Russian Spies in Kyrgyzstan

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Asia » Kyrgyzstan
July 15th 2015
Published: November 21st 2015
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I. Tourist

Try everything once – or twice, try mushrooms, try to share a Happy Shake too quickly. Tell your friend you feel something inhuman mushrooming in your diaphragm, where your middle chakra - life force, and erstwhile bright yellow ball of energy is turning charcoal black. Watch your friend’s face contort concernedly and reflect your own confused state, a ‘!?’ speech bubble on a shimmering seashore of swaying palms, and bronzed sunbathers captive in paradise. Your friend watches as your eyes roll back and your body jerks for five long seconds. Your body and spirit wrestle until you are pinned to a new plane of consciousness. And the rest of the day, for hours, your friend and you laugh and behold the world with childhood wonder. A butterfly couple flitters thither like Sesame Street puppets. The evening palms catch in their branches the muezzin’s call to prayer.

To distant parts of the world, travel is coated in the unknown with tiny invisible germs. Tourist, armed with guidebook, a week’s worth of underwear, and a to do list, falls prey, either to tap water, deli meats, a long hot summer day or to desert winds carrying God knows what. The to do list is shelved and Tourist succumbs to exhaustion, sacked by the second endless day of an impetuous diarrhea impervious to prescription, OTC and home made remedies. There’s no time to visit Burana Tower, to climb the north shore of Issyk Kol, to read a book in quiet Tamchi, or to lose oneself among chic bathers in Cholpon Ata. Tourist frets over the to do list. Wakes to swallow pills, to chew two carbon capsules, to drink hydration solution, to take pain relief tablets, and in the morning in a half woken haze, a motherly tender voiced Russian pension owner announces breakfast.

A dining room. A half-dozen or so tourists. In the far corner, three quiet and middle aged women from Taiwan, two reading guidebooks, one in a Tilly hat, another in a floppy baseball cap, and the third taking awkward cell phone pics of the garden. At the next table, a gay couple of 50-something German cyclists, one who loves physically strenuous adventure, and the other who has been dragged along for the first time; and the earliest of a van load of Russians. In rectangular panes of thick and wobbly glass, a morning’s sunlight is waking in a backyard garden in full bloom. Brown wood floors and six wood tables float in a collision of sunlight and dewdrops. Showered beads of water on a man’s muscular silhouette catch the yellow glow of Asiatic lilies. They slip down his perfect body, across his hairy chest and out of view.

He’s from Israel. Up the steps you pass him, catch his eye, fetch your shoes and pass him once more. He stops you. He likes your hiking shoes. He’s a trekking guide and he likes your shoes. He takes a picture of them. He adjusts his short shorts. His skin is the colour of the dining room’s wood floor. He asks you things. He is thrilled to meet a Canadian. He assumes all Canadians support Harper's blind support for Israel's illegal occupation and suppression of Palestine. You laugh nervously and change the topic. Trekking. Your eyes undress the rest of him. Then after a long day’s adventure, that evening in another town, driving a van load of tourists, he stops at the corner, honks and waves with a big smile. Who’s that guy with the dreads? He’s left before you recognize him.

Tamga stands behind sand cliffs that cut Issyk Kol and the lake road from view, and turn attention to the wind blown snow capped Tian Shan. The range embraces foothill perched neighbourhoods of gingerbread homes. At their foot, winds the highway like a bead necklace around the lake stringing together quiet stretches of red sun drenched earth, little towns, warm beaches and abandoned projects of the Soviet era. The ‘to do’ list beckons, taunts, until the tourist learns to let go. Beyond rolling hills studded with Muslim and Russian orthodox graveyards, a valley climbs inviting slopes of pine forest. But they are going nowhere and wait patiently while the tourist transforms, awakens one day a traveler, alive to the moment, unfettered by itinerary.

Traveler eyes his surroundings carefully extracting the familiar admiring how the unfamiliar inhabits the in-between spaces. Sky above, ground below, air fresher, occasional impressive scent of meats cooked differently. The earth trips underfoot, walking new roads, potholes, and uneven curbs the locals hardly notice. The mountains’ contours, unstudied peaks and passes, loom south of Bishkek. Two arms two legs walk cycle drive animate the city streets. Ginger, blond, brunette, black, Russians, Kyrgyz, artificial electric red, platinum, silver, plum, a fusion of elsewhere familiar. Neither east nor west, faces unlike the visitor has seen before, or perhaps once in a documentary, or was it a player in the NHL whose name’s forgotten. Interactions are brief, stunted, awkward, necessitated for asking direction, to alight the right Mashrutka, to select a dish from the deli counter, bottled water without bubbles. The visitor smiles, points, nods, and intones affirmatively, interrogatively, intentionally. How the familiar is infused with the unfamiliar guides the visitor’s attention. How the fences for miles and miles are studded with lozenges, how the window shutters are carved or painted with floral flourishes. The frayed shouldered roads roll away beneath brawny Russian vehicles, remnants of a realm once hidden behind an iron curtain. Yurts, fragments of a nomadic culture, adapted to lure visitors with Silk Road romance, squatting along the lakeshore and huddling in jailoos. Their stovepipes puff a slightly sickly scent of sour milk and goat meat.

