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Published: August 8th 2010
What had for the week I had stayed with herders in the mountains been only a small, distant stain on the vast green floor of the Suusamyr Basin gradually grew into the concrete and mud-brick Suusamyr village as the ride I had hitched bounced slowly towards it over a road that would have blown away in a strong wind.
"If you want," he told me as we crawled down the settlement's gravelly main street, "my son and his friends are going fishing soon at Karakol. The turn-off's about fifteen kilometres down the road you're taking, so they can give you a lift that far."
"That'd be great, thank you," I answered.
"So you live in Moscow, eh? And what about your parents, where do they live?"
"And what do they do?"
"They're writers. My dad writes text books and my mum writes dictionaries."
"Ah! Literate people! Great! I myself used to be a history teacher in Bishkek, then I did another job for a while, then I retired. I once went on a 15-day business trip to Siberia. Yes, I was a teacher then I did another job. Are you married?"
"And how old are you?"
"Twenty six." He looked at me suspiciously.
"I suggest you find yourself a Kyrgyz wife then," he said after a few moments' thought. "Ah, here's mine," he added as we pulled up next to a small concrete house next to which a bulky women in colourful traditional clothing and a headscarf was standing.
He introduced me to his wife and showed me around his home. He was clearly vastly better-off than the majority of people in Suusamyr: his home was made up of several concrete buildings with corrugated iron roofs, one of which was a banya. In the garden stood a much larger than average yurt made of bright white synthetic material rather than the usual sheep skin and next to it two of his sons were building yet another additional building for this mini-complex.
We sat on the floor in one of the buildings on opposite sides of a table about six inches high and drank kymys, fermented horse milk.
"We've got guests coming in four days' time," he told me, "so we're extremely busy at the moment. "They're new in-laws that we don't know yet."
"You don't know your in-laws?" I asked, confused.
"Well we've met them of course - the wedding was quite recent - but we still need to invite them over as guests. Anyway, why don't you relax in the yurt while my son gets ready?"
He went off somewhere and his wife ushered me into the yurt and placed five or six large cushions on the grassy floor for me as a bed.
"Are you married, by the way?" she enquired.
"No," I told her.
"How old are you?" she asked with a puzzled frown.
"26," I replied.
"You need to get yourself a wife. I've got a daughter who works as a doctor..."
After a half-hour lie-down in the yurt the son was ready and we drove off. He picked up a friend who jumped into the back seat smoking a joint. They took me to their turn-off where I got out and continued walking. I had only been going for five minutes when a tiny car, possibly the Soviet version of a Mini Metro, came rumbling and bouncing down the track towards me. He
stopped when I held my arm out.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Kyzyl Oi," I replied. "Can I come with you?"
"I'm only going as far as Kojumkul to fill these up with kymys," he said, waving his hand at a pile of large plastic containers overflowing from the boot onto the back seats, "but you can come with me that far if you want."
"You see that stone there?" he asked me as we drove through Kojumkul. "It weighs 700kg. The giant Kojumkul who was 2.3m tall and after whom the village was named picked it up and put it there."
He took me to the far side of the settlement and let me out. This time I walked for around fifteen minutes before I heard the growl of another engine. I turned round to see a lorry approaching and held out my arm.
"Sure, come on in!" the man in the passenger seat shouted, giving a high-pitched cackle as he moved over and positioned himself uncomfortably between the two seats so that I could sit in the passenger one.
We drove into the entrance to a tall, narrow canyon whose walls were formed by near-sheer, rocky, almost vegetation-free mountains. The track narrowed so that almost everywhere it would have been impossible for two vehicles to pass. On the right-hand side the mountain wall rose abruptly upwards while on the left, perhaps twenty metres below, the white waters of a large river crashed and frothed alarmingly.
The relationship between the two men in the lorry was a funny one. The chubby, bearded, late-thirties guy to my left would not stop cracking jokes, the humour behind which was lost on me. The man to his right was older, probably in his early fifties, skinny and bald. At every joke the other made he collapsed into laughter and raised his canine, gold-toothed face adoringly to the chubby, bearded man who was sitting slightly higher and just behind him.
"Are you both Kyrgyz?" I asked, having noticed that they spoke in Russian to one another.
"I'm Kyrgyz but he's Belarussian," the chubby, bearded man replied. "Can't you tell?"
"I can now that you mention it but I wouldn't have noticed otherwise," I said.
"Hah, you'll look like a Kyrgyz too if you sit around in these mountains as long as he has." The Belarussian driver entered a state of worshipful ecstasy, beaming at his hero, eyes fully averted from the one-lane, twisting and turning dirt track hacked into the side of a mountain.
"Were you born here or in Belarus?" I asked him.
The smile disappeared from his face so utterly that for a minute I thought I might have imagined it ever having existed.
"What did he say?" he asked his master, suspiciously.
"He asked where you were born. He was born in Brest in Belarus but his family moved here when he was a child. You know, people used to move all over the place during the USSR. Hey, are you married?"
