Day 1 of 5: Hitchhike and Chirp

My friend, the illustrious and inimitable Oleg from Bishkek, the only Kyrgyz man to ever sport a kalpak with a sleeveless Cannibal Corpse shirt and earrings, phones me last Thursday to say that he has secured passage back from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan and will return to Bish in T-minus 60 minutes.

I say, “Davai, meet me at Brewster on Moskovskaya Street.”

Oleg arrives with rucksack on back after a month in Uzbekistan, 2 weeks of which we spent together, and we recommence the beer drinking and head banging to Pantera and Psychostick – and plan a hitchhiking trip before I depart to Turkey the following Tuesday.

Plan is possibly a strong word: we decide we will hitchhike tomorrow.

And so it is, on Friday we wake up at Oleg’s family home in west Bishkek, take some breakfast, pack our bags with clothes, sleeping bag, tent, pots and pans, and we get a crowded sauna-bus into the city centre for the equivalent of 1 pence.

I am sporting a kalpak, traditionally worn by Kyrgyz men, a tall and masculine cowboy hat, which I must say I look dashing in. Certainly compliments the rest of my getup: Birkenstock sandals, my Dad’s pink shorts and Oleg’s somewhat tight and baldly fake Nike vest from Israel.

Oleg is sporting a green traditional Tatar cap, dark sunglasses, shorts, and his iconic Cannibal Corpse vest.

In short, we look the business.

Despite being in the more metropolitan Bishkek, already we have interested onlookers asking where we are from and where we are going.

My friend, the zen and almost ascended Dalai Dauren, suggested I visit Karakol before departing Kyrgyzstan, so Oleg and I decide we will try to hitch a ride eastwards to the town of Kant, from where we can then hitch a ride further eastwards towards Issyk Kul, a gigantic lake of gobsmacking beauty, and then to Karakol, a small city in the far east of the country.

After obtaining a small gas bottle to cook with and some beer, and a kalpak for Oleg to keep a consistent Kyrgyz vibe, we walk towards what will hopefully be a propitious spot for hitching a ride from Bishkek to Kant.

On the way, cars beep, drivers wave, passengers gawp, and we have a few thumbs-ups and salam aleykum’s.

At the very instant we turn to face the traffic and raise our thumbs for the first time, a white SUV pulls over to give us a ride.

This absolute ease of hitching a ride was typical for us over the 5 days we spent hitchhiking across Kyrgyzstan.

The driver, a big Kyrgyz dude with his wife in the passenger seat and baby boy in the back with us, said he stopped because of our hats.

Kant is a short drive away, where we pass an area named Lyuksemburg. Oleg tells me the name is derived from the East Germans who were shipped here by the Soviets during the second world war – quite involuntarily, as was Stalin’s prerogative.

Obviously, Oleg says, all have since left, as soon as they had the freedom to do so.

We hop out, have a mooch around Kant, then put our hats back on, thumbs out – onwards!

Two gentlemen in their sixties pull over in an old, beat-up Mercedes.

They are Kyrgyz Russians, two of the almost half-million ethnic Ruskies whose ancestors emigrated to Kyrgyzstan many decades ago.

Most Russians left after the fall of the Soviet Union, and many continue to leave, knowing prospects and security are better elsewhere than in volatile and piss-poor Kyrgyzstan.

Yet some Russians stay and graft and live good lives, like these two old boys, driving to Issyk Kul lake together to chill, eat and swim. The passenger swigs from our bottle of unfiltered Bishkek beer as we explain our origins and plans.

They drop us on the shore of Issyk Kul, a lake the size of a sea, bordered by sandy beaches, with snow-tipped mountains stretching up from the far side and crumpled Mars-like rocks breaking up the luscious green fields on our side.

I think to myself (what a wonderful world!): is this almost untarnished natural glory going to be ruined by an influx of tourists one day, as has been the case further east of Asia, or will this empty expanse of inexplicable beauty be the exclusive right of locals and odd-bod travellers such as myself?

I say ‘almost’ untarnished because Kyrgyzstan has a serious problem with litter and pollution, and it seems only a portion of the younger generation care to try to change the grim reality of plastic bottle strewn roads and fly-tipping. From a high-rise Bishkek apartment block I have seen the perpetual fire that burns near the border with Kazakhstan, throwing up a noxious cloud of God-only-knows what. Bishkek air gives me a sore throat.

Anyway, thumbs out.

A convoy of two people carriers pulls over. The patriarch pops out, shakes our hand, and offers us a ride.

He is a Kyrgyz muslim, with a muslim hat, a beard, and clear linen clothing on.

We squeeze in the back of his car, which contains his sister, three of his children and his wife.

Well, a wife, strictly speaking, for he has three of them.

Eighteen children has this man. Eighteen. More to come, too.

He is impressed by our travel plans and happily drives us some distance across the lake before they have to turn off-road toward their yurt encampment.

At that point, both cars stop and empty, and we meet the rest of the family, or rather just the dozen or so of them along for this particular trip.

After taking some pictures together, we offer our beer, which the patriarch, one of his wives and one of the older men gratefully accept.

We say cheers: “Nastrovia!”

The younger man passes half a cup of beer to one of the boys, 8 years old at most, who drinks it down, without flinching.

Muslim families of Kyrgyzstan have a tendency to confuse and amuse, and concern and amaze me, often at one and the same time.

We are invited to the wedding of the patriarch to his fourth wife, and upon telling him we intend eventually to go to Naryn in the south, he invites us to his home there, to which he returns on Sunday.

We take leave of the perplexing familial dynamics of muslim Kyrgyzstan and walk inland over and through the also perplexing and otherworldly red rocks opposite the lake azure.

