Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan | 17 August, 2006 | $7.63
I arrived by bus in this town on the edge of Lake Issyk-Kul and wasn’t sure where to go. Although the town was full of tourists almost all of them were Russian and there was little catering to the English-speaking tourist. I ended up following a sign to a home stay and managed to pantomime out the terms of my one-night stay with the owner. She looked more like a Russian Babushka than a Kyrygz and it was clear that this wasn’t a typical Kyrgyz town. A little blonde boy also lived in the house and would pop his head in my door and stare at me while I unpacked and follow me around the yard.
My room was inside the house but most of the other tenants stayed in a row of cement bungalows surrounding the driveway. They sat around cooking and drinking while I went to the beach. At the back of the property was a beautiful fruit orchard where the owners were drying apples which you can see in the photos below.
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan | 14 August, 2006 | $3.85 USD
I loved this hostel! At the time I was there is was quite new and not in any guidebooks but still full which is a testament to how nice, laid back guesthouses are needed in Central Asia. I took an minibus overnight from Osh and a friend I’d met in phase I, who I’d run into randomly in Osh, had talked to the driver about me. Apparently she told him to watch out for me because I was not allowed to leave the market on my own despite my insistence. The driver appointed an Azerbaijani guy to escort me to my hostel. I did not want a strange man knowing the exact address of where I was staying but he persisted in following me. As can be expected, this meant that over the next month the hostel owners, a Kyrgyz woman and her Japanese husband, had to keep sending the guy away when he came by asking where I was and if I would date him.
The hostel had a tiny yard and pool and even a little outdoor kitchen. It was almost perfect if it wasn’t overflowing with guests all the time. This meant that I met a lot of interesting people including Peach Corps volunteers, other travelers trying to get Uzbek visas and even a girl who had to stay in town to finish a round of rabies treatments after being bitten by a dog. I always meet more interesting, memorable and compatible people when I’m staying in out of the way towns or countries and Kyrgyzstan was no exception.
The price of the bed did not include any food but that was okay, because every morning I walked down the block to a tiny metal stand where a man with gold teeth passed me a warm bread roll which I filled with banana and nutella from the Chinese grocery nearby. I ended up spending quite a lot of time in Bishkek trying to get Uzbek and Tajik visas, searching out cold weather supplies, visiting the US embassy and healing from the car accident a few days earlier.
Osh, Kyrgyzstan | 10 August, 2006 | $20.36 USD
After the car accident the previous night I was delivered to Osh by China Aid truck, pickup, minibus and taxi. The cheap guesthouse I wanted to stay in was full. They offered to let me stay on the living room floor but I wanted to pull everything out of my bag and take inventory of what was broken. This nicer guesthouse was all that I could find in the dark, not speaking one word of any of the local languages, and with a full blown migraine and concussion. It was too dark to find local currency and I hadn’t eaten so I went to bed hungry but all in one piece.
Most of you know how fascinating I found Central Asia on my last trip but it’s not often in the U.S. news. I see today that Reuters is reporting that the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan will probably be shut down. First Uzbekistan kicks the U.S. out, now Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan certainly did me no good when I was looking for a doctor after my car accident. Still, I think it’s interesting how many U.S. military bases there are around the world and that the average American citizen has no idea they exist.
I feel horrible that I’ve been keeping such a huge secret from all of you loyal readers for so long.
There’s a reason why I didn’t write much about Kyrgyzstan a year ago—I was in a pretty bad car accident somewhere between the Chinese border and the tiny town of Sary Tash. A year later I am still missing ten hours and can’t tell you exactly what happened. I woke up the next morning in a Chinese truck with no memory of the accident. In fact, the only reason I knew I was in an accident (besides the inability to turn my neck) was because I had apparently had the foresight to take a picture of it before I blacked out.
Originally I had only promised my sister not to tell my mom until I got out of Central Asia, but then she thought it was a good idea to wait until I was out of the mountains entirely. Finally she told me just to wait until I got home. Now that she knows about the accident I can finally tell the story to all of you. The posts about the accident are back-dated but can be found here in Part 1 and Part 2. Now you can imagine how hard it was for me to travel back over that pass to get back into China, not to mention all of the other mountain passes I crossed in Tajikistan, Tibet and Nepal.
In less shocking news, the souvenir page and sketchbook are updated. I haven’t worked much on the maps but have my worldwide map finished, and created a lifetime travel route map just for fun. As you can see below, there really is a lot of the world I haven’t seen.
When I travel for long periods of time (I’m almost at five months now), some places and even countries fade from my memory quickly. When I left Bishkek in September, and then again in early October, it was a peaceful place. But today I got an email from Nargiza, the girl who posed as my translator at the Uzbek embassy:
hi Megan, i stady in university, nou im not working, today is not good because revolition. do you have pictures?