"You should try a Kyrgyz girl. Find one in one of these villages and give her some vodka, then you'll have no trouble!"
The driver entered such a state of ecstatic hilarity, head turned round almost 180 degrees and gazing into the eyes of his beloved, that I was afraid he might actually orgasm and drive the vehicle off the road.
"So what do you guys do?" I asked.
"I'm a geologist and he's a driver," the trouser-wearing member of the pair replied. "We've been working together for six months. We're going to a mine near Song Kul. Yourself? You're probably a spy, I guess!"
"No, actually I'm an English teacher in Moscow. This is just a holiday."
"Ah. And what do you think of Kyrgyzstan? Where have you been?"
"I like it. So far I've only been to Suusamyr but it was great, really beautiful, really interesting and great people."
"Yeah, great people but they drink vodka every day. All the herders everywhere in Kyrgyzstan do."
"Actually," I told him, "the ones I stayed with don't drink every day. Every few days maybe."
"Hah, normally they drink every day. The Revolution's fucked the country so much now that they can only drink every few days though!"
I stole a fascinated glance at the driver to see that he was actually dribbling as he fought back tears, turned around and said something to his captain that became incomprehensible as it dissolved into loving, blissful laughter.
I got off at Kyzyl Oi somewhat relieved to have escaped from the weird pair. Looking around me, there was no doubt about it: this place outdid even Suusamyr in terms of jaw-dropping, mountainous natural beauty on a gargantuan scale. The main street ran perhaps thirty metres above the river that I had followed since Kojumkul and above its waters on the other side a contorted, rippling wall of multi-hued rock shot up into the clouds far above this tiny place on whose dusty streets horses by far outnumbered cars.
At a tiny shop that stocked little other than vodka, beer and soft drinks I asked where the nearest jailoos were. The lady came out, walked down the street with me and asked three other people for directions just to make sure we got the location exactly right. It turned out the jailoos were around three or four hours out of town, just enough for me to get there before nightfall.
For forty minutes I followed the course of the river before turning off to the right along a track that climbed up into the rocky vastness that rose above the village. The only dwelling I passed was a lonely, apparently empty farmstead, shortly after which the road forked. I had no idea which fork to take so I stoped walking. I could not go on and risk being alone in the mountains at sunset; on the other hand retracing my steps, for whatever reason, is one of the few things in life that I truly hate, particularly if I have not found what I want or gone where I was trying to. For a while, unsure of what to do, I dawdled, I faffed, I minced and I procrastinated. I knew I could not go on but still I ruminated, postulated and prevaricated for half an hour or so until the entire matter became completely obfuscated in my mind.
Eventually reason won out and I traipsed lamely back down the mountain. A man was now outside the farmstead cutting grass with a scythe and he called me over and asked where I was going.
"I'm trying to find the jailoos," I told him.
"Oh, those guys are further that way, another three or four hours," he told me. "Take the right fork in the track."
One problem was solved but another had sprung up to take its place: three more hours was now not enough to reach the jailoos before dark. I had no choice but to head back to Kyzyl Oi, where the woman shopkeeper was kind enough to let me stay at her house, even giving me dinner and breakfast. I did not want to retrace my steps up the mountain the next day so I decided I would move on towards Jumgal instead.
The next morning I walked out of the village by the same road I had taken the day before while looking for the jailoos. Fairly quickly a car came and took me half an hour onwards to the village of Aral. From there I walked another thirty minutes before the next car appeared.
"Where are you going?" he asked me after screeching to a halt and leaving me coughing in the dust cloud he had kicked up.
"Jumgal," I replied. "Can I come with you?"
"Sure, but I'm only going as far as Chayek. Get in. Where have you come from, anyway?"
"I spent last night in Kyzyl Oi," I answered.
"Why Kyzyl Oi? Why Jumgal? I'm from Ming Kush, it's ten times more beautiful!" If he wasn't drunk then he was just naturaly boisterous to an unusual extent, expelling every word with ten times more decibels than ordinary people.
"Why are you drinking that fizzy shit?" he yelled, pointing at my bottle of water. "River water round here is ten times better! Fizzy shit!"
Forty minutes later we arrived in Chayek.
"It's a tiny little place really," he challenged me loudly. "Ming Kush is ten times bigger. I'm the mayor there by the way, like Lushkov in Moscow you know, that's me in Ming Kush. Good guy, that Lushkov."
"Nice to meet you," I said as I climbed out.
"You too," he replied. "By the way, are you married?"
"How old are you?"
"What the f**k's wrong with you? You need a wife. Find a Kyrgyz one, they make the best housewives, do everything they should do. Goodbye."
I walked on out of Chayek and fairly quickly stopped a car going to Jumgal.
"Are you married?" the driver asked me almost immediately.
"No," I replied, wearily.
"Can I suggest something then? Probably no one's mentioned this to you before, but..."
I settled back and resigned myself to the inevitable.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Kyrgyzstan
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