Thursday, August 31, 2006

visit to Latin America

August 30, 2006

I’m just about on my way to Latin America. The plan is to spend five weeks in Nicaragua. Perhaps I’ll manage to make it to other countries as well. For readers interested in Kyrgyzstan, I’ll be back to Kyrgyz blogging in mid-October. Until then, this site will be full of my impressions and experiences in Central America.

A toi

August 29, 2006

Last night I attended a toi, held in honor of Gulnara’s son’s one-year birthday. It was held at the same café as his 40-day birthday toi, held just under a year ago. There were slightly fewer guests at this one – but I’d seen many of the guests three times – first at Gulnara and Shamil’s wedding, then at the first toi, and then last night.

When I arrived, I saw Ravil wearing a kalpak, shiny black boots, and a Kyrgyz vest and pants, bordered in gold embroidery. He was sitting, in all places, in a white motorized car. Older boys commandeered the car, driving him around the floor of the hall as if a raja on his way to worship. Clearly he was the little prince of the party and the only grandchild on both sides of the family.

Gulnara sat me at a table and I was surrounded by many familiar faces, all of whom seem to be actively working on the population of Kyrgyzstan. I sat across from a woman expecting a baby in September. When she left, a couple expecting a child in November took her place. And the young woman next to me dandled her five-month old baby.

A woman wearing a frilly bright yellow blouse and a black embroidered Kyrgyz robe served as the emcee. They went through the same procedures as at all weddings and tois – people were called up to the microphone in groups, they presented their wishes and congratulations in long speeches, gave their gift, and sometimes led the group in a song or dance.

Except for Russian couple across from me, everyone else in attendance was Kyrgyz, and for a few hours, I floated in a sea of non-understanding. I didn’t mind though, as the faces were friendly and people were having fun.

Some time into the toi, I noticed a dialogue that seemed to turning biting.

“It’s not discrimination!” a severe-looking Kyrgyz woman, with glasses and an egg-shaped face said to Stella, the Russian across from me.

Stella had asked why all of the congratulations and gifts were being presented to Gulnara, Shamil, and Shamil’s mother. Gulnara’s parents sat in a corner of the room, far from the well-wishers.

“It’s their grandchild too,” Stella said. “Why don’t they have a right to congratulations?”

“They have a right,” the Kyrgyz woman said. “But it’s a voluntary matter. If they wanted to receive the congratulations they could go up there.”

“It’s because the husband’s parents are higher. They are more important,” the Kyrgyz woman’s husband interjected, with a smile and a look of pride.

“Then it’s discrimination,” Stella said.

“No it’s not!” the Kyrgyz woman insisted.

It was a first time I’d heard a local, albeit of another ethnicity, challenge openly the gender discrimination, a slight to Gulnara’s parents that I hadn’t even noticed. We learned that Shamil’s family paid most of the expenses associated with the toi, and so they also received the presents.

“Then I guess you have it good,” Stella addressed the young woman next to me. “You have two daughters, so you get rid of them at marriage and then you are done.”

True, she’ll have almost no more expenses. But she’ll also have no security, since if her daughters follow tradition, they will be expected to serve and to financially support only the husband’s parents. The built in system of expectations – that a daughter is only an expense and a son is a form of social security – drives the strong desire to have sons.

The most interesting part of the toi, and something I hadn’t seen before, was the running. Gulnara had urged me to hurry to the toi after work.

“Don’t be late because we’re going to run!”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

And she told me to wait and see.

At the appropriate time, all of the guests filed out onto the street. There they made a starting and a finish line. Ravil stood at the finish line in his Kyrgyz finery. Only then did a notice a piece of string that tied his ankles together.

All of the young boys assembled for a race. At the mark, then ran toward Ravil. Gulnara’s father opened his wallet wide, giving the winner 100 som ($2.50). Shamil’s mother handed out prizes to the other participants. Then a relative cut the string binding Ravil’s legs and the first and second prize winners each took one of his hands, leading him on a walk. This was symbolic of him beginning his path of life. From this point, he can walk, he received the blessing and the assistance of the fastest runners, and from now on, he can only move forward.

The young girls raced next, with the winner receiving 50 som (half the amount the boy winner received). Then came the adult women. I participated and came in third or fourth place.

“For your participation!” one of Gulnara’s uncles said as he handed me 200 som ($5). Shamil’s mother gave me a towel. Then came the adult men, the old ladies, and then the old men. The winner among the old men received the biggest prize of all.

Traffic on the sidestreet had to stop while races were underway and I watched the drivers smile when they saw the normally non-athletic guests running in dress shoes down the middle of the road. It was a fun and enjoyable tradition to experience.

August 27, 2006 the beauty of Bishkek
August 27, 2006

Last week, after my Naryn/Tash Rabat/Son-Kul adventure, I spent several days on Issyk-Kul attending a conference. Tourists packed the northern shore. This was a record year for tourism in Kyrgyzstan and the effect was particularly seen on Issyk-Kul.

“For the first time ever, I saw private home put up ‘no vacancy’ signs,” my Kyrgyz colleague Maria told me.

Those connected with tourism raked in the cash during the short three-month season. Even in Bishkek, the Issyk-Kul influence is felt.

“Where is everyone?” I asked a market vendor yesterday. There were hardly any buyers for a Saturday afternoon.

“They are all at Issyk-Kul,” she said.

Within the next two weeks, the season will die down, school will begin, and people will return from vacation. Then the country will get back to work and to preparing for fall weddings.

Yesterday, while I was shopping at my local market, the beauty caught my breath. The colorful piles of tomatoes, green and red peppers, purple eggplant, yellow peaches, green apples, purple and green grapes, mounds of green onions and spices, fluffy heads of lettuce, round and oblong melons, red strawberries and the standard gold, brown and orange of the onions, potatoes, and carrots shimmered in a rainbow of color. I saw the full abundance that the Kyrgyz soil could produce and I felt awe, especially when I recognized this is only the beginning.

In the coming months, the wooden stands will remain stocked with beautiful, shining piles of fruits and vegetables. And amidst such a bounty, I understood why so many families plan weddings and other large celebrations for the fall. With the cattle fattened after months on the jailoo, and the fields dripping with produce, the locals are only taking advantage of their riches.

As I prepare to leave on an extended trip, I look at Bishkek more carefully. I notice the ad for Inexim bank over a bus stand on Chui prospect, the first advertisement of its kind. I see the Turkish department store/supermarket/movie theater that opened, bringing modern shopping to Kyrgyzstan. I see the wide-screen TV playing on a central street, broadcasting a program on butterflies. I joined those leaning against the railing and looked up at the advanced technology. I see the salaries rising due to competition for smart, educated young people. And even when my electricity most annoyingly goes out, and I have to spend my evening in candlelight, I appreciate how I can prop my door open with a shoe and not worry about criminals coming in. For those who are employed, Bishkek is a beautiful, safe, comfortable, green, modern and very pleasant place to live. Of course, I still love Osh. But I think this city is growing on me.

In my dark apartment, I try to imagine myself in Managua one week from now. It seems so far, so distant, and so foreign. I try to imagine myself speaking to locals, maneuvering the streets, sleeping in a Nicaraguan bed, eating local food. And I just can’t see it.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Beauty of Bishkek

August 27, 2006

Last week, after my Naryn/Tash Rabat/Son-Kul adventure, I spent several days on Issyk-Kul attending a conference. Tourists packed the northern shore. This was a record year for tourism in Kyrgyzstan and the effect was particularly seen on Issyk-Kul.

“For the first time ever, I saw private home put up ‘no vacancy’ signs,” my Kyrgyz colleague Maria told me.

Those connected with tourism raked in the cash during the short three-month season. Even in Bishkek, the Issyk-Kul influence is felt.

“Where is everyone?” I asked a market vendor yesterday. There were hardly any buyers for a Saturday afternoon.

“They are all at Issyk-Kul,” she said.

Within the next two weeks, the season will die down, school will begin, and people will return from vacation. Then the country will get back to work and to preparing for fall weddings.

Yesterday, while I was shopping at my local market, the beauty caught my breath. The colorful piles of tomatoes, green and red peppers, purple eggplant, yellow peaches, green apples, purple and green grapes, mounds of green onions and spices, fluffy heads of lettuce, round and oblong melons, red strawberries and the standard gold, brown and orange of the onions, potatoes, and carrots shimmered in a rainbow of color. I saw the full abundance that the Kyrgyz soil could produce and I felt awe, especially when I recognized this is only the beginning.

In the coming months, the wooden stands will remain stocked with beautiful, shining piles of fruits and vegetables. And amidst such a bounty, I understood why so many families plan weddings and other large celebrations for the fall. With the cattle fattened after months on the jailoo, and the fields dripping with produce, the locals are only taking advantage of their riches.

As I prepare to leave on an extended trip, I look at Bishkek more carefully. I notice the ad for Inexim bank over a bus stand on Chui prospect, the first advertisement of its kind. I see the Turkish department store/supermarket/movie theater that opened, bringing modern shopping to Kyrgyzstan. I see the wide-screen TV playing on a central street, broadcasting a program on butterflies. I joined those leaning against the railing and looked up at the advanced technology. I see the salaries rising due to competition for smart, educated young people. And even when my electricity most annoyingly goes out, and I have to spend my evening in candlelight, I appreciate how I can prop my door open with a shoe and not worry about criminals coming in. For those who are employed, Bishkek is a beautiful, safe, comfortable, green, modern and very pleasant place to live. Of course, I still love Osh. But I think this city is growing on me.

