Thursday, May 18, 2006

Biking Around Issyk-Kul day 6: Bokonbaevo to Tamga

May 1, 2006

This morning, upon leaving my hotel, I walked past a small tractor pulling a truck. Suddenly, the cord snapped and the truck started rolling downhill. A man in a kalpak ran in front of the truck, trying to place rocks in front of the tires. He failed and the truck rolled on.

The driver, a round-faced Kyrgyz, opened the door and shouted, while a group of men in kalpaks stared, transfixed.

“He went without brakes or anything,” one man said to me as I also stopped and stared.

I felt that sickening feeling of imminent disaster that I can’t do anything to prevent. I looked at the pedestrians, who crossed the street oblivious that the truck rolling toward them was out of control.

Needless to say, seeing that made me extra cautious while biking. Just because a vehicle seemed to be in control didn’t necessarily mean that it was.

From Bokonbaevo I coasted downhill. I soon met up again with the shoreline and was grateful to see the water lapping against the land and the blue ribbon as my companion. Blue-green waves lapped gently against an arc of sand. On my right, red sand cliffs formed peaks, fissures, canyons and castles, doted with grass and scrub. A variety of birds flew across the water, soared over the cliffs, and hopped alongside the road.

Not far outside of Bokonbaevo, I had my second scare of the day. While taking a short break in a village, I saw two men get into a cargo truck. One of them, with loose white pants, and a long headscarf reaching down his back, looked eastern. He looked straight at me and I felt like a target, the strange foreigner encroaching upon his territory.

I’m sure I’m overreacting, I thought, though I was grateful when they pulled out and ahead of me, disappearing down the bumpy road.

A little while later, while I was riding along a completely barren and unpopulated stretch of road, I saw their truck stopped on the side of the road. Three men, including the man in white, wandered on the road, near the truck. What if they have guns? I thought. What if they try to stop me? For the first time I felt the danger of being so alone.

I picked up speed and decided not to stop, no matter what. I briefly waved at the white-turbaned man, without losing speed, and sped beyond them, not stopping again until I reached the next populated area, quite a few kilometers ahead.

Except for that one unnerving incident, the amount of remote, unpopulated space around the lake is truly amazing. I rode for miles and miles alone – just me following nature’s trails.

A few distinctive features of the south shore, other than several eastern-looking drivers (the road must lead to Pakistan, Tajikistan or another international route), include the prevalence of large white trucks coming down the road from the goldmine, the genuine friendliness and interest of the residents (who see fewer tourists than do those on the north shore), less tree-lined sections (which means less shade), and long stretches of depopulation through a variety of landscapes. All alone, I could listen to the wind blow, feel the rain coming, hear the water lap up against the shore.

At one point, when I could see rain falling from the clouds behind me, I decided to take shelter, rather than get soaked out in the open. I brought my bike into a tunnel, what seemed to be a dried-up river bed, and waited there for the rain clouds to pass. Sitting near cow poop on the ground and birds in the eaves, I was able to see what water views as it flows into the lake – scattered rock, raised edges, scrub lining its path, small trees along the shore and the vast blue of sky and water. I watched the waves grow larger and whitecapped, in protest, as the wind blew more strongly.

In Khaji-Say, a lakeside village with a spectacular stretch of shore, I took a picture of a roadside lepushka-baker’s daughter. When I promised to send him a copy, he handed me a round, fresh lepushka. I was able to enjoy the hot, yeasty bread on a cliff, while overlooking the lake.

The mountains transformed from red to beige, orchards lined part of the shore, and I passed the same fascinating cemetery-towns that line the lake elsewhere.

When I reached Tamga and waited on the roadside for a passing marshrutka, I looked out on a bay that resembled a giant blue vase, filled with water like a gourd. The water shimmered in the warm, bright wind, extending out to the horizon of white mountains. Behind me rose rocky, sand cliffs, groves of bright green poplars, wrinkled mountains and snowy peaks. The southern part of the lake belongs to national park territory.

I took a marshrutka back to Bokonbaevo. Enroute, we passed a rowboat with two passengers out on the water. Both me and another passenger stared at this unexpected human presence on the lake. The beauty of the lake is that it’s largely untouched by humans, a giant, powerful magnet attracting vistors to its sides, but not allowing them too far in. That and it’s everchanging combination of silver, blues, greens and white, the endless patterns it forms combining with the clouds, sky, and mountains.

I took an 85 Moskvich to Balykchi. My driver, Turusbek, was a 27-year army veteran, a father of three children in college, a voter for Rysbek Akmatbayev and a nostalgic for Soviet times.

“Lenin was a great man,” he told me. “I can’t imagine where Kyrgyzstan would be without him. People wouldn’t know how to write.” He told me of his admiration for Roosevelt, Kissenger (“he was tricky”) and Kennedy (“a great man”).

“Genghis Khan ruled this area for 300 years,” he recalled. “The Soviet Union lasted only 70. I never would have guessed that such a great empire would disappear in 70 years.”

When I asked him about current politics, he said he liked Bakiyev because he thinks he’s trying. I asked why he voted for Rysbek.

“Isn’t he a bandit?” I asked.

“He was. Definitely. But he’s 46 years old now and has outgrown that. He has enough money that he doesn’t need more money for himself. He’s going to help us.”

We became silent, lost in our journey. I marveled at the joy of reaching places that from a distance looked just like the meeting point of water and sky.

“Look at the clouds, sitting on the mountaintop,” Turusbek commented.

Like a toupe, I thought. Just as the people inherited their landscape, the land took on some aspects of its residents.

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