Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Biking around Issyk-Kul day 4: Tamchy to Balykchi

April 29, 2006

Though I didn't travel a great distance (somewhere around 40 kilometers) this stretch was the most difficult and unpleasant by far of the four days I've now spent biking around Issyk-Kul. At times I wondered what I was doing and at others, almost thought about giving up.

One problem was the imminent rain. I could feel it in the air when I woke up and when I sat on the beautiful, empty beach in Tamchy. Sonya didn’t think it would arrive until after lunch and thought I could make it to Balykchi in time. Given the intense heat yesterday, I couldn't even think of packing things like pants, a jacket, or a turtleneck. So with my bike shorts, a long-sleeve t-shirt and a light wool sweater, I was seriously underdressed.

But the biggest problem was the wind - the fierce, constant, wind. The wind that forced me to put my head down and to pedal ahead, with the motivation only of making a little progress towards shelter. I sometimes had to fight the wind to stay on the road, the powerful gusts blowing me off to the side. I worried that a sudden gust could blow me right into the path of an oncoming truck. When I opened my water bottle, the wind played a song across it. The wind howled in my ears, making me deaf to any other sounds. I felt like my head was wrapped in cotton and that I couldn't escape.

Balychi has a reputation for being a windy city and any time I'd stopped there for a bathroom break, the wind had wrapped its cold mantle around me. But I'd never spent more than a few minutes at a time there. No wonder property values in Balkychi are close to nothing. I don't know how people live with the constant howl.

When I later arrived at my hotel, a single room within a ratty apartment, I asked the administrator about the wind. She was a large, overweight, middle-aged Kyrgyz woman, with a low voice, a suspicious, downcast glance, and an appearance of having been beaten up by life here. She told me that such winds can blow for an entire week. It's called a sunde when everything is whipped up by the wind and people can't do anything but to try to stay indoors. She said they all emerge together one week later, when everything is calm, an exodus of movement and excitement.

I asked if she knew why Balychi alone has such wind and she said she didn't. I asked if it bothered the locals.

"Of course it does. But we've gotten used to it. What else can you do?"

I did end up getting caught in the rain. I had just reached the edge of Balykchi when it started, so I thought I could make it to my hotel quickly. But Balykchi is a 10-kilometer-long town and I ended up spending about an hour under rainshowers. I arrived coated with a film of water, droplets dripping over the visor of my helmet.

"Why are you wearing shorts?" a little Russian boy asked me when I stopped to take a photo of a Lenin image on top of a central building.

"Aren't you cold?" a woman holding dried fish out to passing cars called out to me.

"You must have frozen," an older woman, also holding a bunch of salted fish, commented a few moments later.

Before starting out this weekend, I picked up a few new accessories, including a rack, a bike bag, and biking gloves. These give me an even more serious biker appearance and I got even more surprised looks from the locals as they tried to take in the sight of a woman alone in silver and black.

I didn't spend so much time looking at scenery today. The landscape was largely bare and rocky and I focused on trying to move ahead. My best view was in the morning, when I walked to the beach in Tamchy. I sat on the chill sand, alone except for the horses and cattle wandering along the shore. The sky matched the silver-blue, cloudy color of the water.

I watched the water fold over into small silver waves washing up against the shore. It then pulled back and was incorporated into the next wave. A light breeze riffled the water's surface, making thousands of ripples. I listened to the peaceful, rhythmic pounding and felt there was something besides the legend that makes the lake magesterial. The size, the amazing clarity, the powerful mountains always within view, and the every changing palette of colors inspire awe.

Despite some decrepit homes and a lot of for-sale signs, Tamchy is a pleasant, quiet village. I left shortly before ten and immediately started riding aginst the wind. Rocks strewed the dry, brown landscape. Except for the large body of water, it seemed desertlike to me. Then, suddenly, the fields exploded into yellow wildflowers. Occasionally a red flower popped up like a lantern leading the way.

The lake water had turned dark blue. Later in the day it became a turquoise ribbon to my left, dotted with whitecaps during the wind. Purple and white mountains rose above it on the opposite shore.

As before, I saw a lot of cemetaries - the crumbling ancient sand castles of history, the fenced-in compounds that looked like small towns of cement, brick and sand temples, castles and tombs, the roadside markers to all the young men who drove too fast and whose cars tumbled off the pavement, taking them to death within sight of the peaceful waters. In 1997, a carload of four young men, age 17 to 24, all died together. A monument with their pictures stands on the side of the road. I could only guess that the 24-year-old was probably at the wheel and that either under the influence of alcohol, or showing off his speed to his younger pasengers, he took them all to an early death.

My hotel is not very comfortable. I share a bathroom with strange men. And I have to rely on the administrator to let me into my room and out of the apartment. Balykchi is not a very nice place. Garbage - plastic bags, wrappers, scraps of paper - piles up against any solid structure, blown out of control.

I had dinner in a Korean cafe that served only local food. The only other customer was a drunk who fell asleep on the table over his lagman. While I ate, he started snoring. The young Russian waitress was patient with him, largely ignoring him.

From the higher areas of the city, it's possible to see the lake. And the mountains on the opposite side glowed purple, white and pink in the evening. Here, all the beauty is in the distance, a promise of something far away. But I think it's hard for people here to escape. These are the people that feel so powerless, 80 percent of them voted the reputed bandit Rysbek into Parliament.

I don't think many foreign tourists stop here and the locals show an interest in me. Two little girls ran after me and seemed happy when I asked to take a picture of them. When I asked two teenage boys how to find the mosque my hotel was located near, they looked at me questioningly, probably wondering what a foreigner on a bike in the rain wanted a mosque for, then said "Welcome!" as I rode off. The apartment area where my hotel is located is littered with children, who play ball, jump rope, and run around the rocky, garbage-littered windy grounds.

I saw on the Moscow news that the protests in Bishkek went peacefully. Surprisingly, President Bakiyev and Prime Minister Kulov came out and addressed the crowd in the rain. Kulov held a red flower with both hands as Bakiyev spoke. The footage didn't show the reaction of people watching the President speak, but I heard people whistling and it seems they dispersed soon afterwards. They are giving the President a month to fulfill his promises, threatening more protests afterwards if he does not.

On the Kyrgyz news, they first covered Bakiyev's diplomatic reception in Moscow and meeting with Putin before they talked about the protests (called “meetings” by the locals), which is clearly the biggest news here. I couldn't understand the Kyrgyz, but the broadcast did spend quite a bit of time on the issue.

I'm really unsure about my ride tomorrow. I'm afraid there will be rain again, it's a long way to the first sizeable town (about 70 kilometers), with a lot of emptiness enroute, and I don't even have a place to stay lined up. It's tempting to put it off until better weather, but I can't let a rare 3-day weekend go to waste. So unless I awake to downpours, I'll probably try to get an early start, to outrun the rain, and to realize it could be another tough day.


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jj said...

Thanks for your feedback!