There’s so much I don’t get the chance to tell about this trip. My thematic postings do tend to miss quite a few of the little details of life and our random exploits on this trip. And once more, I find that I’m preparing to leave a nation (little Kyrgyzstan) with so much left to say. So you know what that means–more vignette posts. I’ll try to divide them up in some kind of sensible way, following our path from Bishkek in the north of Kyrgyzstan to Osh in the south.
1. The night before we departed for the countryside and for Osh, we sat with our hosts in Bishkek, M.B. and his partner. Avid cultural consumers, the two men sat on the couch watching a Russian version of Conan O’Brien interviewing Tim Burton about his newest film, Aberham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, which will be released soon all throughout Central Asia. It seemed from watching the interview that Burton was as confused by Russian humor as his audience (and M.B. and every other Kyrgyz individual we’ve met) was about the premise of his film.
The film, I suspect, is getting a lot of press here in part because its director is a Kazakh man. Kazakhs have started to break through into the artistic scene in America, having recently gained international recognition for films like 2006′s “Mongol,” and a host of others. It makes sense that Kazakh cinema should be on the rise given that, under the auspices of the Soviet regime, many arts studios were moved (along with nuclear and space race facilities) to Kazakhstan, while Central Asians (especially Kazakhs) were sponsored by the state to pursue artistic careers. There’s a good deal of regional pride in such global artistic achievement, even among the Kyrgyz, who are usually at odds culturally or politically with their Uzbek or Kazakh neighbors. But the pride is well tempered by the fact that, once again, no one here knows why the hell such a movie is being made.
2. It’s not just film, though. We are quite unfamiliar with it, but Central Asian literature was among the best to come out of the Soviet era. There is a statue in the center of Bishkek, just opposite the Ala Too (Central) Square to the statue of the legendary Manas, which depicts the Kyrgyz writer Chinggis Aitmatov, whose “Jamala” and “The Day Lasts a Hundred Years” are among the greatest works of recent Central Asian literature and among the best works of fiction to come out of the Soviet regime.
One Central Asian writer, we are told by locals, had his manuscripts reviewed by Stalin himself, who wrote back, “He’s a damn good writer. But he’s also a damn bastard. Give him a good beating for his good work,” or something roughly to this effect. There seems to be a great deal of pride in this anecdote, although this pride in independence and nationalist artistic creation during the Soviet period jives quite harshly with all the non-ironic USSR shirts and tattoos that one sees all the way from Astana down to Osh.
3. Before I leave behind Bishkek, I must mention briefly that we were joined recently by Anna, another friend from New York who will accompany us through the Pamirs and into Uzbekistan. She is an eager and lively presence, making Mike and I realize just how physically filthy and mentally tired we have become through constant movement and unrelenting exploration. Travel is rewarding, yes, but at the breakneck speed that we pursue it, it can also be draining. I have been feeding off of Anna’s presence these past few days to revitalize my bargaining skills and my stamina.
4. We put those bargaining skills to use the morning after Anna arrived. We came to meet her at her guesthouse in downtown Bishkek where we found a young Israeli man named Dean who was also preparing to go south to Osh. Great, we told him, can you come with us now?
No, he said. I must first finish my eggs and have my shower. He showed no urgency, but the potency of his mellow was such that, rather than irk us, it soothed us. As he ate, he described his cutthroat bargaining skills, honed in the Arab markets of northern Israel. All the more reason to wait for him, we though, as perhaps he could help us to strike a harder bargain with the drivers at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek.
Dean has taught me this: Hard bargaining skills come not from the subtle knowledge of a good’s true value and the will to fix the correct price. Rather, bargaining stems from the one side’s quest for profit and the other side’s absolute conviction that a fictive sub-market price will yield the other side an adequate price. Let me lay it out.
The standard price, we now know, to get from Bishkek to Osh around this time of year is 1,000 som. Dean had traveled previously to Lake Issyk Kul, four hours away, and was convinced that the drive to Osh (actually a 12 hour drive) would last only 8 hours and hence should cost exactly twice what he paid to reach the Lake. Ergo we should pay only 500 som at most to drive to Osh.
At first I believed he was insisting on this price with the increasingly irate drivers because he wanted to drive them to a middle ground. After having it out with the drivers for the first round of bargaining, as we turned to walk away and bait them into coming back, I realized he was actually convinced of his price. I tried to reason with him that the price would he higher than 500 som because … We were going up a treacherous mountain road that would be harder on the car and more wasteful of fuel. … Fuel is more scarce and expensive in the mountains. … There must be a degree of hazard pay built into this trip. … The driver needs to pay for his food and lodging as well as this is more than a day trip. … It’s the migrant worker season so the traffic of labor between Osh and Bishkek would necessitate that the market price for a trip to Osh from Bishkek be larger. … There are tolls and bribes to be paid along this road.
