Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Central Asian Socialite

As if in response to my last post, my travels took an immediate shift in tone from the peaceful natural setting that I described before.  Here are some of the characters I've met over the past week since I last posted:

Kyrgyz trucker duo

Dinner time in the truck

Moments after leaving the internet cafe after my last post, I met these two. They were driving the first vehicle to pass once I stuck out my thumb, and picked me up immediately. What followed was 20 hours of vodka drinking (mostly on the part of the passenger and the floor, the driver thankfully abstained), street-stand fish-eating, an invitation to stay with the passenger's sister's family, and before leaving the house, a hearty breakfast of eggs, fat, mutton, tea and, of course, vodka. Once we left the house, they introduced me to...
Breakfast table (they had downed at least a couple shots by now)

Electrical company staff

Hard at work
The truck was filled with electrical wire, ceramic insulators, meter boxes and other items needed by an electrical company. In the morning, we drove the truck over to the headquarters in Chayek to make the delivery. We then spent 2-3 hours at the headquarters waiting, unloading, waiting, drinking vodka, drinking tea, drinking vodka, drinking water, waiting, fixing my camera, taking pictures, waiting, buying more vodka, taking one more toast to friendship and good travels, and sending me on my way to another no-mans land, where I sobered up on the side of the street, then met the...

Silent trucker

Friendly, but not much of a talker
A combination of language barrier, my fatigue and this man's shyness led to several hours of silence over the bumpy road from Chayek to the highway. Once on the highway, I met the...

Apple salesmen

A tapchan
My first ride once I hit the main highway (the past 100+km had been on bumpy dirt roads). These three had a trunk full of apples and the front left panel of an Audi. They were happy to chat with me in broken Russian between stops at stores and market stands to try to sell their apples. The speed of a sedan was a relief after the truck ride, and in no time we arrived in Toktogul. Once they found out that I was planning to camp and had no hotel, the drunkest of the bunch invited me to stay with his family at his house. Once there, his wife made a delicious dinner of Shorpa (vegetable soup with big chunks of mutton on the bone) with tea and we slept on the Tapchan (a raised bed-like platform on which they normally eat or hang out). In the morning, I was awoken by a rooster crowing about 3ft from my head, followed by the family dogs barking and the man's son inviting me up the hill for a view of the city. After about an hour of awkward charades (the man had given up on trying to speak in any language, and just mimed everything to me), we had breakfast and he pointed me in the right direction of the road. Within minutes, I got a ride from the...

the view of Toktogul with the apple man's son

Beer truck man

No photo of the driver, but here's the beer!
Wary of slow trucks, I was aiming to get a ride from a car. After a long time of no luck, I saw a small-looking truck coming and decided to take the risk. Once we started moving, I found out that the truck was filled with 7tons of beer and cognac and the driver was taking every hill VERY cautiously. 10hrs later, we reached Jalalabad, about 300km away. The beer truck man told me he was going to make a delivery, then continue on to Osh, where I was hoping to meet my friends Roma and Mika, with whom I'd stayed before. Once we got to the delivery point (about 10km from the main road), he told me that his truck was staying and that I'd need to get a taxi back to Osh if I wanted to go anywhere. Grumpily, I started walking across town with my thumb out, and soon was picked up by two...

helpful Jalalabad-ers

Entrance to Jalalabad
Although they didn't speak English, they dialed up their brother, who worked with the Peace Corps volunteers in the area. Through this remote translation system, I was able to communicate to them that I needed to get back to the main road and not to the taxi stand or hotel, and that yes, I would call them all to hang out next time I come to Jalalabad. With an hour of light left, they dropped me off at the road and a few minutes later I was in the car of the...