In my dark apartment, I try to imagine myself in Managua one week from now. It seems so far, so distant, and so foreign. I try to imagine myself speaking to locals, maneuvering the streets, sleeping in a Nicaraguan bed, eating local food. And I just can’t see it.

Some recent articles about Kyrgyzstan

New York Times article

Eurasia/Transitions Online article

Photos on Slate

Friday, August 25, 2006

A World of Travel

Since I have no photos, I thought I'd post some maps. I found this neat site where you can make a map of the places you've traveled.

I seem to have covered a good part of the northern hemisphere, but much of the south remains open for exploration.

create your own visited country map

My northern bias seems to affect my U.S. travels as well.

create your own personalized map of the USA

No photos

The last few entries haven’t included accompanying photos. Nor will the next few. Unfortunately, I lost my camera. And with it, all the great pictures I took in Naryn, Tash Rabat and Son-Kul. Hopefully I’ll be back into the visual by September.

Riding into the wind

August 15, 2006

Aichurek, the owner of my yurt, told me the sun would rise at 6 a.m. So I set my alarm and got up. The sun had already risen, but the warmth couldn’t be felt. I walked out into a bright layer of frost. My hands burned with cold. I looked around at the camel standing tall and lonely, a cow peeing with a loud splash, and the animals, whose noises I’d heard all night, bunched into groups around the yurts. Around me stood the blue mountains and above, I saw the sky glowed pale pink.

After breakfast, the three French guests and I rented horses and went for a ride. Kanat was our leader. We rode up into the hills, across them, and then down to the yurts near the river. Kanat stopped and entered a shephard’s yurt while we waited. When he returned, he told me the family was going to circumcise their three-year-old son and would be holding a toi the next day. They asked him to invite some acquaintances on his way out of the valley.

Kanat told me that when these shepherds gathered the next day, the host would cut a horse and would provide a cash prize for the horse games. Every invited family would be expected to give a sheep, worth about $50.

“What if the family doesn’t have a spare sheep?” I asked. “What if they expect to have some major expenses and need the sheep for themselves?”

“If they can’t give a sheep now,” he said, “then they’ll be expected to give it in the fall or spring. But they have to give it at some time. They will then receive a sheep in return when they hold a toi.”

It seemed like the toi would be a money-making event, and that those who held them frequently could gather some substantial resources. An invitation was almost an order to go. Non attendance would offend the host.

I asked about the circumcision. Kanat said it would be done by a normal man, without any painkillers for the boy. He told me he’d once cut a boy himself.

“Don’t you feel bad?” I asked, when he told me that men hold the child’s limbs down while the child screams.

“What is there to feel bad about?” he asked. “They did it to me.”

We stopped into the yurt of his sister-in-law. She welcomed us inside, where we sat on mats in the close, dirty interior. A chubby, red-faced baby slept soundly on a mat in the corner. There, our host served us cups of koumiss and hunks of bread with fresh cream.
We rode our horses around the edge of the lake, looking down into the patches of bright green moss visible through the clear water.

Kanat told me that in the 1970s, the Soviets wanted to drain Son-Kul and send the water to Uzbekistan. “We barely saved it,” he said, attributing its presence due to the influence of Subaliev, the first party secretary from Kochkor.

We cantered back to our yurt, then I took the horse for a short independent ride.

Lake Son-Kul is the place to go to live out cowboy fantasies. Here, one can feel the joy of moving under a domed sky, across a vast, flat field, with nothing to run into or trip over. It’s a place void of any media, any artificial sound, where the horse and rider live in the same environment and race across it together. It’s a place to stroll, leap, twirl and fly, surrounded by calm, clear waters, soothing grasses, and protective peaks.

On our way to Kochkor, where I planned to spend the night, Kanat took me to his village of Tuz. Neraby is a slat mine that has been tunred into a snatorium. We took a tour and found a surreal place. We walked along the five kilometers of walkways in the part of the mine prepared for resters. Plastic garlands of flowers lined the grey rock walls and chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The rooms within the mine included a table tennis room, a billiard hall, a disco, a sofa with stuffed animals hanging from the walls, beds, a reading room and a DVD hall.

Patients come at 7 p.m. and stay within the mine until morning, paying about $25 a night for the privilege. They must come bundled up, because the temperature remains 9 degrees Celsius year-round. The standard, 10-day treatment, is said to cure allergies, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. Our guide told us they received many visitors from Kazakhstan and Russia, where such treatment can’t be found.

Kanat told me the mine used to belong to his grandfather. In 1937, his grandfather was deported to the Ukraine as a kulak. On the way to the Ukraine, he and his family escaped and hid in the mountains until 1942, when his children grew up. He sent four sons to the front and when they all returned with medals, his father was pardoned.

The Soviet state assumed ownership of the mine, where they extracted salt. Now, only three miners work and major operations have halted. At the end of Soviet rule, a local political leader took over the mine. He gave it to the wife of President Akaev as a gift and she acquired credit to remodel it. According to Kanat, she wanted to sell it to Russia, but didn’t manage in time.

“The local leader got lucky and got the place back after the revolution,” Kanat said.

He complained that the current managers didn’t respect the locals. Only this year did they began receiving free salt again for their cattle. The current manager, Kanat’s former classmate, charged us $8 to see the mine.

“They don’t respect the locals – the fact that this is our resource,” Kanat said. “I’ll get revenge on his someday. Not because of the money. Because of the human factor. That can’t be forgiven.”

On the way to Kochkor, we picked up a few local women who needed a ride. I could understand Kanat’s Kyrgyz. “Do you know how much they took from us at the mine?” he asked them.

I’d planned to stay in a guesthouse, but Kanat invited me to stay with his family. It’s not often here that I receive random invitations from local families, so I decided to accept.

I went to his neat, but largely bare house, where I met his wife, four-year-old twin daughters, 11-year-old daughter, and 81-year-old grandmother. This grandmother was probably the one who spent years hiding in the mountains and I looked at her with respect.

They heated up their banya for me and I finally had the chance to wipe away three days of grime. They made me manti, steamed dumplings filled with meat, fat and potato. And I played with his daughters, as they talked to me in Kyrgyz, and I acted like I understood.

The most beautiful pasture

August 14, 2006

I spent most of today in transit, but I made it to Son-Kul just in time to see a beautiful sunset.

It took me until lunch time before I was able to find a ride out of Tash Rabat with three French tourists. In the meantime, the large groups left and the site suddenly became quiet, remote, and beautiful. I sat outside of my yurt and listened to the sound of the birds, the splash of the taxi drivers and Nazar washing their cars, and the hum of the separator as Elizabet turned a handle and made cream.

I laid on a shyrdak and chatted idly with Elizabet and Burul, who was sewing a new shyrdak. They told me about the wolves, which descend on Tash Rabat in packs in the winter, killing 10 sheep for each one they eat. The shephards are trapped in the area by the snow, so they have to eat or discard what has been killed. A few years ago, a man from their village was killed by a wolf while setting traps for them.

When a car that looked like the police drove by and into the valley, I asked what the police could possibly be doing there. They told me it was the ecological department. At first I was impressed, thinking they were coming to monitor the nature. Then they told me that groundhog skins were valuable, selling for $4.10 each. Each of them had been given a plan of gathering 100 skins for their boss and this would affect their pay. So the ecological department was most probably out hunting the groundhogs I'd seen the day before.

Elizabet told me the legend of the groundhogs. The Kyrgyz say they were wives of a God. They didn't please the God and so he made them into groundhogs. Their squels are their constant cries.

They told me that one of the valleys Nazar and I had walked to on the way to the lake was called Sheid valley, which means: Where innocent people died. In 1916, an anti-Russian uprising took place when Russia tried to draft non-Slavs into the army to fight against Germeny. Such riots took place throughout Central Asia. During the Urkun (Exodus), at least 100,000 people are believed to have been killed during the following Russian repression or have died while trying to reach China over the mountains.

Elizabet told me that the Kyrgyz trying to escape to China in 1916 were shot there by the Russians and all buried together. They said there is a Kara-Kyrgyzski autonomous region in China, where those who escaped lived. In their region, they can see a daily Kyrgyz-Chinese news broadcast. These exiles live in Urumchi and speak Kyrgyz with an accent.

They served tea to an old, toothless woman who came with her two sons and her new 20-year-old daughter-in-law. The old woman had lived her year-round as a shephard and 1977 and hadn't been back since. She had wanted to show the place to her new daughter-in-law.

Elizabet told me that in their region, 20% of marriages result from stealing the bride, 50% are set up by the parents, and 30% choose their own spouse. She said the parents of the husband give at least $250, a horse and sheep, while the parents of the wife give items for the home, which costs between $750 and $1000.

"In Soviet times, most people dated and chose their own spouse," she said. "But since then, we've been reverting to old traditions." I asked what she thought about that.

"I think that's bad," she said. "I think people should be able to choose their own spouse."