But Dean insisted on his 500 soms and the drivers eventually grew too flustered and gave up on the walk-away-and-bite-the-bait market game (a first). Yet somehow one driver agreed to take us to Osh for 875 som each, which gave him only a slim margin of profit over the cost of a meal and fuel. He mainly agreed to this because his car was the smallest and least attractive in the market and he still wanted to get to Osh before midnight so that he could rest and take a load of laborers north in the morning. Thus I can only include that the best businessmen and bargainers are those who have convinced themselves that a fair price is one that is far below the rational market standard price.
No wonder, then, that the driver found his own clever way of getting back at us. First, he asked for an up-front payment of 1/7 of the total price (reasonable). Then he asked for another 2/7 of the fee for gas money on the way out of town (also reasonable). But he did not fill the tank entirely, so he managed to snatch profit money at the outset, and created the necessity to stop his car for gas multiple times throughout the trip. At each stop, most of us were passed out in our seats, so he was able to wrangle money out of one of us for gas without the others knowing. By the time we reached the outskirts of Osh, he had claimed all his money and refused to take us into the center of town, dumping us on the periphery and forcing us to walk a few kilometers with our packs and a few large watermelons (see below). That bastard.
5. Jumping back, it’s not as if I can really complain given that the drive from Bishkek to Osh was one of the most consistently beautiful journeys I’ve ever taken. As soon as you reach the Kara Balta River, just at the edges of the mountains, you begin to climb up into steep mountains shrouded in fog, with whisps of mist floating down and mixing with snow packs.
The vistas change rapidly. The rivers trickle in wide mud flats and then rush into twisting rapids fed by snow melt and then stand still, sparking a deep azure or teal blue the likes of which one only sees in the pastel glory of old Hollywood sets. The mountains shift from steep grey chunks of inner earth to sloping golden hills to sheer faces of red rock dropping into large crater lakes. The vegetation changes from poplars to shrub grass to purple and yellow mountain flowers to marshy reeds. You cut in and out of switchback roads, steep grades, sudden drops (made all the more manic and terrifying given that, as in all of Central Asia, cars have steering wheels on the right or the left hand side, and drivers do not care which side of the road they drive on, which, as we learned, can be a problem when a semi-truck appears mid-lane around a hairpin turn), popping from one ecological zone to another in minutes, snow and then rain and then sun. Mountain herders to the valleys with their cotton farmers. The colors are spectacular. The omnipresence of sour kurt and fermented mare’s milk, less so.
I cannot really describe the beauty of this drive, and my rinky-dink point-and-shoot camera has not been able to do it justice either. All I can say is that I’ve never seen such rich color, such diverse land, such beautiful mountains. Again, I stress, Kyrgyzstan, I fear, is economically fucked. But it is fucking beautiful all the same.
6. Speaking of economics, I had a bit of a revelation while passing one of the huge crater lakes on the road to Osh. Kyrgyzstan does have one massively valuable resource, but even more sadly and ironically it is ill-placed to make use of it: Water.
Though we don’t talk about it nearly enough, I am convinced that blue gold will become a major commodity within our lifetimes. Although America houses one of the potential aquatic disaster zones (Los Vegas, Los Angelas, such areas are running dangerously close to ecological disaster, but are shielded by water subsidies and aid from feeling the pressure that might spur change), it’s pretty clear that countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have already started to feel the squeeze of water competition as their neighbors, in control of waterways, dry up the rivers and lead to famines, heavy metal poisoning, etc. (It’s never the thirst that will get us.)
Already the economically devastated Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan (more on that sad history later) are looking to utilize their water resources, shipping hydroelectric power and blue gold to Iran through roads and pipelines (frustrated in such by the need to build in Afghanistan, which, although secure in the regions of interest, is a no-no nation for the necessary investors). But considering Kyrgyzstan, its rivers aren’t great for hydroelectric power and it is more suited to water exportation in my rough estimation (clean water, and quite good). Yet it is so sandwiched into nations indifferent to this product (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, China) or hostile to cooperation (Uzbekistan) that the likelihood of its being able to utilize aquatic resources is slim, and even if it can be negotiated the cut from exporting over neighbors will lead to massive losses in the potential profits of the industry.
Anyway, just an observation there. I’d very much like to see more literature on the potential and economic importance of water resources for small, mountainous nations. And I think there needs to be more scholarly work on the meaning of water and water energy exportation for Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan (and even Nepal and Bhutan) and the implications for regional economics, politics, and power in the later part of the 21st century. Totally open to working on that with people. Anyway.
7. Actually, while opening a bottle of Kyrgyz spring water, Dean managed to get his arm caught on a piece of metal and ripped a deep gash right above a major vein in his arm. Blood everywhere, none to pretty, but at least it brought the driver to a stop. This was the first time Mike and I found a reason to use our medical kits. We disinfected the cut, put some coagulant on it, and then bound him up with a bit of gauze and as of now the bleeding has stopped, but he will have a little scar.