Wedding at the entrance to Jalalabad

questionable cop

He seemed friendly enough and had his wife and baby in the back seat, but something never quite sat right with me about this guy. It may have been the aggressive driving (and possible intoxication), or that he kept showing me his badge (he wasn't in uniform) and asking about my passport, or that he asked for an exorbitant amount of money once we had arrived in Osh (after we had agreed that the ride would be bezplatna, or free). Whatever it was, I was glad to be rid of him once in town and to walk into the home of my friends, to meet the...

international CS crowd

Roma opened the door and told me, "hey! We have a bit of a crowd...." Apparently the reputation had spread that these two were extremely welcoming couchsurfing hosts and they had plenty of room, because I was the 11th guest to join the party that evening. In addition to me were an Italian/Spanish couple on bicycles who were sleeping on the porch, a Russian couple from Novo Sibersk (friends from Roma's hometown), two eccentric Italians, a Spaniard and an American (California/Capitol Hill) who had been hitchhiking together for a while trying to spread funky music around the world ("Our dream is to have the Taliban dancing to James Brown in the streets of Kabul" said Mario, one of the Italians), Another Russian from Moscow, and Roma and Mika themselves (Russian and Japanese, respectively). Once coordinating how we would all fit on the floor (one in the kitchen), we put our earplugs in and tried to ignore the Novo Sibersk-ian snoring until morning, when I set out again to hitch to the Tajik border. My first ride out of town was from a...

friendly family

Not much to say about them, other than that they gave me the helpful 20km lift to get out of the main part of town and into a more remote area where I'd have a better chance of getting a ride. I also got to practice my Russian a bit with the woman sitting in back, and realized that I'm almost conversational, although still frustratingly limited in my vocabulary. They dropped me in their little town, I walked to the edge and caught my next ride from the...

army truckers

At least I think they were from the army. The truck was green, one of them was in full uniform (although camo clothing is pretty common out here...), and they were on their way home to Gulcha after dropping whatever their load was in Osh. It was nice to get over the first pass in a lightly-loaded truck, rather than inching over it in a fully-loaded one. By the time we got to Gulcha they were asking me exactly how much money I had, why my "wife" wasn't with me in Kyrgyzstan, why I didn't have children yet, and if I wanted to down a bottle of vodka with them. I opted out, hopped out of the truck and started walking up the river to find a campsite. That's where I met the...

Gulcha fishermen

Balakh jokh
 When I saw them, I decided to test out some of my Kazakh-language-as-Kyrgyz, and asked them "Balakh Barh?" (any fish?). They told me no, offered me a swig of their beer and invited me over to join. They figured out pretty quickly I had no luck, but the youngest caught a tiny fingerling and the old man caught something slightly larger. He invited me to spend the night on his tapchan, bezplatna. The tapchan was almost over the river and I fell asleep immediately to the sound of the rushing water. I was up at dawn and onto the street for the long day to the border, kicked off by the...

My host and I in the dark

coal salesmen

waiting for... something...
First, the little truck was filled with a man, his wife and baby. The back was empty but for some coal crumbs and a shovel, and they told me they were going to pick up some more to bring back to Osh and sell. Along the way, we took a side trip to drop off the wife and baby and pick up the man's brother and his coal-hauling tools. Then we made another side trip to get a new tire. Then we made another side trip to... wait for something...? Then we stopped waiting, went back to the tire place, and waited for another truck to join us. At this point, I was worried that we'd never actually start moving and I was having flashbacks from Jalalabad, so I decided to thank the coal men, take my leave, and hail the...

Uighur trucker to Kashgar

A Chinese Uighur, and thus a non-English or Russian speaking, trucker was the first to pick me up. He wasn't much of a conversationalist, so we rode in silence, stopped to get some Shorpa at a roadside cafe (what turned out to be my only meal of the day), then continued to Sary-Tash, where he dropped me and continued on to Kashgar and China the same way I had come one month before. Once in Sary-Tash, I realized that I might be in trouble. I had about 200km to the border, it was already past noon, and any car in sight seemed to be headed for either Kashgar or Osh, the two directions that didn't help me. After about an hour of walking and plotting my multi-day trek-by-foot to the border, I finally heard a noise behind me and got picked up by a...

Kyrgyz coal trucker

A man of even fewer words than the other trucker. He communicated entirely through hand guestures, and left me in no-man's land, tens of km from any town, where a small side road led up to the coal mine he was headed to. As I watched him drive off, my mind flitted back to the potential of walking for days to the Tajik border, when a Toyota landcruiser came speeding up behind me, seemed to ignore my thumb, zoomed by, and just as I was throwing up my hands in despair, stopped abruptly and waved me over. Inside, I met the...

