Kyrgyzstan ended up being my favorite ‘stan. It didn’t start out that way.
Crossing into Kyrgyzstan was the weirdest border crossing of my life. All of the border crossings between the ‘stans were weird, in that we had been heavily warned that they were going to go through all of our things with a fine-toothed comb and we’d need to provide prescriptions for all of our medications lest we be accused of drug smuggling.
In reality, the guards barely even looked at us, let alone our stuff.
After we were granted exit from Tajikistan, Francine and I wandered up a long, bizarrely desolate no man’s land before reaching the Kyrgz border. It’s normal to have a gap like this between land borders, but this one just kept going on and on for what seemed like at least a mile, to where we started to really doubt if we were even in the right place anymore or if we’d wandered off the path and were about to be arrested. Dragging my suitcase up the rocky dirt road, eventually we reached the Kyrgyzstan border, which looked exactly like some kind of abandoned truck depot.
My most stressful moment crossing into Kyrgyzstan came when the guard kept asking where I lived and wouldn’t take “Minneapolis” for an answer. It turned out this was because my place of birth on my passport is California. This wasn’t helped at all by the guard having to ask me my home town seven times.
“mumble mumble mumble?”
Ken next to me sneezed loudly.
Someone in the crowd farted, drowning out the guard’s third repeat of the question.
“I’m really sorry, what did you say?”
I felt bad about this but was also perplexed that “raising your voice above a whisper” didn’t seem to be in this dude’s toolbox.
One thing I thought about a lot on this trip was the difference between “Where are you from?” and “Where do you live?” You get asked this a lot when you travel, and I’ve always treated both questions the same, answering “Minneapolis.” This inevitably leads to confusion and anger in the question asker since they’ve never heard of Minneapolis and it’s really rude of you to not be from some place they’ve heard of like New York or Los Angeles. Throughout Central Asia, everyone was always thrilled to discover they’d met an American, then horribly disappointed to realize they’d met some kind of fraud who was from some bullshit place that isn’t N.Y. or L.A.
Eventually I just started saying L.A., since I am from the greater Los Angeles area originally, and it’s way more fun when the person you’re talking to remains happy to have met you and not stressed out trying to understand what “It’s near Canada” means. At first I felt a bit like I was lying, since I haven’t lived in California in 20 years. But then I noticed Francine always answered “Mexico” to that same question, even though she’s lived in Europe for half her life now.
“They’re really asking who you are, which is where you grew up, not where you live now.”
Huh. That’s a good point. My AirBnB host in Christchurch was perturbed when she learned I was originally from Southern California, after I had answered “Minneapolis” to “Where are you from?” So she clearly thought of the question Francine’s way. And from a practical standpoint, I’m not a very representative Minnesotan, so having the only person they’ll ever meet from Minnesota be a long-haired new age vegan probably isn’t doing these people any favors in terms of understanding America.
“I love your Minnesota accent!” said one of the Australians on our tour.
Okay yeah I’m just going to say Los Angeles from now on.
After the fabulous Timor in Uzbekistan and our disbarred Tajik lawyer guide, our guide in Kyrgyzstan was a huge step down. He was a nice enough guy but was in no way, shape or form a tour guide. I think we just pulled the bus over and he was the first local to hop on out of curiosity.
As we drove through the mountainous landscape, I was intrigued by the grey haze all around us that made the huge mountains almost impossible to see.
“Is that smog?”
“Dirty air. Is it because of pollution that we can’t see the mountains?”
“Oh no, no. Is fog. There are no factories here, no smokestack to pollute. Just our car on this road.”
Literally 20 seconds later we drove by a massive smokestack belching ooze. Okay then.
It turned out the grey murk enveloping Kyrgyzstan has multiple sources. Cars are a big part of it, and due to all the automobile exhaust Bishkek sometimes has dirtier air than Beijing. Industry is another part. But the most beguiling was the fog that seemed to hang around all the tiny villages like a curse, hovering over houses and snaking down the side streets like a sentient ghost. It turned out the Kyrgyzs burn a lot of coal in their homes, and they follow that up by burning agricultural waste on their lawns. So basically the only thing that wasn’t contributing to the fog was fog.
