Friday, April 28, 2006

Leaving Bishkek again in uncertainty

April 28, 2006

I am once again leaving Bishkek during a security warning. I’m planning to spend the three-day weekend continuing my bicycle journey around Issyk-Kul. Today a warning came out from the German embassy, saying they expected tomorrow’s protests to be peaceful, but warning citizens that grocery stores may be closed and they should plan their personal supplies.

When I told our receptionist I’m heading to Issyk-Kul, she told me to be careful.

“I heard from someone in Cholpon-Ata that people are coming to Bishkek and that some of them have guns,” she said.

“Then I suppose it’s you who should be careful in Bishkek,” I said.

All of the political maneuverings and associated criminal elements is pretty ugly. It makes me sad to feel that the stability for the majority of good, peaceful people is threatened by a few. I prefer to be out in the rural areas where such problems seem very far away.

It’s already full-fledged summer. The temperature today is expected to reach 97 degrees (36 Celsius). Poplar seeds float through the air, flying into car windows, into bicyclists faces and skid along the ground in light, white masses.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Biking Around Issyk-Kul: Tyup to Ananyevo

March 24, 2006

I began my journey in the small town of Tyup, a place infrequently visited by tourists. Located on the northeastern edge of the lake, it allowed to me to finish the most trafficked half before the summer surge in visitors begins, and to take advantage of being able to coast partway downhill.

I spent my first night in the only guesthouse in town. Run by a Kyrgyz couple, Saidelda and Anara, they provided a warm, comfortable soft bed in a room decorated by plants and felt crafts.

I woke up at 8 a.m. to the cackle of turkeys and a shining sun. On the way to the outhouse, I saw frost and a little leftover snow in their backyard. Saidelda poured a kettle of hot water into a washstand while Anara fried eggs for breakfast. But there was no shower, which meant I started my trip dirty.

Saidelda, a German teacher at the university in Karakol and a summertime tour guide, has lived his whole life in Tyup. His father worked as a guard.

“When we moved here, most of the residents were Russian,” he said. “Now, after perestroika, most of the Russians have run away.”

Anara worked for 12 years at a bank in Tyup, but lost her job in a restructuring. “Now I’m used to staying at home,” she says. She manages their guesthouse and in the summer, sells crafts with her daughter at a market a few hours away.

I’d just left Bishkek, where most of the people I spoke with were against marking the one year anniversary of the revolution as an official holiday. I even heard that some people blocked a road in Bishkek in opposition to the official holiday. But this couple thought the revolution was a good thing.

“Something had to be done,” Saidelda said. “They had forgotten about the people.”

Saidelda walked me through town to the main road. We walked under the shadow of the impressive range of white mountains, the small, wooden, rural homes, past a horse tethered to a pole, munching on hay, and past the run-down park where the Lenin statue had been toppled.

I waved goodbye and started on my way, coasting downhill out of Tyup. The tree-lined road was quiet, except for the cawing black ravens, which flew across the road in populations like monkeys in a jungle. Traffic was light, but the few cars that came through, sped by, apparently happier to risk hitting me than to hit a pothole.

My destination was Ananyevo, a Russian village about 70 kilometers away. I rode at a leisurely pace, enjoying the nuances of rural lake life along the way. I had traveled this road by vehicle at least six times before. But I never noticed as much as I did when I was able to breathe, smell and feel the environment as I passed.

In the village of Frunze, I stopped to rest. The village was quiet except for the sound of a rushing spring. I saw an old man pushing an old woman in a wheelchair, ducks, chickens, turkeys, cows, horses and sheep meandering through the streets. A young boy asked if I was selling my bike.

Fast, expensive cars raced through the village, traveling between Bishkek and Karakol. Looking at the quiet, simple people that watched them go by, I could understand how they could feel forgotten.

One of the things I love most about biking this route is the ability to stop anywhere, at any time, to take a closer look at what I’m passing. I visited a bear statue on the roadside. He held a pitcher in his paw from which water ran. I’m traveling only with a daypack on my back. I’m carrying a change of shirts, a sweater, a jacket, something to sleep in, an umbrella, sunglasses, toiletries, a book and notebook. And luckily, I had a few snacks and water. While I passed several small shops, there were almost no cafes working at this time of year.

I have a phobia of dogs and my fear of dogs is the only thing that prevents me from biking into many rural parts of Kyrgyzstan. Although the road around Issyk-Kul is paved and traveled, the local population keeps dogs and lets them run free.

