Like most American teens, I was assigned to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 in high school. And, like most American teens, instead of actually reading the book, I managed to bullshit my way through Mr Kinavey’s class discussions by haplessly pontificating on observations made by smarter students. When midterms came around, I’d then fabricate whole essays about the novel, cherry-picking quotes to support inane arguments I’d made up. Most teachers simply threw up their hands and decided to pass me even though nobody could tell what any of my papers were on about. After all, here was (the famously brilliant) Courtney Chu’s younger sister. Surely, she can’t actually be this dim? In this way, I belly-slid through English classes in high school and much of college, and even (much to be bewilderment of my colleagues) managed to get a Bachelors of the Arts in the subject.
Anyway, I happily emerged from 4 years of partying and tubing down the American River with an actual degree (from an accredited university, even!) in hand, and proceeded to completely forget about all those heaps of unread novels until they resurfaced on hostel shelves many years later. In fact, I didn’t even think about Slaughterhouse 5 again until I saw it in a paltry book exchange in Bishkek- one of only 4 books in English (one was a dictionary, and the other two featured heavily painted females with bared shoulders in the arms of long-haired men with their shirts inexplicably ripped open). I picked it up and have been reading it in earnest ever since. Following is a quick excerpt. It is from just after the main character gets too drunk at a party, tries to bang someone else’s wife on top of a dryer, and then stumbles to his car.
“… Billy found himself out in his automobile, trying to find the steering wheel.
… At first, Billy windmilled his arms, hoping to find it by luck. When that didn’t work, he became methodical, working in such a way that the wheel could not possibly escape him. He placed himself hard against the left-hand door, searched every square inch of the area before him. When he failed to find the wheel, he moved over six inches, and searched again. Amazingly, he was eventually hard against the right-hand door, without having found the wheel. He concluded that somebody had stolen it. This angered him as he passed out.
He was in the back seat of his car, which is why he couldn’t find the steering wheel.”
I’ve read this part at least 5 times- not only because it’s astonishingly fresh, but because, in the main character’s ill-fated search for the steering wheel, Vonnegut has almost perfectly described my experiences traveling through Central Asia. Years of backpacking in other regions hadn’t much prepared me for travel in the former USSR at all. Despite my methodical attempts at managing my daily affairs in a way that could be nothing but foolproof, I often found myself flustered, with the odd sensation that someone must have taken something from me (often to find out later that I was in completely the wrong place, trying to manage the wrong business, speaking completely the wrong language at people who had no idea what I wanted). On more than one occasion, the only reason why I was able to survive at all is because the locals took it upon themselves to pass me off to each other, like a baton amongst marathoners, until I got to my destination.
I can’t do a detailed report on the region. I’ve been more or less without a computer to blog with for the last month, so although I spent most of that time thinking about different things I wanted to put in this blog and cheeky puns to pepper my newest update with, I just… I just can’t. It’s been too long. That said, here are a few things of note:
Language: Prior to my arrival in Bishkek, my experiences in formerly Soviet countries were limited to a couple months of travel through the Balkans in 2013 and a family trip to China in the summer of 2002. For travel in the Balkans, Russian would’ve been useful, but German would’ve done just fine. The people were grim, but warm, and my pitiful attempts to go grocery shopping with limited Albanian/Serbian/etc. were met with refusals to take my money, laughing shakes of the head, and shopkeepers shooing me away from their merchandise with expressions that can only be read to mean, “Oh go on and get out of here with your tiny carrot!”
For some reason, I thought it’d be much of the same in Central Asia. I may not speak Russian or Kyrgyz or Tajik or Pamiri, but nothing more than a passing knowledge of local languages had been necessary anywhere else. Moreover, I have emotive hands and a button nose that just doesn’t quit. How hard could travel ever really be?
(I’ve made dumb assumptions like this in the past. And I’ve paid. Oh, I’ve paid.)
