Wednesday, August 23, 2006

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.

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