A few days later when we were in Kazakhstan, I looked at the weather forecast on my phone and it just said “Smoke.” I can honestly say I have not seen that forecast before. Is that even a weather forecast? Or a warning? Should we be doing something?
The weird air in Kyrgyzstan did contribute to a few magical moments, though. On our drive from the border to the town of Osh, we drove through a series of funky old villages that were like something out of a dark Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The mysterious fog added to this feeling of spooky wonder, as did the absolutely immense moon sitting right on the horizon at the end of the road, which looked like it was another planet about to collide with the Earth.
Any accurate description I could give of how big the moon was would surely be met with disbelief. It felt like the end times. Suffice it to say it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever yelled “Holy shit!” after spotting the moon. Clear photos of any of this were impossible as our minibus weaved through the fog and waded through huge herds of sheep and cows that flowed unpredictably across the road like a river.
Kyrgyzstan: If you can spell it, you win the country!
“Stan” means “land of,” so the trick with each of these countries is figuring out what this one is the land of. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, “Kyrgyz” means “the forty” and refers to the forty tribes that inhabited this land before Soviet rule. Kyrgyzstan’s flag features a blazing sun with one ray for each of these tribes.
After countless nights of group dinners at tour-mandated restaurants, where everyone got the same thing, Osh was our first chance to go out to dinner wherever we wanted. Francine, Amit, Erik, Christian and I all opted for the town’s Indian restaurant, Taj Mahal. Our Kyrgyz guide spent ten minutes explaining to a cab driver where to take us and then the five of us (six, counting the driver) piled into a hilariously tiny clown car that was somehow made to only seat three people and also had the steering wheel on the wrong side. Amit spent the entire drive in a crouch, hovering above the rest of us crammed into the overly full back seat, holding the driver’s headrest, with his ass sticking out the window.
Eventually the driver let us out and we piled onto the sidewalk, eager for Indian food. The driver pulled away. Cool, okay, now let’s- Wait. Where’s the Indian restaurant?
The street was lined with restaurants, but none of us could read any of the signs. The few that had pictures of the food were all serving traditional Kyrgyz food, which is to say meat stewed in meat. We walked down the block and back. Shit.
Christian could read a little Russian and eventually he figured out that the building on the corner where we’d been dropped off was a grocery store. Called Taj Mahal.
Our Kyrgyz guide really is the worst.
We wandered around until we found some random dude who could speak English. He thought Taj Mahal might be a few blocks up this other street. On the way there Amit spotted some fellow Indians, who he ran down on the sidewalk like a raving lunatic.
Well this is a lucky break! What are the odds that we’d-
Amit came back. They were from Southern India and spoke a different language than him. Balls. But he’d got the impression from them that the restaurant was up the same street we were walking on.
After several minutes of walking, Francine looked up at the façade of a restaurant and said “I hope this isn’t it!”
Pictures of pizza and burgers lined the building. Huh. Smoke was pouring out the front door. Huh. We went in.
Inside, it was like a hookah bar before the invention of fans. Or a house fire. A smoke detector back in the kitchen blared nonstop. The waitress took us to a back room. Inside, some dude was sleeping in the booth. She rousted him and he scampered away as we sat down.
For everything we ordered, the waiter/owner paused thoughtfully before flopping his head side to side for yes, saying “Mmmm, yeah sure we can make that” like he was imagining ways to combine Froot Loops and dog food and call it Paneer Butter Chicken. This was not the most confidence inspiring thing in the world.
Was the Indian food there awesome? It was not. Was it the best meal I’d had on the trip so far, by a lot? It was. I pounded down the chow until it was gone as our Uno game raged on around the table and we argued about house rules from five different countries. Oh man, I feel like a human being again.
On the walk back to our hotel after dinner we passed the Kyrgyz Target:
And Kyrgyzstan’s bizarre facsimile of In N Out Burger, which added the crucial missing element of a hookah bar:
We stopped at a market down the street from our hotel to buy snacks for our 12-hour drive to Bishkek the next day. This was made nearly impossible by how unbelievably full we all were. I marveled at the strange, unfamiliar feeling in my stomach as I picked up each individual item in the store, looked at it in a daze, and put it back on the shelf.