I won’t go into details here, but I’ll just say that it can be really fucking hard without any Russian. You must come with Russian. ANY Russian. There are precious few parts of the world where English does not reign supreme. Spanish-speaking Latin America is one, Francophone West Africa is another, and the Former Soviet Union is probably the third. Even after taking 2 weeks of Russian lessons in Bishkek (just for shits and giggles, I thought), meals “bis miaso” came with a heaping slab of goat meat on top, marshrutkas that left in “dva chas” peeled down the highway with me only barely getting in on time.
At first it was frustrating, but by the end of my time in the region, I was really pleased that there is at least one more part of the world where not everyone will reply to my attempts at the local tongue in near-fluent English. My halting and limited attempts at conversation were met with huge smiles (and even a bit of clapping, once!). Although I had shied away from Russian in the past- for so many reasons- I have every intention of bringing it into my language stable. Eventually.
People: I’ve often elucidated in past posts about how wonderfully kind the locals in each country are. This really seems to be the rule rather than the exception almost everywhere in the world (and when I say, “Almost,” I’m looking at you, Bulgaria!), and there’s a point when you stop being phased by the kindness, and come to take it for granted.
Enter Central Asia.
- Teenage boys stopping to help us with directions, then insisting on paying for our shared taxi fare.
- Tiny children clad in sweaters that were at least 2 sizes too big (and certainly thick enough to be bulletproof) chasing after me to give me a handfuls of sunflower seeds (and then running away, just as fast).
- Pamiris watching us grimly putting up our tent, then springing forward to help (followed by bringing us hot water to wash with, mats to cushion the ground with, and food… SO MUCH FOOD).
- Cars that stopped for us on the highway even though they didn’t have any space or were going the wrong way – then plopping enormous bunches of grapes into our surprised hands.
- A guy that picked us up hitchhiking brought us to his home. His sister stuffed us with soup and hot tea and his father produced a bottle of vodka over which we could chat. They buried us in warm blankets for a night sleeping under the cloudless, starlit sky, and in the morning, our schlep out to the highway was accompanied by a shopping bag packed with vine-ripened tomatoes fresh from their garden.
I don’t even let Couchsurfers stay at my place. Good Lord.
I simply can’t recount all the instances of unbelievable kindness that have peppered travel throughout this region. It almost seems as if the people had gotten together to conspire to be the world’s most hospitable, and there’s something that incredible sweetness does to a person. It really forces you to look at your life and reflect on your own moments of coldness with shame. How is it that a family that lives in a barren wasteland like the Pamirs will foist their hard-churned yak butter and freshly baked bread upon perfect strangers, but someone who was born into utter privilege in nearly every sense doesn’t even stop to pick up hitchhikers if she’s running late?
Land: Central Asia is spectacular- soaring mountain peaks, sweet, icy water straight from the earth, and trees so full of organic fruit they pitch and groan with the weight. In some places, even hoards of naughty goats and sheep cannot manage to clean the ground of freshly fallen apples before bedtime. This is especially true of Eastern Tajikistan’s Bartang Valley, where warm and hospitable Pamiris run out to greet you with plump apricots offered up in their outstretched hands, and where ripe cherries linger just above your head on hikes between villages. It’s Paradise on Earth. Shangri-La discovered. Unfortunately, the reason why it took so long to discover this little nook in Southeastern Tajikistan is because travel through the Pamirs to get there is just a hair short of nightmarish.
Most people get their own car to travel the Pamirs. Lots of them rent a 4-wheel drive in Osh, drive it over the border, then bring it on back when they finish. Others hire shared taxis, and a large portion of others do the Pamir highway by bicycle or motorcycle. Sam (my travel buddy at the time. Confusing, no?) and I decided that we wanted to try to hitchhike most, if not all, of it,… stopping to trek where we pleased.
I had read on Hitchwiki that it was bone-crushingly painful to try to thumb in this part of Central Asia, and that they didn’t recommended it. That said, Hitchwiki has advised against a lot of things that have turned out to be fine. Maybe some people couldn’t find rides, but were they as persistent as I am? Were they as willing to squish into impossible spaces? After all, why hire a private car when we weren’t planning on driving much of it at all? We had trekking food. We had AquaTabs. We had our friendly smiles. We were set. Right?