I’d been briefed by another biker before leaving. If a dog comes at you, jump off the bike and put the bike between you and the dog. Bend over and act like you are picking up a rock, even if there aren’t any. If you see a dog, walk, instead of riding the bike.

I spent my first hours on a constant lookout for dogs. And when a dog did chase me, two hours into the ride, it was unexpected, having come after me from behind.

I went through village after village. Every one, no matter how small, had a small mosque – usually a grey brick building with a silver dome backdropped by mountains. I saw an older woman washing her boots in a puddle, watched people gather water from pumps and chop wood, saw cows lounging on a mountaintop, smiled at children playing on decrepit, mosaiced bus-stands (their substitute for playgrounds), looked at the crumbling roadside cemeteries and felt the heat of the sun strengthen throughout the day.

Children called out to me, “Hi athlete!”

It was perfect weather for biking. A little leftover snow kept the air cool, but the sun shone in a blue sky.

Of course, the main attraction was the lake. When I first saw it, I saw a smooth, pale blue, reflecting the white mountains. As I moved on, it turned a deep, rich, sparkling blue, a constant ribbon to my left.

In the afternoon, during a long, tree-lined stretch between villages, I saw cars and men on horseback gathered in field. I understood that skatchki, or horseback games were underway – probably for a wedding, anniversary, or other celebration. I doubted it was for the anniversary of the revolution.

I got off my bike and sat on a blanket of dry leaves, far removed from the action. I could see the horses galloping from a distance, but all I could see was the dry golden grasses cracking in the breeze and the ravens crowing loudly as they flew between the poplar trees lining the road. Despite the approaching spring, it smelled like fall – a scent of decomposing leaves, peat and warmed grasses. I felt an incredible peace and calm, and safety despite my solitude. I realized that I was able to feel that safety only as a foreigner. If I were a Kyrgyz woman, near so many men on horseback, I’d be in great danger of being stolen.

I saw a couple of horses break from the pack and head toward me. Three young boys were returning home from the races, walloping and yahooing as they galloped across the field. One of them, holding a whip, looked at me and I saw the capacity to steal a bride already in his eyes.

They answered my questions, in barely comprehensible Russian, then galloped off down the empty road, the bare poplar trees arching starkly over them, whooping and hollering in glee at the speed of the chase.

I arrived in Ananyevo, a little before four, exhausted. A stretch of road lined with boxed wooden houses like every other village, I didn’t realize I’d arrived until I’d asked.

Ananyevo is an old Cossack settlement, founded in 1890 and named after a captain, Nikolai Ananyev, who died, along with 700 local conscripts, almost the area’s entire male population, on the Western front during World War II.

I rode a few extra kilometers down to the lake shore, down a beautiful, forested lane. The ground was covered with trees.

At the shore, where the blue waters lapped against the marshy land, I met three men, originally from Ananyevo, who now live in Bishkek. They told me they regretted how their village had fallen apart. They reminisced about the café, tourist base, nice beach and boardwalk that used to exist.

“Now there is no owner,” one of them said. “No one takes care of it and it’s just a swamp.”

They told me that everything was calm in Bishkek. It reassured me to know that I wasn’t biking through a country going through another revolution.

I had made reservations to stay in a Swiss-run guesthouse and I had the entire home to myself. The keeper, a hazel-green eyed Russian, Natasha, met me. She’d prepared me a dinner of fried meat pies with pickles tomatoes and peppers, tea, and chocolate wafers and was in the process of heating up the banya.

As she worked on a pink shawl she was crocheting for an order, she told me that a lot of Russians have already left, but there are still comparatively a lot in Ananyevo.

“In other villages,” she said, “There are only two or three Russian families.”

She told me that there used to be a lot of work in the area, but now the residents have to make a living on agriculture and livestock.

My knees, butt and back were so sore I could barely sit or stand. It was heavenly to enjoy my meal, soak in the steamy banya, and lay on the sofa watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in Russian.

On the evening news, I saw how the holiday was met in Bishkek. Large crowds, mostly Kyrgyz, gathered on the central square. The reporters did no analysis of the holiday, just endlessly asked attendees what they wanted to wish others for the holiday. Only the Russian news provided a little analysis, though it was overall positive. I saw that President Bakiyev had gained weight. He has wide shoulders and is developing a double chin under his round face.

