automatically goes up when traveling, but that’s the way that it is—the way that it has to be sometimes. As it turned out, the man was tourist police and very friendly and trustworthy. I learned about his job, his family—including his daughter, who he was very proud of—and the best places in Karakol to get Camca and Shashlik. He gave me his phone number and told me that if I ever had any problems, I was to call him. He dropped us off at Ak-Tilak bazaar, and Andrea and I had our lunch (camca and shashlik, of course). We then went back to the B&B, grabbed our bags, humped out to the bus station, negotiated our shared taxi price, and began the 5-hour drive back to Bishkek.
The driver was only pulled over by the police once (I’ve been on one-hour car rides where the driver gets pulled over two or three times). He also dropped us off at our street (rather than taking us to the bus station). We walked down our street, noted the green, and entered a house full of of Phil’s in-laws…