The moment we crested the last mountain range in Kyrgyzstan, everything changed. To quote the 70’s band, America, “There were plants and birds and rocks and things…”. So much new to look at! The mountains had trapped the clouds on the Kyrgyzstan side of the border, producing rain and cooler temperatures. That in turn led to grass, plants, and horses replacing the dirt, rocks, scrub brush, and donkeys of Tajikistan.
And there were trees! Coming from Oregon, I take trees and greenery for granted. After weeks of hot, desert landscapes, the cool of southern Kyrgyzstan was a welcome change. I kept the window rolled down as long as I could, the cold damp air feeling wonderful against my skin.
The road had also improved.
Avi and I sped down the mountain roads, taking it all in. The faces of the people had changed as well. They were now broader, darker, and the eyes had narrowed. We were definitely entering the land of Ghengis Khan.
Kyrgyzstan continued to change before my eyes. Within just a couple of hours, the mountains had given way to plains of wheat and corn. The sun came out and the temperature warmed. Avi, being from the heat of Israel, was much happier.
Ww stopped in Osh for lunch, cash, and cheap fuel. Avi chose a restaurant, and we settled in. I ordered a Samsa (flaky bread with meat and vegetables baked in the middle) and some dumplings. Avi had the pilaf. We were definitely having traditional Kyrghistani fare. Then Avi made a comment that put very thing in perspective for me. “This food represents the Silk Road. Your dumplings. In China they are Dim Sum. In Italy they are ravioli. It is the same idea, just changed along the Road.” Indeed. And here we were, two travelers from different parts of the world sharing a meal and exchanging ideas, just like has happened for centuries on the Silk Road.
I bid farewell to Avi in Osh. He was going to spend some time sightseeing, then take a five day trek. I was envious of his ability to stop places and soak up the culture. To be fair, he was facing his own deadlines. School was starting in the Fall and he still had to decide if he wanted to study architecture or pursue other passions.
My schedule was already horribly blown, so I just pointed the Rascal north and figured I would drive until I was tired. I resolved to find a hotel with a shower that night so I could wash the Pamir off my skin. Four days of living with goats and dust had me smelling pretty ripe.
I made it as far as Jalalabad before the cops pulled me over and demanded a bribe. My negotiation skills were improving and I got them down from $200usd to a little under $20. I was frustrated, tired, and decided that i had gone as far as I wanted for the night. My GPS said there was a hotel just up the road. Shower. Beer. Bed. That was all I wanted.
I followed the GPS to a tree-lined street across from a park. There were a couple of police cars parked on the road, so I gave them a wide berth. However, when I got to my hotel, it didn’t look like a hotel at all. There were just non-descript buildings with locked doors. I took a gamble and approached one of the police officers.
A response in Kyrgh that I took to mean, “It is right there.”
“Yes, but the door is locked.”
A response in Kyrgh that I took to mean, “Did you knock?”
“Yes, I knocked, but no one answered. Are you sure that is a hotel?”
A response in Kyrgh that I took to mean, “Listen you simple American, the hotel is right there. I will show you.” The police officer walked with me over to the door he had been pointing at and tried it. It was locked. He then knocked and waited. No response. It was all I could do to not grin.
He took out his cell phone and dialed a number. After a minute of conversation, the police officer hung up and indicated that someone was coming to unlock the door. While we waited I showed him the map of my route and he just shook his head at my hockey of vehicle.
A few minutes later A man appeared from the direction of the park. He shook the police officer’s hand, shook mine, and led me inside. We entered a dark hallway with cement stairs and paint peeling from the walls. I could tell right away that this was not going to be the Hilton. But, as long as it had a bed and a shower, I wasn’t going to complain.
He unlocked a second door and this took us into the hotel itself. It was a single hallway of rooms. Mine was the first on the right. He opened the door and showed me my room. It had all the appearances of a converted office. Wood paneled wall. Hide-a-bed sofa. Folding card table. Linoleum floor. I went through my checklist: Bed? Check.
“Shower?” I asked.
He nodded and opened the door directly across the hall from mine. There was a washing machine, a western-style toiled, and a shower stall (with no curtain). Check.
His price came to a little under $12. Cheaper than bribing a cop!
I agreed and got my bag. As I was bringing the bag up to my room, I pantomimed to him that I was hungry and wanted to know where I could find some supper.
A response in Kyrgh that I took to mean, “No problem. Drop your bag in your room and follow me!”
I did as I was directed and followed my host out the door and across to the little park. There was a small shop there selling cold drinks and ice cream. Not exactly what I had in mind, but there did appear to be beer, so that was lose enough.
He directed me to a table where two other men in their 40’s were sitting. They were dressed in business casual clothes and chatting away. It appeared that this was where my host had been when the police called. I joined them and introductions were made.
His two friends spoke passable English and I learned that the were all in banking. The hotel was a new venture my host was undertaking. The two men at the table worked in the same bank, one that had been established by Mercy Corps several years earlier as a micro finance entity to “give loans to poor people.” Two years ago it became “a real bank.” They asked what I wanted to drink and a minute later a frosty beer appeared before me. It was exactly what I needed.
My host and one of the other men got something different. It was also. Served in a mug but had the look and consistency of a milkshake. Milkshake! That sounded even better than a beer! I asked what it was and was told, “Jarma. It is the national drink of Kyrgyzstan.” I was offered a sip. It was NOT a milkshake. It was a thick, yogurt based drink with ground wheat. Maybe for breakfast when I am being extra healthy, but not as a substitute for beer (or a milkshake!).
We sat in the shade of the trees and talked. We talked about my trip, their lives, and the relative sizes of our families. “Kyrghs have large families,” I was told. My new friends all had five or six children each. “We have large families so we will be taken care of when we are old.” I explained that my parents were in trouble since I was an only child.
After an hour or so, we hopped in one of their cars and drove to a place they had chosen for dinner. When we arrived, it was dark. People were standing outside chatting. The building was spacious and open, with lots of natural light...except the sun had set and it was rapidly getting too dark to see inside. My hosts spoke to first one person and then another. It turned out that a truck had hit a power line and had knocked out power to this entire side of town!
Eventually we found a restaurant that had power and we settled in. The restaurant was located in a large park just a few blocks away from where we had been drinking beers. My hosts explained that it was a popular spot for people in the surrounding areas to come for parties. A large pavilion was in the center with over a dozen long tables. Three of them were occupied. “Birthday,” one of my hosts told me.
We settled in at a table off to the side where we could continue to talk, as well as watch the festivities. We discussed the history of Kyrgyzstan (a primarily oral history), the differences between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors, as well as the various dances and musical choices of the birthday party. It was quite the night!
After a couple of hours, we made our way back to the hotel. I almost did not make it. A VERY drunk party goer decided that I was his new best friend and spent ten minutes taking photos with me, explaining his military career, and trying to get me out on the dance floor. My hosts did not know what to do and tried desperately to extricate me from the man. After quite a bit of smiling, awkward dancing, hugs, and stories about his time in Afghanistan, I managed to escape into the cool of the night.
Back in my hotel I drifted off to sleep as the first drops of rain landed on the metal roof. Several times over the next few hours. I would be awakened by torrential downpours. But, for now, I was content in Kyrgyzstan.