Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Natural Way (mostly)

When I applied for this fellowship, I wrote about how I have had many opportunities in the past to travel completely solo in the wilderness, but that this would be a new challenge as solo travel within a society. Over the past two and a half months, I have striven to spend time with locals, meet people, watch people and experience the social side of Central Asia as much as I can. Other travelers that I have met have joined groups of like-minded foreigners to go on treks to the deserts or mountains or lakes and fields of the countries we have passed through, talking only amongst themselves or perhaps with a guide or homestay along the way. I've eschewed this type of travel in lieu of the social challenges: finding a hotel or bed, haggling in the market, sitting in a park until a friendly stranger (or wasted alcoholic) come to start a conversation, awkward conversations on long car rides, playing (or just being) dumb with crooked officials, and huge language barriers breached occasionally in celebrations of understanding. I figure there are plenty of mountains and deserts and lakes and fields in the US to play in and explore, but not so many Kyrgyz nomads, might as well use my time best with the locals, yeah?

So far, that philosophy of travel has worked well for me. As you've seen a bit of through this blog, I've had lots of new exciting, awkward, difficult and strange experiences since I left home. But, I realized last week that it's time for a break. Stephen, a CouchSurfing host of mine, explained it like this, "Yeah, I like to travel for the same reasons, but then travel became my life. I like to go hiking and stuff in my normal life, so I want that to be part of my life out here, too." Well played, Stephen. His words combined with a bit of travel fatigue (and fear of the 3-month-low experienced by many former Bonderman Fellows) and the beautiful mountains of Kyrgyzstan led me to embark on a short adventure into the wild this past week.

Nature has a way of centering us. No matter where we are in the world, rocks and trees and water and snow and wind will always be the same. We may find new species here and there, but cold still feels cold, sun still burns, and squirrels will still eat all of the good stuff out of your trail mix if you let them. In my time as an outdoor educator I saw it over and over: people brought to peace or revelations through interactions with nature. The wilderness is indifferent to who we are, where we're from or what language we speak, we're just another animal. We, on the other hand, are able to make the wilderness into our friend, muse or confidant (think of anyone -- or yourself -- who has baby-talked to a dog, squirrel, tiger cub, or plant). It may never reply, but we don't need it to. In the end it's a means for us to be introspective, or to just relax. Both of which I was craving after a couple of weeks in the city. Plus, I still have at least another 6 months to socialize and be awkward.

Like any good Kyrgyz adventure, it began with a burly soviet vehicle breaking down. 

The mountains
The plan was to go from Karakol, at 1800m in the eastern corner of Kyrgyzstan, up the Karakol valley, up another valley to Ala-Kol lake (3500m), over Ala-Kol pass (3900m), then down another valley to Altyn-Arashan, where hot springs and paradise would await.

Day 1: I'm out of shape. I blame the altitude.

Smiling at the outset
After hitching most of the way up the valley with the truck pictured above, I started hiking up towards Ala-Kol on my own. (Quick note about the truck: I'm pretty sure the Soviet engineering mentality with these things was, "well, why build good roads when we can just build a truck that doesn't need roads?" This thing probably could've driven up the river itself). Within a couple hours of hiking, I was tired, the scenery was beautiful, and I had come to a little climber camp that had been left empty for the off-season, so I decided to set up camp.
Cool carvings left in some stumps by past visitors

Unfortunately "leave no trace" has yet to become entrenched in Kyrgyzstan

Despite attempts to promote it (rough translation: "please don't leave your trash, thanks")
As it was mid-afternoon, I set about doing some of that relaxing and instrospecting that I was aiming to do. Then, just as I was eating my dinner of cold canned fish, the snow started to fall. Well, it actually started as hail, then snow, then a break, then more snow, then I went into hiding in my bivy. 13 hours later, I emerged refreshed, well-rested, and a bit surprised by the view about me:

Day 2: double-take, and a new friend

My morning view

Snow in the valley
Although only about 4in of snow had fallen over the night, it had nearly completely obliterated any trace of the trail. The trail was only really a little footpath to begin with, so it only took a dusting to wipe it away. As I had promised myself and loved ones back home that I wouldn't take any unnecessary risks since I was alone, I opted to head back down the mountain, along the path I knew, rather than try to head up to the lake, get lost or injured, and end up frozen somewhere in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Most of the plants were similar to what you'd find back home. Some were spikier.

Celebrating the beginning of winter
 Then, soon after I crafted the masterpiece above, I encountered my first visitor: a perky Moldovan named Oleg. Now, a quick note about Moldova: Until I met Oleg, my only understanding of his country was from "The Geography of Bliss", one of the books I brought on this trip, which describes it as, statistically, the least happy place on earth. Naturally, I was surprised when this upbeat software engineer started dumping his optimism on me in the middle of the Kyrgyz mountains and convinced me to turn around and continue with him and his gadgets (GPS, GPS Camera, Altimeter watch, etc.) to the lake and possibly beyond.

