I’m almost a fortnight on the road now. Days are blurring together and the only container of my experience is not time but place. There was Helsinki, then Astana, then Almaty and now Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan with an overnight stay at the World Nomad Games at Cholpon-Ata in Issyk-Kul area. So, for the sake of this blog thingy, I’ll try to devote each entry to a place. In the interest of clarity, a place begins when I leave the previous place and ends when I leave the place. For example, Almaty started, in my imagination, when I left Astana and finished when the marshrutka arrived at the bus station in Bishkek. Just so you know!
The journey between any two destinations is a major part of my process over here and exercises my imagination and experience the most.
I reserve the right to change my mind at any point or, far more likely, to forget I said what I just said.
By the way, sorry for very few pics. Internet is very slow and my blog programme often times-out before a picture is uploaded. My own photos are too large to upload. Also, I’m doing this on a tablet and WordPress is very fiddly to use in this format. To compensate, and to avoid large swathes of text, I started using headings to break it up a bit.
Here’s one I used before:
I arrived in Bishkek with gritty dust in my mouth, nose, eyes and on my clothes. My eyes and throat were sore from the pollution and the dust, my ears rand from the noise of the battered old van I had travelled in, my arse was sore from the hard seat and all my senses were fully online. I felt exhilarated. This is why I travel. Not to spend time in 5 star hotels or spas or visit golden temples or cathedrals or mosques or Buddhas, fine as all those are, but to experience myself in a radically different way. I get a fierce excitement when I enter a new town or country and I’m probably never more alive at that point. As my life is rapidly approaching its use-by date, that expression is all the more sweet.
The journey started on Saturday morning in Almaty. I got a taxi from the hotel to the bus station to catch a mashrukta to Bishkek; that rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it. It took the taxi driver about 20 mins to find the hotel as, naturally, I don’t speak Russian or Kazakh and he doesn’t speak English but he found me eventually. I was using a great Russian app called Yandex. This is an offline openstreet map with public transport details and timetables, a taxi-share service a bit like Uber, and loads of other services. A really nifty chat bot allows you to chat with someone by text and the app automatically recognises and translates what you type. All this is integrated into one app. Super smart and free.
Anyway, the taxi eventually arrived and we started out of a 40 min journey to the station; traffic was heavy. The driver was a tough looking character but very friendly. He wanted to communicate and have the craic and so did I but language defeated us. We ended up teaching each other how to count up to ten in each other’s language. Eleven onwards was a glottal contortion too far and would have covered the windscreen with spit. So, in the interests of health and safety, we desisted.
Health and Safety, Innit?
Talking about health and safety, well, it’s not on top of the list of things to do here. I was walking down to the beach yesterday and saw an electricity transformer fed from a HV cable. The terminals were exposed and about 3 metres from the ground without any enclosure and with nothing to stop a child from climbing up and touching them, causing immediate death. I was startled at first but told myself to take a chill pill, baby, and relax. This is how they do it here. Maybe life lived with a little risk and danger is healthier and more real that the safe cosseted life we live in Europe. Who knows?
My taxi driver was a good driver but had a different take to safe driving than myself; a very cautious and reluctant driver. He wouldn’t last five minutes in Europe but managed to get me through the maelstrom of Almaty traffic in one piece. I think might is right here because larger vehicles push their way in front of smaller ones who acquiesce. It common to see a hive van or minibus hurtling along the wrong side of the road against oncoming traffic to overtake a stationary line. I noticed that drivers I travelled with didn’t express any anger at this or ever mutter under their breaths. Seems par for the course. I eventually just let go and enjoyed the near death experiences. I had no choice really. My amagylda thanked me later.
Accepting the Things I Cannot Change.
When we got to the station, I was presented with another of those jumping off points where I can decide to accept things or go into control freak meltdown and screech. The station looked shambolic with no signs and no information kiosk with a nicely smiling, neatly uniformed official. Not a bit of it. Many people came up to me and said something to me in Kazakh but of course I didn’t know what they were saying. There were also people holding handmade signs but I didn’t know what they were.
I’d been in this situation before several times in the past and had a confidence that I would eventually be grand.
I did what I usually do when unsure. I have a cuppa tea. So I found the station cafe, there’s always one or two, and ordered a coffee and a samosa type stuffed bread they have all over Russia and Central Asia. I can’t remember what it’s called. While having my coffee in this stalinist emporium, I reflected that the people around this part of the world are experienced at moving people and things to places, near and afar. They’ve been doing it for millennia. After all, this is the Silk Road. This is where serious international trade and cultural exchange started in the 2nd Century BCE. They have a system. I just need to suss it out.