I’m hoping this will do just a little to improve the reputation of Americans as travelers. It seems that everywhere we go, we meet an Israeli, Frenchman, German, or Dutchman out on some adventure. They and the locals here have little regard for Americans, who have stopped coming as often as they once did (thirty, forty years ago) and who, when they do come, can be quite inconsiderate and needy. If we can spread the image of Americans as at least medically road-confident among a few Israeli travelers, I’m thinking that’s a good deed for the day. Oh, and the patching him up was a good deed too, I suppose.
8. Soon after the bloody bottle cap incident, we pulled into a little roadside stand selling watermelons. Mike’s been quite excited for these melons for some time, given all the hype we’ve heard about Central Asian melons in the Ferghana Valley (technically our current location). It’s said that the Central Asian conqueror of India, Babur, hated his new lands and wrote epic poetry in which he mainly longed for the melons and women of his homeland (in that order).
While Mike and Dean set about knocking on melons and haggling with old, gold-toothed women (anyone interested in a grill could really learn something from Central Asian dentistry, I swear), Anna found herself encircled by old men in ak kalpak hats and reeking of vodka. They insisted on giving her big hunks of melon to eat and then begging her for a kiss. I’ve noticed that there’s quite a bit of Bollywood music in these parts and it would seem that in the more conservative and religious Ferghana Valley, Indian culture has become a little exoticized, so Anna was quite the hot commodity at the melon market (and in Osh). She did, though, manage to extract herself before the marriage proposals started.
9. The melons did come in handy when we arrived in Osh, though. As psychologically grounding protective tools.
Dumped as we were into Osh at midnight on the edge of the town, we were quite disoriented and could not figure out how to get to the guesthouse in town. We scrambled about until we found a few students–anyone who wears a blazer over a t-shirt must be a good guy, I rationalized as we approached them, knowing full well that beatings of foreigners are common after midnight in Osh–who pointed us in the right direction.
Their directions, delivered in broken English and Russian mixed, led us to a dark alley outside of which a Russian man took pity on us and led us into the dark by the light of his phone, down dirt lanes and over sewage ditches, into a bleak and black apartment block where he swore the guesthouse lay. I volunteered to follow him up the dark staircase, as Mike half-joked that I would not be coming back and would be snatched. I had no such fears as, I figured, although this Russian man was bigger than me, he would be on a staircase and I had a 12 pound melon to huck at his head if he tried anything.
No hucking was necessary, though. But the guesthouse, just an apartment with a few spare beds, was full. After some begging, the owner agreed to led Dean, Anna, Mike and I crash on his floor for the night.
10. But hark, a break of great fortune. In the morning, one of the affiliates of the guesthouse, a very pious Muslim man with moustache-less beard, white robe, topi, and prayer beads came to negotiate with us to stay in another apartment he owned. I’d head that conservative and orthodox Islam have been spreading in traditionally Sufi and non-orthodox Kyrgyzstan mainly as a result of generous scholarships at northern Pakistani madrassas. Such largess makes Pakistanis somewhat popular in Osh and its environs. So I asked him if he spoke Urdu. Yes he did. And he also assumed that my wife (as he took Anna to be) was Pakistani.
We spoke for a while about faith, Islam, and Pakistan and then proceeded not just to negotiate a place to stay for the night, but managed to get a decent price to hire a friend of his as an English-speaking guide to drive us to Sary Tash tomorrow, stay a night at the border, and then cross into the Pamirs via the Kyzyl-Art pass, arriving in Murgab, Tajikistan sometime on the 26th.
See? Totally not a worthless major.
11. For today, we have been wandering the markets of Osh. Given Osh’s situation at the border of Uzbekistan and its proximity to the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran trade routes that run north via Tajikistan and to the new routes leading from China to the West, Osh’s bazaars are well stocked, well priced, and some of the most massive in the region. If ever you pass through, I can highly recommend the fresh apricots (some of the best in the world), walnuts (from walnut forests in the mountains we passed through), pecans, and melons. I do not, however, recommend the sheeps’ lungs.
We’ve intersected with yet two more Israelis (Amalia and Daniel) and are about to go out on a quest with them to find some Uzbek knives, very well made utensils apparently much prized in the region. Soon after, we will climb the Suleyman Too, a craggy cliff that rises up into the center of the town, covered in shamanic shrines, Muslim graveyards, Sufi shrines, and a temple supposedly constructed to Babur, but first consecrated in legend by King Solomon.
After this we’ll be out of touch for some time. The Pamirs will have essentially no internet access save for perhaps a slow connection at an on-and-off internet cafe in Murgab or Khorog. The electricity in most towns will not be of sufficient voltage to charge our electronics. But once we emerge again around July 1st, I’ll be sure to write some nice round-ups about the Pamirs and our exploits therein, including an excursion we’ve planned to a market which stretches right across the border with Afghanistan.
Peace, friends. Be back in touch when I can be.