Monday, August 21, 2006

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.

No comments: