Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Return To Kashka Suu

Saturday found me with nothing pressing to do so, with a bike in the apartment, I decided to take a ride up to Kashka Suu. I’ve driven up there, walked from there and now decided to bike the 25 kilometres up to my Kyrgyz Shangrila. Now dear readers please don’t tell my mom that I was on a bike without a helmet riding along with cars whizzing by on a country road in northern Kyrgyzstan. Oh shoot! I forgot—she reads my blog. Oh well mom there it is!!
Anyway, on a bike that was technically too small for me and with one pedal semi broken, I gradually made my way up the road. The ride goes slow because heading up into the mountains, one must take into account the gain in elevation, and as we say on Mt. Kilimanjaro “Pole, Pole”—go slow. So up the first hill I went, the steepest part of the road, through the village where I’ve stopped to buy black currants and other fresh fruit from local gardens many times. I stopped for some water at the top and met Andrei and Sasha, two guys also biking their way up to Ala-Archa, the national park. We pedaled together for awhile but I left them by the ostrich farm and headed my way up the hill. The road wasn’t that busy and the cars that were on it knew how to deal with bikers so it wasn’t a huge risk.
Slowly, slowly up the road I went, stopping for water in Baitik, the village with the mosque we’d visit with the Afghans, having a bite of lunch at a store in Kashka Suu, the village from whence the name of the ski resort comes from. One thing I didn’t take into account was the hardness of the seat so by the time I pulled off the asphalt road, my ass was I pain. Bumping along an unpaved 6 kilometre road with a sore butt is not my idea of fun, so I took breaks from pedaling by walking the bike. I stopped at my little green house, that stands to welcome me at the beginning of the dirt road. I love this little house and spent some time resting my weary bones and butt in the shade of the walnut tree in front. The gate was closed in a rudimentary way—tied with twine, which was easily untied. After all these years of looking at it from the inside of a car, I finally went up to the little green house and looked inside to see what it looked like. A very small place—one big room, a small tiled front room and a teeny kitchen with a wood burning stove. Weeds surround the place but I could see the potential of making this a cute little country home. Apparently, it could be bought for under $5,000 rather tempting I must say.
As I got to the big turn in the road where the chebany (local farmers) live, the sky turned dark, thunder rumbled in the mountains, a cold wind blew and it began to rain. I could see Kashka Suu waiting for me up there on the hill but at that point I couldn’t imagine getting up there. Part of me wanted to turn around and head back to town, but after 5 hrs on the road I wasn’t going to give up. Luckily, at the fork in the road, a white minivan stood. I asked the driver if he was going to Kashka Suu and he said he was. He wasn’t quite sure how to get there and I said I’d show him the way if he gave me a ride up the hill. And so, within 15 minutes I had arrived at Kashka Suu just in time for a delicious lunch of soup and meant and potatoes.
My initial plan was to spend a few hours at Kashka Suu and then head back to town in the evening. But once Tom Toomey arrives at Kashka Suu, he can’t leave that easily. After lunch I had a much needed nap. I was wakened from my nap by the sound of the chair lift starting up. Sergei yelled for me to come take a ride, so up the mountain I went. Then I went to see the girls in the kitchen. It was someone’s son’s birthday (and Chynara’s too) so after the third shot of vodka, I decided to stay the night. Plus there was a group of gay boys coming up for a weekend seminar so there was more impetus to stay. We ate, we drank, we laughed as per usual around the big metal table in the kitchen. The gay boys were late so we had extra time. Tamara pulled out a big cucumber and the laughs ensued. After awhile, I wasn’t feeling too well. I think it was too much too soon-itis. The biking in altitude plus good food and bad vodka was a bit too much for me. After the kitchen party, I had to dine with Lyubov Ivanovna and Viktor Yakovlich, the heads of Kashka Suu. More of a diplomatic dinner really, to tell them why we didn’t come to Kashka Suu this year (visas, timing, etc.) and not because we didn’t like them. Still I had to eat plov and drink more bad vodka (I sipped it symbolically) when I’d rather be out talking with the gay boys. They were a nice lot, a little too femmy for me but nice guys all the same. By 9:30 I was free of all my eating and drinking duties and headed to my cabin. I threw up all that food and vodka and hit the sack feeling a little better.
In the morning, I was still a bit woozy. Food was the last thing on my mind and the idea of sitting on a bike and riding back to Bishkek was second to last. Still after a few cups of tea and two of Tamara’s boorsuki (fried dough balls), I was ready to go. 5 hours up and 1.5 hours down—what a difference. Along the way I ran into other bikers, waving a hello to them. I don’t think I pedaled more than 5 times as I sped back down the hill to Bishkek. Man was I glad to get off that hard seat and have a nice long shower. Casanova and Tulip snuggled with me as I napped, our last snuggle together. A quick trip to Rassvet, the place where I get my haircut every summer, and Cale (my assistant), Aida (his wife) and I were off to the airport to catch our flight to Dushanbe. No goodbyes in Kyrgyzstan, just til we meet agains.

