July 18. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
We’re going to Kyrgyzstan today! We head to Sairan bus station early in the morning, buy our ticket to Bishkek for about 1300 Tenge and find our marshutka. A crowd of people, all locals, is already waiting on the platform, and since we know the marshutka’s gonna leave whenever all its seats are filled, we prepare ourselves for a fight to earn our spot.
So Marta and I are gonna put the bags in the back while Gian and Ale will find some seats. There’s a lot of pushing from all sides but, mission accomplished! We are on board. In about 5 hours we’ll reach our destination.
The lady in front of me keeps closing the window, god knows why, it’s terribly hot, and I keep trying to push it down. It’s seriously hard to breathe in here. We finally get to the border and it looks like we’ll have to pass through the customs control on foot, while our marshutka will wait for us on the other side. Well, “wait”, we’ve been told that if some of the passengers take too long to go through customs, marshutkas usually leave without them.
So we grab our bags and arm ourselves with determination, leaving behind any queueing manners. It’s not like anybody seems to respect them anyways over here. A chaotic mass of people is already trying to get through, officers struggling to restrain them and maintain some kind of order. Luckily, one of them sees that we’re foreigners and lets me and Marta through, Gian and Ale right behind us.
We get to the Kazakh immigration booths and get our stamps, then proceed on to the border river bridge and reach a smaller Kyrgyz immigration building. We have to knock on the window to get the attention of the officer, who grabs our passports and disappears for a few minutes. Once he’s back he hands us our stamped passport, without even getting a real look at our faces.
We walk toward our marshutka and flocks of taxi drivers are calling out from every side. A Kyrgyz girl almost has me fall on my face as she pushes me to surpass me. We decide to exchange money right away, so we find a currency exchange booth. There’s a woman changing her money at the counter, and we wait inside the little cabin to get some shade from the burning sun. As we do that she turns and barks at us in Russian: “don’t you see it’s my turn?” – I calmly reply that we’re just trying to get some shadow and did not intend to take her spot. But apparently that only makes her angrier, and she starts yelling something like: “You foreigners! You think you can do what you want? You’re in my country? Okay? My country!”. Jeez, “okay, calm down it’s okay” – I go, and oh boy, had I never said that, she turns to Gian, pushes him, then yells: “You pushed me! You touched me! Don’t touch me! I’m calling the police!”.
What the hell just happened? Fortunately, the lady at the counter gives her her money just in time, she grabs it and leaves, flames and smoke coming out of her hair.
Well, that was a warm welcome. Damn, these people seem angry!
Whatever, we get over it and hop back on our marshutka, which in about an hour gets us to Bishkek bus station. We grab a taxi from there and head directly to our hotel. Yeah, hotel, cause apparently there are no hostels in Bishkek, we weren’t able to find any anyways.
As we drive, we look out the window and are a little taken aback. This doesn’t look like a city, not even a Soviet one. It’s really more like a village stuck 50 years ago or something. Our hotel is located in some isolated street surrounded by trees and we’re lucky our driver knows how to find it.
As we walk in, we are greeted by a 15-year old boy who introduces himself as the hotel manager and shows us to our room. Wow, private bathroom. We’re not used to this sort of perks any more.
We really wanna go to Osh Bazaar today, so we ask him for directions, but he looks at us and replies: “Are you sure you wanna go there? It’s quite dangerous, especially for foreigners”. We tell him we really want to see it so he reluctantly tells us how to get there, along with a list of recommendations: “1) Beware of pickpockets, they are really aggressive in the bazaar”; 2) Do not show your passport to the police if they ask you to. You know it often happens that they ask this to foreigners and then tell them they have to check something at the police station, instead take you to some isolated street and rob you of everything, passport included. It’s just police is corrupted here. Also, if something like this happens, just pretend you are calling your embassy and that usually scares them off”.
Jeez, is that all? Kinda getting nervous now.
We thank him for the tips and his father even offers to drive us to the bazaar. The place is gigantic. Really you can literally find all sorts of stuff. Food, clothes, general appliances, phones, really think of whatever and you’ll find it there. It also looks like a labyrinth so it’s really easy to get lost. We stick together and walk through the food section first. We stop to buy some fresh juice and a cart full of dead goat heads stops in the middle of the street. People start approaching it and bargaining with the seller, picking up skulls and choosing whichever they like the most. What! I wish my eyes could unsee this but they can’t. One thing about Central Asians is that they eat literally every part of the animals they kill, skulls included.
We buy some clothes and souvenirs and then go on and visit the city. It’s a really ugly city. I mean, really ugly. And sad. Most buildings look like they’re gonna collapse any minute and the rest is just grey, soviet blocks.
Even the main square is sad, a whole army of pigeons sitting and pooping on the statue of some Kyrgyz warrior.
We head back to the hotel and decide to have dinner there, as we plan our trip to Issik Kul’ Lake tomorrow.
