The Illustrious Henry the Younger of Sussex, who starred in the first AMA about our surprise ‘Welcome to English’ day at a school in Uzbekistan, asks the following:
My question is kinda twofold, shag: what was the highest high and the lowest low you felt over your travels?
Well, my inimitably illustrious young shag, you feature prominently in the former and shared in the latter.
The Highest Highs
Though completely true, it is too woolly and too mortifying for a stiff upper-lipped Brit to say: my highest highs were the people I met along the way.
So, sod that, I’m going to say something equally true.
Many of my highest highs whilst travelling were had whilst hitchhiking (this piece describing one adventurous day with our late vigorous friend Oleg).
The thrills, the chirp, the pace, the wildness, the nature, the people.
The open-ended unknowingness of what one’s adventure will hold in the coming day, the coming hour, literally the coming minutes, makes hitchhiking a special mode of transport, to say the least.
It is a peerlessly intense and exciting and culturally immersive way to travel and experience a country and meet its people.
Allow me, Henry, if you will, to dig into my diary and share some shreds from a couple of days during our own hitchhiking trip across Kyrgyzstan, from Bishkek in the north to Osh in the south, which will hopefully illustrate my point to the gentle reader.
We are awoken in a field on the cusp of the glossy, eerily still Toktogul Reservoir, a freshwater lake bordered by rocky mountains and pastural fields.
The awakening is rather rude, courtesy of bleating and shitting sheep, which surround our sleeping spot. They are shepherded by a gold-toothed Kyrgyz fellow we met the night before, who repeatedly hocked and spat whilst attempting to speak to us.
We boil some water from the lake in one of our pots on our little gas canister, ready to drink our ‘Champions’ brand tea before we prepare our champion’s breakfast.
We heat, spill and refill our pot of tea three times before having our first grateful sips, laughing, and meanwhile collecting nearby twigs and stones to make a fire for food.
We pop our aubergine into the flame, charring it nicely, softening the inside, before cutting it in half with a knife I was gifted by a Kyrgyz guy back in Bishkek. Just a sprinkling of salt to finish it off – delicious.
We are ready to rock and roll.
We walk the half-hour or so to the nearest road to try and hitch a ride further south towards Osh.
It is several hundred kilometres, mind. What we are really looking for is somebody going in that general direction, quite a difficult thing to explain when my entire Russian vocabulary consists only of hello, goodbye, davai and swearwords.
Henry has diligently picked up enough to blag us through thus far, though, Elhamdulillah.
An old Kyrgyz boy, seeing us with our kalpaks on and thumbs out, waves us over to him. A regal old fellow he is, sporting a high kalpak, gold teeth glinting at us, wizened slivers of silver beard jutting from chin announcing his faith.
He asks us where we are from and where we are going.
We tell him we are going to Osh, and the kind old fellow produces for us a wooden sign with ‘Ош’ written on it for us to present the oncoming traffic. We thank him profusely, and hold our new sign up.
I note this is the longest time we spent trying to hitch a ride, around half-an-hour. Probably because the drive to Osh is 6-8 hours from this point, and our sign doesn’t explain that we are not looking to go directly to Osh, we are happy just to be driven any distance in that general direction.
Eventually a large man in a large white van pulls over, a fellow by the name of Roma.
Roma drives with one hand on the steering wheel, often a lit cigarette loosely clasped between his gold-capped teeth, and he hoons it up and down and around the perilous mountain roads from Bishkek to Osh.
There was such sublime beauty to be seen throughout that drive that it made me ache, a genuine sensation in my midriff, indicating something special was being beheld.
Roads wrapping around almost orange mountains, precipitous plunges down to rivers winding their way through the rock, roadside stalls with sun-bronzed mountain-dwelling Kyrgyz selling their honeys and nuts and rhubard. Roma purchased and fed us a couple of sticks of rhubarb, telling us with a vigorous two-armed gesture that it would increase our virility.
The strong sensation in my midriff could have potentially been the kummus Henry and I had consumed a couple of days ago.
More likely, it was due to Roma’s nauseatingly irresponsible driving, regularly overtaking cars on blind corners.
Two close shaves, with but a split-second and hair’s-breadth between us and certain death, I felt Henry tense up next to me as we hurtled directly towards an incoming vehicle.
I was more quietly acquiescent to the oncoming doom, after surviving which, with my heart beating sickly in my throat, I laughed hysterically.
Roma, utterly unfazed, looked a little confused at the erratic behaviour of the two kalpak wearing foreigners in his van.
Roma drove us to his brother’s place near Jalalabad, where we supped on plov and drank chai whilst listening to manaschi – Kyrgyz bards, musicians who play a fretless lute-like instrument whilst singing of the epic exploits had by their mythical hero, Manas.
We are flaunted on a video-call to a relative. Look at what the hell turned up!
We are kindly allowed to sleep on the floor at Roma’s brother’s place.
In the morning, we are awoken by shouts of, “Genry! Genry!” Russian equivalent of Henry.
With little sleep, we reluctantly rise, and are dropped off by the racing Roma at a junction, besides the road leading southwards toward Osh.
Genry and I are tired and hungry. There is a small shop on the junction, but it only sells drinks, cigarettes and snacks.
There’s a cafe, which we pop into for something to drink and eat. They aren’t actually open, being so early in the morning, but they give us free coffee and let us hang around to use their Wi-Fi, with which we look for somewhere we might go from here for something to eat and take a load off.
The maps of the area are hilariously sparse, on both Google Maps and the locally used apps 2GIS and Maps.Me, which have road names and not much else. We really are out in the sticks. Genry the Younger and I, sleepily, and for no discernible reason, decide on a spot, next to a sizeable lake, and we begin our hike in that direction.