We find a flat area of rock on which to sit, and eat our lunch, and finish our beer.

Though the heat of the day can still be felt, there is a fresh breeze blowing from the lake, and in the west grow large and ominously grey clouds.

I maintain militantly that the vests are awesome, but concede that they are not all-weather apparel. Feeling the first few specks of rain, I finally have to use my navy blue guernsey for something other than a pillow, as we rush back towards the road.

Thumbs up.

Prayers answered.

A minivan with two middle-aged Kyrgyz men pulls over and we jump in, dodging the storm, which starts to storm in earnest.

The Kyrgyz men compliment our kalpaks.

By the by, a friend of mine asked me recently, if “it’s not culturally insensitive for you to be wearing a kalpak?”

The fear of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a unique philosophical retardation of usually young and always inexperienced western intellectuals, people who spend too much time reading Foucault and too little time actually living a life, and travelling and experiencing cultures outside of their own.

Now I have the space and experience to say so, I will reiterate: no, of course it isn’t culturally insensitive, just the opposite.

My Kyrgyz friend and I respectfully don the local traditional headdress, which I can say from a totally unbiased point of view, we look drop-dead gorgeous in – and the locals bloody love it.

Our respectful cultural gesture won us many of our hitched rides – amongst much else – and many a Kyrgyz shouted from the street and their cars, ‘Krasavchik!’ Meaning something like, ‘handsome man’.

These Kyrgyz men giving us a ride are proud and informed of their cultural heritage. They tell us that, once upon an olden time, one could tell the origin, the age and the class of a man just by the size and style of his kalpak.

They analyse my kalpak, concluding it would have belonged to a mountain dweller: the black brim of the hat, they explain, represents the snowless base of a mountain, and the white crown represents its snowy peak.

Everyday’s a schoolday, shags.

At length, the Kyrgyz gentlemen drop us off at a bus shelter, from under which we leap periodically to brave the rain and raise our thumbs, in the hope we can make it past the lake to Karakol – and to a semblance of real shelter.

Did I mention that the scenery is persistently breathtaking? The remote lake-mountain combo, absent of other human beings is something special.

The storm abates, the rain stops, but the sky begins to cloud with the darkness of nightfall.

Gratefully, we hear the glorious silence disrupted by an incoming van, which pulls over.

A Kyrgyz couple and their children fill all of the seats, so we are offered a “seat” in the back, to which we gladly assent.

One of the driver’s daughters runs around the back of the van and passes us some food for the journey, which we gratefully nibble on between our bubbly sips of beer throughout the bumpy ride.

I joke that Oleg looks like an illegal Mexican immigrant. Dumbfoundingly – but for the quantity of beer consumed throughout the day – Oleg manages to nod off and enjoy some Z’s as we rattle uncomfortably toward Karakol.

Our friendly family drops us off and we wait for what should be our ride, just 40km or so shy of our destination.

A well-off gentleman in a white Lexus pulls over and speeds us the remainder of the distance to Karakol.

First impressions of Karakol: though it is dark, I get strong Soviet vibes, concrete, concrete, concrete, rationally straight streets, one of which seems to reach all the way up to the mountains which overawe the city.

I see a state of Lenin – quite the hero here in Kyrgyzstan – and some other USSR-era statues, monuments and buildings.

Karakol has many trees, and as we saunter through the mostly empty streets, we pass a couple of nice-looking parks.

There is fresh mountain air.

The inhabitants we do see greet us with a gusto quite surprising so late at night.

Two of the inhabitants, young men cruising around in a beat-up BMW, greet us and ask us where we are staying. We explain that we don’t have a clue where we are staying and would like to find a beer.

And so it is we get our 7th and final hitched ride of the day, courtesy of the boy racers, who drop us to the only establishment open at that time, a club with four members of staff serving nobody but us – because it is totally empty. Peak-time Fridays in Karakol, ladies and gentlemen.

Oleg and I are, by this point, knackered; leant against the bar, chatting with the proprietor and her young staff about our trip so far and our “plan” going forward.

They are quite concerned that we have not secured some place to stay. I tell them we passed a park a couple of blocks away and we can sleep there. The proprietor advises us against it, saying that youths of the area can be violent, and it may be unsafe.

I might not be informed enough to make such judgements, but I can and I shall regardless: I’ve found Kyrgyz, outside of Bishkek in particular, nothing but warm and curious and welcoming.

Kyrgyz men have harsh sides to them and are hellish drunks, no doubt about it, but I trust my gut in this sleepy town with its friendly people. Nomadic hospitality and curiosity are bigger aspects of Kyrgyz culture and mentality than violence, I feel, from my two months here. Certainly towards foreigners, anyhow.

So the proprietor’s advice falls on ears that are either deaf or drunk or dumb, or some mixture of the three.

We pay up, and walk to the park.

We turn off a path in the park and ruffle through some trees and bushes, finding a sheltered spot on which we throw our roll-mats. We hang our kalpaks up on the tree beside our spot, and are ready for bed.

The mountain air is cool but not cold, and is complimented by an almost perfect silence, with insects whirring and chirruping around us comfortingly.

A gentle pitter-patter of rain can be heard on the leaves of the tree graciously sheltering us, but it remains a light drizzle – or ‘blind rain’ as the Russians call it.

I strip down to my boxers, roll up my guernsey as a pillow, slide into my sleeping bag, and lie back with a big smile on my face, knowing tomorrow will bring similar adventures.

“Good night, shag.”

3 thoughts on “Day 1 of 5: Hitchhike and Chirp

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