I joined the French tourists for the trip back to Naryn, driving past white and brown striated ridges to mountains shaded in segments - brown, red, orange, white. One of the tourists, Natalie, sells oil platforms. She was most recently in Azherbaijan and is soon moving to Angola.

In Naryn, I met Kanat, the owner of a white Lada, who agreed to take me on the three-hour trip to Son-Kul. We traveled along the deeply rutted roads where the full Chinese truck travels. Kanat had to drive on the opposite side of the road to keep out of them. And like Talai, he complained about the Chinese. "I hate them," he said. "I know there are good people in every nation, but not in China. They ruin our roads and are dirty." I was starting to feel as though I was in Mongolia, where during my visit several years ago, anti-Chinese sentiment also ran high.

He told me about his life. Born in the village of Tyuz, he spent his summers on Son-Kul, where his father was a shephard, and his winters in the village. He joined the Soviet army and was sent to Afghanistan. There, he was a prisoner of theTaliban for 15 days.

"They would have killed me except that I was a Muslim and was circumcised," he said. "They tried to talk me into staying, but I didn't. A man who is now a well-known terrorist from Namangan was held with me. They convinced him to stay."

He was injured in the war, ending up with only a thumb and one mangled finger on his right hand. A letter was sent to his girlfriend in Tashkent to tell her he was injured, but it accidentally said he had died. So when he returned, not only did he need to relearn how to draw, using his left hand, but he found his girlfriend had married someone else.

He studied art for two years in Leningrad, then became an art teacher at the local Kochkor school. He showed me a photo of six men who had been members of his collective in the late 90s. All have since left, due to the low salaries. While his love remains art, he quit his teaching job and began to drive a taxi. In his free time, he makes traditional Kyrgyz horse whips, and carves furniture out of wood.

Lake Son Kul is a good two hours off that rough, indented road. It lies over a mountain range, at the end of many twists and turns, far beyond the last tiny, depressed village. On the way, I saw dairy-centric yurts - bottles of koumiss out front for sale, bags hanging off of posts in the process of making suzme, women milking horses. We moved through bare, rolling green hills, then into ridges multicolored from the local minerals - aluminum, marble, granite.

Following my troubles finding transportation, I pitied the people on the side of the road, and convinced Kanat to pick up the hitchhikers. First we took a man who smelled like sheep. When we dropped him off in the last village, we got another shephard in his place. This one was drunk.

"His wife just gave birth," Kanat told me. "So he celebrated."

Only after our passenger passed out did Kanat tell me that the baby had died.

Despite the expense and the additional effort, I appreciated the opportunity to travel alone. Going in a group often makes for a sterilized atmosphere. I wouldn't have the opportunity to meet a shephard who drowned his grief at his infant's death in alcohol.

As we continued on, barley fields grew a shimmering green among the flowing brown hills, as smooth as waves. The land became a pastel painting of green, blue, white and sand.

Our passenger woke up. As we went over the mountain pass, he and Kanat sang together to a cassette. The car smelled of alcohol, cigarettes and dust.

Crossing over the pass, I saw blue in the distance. We drove past a large herd of yaks, descended into a valley and across a flat, treeless plain, past yurt, koumiss and cattle, towards the blue. We'd arrived at Son-Kul. At 3,016 meters, it’s the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, wedged into a valley amidst the Tien Shan mountains.

Kanat took me to his relative's yurt, who is a member of the Community Based Tourism organization. Located just off the water, I could watch the lake shimmer under the setting sun. We dined on fried fish from the lake and used kerosene lamps in the evening. The natural planetarium was my favorite aspect of Son-Kul. The stars glimmered and shot across the inky, vast sky. At night, I slept on a pile of mats atop of shyrdaks sewn by Aichurek's mother. I fell asleep to the sound of wind over water combined with the noises of cows, horses, sheep, dogs and camel outside.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Lake on the Roof

August 13, 2006

At 7 a.m., I awoke to the sight of smoke from dung fires mixes with the morning mist over the collection of yurts. The world looked green, fresh and reborn.

Just before 8, I set of with the yurt owner's 11-year-old son to visit Lake Chatyr Kul, which means, the lake on the roof. I had mixed feelings about this use of child labor. When I asked for a guide, I expected an adult, and a paid the price for an experienced guide. At first, I didn't mind, figuring that if he wasn't with me, he'd probably be collecting dung. And as long as his education isn't being interrupted, I didn't see a problem with him helping his family. But later, when his mother told me that the father serves as a guide for horse treks and the 11-year-old serves as a guide for walking treks because the father considers it too far to walk, I didn't feel so comfortable with the arrangement. It sounds like the father is just lazy and is putting the burden of earning an income on his son.

But in any case, I found myself together with this child, along with his dog Dingo, for the day. In his village, they offer only classes in Kyrgyz. So I exhuasted his Russian vocabulary in the first five minutes. This led us into a long and comfortable silence for most of the day, punctuated by one-word questions - tired? OK? backpack? pretty?

We started off with a one-hour walk along the valley, besides a clear, tinkling creek. Along the way, we passed several yurts and many herds of cattle - cows, horses, sheep and yaks. I found it most interesting to walk through the herd of yaks with their large, scraggly bodie, narrow, scruffy necks, small heads and shaggy tails. They raised up their large, pink nostrils as they looked at me, grunted like a person snoring, and went back to chewing the grass.

We headed toward a wall of rock that rose straight up before us. Along the path, we slipped on cattle poop. I noticed that there were no dried patties near the camp, all collected for fires.

At the beginning of our hike, a group of 12 French tourists walked in front of us. Having them in sight made me feel part of a herd. I wanted the Kyrgyz landscape to myself, even though I recognized that as selfish. Within the first half hour, we passed them and they soon disappeared from sight. We enjoyed a silent walk through remote, beautiful nature, hearing only the sound of the creek.

As we moved higher up, the sounds of the wind, the panting dog, chirping birds and squeaking groundhogs were added to the repetoire. The groundhogs ran across the mountains, stood up next to their holes, and scampered inside. They seemed to have poorly developed self-preservation instincts, announcing their prsence with a high-pitched squeal.

Three hours later, we were headed up a long, tough ascent. When we took a break at a stream, Nazar doused his head with cold water. He lifted his round, wind-chapped face, sighing with pleasure as the water dripped from his hair onto him. We heard thunder as a flack of horses ran across the mountain.

As we continued up and up, toward the 3,968 meter peak, the animals disappeared (I heard there is a mountain sheep, but I didn't see it), and I begin to feel light-headed, weak, short of breath and headachy. As a couple of the French caught up to us, I heard the sounds from the mountaineering movies Mihail sometimes shows on our weekend excursions - shallow, panting breaths and the clink clink of walking sticks against the rocks.

The path through the limestone and quartz peaks felt like a staircase to the clouds and we started to become level with them The clouds looked like cotton balls floating in a blue soup. The air seemed to shimmer and move, to become visible.

We made it to the Ag Zo peak, where the lake suddenly opened out before us, in 4 hours and 15 minutes, quite a bit faster than the six hours my guidebook predicted. The lake was long, still, shallow (someone told me it gets no deeper than 20 meters), like a large puddle drying up on a dry plateau. This was the Ak Sai valley, and the border area between Kyrgyzstan and China. The only signs of civilization were a few tiny houses in the distance, which I was told belonged to the border patrol. Bare mountains and snowy peaks rose on the opposite side.

When we'd first began our walk, I was so exhilerated by the beauty. I recalled that I've spent some of the happiest moments of my life hiking - in the northern mountains of Vietnam, on the well-marked alpine trails of Slovakia, in a Chinese gorge, in the Ecuadorian jungle, in the Indonesian tropics. When the climb became painful and my legs turned to rubber, I understood why locals think Westerners are strange for considering this fun. Upon reaching the summit, I felt joy, relief, and pride - and suddenly the pain was all worth it.

A permit is technically required to descend to the lake, since it is in the border zone. Burul told me no one would touch me if I went there. But adding another two hours to the trek didn't seem worth. A good 8 horus of walking was enough for one day.

Nazar collapsed at the ridge, made of shards of rock, and fell asleep, while I continued up to the peak, for a better look at the lake. A cold wind blew steadily, leading us back down within an hour.

On our return trip, we passed two Kyrgyz women on horseback. A little later, a teenage girl passed us, giving a young boy a ride on the back of a horse. I recalled something the museum guide told me. "In other countries, women were repressed," she said. "But not in Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan women rode on horseback and fought alongside the men."

"Then why don't I see many women on horseback now?" I asked. In my visit to Sheker, my guide Medina told me that women in her village don't ride horses, because the children would mock the sight of a female on a horse.

"It's because they all go in cars now," she said.

But it seems like in Naryn, maybe women have retained their roles of greater equality and greater freedom, at least in the pastures.

Nearing five o'clock, it was time for the cattle, as well as the humans to head home. I saw cows stampeding down the mountain towards their homes. I never knew how cows could run until I came to Kyrgyzstan. On the opposite mount, horses whinnied as they raced across the mountain.

I had hoped to leave that evening, but wasn't successful. So I sat with Burul and Anara, as they sat outside the yurts sewing shyrdaks. Burul told me that in her village, only potatoes, carrots and some herbs grow. They have to buy all other vegetables. According to her, and my driver Talai, the local people don't eat many fruits and vegetables. For that reason, the maximum lifespan is 80 or 85 and many die between 50 and 60.