Two other amigos

The driver was Kyrgyz, his passenger Chinese. The most common language for the three of us: Russian. A bizarre experience, to say the least, but we managed to make do and even to declare ourselves the "Tri Droozii" (three friends). The Chinese man was headed somewhere in particular, and I gathered that he had probably hired the Kyrgyz to drive him where he was going. Again, this involved a dirt road off the main road at the edge of a tiny kishlak (small village). At this point, the wind was whipping the dust into my eyes and I was desperate to catch any ride I could. My spirits sparked up even when a motorcycle slowed down next to me and I met the...

A road sign I saw while walking. You tell me what it means...

Ambitious motorcyclist

He was offering me a ride, and I almost accepted, but then I started wondering how well he'd be able to handle the weight and wind with me and my pack on the back of his tiny motorcycle. Once he started asking for money, I let him continue on his way and waited for the...

Local boys

It's a long way to Dushanbe...
An old Lada pulled up next and I hopped in. Inside were two local Kyrgyz guys in their young 20s. Apparently they were saving gas, or had car problems, because we coasted down the hills in neutral and inched up them for the next 5km, where they reached their destination and sent me back to the road. I was excited by the prospect of a longer ride when I saw the next truck coming a few minutes later. Inside was a...

Chinese long-hauler

Another non-English/Russian speaker. Not much to say about him other than that he was very nice to give me a ride to the border and point me in the direction of the...

Kyrgyz border guards (and pet)

Clearly bored out of their minds by this low-traffic border crossing (it only opened to foreigners this summer), these guys were excited to meet me and help me out. They happily stamped my passport, tried to chat and joke with me in Russian, invited me into their office to see the little bird they had trapped inside and to feed me some bread, then found me a ride across the no-man's land to the Tajik border with the...

Cheese saleswomen

Not cheese, but you can imagine what that kind of market would look like...

In the little UAZ minivan that the border guards had hailed for me, I found a driver, a slightly crazed Tajik man, three Kyrgyz women and their haul: at least a ton or two of cottage cheese in leaky bags upon which we sat. I spent the next half hour until the Tajik side of the border avoiding the leers and girlish pokes from one of the middle-aged cheese women and trying to chat with the crazy-eyed Tajik while steering the conversation away from how much money I have, how little he has, and how everyone around here asks for money. Soon enough, we reached the other side and I met the...

Tajik border guards

Tajik flag

This was my first introduction to Tajik hospitality. The border guard was very excited to see an American passport. After completing the necessary documentation, he gave me an emphatic "Welcome to Tajikistan!" and let me go. While the cheese van driver went off to chat with/bribe the officials in the office (I've seen more bribery in the last 48hrs than the rest of my life combined, I think), the young soldier guarding the gate found me a new ride with a...
President's house in Dushanbe, apparently it cost more than the entire Tajik health dept. budget...

Tajik trucker

Another shining example of Tajik hospitality. A very gracious host, this man was happy to have me in his truck, asked me to lay down on his bed while he fixed his flat tire, boosted my Russian confidence after hours of semi-productive conversation (he has family in Moscow and all over Tajikistan; he makes about $1000/mo driving to Kashgar and back; Uighurs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Chinese are all "not good people" - maybe due to taking money from Tajikistan?; Tajik police are corrupt and always want "Dengi, dengi, dengi" (money); Tajikistan is 97% mountainous by land area; among other topics), let me sleep in the truck while he drove, bought me dinner, assured me that he would only nap for one hour, then we would get moving again (I tried to tell him, "no, really, you can sleep more than that. It's 3am. Please."), and dropped me off 20km from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan and 350km from the border.

Tajik sambusa salesman and customer

Bread at market (not the salesman, sorry)
  
Once on the ground in Tajikistan, I followed my nose to the nearest food: a sambusa stand on the road. I got two and asked where I could find a toilet, my Russian wasn't understood, so I mimed it, which was understood by the other customer, who led me there. Because the sambusas were so delicious, I returned for more and some tea, to the joy of the salesman. When I went to pay, he tossed another sambusa in the bag and sent me on my way. I had been in touch with some couchsurfers in Dushanbe, but none had committed, so I needed some internet. Once I arrived, I asked around, but everyone told me that because it's Sunday, all the internet in town is closed. Hm. Ignoring their claims, I wandered and tugged at the doors of any "internet" establishment I could, thus introducing me to the...