Friday, July 18, 2008

My Summer Home

Some people like to say they summer in the Hamptons or the Catskills, in my case I proudly say I summer in Bishkek. Now that isn’t something you say with the affectation and snobby inflection you when when you say “The Hamptons” or “Newport” but I don’t care. My mother didn’t raise me to be a snob. For a brief moment in time however, I didn’t think I would be able to make it here but for the price of a stapler, I did.
After my 1.5 hr flight from Dushanbe, I was whisked to my apartment for the week spitting distance from the American embassy. Batma (one of my camp counselors) is on cat care duty for one of the American teachers who works at her school. The teacher went home for the summer and left her in charge of 2 cats in a huge new apartment in one of the glamorous high rises that are going up all over town. This is one of those “elite” residences that everyone is clamoring to live in (if they can afford it). Design-wise it’s alright but decoration wise it leaves much to be desired. The living room is enormous, the TV is so far away from the couches that you need a giant magnifying glass in front of the screen to see what’s going on. I like the green and white cabinets in the kitchen but it’s so big and there’s no table or chairs to make a little nook or to a cabinet to store things in. My favorite thing is the big disco shower. A giant glass box with all sorts of dials that spray water out from everywhere. I call it the disco shower because there’s a radio in it to add to the bathing experience.
My two charges for the week—Tulip and Casanova are just the pet therapy I need. Tulip is a cute gray and white striped thing ala Mittens my first cat. She’s a little shy and spends most of the time in the bedroom area. Casanova is one of those pedigree hairless felines. One of the ugliest cats I’ve seen but he’s grown on me. He’s affection starved so I gave him a ton yesterday and we’ve bonded. He snuggles on my chest when I watch TV.
I don’t think I was here but 2 or 3 hours before I was in a car going up to Kashka Suu, my former summer camp site, where I’m welcomed like family, the place in Kyrgyzstan I love the most. The mountains are so close from the apartment that they were calling to me, just like they did Maria von Trapp. Tamara, the cook at Kashka Suu was waiting for us and I knew she was making one my favorite things—manty. Manty are a staple of Central Asia—a meat dumpling with chopped lamb, onions and spices steamed to perfection. Tamara’s are special because she uses yeast dough which makes the puffy and so much more delicious. With some homemade laza, a hot pepper sauce, I can eat them til I look like a pregnant lady. Chynara, Cale, Batma, Daniel and I drove up the windy dirt road for an evening of laughs, cognac, and good food with friends. It was Katya’s 20th birthday so the long table was groaning with all sorts of delicious things. We sat, ate, drank, toasted to the young birthday girl, reminisced, laughed til the wee hours. My usual room, 3rd house 4th room, was occupied so we spent the night in the first house, our usual cabin for the girls. Although it was a different cabin, I was still happy to be snuggled in that small single bed, feet hanging off the end, the crisp, clean smell of the sheets and that big square pillow.
In the morning we were awakened by a loud wind storm outside. The roof rattled, doors banged, trees and shrubs bent in the powerful wind blowing down the mountainside. Never in the 4 years being here did I ever experience this. I thought for sure the building would be blown down the mountain or off to the land of Oz. As the sun rose, the wind blew and the clouds turned a beautiful pink before going dark into rain clouds. Still the sun shone and a full rainbow arched outside my window from one ridge down into the valley. Was it a freak act of nature or a welcome back sign from the mountain? Who knows.
After a lingering breakfast with a few shots of cognac, Chynara and I hiked up the hill to pick some dushitsa and chiburets, two wild flowers that I usually pick, dry out and use in tea (just like the locals). One of my summer musts here in Kashka Suu. No sooner had we digested breakfast that it was lunch time. So down we went for lunch with Lyubov Ivanovna, the camp administrator. She treated us to her homemade Burberry wine (not the coat, the berry kiddos), a light yet bitter drink that one nurses slowly rather than downs like the sweet Calvados cognac. By this point I was ready for a nap, drained from the eating, drinking and visiting so I went up to my room the last thing on my list of things to do at Kashka Suu—a post lunch nap. I always loved to go up to my room for a little nap while everyone was busy studying in the afternoon. The car was on its way up to get us, so I quickly snuck up to my room for a little sleep. Tucked under the heavy comforter, I dozed off to the sound of wind and rain, the fresh mountain air blowing through my open door from the balcony. Waking 20 minutes later, I laid in bed looking at the view that has been my summer view for the last 4 years. I said goodbye to the view, to the room and with a lock of the door on room 6 cabin 1, I was ready for a new camp in Tajikistan.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

