Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Bishkek to Kashgar - Our Return to China.

Kashgar, China - We are currently in Kashgar sitting in an internet lab with about 50 other Chinese gaming and chatting with friends. It's a fast connection and we haven't had too much of a problem with censorship. We learned about the labs from Ted and Barb who you will meet later in this post. But first... back to Bishkek and how we got back there...

After our hike in Karakol, we debated whether to take a series of buses through the southern part of Kyrgyzstan to the city of Osh (where one can catch a bus to China). However, the condition of the roads were said to be extremely poor and the amount and quality of transport iffy. We were looking at six days of hard travel. In the end we opted to return to Bishkek and make our way to Osh through the northwest route (15 hours by bus).

Upon the recommendation of a few fellow hikers we met at the Yak Tours camp, we decided to stay at a guesthouse called Sabyrbek's in Bishkek. True to their word, the place was quite funky and Sabyrbek, the owner, was quite a character. He greeted us in Russian, introduced us to the world's oldest guard dog in Russian, offered us tea and apologized for the lack of sugar...also in Russian. The place had the feeling of a well kept junk yard with bits of metal and furniture scattered amongst the tall grass of the yard. Here and there was a metal shack with semi-conscious old men or women barely visible amongst heaps of their belongings. Inside the old house the clutter continued. The only section of wall not obscured by piles of stuff, was covered by a large pencil sketch of Sabyrbek's head. The wall of the bathroom was decorated with a red plastic ladle, a metal plate with holes cut into it, and a rusty cheese grater. Our room was cluttered but clean and there was space to place our stuff. We had a bit of a misunderstanding on the price that didn't make us happy, but we liked the place.

Victory Square in Bishkek

We spent a day in Bishkek getting errands done. Here are the highlights:
  • Post to the blog.
  • Shop for art. Had to leave behind the $2500 statue that we liked of a man erecting a yurt.
  • Bought an embroidered purse in the souvenir section of the department store.
  • Bought Kyrgyz stamps at the post office.
  • Bought some Nike socks (S - really, just knock-offs; K - Knock-off? I want my money back!) in the market to wear at night so that I can apply foot cream and keep my feet from falling apart.
  • Didn't buy the package of "Barf" laundry detergent we also found in the market...although we did take a picture.
  • Ate Lebanese food for dinner.
  • Checked the Hyatt for copies of the new LP China, but found only post cards and over priced souvenir's.
  • Walked in the park.
  • Laughed at the 15 American soliders, from the nearby Manas Airbase, eating at Fat Boys...not too hard though, because we were eating there too. They have a damn good breakfast burrito there and a book exchange.

On Wednesday, June 27th we started our journey to Osh. We started with a taxi to the Osh Bazaar (a busy market with goods from the south and the place the place to catch buses to Osh). The night before, however, we decided to break up the 15 hour bus journey into two days by stopping in Toktogul for the night. Because of that requested stop (S - "Because of the new destination" more like it; this made sense..buses to Osh weren't going to want people who only wanted to go half the way unless they paid the same amount as those that wanted to go the whole way), we were told that we needed to go to the long distance bus station instead. Two policemen made sure we got on the right local bus across town. At the long distance station we practiced our bargaining skills to get a fair price for a seat in a minivan. We were slightly overcharged, but I managed to talk them into leaving one seat empty to give me a bit more leg room.

Stopping for Kymys

The drive was quite beautiful with deep canyons, high passes, green valley, traditional yurts, and rivers so full their banks could barely contain them. Our driver and his buddies were in no hurry. We stopped gas, lunch, Kymys (fermented mare's milk), honey, more gas, and finally to let us out at Toktogul.

Cute Girl & Honey Stop on the Way to Toktogul

There was a bit of a commotion as everyone in town with a car offered us a ride and tried to understand our questions about hotels and bus times. We were saved by an 18 year old boy who ran a tire shop and spoke a little English. He and his sister walked us about 200m to a decent hotel. After "checking into the hotel", he also showed us his house, the bus station where we could catch a ride to Osh, and a nice place to eat. We tried to treat him to dinner, but he refused. We ate a spam like substance, eggs and some traditional bread (called nan, but it's more like a cross between a Indian nan and a bagel) for dinner, as we couldn't work out the menu.