Now, I never said she was the best translator, but she got the job done. Notice how she casually mentions revolution? The Kyrgyz “Tulip Revolution” was only a few years ago and it seems that the current government isn’t cutting it. Or maybe in nomadic, herding societies like Kyrgyzstan’s the populace gets bored in the winter and stages revolutions as a form of entertainment.
In any case, some of my more involved readers might want to keep an eye out this week to see what the outcome is. I’m sure this issue hasn’t appeared in the U.S. press, but you can start with a short article here.
After sitting around in Osh, Daniel (the Australian thrid of Team America—the name they made up for our three-person travel group in Tajikistan), flew into town and in a whirlwind I was on a bus to Kashgar. Because there was an actual bus we were pretty sure that the border was open. We never got a confirmation on the border re-opening date but we were on schedule to cross into China on the 9th.
Around 8pm, when the bus was supposed to leave, we began to get on board. Another passenger who was late tried to make me move to the back of the bus, where five beds were laid out, but I refused. I was not about to spend the night squished between four smelly Kyrgyz, Uzbek or Chinese men. You’d be surprised what shrugging your shoulders and shaking your head can do when traveling—it’s gotten me out of some uncomfortable situations.
Around 9:30, after negotiating the sell of the remaining beds and filling up with gas, we set off toward Sary Tash and the Chinese border. Neither of us slept much at all because the road is only technically paved and it’s pretty bumpy in most places.
Somewhere around 3am we stopped and I peed in a frozen ditch on top up a mountain pass surrounded by snow and illuminated by a nearly full moon.
At 4am the lights were suddenly flipped on and everyone arround me began to furiously devor loafs of bread and bottles of Fanta—fasting for Ramadan was about to begin. A little while later a bit of music was played to signify sun-up. I was glad Daniel suggested one Snickers was not enough, encouraging me to buy more. One Snickers is never enough in Central Asia.
Although every long-distance bus I take stops all the time, this one barely stopped at all. We didn’t stop to eat (because everyone else was fasting) and we didn’t have many toilet stops because the fasting even includes water. By 7:30am when we arrived at the first Kyrgyz border checkpoint I knew I should go to the bathroom but didn’t think a militray zone was the best place to go off along the road. We were stopped for an hour while the bus driver delieverd a huge stack of passports, each filled with a 500com bribe. Daniel and I refused to put a bribe in our passports. We waited.
The drive to the Kyrgyz border was only thirty more minutes and I was excited to get there so early. I nievely assumed that because we got to the border when it opened we would get through both borders before lunch. While we waited I ran off into the shanty town near the border to deliver photos of the local kids I had taken exactly two month earlier. People in Central Asia rarely have photos of themselves and family photos are cherised. But the town was nearly deserted and the trailer of the little girl who stars in my photos was padlocked. I found a woman nearby who seemed to agree to deliver the photos—the family had gone to Osh for the winter.
The border gate opened and we drove inside, only to be ushered into a shed to wait for passport control. A bus full of people can take a long time to cross a border and we waited for everyone to be checked. There is about 10km of “no-man’s land” before reaching the Chinese border where we were stopped at a Chinese checkpoint. Usually you just show your passport and are logged into a book but we were all required to get off the bus.
Looking back toward Kyrgyzstan, a Chinese tower with a bright red flag billowed in front of a panorama of white mountaintops. All of the passengers were lined up in single file and told to put their luggage in front of them. I joked to the man next to me that it looked like they were going to shoot us but he was busy taking all of the contents of his bag out and spreading them onto the pavement. Apparently we had been instructed to take everything out for inspection but I decided to play the foreigner card and leave my bag closed. Besides, I prefer not to advertise how many expensive things I carry with me.
The Chinese military guards moved down the line looking at everything. The man next to me had what looked like a jar of mayonaise. He has to take a tast of it for the guard. Another man to my right sat while the guard took everything apart, reading personal letters and even then notes from medicine packaging. When he came to me I opened the main compartment of my day bag and pointed to a few things and opened the lid of my camera bag. He pointed to my big backpack and I made a bid deal out of opening it up for him, like he was really requiring a lot of me. He looked at the bag at the top (my toiletries) and let me go. It was all for appearances.
We pulled up at the Chinese border around 11:30 local time (1:30 Beijing time) and filled out the required forms, proclaiming not to have SARS. Daniel got as far as passport control but as the officer began to lower the stamp to his passport he stopped and declared that the border was closed for the next two and a half hours. I tried to explain to the English-speaking offical that we were tired and hungry and that he should let us go. With that everyone in the building cleared out, leaving us sitting on our bags. Four Swiss bicyclists rode up and had to wait was well, jeapardizing their plans to make it 50k into China that day.
The time passed quickly. I wrote in my journal, tried to get the muslim women to eat grapes (aka contraband plant matter in China) and didn’t use the public toilet. When the time came to line up everyone pushed to the front and I was suddenly at the end of the line. I was a little worried that I would pass the temperature test because I had a bit of a cold lingering from Tajikistan. But when I looked into the 6 foot tall scanner my temperature was well under the required 38 degrees.