That night in bed I read about the history of Osh and the massive race riots that broke out between Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs and almost turned into a civil war in 2010. Wow, that’s… not that long ago. Similar riots had occurred in 1990, leaving 1,200 dead and causing 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks to flee the country. Oh man, I’ve got to cut down on my “Yo mama so Uzbek” jokes while I’m here. Three a day, tops.
We were on the bus early and drove all the long day up through the beautiful mountains on our way to Bishkek. The peaks towered all around us, putting the “holy shit” in “scenic drive.”
Out in the countryside, beautiful small children attempted to kill Amit with a rock.
We stopped by a scenic lake where Pete felt compelled to run down and stick his toe in the water, massively underestimating the distance and leaving us waiting for him to run the hilariously long way (stopping occasionally to dry heave) back up to the bus like he was the “It’s…” guy from Monty Python.
We continued across what felt like the absolute roof of the world while our driver sat contentedly on a kitten.
A 12-hour bus ride is sure to test anyone’s coping skills, and Francine proved herself an absolute master of travel as she drank a beer while standing up on a moving bus:
I contented myself with photographing all the weird shit I found in the petrol stations and shops along the way:
Gradually the majestic mountains gave way to dusty little towns, which swelled in size until suddenly we found ourselves in Bishkek.
We dumped our bags in our funky hostel that required us to put plastic bags over our filthy feet while we were indoors and then lit out across town on those same dirty feet to find an Indian restaurant, one we hoped would be at least 20% less smoke-filled than the last.
Indeed, we hit the jackpot, as the restaurant we found was short on smoke and instead filled with a dense cloud of dancing girls and the best Indian food I’ve ever had in my life. That first part thrilled Mika and Amit and the second part thrilled my cells as they bypassed my mouth entirely and sucked in the sustenance like some kind of amoeba attack on a microscope slide.
So yes, the time-worn cliché is true, if you want the best Indian food look no further than Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
After dinner we walked the long miles back across town, through the night to-GAH IT’S THAT ZOMBIE GIRL FROM TURKMENISTAN AND HER BEAR SHE’S FOLLOWING ME.
Back in my hostel room, I turned out the lights for bed and jumped back suddenly at the sight of a woman silhouetted in my window.
I pulled back the curtain to discover it was a life-sized decal of a woman, telling everyone on the street she was really glad she was staying in our funky hostel. Dammit Kyrgyzstan, we’re going to have to have a talk about this.
The next day we were set free in the city, so Francine, Erik and I assaulted the menu at a Russian café for breakfast and then wandered into Bishkek’s charmingly shittastic Fun Fair.
I rode the Ferris Wheel (Francine and Erik declined to join me with a polite “Fuuuuuck no”) high up above the grounds, arcing over the dilapidated thrill rides and off-brand cotton candy. Below me, kids shot pellet guns at Coke cans that had already been shot far too many times, refusing to give them their overdue final rest. I took in the city stretching out in all directions and the gorgeous hazy mountains beyond, while trying not to look at the stress fractures in the metal struts holding my capsule aloft. A Ferris Wheel is generally not supposed to be a scary ride, I don’t think, but this one was a bit like the slow pan down a hallway in a horror movie, where you’re holding your breath and waiting to see what’s behind the ominous door at the end of the hall. There was a definite sense of relief when it deposited me back on the ground.
Francine and I carried on to the art museum, which was a fateful choice. Going to the museum at all, instead of, say, throwing lemons at the statue of Chingiz Aitmatov all afternoon, had come up in the same way you’d respond to someone offering you a stick of gum. “Art museum? Sure, why not?” But it ended up transforming my view of the entire country.