This is also part of the joy of travelling the way I do.
Finding the Starting Point
I finished my coffee and bread thingy and bought two more for the road and got out my trusty phone and opened up Google Translate and tapped in “marshrutka to Bishkek” the response looked like this: Бішкекке Машрокта?. You don’t really need to know this but it just looks so kool. I showed this to a grumpy looking woman in a left luggage office and she pointed to a cash desk. I went to the counter and asked the woman there. Dá, sez she, with a hint of a smile, and tapped out the price on one of those giant calculators. I can’t remember now what it cost but it was dirt cheap, just a few yoyos. Where?, I mimed. She pointed to a door, gestured right and help up her forefinger to indicate stop one, I assumed. I went to the door, turned right and went to a sign with the number one. “Bishkek?”, I asked someone who looked in charge, opening my hands out, widening my eyes, shrugging my shoulders and with an upward inflection on the last syllable. I was hoping that he would interpret this as a question and that my body language wasn’t saying “I’m a mad flesh-eating zombie who’s just escaped from Almaty penitentiary and I’m going to devour you immediately”. Apparently I got it more or less right because he directed me to another person, the driver. I went through the same rigmarole with your man and he said, “dá, dá, Bishkek”. I hopped on in as sprite ly a fashion as I could muster.
The Old Tin Can of a Van
The van itself was an ancient Mercedes covered in rust and with holes around the edges and bits missing. The drivers window was cracked and the doors didn’t close properly. It was kitted out as a minibus, seating 18 people and the driver. I’m sure this wasn’t a Mercedes spec as the space was tight with limited legroom. But, in for a penny, in for a pound. This is the way I want to travel, to be with locals, to be a traveller and not a tourist. I got my wish. Actually, once I just went with the flow I really enjoyed the journey. It also gave me valuable insight into how a kamikaze pilot might have felt as he rapidly approached an American warship. Just joking about that last bit. Sort of.
We started out and the van went fine. The driver, and indeed passengers, had done this many times. Just another iteration of the Silk Road.
On the Road Again.
I was lucky to get a single seat by a window. There were two rows of two and a single seat except at the back where there were four seats and three in front. This gave me a bit of legroom. As soon as the marshrutka started moving nearly all the other passengers closed the curtains on the windows, yes, the van had curtains, and promptly fell asleep. Because I was in a single seat, I could open my curtain enough to look out and view the scenery.
The journey itself was great craic. For about an hour. And than it started to get a bit samey so I has a snooze. Luckily, I can sleep anywhere so I just closed my eyes and went spark out until the van juddered to a half halfway through the journey. We had stopped for a pit stop of 15 mins. I went into a local bazaar type shop and bought a bottle of sparkling water and a huge muffin; it was rock hard and not very muffiney. I ate half and chucked the rest away to two stray dogs who had taken a shine to me, as dogs often seem to do. I love dogs and really wanted to pat them but thought, rabies, careful. I have rabies shots but erred on the side of caution. They looked very mangy and unloved. In the interests of balance, cats don’t like me and scratch me at the first opportunity. The feeling is mutual.
The pit stop had the feel of a motorway service station in Europe and really fulfilled the same role. I always get a strong liminal seance in such places and feel pleasantly disconnected from my everyday life while maintaining a sense of who I am and what I’m doing. The realisation really hit me that I’m travelling as I’ve always wanted to travel and that I’m just approaching the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two countries whose existence barely registered with me a few years ago. This wasn’t just a thought or cognition, it was a visceral experience, I felt it in my body, my upper body mainly, as a loosening sensation. There was also a transpersonal aspect to this as I realised, with a sense of awe and wonder, how amazing this planet our ours is and how we are interconnected on so many levels. My response to this was “well, fuck me, this is gas”
Beep, beep. Pitstop over. We all got back on to the mininus again and away it rumbled. The dogs gave me a mournful look as we pulled away.
When we got to the border area, we had to dismount from the van and take our luggage with us. The van would go through a different route and we would meet it at the other side. I got a bit apprehensive about this as it was my first time crossing a border by marshrutka. I have crossed many international borders in the past and know how to conduct myself. I walk like I own the place, avoid eye contact with people in uniform and be very polite and courteous to the person at passport control. As nearly all the vans were white, rusty and with cracked windshields, how would I ever recognise mine. Nobody around here speaks English. I took a photo on my phone of registration plates and memorised a few people on the bus. I followed a young Russian backpacking couple as they were easily distinguishable and kept as close as I could to them without looking like a stalker. Anyway, the border wasn’t that far away from Bishkek and I could catch a taxi, if the worst came to the worst.