Kids from the Hotel in Toktogul

The next morning at 7am we caught a bus heading to Jalal-Abad (where we could then catch a bus the rest of the way to Osh since the one to Osh directly was not coming today). It was on this bus that we met Aida and her family. Aida is a student at the American University in Bishkek and spoke very good English. She was on summer break and was in Toktogul visiting family. She, her mother, her little sister, her baby brother, and her cousin were all headed home to Osh. They were extremely helpful and told us alot about Osh. At one point the driver stopped to fill every remaining bit of leg room with watermelons. Aida and family bought one for us.

The Bus to Jalal-Abad

In Jalal-Abad, Aida helped us transfer to a bus heading for Osh. We helped her move the many pieces of her brother's bicycle that had to be disassembled to fit into the bus. During that ride she translated questions from some curious boys she called, "wild". The boys ended up giving me one of the traditional Kyrgyz felt hats. Despite the heat I wore it the rest of the ride.

Aida's mom made sure the driver took us directly to our guesthouse and Aida ran around until we found it. After we settled in, we accepted their invitation to dinner at their apartment, where they served a traditional plov (rice and mutton) and an impressive spread of goodies.

Dinner at Aida's House

The next day we met up with Aida again and we soon learned the extent of Kyrgyz hospitality. Aida and family were unstoppable in their generosity. They showed us the market. They helped us find the bus station and information about the bus to Kashgar. They took us to Solomon's Throne, the sacred Muslim mountain and the centerpiece for the city of Osh. Their friend who gave us a ride up to the mountain offered to give us his car (A Daewoo Tico built in Uzbekistan...one step above a moped) to use for a few days. They bought us souvenirs. They bought us icecream and drinks and then took us out to dinner. They treated us to lunch on Sunday. They would never let us return to the guesthouse without some sort of food or drink. We were extremely grateful and a little embarrassed by the extent of their kindness (S - especially since they would not let us reciprocate). It really made our trip to Osh special.

Aida & Family Atop Solomon's Throne

Karl & Suwei on Solomon's Throne

Osh is the second biggest city in Kyrgyzstan and is one of the region's oldest towns (dating back to the 5th century BC). "Older than Rome," we were told. A caretaker at the Dom Babura on Solomon's Throne offered us a prayer and told us that the name Osh came from a sound that the prophet Muhammad heard when he visited the throne. The sound is similar to ancient words meaning welcome. The part of town we were staying in is dominated by the Jayma Bazaar, which seemed to engulf the town in a maze of tiny shops that filled every nook and cranny with fruits, meats, breads, hardware, purfumes, toothpaste, buckets, rugs, tarps, appliances and everything else under the sun. I even found a Nutella like substance, but it had expired in 2006. The city is somewhere between 40% and 60% Uzbek and is only about 10km from the Uzbekistan border (the difference between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks according to Aida: the Uzbeks have more body hair). It's a lot more lively than Bishkek, with traffic jams and bustling crowds. Aida, says it's because people are out of work.

Jayma Bazaar

It was hot in Osh. On Saturday we spent the morning searching for a working internet cafe. We gave up when we heard a group from the guesthouse was going to go swimming in the afternoon. The guesthouse in Osh was tiny...two bedrooms, one with 4 beds and the other with 3, a sitting room/computer room/TV room, a kitchen, and a single toilet/bath. By Saturday it was full (1 German, 1 Swede, 2 Japanese, 1 Russian, 4 Americans including us, and the two or three caretakers that came and went). Most of us were planning on heading to China on the Sunday bus. Most of us were hot. And most of us went down to the pool on Saturday. The pool was great. Huge. Fed from the river. Cold. Packed. And it had a high dive platform that was truly a terror for the locals.

The Guys from the Osh Guesthouse High Jumping in to the Osh Pool

The two other Americans in the guesthouse were Ted and Barb a couple from Seattle who had been living and working in Japan for two years and who have been traveling around Asia for the last year. We orginally ran into them in line at the Kyrgyz embassy in Almaty. On Sunday we decided to share a car to the Chinese border with them rather than taking the 18 hour night bus. With 4 of us it actually worked out to be cheaper, and with a stop in the town of Sary Tash for the night we wouldn't have to travel in the dark.