About 5hrs, 1000m, and two unnecessary river crossings later, we reached the lake and stopped for tea. Oleg was, at this point, cursing his GPS and its lack of accuracy in canyons, and I was just happy to have relatively dry feet and something warm to drink.

Tea time at the lake
We continued for another couple of hours around the lake and up to the pass, where we were confronted with beautiful views, terrible winds, and waist-deep snow. Rather than continue on to Altyn-Arashan and risk  avalanche or falling off a cliff, we decided to retreat to the lake for the night and make our way back to Karakol the next day.

Traversing around the lake

The view from the pass

Windy faces at dusk

Breakfast: boiling water, thawing boots and warming bread, all in one go.

Those weren't there before...

 Karakol: regroup and try again

After having spent two days dreaming of the hot springs of Altyn-Arashan to sooth my aching feet and legs, I was determined to get there one way or another. Soon after returning to Karakol, I met a group of Israelis and an American who were about to take a mini-bus up the valley to the springs and offered to squeeze me in:

Who needs legroom?

Altyn-Arashan valley

Hot spring by the river. Valentin built this one by hand.
In the end, I made it to the hot springs, got my fix of thin mountain air, and returned to Karakol refreshed and rejuvinated. Although I feel like I could probably spend another month here in Kyrgyzstan, my 30-day Tajik visa started today, so today I'm going to begin the journey down to Dushanbe. Hopefully there will be stories to tell about this leg, as well. Maybe more broken down vehicles, awkward Russian conversations, and more campsites like this bush in a swamp:

it was actually quite nice once I got inside the bush

Until next time!

Monday, September 17, 2012

The things they ask

As a traveler, one is invariably asked certain questions on a daily or hourly basis. Usually the first is some version of, "Where are you from?" followed generally by, "I have family/a friend/spent time/seen a movie about/never heard of your place!" and then a deluge of questions. It's been interesting to me to see locals perspectives on America and Americans through these questions, here are some of the best:

Is there no dust in America?

This one I just got recently. I was at my friend Rashid's house and his roommate, Ikram, was very curious about the states. Rashid (who lived in the states for 6 years) and I both responded with, "Yes, yes it does."
Ikram: "But then why do people wear shoes indoors?"
Rashid: "Because Americans never need to walk outside. They go into their garage, then get into their car, drive to work, sit in an office, drive home, and are already inside."
Ikram: "Aaaahhh, OK."

Ikram followed up with many other questions about clubbing ("you can't smoke inside??? How?") and money (see below), with nearly every inquiry and response ending with "Aaaahhh, OK."

On a related note, my Russian teacher told me, "I used to think that Bishkek was a very dirty city. Then I went to Philadelphia."

A dusty Kyrgyz road (hitching up to Ala-Archa with my CouchSurfing hosts)
Also, many older Kyrgyz lament the demise of the Soviet Union and wax nostalgic about how clean and well-kept the roads were and how much better off everyone was back then. The only thing they say is better now is that they have more freedom to move around and travel.

How many guns do you own?

There is a definite sense among most people whom I've met in Central Asia that America is a dangerous place. Several of the people I've met refuse to travel to America because they are afraid they could get shot without warning. The idea that someone could have a "trespassers will be shot" sign is unbelievable to most of them. I try to explain that it's not ALL that dangerous, but that yes, many, many people have guns. The next question is usually, "Why? That's so stupid and dangerous!" or "Why don't you/the government change the law?" I try to explain the culture of guns and the second amendment, but it's lost on most of the people with whom I've had this conversation. 

How much money do you make in a month?

Invariably followed with something along the lines of, "Wow! That's so much!" and then, 

How much does ____ cost?

Invariably followed with something along the lines of, "Wow! That's so much!" Except for meat. American meat is cheap, apparently.

From students:

I had the opportunity today to visit a local Kyrgyz school. I made friends with a local English teacher and she asked if I could come in today during her lessons on American Geography. The "lesson" ended up being me standing in front of the class answering questions about America (or Canada and New Zealand, for the 11th graders). Here are some of the most common:

Attentive students

What are some American traditions?

I told them all about Thanksgiving and Halloween and Mothers' and Fathers' days. The best part was explaining the meaning behind "trick or treat!"

What is different about American schools?

No uniforms. After that, there's quite a range. There are definitely some schools in the states that probably have equal or lesser access to technology and resources than this school.
Ishen and her classroom

Who are some famous presidents? Why are they famous?

This one seemed to be more of a chance to show off what they knew about the presidents. One student told me that he wasn't satisfied with my answer about why Teddy Roosevelt was famous; I said because of the start of the National Park system, he was looking for "he built the Panama Canal".

What is the biggest state? What industry is in your state?

After telling them that Alaska was the biggest state, one student told me, "I think Texas is the biggest." 

What is the weather/nature like in the US?

Yikes. Where? It's a big country.

Kyrgyz nature (Ala-Archa park, south of Bishkek)

What animals are in your country?

Bears. Lots of bears. And Moose. Side note: try explaining what a moose is to someone whose understanding of hooved animals is limited to horses, cows, goats and sheep. I'm pretty sure there are a few dozen Kyrgyz teenagers who now think there are cows with hands growing out of their heads running around the Northwoods...

Why do you like teaching Biology? It's so boring!

From what I heard from most of these students, their entire educational experience is via textbooks and memorization. A few of them know that labs and activities and demonstrations are things that Americans have access to, and described it as the greatest "problem with Kyrgyz education."

Famous biologists on the wall of the bio classroom.
There was another portrait of Darwin (bottom right) on the other wall.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How to spend a week in Bishkek

1. Leave Bishkek 

Tokmok - Animal Bazaar and old stuff

When I first came to Bishkek, I hadn't made any contact yet with any locals, so I went back to CouchSurfing and found Stephen and Maki, an American/Japanese couple who have been living in town for a couple of months. They'd been spending most of their time exploring the city and learning Russian, but hadn't seen the surrounding sights yet. They offered to let me tag along on their trip to Tokmok (60km away), and I readily agreed.
Big ass sheep (Literally. The butt is pure fat. Delicious.)

 Tokmok is known for two things: an animal bazaar and a restored old minaret in an ancient ruined town nearby. The animal bazaar was exactly what it sounds like. Animals, people selling them, and it's a little bizarre. Sheep, goats, donkeys, chickens, cows, horses and who knows what else of all shapes and sizes were up for grabs and were being traded in Kyrgyz, Russian, and frantic gestures. It turns out you can buy a decent horse for 60,000 som (~$1,250)

Eeyore says hi
The ancient town was interesting in an entirely different way. Very little of the town remains, only a long, square mound of dirt from where the walls used to be, a very new-looking renovated tower, and these gravestones:
I wonder if the carved faces are meant to look like the deceased?
I forget exactly when they had dated these stones, but it was in the thousands of years. Each one had a likeness carved into it, ranging from a face alone to an entire torso. If arms were ever depicted, they were always holding a cup of some sort. I wish I knew why.

It was interesting to then compare that cemetery to the more modern version down the street. Here, traditional kyrgyz burial mounds have been combined with traditional Russian headstones and photographs to create a distinct style:

Here the identity of the likenesses are a little more explicit
After a few hours in Tokmok, it was about time to return to Bishkek and...

2. Make some friends

Bishkek connections (plov, school, dinners, mt. Rainier, etc.)

When I was preparing for this trip in Seattle, I sent a list of all of my destinations out to my friends and asked if anyone knew anybody who lived in or was from or knew people in any of the places I was going. Approximately 80% of the responses were connections in Bishkek. Unfortunately, I didn't plan well and it took me several days to actually get in touch with any of these people. Then, I only took photos of a few of them. They were all friends of friends of friends of friends, but that was enough to justify a phone call or email and a random meeting on a streetcorner or in a bar.

My friend Evan's coworker Dawn used to work in Bishkek with Yulia, who was busy this week, but knows Madina who gave me a tour around town.

Madina works with Yulia at Quality Schools International Bishkek, an international school here in town, and they gave me a tour the next day. I sat through the afternoon with the Science teacher to see what a biology class might look like out here. It had 8 students, and that was his biggest class of the day. He has 5 preps (different subjects that he teaches in one day), but fewer than 30 students. The general attitude of the teachers there was quite relaxed and happy, despite a few gripes about Central Asian medical services and expat tax/social security issues.

My friend John went to high school with Azeem at Andover. Azeem now works in Bishkek and took me out to dinner one night and promised to find me a place to stay.

Couchsurfers Stephen and Maki knew all of the London School of Bishkek's English teachers and we went to one of their parties:
Belting the Beatles in Bishkek
My girlfriend, Anna, works with Kaitlyn, who's brother was best friends with Rashid, who grew up in Uzbekistan, went to school in Spokane, WA, lived in Seattle for a couple years, and now is studying international relations-type stuff in Bishkek. Most of what I know about Central Asian politics is from Rashid and his equally globally-minded friends.

I first just met him for drinks with a couple of friends from Turkmenistan. I met him again for drinks with two of his friends from when he worked at the UN in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, who were visiting. The next day he showed us all how to make plov:
Rashid explaining the importance of the bone marrow in plov
Multi-national dinner party, from left to right: Rashid's roommate - Turkmenistan, Val - Kyrgyzstan, Vojtech - Czech Republic, Mario - Switzerland, Rashid - Uzbekistan, Inna - Turkmenistan

plov. plov plov plov.

After dinner. Addition of Bernt - Austria (left)
Despite having all of these friends and connections, sometimes you're left alone to just...

3. Wander and observe

...and stand in line at embassies

Here is a collection of some things that I saw while wandering around Bishkek trying to sort out my Tajik, Uzbek and Kazakh visas:

Another taste of home: Mt. Rainier must be the most common "mountain" photo in the world.
Yes, I believe he does.
Changing of the guard
Restaurant plov (not as good as homemade)
Campaign season for Bishkek expats? Nope, just restaurant marketing.

You have to be careful when wandering, though, because you might...

4. Meet some "police officers"

in Osh Bazaar

No photo for this one. While walking to Osh Bazaar a man in street clothes tapped me on the shoulder, showed me a badge and asked for my passport. I had heard about fake or simply corrupt police officers doing this to make a little extra money on the side. I had also heard that they had no right to do this, so I said, "Nyet." and turned to walk away.
Then he grabbed my sleeve, pulled me back, and repeated, "Passport."
"Da. Passport."
"No, let me call my embassy." I pulled out my phone and started to push buttons
"Embassy? Passport."
"Embassy. Consulate."
"Oh! Consul! No problem! I'm sorry, no problem!"
"Yeah, whatever..."

I learned later that "embassy" in Russian is "pahsolstvah." I'll keep that in mind in the future. Fortunately

I should probably also actually figure out what the embassy's phone number is...

5. Leave Bishkek again

Vacation to Issyk-Kul

Once I finally had all of my visa applications into their respective embassies, I decided it was time to clear out of Bishkek and check out the legendary Issyk-Kul. Conveniently, the CouchSurfer I met in Osh, Roma (not the Roma I hitched north with), was coming through Bishkek and headed that way the next day. We decided to team up.

Step one was to get to Tokmok, where I saw this lovely relic of the Soviet era:
sometimes the under-street walkway drain clogs and you don't want to fix it.
and ate this delicious example of traditional cuisine from Roma's hometown of Novosibersk:
Siberian traditional dumpling soup. Mine has ketchup in it, Roma's has mayonnaise. It tastes about like it sounds.
Our ride from Tokmok was quite friendly, but the road was less so:
Paying our hitchhiking dues
But in the end, we made it to the lake and to Roma's favorite spot. Novosibersk isn't far from Kazakhstan, so he first came to this lake when he was 16. Since then he has traveled or lived near here countless times, and was a great companion to have when you want to avoid tourists in the biggest tourist attraction in the country. We got in late the first night and set up camp in his first secret spot:
drizzly camp

Roma the fire builder
 Then spent the next day exploring the surrounding area. Well, I was exploring. Roma clearly knew where everything was.

Issyk-Kul shoreline
 Including the fields of wild cannabis. He was dismayed that they had been overharvested recently. He blamed the German guy he'd last told about this spot.
Wild cannabis. Roma was quite proud of this.
Then we tried to find ice cream, but could only find stale biscuits, canned fish and fizzy milk drink at the local store.
Relaxing by a village store with locals
But the sunset was beautiful
Sunset over the cemetery
 And the next morning was spectacular
Morning on the beach
 So spectacular, in fact, that Roma decided to stay for another day (his stockpile of local hashish may have also played a role in his decision). I, on the other hand, had to get back to Bishkek, so it was back to hitching, and its accompanying adventures.

Round one: Three middle aged Kyrgyz women in a sedan. The woman in the back was clearly wasted (10am), as evidenced by the bottle of vodka in her hand and her slurred Russian. About the time she started to say "I love you", passed to bottle to the driver and tried to feed me by hand, I asked in my best Russian, "ahstanavitye pazhalstah. Zdyes. Spasibah. Da. Zdyes. Pazhalstah. Zdyes. Yekhat i vodka nyet. Ahstanavitye zdyes. Bolshoy spasibah! Ocheen priyatnah!" (rough translation of rough Russian: "stop please. here. thank you. yes. here. please. here. driving and vodka no. stop here. big thanks! very nice to meet you!")

Rounds two through four: fairly tame. Short, local rides followed by a grumpy bus driver.

Round five: young family heading to Bishkek via Tokmok. They invited me for tea
Tea with my hitchiking ride...
 which became dinner
...turned into a full meal
 and my third visit to Tokmok was complete. I finally arrived back in Bishkek around dusk, in time to check into the same guesthouse that apparently every cycle tourist in Central Asia is staying at:
biker hostel
Why am I back in Bishkek? A repeat of all of the above, plus, to...

 6. Learn Russian

Here's to another week

Classes start tomorrow. Hopefully I'll get some grammar to back up the choppy vocabulary I've pieced together.