So we took off, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, from Sary-Mogol in the south of Kyrgyzstan, and headed down to the Tajik border by thumb. The first ride we caught was easy – less than a 10 minute wait. The next rides we caught weren’t easy, but they weren’t terrible. We made it in 3 cars, and approximately as many hours. We thought we were set. We had wanted to cross the border, and here we were at the Kyrgyz post, with just one foot in the afternoon to boot! Woo hoo! We merrily marched up to the guards, had our passports stamped, and huffed down the highway on our way to the Tajik post.
And we huffed.
And we huffed.
And we looked around and thought, “Where the fuck ARE we?!?” It was astonishing, but the 25-kilometer stretch between border posts was essentially no-mans land. No water. No houses. No cheeky Chinese restaurants (Oh Belize, now I realize just how special you are!). Fucking nothing.
With no choice left, we walked on, and after nearly 2 hours, we finally leapt at our first chance for a ride- a friendly Canadian who just happened to have 2 open seats in his Jeep. He drove us all the way to the Tajik side, and only then did we realize just how far we would have had to go. There is no way we would have made it in one day. We got out and thanked him profusely and Sam and I looked at each other in relief. Finally! We were out of that mess and into Tajikistan! Things were looking up!
We bid the Canadian farewell, and crossed the border separately (for bureaucratic reasons- we fully anticipated catching him for another ride at the other side). The Tajik border guards happily stamped our passports– and even filled up my water juggy!– and we were on our way. We marched out of the office, out from behind the roadblock and found…
At this point, the wind had picked up, and we were getting flapped around on the barren highway, resolutely struggling to move forward and wondering where the fuck all the cars were. After all, this is the main highway between Osh (Krygyzstan’s second-biggest city), and Murghab, the largest town in Eastern Tajikistan. This is one of only two border crossings that foreigners are permitted to cross. Surely, there had to be SOME traffic between the two?
Then it started to rain.
The globules of water were pounding into us as fast as the (unchecked Pamiri) wind could hurl them. We kept looking behind us, eagerly hoping for a car to pass. After 30 minutes or so of this, Sam spotted a figure in the distance, and we made a run for what looked to be a bus shelter. Finally! Some sort of cover from the relentless wind and rain which was now increasing. We hustled and bustled down the highway, the only two bits of life in this Tajik wasteland, and finally pulled up to…
A fucking yak statue.
GOD DAMN IT.
With no other option, we scurried behind the statue. Sam good-naturedly put together some sort of rock/poncho/ditch arrangement to catch us water (we were almost out), and I cowered under my $3 umbrella, peeping out from behind the statue to keep eyes on the road.
Where the fuck was the Canadian guy?!?
… and then it started to snow.
We were here for perhaps 30 minutes, laughing sullenly at our misfortune (out loud, together) and freaking out about what was to come (silently, in our heads), when a Mongol Rally car finally pulled up… going the other way. The bewildered Frenchmen that disembarked could not have been more empathetic. They bestowed a 5 liter jug of water on us and offered M&Ms. They pulled away with many-a-backward glance at our shivering figures, shaking their heads.
A few minutes after this, we roadblocked the ONLY car going in our direction (a couple of Slovak travelers, who just so happened to have 2 free spots in their car), and made it to Karakol with an hour or two to spare until dusk, counting our lucky stars and inwardly planning to NEVER LET THAT HAPPEN AGAIN.
So yeah, come prepared.
So I’ll just end this blog post with a video that I took outside of Murghab. This is a clip from a game of Kyz Kuumai- a Kyrgyz game whose name roughly translates to mean “girl chasing.” A boy and girl take off, galloping on horses, in the same direction. They race towards a finish line, and the boy’s goal during this part of the game is to steal a kiss from the girl. If he is successful, he wins the game. If they reach the finish line and he has not been successful, then the girl gets to chase him back to the starting line, beating the shit out of him with her whip.
“Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” – Ray Bradbury