The car however was tiny. It was a Lada, one step above the Tico. Ted and Barb's packs went on top. Barb and I each had one butt cheek on a wheel well while Suwei was pinched in the middle. Ted being the tallest of the bunch took the front with his knees in the glove box. The driver was Tajik and kept awake with a combination of Kymys and some brown earthy pills in an unmarked bottle. We left at about 1:30 pm.

Here are the highlights of the trip:
  • Stopping at the Bazaar to get a plastic tarp to cover the packs. Good thing we did as the car was coated with dust and mud within the first hour.
  • Finding a bottle of water without gas in it.
  • Watching the road degrade. The further from Osh we got the worse the road got. By Monday morning the driver gave up on the road all together and opted for parallel trails reminiscent of Mongolia.
  • Green hills riddled with yurts.
  • Snow covered peaks in the distant, obscured by clouds.
  • Red rivers full of dark red silt.
  • The driver's sound maker. When the road was blocked by cows or sheep the Lada had the ability to make honking sounds, laser sound, barking sounds, cow moooos, sheep bahs, duck quacks...you name it. The only thing that made the animals move however, was to push them out of the way with the bumper.
  • Staying in Sary Tash. It was a small and very quiet town, but we were more than happy to walk around and stretch our legs. The guesthouse was small and cozy. We were greeted in the middle of the night by two locals who insisted on pounding on our bedroom window for 10 minutes.

  • Waiting for the right rear tire to come off. Every rock, every pothole, every tuft of grass would make the wheel groan. It got to the point where I could feel it hitting my right butt cheek. The road continued to get worse and we were just crossing our fingers hoping it would hold to the border.

  • Crossing the border. This is one of the more interesting border crossings that I have been through and one of the most complex. It started with a check point on the Kyrgyz side. "Passports please." 3km more we hit the Kyrgyz customs. Here we left the Lada, walked past a line of trucks, through a concentration camp full of barbed wire, piles of twisted metal, and crumbling buildings. A guard led us into one of them. "Passport?" We got our exit stamp and watched the trucks being searched while we waited for a ride to the Chinese side. One by one we were placed into the passenger seats of the trucks and carried another few kms to...another Kyrgyz check point. This time only the driver had to show his passport. (S - my driver made me get out and go with him to show my passport.) "Passport?" We had made it to a checkpoint on the Chinese side. We climbed out of the trucks with our packs, showed our passports, watched the trucks being searched again, then climbed back in for another 3km ride. Finally we made it to customs on the Chinese side where we filled out forms, answered questions, and had our temperature taken. "Passports? Temperature?" Then we had our bags scanned and our passports checked two more times before officially entering China. All along this route was a scattered mess of old trucks hauling bulging loads of every kind, barely clinging on or in one case, no longer clinging on and laying all over the road. Then there were the breakdowns...trucks with half the engine laying in the road and greasy drivers scratching their heads. And finally there was the burnt out skeletons of a truck and shards of glass that looked as if someone had fired off a scud missle.

  • Catching a ride to Kashgar in a black pickup truck and a sleepy Uighur driver with an arm spasm.

  • The desert. As soon as we crossed the border the landscape changed from green to brown.
  • The deluge in the desert. Soon after we got moving it started to pour. Soon after that, we saw a lone road worker in an orange vest shoveling sand in the middle of the road, barely visible due to shear volume of water falling on him. Soon after that we saw his buddy running away with a pylon on his head.
  • "Passports?" Making it through yet another check point.
  • Watching our driver try to wake himself up by sticking his head out the window.
  • Watching our driver try to work out the spasm in his right arm.
  • Watching our driver swerve toward people he knew along the way...or slam on his brakes and drive backwards to chat with his buddies.
  • Stopping for lunch in a town almost completely made of mud and watching the cooks perform the making of a serious plate of Lagmen (noodles, meat and veggies).

  • Getting to Kashgar, finding a hotel and taking a shower.

That's all I've got for this entry. Check out the slideshow for pics and comments.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar, China

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