Inside the museum, we wandered into a gallery of strange nature scenes painted on metal. I was struck by the intense glowing colors and abstract forms, and as I looked at them, my head began to buzz intensely. Huh. An energy seemed to be reaching out from the paintings and vibrating through my entire body. As I took in the flowers and trees I became aware that the artist was painting the kinds of things I’d been seeing in higher dimensions out in nature, the nature spirits and the consciousness and energies of the natural world.
The more I stared into the paintings and opened my mind, the more I seemed to phase out of this reality and into something in-between, my sense of self shifting beyond my body and into the air all around me. And as I stood in that room I sensed a part of me was out in the woods at that same moment as well. It reminded me a bit of looking at the tile art in Uzbekistan, the forms serving as a gateway into a higher level of consciousness.
After spending time with each painting I found myself wishing I could meet the artist. Then as we were leaving the gallery, a man from South Korea stopped us and introduced himself and the woman he was with. I figured they must be tourists. It turned out she was the artist, Jo Won Young. Oh. Well okay then! Nice to meet you. I like your trippy flower shit.
I expressed my love of her paintings, but stopped short of asking her what her spiritual practice was or if she was dropping acid or what, for fear of complicating US-Korean relations. I got the impression she was tuning in to the same kinds of things I was, but might not be completely conscious of the process.
Wandering through the rest of the vast museum, I quickly found myself deeply charmed and absorbed by the local paintings. Wow. These are beautiful. The scenes of mountain expanses, of Kyrgyz people tending to their flocks as massive skies stretched out above them. At first I was struck by the beauty of the mountains in all the paintings, but over time I began to really feel for the people represented in them, the obvious love they had for each other, for the land and for their animals. And in the dramatic scenes of struggle I felt for their tininess in the face of these massive natural forces.
Walking through the museum, I found myself falling in love with Kyrgyzstan and the people there. What a beautiful place.
I remain amazed at how much this experience changed my perspective on the entire country. I’d never had that happen before, an entire trip turning on a dime in an hour like this, based on one sightseeing choice. We could have just as easily not gone to the museum, and bought silly hats at the bazaar instead, which would have resulted in a completely different trip for me. Fascinating.
Once we were ready to leave the museum, we discovered we couldn’t. The only staircase down from the second floor was the scene of some kind of massive press gathering. In spite of not speaking the language at all, we gradually figured out it was the grand opening of an exhibit of some famous 7-year-old’s paintings. This was very surreal. After the long christening was over, we waited as hundreds of people came up the stairs to see the exhibit, then we escaped behind them before any more famous child artists could show up.
Wandering through the streets we were suddenly and unexpectedly hijacked into wedding photos in Victory Park.
As we were sitting down for a late lunch in a burger joint that inexplicably had a vegan burger, my phone and Francine’s buzzed simultaneously.
“I am having dinner with a local family so I will not make it for the walking tour. Let me know if anyone is going out to PARTY tonight. – Gary.”
We looked at each other.
Wandering around town, Francine and I stumbled across a huge mosque that appeared to be a copy of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
“You want to check out the inside?”
“I don’t have a head covering, they won’t let me in. You go ahead.”
I apprehensively approached the mosque, which did indeed have “Cover your goddamned head, woman!” signs all over the front entrance. I took off my shoes and stashed them in the shoe cubbies at the entrance, then entered as quietly as possible, careful to not disturb anyone praying inside. Once inside, I took in the beautiful domed ceilings.
I originally wasn’t going to take any photos, out of respect, but there were some Muslim women inside photographing everything, so I figured it would be fine if I kept it discrete. After I finished, I quietly slipped out the front door. As I was grabbing my shoes from the cubby and heading to the curb to put them on, a man from the mosque stopped me.
“Blah blah blah blah blah?”
“Sorry, I don’t speak Kyrgyz.”
“BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH?”
Never let it be said that Americans invented “Oh you don’t speak my language? WHAT ABOUT IF I SAY IT LOUDER HOW ABOUT NOW?”
“Sorry dude, English is all I have for you.”
He pointed angrily at his stockinged feet and looked down at mine.
Yeah, I’m in my socks, just like you. I didn’t wear my shoes into the mosque. This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve attended many mosque rodeos, and believe me when I tell you that shit is crazy.