Burul's mother had 11 children and as a result, was a Mother Hero of the Soviet Union. Burual has five. She told me her oldest son, at the moment busy gathering hay in the fields, is studying foreign languges in Bishkek. He won a scholarship and is planning to study in Japan next year.

Her daughter, Elizabet teaches biology and chemistry to 8th to 11th graders in Naryn and is enthusiastic about her profession, claiming that the students, especially in the Russian classes, are bright and hardworking, and that biology is a fascinating science.

"Nazar will probably become a shephard," Burul said. "He's good with animals." After our long walk, Nazar was already back on his donkey, his face red and chapped. When he dismounted, the donkey took off, running and neighing across the yurt camp, dropping its saddle on the way. Nazar took off after the runaway donkey, smiling as he ran.

She told me about the many difference tourists they've hosted. She finds it disturbing to see female tourists smoke. And she said the worst tourists, Western Europeans, pee in the river. She told me how some Dutch tourists pooped in a mineral spring where they gathered water and how others got up in the morning and went right to the river to pee. It's happened often enough that she wants the caravansarai caretaker to post a sign that says no peeing in the river. Besides purely ecological sense, which seems to make peeing in the river obviously not something to do, they collect all their water for cooking and washing from there. I thought about the soup I'd eaten for dinner that evening and the tea I drank and hoped that the current batch of tourists was better behaved.

The Road to Tash Rabat

August 12, 2006

Talai and I set off his beat-up Nissan for the 130 kilometer trip to Tash-Rabat, an old caravansarai located in a remote vallay, not far from the Chinese border. It used to be used by travelers on the Silk Route.

The road was quite desolate, with only a few villages on the way.

"But you see all these bare fields," he said, indicating our surroundings. "People don't want to work."

"Why not?" I asked.

"First, they say they don't have transport. Then they say they don't have the supplies and equipment."

"What about a horse? Isn't that transport?"

"Some people have a horse, others don't."

A giant truck, loaded with goods from China passed us, the first of many we'd see. There were more such trucks on the road than there were cars.

"I'm fed up with those Chinese," he said.

I asked why.

"Their trucks carry up to 80 or 90 tons of goods, when our roads can handle only 40. They are ruining our roads."

He showed me how on the China to Kyrgyzstan side of the road, indentations were made from the heavy weight. On the Kyrgyzstan to China side, where they returned empty, the road was in much better shape. He told me that these indented tracks make the road slippery and cause countless accidents in the winter.

"We used to be able to travel on this road with our eyes closed. Now we can't even go with them open."

We drove through rolling green-brown hills, virtually unpopulated,toward a ridge of snow-capped wings. Off to the side, an eagle flapped its wide wings. Not far outside of Naryn, a naked boy got up from where he was lying in the road, apparently drying off after a swim, gripping his penis.

"I guess it's the fault of our government," Talai continued. "I don't know where our White House is looking and it scares me to think of it. The Chinese don't let our trucks into their country. They have to unload everything at the border and then the Chinese take it into China. But the Chinese give a few dollars at the border and we let them in allthe way to Biskek."

He told me that they are thinking of setting up an unloading station at Ak-Bashy, the last sizeable town before the border. There, the Chinese could unload their goods and Kyrgyz Kamazs would take the goods inland.

"If they made such an unloading station, then we'd have some work. Our drivers would have something to do, they'd build hotels and cafes and there would be work for unloaders."

I reminded him that if it took three Kyrgyz trucks to carry the goods from one Chinese truck, the prices the Kyrgyz would pay at the market would go up. He didn't seem to care.

"I'd rather pay more for what I buy and have decent roads," he said.

As we drove, he pointed out each passing truck, most of which spewed black smoke and told me whether it was Kyrgyz or Chinese and how many tons it was carrying. The Chinese trucks truly were giant, pulling two trailers behind them and with goods stacked so high they reached far above the cab. They moved at a snail's pace, taking three days to get from the border to Bishkek. I don't know how they manage to control their speed on the downhills of the mountain passes.

A little later, we stopped with the hood raised to allow the overheated car to cool down. One of these giant trucks slowed down, then stopped. The driver talked to Talai, then continued on.

"What did he want?" I asked.

"He wanted to know if anything was wrong."

"Was he Chinese?" I asked.

"Yes," he smiled sheepishly between puffs of his cigarette.

"See, they are not all bad," I said. And he nodded. He could accept them as workers and as people, if only they didn't ruin his roads in the process.

We traveled in the dust through whitish yellow hills, a stark and lonely landscape. As the road alternated between dirt and asphalt, we rolled our windows up and down. On the dirt sections, we kept the windows closed to keep out the dust, and in the meantime, baked in the sauna-like interior. Our brown arms, necks and faces glistened with sweat. In the hot, dry, empty and treeless land, the little clay houses camouflaged into the landscape.

We turned off onto the 15 kilometer stretch to Tash-Rabat. We passed several tourist camps enroute.

"It must be good to be a tourist," Talai said.

"I don't know," I said.

"They get to rest." He was right.

At the end of the road, I saw the building I'd see so many times before, the stone Tash Rabat caravansarai. It's a 15th century caravansarai that was used by the trading caravans that used to travel though these mountains. Looking at the roads these days, its hard to imagine how they traveled in those times.

The stone structure was restored in the 1980s and no one can seem to agree how many rooms it contains. The museum guide told me that people debate whether there are 40 or 41, a worker at the yurt insisted there are 32 ("it's not that hard to count," she said), and my guidebook said 30. Visitors can walk through the domed central chamber into the cold, dank remains of all of these rooms, including the khan's quarters.

I myself found the photos of this old stone building intriguing, so I can see how it attracts others. But still, I was very surprised to find upwards of 20 tourist yurts in the narrow stretch of valley leading to the structure. Luckily, I happen to be the only tourist at the moment at my particular yurt camp. But they just saw off 15 tourists yesterday. And looking out the door of my yurt, I can see scores of tourists, mostly Europeans, in a bevy of yurts and tents. I didn't expect this place, which is pretty remote and not accessible by public transportation, to be the most touristed place I've visited besides Issyk-Kul. I'm guessing that tomorrow, when I go on a 22 kilometer hike, I'll feel a little more removed. Though even this hike is popular with foreign visitors.

I have a yurt to myself. It's not as nice as my yurt in Talas. It lacks the pretty wallhangings that covered the red wooden lattice of the yurt I had there, as well as the ornamental strips that hung from the ceiling. And the traditional Kyrgyz hospitality seems to have been at least partially replaced here with an effort to make as much money as possible from the tourists.

But I'm sleeping on a pile of sheepskin and mats, like in a traditional yurt, there are two pretty sunduks (traditional chests) against the edge. I write now by the light of a kerosene lamp and given that it's quite chilly after dark, I'm hoping to light my little iron stove before bed. Through my felt-covered walls, I can hear the water rushing in the nearby stream, a wonderful sound to fall asleep and to wake up to. Before dark, I could look out my door at the yellow-green mountains and the horses and cattle that sauntered by.

This afternoon, after arrival, I had the unaccustomed experience of having nothing to do. I trolled around the caravansarai. I looked at the surrounding mountains. I watched the tourists. I talked to the family members at my yurt. I read part of Emma by Jane Austen. But finding the characters tiresome, I didn't have much motivation to read on. So I fell asleep on the floor. Woke and ate. And again rested.

The food was better than I expected - fried meat and potatoes with diced tomatoes and cucumbers, served with freshly baked round loaves of bread (still hot from the oven), fresh cream, and jams made from local fruits. The owners of this five-yurt complex spend their winters in the nearby village of Kara-Suu, where they occupy themselves with cattle. "It's good there are so many tourists," Burul said to me. "It means more money for us." I do like seeing that the money goes directly to local residents, rather than Bishkek or internationally based tour firms.

In the evening, Burul pulled out a collection of shyrdaks, felt slippers and other crafts and laid them out on the grass. This attracted some tourists from the neighboring tents and yurts, who came to purchase some souvenirs. The setting sun first turned the wispy clouds pink, then darkened the hills, as the cattle headed home.

Running this yurt camp is a family operation. Burul, a mother of five, seems to be the administrator. She lives here with her five-year-old son. Her husband serves as a guide. But for some reason, they are sending me hiking tomorrow with their 12-year-old son Nazar (who speaks only Kyrgyz) as a guide. A female relative cooks. Nazar pulls a cart behind a donkey and collects dried dung for cooking and fires. And another female relative translates in English. She has an education in biology and chemistry and just one month of English classes, but picked up the rest from tourists. Her English now is quite good and she struggled to speak Russian with me, being so accustomed to English. Unfortunately she left in my taxi. Yesterday a horse stepped on her foot and probably broke it. The tourists here wrapped her foot in white bandage and gave her some medicine for pain. She went to town to visit the hospital.

Tomorrow I'll take a long and tough hike over a mountain pass to look from the ridge at lake Chatyr Kul. At 3,530 meters, it's the highest among Kyrgyzstan's four main alpine lakes.

A Night in Naryn

August 12, 2006

I took off for Naryn after work last night, catching a taxi from the Western bus station. I ended up in what must have been an old Mercedes, with brakes that squeaked upon use with a high-pitched protest.