Internet cleaner lady

Clearly confused and slightly amused by my presence, this woman let me into the internet cafe despite it being Sunday, fiddled with the master computer and let me online. Success! Through this, I was able to get online and connect with...

Dagmara

My local CS host. She is half Ecuadorian and half Polish, working as a consultant for the UN in Human Rights here in Tajikistan. Quite energetic and incredibly welcoming, she opened her home to me and cooked a delicious multi-course meal for me and her other CS guest...

Robert

Our banana bread at Ryan's house. Robert's the ginger one looking really excited.
An Irishman riding from Hong Kong to... somewhere. He's made it this far already and is toying with the idea of maybe ending up in Ireland at the end, but he's not sure what will happen between now and then. He's spent the past two weeks here in Dushanbe waiting on his Uzbek, Turkmen and Iranian visas and is testing out CouchSurfing for the first time. He and I have been spending most of the days wandering through Dushanbe, trying to get our permits for the GBAO (eastern Tajikistan closed in July due to a flare-up of the old civil war), and making a surprisingly banana bread from questionable ingredients, even more questionable recollection of the recipe, and an oven with three settings: two lines, bottom line, or top line. This bread we brought to dinner at the house of...

Spice market

Ryan

Another CSer I had been in touch with who turned out to be friends with Dagmara. We went over to his house on the second night for dinner, another multi-course affair, this time with Adobo from his native Philippines. Ryan is a doctor with WHO, currently working for the UN. He and Dagmara gave us some insight into the gross inefficiencies, corruption, favoritism and inequality that exists within that organization. We left thoroughly depressed, with happily satisfied stomachs.

The finished product

Mohammed the Tajik/Iranian student

While admiring the gold-adorned statue of Ismaili Somoni in downtown Dushanbe, a 17-year old Tajik student came up to us and started talking to us. He said that he studies English and wants to practice by speaking to foreigners. Unlike others who fit this category, Mohammed was very conscious that his presence might not be welcome and continually asked us if it was OK that he was still with us. We were happy to have a guide and someone to pepper with questions about Tajikistan and Iran, where he has been studying most of his life. He turned out to be a wealth of knowledge and even explained to us why a shop owner had asked Robert to stop whistling "It's bad luck." or  "If people see you whistling, they think that you are crazy. Or in love."

At the Rudaki statue: Me, Robert & Mohammed

Gary the Tajik-American

Outside of the Tajik consulate, while we tried to figure out visa issues, we met Gary, a Tajik who had lived in Vancouver, WA for 17 years and was itching to return to the states. He came back here but hasn't been able to find work that pays more than "$100, $200 per month... I spend more than that on a meal!" He invited us for beers and shashlik later, where he went on a near-monologue for two hours telling us all about Tajik "bitches", the cost and quality of prostitutes in Chicago, Seattle, Vegas and Dushanbe, asking if we knew about any jobs with American companies but working in Dushanbe ("NGOs? Nah, I can't do that shit. They want me to take computer classes and shit. I tell you, I'm dumb as ROCKS! I can learn any language you want, but don't ask me to do 4 plus 4 equals minus 5 times three shit..."). He called us twice after we left the restaurant just to make sure that we didn't pay the bill again, as he had covered it. Also, he gave me his US phone number, in case any of you want a new friend in Iowa in November!

What's next?

Robert and I are going to head out to the GBAO for a week or two to see what the Pamir and Wakhan corridor are like. Hopefully our permits will be enough to let us through, but we've heard rumors that the border guards were still keeping tourists out, or the 4300m passes are snowed in. We'll see how it goes!

3 comments:

  1. Wow! I feel like I'm reading those old adventure books where you create your own journey "if you think Shawn should A:____,turn to p. 83,B:__, etc." lots of twists and turns but what a relief to have crossed the border safely! enjoy GBAO with Robert!

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  2. That street-sign photo made my night. спасибо.

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