We are led away from the main road, first walking alongside a small river, then turning down a dirt path taking us through some fields.
The cloudy sky begins to sputter rain upon us.
Children potter past us on donkeys, their family’s cattle in tow, bells around their necks clink-clonking away.
The kids gawp at us before continuing to chirp to each other, one boy whipping the ass of another’s donkey so it gallops off unexpectedly.
As the rain begins to fall in earnest, our road comes to an abrupt end at the cusp of a large, muddy field.
The map I have on my phone says otherwise, tempting us to trudge straight through the field ahead.
Shrugging our shoulders at each other, frankly enjoying the refreshment of the incipient downpour after so many days of relentless heat, Henry and I walk onwards, tightroping on the muddy border of the field.
My tatty Birkenstocks were not made for this.
As I try to hop over a particularly swampy patch of claylike mud, I slip backwards and sink into the sludge. I take off my soiled sandals and carry on.
It is a beautiful feeling, walking barefoot through feck-knows-where, rain beating down on us, paddy-like fields either side, cloud-shrouded mountains in the distance, not a vehicle nor an engine to be heard interrupting the pitter-patter of the rain and the squelch of our steps.
At length, we come to pass a group of young Kyrgyz farmhands. They laugh at my barefootedness, and ask if they can take pictures with us. Upon telling them where we are headed, they send us back in the direction through which we have just trudged for so long, redirecting us around rather than straight through the fields.
We thank them and go on our merry sodden way.
Arriving at something of a hamlet, we find a windowless shop, which is purportedly open, but locked.
We knock on the door and wait.
Across the dirt road, out pops a beautiful Kyrgyz woman, wearing slim-fitted, Kyrgyz-style Muslim dress. She opens the shop, and as we buy bread and eggs for our noodles, she smiles at our sorry state. Like drowned and starved rats.
As the shopkeeper locks up and returns to her house across the street, we stay put and squat outside her shop, underneath the only sliver of shelter we can find, and fire up our gas bottle to heat some noodles and eat something.
We must have looked pitiful, primitive, even, as we scooped water flowing through the open irrigation trough to boil and cook our noodles in.
So pitiful, our enchanting lady emerges again, smiling, stifling a laugh.
“Come to me,” she says gently, gesturing us to come inside her home.
In that moment, I thought, I will follow this enchanting woman to the ends of the earth.
Henry and I pack up our things, I wash my feet in the trough, and we follow her inside.
As is Muslim custom, we were mostly entertained by the husband, the patriarch, a genial fellow with no English at all. His enchanting wife, holding their daughter on her hip, served us mouldy bread, honey, and a tasty, restorative soup.
Henry’s Duolingo-derived Russian helped us to peek over the language barrier.
Aside from their adorable daughter, they keep several animals, and they run the shop across the road.
They kindly direct us to the nearby lake, a short hike, and insist we call them later on to let them know how we fare.
Just as the weather begins to clear, we arrive at the lake, a landscape artist’s aesthetic dream.
Green, green grass, dotted with trees, shirtless fisherman casting lines into the lake, kids chirping and playing together. Across the water, wavy emerald mountains, awash with crimson poppies. All this beauty becomes more beautiful as the day is filled with more light and warmth.
Henry chases an errant cow in an attempt to milk it for us.
The smallest of the four frolicking young brothers approaches me, ballsy, bolshy, as I’ve found most Kyrgyz kids to be, and offers me his hand.
“Asalamaleykum,” he says, shaking me hand and smiling toothlessly.
His brothers laugh at him, his diminutive stature in humorous contrast to his confidence.
We all do press-ups together, and I attempt a few with the kids sitting on my back.
Henry and I leave them to wrestle amongst themselves, stripping off to swim in the lake, as the familiar heat returns to the day.
The brothers clock us going for a swim, and promptly strip down to their birthday suits, and run into the lake with us, laughing and splashing and chirping away.
Just a couple of notes on a couple of days hitchhiking.
I wonder if you can see why they were some of the highest highs for me.
The Lowest Low
I don’t have a theme for lowest low, as I did for the highest highs.
Of course, at points, I missed my family, I missed my friends, I missed my home.
Sometimes I found myself alone, in the arse-end of nowhere, with no money, or with no place to stay.
But, these feelings and these moments, in a strange way, I found enjoyable.
They are unique moments with concomitant challenges and experiences, all well worth having, all growth-inspiring; moments I already knew in the moment will be happily recalled and retold and laughed at – like when I didn’t eat for two days in Iraq.
However, there was one low.
In Batumi, on the west coast of Georgia, I was waiting for one of the rickety, rusty public buses to take me south for a hike.
Opening my phone, I receive some terrible news, about the passing of a friend.
In complete shock, I wander away from the bus stop, sending messages – are you sure, how do you know – reactive spasms of hopeful, but ultimately hopeless denial.
I sit on a bench and cry for the first time in more than ten years. Not welling up. Actually crying. Pathetic, pathetic sight. Face contorted into a grimace, tears streaming, loudly weeping, being stared at by passers-by, from whom I try to shield my face with my hand.
I suck it up and go to buy a big plastic bottle of beer, as my friend and I purchased together many a morning in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and went to the beach.
I sat there drinking beer and listening to the music we had shared, like Pantera and Psychostick.
I settle to listen and weep to this glorious gopnik song on repeat.
Predictably, it starts to rain heavily, thunder rumbling in the distance.
I move myself and my stuff to the shelter of a beach bar, buy and chug a beer, strip down to my boxers, and walk into the wavy sea, bobbing on my back, looking up to the sky, rain lashing my face, revisited by old long-settled torments about life and afterlife, and selfishly thinking of myself, I think, I want to go home.
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