We took the road I've traveled many times before, heading to Issyk-Kul. On the way, we stopped at the stands selling fruit and vegetables from the fields and the driver stocked up, saying it was cheaper there than in Naryn.

We stopped frequently. Once to buy fruit, another to put some cardboard pieces under the hood, to protect from the flying rocks that break many a windshield, once for the driver to eat. At this roadside cafe, just before Balikchi, or the start of Issyk-Kul, people packed into the small tables, waitresses in black pants and idential red shirts buzzing about like flies. It was a mixed group - rough-wind blown locals like my driver, a family of blonds that must have been from Kazakhstan, more refined locals on their way to relaxation. The atmosphere buzzed with money changing hands.

"There are a lot of tourists," my driver said.

"Yes, I suppose it's good for the economy isn't it?" I asked him.

"Of course."

I'll be heading to Issyk-Kul later this week. I expect to find resorts packed solid with visitors, tourists outnumbering the locals, residents raking in the money that will need to last them until next summer.

We crossed two large mountain passes on the way to Naryn. On the first, our driver turned on his emergency blinkers, then seemed to coast down the mountains, hesitant to touch the brakes. Oh no, I thought, when I first heard the squeaky brakes I didn't think about descending mountains. What if he can't stop?

We made it down OK. But then we had another obstacle to overcome. Our driver was exhausted. Once we'd turned off onto the road to Naryn, the traffic disappeared. We bounced on the bumpy asphalt, the dirt, the rocks. A giant, full yellow moon shone to our left, sitting level with us. Except for the light of the moon, we were in the dark, black rocks rising on either side of us. The darknessness, the loneliness, the enclosure by rock could lead anyone to sleep. But our driver had already made the 6-hour trip earlier that day and he frequently rubbed his eyes.

I felt I had to stay awake to grab the wheel if necessary. When he stopped yet again for a drink and to get some fresh air, I asked the sleeping Kyrgyz in the back seat if they might be able to talk to him in order to keep him awake. They also realized he was tired and from that point on, at least they began to talk amongst themselves, to give him something to listen to.

Luckily, we all made it safely. We drove through a break in the rocks, so massive and so close that it was impressive even in the dark. On the other side we found Naryn.

Naryn is similar to Balikchy in being a long, narrow town. It has three roads which stretch out for 15 kilometers. Unlike Balikchy, the mountains rise up very close to the town. It can't expand any way other than laterally, for the mountains block it in.

I found a place in a Community Based Tourism guesthouse at the edge of the town. It's run by a man and his younger cousin. It was a nice enough place - clean, pleasant, and they welcomed me in despite by evening arrival. But I could feel the lack of a female presence. When I made a reservation, I specifically asked for a house where the host cooked well. So I was surprised when they told me the man's name, Said.

I woke up in the morning to see red stone cliffs directly out my window - a wall of corrugated rock. Brown mountains rose on the other side, locking me in within the stone.

Unless someone was born and raised in Naryn, most people tell about their visit to Naryn with a frown. If a person lives in Naryn, they might as well say they live in a pasture, at least according to how people from outside Naryn view the place. It's seen as a cold, harsh, poor and remote town, where people don't speak Russian, the cattle-breeders life rules, and the population is deceitful and tricky.

In the little time I spent in Naryn, it seemed a long, rather run-down town. But I liked the statues of famous people that dotted the streets, made of a stone that matched the nearby cliffs. And there were surprisingly green areas. I also saw two cars decked out with ribbons and rings, a sign of a wedding party. The single market seemed rather small and the houses and apartment buildings aged and scruffy. But as I saw at the museum, the town hadn't been around that long. A picture from the late 1950s or early 1960s showed one entire riverbank, including the area where the museum is today, to be empty land.

I didn't spend too long in the city itself, so it was hard to judge. But the driver who took me to Tash-Rabat, Talai, seemed to agree. He said that one in three people has a drinking problem. Only the police, hospital, schools and electrical station offer work, so many are unemployed. They turn to theft to feed their habit.

"Everyone here knows everyone else by face. If someone is going out of town, they'll break into the house, steal something, and sell it."

"Don't neighbors see them stealing?"

"Yes, but they are afraid to say anything about it. If they do, their house will be broken into next. So they stay quiet."

It seemed to me a poor case of social ties if people banded together to protect the criminals rather than to protect the population. Talai told me that many people are emigrating to the Chui Province (where Bishkek is located) for better work opportunities. And I've certain come across many Naryn natives there myself, especially in the novo-stroika, or new construction areas, the shoddily built houses in fields on the edge of the city.

Rai-eje, the guide at the local museum, had a more positive take on her city. She assured me the population of the region had remained steady at 260,000.

"Isn't there a lot of outmigration?"

"Yes,but we keep giving birth," she said.

Manas Ordo and Besh Tash

August 9, 2006

Before leaving Talas, I managed to see the two most popular tourist sites. Manas-Ordo, or the Manas legend complex, is such a part of the local characters that people say if you haven’t been to the Manas complex, you haven’t been to Talas.

Manas is a Kyrgyz legend about a hero, Manas, who searches for a home for his people. Together with his advisors and knights, he battles larger foes, until winning a battle at which he is killed.

Probably based on the experiences of a range of military leaders, their achievements are ascribed to the character Manas.

While books of the Manas legend are available, even in English, the Manas legend is traditionally passed along orally, by storytellers called manaschi.

The complex, including a horse track, a museum, a rose garden surrounded by 40 statues of his soldiers, a sheep-slaughtering site, and a yurt where fortunes can be told, was built in 1995, during the 1000 Years of Manas celebration. The complex makes Manas out to be a real character, saying he weighed 10 kilos at birth, was 2.5 meters tall in adulthood, and lifted a certain large rock (placed outside his grave) before each battle as a sign of luck. If he could lift it, everything would be OK. If he couldn’t, it was a bad sign and he wouldn’t go.

At the museum, they say that Manas was born in Talas, he grew up in Talas, they found the grave of a matching man (2.5 meters tall, 60-70 years old) there. What certainly does give the otherwise undistinguished Talas valley fame is that it was the site of a decisive battle between Arab (Turks, Arabs and Tibetans) and Chinese in 751. The Arabs success in driving out the Tang Chinese army brought Islam into the region and changed the course of Central Asian history.

Besh Tash (Five Rocks) is a national park, located just 17 kilometers from the town. It’s a beautiful place. A rapid crystal-clear river moves through the valley, treeless, rocky peaks arising on either side. Yurts dot the pastures, while men on horseback gallop down the rocky dirt road.

Given the lack of rain, it was already dry and brown. But as we ascended, we found some green hills. If I’d wanted to spend my weekend in the most beautiful spot, I probably should have come here. But I instead wanted something a little more unusual, wanted to experience some cultural tourism. At least I got to see what the park looked like.

On my final evening in Talas, I moved from my village yurt to a Community Based Tourism guesthouse in town. My host family was quite well-off. Their 22-year-old daughter Elmira had already been to the U.S. three times. She just finished her studies at the American University of Central Asia, which cost her parents a pricey $1700 per year tuition. She was at home, after quitting her job at the Soros Foundation because she considered the $200/month salary too little. She’s planning to work for a phone company on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan for $500 a month.

The family had a yurt in their yard, a car, a computer, internet access, a satellite dish, a washing machine, a refrigerator.

While Bermet sat next to me in the candle-lit yurt, stirring the pot of koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) as I ate my dinner, I asked her if she wasn’t scared Elmira could be stolen during her summer break in Talas.

“No,” she said. “My daughter has a different mindset. She’s been in America and she doesn’t think that way. People here know that and they know she wouldn’t stay if she was stolen.”

“Would you help her to leave?”

“Yes,” she said.

I was interested how Bermet acquired such a modern attitude, how her husband supported her, what led them to challenge the traditions that seemed so perverse in the Talas region.

“My husband stole me,” she whispered, which made the question all the more intriguing. “I was a village girl then and I didn’t know any better.”

I asked how she felt about it. She hesitated.

“I don’t have any regrets now,” she said. But at the time, she hadn’t wanted to marry him. They hadn’t dated before their marriage.

Shortly after she told me about how she supports her daughter’s free decision, she told me that she is urging her daughter to find someone to marry.

“What’s the hurry I asked?” spooning into my spiced rice with carrot, fat and chunks of beef.

“You know,” she whispered. “They still check a girl on her wedding night.” Despite all her modernity, despite Elmira’s education and travels, her private sheet
would be inspected after her first night with her new husband. And Bermet feared that if she waited too long to marry, she’d be tempted into immoral activity, she’d become an impure wife.

I told her what Medina had told me. That if the husband knew his wife wasn’t a virgin and was OK with that, the family would hide the information.

“Yes,” she said. “If the relation was only with him before marriage. But if it was with someone else, he’ll always think of her differently. I don’t think he’ll ever be able to truly love her.”

When I left the next morning, I asked to photograph the couple. Bermet wrapped her arms about her husband’s chest in an unusual sign of open affection. He, embarrassed, pushed her back. She took offense by moving away from him and crossing her arms across her chest. In the photo, he pulled her back to him. His arm is around her shoulder. Her arms remain crossed, but she wears a smile. They seem happy.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sheker - Chingis Aitmatov's birthplace

August 7, 2006

I had planned to take the bus today to Sheker, Kok-Sai’s neighboring village and the birthplace of Chingis Aitmatov. But Zheksen insisted on finding me a car, seating me a neighbor’s white Mosvich that needed to be pushed by three people to start.

