Seeing as much as possible in 24 hours
February 21, 2006
abstract: We had to cross the Kyrgyz Republic on a rutted segment of the Silk Road to get from China to Uzbekistan. Short of material comfort, Kyrgyz, with its stark beauty, is best suited for the more adventurous visitors. Along with majestic mountains and roaring river streams, it shows the scars of neglect that followed the failure of the Communist experiment in the medieval setting of a poor Central Asian country. Traditional nomadic tents dot the landscape outside of towns, while urban life here evokes images of centuries past only barely modified by the advent of the modern age. The memory of my trip to Kyrgyzstan is vivid, however, because of the bright faces of its children and the unvarnished hospitality of those I encountered there >>> Photos
keywords: Kyrgyz Republic* Kyrgyzstan* Yurt* Sari Tash* Osh*
Beyond the barbed wire that separated us, Kyrgyzstan looked forbidding. An unshaven young man with an automatic weapon slung on his shoulders was ruffling through the pages of my passport. He said a few words to another man standing next to him. My eyes were averted to the grey brown parka the latter was wearing. There were food stains on it. I did not understand what was spoken between them. There were two more young men just behind them. They were short and stocky. They were curious about us. There were 13 of us, tourists who had come from China. Our bus had left. We could not return to China, for we had gone through the Chinese immigration checkpoint. Our luggage was on the ground. We were waiting for our Kyrgyz guide without whom we could not enter this country. Inexplicably, there was no sign of him.
We were high up in the Pamir mountains. The landscape was scraggy and barren - no trees. A dirt road led to the horizon. It bent about a mile from us. A vehicle appeared, turning the bend. We squinted to see it better. It was not the tourist van we were hoping for. As it came closer, we could make out an aging Russian truck with bald tires. It groaned under the weight of the scrap metal that was its cargo. This road was the newly opened passage to China, where the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan sold itself in dissembled pieces on those trucks.
When our guide Pasha finally arrived, he did not make any excuses for being late. He drove us to a shack two miles away which was the Kyrgyz immigration office at Irkeshtam crossing. He distributed forms which we could not read as they were in Cyrillic script, but we signed them anyway as they were required for our entry. Pasha was a cheerful type and delivered his first commentary as if it were a bonus for our tribulations: we would have lunch and dinner in the closest village which was four miles away. We were hardly prepared for this. We wanted to see as much of the scenic Kyrgyz Republic as possible in the 24 hours of our transit to Uzbekistan. "The road is closed just outside of the village until seven in the evening," Pasha said, "due to construction."
Our hostess in the village was a school teacher with gold-capped teeth and rosy cheeks. Tall, grinning, and very much in command of her house and husband, she served us freshly baked bread, cheese, tea, and a greasy mutton stew. We ate sitting on the carpeted main room of her house, leaning against stuffed pillows. The toilet was an outhouse, refused in favor of the outdoors even by the women in our group because it was too rickety and malodorous.
We followed our hostess on a muddy path to the schoolhouse that was perched on a hill. We were expected there. The classroom we were taken to was full of children sitting at their desks. They quizzed us with their gaze. Eight teachers lined up on the periphery of the classroom. The kids sang some patriotic songs. I took their pictures. They giggled. Our hostess went to the middle of the classroom and pulled a boy of about nine out of the group and posed with him. Pasha translated for her, "take a picture of me and my son." Then I called the children around me to show them their pictures on my digital camera. Groups of them posed anew, asking that I take more pictures. Eventually, the teachers intervened, and we went to a room where there was a framed portrait of the man the school was named after, a local Soviet war hero. The flag of the Kyrgyz Republic was on the wall. “The rays on our flag are for the 40 Kyrgyz tribes,” our hostess said, “We believe our nation had 40 mothers and one father who was a dog.”
Pasha now introduced a man as the school’s English teacher. He chose not to share his language skills with us -until recently he had been the biology teacher. We communicated with him through Pasha. We felt an urge to offer something for the school. The teacher said the best thing would be to send paper as they had a serious shortage.