3 hours in Hell

My fellow Americans let me tell you something. Your taxpayer’s money has gone to building a fabulous bridge spanning the Amur Darya (the Mississippi of Central Asia) providing a major transportational link from Afghanistan to Tajikistan. Of course it is so beautiful, as is the border crossing stations on either side that your taxpayer’s money also built, that no one can use it. I jest a little. Trucks can cross the bridge but us little people need to cross by boat. Apparently the stations aren’t open yet because they haven’t received the state of the art computer system yet (nor been trained on it). So in the meantime, we cross by boat.

Being Central Asia nothing ever happens the way it’s supposed to, nor on time. Wadood and I arrived at the Afghan border station—a small old building that has seen better days at lunch time. Of course after luch, there’s mid-day prayers and we had to wait for that to finish too. A crowd of men gathered in the hot waiting room, women were invited into a separate room by a well-covered attendant. A turbaned, bearded old man kept coming up to me, staring me in the face with intense eyes and big bushy eyebrows. “Bakshish, bakshish” he would inquire, looking for a handout but I was too hot, tired, and dirty to be charitable at the moment. His frequency of pestering arose my irritation level so I took to ignoring his stares. An hour later, after lunch, prayer and all the passengers from Tajikistan had been processed, it was our turn. Passports were taken and one by one we were called into a room as two men busily wrote our info down by hand in a ledger. Spitting distance from this old building and archaic hand written tradition gleamed the new shiny American-built buildings waiting to be inhabited by these officers.
Once processed and stamped, we piled in to a minivan which took us down to the river bank. Our driver charged us $1 for the 5 minute ride down the hill (not bad for a local salary). Once at the river bank, a large tent provided shade from the intense heat. Inside the tent, a kind old man took $10 from each of us for the river crossing. Of course no one tells you all this so a) you watch and figure out by example and b) thank God I had the money. After that, we went over to a big, villainous looking military man in camoflague and dark sunglasses sitting in a chair under a tree. This was his fiefdom and he exuded petty authority. He examined every visa and passport with a fine tooth comb looking for any reason to detain someone, thus extracting a bribe to forget about the minor discrepancy. As a rule I scoff at the whole bribe paying business and never give in. If he was going to start with me I was ready for my ammo—I’d point to the bridge and tell him that I helped pay for that. Luckily it didn’t come down to that crass behavior and he let me go but set his corrupt eyes on the two Pakistanis and a few Afghans.
Being 100+ degrees I felt like I was in hell, about to cross the Styx. The old man writing out receipts for $10, the burly soldier, and all of us, the lost souls cast down from heaven for an eternity of tortuous suffering. But instead this was the Amur Darya and across it was Tajikistan, not eternal damnation. Awaiting us was a rusty old P-boat from Soviet times. It looked more like a reject from McHale’s Navy than a mode of transportation. But the one great thing about Soviet built stuff, they last forever. Another old man was there to throw our luggage onto the tiny front deck of the boat while we gingerly made our way to the back seating area along the narrow sides. There was one woman with a baby who of course could not sit with us men so a plastic chair was tossed up from shore and wedged in next to the captain at the helm. The rickety old boat sputtered to life and with a belch of black smoke and a lot of clanging, we were off for the 5 minute ride to the other side. Feeling a sense of adventure, crossing this famed river I’ve read so much about, I snapped away with my camera, an Indian man alongside me doing the same with his cell phone. This is technically not allowed what being a border and all but with no one there to say NO, I happily took pictures of the river, the bridge and surroundings.