Zheksen and his family had signed up with the tourism development program some time ago, and had even held a seminar at his house. But I was his first international tourist. He was so enthusiastic and so eager to please – going out and buying bottled water, asking if it was OK that he was telling me about the region’s history (his trainers had told him not to bother tourists with information unless they ask for it). In accordance with the official prices, set by the organization, I paid him 640 som for the lodging, food and horse trip, about $15. He earns 700 som a month in his position at the local school. I could see the benefit that attracting more tourists would bring him and I was glad to participate in such a good program.

By 8:30 a.m., I was on Kulipa Kazieva’s doorstop, the coordinator of the program in Sheker. She also lives without a phone and I wasn’t able to phone her in advance. But she had an official Community Based Tourism guesthouse sign on her home and had welcomed tourists several times before. So she got right to business.

Her family had been in the midst of frying bursaki, small squares of bread. They planned to bring them to the memorial ceremony being held today for her daughter-in-law’s deceased father. She quickly changed her clothes, while I waited in the courtyard, where colorful flowers sprouted from the garden.

“This is the guide,” she said, pointing to a younger woman who walked down the street with her. I learned this woman’s name was Medina, she was 30 years old, and was Kulipa’s daughter-in-law. Kulipa brought her along because Medina knew Russian well, Kulipa didn’t.

I planned to stay in Sheker until lunch, then continue onward. I was a bit doubtful how I could stay occupied in the village for half a day and it almost seemed funny to me how these little places are trying so hard to make themselves attractive to visitors. But I ended up enjoying a very nice tour. The theme was Chingis Aitmatov and the time he spent there. But in the end, I got a better picture of general life in the village itself and a detailed glimpse at the life of someone near my age – Medina.

We started out at the house, or the plot, where Chengis Aitmatov was born. That house had been torn down. An elderly woman with a giant chest and a pained walk greeted us and invited us to sit in the shade of a tree, together with her young grandson. She was a distant relative of Aitmatov’s, through her husband, and I was urged to ply her with questions.

Having read only one of Aitmatov’s books, and not fully understanding it since I read it in Russian, I felt ill prepared. However, I asked what I could think of, and found out that his father was shot as a revolutionary in Stalin’s repression of 1937.

“Was he really a revolutionary?” I asked.

They looked at me questioningly.

“Many innocent people were shot at that time,” I said. I just happen to be reading Anne Applebaum’s fantastic volume about the Gulug right now and am well versed in the repression years.

“Oh yes,” Zina seemed to remember. “No, he wasn’t a real revolutionary, he was just caught in their company. He was traveling back here when they were arrested.”

When I asked the relative which book is her favorite, she seemed at a loss for words.

“I haven’t been able to read for two years,” she said. “Problems with my health. So I only know the older books.”

“Which of those do you like best?” I asked, looking for reading suggestions.

“Jamilya,” she said. The one I’ve read. Then she looked at Medina for help and Medina named some of his other books – A Day Lasts a Hundred Years, Face to Face, Cranes Fly Early.

We next visited the Chingis Aitmatov museum, a 3-room collection of photos and documents in the otherwise abandoned cultural house. It was interesting for me to put photos to the names, of Chingis, his parents, and even the characters of his books, several of whom were actual residents of Sheker village. I was shown where one of the characters, still living, lives. And I saw the cave where another character, who received die, hid out after stealing cattle.

It surprised me that Aitmov could have his father shot by the government, grow up the son of an enemy of the state, and then succeed as a writer in the Soviet Union. When I saw his certificate, honoring him as a Worker’s Hero of the Soviet Union, I wondered if he was truly proud of it.

These days Aitmatov lives in Luxembourg. “They admire him a lot there,” a villager told me, when I asked why he was there. But they repeated over and over again that he’d soon be returning to Bishkek. “His health requires it.” “He’s already old and feels it’s time to come home.” As though they’d be offended if he were to spend his final years elsewhere.

The mother-in-law disappeared as she went to find a car. This left Medina and I alone and Medina seemed much more free to talk. She told me she was from Kok-Sai and that she came to Sheker because of marriage. I asked how she and her husband met, knowing what the answer would be.

“We have a tradition here of stealing wives,” she said, and it was clear.

I later asked her how it happened. Her now husband had met her once and decided to steal her. He came with a friend in a car. The wife of Medina’s brother said they just wanted to get acquainted and asked Medina to meet them. When she got in the car, they stole her.

I asked how she felt. “Of course, I was crying and was scared. I didn’t want to get married. But because this family was almost relatives, my parents didn’t even come.” She was sentenced to accept her fate.

“Could you have said no?”

“Yes, but then everyone would have cried and been very upset. We have a saying, ‘A rock should lie where it falls.’”

I asked if she was upset that her sister-in-law had deceived her. This sister-in-law later received a $25 gift from the future husband’s parents during the marriage celebration.

“I don’t know,” she said and paused. She did seem to be. “It’s been twelve years now. I already have four children.”

She told me that a few years ago, she was walking back from a concert in the evening with a friend of hers. They were walking arm-in-arm and when a car approached them slowly from behind, they tightened their grip.

A group of several men jumped out. One of them held Medina while the rest threw Medina’s friend into the car.

“She was grasping my hand, holding me so tight,” Medina said. “She didn’t want to let go.”

“And you were left alone on the road at night?” I asked.

“No, there were some little girls with us.”

“What happened? Did she marry him?”

“Yes, but he ended up dying three years later, from choking on his vomit when drinking. She’s now in Bishkek with her son.”

And she told me about the times when local women feel such desperation they can’t find any way out but death.

“If she doesn’t want to live with the man and her parents refuse to take her back, there is nothing for her to do but kill herself. She’ll either hang herself or drink vinegar to die.”

“Has it happened in this village?” I asked.

“Not here, but it happened in a neighboring village. Luckily she didn’t die. They got her to the hospital in time. Afterwards, her parents took her back and she’s now a successful businesswoman in Bishkek.”

When a neighbor drove by in a rather nice car, I asked what kind of job he had. She said he was a farmer, but his sister lives in Turkey and sends money. “She’s 32 years old and works there, supports the whole family. She’s not married.

“She was also stolen a few years ago,” she added. At the time, she’d been working in Bishkek and had come back to visit her family. A neighbor stole her and she wanted to refuse.

“Her brother, the man now driving the car, showed up, with instructions from his parents that he was not to force her to stay there. He came and said his parents wanted her freed. Everyone got on their knees and cried.”

Medina told me about the wedding night, during which the husband’s sister sits outside the bedroom door and listens to all that happens within.

“What is she supposed to be listening for?” I asked.

“That the husband is pleased that his wife is a virgin.”

The next morning, they show the sheet to the husband’s parents. If there is blood, they announce the goodness of their new daughter-in-law and give money. Then they wash the sheet and hang it outside.

“And if there is not blood?” I asked.

“It depends. If the husband knows about it, knows she’s that type of girl, and is OK with it, then the parents don’t mind. Maybe they already slept together before marriage. But if the husband didn’t know, then it’s a problem.”

“What if he stole a stranger and his new wife was in love with someone else?”

“Sometimes they’ll hide it and forget about it. Other times, they’ll send her home.”

Medina led me down a country road, with bean fields spreading out into the distance, and the snowy peaks of Manas and Chingis rising before us. She took me into the cemetery grounds to see the cave where a character had hidden out. We climbed a fence, waded through a river, and walked through a bean field to Chingis’ old schoolgrounds, where there is now a sculpture garden. She showed me a mineral spring in a farmer’s homestead and pointed out three mosque – one over a century old, another one built more recently, and the central, shiny one, built recently with foreign (probably Saudi Arabian) funds.

She told me that in the past three or four years, people have become noticeably more religious, with small boys now being sent to the mosque.

I asked what she will do if ten years from now, her daughter (now in the 4th grade) were to be stolen.

“Maybe our culture will have changed by then,” she said. “Maybe men will ask women to marry them. It would be a shame though, with her just having finished her studies. Maybe I’ll just have to send her right away to Bishkek.”

She clearly didn’t want her daughter to be stolen as she was and she could tell this to an itinerant foreigner. But should it happen, I think she’d likely have to put on a happy face and accept the tradition. She had, so why shouldn’t her daughter? She couldn’t fight the system on her own. But in the meantime, she could hope that society would change.

A border village

August 6, 2006

The two most popular tourist sites in Talas are the Manas Complex and the Besh-Tash national park. I wanted to spend my weekend going somewhere off the beaten track. So I chose a route that would take me to the border of Kazakhstan, to a village at the end of the road, Kok-Sai.

In Talas, I contacted the Rural Development Service – ELET, an organization that helps to promote rural tourism. They gave me the name of their coordinator in Kok-Sai. There is no telephone service there, they told me, so just show up. I could spend the night at his house.

“And if he’s not there?”

“Don’t worry. Everyone knows him.”

This is the type of travel I loved in my younger days – travel to some remote outpost, knock on some random door, spend a night with a family and get an insider’s glimpse into local life.