We still had several idle hours to spend in this village. The scenery was stark and beautiful. Green slopes of the mountain rose to the clouds. There was hay on a truck. Three men bicycled on the road to nowhere. A little girl had a red bow in her hair. Four men sat leaning against a crumbling wall and smiled when we photographed them. A man accosted us. He was drunk. "Vodka," Pasha said gravely.
We left the village a few minutes before seven, when the construction would stop and traffic would be allowed. For some time we were the only vehicle on the road. Soon we saw more trucks with scrap metal heading our way. The road was in disrepair as it had not been maintained in the quarter century since the Soviets had left. We drove for hours. I tried to polish my Cyrillic, the script of the realm. I fell sleep. When I woke up I saw white on the side of the road that was winding up another mountain peak. "This is serious snow," I said, alarmed. I was corrected by those who had stayed awake, "No, it is just sand on the dirt road." The moon was out. The land was like the surface of the moon. We were stopped at several checkpoints. Pasha would run into the guard house, some inquisitive eyes would peer through the windows of our bus, Pasha would hop back on the vehicle, and we would resume the trip.
The lights of Sari Tash exaggerated its stature. It was a collection of some modest brick houses. One was our destination. We were "homestaying.” A yurt, the traditional tent of nomadic Kyrgyz was pitched in the backyard. The large interior of the yurt was furnished with carpets which had geometric designs. There were mattresses for 10 persons, ready with colorful quilts. For some of us sleeping in the yurt was the main allure of Kyrgyzstan. Others chose the rooms in the house, which had heat on that cold night. A simple electric coil sitting on two bricks laid on the floor provided this heat. We were warned not to get too close. Most city lights were turned off by midnight; the stars at 10,000 feet blinked gloriously.
In the morning, we used the wash basin as there was no bath. The yurt was rearranged for breakfast. We sat on our knees at a low table and ate hot bread and fresh eggs. We saw more yurts, in their natural setting, on the skirts of the hills, wet with morning dew, as we descended toward Osh. The open country, spread before a 21,000 feet Pamir peak, was a spectacular composition of rock landscapes, canyons, and grassland. Pasha called the peak by its old name, Peak Lenin, but said that since independence it had been renamed, curiously, Kuh-i Garmo, meaning warm mountain.
There were more people, buildings, and cars, as we approached Osh which is the second largest city in Kyrgyz. Farmers had blanketed the road with their hay so that it would be thrashed by passing vehicles. Now we saw several older model Mercedes sedans, the automobile preferred by the Kyrgyz nouveau riche, we were told. This area was the stronghold of Bayaman Erkinbayev, a 38 year old wealthy politician, and former marshal arts champion whose trainees, numbering thousands, played a major role in overthrowing the Kyrgyz president just a few months before. Roaming through Osh, they had staged their own "people’s revolution," capturing government offices, burning police stations and blocking key highways. Critics had charged that Erkinbayev’s supporters also included criminal elements. Pasha declined to elaborate further.
Despite its population of more than 400,000, Osh looked provincial. In its main square the highest structures were two story buildings. All of its important sights were in one place, in that square. There was also a café here, where guests sat cross-legged on the traditional takht (platform) with a little table on top of it. For some in our group one main attraction was the Western style toilet of the café, the only one we saw in Kyrgyz. We did not mind that its lid was missing.
Osh was established about 3000 years ago and gradually evolved into a major crossroads on the Silk Road. To me it looked as I had imagined old Central Asia. We bought bread and cucumbers from a small grocery store. We then drove through town to a dusty street that was the Kyrgyz frontier with Uzbekistan. Pasha hired a teenage boy with an old wooden cart to carry our luggage to the international border. He then got exit forms in Cyrillic from the Immigration kiosk. At a counter outside, we signed those forms as Pasha told us, and prepared to leave Kyrgyzstan >>> Photos
* From Shanghai to Kashgar: China is Seventy-Thirty
* Luster of the earth: Journey to Samarkand and Bukhara
Keyvan Tabari is an international lawyer in San Francisco. He holds a PhD and a JD, and has taught at Colby College, the University of Colorado, and the University of Tehran. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.