Upon arrival on the Tajik side, we lugged our suitcases to a shaded sitting area in front of a decrepit container which served as the medical office. Inside a “doctor” asked to see medical certificates and ask about our health. The Tajiks are a bit paranoid about getting all sorts of diseases from the Afghan side so they check things out in detail. Not having a certificate, he hemmed and hawed with me probably trying to see how he could eek some cash out of me. But with my fluent Russian and calm tone, he let me go. After everyone was checked out, we piled on to a rustier, ricketier bus that bounced us up to the passport control station.

My colleagues in Dushanbe told me to take a cab from the border and when it seem to be very quiet at the passport station I worried that I would be stuck in Nizhny Panj (that’s the name of the town) forever—a Tajik version of eternal damnation. Luckily that wasn’t to be for as I was filling out my entry form, a young man came up to me offering a ride to Dushanbe. I was a little leery of him and semi-seriously grilled him with questions before agreeing on a price. He was one of the passport guards who had a day off and decided to make some extra cash. His name was Umid and once we agreed on a price, he said he’d meet me on the other side. All during the passport and customs process, I inquired about him and everyone corroborated his story. After a thorough search of my suitcase by the female customs officer, which seemed more curiosity than suspicion, Umid and I were on our way to the capital.

As we began our 2 hr journey, I was relieved to be out of all that 3 hour hell called the border crossing and cruising down the road to Dushanbe. Eventhough I’ve only been to Tajikstan once before, for one day, I felt in my element. I was in a country where I know how things work, I can speak the language and get around myself. Umid and I yakked away about our lives, practiced speaking English (Passport guard English: Where are you coming from? How long will you stay in Tajikistan?), stopped for some water and Choco-Pies in a small town, and I filled him in on life in Afghanistan. My paranoia was dissipated when he showed me his work ID but rose a little when I had to turn on my lap top to find a phone number. He eyed the lap top enviously and made a phone call, speaking in Tajik. Was he setting up a highway robbery? On his side of the door he lifted an open bottle of something. Was this some sort of liquid to knock me out while he and his friend stole my computer? I retrieved the number and closed my lap top quickly, clenching it in my lap. I inquired about the bottle and he said it was “Nos” a Central Asian chewing tobacco. I was still a bit leery and after about 30mins or so, when we were quiet and speeding along through little farming villages with no robbery on the horizon, I began to relax my grip on the computer bag.

Two hours later we were in Dushanbe, Tajikstan’s capital. Driving down the tree-lined boulevards, I was happy to breath in the freedom of the city. Ironically, Tajikistan is another Central Asian republic run by an authoritarian president with a budding personality cult ala Turkmenistan’s late Turkmenbashi but it felt good to be in a less conservative and restrictive place. While life may not be a bed of roses here for many, it sure feels nice to be able to walk around alone, see women in their multi-coloured dresses stroll down the street un-burkhaed, men and women socializing, clean, well kept streets, restaurants and cafes that aren’t compounded and surrounded by guards, fountains and flowers everywhere. After getting into my apartment, I changed some money and had my first meal as a “free man”in the Istanbul café. 14 hours after leaving Kabul, I was downing a cheeseburger and fries in the Istanbul café and strolling down Rudaki. Man, was it delicious!