Sunday, August 31, 2008

Aug 30 - Kochkor to Bishkek

We awoke at 6:30, but we knew that there was plenty of time before breakfast. Last night, Kuku had informed us that breakfast would be served at 8, as in 8:00 am KgTime exactly. With no shower to take, and no TV to watch, we pulled out the large package of handwipes that Amy had bequeathed us at the end of the eclipse tour. A dozen or more wipes later, we were reasonably non-repellent. We admired the pear tree full of fruit outside our window.

We packed our bags to prepare to go. Carol stepped out of the room at 7:55, but Mike made the mistake of still being inside at 8:02 and Kuku came to fetch him.

Breakfast was served outside, in a yurt erected in the courtyard. A group of 4 Singapore residents in their 20s had also spent the night. With their perfect English and lively conversation, they made excellent breakfast companions. They took photos of everybody and everything at breakfast, so that we know that we are not alone in wanting documentation of our meals. Kuku presided over the table, adding her few words of Russian, and pouring tea whenever a cup sat empty. Here, and at Song Kul, the tea is made in two pots. One consists of highly concentrated steeping tea, with an ingenious external strainer, attached to the end of the spout. The larger vessel contained hot water. 1 part tea to 3 parts hot water, for a perfect cup.

The breakfast was simple. Nan bread, fried eggs (the deep orange yellow of the yolks was proof that these were free range organic eggs produced on this street), and an array of chunky fruit preserves and honey. We contributed our remaining bread from our yurt lunch, which was sampled and appreciated by all.

At 9:15, we had our backpacks on and were walking to the center of town, where the buses and taxis assemble to go to Bishkek. Because of the difficulty of sharing Kuku's outhouse with the additional guests, by the time we got the center of town, we both desperately needed a bathroom. We were immediately surrounded by drivers who needed and wanted our business. Mike said in his best Russian: Toilet, afterwards Bishkek.

By the time Mike reemerged, a local Kyrgyz woman had spoken to Carol in French saying that the two of us would complete an already assembled taxi headed to Bishkek, and that the price was 500 sum, directly to our destination, for the two of us. We struck and loaded our belongings in the trunk. It was 10 am.

We had made a fortuitous choice. The vehicle was spacious (Volkswagon Passat GL, a common car in Kyrgyzstan) and the company was excellent. Carol could communicate in French with the Kyrgyz woman and the Belgian man, who was the fourth passenger. He turned out to be an employee of Ernst Young, who had traveled extensively around the world. He had just completed a two week horse trek in the mountains with a French group.

As we were leaving town, the driver pulled up to the gas station, and purchased 325 sum worth of benzin (diesel). Since he had been paid 1000 sum for the trip, we now have Froman's Fourth Rule of Travel. If the driver, on setting out, takes one third of the money he has been paid, and buys petrol, you have paid a fair price for the trip. In this case, one-third for the gas, one-third for the car, and one-third for the driver. Thus the driver would earn approximately $9 for this 3 hour trip. This is likely the only trip he would make that day, although if lucky he could assemble a return carload.

A little further outside town there were rows and rows of cemeteries along the roadside. Since they did not seem at all ancient, it is possible that mountain people from miles and miles around are buried in the valley. In this part of Kyrgyzstan, hammered sheet metal is used for the domes of mosques and the crescent toppings atop grave memorials, so everything glistened in the sunshine.

There was much interesting conversation during this taxi drive. The Kyrgyz conversation and the driver had a lively conversation about Kyrgyz politics and religion, some of which was translated into French. It seems that the driver had accepted the strictures of Ramadan (which was to begin Sep 1) four days early and planned to continue the fast for two weeks after the traditional ending. We discussed European politics with the Belgian passenger, who was amazed that we had any knowledge of the topic: he repeatedly exclaimed "You're not like other Americans." When we got to the question of how long Belgium would remain a single country, he got defensive and the conversation turned elsewhere.