July 19. Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan.
As we browse to get some information about Issyk Kul lake and the best spots to visit it, we somehow bump into an article about Kyrgyzstan’s national sport: Dead Goat Polo. Yeah, you read that correctly. This “peculiar” pastime basically involves players riding horses and attempting to drag a goat carcass and throw it into a scoring circle!
I mean, really? Yeah, really.
Anyway, back to our plan: we have to grab a marshutka from the Zapadny avtovokzal, from where it’ll take about 3-4 hours to reach Cholpon Ata, one of the main touristic hubs on the lake. It may not be the best part of the shore, as it hosts many resorts so we fear they may sort of spoil the atmosphere, but Karakol is too far for a one-day trip, so is the southern shore.
We pay the 250 soms for the ticket and hop on the marshutka. The landscape is incredibly beautiful: wild spaces ringed by mountains. No cities, no villages, just spaces.
We arrive in Cholpon Ata and the town is kind of exactly how we expected it to be from what we read. An old Soviet summer resort town, full of rich Kazakhs and Russians. The beach is very crowded, but what makes it interesting are the folkloristic yurts on the sand, the topchans, together with the random camels and the eagles perched on some 15-year old local boy.
Issyk Kul happens to be the second largest alpine lake in the world, lying about 1600 meters above sea level and surrounded by the peaks of the Tian Shan mountains. Its waters are slightly saline and warm, as they never freeze, not even in the coldest winters.
We find a spot to leave our stuff and jump in the water. It’s a beautiful day and it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy the sun.
When we start to feel hungry we enter one of the topchan-restaurants on the shore and order some local food. I just go with a simple salad cause I don’t think my stomach can take any more meat, but Ale is still in the “excitement-never had this before-gotta try it” mindset, so after finishing a huge plate of egg noodles with horse meat, he steps out, walks to an umbrella-stand, and comes back with a dried fish in his hand, smiling. Oh man, are you sure you wanna do that? I mean, I speak from experience, but I get his curiosity and as he reasserts his determination, he looks at me and goes “Wait, how do I eat this? Like, how are you supposed to eat this?”. I tell him that well, you first have to take the head off, then open it and just watch out for the bones.
After a few bites he realizes how salty the fish is, but it’s like he’s on a bet with himself, so he has to go through with it and finishes it. Yeah, he won’t be happy he did. Half an hour later his face starts going pale and his stomach decides to riot. Poor Ale! Hey, we tried to warn him, didn’t listen!
We need to get back to Bishkek at a reasonable time, possibly before it gets pitch dark, so at 5ish we return to the bus stop and find a bus to take us back.
The heat is now not as unbearable as this morning so this time we actually get to enjoy the ride. Yeah, enjoy till you can, I would tell myself now, and you’re about to find out why.
As soon as we step foot in Bishkek bus station, a flock of gypsy taxi drivers calls us from all sides, which is pretty normal here and we’ve gotten used to it so we don’t really mind. Then one of the drivers comes in my face and offers a ride for 300 som, which is about 3 times the price it should be: “300? No way”, I dismissively reply to him in Russian, and walk away. Never had I done that.
We reach the area where the official cabs are parked and Gian tries to get us one, when I suddenly see someone push him and slap him. What just happened? Gian is obviously crossed but, before the situation gets out of hand, Marta and I grab him and take him away. As we start walking we get immediately surrounded by what looks like 50 men, who somehow separate us and start pushing us back and forth, trying to get us into their cabs or vans. They’re all yelling and I see them punching and slapping the guys, throwing stuff at them, I feel someone touching me and grabbing me from behind, lifting me up. I pull away as hard as I can and manage to get away, disgusted. I can’t see Marta and at some point I hear her brother yelling her name, I run toward him, he grabs my hand and we finally see her behind a van. We manage to get to her and all move toward Gian, holding each other hands. At that point we just get into the first taxi we see and tell the driver: “Drive! Just drive!”.
What the hell just happened? Seriously what the hell? We look at each other in shock. And the worst part is that no one did anything about it! Hell we were at a station full of people who just stood there and looked as a bunch of men molested us. Why?!
The driver gets us to the hotel, we pay him and get the hell out of there. As we sit at one of the hotel tables in the courtyard, just trying to process what just happened, we tell the management boy, who just sort of shrugs his shoulders, as to say “well, I told you so, there’s nothing to do about it”.
Man, to hell with this country and its people, seriously, we all think. Thank goodness we’re getting the hell out of here tomorrow! Let’s just hope Uzbekistan will treat us better.
We eat our dinner in silence, everybody’s mood is down and everyone is sort of reacting in their own way: I’m pissed as hell, Marta is sad, Gian is scared and Ale is kind of trying to make some sense out of the whole thing.
Well, at least we’re all okay, and except for some bruises, nobody got seriously hurt.
