Saturday, January 08, 2005

Arrival in Jalalabat

I came to Jalalabat today with Batur, the owner of a bright blue Volga. He works as an accountant at a government office during the week. On the weekends, he earns extra money by transporting passengers between Osh and Jalalabat.

We drove north of Osh and I saw a group of large homes being constructed on the edge of the city, with a view of rolling hills and fields – the new rich beginning surburban expansion. Just beyond these homes, the land was empty. Silk worm trees lined the road and dotted the horizon at the edge of hilly brown fields, the starkness reminding me of Africa. Their stunted, thin, bare arms reached up and out wildly, as though they’d been electrocuted.

The road to Jalalabat, specifically to Uzgen (in between Osh and Jalalabat) is awful. Seventy of the 112 kilometers is like riding over a washboard, a bumpy and slow drive.

“You need a Soviet car for these roads,” Batur told me.

This is the final section of the highway, financed by the Asian Development Bank, that will connect Osh and Bishkek. Locals hope it will be finished next fall, though it’s hard to believe when I watch road crews slowly picking up rocks by hand. When it’s done, it will be an important step in linking Osh to the rest of the country.

Enroute, we passed rapid rivers cutting across snowy plains, watched fishermen hang up or hold their most recent catches, trying to sell them to passing cars, and rode alongside two red-faced children on the base of a horse-pulled cart, sitting amongst aluminum canisters. Past Uzgen, we entered a rural, mountainous region, the brown, green, red, beige, gold, grey, blue and white folds filling the landscape, eluding the my efforts to capture them with a camera. Cattle grazed on snow-dusted hills, the soil red under the dried golden-brown-green surface. The weather was sunny and relatively warm, bringing out bicyclists on old Chinese bikes, men on horseback, and pedestrians on foot, leaving their jackets at home.

Many people hitchhiked on the side of the ride and I tried to convince my driver to pick them up. I had paid for four seats in the taxi, but I was the only passenger. I empathized with those standing out in the middle of a rural field and as long as it was on our way, I wanted to give them a lift. Batur refused. “We’ve already passed by,” he said of a lone woman I wanted to pick up.

We entered Jalalabat via a small, rural, potholed road, barely wide enough for two cars, pedestrians and chickens. Dull beige box houses, topped by pale grey roofs, lined the road, interspersed by spindly, quill-like poplars. Above us, banners advertising credit quivered in the wind.

I would spend the night at the kurort, or health resort hotel. The entire resort, including the hotel, had the air of a faded, bygone era. I saw some people there who were clearly getting their cures, out for a walk in warm-up suits, caps and jackets. But I also felt sorry for them, strolling through the faded, peeling buildings, that might once have been beautiful but now are just sad reminders of what might have been.

Little benches were placed among copses near small silver and golden statues – a fallen torso of a child lay near a pile of rocks, a young girl petting a sheep, a beautiful golden woman, a golden statue of Lenin with hand raised. When I saw water trickling from a tiny hole in the ground into a manhole, with steam rising up, I bent down to touch it and found the water warm.

Since the resort was known for its curative treatments, and Kyrgyz citizens traveled there for especially for this purpose, I thought I’d give them a try.

I went into the sanatorium, a crumbling, pieced-together building, and found a crumbling, pieced-together interior. I went upstairs to the second floor to find a deserted space strewn with wires, construction and a loosely attached roof, the sky visible through the edges. I then went down several flights of dusty stairs, pockmarked walls and ceilings surrounding me, as was a deafening absence of other humans.

I eventually found a tunnel that brought me to another building and then to a room with a Christmas tree and New Year decorations. I turned into a corridor with new white doors, the walls recently painted white, and saw many numbered doors, which I assumed to be bath cabinets.

Even here, there weren’t any people. Only after wandering the silent halls for quite a while did I knock on a partially opened door that said “Doctor – physical therapy.” The woman there seemed distinctly unpleased to see me. When I asked about their services, she said I could take a ten minute mineral bath, as long as I paid 50% more than the locals. There were no massages or other treatments available that day.

I agreed to the bath. The naturally hot water, piped up from underground into the Soviet tubs, was said to contain 27 minerals and to cure all kinds of diseases. It’s the same water that they add carbonation to, bottle, and sell all over Kyrgyzstan. I was feeling a cold coming on and thought it would be a good test of the water’s effectiveness.

The woman led me past a red, Soviet dingy room, with old paintings on opposite sides of the walls and a pipe that occasionally emitted steam from its open end. She brought me into a cabinet and told me to undress. Then she turned on the water in a tub. “You can turn it off yourself, can’t you?” she asked. She was in a hurry to finish her duty.


The structure was almost identical to the two other former Soviet sanatoriums I’ve visited – on in Estonia and the other on Baikal. In this one, surprisingly, the door I entered locked. There were walls separating the tubs, so you couldn’t see other bathers while lying there. But there was an open walkway at the far end, where workers could walk between tubs and monitor the bathers. Since I knew I probably wouldn’t have privacy, I had brought my swimsuit and was glad I did.

First the woman who turned on the water came by to inspect me, looking surprised at my reading a book.

“You shouldn’t be wearing a swimsuit,” she said, while staring at me. “It’s mineral water.” I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to signify.

Then a cleaning woman came and spent what seemed a long time washing the floor right near my tub, as if it couldn’t wait ten minutes in order to give me some peace. I ignored the call of my cell phone and enjoyed the warmth of the tub and the steam rising up from my faucet, clouding the small, high windows.

I followed my bath with a lunch at the nearby panoramic restaurant perched on the mountain edge and overlooking the entire town and the valley beyond. I was the only customer, so I got a prime seat near a large window. While I ate my mushroom soup and fried chicken pieces with chopped tomato, onion and pineapple, I looked out over the quiet town, now covered by fog and cold air. There I was, alone, a secret observer.

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