In the passenger seat, straddling a horse, bundled under a thick duvet, perched at a curb side café, navigating the market stalls, cycling the road out of town, climbing a narrow mountain path, losing his way in Old Town, Visitor’s gaze encompasses all before him, fore, middle and background, in each direction, searching for, though seldom finding the right word to describe the unfamiliar. Every twenty metres gain in altitude, at every next bend, new and strange geographies appear. Dr. Seuss shaped flora supercede Visitor’s expectations. Climbing ever further, distant villages of mud brick homes cluster like ant colonies along dirt tracks scratched along the base of lush mountainsides sketched with boulders and squiggly dried creek beds. Wide-eyed camels, shaggy yaks, playful horses, noisy goats, and skittish sheep, and marmots that whistle like birds, return the visitor’s gaze. Awe inspiring to uncover what lies at the heart of the tourist’s to do list, to lose himself in the magic of the unknown.

A deep, almost eerie silence surrounds the yurt. The night is swallowed in soundless winds blowing from all directions. Sharing a spliff with the guide, the stiff joints earned horseback riding lose their edge. We huddle in the vacuous dark within earshot of our host's yurt where extended family members have gathered. Like a circus act they tumbled out of a two door Yugo, three rotund women, two broad men and four excited children, now singing against the cold and silence. With a shared vocabulary of few words the guide, well humoured, happy to share his high with a western visitor, explains that spliffs are called Ru’skies, meaning Russian spies. Bundled in his parka he looks the part. Two new friends stoned on the jailoo, like KGB.

II. Traveller

Along the road from Bishkek to Karakol, curving swerving determined drivers outpace a forest green passenger train trundling through a red stone canyon. Issyk Kol, the second largest alpine lake shimmers, a blue ribbon stretched across the horizon, filling in the view, disappearing, reappearing behind poplars and dew soaked fields. The Ala-Too and Tian Shan ranges like protective older brothers hide the lake from Kazakh and Chinese claims. Families bathe along the shore where rocks the sun bleached gold of their skin permit careful entry. Shops blazoned with inflatables strung along the roadside excite holiday goers.

The road to Song Kol, a dirt track veers off the paved highway to Naryn, dust plumes, tiny grains filter inside the 4x4 and lodge in the back of throats. A village of flat roof one floor beige bricked houses straddle the road. Slanting tin roofs like fish scales where new money has trickled into the village. The quiet street is filled with the playful clamor of young boys. Old men in black and white felt kolpoks greet each other. Beyond, the mountain sides grow taller, their wise, long lived countenance contemplate the passing whisps of cloud, the grazing herds, the meandering creeks. Hairpins warp the road higher around the slopes sprouting strange prickly white and purple plants. A team of white haired westerners in black spandex descends on rented mountain bikes. Over the pass Song Kol lies circled by cloud-tickled peaks. The dirt track rolls on, past herds of yak, horses grazing, galloping, sheep with bushy rumps, bleating, munching, trundling. Yurts line the shore and congregate near the lagoon. From here the road is taken on horseback for two glorious days impressing themselves with welts on the visitor’s buttocks.

The road to Arslanbob leads east of the capital through slow going towns. There are no lanes, merely a suggestion of cruising and passing. Though side view and rearview mirrors pose as decorations, few drivers bother to blow their horns, and then only out of caution. Watermelons for sale stacked in pyramids next to reposing farmers mark the warmer climes of Kyrgyzstan, while in the jailoos, khumus, white balls of sundried mare’s milk, offer refreshment. The ten hour drive climbs a pair of passes over three thousand metres high, glides through a wide valley of pastureland before descending, winding narrow valleys, where chaikhanas lie in the shade along a tumbling river. South, the land sheds its lush green hillsides. Red rock faces and grey asphalt cook away the early afternoon. The road skirts and teases the Uzbek border where the Fergana Valley lies shrouded in a thick haze. Catching a taxi the last leg, an old bearded man in a skullcap, his radio blaring techno, lifts me to the village of Arslanbob at the foot of the Babash-Ata Mountains. The scent of walnut groves lingers, the villages shaded under poplar trees welcome home the workday’s end.

Soviet facades, ethnographic museums, well-travelled westerners, momentary diversions are quickly lost in the vast, unending, seemingly unspoilt landscape. Arslanbob, a window to earlier simpler times, tumbles over a verdant hillock. Little Toyota trucks packed with local tourists tread a maze of unruly and jumbled lanes, to let out at a fair, the end of the village. Young couples, wide eyed children, middle aged men in polyester suits, and elderly women in headscarves file past a couple dozen tables piled with plastic toys, prayer beads, tea mixes, fruit leather, hand made caps, soft serve ice creams and cool drinks. The narrow dirt shelf leads out of the village into the walnut groves, past a waterfall spilling several stories to a refreshing pool where families laugh and pose for pics. The visitor weaves among the file of floral and geometric robes, like schools of fish; and dodges the wee toes of excited children. He’s wandered countless markets, ridden innumerable roads, gazed upon myriad vistas. His attention dulls when the scene is less than superlative.

The traveller is only a passing thought.

Additional photos below
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23rd November 2015

Brilliant blog
Loved every word. So beautifully written but yet so wtf it is what it is. I really enjoyed your blog thanks.
26th November 2015
Ala Kol (3800m), Tian Shan

What'd you call it?
Great blog that made me wonder, then surmise, then kinda imagine I was in a yurt, a tumble down truck bumping and bobbing along the road then a horse surveying the wide beyond. Then the photos took me there.

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