July 20. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Our train is leaving at 12:30 from Bishkek central station today. We’re indeed moving to Uzbekistan, but since there are no running buses nor trains directly connecting Bishkek and Tashkent, we’re gonna have to go back to Kazakhstan, and then take a marshutka from Chimkent to Chernyaeva, which is a walking border, so we’ll have to get off the car, walk to the other side into Uzbekistan and then find a cab or something to Tashkent. Piece of cake.
Also, we’ve been told there are no ATMs in Uzbekistan and credit cards are not accepted anywhere, so we’re bringing cash, mostly Euros and USD, that we’ll have to exchange on the black market. Black market? Yeah, I know, we were kind of suspicious too when our friend Jan Japp, who’s traveled to Uzbekistan a few years back, strongly recommended us not to go through the official exchange, but apparently, everybody does so because the official rate is about 50% less convenient than the one you get on the black market. Basically, the inflation is so high that the currency gets constantly devalued, yet the government is unwilling to print higher notes, which translates into people having to literally carry stacks of bills around.
Hence, since the biggest piece they’ve got is 5000 Soms, which according to the black market rates is about 1.20 Euros, you can imagine the amount of cash you’re gonna get when you try and exchange something like 100 Euros. The only problem with the black market is that they may try to rip you off and insert smaller pieces like 1000 soms pieces into a 5000 soms stack. Taxi drivers usually do this, so: “always count the money! At least try!”.
Well, this all sounds definitely interesting, we’ll see how that goes!
Anyways, back to our plan, we buy some provisions for the journey, pack our bags and get ready to leave, when Zhika, a Kyrgyz friend of ours from Moscow, texts Marta and says she just got back to Bishkek and will come pick us up to say hi. She arrives all dolled up and insists to take us to eat something before we go. It’s already 11:30 and we only have one hour before our train leaves, but she’s like: “Yes yes don’t worry I will take you to the station just let’s go quick quick”. Oh boy, we are so gonna miss our train.
We get to a local restaurant and sit on one of the topchans as Zhika orders kyrgyz plov and bread and meat, insisting it’s on her. It’s 11:45. We start chugging the food, which is very tasty, but we’re in such a hurry we can’t even enjoy it. 12:00. Okay, we’ve really got to go now.
Once we’re back in the car, Zhika asks which station we need to go to, “Uhm, the main one” – “Oh, okay, cause there are two, and I’ve never been to either” – You’ve never been to the station in your city?” – “Well, I’ve never taken the train here, I go by plane or car always!”. Right.
The traffic is terrible, Zhika doesn’t really know her way, plus she decides to stop at a kiosk to buy us food for the road, pirozhki, the best in town. “But Zhika, really you don’t need to! You’ve been so kind already! Oh, okay, thank you”. Yep, we’re missing the train.
At 12:25 we reach the station, grab our bags and quickly hug Zhika goodbye as we run to the first counter we see, hoping they can point us to the right platform. We show our tickets to the cranky lady behind the glass window, then she looks at us like we’re stupid and goes: “Ваш поезд отправляется через 4 часа” (your train leaves in four hours) – “четыре часа? Нет,здесь написано 12:30!” (what do you mean in four hours? It says here 12:30) – “Да, время московское ” (yes, Moscow time) – “Mosc.. oh, damn, really? What the..?!”.
We look at each other and laugh, half embarrassed and half genuinely amused. The soviet railway system strikes again! I mean, we bought the ticket in Kazakhstan! Why in the world would they indicate the Moscow time! This makes no sense. So yeah, ex-Soviet railways still refer to Moscow, even if you’re not actually in Russia and no matter where you buy your freaking ticket. Anyways, this is actually a good news! It means we still have some time to hang out.
Zhika takes us to her house, well, mansion (which really feels out of place in Bishkek, like it does not fit at all with the rest of the city), where her mother greets us and offers us watermelon and three glasses of an unidentified homemade drink: “It’s traditional from Kyrgyzstan!” – goes Zhika. It has a brownish color with some lighter transparent spots that look like oil. Zhika explains that it’s made of fermented wheat and it’s supposed to be very healthy, especially in the summer. What’s with people in Central Asia fermenting everything?
After our experiences with Asian fermented drinks, none of us really feels like drinking this, but it’s not like we have a choice, so I swallow a gulp and try not to make a face. Yeah, I can’t even explain the taste, I just grab a piece of watermelon, hoping it’ll make it go away.
Zhika changes into comfier clothes and asks us what we wanna do, so we figure a shisha bar would be cool. We go to a nice hookah place and spend the afternoon smoking and chilling, till it’s time to get back to the station, this time in reasonable advance.
We thank Zhika for her hospitality and kindness, she really sort of turned our general impression of the Kyrgyz people after yesterday’s “incident”, and we hop on the train. It’s now 4:30 PM, local time, we’ve got food, we’ve got beds, and a beautiful view on the Kyrgyz wastelands.