At 1 pm we were only 30-40 km from Bishkek. In the middle of a busy area, our driver pulled off the road and stopped, because of a concern with his car. It was never quite clear what was wrong, although we suspect the car had overheated. (Old cars driven hard like his sometimes do that.) Anyway, after about a half hour, his concerns evaporated and we drove into town. As the driver had promised, we were dropped at our destination, Radison Guesthouse, a little after 1:30 pm. We had agreed on $50 a night. However, the room was small, and most of the other rooms were being rented for $35 (it appeared from a sneak peek at the rental sheet). So after some haggling, and being presented with a crisp clean $50 bill and two crisp clean $20 bills, the proprietor agreed to $40 for the second night. As they say, Money Talks, and B.... Walks.

In Bishkek we settled in, took the shower we had lacked for 2 days, and called Derek, our friend whom we had met in Bukhara. He agreed to meet us at 3 at the guesthouse. We discovered that our television clicker could go up to 100 channels, so we explored the possibilities, both Russian and Kyrgyz. Full disclosure: 100 channels, most of which are blue screens, and many of which are duplicates, amounts to about 5 - 7 channels. But still it was fun to exercise our long disused clicker fingers.

We left together, and walked around town. We went to a restaurant with a reputation for good central asian food. We looked for a topchan table, then just a table outside, and finally settled for seats inside, where we ordered a meal. Derek did the translating, pointing out a first page with all the additional charges - for bringing outside drinks, for bringing outside fruits, for smoking, and for occupying a topchan for more than one hour. However, service was so slow that it was hard to imagine anyone completing a meal and getting their bill in less than one hour.

After the meal, we sampled the outdoor fare. This time of year, vendors are selling summer grain and dairy drinks. For 6 sum (17 cents) we bought a small cup of shoro, a fermented millet beverage that tasted somewhat like, but not exactly like, pickle juice. Mike took a small sip, Carol took a smaller sip, and Derek finished it off. It has become his favorite hot weather beverage. They also had tan, a sharp yogurt drink which Carol found appealing. Alas, we missed out on kumus, the mare's milk drink that is a specialty of the Kyrgyz highlands.

Derek showed us all of the big name sights in Bishkek. It was now after 5 pm, and time for the State Historical Museum, which closes at 6. The ticket booth was already deserted and we walked right in. There are three floors of adoration for Mother Russia, especially Lenin's Communist Soviet Union. Statues of Lenin abound, with Lenin leading the proletariat on to a new dawn, etc. In every other country of the former Soviet Union (we believe) these statues have been torn down, but not here. On the top floor is the famous mural of Reagan riding a missile of death, (a la Dr. Strangelove), accompanied by the enemies of the state - the Church, the Russian royal family, "biznitzmen" old and new. A series of historical vignettes tracing Kyrgyzstan from pre-hominid times strongly suggests that religion is a folly remaining from ancient days. Hey, and there were also some nice felt rugs.

Such a museum exists nowhere else in the former Soviet Union, except maybe Byelorussia and Moldova (which we haven't visited). Derek explained that it costs money to take down and replace the symbols of the former U. S. S. R. Kazakhstan has plenty of oil, and plenty of money, and has done so. Uzbekistan has a little oil, a little money, and has devoted much of it to the new Uzbek mythos - introducing Uzbek as a replacement for Russian, and introducing Amir Timur as the great historical hero, etc. Lenin is basically gone from Uzbekistan.

On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan is poor, the West Virginia of the CIS. The city of Bishkek is green, filled with parks and young people. But the bus system of Bishkek is deteriorating. Whatever sewer system and garbage pickup formerly existed is deteriorating. Bishkek is, by reputation, dangerous at night. Nearly every window on the first two stories of apartment buildings has burglar bars.

Throughout the country, there are hardly any roads in top notch condition, and some, like Jalalabad to Naryn, or Osh to the Irkeshtam Pass, barely driveable. There is no money to de-Russify the country, and it remains the most Russian of all the former Soviet states. A couple of towering monuments to Soviet-Kyrgyz friendship dominating the downtown is the least of their problems.

We went into the Beta store, a downtown mainstay, where we found lots of Western exotic foods, like olive oil and peanut butter ($8 per pound). This is the premier ex-pat meeting place in town, and we hooked up with a university student from North Carolina, in Bishkek to study the role of government and religion in Kyrgyz society. We bought and tried some caviar flavored and shashlik flavored potato chips (nobygdil).

Derek left us at the internet about 7 pm. About 8:30 we went back to the hotel, watched some TV and went to bed.

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