“Blah blah blah blah blah!” He stomped his foot.
He clearly didn’t want me there. Did he think I was headed inside, rather than the other way around?
“You do realize I’m leaving, right? I’m already outside of the building. You missed your chance to kick me out.”
“MUSHLIF?” he repeated, miming prayer. Oh, he’s asking if I’m a Muslim.
“Nope, just visiting.”
“AHH!” He gestured angrily for me to get the fuck out of there.
I think you may be misunderstanding the best techniques for converting the world to Islam, but I admire your passion, angry Central Asian Muslim guy. Have fun yelling at socks.
The thing I was looking forward to the most on the entire trip was getting to hike through Ala Archa National Park up in the Tian Shan mountains. Francine bailed on this almost immediately just because the entire mountain was an icy deathtrap not fit for man nor beast, but I’ve never let that kind of thing stop me from falling headfirst into a ravine, so I was up for all of it.
The overall group was planning on hiking up to the frozen waterfall three quarters of the way up the mountain and back down, but I figured if I kept a good pace I could make it past that and up to the ranger station on the very top of the mountain, so I set off ahead of the group and our far-too-laid-back hiking guide.
It became immediately apparent that I’d made a tragically misguided choice in footwear. My orange minimalist trail runners are my favorite shoes to hike in due to their close proximity to hiking barefoot and for the way they grip tenaciously to rock. They are, however, absolute hilarious bullshit on any kind of ice or snow, the kind of shoes you’d give someone as a practical joke in that kind of situation because you wanted to get footage of them falling on their head seventeen times in three minutes, so you could post a compilation on YouTube.
If I were planning a hike in these conditions and choosing from amongst my absurdly large assortment of shoes, I would have ranked the ones I was actually wearing dead last, possibly even behind my dress shoes. Ideally I would have brought crampons to wear over my boots and brought hiking poles, if not an ice axe. However, the photos of the hike we’d been given in advance were of squirrels frolicking on green grass in the sunshine, so I didn’t have any of that shit.
As I headed up the mountain, it also became clear that the trail wasn’t marked. Like, at all. Maybe when the trail isn’t covered in snow, it’s obvious where you need to go. But any indicators were long gone now. I got well up the mountain before the trail petered out into an absolute morass of treacherous ice and ledges. Yeah, this can’t be the way. I mean, it could be, but the 70-somethings in our group are all going to die if the guide takes them up this way. There must be another way up. I climbed gingerly down the mountain, eventually hearing the rest of the group somewhere on the ledges up above me. Once I got back toward the beginning of the trail I found the hidden fork everyone else must have taken and scrambled to catch up with the group.
Aside from the confusion of how I had been ahead of everyone and was now in the back of the group, this worked out fine and I was able to take in the breathtaking scenery without wondering if I was actually on the trail or what. Once we got up higher in elevation, the mountain was kind enough to even provide us with some dirt to walk on.
At one point I paused with Pete and Kinga and we watched mountain goats run across an impossibly steep cliff far above us, like a nature documentary come to life.
The trail was semi-reasonable for a while until we hit the steep climb up to the waterfall. As the slopes tilted up, the snow grew deeper and the ice more frequent. The group thinned out as people wisely turned back. Rachel had stopped at a point where the trail became unclear. Her hands were frozen so I gave her my gloves and then continued up the fork in the trail that looked the most promising.
Ice and snow, ice and snow. I had absolutely no traction on either, so I had to ascend like I was rock climbing. Picking a foothold, digging my foot in, grabbing a tree with one hand and wrenching my body upward. Stretching like a yoga pose to the next viable foothold. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It was absurdly slow going and not advisable at all, but I wasn’t going to bail on my expected highlight of the entire trip.
Climbing like this is both physically and mentally draining, and by the time I caught up with Pete and Kinga way up the mountain I was exhausted.
What’s going on? Usually I’m waiting for everyone else in a situation like this. I paused briefly and thought about the non-Indian-restaurant meals I’d eaten in the past week. White rice. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. I flashed back to our Kyrgyz guide explaining the food options at our first lunch stop. “The meat eaters can have kebabs, or paloo, or beshbarak, the vegetarians can have… Green tea?” This instantly became a running joke for the rest of the trip.