I still find it a wonderful way to meet local people and to learn about the culture. But it can also be stressful, dealing with the risk of ending up alone on a roadside. And tiring, knowing that you’ll be the strange foreigner who just showed up and everyone wants to meet.

The owners of my guesthouse helped me to hail a marshrutka to Kirovka, the regional center. At first, the marshrutkas wasn’t overfull, the weather was nice, and I thought how much I loved this inexpensive and convenient form of transportation. Then several families with children came on board and it became less comfortable.

Later, a group of old ladies got on. A particularly mean one, toothless and wearing a white scarf, ordered a teenage girl out of her seat and took her place. Later she ordered a young man to get up, then had her older (but not visibly disabled) male relative sit there.

A spat broke out at the front of the bus, resulting in the driver stopping the vehicle, getting out, and forcing a passenger to get off. I thought it would turn into a fight. A man in a white felt kalpak and his wife got off.

“What happened?” I asked the man next to me.

“He didn’t want to pay. No money.”

It was interesting to see the driver’s strong reaction. There would be no free rides from him in this new capitalistic world.

There has been a shortage of rain this year and the land is dry. We drove past plains of beans, low brown mountains rising up behind them. Except for the green bean plants, the environment was brown, dry and unexceptional.

I got off in Kirovka, at a giant bazaar. People actively bought and sold cows, horses, sheep and goats, their droppings falling everywhere. Crowds of people milled past vendors selling clothing and household goods. Only later would I learn that for larger purchases, most people go to Kazakhstan, or even to Bishkek, due to the large markups in price. Spreading out from the bazaar, like legs on a spider, were rows of people selling apricots, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and strawberries from their gardens.

It felt like a very foreign environment, as though I’d been dropped into another country. I saw only one Russian woman, an old lady selling tomatoes. Her Russian words “local tomatoes!” rang out among the mass of Kyrgyz. Everyone here speaks Kyrgyz and quite a few have trouble with Russian. It was a busy, dusty, noisy place where I couldn’t understand the language and felt out of place in my shorts and sunglasses. Nevertheless, the polite Kyrgyz didn’t give this stranger in their midst any trouble.

I took a rickety yellow bus to the village of Kok-Sai. The bus was packed and I ended up sitting on the metal thing that goes over the tire. I was lucky to be able to sit at all. Around me, children ate sunflower seeds and dropped the shells right onto the floor. Crunch, flutter, crunch, flutter.

The bus was hot, crowded and uncomfortable and again, I couldn’t understand anything. But what I do enjoy about taking the cheapest form of public transportation is the opportunity to glimpse so many local people in still-life – to catch a small portrait of their dress, their speech, their interactions with their companions, while we are frozen together in the same environment.

One man came on the bus with a bag of ice cream cones. After giving a few of them away, he tied the bag to a metal rung on the bus.

By the time he got off, the ice cream was virtually liquid.

“Don’t they sell ice cream in Kok-Sai?” I asked, as he led me to my destination.

“Yes. But it’s cheaper elsewhere. It costs 5 som in Kok-Sai and only 3 som where I bought it.”

He brought me to the fence of the home I was looking for. A young boy came out, then went in to find his father. Zheksen came out rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He welcomed me in and led me first to where I could sleep, then into the living room, where he had his daughter Zhanna serve me tea. Both he and Zhanna ran around picking up, preparing the bed and preparing the tea. They did a commendable job of welcoming in a stranger from the street on no notice.

I told Zheksen I was interested in taking a half-day horseback ride into the mountains and he asked his sons to set that up. Within an hour and a half, I’d drunk my tea, met the family, and Zheksen and I had mounted our steeds and were ambling down the village road.

My horse had given birth three months ago, and the foal followed us the entire way, taking advantage of any stops to have a drink of milk.

The village of 5,000 was definitely rural.

“This is the center of town,” Zheksen said at one point. I looked around and saw nothing but a few crumbling buildings and a bridge over a river. I thought he was joking under later a woman told me she lived in the village center, and got out right there.

Zheksen pointed out the fast-flowing Kurkuro river, which was mentioned in some of Chingis Aitmatov’s novels. We followed the river out of town and into the mountains, taking the road since Zheksen doubted my horse-riding skills. The hills were brown, scrubby and rocky. Green stretches appeared in the valley, along the riverbanks – copses of poplar, sunflowers, bean plants.

“The Turks came here in 1997 and introduced everyone to planting beans,” Zheksen told me. “They taught us how to do it. The first year they bought them at 3 som per kilo. The next year they paid 10 and people started to live better. After that, they paid 5 and almost everyone went bankrupt. Then they paid 20. Last year we got up to 30, and this year I heard they’ll start at 27.”

“Why was there such a big difference, from 5 to 20?” I asked.

“Because it was done through the government. We don’t know how much the Turks are actually paying. But after the governor, the prosecutor, the police and the others took their shares, there were only 5 som left for the people. I think since then they felt a bit embarrassed at taking so much.”

He told me that people can earn $500 per hectare by planting beans. In comparison, they make $375 for potatoes or $200 for wheat.

“We owe thanks to the Turkish businesspeople,” he said. “Thanks to them, people here are starting to live better.”

In front of us rose the tallest mountain, at 4,482 meters in the Talas oblast. Unsurprisingly, it’s named Peak Manas. A slightly lower peak next to it, is called by local Peak Chingis, after the Kygyz writer. We rode toward these two towering, snow-covered peaks, which provided a beautiful view.

On the way, he told me local legends.

When we passed a bowl-shaped rock, he called it the Dragon Stone. Once, a boy went out, wearing his ring that protected him from harm. He was missing for several days. The girl who loved him went out looking for him. From the opposite mountain, she used an arrow to shoot the dragon who lived in the rock. She cut the dragon open and found his ring inside.

He showed me a rock, with two trees planted on each side, growing towards each other. As the director of a Soviet sanatorium there for 15 years, he planted the trees himself, making a local attraction. He told me that was the spot with Oljobay lived with his love Kashijan, who was his mother’s sister. Oljobay’s uncle was against the union because Oljobay was poor. The fact that they lived together was shameful, as a woman’s virginity was checked by examining the sheets after a wedding night. When the uncle found them, he killed Oljobay and brought his body to Naryn. He removed Oljobay’s heart and dug a grave. Kashijan asked her brother permission to say goodbye to Oljobay for the last time. She went into the grave with him, kissed him and said she couldn’t live without him. While still in the grave, she stabbed herself in the chest. The Uncle declared he wouldn’t allow them to lie together in the same grave. But the two trees growing together in this spot shows that God put them together.

While pointing out a rock shaped like a resting camel, he told me that in the 17th or 18th century, Kalmaks stole a local girl to be the 2nd, 3rd or 10th wife of an old khan. She was only 14 or 15, he was old. She didn’t like him and thought of her family and homeland every day. When she had a chance, she ran away on a camel. They came after her. There was a path in the road and she and the camel fell into the river and drowned. The baby camel that had been with them remained, waiting for its mother, lying by the river’s edge and crying. God turned it into a rock.

He also told me about his family, and some about the local culture. He has 9
children – 6 daughters and 3 sons.

“The reason I have so many children is that my wife kept having daughters,” he said. They had five daughters before they had two sons. “Daughters are yours for 18 years, but then they become someone else’s. If you want to think about your future, you need to have sons, who will stay with you.” That is the Kyrgyz form of social security. Zheken’s 4-year-old son, as the youngest, will be expected to stay home and take care of his parents. In return, he will inherit the house.

He told me that his four older daughters are married.

“Were they stolen or did they marry themselves?” I asked.

“Girls are always stolen,” he said.

“But did they know about it or were they stolen by strangers?”

Two of them had dated their future husbands and agreed to be stolen. Two others were stolen off the street.

“They had just finished their studies,” he said. He told me that the family of the husband traps the stolen girl in a room, not letting her go until her parents arrive.

“Did they want to marry?” I asked.

“No. They were crying and trying to leave.”

“You couldn’t help them?”

“We have a very strong tradition, especially in the village. It’s only in rare cases that a girl leaves.”

I told him about gay marriage and he seemed to be completely in shock at the idea of two men together.

“What would they do together? I can’t even wrap my mind around it. Obviously, a woman’s skin is soft and smooth. It’s a pleasure to stroke it. But a man’s skin?”

I told him that the most of the homosexuals I’ve met are very nice people. Yet he seemed perturbed, not able to understand someone born so different from him.

He had a very clear sense of what a man should be.

“I watch the Brazilian soap operas and I see all these women having trouble getting pregnant. I wonder what is wrong with their men. I think the Brazilian women should come here, where the men are strong and virile!”

He said that men are always considered higher than women.

“Even if a wife is golden and the husband is bad, he’s still considered higher than her.”

He told me that if a woman cheats on her husband, it will result in divorce or death. If a man cheats, the wife will yell or cry, and that’s it. If a girl gets pregnant before marriage, it had no effect on the boy. In the past, it was so shameful for the girl that she couldn’t even go out onto the street for fear of harm.

“Of course the men are guilty. Women can’t get into trouble without a man. But whatever the men do, they are not considered to have done anything wrong.”

“Must be a nice life for a man,” I said.

Despite his village upbringing and the conservative values that engendered, Zheksen was interested in hearing new ideas and seemed willing to consider change. When he told me how the sheet is hung outside after the first night of marriage, to display the virginity of the bride, he said, “Maybe in the future that won’t occur. Maybe the European standard will come to us.”

