Wednesday, August 23, 2006

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.

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