Ah right, so the body actually needs fuel to do something like this. Who knew?
P & K had tried to go further up the mountain but found it impossible as the ice was just too steep to climb. I looked up. Oh hey, there’s the frozen waterfall. A spout of ice shot anticlimactically out of the rock wall. Okay then. I guess I made it.
This is good enough. Let’s go back down.
Pete & Kinga headed down the mountain ahead of me, falling down repeatedly and bowling each other over on their way down the mountain. I looked down the mountainside. Oh man. Climbing down is going to be WAY harder than climbing up. All those footholds I used to get up here are going to be impossible to reach on the way down.
I’m going to have to sled down. I did this once climbing down a glacier in Iceland, and I lived through that, so with any luck this will end similarly.
I squatted down and sat on my heels, and instantly woooooshed down the mountain way faster than I had intended to. Ahh! I pushed my hand down into the snow like a rudder to steer myself away from the cliff ledge. Oh god cold COLD COLD. My hands stung bitterly. Oh yeah, Rachel has my gloves. I skidded to a stop and took in the next slope, imagining my path down it as I brushed the snow and ice off my hands. Okay. Go!
Wooooosh, turn, skid skid skid, stop. Oh holy shit my hands. Now they were stinging and going numb at the same time. This is no good, I’m going to have frostbite soon. I opened my coat and tucked my hands into my armpits to warm them up. Once they came back to life I started studying the next slope. How am I going to do this without putting my hands in the snow? Not possible.
I took off my hat and wrapped it around one hand, then took my baseball cap out of my bag and wrapped it around my other hand. Go! Sled sled sled sled. Sorry hats, but you’re dying for a good cause.
I worked my way down the mountain like this until I caught up with Rachel where the trail leveled out, and got my gloves back. I realized I couldn’t feel my feet any more, so I took my shoes and socks off and warmed up my toes with my hands. Yeah, this is a hilarious lack of appropriate gear. At least everyone was in the same boat.
Rachel and I hiked back down together. The scenery continued to be world-class.
The sun had melted some of the ice, which actually made things much, much worse. The wet ice was wet ice and everything that wasn’t covered in ice and snow had turned into wet mud. As we climbed down, we found ourselves enmeshed deeper and deeper into an absolute cataclysm of mud. The first few times we fell were funny, like ha ha we’re clumsy or we picked the wrong route down, etc. The next few were a bit more like “Goddamned tour company!” For all the falls after that we had accepted that falling repeatedly and tumbling down mudslides was just an integral part of the descent.
I took my coat off and tied it up around my neck to reduce how much mud I was going to have to scrub out of it later.
“If you hold onto this root and stretch your foot across the trail, you can get a grip on WAAAAH SHIT TUMBLE SLIDE CRASH.”
It was a funny dichotomy, to be moving through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen while at the same time feeling like I was competing on a Nickelodeon game show.
We found our tour leader Mika and the local guide near the bottom of the mountain, and they helped us the rest of the way down while simultaneously marveling at my shoes’ ability to grip like butter-side-down toast sliding across liquid mercury.
Back at our funky hostel I took a shower with my shoes on to try and determine what was left of them beneath the thick layer of frozen mud. After some heavy abuse with a hair dryer they were returned to fighting shape, which was a damned good thing because I didn’t have any other shoes with me. I don’t usually dispense travel advice on this blog, but yeah: Always bring another pair of shoes. You never know when a baby is going to throw up on you or when a giant Kyrgyz mountain is going to shit you out like bad curry.
It didn’t matter, I still loved Kyrgzystan. The sweet people. The dramatic mountains. The seven-year-old art divas. The brain-meltingly delicious garlic naan. The strangely European-looking city streets. Everyone in the burger restaurant staring at me like they’d never seen a tall white guy repeatedly making fart noises with the mustard dispenser before. Even though we’d fucked up hard and somehow never slept in a yurt at any point, it was still a place I’ll carry away with me.