It took a while to x-ray and then load up everyone massive luggage and we waited in the sun to finally leave to Kashgar. It turned out that over half of the bus passengers decided to take taxis from the border to Kashgar, saving themselves an hour or so. It amazes me that these people decided to take the bus but then were able to afford guard bribes and Chinese taxis.
The rest of the ride to Kashgar was uneventful, aside from a Japanese man being repremanded for peeing on the side of the road in front of a Chinese border control post. Good thing I held out! The bus ride was expensive ($50) and quite a hassle. If I ever find myself crossing that border again I’m taking a taxi.
Today I finally found where to buy fresh bread near my gueshouse in Osh. The directions I was given were classic:
Take a right after walking past the garbage cans and mini market. From there look for the Kyrgyzstan Resturaunt on your right. The sign is in Russian. In-between Kyrgyzstan Resturaunt and Kyrgyzstan Cafe there’s an alley with a toilet. Walk past the toilet and you will find a hole in the wall where the bread oven is.
Sure enough, I took a right at the first sign of a toilet and there was my fresh bread. Bananas are a touch more expensive in Osh than Bishkek (20 com/ 0.52 cents) but I found a good one this morning. I sat in front of the TV watching BBC World, CNN and World Fashion while eating my chocolate banana breakfast. Everyone working at the guesthouse is fasting for Ramadan but I’m not letting that deter me from hot bread in the morning. In fact, because I am apparently a horrible person, I secretly enjoy eating in front of fasting people.
In Osh I have only seen Diet Coke in one resturaunt, never for sale on the street. There is Diet Pepsi, and I’ve given in and bought a few. The street I’m staying on is littered with outdoor cafes where mediocre Central Asian “food” is served almost 24 hours. Because of this I’ve been lazy about going to the Western places on the other side of town. I tried to find pizza the other day but when I walked in the woman looked at me and said “niet pizza!”
Now that my new visa in firmly stuck in my passport I am spending most of my time in the guesthouse working on my web site. I’ve uploaded a few new things but have a lot more I can do. Every few hours I leave my room and turn on World Fashion to bother the guys working there. It’s a fashion channel but whenever I turn it on an underwear special is on. One of the guys called it a “sex channel” which I thought was pretty funny. They thought they got rid of all the “sex channels” on their cable. They could get HBO, E! and Cartoon Network but haven’t sprung for the extra fees. Every once in a while I scroll by just to see E! pop up… it takes very little to amuse me after this many months on the road.
and China won’t let me in.
Tajikistan started and ended on bad notes (waiting for permits in Dushanbe… almost getting into a fight with the militsia in Murgab and projectile vomiting at 3,800 meters), but everything in-between was completely amazing.
I flew on a tiny 17-seater plane with no computers on board. We soared through mountain passes and followed a gorge marking the Tajik–Afghan border. Two days later, after my homestay owner, Gulnara, cornered me and dyed my eyebrows, we left with our Pamiri driver in an old army green Russian UAZ jeep for Ishkashim. Because the weather was perfect we drove the route through the Wakhan Corridor to Murgab in three days instead of our planned four.
Along the way we stayed with our driver’s friends and ate more cabbage soup than I felt comfortable with. I blame the cabbage soup and lack of actual Coca-Cola for my demise into projectile vomiting our second day in Murgab. By then we kind of had electricity in the form of a generator, were all more than ready for some “civilization.” It’s pretty bad when Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan looks like civilization.
Along the way we heard from one of the few others travelers we met that the Chinese border had been closed for it’s national holiday. We refused to believe that they would close the border for ten days—just think of all of the scrap metal they’re missing out on importing! Unfortunately, it turned out to be true although the re-oppening date has still not been confirmed. This morning I called the U.S. embassy in Bishkek who told me they have no information on the Chinese border and suggested I call the Chinese embassy. When I called the Chinese embassy and asked if they spoke English I was immediately hung up on.
Besides wasting my time (and money) as Tibet gets colder, this border closing is a major visa problem for me. I bought a Kyrgyz transit visa in Dushanbe that is only valid from October 2nd through the 6th—during which the border is closed. I have head rumors that the border will open on the 8th, 9th, 10th or 11th, so my visa will be invalid well before I can cross to China.
I went by a travel agent today to ask about flights to Urumqi. The agent started with “There are two airlines flying to China. One of them has just been arrested so your options are limited.” After a lot of searching it turned out that there were no seats on any of the flights until late October, let alone by this Friday so I can not leave Kyrgyzstan by air. I’ve thought about going through Kazakstan, but by the time I get to Bishkek, apply for a Kazak visa and take the train from Almaty to Urumqi I would be better off sitting in Osh and waiting for the border to open.
So, here I am in Osh… again. I’ve heard there’s a resturaunt that serves pizza. I just don’t know if I can stomach any more shashlick, plov, lagman or gulash after two months of the stuff. I’m certainly staying away from any cabbage soup. I don’t know when China became a promised land for me but I’m dying for some KFC.