That evening I spoke to his daughter Zhanna, a pretty girl who just finished her first year of study at the agricultural institute in Bishkek. She is spending her summer vacation at home in the village.

She and her younger sister were showing me photo albums. When she showed me a group of girls from her high school graduation, I asked where they were now. All but one are studying in Bishkek. One was stolen, at age 17, and is now a housewife.

“Aren’t you afraid of being stolen here?” I asked her. I wished her back in Bishkek until she turned 25 (old by Kyrgyz standards) or until she found a husband she liked. Then she could walk outside without fear that she could be grabbed at any moment.

“I was already stolen,” she said. I looked at her, surprised. Her father had just told me he didn’t help two of his daughters, that it was rare to leave after being stolen.

“It was just after high school,” she continued. “I was too young. My parents helped me to leave.”

“What about the other girl? Did her parents not help her?”

“No. Her parents wanted her to get married.”

I looked at her with respect. It must have been a terrifying experience to go through as a 17-year-old. To have seen so many others girls stolen during her childhood and to think she might have to spend the rest of her life with that stranger, to give up her dreams of university studies. Zheksen had been remarkably open with me during our ride. But he didn’t tell me he’d saved his fifth daughter from being stolen. I also respected him.

Life in Talas

August 4, 2006

Day four in Talas and I’m starting to feel at home in this little town. Or I should say, in my yurt in my village 20 kilometers from town. I planned to move to a place closer to the center, but my yurt and the family that runs this complex grew on me and now I’m staying.

I’ve settled into a very comfortable evening routine. Upon coming home, I go to my yurt and change into comfortable clothes. Then, while it’s still light, I sit on a hillside swing and read with a view of the garden, flowers and mountains. I watch Saiagul, a young hostess, picking strawberries for dinner. I see her friend and companion Makpal gather armfuls of round, red tomatoes and long, green cucumbers. These children, probably early or pre-teens, do most of the serving. They are eager, anxious, excited and wanting to please. I already miss Ulkiss, a 2nd year university student who studies traditional Kyrgyz music. She was here my first few days, then returned home to her parents in Talas.

Adil, the white-beared patriarch of the family and Farmer-Hero of the Soviet Union, strolls up and down the cobblestone path, using his cane. “I have a feeling the air is cleaner higher up,” he tells me, then welcomes me to eat apples and strawberries right off the trees and plants.

The girls call me to dinner at 8. The main dish is always accompanied by apples, watermelon, home-baked bread, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden, homemade raspberry or blackcurrant jam, and cream made from cow’s milk. After dark, I work on my computer in the dining room, make a cross-ocean cell phone call while appreciating the wonders of technology that can connect Urgochkor to another continent, then fall asleep on a pile of mats with a view of the stars through my yurt’s open roof.

A few things I’ve noticed about Talas:

1. Manas, the legendary folk hero, is incredibly important here. Both of the bank directors I visited sit in front of a giant painting of Manas. When a local employee gave me a lift, I saw a Manas placard hanging from his rearview mirror. Talas is home to the Manas Complex and everyone I met asks 1. Have I been to the Manas complex? and 2. Have I been to Besh Tash national park? I haven’t been to either, but hope to reach both before I leave.

2. Almost everyone with a plot of land grows beans, but almost no one eats them. When I tell people that I’d like to buy some of the famous Talas beans, they invariably ask: To eat them? I’m not sure what other purpose there could be. I suppose they think I might like to plant them, as they do. After an unsuccessful search at the market, I finally managed to buy one kilo of beans from a man who buys beans from the locals and exports them to Russia. By special request, my guesthouse cooked me some beans for dinner last night. They didn’t seem to know what to do with them – how to spice them, what to mix with them. They were just boiled red beans, but I still liked them.

3. This is a very Kyrgyz area, probably the most authentically Kyrgyz area I’ve spent time in in Kyrgyzstan. The population is overwhelmingly Kyrgyz, people speak primarily in Kyrgyz, and signs, which are usually bilingual, are sometimes in Kyrgyz only. While most people still use the old Soviet names for streets and villages, the signs only have the new Kyrgyz versions. I hear traditional Kyrgyz names that I haven’t heard before, and koumiss (fermented mare’s milk, usually found in yurts along mountain roads) is sold all over, even in cafes in the center of town.

4. The people seem to be more reserved than in other areas. When I ride my bike into town and wave at the children, they don’t respond, but just stare. The adults have a similar reaction.

5. Family celebrations, called toi or ash are very important and are extremely expensive. It’s considered normal for a family to spend a third of their entire income on tois. Even spending half or more is OK. I asked when a toi is held. “When a baby is born, when a baby turns 40 days, when a baby walks or talks, for a wedding, to mark a new home, for a 40th, 50th, 60th birthday or anniversary. For anything,” a local employee told me. I asked why they were so expensive. “In Osh, they kill and serve a sheep, which cost 3,000 som ($75). Here they kill a cow or horse (costing $250-750). It’s a big difference,” he told me. Obviously, these regular and large expenses make it more difficult for a family to build up capital. I hope they find their tois extremely enjoyable.

Today I met a man who proudly introduced me to his four-year-old son. He kept
prodding his son to ask me questions, reminding him this was a real American, he should appreciate the opportunity. The son shyly slunk away.

“He’s going to be proud of himself now,” his father told me. “He loves to watch American movies on our satellite TV, especially futuristic movies, that show the year 2015 or 2030. He asks me if life is really like that in America and I tell him it’s fantasy, but he doesn’t know what that means. He thinks people really live like that.” And now he’d met a product of that society. I supposed I looked pretty boring in comparison to what he expected.

This same family had a 9-month old daughter. I could see she wasn’t wearing diapers and I asked the parents when they stopped using diapers.

“We barely used them at all,” the mother said. “They are bad for kids.” She looked at me strangely, as though wondering why I would expect diapers to be used. When I told her that people in the U.S. often use them for 2-2.5 years, the whole family laughed.

I saw some statistics recently that showed the increase in the age of potty-training and it’s relation to the diaper-making business. It’s an interesting example of how a commercial industry can affect an entire society’s child-rearing and health habits.

A yurt hotel

August 2, 2006

Last night I had an entire yurt to myself. The owners brought stacked up several mats, put a sheet on top, and gave me a blanket covered in a sheet. The upper circle of the yurt, where a stovepipe would usually go, remained half open. So every time I woke up I looked out at the black night sky and breathed in the cool, fresh mountain air.

I’m now typing on my laptop in the yurt, still scrunched under my blanket in the chilly morning air. When my eyes look up, they follow the circular red spokes that hold up the roof, I look at the beautiful red wallhangings, that line the interior, at the red felt mats that cover the floor and release a scent of sheep, at the small red double doors, through which I entered, up at the high branches of popular trees, swaying in the light blue sky. I hear the swish of passing cars (which seems strange in a yurt), and hear cow noises.

This is a tourist complex that opened two years ago, 20 kilometers outside of Talas. Talas is the capital city of the Talas region, the area in the far northwest of Kyrgyzstan. This is my first visit here.

The large and beautiful property is filled with water and vegetation. A stone path leads through a flower garden, with strawberry fields on either side, to my yurt. A bamboo bridge covers a small stream, and near my yurt are three small fountains, providing me with the constant music of running water. Futher on, I can follow the stones to a swing overlooking the gardens, to two traditional Kyrgyz toys – one resembling a seesaw, another a long, flat wooden swing, that two people stand on and row like a boat. There are places to sit in the shade of tall trees. At the top of the hill, the property moves into full-fledged fields, where they grow animal feed.

The friendly family lives in a house on the property. Yesterday I returned to my yurt and passed an elderly Kyrgyz man in the garden, picking fresh strawberries. He wore a kalak and suit jacket, had a long white beard and carried a cane. He told me that he’s lived here since he was a small boy.

It’s a relatively remote region. One paved road leads here, but it involves going through Kazakhstan, which requires a Kazakh visa. The second option follows the same hairpin turns and 3,586 meter ascent as on the way to Osh. Then it turns off and crosses another mountain pass, but this time on a dirt road. The landscape is one of low green mountains, scattered with boulders, white snow stripes covering nearby peaks. Yurts dot the area, the owners making homesteads, with a yurt, a tent, a corral for the horses, and endless green snacks for the herds of cows, goats and sheep.

Talas is a primarily agricultural area and is primarily known for its beans. Bean signs began to appear as soon as we arrived in town. From what I hear, the majority of beans produced are sold overseas, leaving little for the local population to eat. Buyers come from as far away as Bulgaria to buy Talas beans.

The locals don’t seem to be much of bean-eaters, so they don’t mind that their product is sold where it can fetch the highest price. When I tried to order beans at a café last night, I was told they didn’t have any. Instead we had roasted chicken, tomato and cucumber salad, sliced cucumber, crab stick and corn salad, and the everpresent olive, a Russian salad of potatoes, sausage, egg, and pickle.

It’s a long haul from here to town, and I’m planning to try it today on my bike. But since it’s not so convenient to trek back and forth, I’ll probably end up moving to someplace closer tomorrow. Until then, I’ll enjoy the wide, round red space of my own, private yurt.