*names in biking around Issyk-Kul posts are real names unless marked otherwise.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Russian easter

April 23, 2006

Today, one week after the equivalent American holiday, is Russian easter. I’m surprised how widely it seems to be celebrated among the local Russian population. Two Russian colleagues skipped a dinner last night in preparation for the celebrations today. Yesterday, they weren’t supposed to eat meat or fish or drink.

While riding a marshrutka yesterday, I saw someone traveling with a cardboard tray of Easter cakes – round, puffy yeasty cakes topped with a thin layer of frosting and colored sprinkles.

“They are only baked once a year for Easter,” my friend Zhenya told me. “Those who don’t have time to bake those cakes make smaller rolls.”

Another popular tradition is to color hard-boiled eggs a beautiful, deep brown by using onion skins.

At 8:30 this morning, Zhenya called me and asked me to come over for an Easter breakfast.

I had brought two little wicker baskets filled with plastic grass from the U.S. I stopped by a store to get some candy for the baskets, intending to present them to Zhenya and her son.

Sometimes I’m amazed by what little things grab the attention of the people here. The shopkeeper must have asked me twenty questions about what the baskets were, why I was giving them to my friend, how Easter is celebrated in the U.S., etc.

Zhenya had stayed up until midnight last night baking little walnut-shaped pastries. She made them with a waffle-like batter and filled them with condensed milk and chopped walnuts. She showed me the metal mold she used, inherited from her grandmother.

She served me a cold soup made from sour milk, potatoes, cucumbers, eggs and dill, together with the walnut pastries and squares of chocolate. While I was there, her neighbor stopped by and brought her a plate of baked Easter rolls, brown eggs and chocolates.

Zhenya told me that she and four friends had recently visited an oncologist turned laser surgeon to have red and white age spots removed. She had little red scabs around her eyes, neck and hands as a result.

She searched my arms, trying to explain what she was talking about. But she couldn’t find any.

“I guess it’s because you’re active. You don’t have any yet. But if women eat a lot of sweets or fat and they are inactive, their liver gets unhealthy and these spots appear. I was shocked when I first saw them on me and I went in to get them removed.”

“Was it expensive?” I asked.

“No, only 100 som ($2.50). And now I have these scabs. But in a week they will clear up and my skin will be clear.”

She’s also trying to become more active and has starting walking the 40 minutes to and from her store. Just from that, she lost over six pounds in the last two weeks.

Later in the day I visited a modest home, in the neighborhood where the grandmother I adopted lives, and found a man who repairs foreign bicycles. Someone stole the screws that attach my wheels to the frame of my bike. And I had no idea that anyone in Bishkek had such parts, much less someone in an unmarked home. His business largely comes from the expat word-of-mouth network, which luckily for me, seems to work pretty well.

With new screws and a much-needed oiling of the gears, I left riding a new machine.

While I was in the neighborhood, I decided to visit my babushka. I bought an Easter cake from a young boy selling them in front of the Russian orthodox church and brought it to her, along with some money.

I rang her bell and she stepped outside of her green gate to speak with me. I could see small shoots already emerging from her garden. She told me she planted potatoes, beets, onion, cabbage and other vegetables, then asked if I wanted her to cut an onion for me. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of hospitality or not, but I said no thanks.

She did bring out three colored eggs for me. One of them was beautifully done. She’d attached small leaves to the egg before dying it in onion peel, so that it was decorated with leaf patterns. The other eggs were pink and blue from dyes she’d purchased at the market.

I think she considered me less of a threat this time, though she still didn’t invite me in. She complained that she waited several years before she was able to get assistance.

“And my pension was only 250 som ($7) a month,” she said. “I saw people there who had pensions of 800, 900, even 1000 som ($25) a month, and they were getting the assistance of $10 a month.”

It’s a really sad situation when someone living on $25 a month is the object of envy. I guess there are injustices, perceived and real, throughout the spectrum of experience. Ekaterina seemed to consider her bimonthly support transient, as though it could disappear at any time, into the hands of someone with twice her $12 pension. I assured her that she would receive that money regularly, for at least a year, and that I’d try to stop by once a month if she didn’t mind.

“Of course not,” she said, with a smile and a pat on the back.

Coming home I passed a little girl playing hackeysack with a ball made out of leaves. It’s the second time I’ve seen that this week. The kids collect leaves from a tree, tie them with string, and are somehow able to make a buoyant ball to bounce on their calves. I’m impressed.