The border post itself was like several ones I had encountered in the past. A complex in the middle of nowhere with an exit post, a no-mans land and an entrance post. It’s very different to, say, leaving Ireland or France for Turkey. Apart from airport security, you just leave your own country with no hassle and almost no security. There was also a surprising lack of weaponry on show. The occasional soldier had a small revolver in a white holster on his hip but this was rare. No thuggish robocops dripping with hardware like at many Western airports and embarkation points.
Anyway, I put my luggage through a security screening machine on Kazakh side and waited about 15 mins in a queue for passport control. I was surprised about how thoroughly people were questioned on departure. When it was my turn, the procedure was fast. The guard, a woman who smiled at me in a friendly manner, just stamped my passport and off I was with my pack through no mans land en route to Kyrgyz border post.
There was no luggage check here, just passport control. There were four lines. I choose what I thought would be shortest. Naturally, just like when I’m in a supermarket queue, it turned out to be the longest. Normally, I wouldn’t care at all about this, as being in a queue here is all a part of the experience of traveling, of other. However, this time, I didn’t want to lose track of the Russians I was stalking, sorry, keeping an eye out for.
Almost Fell at the Last Hurdle
Anyway, soon it was my turn and I was confronted by a very fierce looking, huge guard. He asked me no questions but looked at my passport and then stared at me for several seconds, then looked at the passport and back at me. He did this a few times until, it seemed, he was satisfied that the photo in the passport was my good self.
You see, I had shaved off my beard a few weeks previously on a whim. I’m growing it back again now so I’ll be spared the hassle of shaving when on the road and also because I’m getting traumatised by the appearance of a lot of extra chins. One of the advantages of facial fungus is that it cover a multitude of chins. Then he obviously made up his mind and stamped my passport and off I was into Kyrgyzstan.
I saw my Russians in the distance and followed them to a parking lot where our off-white apparition in rust soon appeared and off we were again into the celestial kingdom
The Wild East
The journey from the Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan border was pretty wild. Kyrgyzstan is poorer than Kazakhstan, lacking oil revenue, so the roads were a bit bumpy and dusty. What amazed me was the number of police. They were everywhere, stopping cars and pulling people over. I first thought that it was like in the Serengeti when the wildebeest cross a river on their annual migration. The crocodiles gather to feast on the bonanza. But I don’t think it was this here. It was the same in Bishkek and I guess it was because of the World Nomad Games. There was also a conference of Turkic speaking people going on in Bishkek at the same time as the games. Every hour or so, the police would usher traffic off the main road and up side roads to institute old soviet-era Zil lanes while convoys of big black official Mercedes sped past at an incredible rate of knots with sirens blaring. The burden of power. Poor things.
We arrived in Bishkek at a mashrukta station and I got a taxi to the hostel arriving at about 6pm. I was initially intending to stay at a homestay or yurt but chose this hostel because this would be where the expedition was setting off from and where our initial meeting would be. I had an option
of sharing or my own room so, thinking that this would be my last bit of privacy for months, I choose a double room with en suite. Spot on.
Bishkek is a nice little city, not as rich as cities in Kazakhstan but with a real charm. The people are very friendly and handsome, both women and men, young and old. I spent my time, as I did in other Asian cities, just rambling around, drinking tea and trying my best impersonation of non-participating observation. I try not to be noticed and not stick out as a tourist. It works sometimes but my red round Irish face is often a bit of a giveaway.
I generally go to the main visitor resources such as museums, art galleries and public spaces or significant architectural highlights. I didn’t do much of that in Bishkek as I was there to join the expedition and didn’t want to tire myself out. I also hit a low on the Sunday and felt exhausted with a bit of a bout of Bishkek belly. I laid low that day and paid regular homage to the porcelain throne. Next day I was fine and went to the games.
World Nomad Games
I went to the World Nomad Games for 2 days and found it very exciting. It was a good introduction to the nomadic peoples of this part of the world. I got a marshrutka from Bishkek but the system is more organised here in Kyrgyzstan than in Kazakhstan. Marshrutkas are the backbone of public transport here as there is no train service and only a few trolley buses in Bishkek. They even have numbers. For example, no 506 goes from Bishkek to Cholpon-Ata, where the games were held and no 505 goes from Cholpon-Ata to Bishkek. An embryonic regular bus service.
Not much more to say about anything now as time is very limited and I’ll be joining the trip in a few hours. Please feel free to comment.